Coriolanus didn’t die for Rome’s sins. But there’s a moment early on in Josie Rourke’s production of Coriolanus that might make you wonder if she thinks he did. In it, the Romans take their bloodied hero (played by Tom Hiddleston), crown him with a thorny garland, and hoist him up above them. He looks rather Christ-like, sitting up there, even if the Christ imagery doesn’t make much sense.
This is a weird choice. Coriolanus has a reputation for being one of Shakespeare’s less lovable plays, probably because its anti-democratic spirit is jarring to modern audiences. It tells the story of the powerful but proud Coriolanus, a Roman, who is so strong he can conquer an entire city by himself. After winning a war, he attempts to run for the office of consul, but refuses to pander to the Roman people. They reject and banish him. Coriolanus swears revenge. He joins with an enemy army (led by his nemesis Aufidius) and marches to destroy Rome. A last minute intervention makes him hesitate, and Aufidius’s men slaughter Coriolanus in an ambush.
Suffice it to say: Coriolanus probably ranks rock bottom on a list of “Shakespeare’s Most Christ-like Heroes.” He hates most people. He has no real allegiance to anything other than himself, quickly turning on the Romans. He is willing to burn his city to the ground, with his mother, wife, and child inside it. He is not any kind of savior at all.
Rourke’s occasional use of Christ imagery for Coriolanus is just one of many ways she softens his image throughout the production. At the battle of Coriles, Coriolanus addresses a group of soldiers who failed to follow him into battle, leaving him to fight within the city alone. On his second attempt to get them to fight, Coriolanus urges the men: “Me alone/Make you a sword of me.” These lines are usually a rallying cry. But Hiddleston goes soft where you expect him to roar. He lets the question hang: What am I to you?
Here, Hiddleston’s Coriolanus suffers a moment of clarity. He realizes what he is to his soldiers (and to the city of Rome): an instrument, only loved so far as he is useful. This Coriolanus wants to be loved, not used.
That makes him very different from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, who does not long for the approval of the common people “whose breath I hate/As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize/As the dead carcasses of unburied men.” Coriolanus is angry when dishonored, because he knows he deserves honor. By making him sad instead of angry, Rourke refuses to take the ferocious Roman at his word.
In other productions (like the Ralph Fiennes movie from 2011) Coriolanus exalts at being Rome’s sword, and in doing so, displays a different kind of self-knowledge from Hiddleston’s Coriolanus. He knows he is better suited to be a weapon than to be a consul: “I had rather be a servant in my way,” he says, “than sway with [the people] in theirs.”
An astute, aware, uncompromising Coriolanus is far scarier than a man who is hurt at the people because they don’t appreciate him enough. His detachment and his strength make it impossible for him to be a friend or even a citizen. At one point, he asks his commander to pardon an enemy citizen who had shown him kindness and spared his life. The general is willing, but Coriolanus cannot remember the man’s name and so cannot save him. This moment emphasizes his detachmentif it bothers him, he quickly forgets about it.
After the battle, Coriolanus returns home. His family and friends push him into running for office. To be approved, he has to go into the marketplace among the common people, and show off his battle scars, which he doesn’t want to do. It would debase him, he says. So he goes to the market, and talks about his scars, but will not show them. This refusal costs him the consulship and sets the rest of the play on a course toward tragedy.
Not showing his scars is important. It’s the most important decision Coriolanus makes in the play. Yet Rourke, in her quest to humanize him, does something Coriolanus would hate: She gives Hiddleston a shower scene, where the audience gets to see everything the Romans don’t. The scars are very painful looking and as the water hits him he howls in pain. We pity him. But by giving us a glimpse into Coriolanus’ private world, Rourke injects into the play what Shakespeare deliberately leaves out.
Coriolanus may have little loyalty to Rome, but he is the perfect Roman, and in this play, that means he is utterly self-denying. A thoughtful audience will be as impressed by Coriolanus’ martial virtues as they are aware that those virtues come with a cost. When Coriolanus is portrayed limping around in pain or embracing his family or weeping, his decision to march on Rome becomes inexplicable. Rourke won’t let him be the creature Shakespeare made: beautiful and terrible and heartless. She insists that he must have a heart. For if Coriolanus is so greatand he ismustn’t he also be good, as we commonly understand it?
Not in ancient Rome: What makes Coriolanus the greatest man in Rome makes him the greatest threat to Rome. His strength makes attachment to the city unnecessary. Rourke tries to humanize Coriolanus, but in doing so she makes him an easily manipulated strongman without any of the greatness.
These flaws haven’t stopped Rourke’s Coriolanus from becoming wildly successful: Most people who will view it will see it in “encore” screenings shown around the world, because the stage version sold out. This popularity is partly because of Tom Hiddleston’s ardent and quivering fan base. But the aspects that Rourke injects into the play make it oddly suited to the current political moment.
Shakespeare makes the Roman mob especially ugly: They are fickle, changeable, and cowardly. And the elected officials who warn the people off of Coriolanus, threatening that they will be abandoned by him if he becomes counsel, are a bunch of weasels.
Weary as we are of government-by-catastrophedebt ceilings, fiscal cliffs, and impending shutdownsCoriolanus’ Rome seems frightfully modern; his exasperation, believable. Congress has an approval rating of 13 percent.
It’s commonly thought that the people that you actually want in elected office will never run because they wouldn’t or couldn’t dirty their hands in the nasty world of politics. By making Coriolanus so feeling and so sympatheticas Rourke doesit becomes a story of the tragedy of democracy.
But Coriolanus’ hate of the unwashed many means he longs for the clean effectiveness of tyranny. Coriolanus doesn’t disdain politics because he is too sensitive and noble to lie or to pander. He fails politics because he thinks men are for killing, not for ruling. They do not deserve to be persuaded. The people recognize that he despises them, and so they reject him.
Coriolanus’ death is tragic, but it is not unjust. This is not the story of a good man brought down by a base people unable to comprehend his virtue. The very qualities that make him great make his destruction necessary. Coriolanus values nothing above his personal honornot his family and not his city. This virtue, which makes him a perfect Roman, ends up making him a mortal threat to Rome.
Rourke gives Coriolanus a death scene where she emphasizes how devastated he is by the betrayals of others. Cast out of the city, Coriolanus had teamed up with Aufidius in order to attack Rome. When Coriolanus decides not to attack Rome, Aufidius and his men ambush him and kill him. Normally, Coriolanus goes down fightingbut not this time. Instead of fighting to the end, Coriolanus gives in and puts up little resistance as they hang him up by his ankles, slit his throat, and bathe in his blood. He bleeds out like a butchered animal.
It is shockingand sadand fitting for this production. Such a passive death befits Rourke’s suffering soldier. But Coriolanus should die fighting. By focusing on Coriolanus’ pain, Rourke turns him into a sacrificial figure. But the truth about Coriolanus is that his isolation comes not from self-sacrifice but from his willingness to sacrifice others. He didn’t die for Rome’s sinsbut Rome almost burned for his.