the embodiment of rome

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And so I was (still am).

A lot of the time, I look at academia, and I see over-worked lecturers not getting any time to do their research, a spectacularly screwed up job market full of nine month contracts for teaching monkeys, and and a system trying to work out how best to teach students in an age when university-going has become about economics more than education. I think, ’I am so well shot of that.’

And then there’ll be a moment where I’ll remember that I did what I did for three years because I love playing with Roman Republican political history more than all the other brain-toys I’ve ever been given. I don’t know why, but, I think every idea I think I’ve ever thought about politics and society can be filtered through it, and come back out with new examples and illuminations (and quite a lot of the ones about faith as well). It is my mental playground. And in Coriolanus, you seem to get the add bonus of playing through Shakespeare’s thoughts through Rome, which means you get even more out of it.

I think Coriolanus has become my new favourite Shakespeare (in an entirely different way to Twelfth Night, which has held the crown thus far) – and I’ve only seen it twice. Two years ago, I saw Ralph Fiennes’ film, which blew my socks off – and last night I saw the Live-to-Cinema production from the Donmar Warehouse, as tickets are considerably more difficult to come by than gold dust.

It seems mean to compare the two – as I enjoyed the Donmar’s version almost as much as Fiennes’ – but it helps, a bit, because each version pulled out different things for me.

The film of Coriolanus felt like it was about individuals in politics. The Donmar’s feels more focused on the classes, or factiones, in politics. Fiennes’ Coriolanus was a proud man – you see the pride in him as he stands for consul, a role he desires and claims to deserve, and he does not understand why the tribunes and the people need to be wooed. He was a Marius, a military hero without a tribune to do the politicking for him – almost a Gordon Brown – a man desirous of an office he feels he deserves as of right, and baffled by the lack of love for him for his labours.

Hiddleston’s Coriolanus is younger, a boy hero, apparently dismissive of the consulship. And while he is described as proud, it is little seen, early on, and his targeting by the tribunes seems uncalled for – like he is an easy target. His pride is that of his class, instilled by his mother, seen also in Menenius, who is blessed with greater good humour and charm – a class that thinks it is born to rule (can’t think what that might remind me of…) This Coriolanus seems to understand why the people must be wooed, and that he will be bad at it: the scene where he campaigns is painful (almost over-egged, in some ways). But he does it, and is infuriated when the tribunes turn it against him – and then comes the pride, for he does not, actually, deserve this: he is caught in the middle of a struggle between the patricians and the plebeians. He doesn’t help himself, but he is not, initially, as responsible for his plight as Fiennes’ man was.

In many ways, Fiennes’ version feels like a stronger reading of the deep dark crackling flaws of Roman Republican politics and the tensions of democratic politics, between individual, party, mass, elite, candidate and voter. But with Hiddleston’s Coriolanus seeming more of a symbol, or a vessel of Rome, it became easier to make sense of his turn to Aufidius.

Fiennes’ Coriolanus went from defeating Tarquin, in his earliest wars, to becoming Tarquin, ethroned in his chair outside Rome – and in some ways, his turning himself over to Aufidius didn’t make much sense to me. Fiennes’ sense of his virtus and his just deserts survived his exile – so why would he present himself to his enemy, a man he considers inferior, despite his warrior spirit, and put him at his mercy? But last night, I made a sense of it (my sense of it).

Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, you see – unlike Fiennes’, goes from citizen to barbarian. He was bred a citizen – a particular kind of citizen – by his mother:

VOLUMNIA:
Thou art my warrior;
I holp to frame thee
(Act V, Scene 3)

In Rome, she cannot save the man she has brought up from himself, especially when the tribunes call him, ‘traitor’ – marking him as a canker to be removed:

SICINIUS:
He’s a disease that must be cut away.
MENENIUS:
O, he’s a limb that has but a disease…
(Act III, Scene 1)

In the Philippics, Cicero spends a long time talking about what it means to be a citizen in a political community, and to uphold the common good. In his view, if you stop serving the good of the community, you cease to be a citizen. And this is the crux of his argument against Antony – and why he declares him traitor.

Here, when Coriolanus’ citizenship is removed, so does the protection of his community and his responsibility to protect the community. He becomes a non-citizen – a barbarian – and so, I think, he goes to the best barbarian he knows. If he’s going to die or going to serve, it must be for Aufidius, who then gives him the chance to reclaim a part of his identity – Coriolanus, war hero – by turning on his own city. He will become the best man of his new community.

Neither Cominius nor Menenius can reach him. Menenius comes to Coriolanus, assuming an audience out of his own pride, and refers to Coriolanus as his countryman. Volumnia knows better. Having made him into a Roman, and watched Rome discard him, she comes to him as Rome, and addresses her enemy. As all that stands between him and the city, she is Rome (as Marcius was Rome, when fighting in Corioles) – if he rejects her, Rome is lost. And she is under no illusions about his identity; she knows he is no longer a Roman.

VOLUMNIA:
“Alas, how can we for our country pray.
Whereto we are bound,

for either thou
Must, as a foreign recreant, be led
With manacles thorough our streets, or else
triumphantly tread on thy country’s ruin,
And bear the palm for having bravely shed
Thy wife and children’s blood. For myself, son,
I purpose not to wait on fortune till
These wars determine: if I cannot persuade thee
Rather to show a noble grace to both parts
Than seek the end of one, thou shalt no sooner
March to assault thy country than to tread–
Trust to’t, thou shalt not–on thy mother’s womb,
That brought thee to this world.”
(Act V, Scene 3)

Coriolanus has no ties of citizenship or community left – and so Volumnia must appeal to him as his mother. Even barbarians love their mothers. But for all she seeks to drag her son out of barbarian horde, she does not seek to make him Roman again: rather, she offers him the role of the peacemaker, belonging fully to neither community. He appreciates the irony – and the danger:

CORIOLANUS:
O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But, for your son,–believe it, O, believe it,
Most dangerously you have with him prevail’d,
If not most mortal to him.
(Act V, Scene 3)

Having been shown that his current course offers only death: death-in-life as a barbarian if he achieves victory with Aufidius, and physical death if they lose, Coriolanus betrays his ‘other’ community, and makes a peace. A peace in which he cannot live – for Rome was always the prize, for the Romans and for Aufidius. He cannot live in Rome as a Roman, and he has chosen not to live in Rome as a barbarian. Aufidius, since he is not Roman, does not wait for the ‘judicious hearing’ his masters require, that would echo Rome’s judgement of Coriolanus earlier in the play. And perhaps, for Coriolanus, that is a mercy.

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