Ralph Fiennes’s film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is quite good. Unlike many ‘modern-dress’ Shakespeare performances, this one doesn’t seem forced and stupid. Maybe that is because it was filmed in Belgrade, and Serbia is one of the few places today where one can imagine someone like Coriolanus actually living.

But what sort of person is Coriolanus? He seems to perfectly embody a martial, aristocratic or rather timocratic and thymotic ethos. He magnificently despises riches:

Our spoils he kick’d at;
And looked upon things precious as they were
The common muck of the world: he covets less
Than misery itself would give; rewards
His deeds with doing them; and is content
To spend the time to end it.

But what exactly does motivate him? It seems that thymos has to be ‘allied’ (as Plato puts it) to some conception of the good. In his speech at the first battle he says:

Those are they
That most are willing.—If any such be here,—
As it were sin to doubt,—that love this painting
Wherein you see me smear’d; if any fear
Lesser his person than an ill report;
If any think brave death outweighs bad life,
And that his country’s dearer than himself;
Let him alone, or so many so minded,
Wave thus [waving his hand], to express his disposition,
And follow Marcius.

There you have the love of 1) honor, 2) bravery, and 3) the common good of his country. But as the play unfolds he shows himself to have such a low opinion of his fellow citizens (especially, but not only, the plebeian ones), that honor (1) from them doesn’t seem to have much value. But then when they return his contempt and banish him he is so mad that he is willing to fight against his country, so how can it be dearer to him than himself (2)? And as to bravery (3), that is only intelligible in relation to some other good for which one is willing to be brave.

3 thoughts on “Coriolanus

  1. I see an echo of Coriolanus in Javert: both serve their country with a focus, drive, and creativity that seems to cry out for the didactic biography of Plutarch, but both have the misfortune to serve somewhat contemptible polities (obviously they resolve this tension differently). The Coriolanian soul feels himself a pure and righteous acolyte to a squalid, shabby god. There’s no real contradiction bin Marcius’ disdain for the honors bestowed by the people because those aren’t the honors he values. To use a real example, he values the humble commendation ribbon decorated with a V to signify an award for valor in combat over the more nominally prestigious medals given to flag officers almost as a matter of course.

    I like this frisson in Coriolanus: on the one hand he does actually betray his country and become what his detractors claimed he was, and in general embodies undirected thumos; on the other hand, the Roman politics of the play are such that his complaints and contempt are not without some merit. I read the play as pointing towards the larger problem of how, being social and hierarchical beings, to deal with having no one who merits being at the top of the hierarchy. We can somewhat arbitrarily put someone or some family there anyway and rely on the nature of the position itself to encourage the appropriate virtue (which is a solution that gets dismissed out of hand too much these days), or we can either somehow rotate people around there or go all the way and pretend there needn’t be a real hierarchy at all. Absent Christ (who solves this, as well as all the other, problems), any solution will show the cracks.


  2. Oh, I thought Ian McKellan’s RIchard III made good use of modern dress. And Luhrman’s Romeo+Juliet, while sort of ridiculous, was ridiculous in a melodramatic way that was true to the original.

    Liked by 1 person

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