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  • Eddie Hewitt

An anti-hero for our time

Updated: Nov 10, 2020

Contemporising Shakespeare

Dressed for the occasion: Sope Dirisu as Coriolanus (RSC, via Twitter)

“I would rather you just said ‘thank you’ and went on your way. Otherwise I suggest you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to”.

These words could so easily have come from the mouth of Shakespeare’s Caius Marcius Coriolanus. In moviedom, they were bawled out by Jack Nicholson as Colonel Nathan Jessop in A Few Good Men. Neither of these military giants had much time for the common man. Neither of them enjoyed a happy ending. The similarities do not stop there.

Highly decorated: Colonel Nathan Jessop (Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men)

The conventional take is that Coriolanus’ downfall is due to his pride. I see the problem as being more about Coriolanus wanting to be himself. Not conforming to the requests of others. Being true to himself at all costs. Selfish, maybe, but honest, in a way. The price of corn was a problem, too, but that was hardly the fault of the champion returning from his campaign to glorify the empire. Maybe he should never have gone away to fight, and strived to sort out domestic matters instead. But that was not the story we are interested in.

Coriolanus is the ultimate failed revenge tragedy. Then again, all revenge tragedies end in failure. All the avengers in this play are both the perpetrators of pointless deeds and the victims of faults in their own characters as well as the troubles of their time.

Coriolanus (Sope Dirisu), accepting his own greatness, receiving the crown from Cominius (Charles Aitken) RSC 2017

There are many things in Shakespeare that are slightly puzzling. One of these puzzles is how he developed so many characters and scenarios four hundred years ago which have so much relevance now. There is a danger, though, in going too far. There is also frustration in that we can’t go far enough. Shakespeare doesn’t always give us the whole story.

Angus Jackson, director of the RSC’s Rome season at the Barbican, presents us with “The decadence of Shakespeare’s Rome.” This is timely. There is so much decadence in 21st century public life. And right now, “the politics, power play and corruption seem more pertinent than ever before”.

Coriolanus, a hero who has won glorious battles for his city state, is cast out at the whim of a few meddling politicians who claim to be voicing popular opinion. They are rabble-rousers and agitators. If we’re looking for links with modern day politics, we might consider those who have got Britain into such a ridiculous mess on the European front. The people have spoken! Nonsense.

Political agitators: L - Sicinius Veletus (Jackie Morrison) and R - Junius Brutus (Martina Laird), RSC 2017

There are many bloody conquests throughout the world. This never ends. The public is angry and calling for change. There have been some strange election results. In most cases in response to lies and manipulation by the politicians, with the victors subsequently not knowing how to even make sense of their own success. The consuls and the tribunes have their counterparts in modern times; we do not have to look very far.

Much blood: Tom Hiddlestone as Coriolanus at the National Theatre 2014

But there is also one big difference between Shakespeare's classical world and twenty first century life. We have no modern day Coriolanus, even if we want one. There simply is no concept of a martial hero any more. And in many ways, Coriolanus seems to be a victim, along with the people he despises so much. He is not a politician. Phillip Collins, journalist and former speech writer for Tony Blair, notes that unlike many of the political leaders today, Coriolanus is not prepared to flatter and engage in flowery rhetoric, nor decorum. He prefers candour. If anything, Coriolanus is an anti-hero. A fighter, a son, and a husband, but not a people's representative. Not even much of a talker.

Tom Hiddlestone, at the heart of the empire

Ralph Fiennes, looking more like He who must not be named than a Roman general, alongside Jessica Chastain in the movie of Coriolanus (2011)

Now, what of the plebeians? First of all, I do not consider myself to be one of them, but I do get angry sometimes.

On the general public, Natalie Hynes, writer and broadcaster, notes that the “wisdom of the crowds is overrated”, and that “Democracy is only a short step away from ochlocracy: mob rule”. Hynes continues to say that denying people the vote to prevent them from making the decision would be worse. Education is crucial. The masses must be told the truth. In our contemporary situation, where is the truth? Where is the information? How many people have been hoodwinked by a lie on the side of a bus and the ridiculous notion of trying to get our country back?

More rabble rousers, misinformation supremos and Europhobes

The worry must be that there is no hope for society in establishing strong, virtuous, successful leadership. 2500 years on from the time of the mythical Coriolanus, this is habitually still the case in so many situations throughout the world. In Westminster and other parts of Europe, in the United States of America, the Arab Spring countries, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, the Far East. Just about everywhere.

Harare 2017. The end of an era. But the next leader may not be a true hero either

We are going through some tough times, with only temporary periods of relief. The overthrowal of a failed dictator is rightly celebrated, but there are no promises of anything better to come. Only the possibility of a new start.

Theatrical drama does not always tie up with real life, of course. Strikingly, in Coriolanus, Rome banishes a military hero. In Zimbabwe, the military has just ousted a giant of a politician. The replacement president is known as 'The Crocodile'. Much of the interest, and indeed some of the pain in analysing Shakespeare's works comes in identifying the differences as well as the similarities.

Some final thoughts, from Angus Jackson again, reflecting on humanity and change, and what we think Shakespeare asks us to consider:

“I think we are invited to imagine that if the citizens could organise themselves and have one gifted leader they might be able to change the world, but they can’t”.

But where does the onus of responsibility really belong? And where exactly does the problem lie? With a disorganised public or with leadership disasters? With historical corruption or present day incompetence and lack of real opportunity to make genuine progress? Shakespeare didn't say this, but I feel I must: Better must come.

© Eddie Hewitt 2017


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