Color me quite nervous, after watching the trailer of the forthcoming film version of Coriolanus linked to here. It seems to be the tired old shtick where you adapt Shakespeare’s Romans or Danes or Scots by dressing them up in modern military uniforms, which tends to convey the idea that the characters are basically fascists . The temptations to be like a Macbeth or a Hotspur or a Henry V, all apparently translate, in our age, into the single temptation to be the war-mongering authoritarian personality .

This approach assumes we cannot learn from ancient or mediaeval dramas the way educated audiences of the 1600s and 1800s did, taking the particularity of the time straight, and as a key thematic element of the play.  And it cannot but suggest that there’s little important about the old Roman or Danish way of life itself. For example, it looks as if here they’ve put the play’s paragon of Roman motherhood and patrician respectability, Volumnia, into military uniform, so as to underline her already obvious enough martial character. Well, what sort of aging mother goes around in (beret-topped!) contemporary military uniform? That’s right, only a fascist freak would do so! Or is this Volumnia actually a general, so as to really make things up-to-date, even if it would also require major reworking of the dialogue and her entire character? Either way, it looks like we will have little to learn from her.

How I hope I am wrong about this, misled by a two-minute trailer, but more bad signs are present in the studio’s promotional blurb: “Coriolanus is a drama for the ages, a commentary on the precarious draw of war . . . ”

Look, if you cannot feel an attraction to primitive Rome, to courage, to Coriolanus’ excellence, you cannot begin to understand what they call “the draw of war” means for Shakespeare in this play. It means being drawn to heroism and duty. War itself is simply assumed. As is its horrible cost. As are its opportunities for glory. Coriolanus does not really “make” wars, he simply fights in ones already underway, as Roman life without war is nearly unthinkable. Making (i.e., choosing) wars is what politicians do, such as the warrior-statesman Henry V.   Coriolanus is thus not focused upon weighing the value of war (which K. Branagh was right to detect in Henry V ), but rather is zeroed in upon the tragedy of the polis .  Yes, part of that is how tragic it is that the polis’ own degenerating dynamics might need war, and part of that is that even the war-oriented polis cannot truly honor its noblest warriors.

The play is thus also one of the coldest baths a small-d democrat can take. For that reason it has been a classroom staple for me as a political science professor . . . I’ll be using it this semester to show American politics students the sort of thing the founders were trying to avoid, and I often use it with political philosophy students as a foil to Aristotle’s defense of the democratic element in a polity. Aristotle partially defends ( Politics III ) the “more heads are better than one” argument(and only for the sake of the watered down democracy of the mixed regime or polity); whereas Shakespeare’s Coriolanus consistently presents “many heads” as monstrously foolish/inconstant, and its most politically convincing speech is Coriolanus’ denunciation of the slightest attempts to “balance” aristocratic rule with democratic say( . . . if you give an inch . . . ).

And so as you can see, which I have reason to fear you will not see in the film, the message of Coriolanus tends to be conservative : republican politics is beset from the get-go by tragic flaws, and the only programmatic political lessons one might take (which includes the lesson that conditions will seldom let you succeed at applying them) are aristocratic-republican ones. Placing one’s hope in strong democracy or “democratic values” is to build upon sand—even if one came to the conclusion that the plebian interests were the ones that had to be defended come what may, one would learn from the play that unscrupulous means (logically pointing to Caesar-dom) were absolutely necessary to keep the plebs organized in defense of these interests.

Me, I’m more Aristotelian/Thomistic at the end of the day than I am Shakespearean on politics. But great shame upon Ralph Fiennes and company if they’re warming up Shakespeare’s icy cold bath of political tragedy to a temperature comfortable for today’s liberals.

And great glory if they manage to slip the real deal into the theaters!

Articles by Carl Scott

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