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A fabulous Shakespearian situation
on 17 October 2010
This tragedy is world famous and among Shakespeare's is one of the deepest and most political. It deals with the social classes of Rome in those old days. The people are the free Romans who are not nobles or generals. These plebeians have representatives next to the Senate, the tribunes, elected by them. The Senate is elected too but by the nobility and patricians. At the time of Coriolanus the Tribunes had some kind of veto right on decisions and especially on appointments. The situation is difficult. The war was won in extremis by Coriolanus, the son of a noble family. The Senate wants to make him Consul but he refuses to bow down in front of the tribunes and the plebeians and is banished by them. He at once joins his previous enemy, whom he had defeated and is of course leading his army to the gates of Rome. But his banishment shows the absurdity of a political system based on democracy, on leaders elected by the people. The leaders to be elected or accepted have to flatter the people and that is the worst possible situation. The people do not want to hear the truth when there is a difficulty, and they do not want to share the decisions then. They are led by their desire to be flattered to absurd decisions that may lead the whole country to a catastrophe, to a standstill or to a complete collapse. The flattery the leaders are using is immoral in many ways but is it the only way? Unluckily it is except if you manage to side-track these plebeians and to have majority of people with you on the side of a realistic policy. That is the deepest evil of democracy.
Then we are confronted to vengeance in politics. It is the second worst motivation. It leads to deaf and dumb positions and attitudes that may make you a traitor in a situation similar to that of Rome which was not a popular democracy but a feudal democracy based on a slave state. The great advantage of democracy is that you can always try to get your revenge in the elections, whereas in the Roman situation revenge meant sedition, treason, betrayal, physical destruction of all and everything that had opposed you. Strangely enough this makes the situation even less sure and less stable because then the "traitor" is under pressure from his friends, his family, his relatives not to complete his vengeance and destroy the city or country that used to be his own, and along with it his own parents, wife, children, etc.
This play is marvelous because of some extraordinary scenes. The scene about the "absolute shall" is a prodigy, a miracle.
« SICINIUS: It is a mind That shall remain a poison where it is, Not poison any further. CORIOLANUS: Shall remain! Hear you this Triton of the minnows? mark you His absolute 'shall'? COMINIUS: 'Twas from the canon. CORIOLANUS: 'Shall'! O good but most unwise patricians! why, You grave but reckless senators, have you thus Given Hydra here to choose an officer, That with his peremptory 'shall,' being but The horn and noise o' the monster's, wants not spirit To say he'll turn your current in a ditch, And make your channel his? If he have power Then vail your ignorance; if none, awake Your dangerous lenity. If you are learn'd, Be not as common fools; if you are not, Let them have cushions by you. You are plebeians, If they be senators: and they are no less, When, both your voices blended, the great'st taste Most palates theirs. They choose their magistrate, And such a one as he, who puts his 'shall,' His popular 'shall' against a graver bench Than ever frown in Greece. By Jove himself! It makes the consuls base: and my soul aches To know, when two authorities are up, Neither supreme, how soon confusion May enter 'twixt the gap of both and take The one by the other. »
But the tragedy goes a long way beyond that scorn and condescendence. It shows the other phenomenal scene of the mother, the wife, the virginal temple servant and the son pleading for mercy and peace. Poignant, and all the more so because we know that this never happens and that in such situations only hatred dominates and triumphs, be it only in the name of military efficiency. But the scene is brilliant and brilliantly acted by an admirable actress. And the triumph of that mother coming back into Rome with the peace promised by her son is quite noble and impressive. But Shakespeare pushes slightly further his political reasoning.
Corialanus was the victorious general of Coriali. He was betrayed by some rabble, some populace who used or were used by their tribunes to get their way. A mistake that disturbed the fabric of history. Then Coriolanus becomes a traitor as a result. He is brought back to his senses by his mother but then he betrays the military pact he had agreed on with his ex-enemy and that disturbs again the fabric of history. Hence it has to be rectified and it is done by the hand of Coriolanus' ex-enemy, on the day when he brings a peace treaty and his sword as a token of that peace. And this ex-enemy kills Coriolanus with Coriolanus' own weapon. The rectification is total. A great pleasure to see such a great production.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID