O World, Thy Slippery Turns!

Corliolanus, Acts IV-V

While normally I would break these up into separate entries, I confess that I couldn’t stop myself from bolting straight through to the finish.

And what a finish it was!  Not the ending I might have wished for… not the Hollywood ending that might have reeled in Russell Crowe (okay, I’ll let that go).  Not what I envisioned — not by a long shot.  But there’s a Greekness to this Roman tragedy… an Oedipal you-can’t-escape-your-destiny circularity that elevates the play to something more.

It’s as if Shakespeare were announcing his presence on the world-historical stage standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the likes of Sophocles, Aristophenes, Euripedes, Aeschylus… and the lesser Romans who followed.  Tragedy being a central component of Greek drama, this makes perfect sense.

These days, we’d be more likely to call it an “homage” — riffing the style of your predecessors in tribute if you’ve got the goods yourself (a la Shakespeare) or as a blatant ripoff artist if you don’t (names will not be mentioned).  Let’s just say that Shakespeare is operating well within the tropes of a genre established 2000 years before he elevated drama to the pinnacle that has not been eclipsed to this day.

Shakespeare then must have taken a craftsman’s delight in the poetic justice of the ending.  Dedicated student of the classics that he was (I know, it’s hard to think of Shakespeare — a classic himself — as being anybody’s student), he will have recognized how well the tragic elements blend with the best of the established genre.

But I prattle.  That’s because it’s hard to watch such a great figure come undone by the petty politics, jealousy and the underhanded machinations that they summon to sustain power.  And I guess what Shakespeare might be adding is that it doesn’t matter what side you’re on… human nature knows no boundaries or affiliations that will allow a good, honest man to escape the flaws of the social beast we are.

When we left Coriolanus, he had been booted from the city under drummed-up charges of treachery.  I love how Shakespeare in no way stints his portrait of the plebeians as anything less than fickle, listing from one side to the other like drunken pirates at sea under gale-force winds.

Their behavior reminds me of this classic scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:

Shakespeare has them continually speaking in unison, just as in the crowd scene from Brian. Because they’re so flighty, the plebes don’t have a chance with the Tribunes who manipulate them to get what they want, all supposedly in the name of the people.

But no sooner is Coriolanus away and the city’s calm restored than a new threat has them under peril: for Coriolanus wastes no time in joining forces with his erstwhile nemesis, Aufidius, to wreak havoc on Rome in revenge.

Somewhere in the back of his mind Coriolanus must know that the odds of this working out are slim. Then again, he hasn’t got much of anything to work with after he has been cast out of his home. He would rather die with a bold act of bravery/stupidity than to wander around as a nomad or take a month to figure out what his life will be, as Cominius counsels.

Shakespeare had me completely fooled, however, in the willingness Aufidius shows to welcome in a man he could never defeat in battle. I quietly assumed it because of a mutual recognition of each other’s proficiency in battle — a player on the Red Sox acknowledging that without the Yankees, there could be no storied rivalry. A hearty “we’re stronger because of each other” rather than the “I won’t be happy till your dead” which characterized their prior relationship.

And to some extent that’s true. But Shakespeare makes a point of showing how Aufidius takes umbrage at the way Coriolanus excels in battle and treats him as a lesser rather than as an equal. To some extent, it’s drummed up by conspirators on his own side who don’t like the way Coriolanus has entered their fold and all but taken over. You can even understand why they might be jealous. Here’s a guy who wreaked massive devastation on their homeland just a fortnight ago, and now here he is leading them into battle.

What saves Coriolanus is his wrath and how it fuels him to larger-than-life status on the battlefield. I suppose it’s a little like Brett Favre joining the Vikings to take down the Green Bay Packers. What do you do if you’re a Vikings fan? How can you root for a guy who bested you so many times as a hated captain of the arch historic rivals? But hey, how that changes once he signs up to be on YOUR team!

As you might expect, the Corioles with Coriolanus in charge and Aufidius as his companion are an unstoppable force about to lay waste to Rome itself. It’s great fun watching the Tribunes poop in their pants as the ravaging locusts approach the gates of the city. And a scream to see how the plebeians change their tune about Coriolanus now that he is about to torch them where they live. It’s such a self-serving reversal that I have to quote it verbatim:

FIRST CITIZEN: For mine own part, when I heard “Banish him,” I said ’twas pity.
SECOND CITIZEN: And so did I.
THIRD CITIZEN: And so did I; and, to say the truth, so did very many of us. That we did, we did for the best; and though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will.

Only Menenius has the balls to say: If he were putting to my house the brand that should consume it, I have not the face to say, “Beseech you, cease.” Only he and Cominius are willing to accept the consequences for how the fates have turned.

The major turning point in the story comes, however, where you least expect it. Or at least where I didn’t expect it, not the way Coriolanus was bearing down on Rome hell bent for leather. The Tribunes have absolutely nothing to stop him except for pleas of mercy. Which of course they immediately resort to, having no abilities at battle themselves.

First Menenius is summoned and summarily dismissed by Coriolanus, all but handed his hat in his hands. To Menenaius’ continued credit, he wears this as a badge of honor, proof of how unswerving Coriolanus is to his purpose. He holds little faith that Coriolanus’ wife, mother and son will fair any better.

And yet, the unthinkable happens. Coriolanus relents. He calls off the quest for revenge, succumbing to the last-second bidding of his family, even though he — and they too really — know what this will surely mean for him.

I groaned at this calling off of the attack. Partly because I sensed it could not end well for Coriolanus… but also because it meant that the Tribunes and the plebes would likely get off scott free. Where’s the justice in that? At one point, Shakespeare has Brutus being dragged away by an angry mob about to be torn to shreds. But that all stops once word reaches the city that the women’s charms have prevailed.

Shakespeare lets us squirm. I don’t think he wants to let us off the hook with a feel-good ending that says that the weasels get their in the end. Because they don’t. We all know that. Just look around at the news lately. At the frauds and cheats who make off with their millions in bonuses and stock options. At the political shenanigans which thrive even with Obama in charge. Like anything really changes!

Both for this reason and because Shakespeare has bigger fish to fry — a much grander poetic scheme in mind — does he suffer Coriolanus to return to Corioles to meet his fate. You might assume it would come from the people there and the sense of betrayal they feel when Rome is not sacked after taking in the enemy; you might also think that the nobility in Corioles would question the decision to allow this man to have a leading role in the attack. But no — it comes through duplicity again, this time in the form of Aufidius. Unable to defeat his nemesis in battle, he stoops to political maneuverings to accuse Coriolanus of the same crime that undermined him at home — treachery!

Aha. It all starts to make sense now. Coriolanus is banished from Rome under the charge of treachery. He takes up arms with the enemy to gain revenge but relents, only to be charged by the enemy with the same false crime, only this time it does him in!

You can’t escape your fate, can you? It hearkens back to Hamlet (everything always does) when Hamlet says:

HAMLET: Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is it to leave betimes? Let be.

For his part, Coriolanus knew it was bound to come to this. At one point, he even sticks out his neck and offers it to Aufidius. His code was to live true or die hard, but honestly, as a man. Though he fell at the hands of treachery, it is Aufidius who will live on with the regret and sorrow. For never having bested his better in battle, he will have to endure the memory of having killed him at last by deceit.

Coriolanus at least stuck to his guns right through till the end.

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