Coriolanus: an examination of a simple man and his place in a duplicitous and corrupt society

Ralph Fiennes, “Coriolanus” (2011)

When I was 28 years of age, a mysterious Shakespeare-reading frenzy seized me and before I knew what I was doing, I had raced through The Big Four Tragedies, a number of Roman plays, a fair few histories and three twilight-career comedies. Of the four Roman plays I read, “Coriolanus” impressed me the most for its terse, severe language and imagery, and its larger-than-life hero whose fault is to be simple and honest to himself in a society that demands he be a duplicitous and morally corrupt career politician. Caius Martius Coriolanus starts off as a soldier, pure in spirit, wishing only to defend his country in war against the Volscian enemy and rising rapidly to the highest position and honour in his native Rome. Now Rome wants to make him a consul but to do this, Coriolanus must defer to the masses and win their approval. A natural elitist who despises the Great Unwashed because they are soft, lazy and capricious where he is hard, diligent and true to his narrow morality, Coriolanus is manipulated by two wily tribunes Brutus and Sicinius into losing his temper publicly and letting fly what he really thinks of the public. The tribunes brand Coriolanus a traitor, Rome agrees and Coriolanus is forced to go into exile.

He teams up with his Volscian enemy, led by Tullius Aufidius, and before long these barbarians are at the gates of Rome with Coriolanus leading the invasion charge. Rome sends two emissaries to beg and bargain with Coriolanus but he is unmoved. Finally his mum Volumnia, his wife Virgilia, the maid Valeria and Coriolanus junior make a personal appeal to our man; Volumnia delivers such an emotional speech that Coriolanus relents and calls off the invasion. Rome and the Volscians make peace but Coriolanus ends up tarnished as a double traitor to the countries he has served and there is only one avenue left for him … death.

In Ralph Fiennes’s film, the action moves from ancient Rome to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1990s in the aftermath of Yugoslavia’s break-up. Rome is presented as an unidentified Western state, vaguely British with a multicultural population; the Volscians resemble South Slavs in Dalmatia. Fiennes does an excellent job portraying Coriolanus’s hard-man personality and the child-like inner man whose honesty betrays him. A major theme of “Coriolanus” is the homoerotic bromance that exists between Coriolanus and Aufidius (Gerard Butler): one fully expects Aufidius to plant a big wet smacker on Coriolanus’s lips with his own in three significant scenes. Enemy soldiers equally matched who have met several times have more in common with each other than with their own families and people, it seems. Unfortunately once Coriolanus throws his lot in with the Volscians, the relationship between him and Aufidius becomes unbalanced, Coriolanus becomes a star within the Volscian army, and Aufidius understandably feels jealous at the attention his soulmate gets. For they are soulmates of a kind familiar to those who know Shakespeare well: the man of soul (Coriolanus), perfect in most ways except for one flaw that becomes his downfall, up against the man of practicality (Aufidius) who lacks that inner sensitivity and who survives at the expense of his mirror twin but is overshadowed and tarnished by the twin’s death.

The support cast varies from good to great: Butler’s Aufidius and Jessica Chastain’s Virgilia pass muster while Vanessa Redgrave nearly steals the show as the harpy mother Volumnia. Coriolanus’s relationship with his mother is another significant theme: Volumnia seems more in love with war and blood-letting than the son. Is it possible that Coriolanus was driven to be a soldier to please his mother? If Coriolanus had not had Volumnia as his mum, would he have chosen another career instead and become a more balanced, mature man? Is he the replacement for the husband Volumnia once had? Why does Volumnia live through her son and dominate him so much? What might their relationship say about military men and their mothers? Many apparently patriarchal and macho societies throughout the world are distinguished by deep relationships between sons and their mothers: Japan, Saudi Arabia and parts of Latin America are such societies. It is known that ancient Spartan men were extremely close to their mothers who supposedly told their sons that if they went to war, they should either come back totally victorious or return dead on their shields; so Sparta is another candidate society albeit a past one. Fortunately Redgrave plays Volumnia in a way that demonstrates the woman’s deranged nature without making her look camp.

I have some misgivings about the film’s time and place for “Coriolanus”: the period of Yugoslavia’s break-up and the war that raged across Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia generated so much misinformation, propaganda and lies about what really happened there that film-makers who want to make films in that setting are treading in a dangerous mine-field of assumptions and expectations that can easily blow apart. As seems to be the practice with modern-day Shakespearean adaptations, emphasis is placed on the news media channel Fidelis TV (ha!) as a character in itself, relaying urgent news (and spreading propaganda) about Coriolanus and his doings, and helping to damn Coriolanus in the eyes and ears of Romans. The two tribunes Brutus and Sicinius are shown co-operating with two young revolutionary leaders which raises the issue of how much radical youth movements are actually manipulated by cynical politicians; with knowledge that the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy has been abetting so-called “progressive” or “liberal” groups in countries as varied as Serbia in the 1990s, Ukraine, Gruziya (Georgia), Iran during the 2009 Presidential elections, Egypt and Libya in 2011, and Syria in 2012, I consider this issue a very pertinent one indeed.

Not all of Shakespeare’s original play made it into the film and I rather think the film does itself a disservice by omitting Aufidius’s final speech when he realises that he has lost his soul brother. Overall the film does a very good job recreating the martial spirit and ambience of the original play and treating some if not all its themes: the class divide, crowd psychology and how people can be manipulated, the issue of public reputation versus the private reality, gender roles and expectations, and the place of an individual in a changing society whose expectations of him / her shift permanently and for which s/he may be ill-equipped to meet.


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