I will fight against my cankered country with the spleen of all the under-fiends. – Coriolanus, IV.v.92–95
Coriolanus is a puzzle. In this strange conclusion to Shakespeare’s dizzying series of tragedies, the playwright seems to jettison complex emotional dynamism in favour of ferocious single-mindedness.
Directors foolhardy enough to stage Coriolanus must contend with a violent, misanthropic, ice-cold bigot of a protagonist. Incapable of introspection or self-doubt – tragedy’s bread and butter – Coriolanus hates proles and loves bloodshed. Custom-built for solitude and war, he flounders during peacetime. These deeply unappealing traits make Coriolanus the antithesis of modern war narratives, many of which involve decent men caught up in crossfire by external circumstances.
Coriolanus’ lack of desire to return to his family betrays a disconcerting severance from human connections. The play is unconcerned with gradually exposing the protagonist’s virtuous ‘inner essence’ through traumatic ordeal, because there is no essence to expose. Shunning audience approval, Coriolanus wants nothing to do with the ‘human condition’. By shaping a heroic narrative around this monochromatic personality, Shakespeare discards the introspection that defines his more famous tragedies. It’s what Antony and Cleopatra might be like with the bloodless Octavian as its protagonist.
Most Shakespearean tragedy is affecting because it invites the viewer to empathise with the hero’s emotional trials – think Macbeth’s realisation of the futility of his desires, Antony and Cleopatra’s touching determination to die united, and Lear’s despair at Cordelia’s suicide. Even the psychopathic King Richard III is tormented by his murdered victims’ voices in the end. Not Coriolanus, though, who is hard-bitten enough to conceal his war wounds from the spectacle-hungry Romans out of sheer spite. Refusing to become the hero that others expect him to be is his way of sealing himself off from their affection.
At the play’s climax, Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, dissuades him from exerting bloody revenge on the city that has spurned him. She mockingly challenges her son to
Triumphantly tread on thy country’s ruin
And bear the palm for having bravely shed
Thy wife and children’s blood.
Moved to tears for the first time, Coriolanus finally admits that ‘it is no little thing to make / Mine eyes to sweat compassion.’ Yet he engenders his own death immediately after his conversion, pleading with his betrayed former allies to ‘cut me to pieces’. As a character with a genuine internal life, Coriolanus lasts only a couple of dozen lines.
Actor–director Ralph Fiennes’ film Coriolanus (2011) relocates the action to a war-torn Balkan state. Although the film opens with scenes of public unrest, the starving and traumatised civilians offer no emotional counterweight to the protagonist’s authoritarianism. While the future may not lie with endless war, the film has no faith in the people’s ability to change anything. Fiennes resists the temptation to graft modern sympathies onto this Spartan play, and refuses to recast the hero’s taciturnity as brooding introspection. As the hero, Fiennes sets himself a near-impossible task of making a robotic military man into the sole focus of interest.
Yet while Fiennes’ emotional palette is confined to the negative spectrum of anger, impassivity and rage, it’s contempt that makes him compelling. The seemingly endless barrage of insults he unleashes on the feckless 99% could have been swiped from a Goldman Sachs memorandum: they are ‘scabs’, ‘curs’ and ‘geese that bear the shapes of men’, with ‘stinking breaths’ and ‘beggar’s tongue[s]’. The stream of bile culminates in this particularly toxic parting shot:
You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air … I banish you.
A close-up immediately before Fiennes’ exit reveals the hatred deeply etched into his face. Coriolanus plots his revenge on Rome not to restore justice, but to destroy the rabble. After calling off his attack, he is knifed and dumped into the back of a truck. Roll credits. As dispassionate as a news bulletin, the film’s ending repels attempts to endow it with wider meaning.
This amoral, crystalline play of surfaces therefore lacks everything that makes Hamlet, for example, such irresistible theatre. The MTC’s 2011 production of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy, starring Ewan Leslie, offers an interesting contrast. After a craze for teen-angst Hamlets, Leslie’s sensitivity seemed to reaffirm the play’s adult resonances. Contemplating suicide during the play’s most famous soliloquy, for example, Leslie was convincingly shattered at his life’s failure to live up to his ideals. Elsewhere in the play, Leslie displayed an unnerving ability to convey a personality fundamentally at war with itself.
But Coriolanus, which doesn’t do soliloquies, has no place for Leslie’s – or Hamlet’s – delicate oddness. The ability to evoke a diverse spectrum of human experience is useless when playing someone without a personal dimension. There’s no wounded, infinitely subtle soul cowering under Coriolanus’ body armour. The bludgeoning intensity and hamstrung emotional range of Coriolanus, while offering a highly effective portrait of grim determination, makes it far better suited for the screen, where pulverising spectacle can compensate for emotional detachment. See Fiennes’ film, but don’t wait for a stage revival.
Timothy Roberts is a Killings columnist and a freelance writer living in Melbourne.