In Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus,” two fierce rivals are vying to be top dog: the war-hero title character and Aufidius, a general of equal ambition and valor.
The drama is set during hard times. As a grain shortage persists and the citizens grow hungry, they take to the streets in a revolt against the nobles and patricians — shades of the Occupy Wall Street movement’s mobilization against the one-percenters.
Despite the ongoing crisis, the political environment is highly polarized, with opposing factions unwilling to compromise. (Sound like any Congress you know?) Most of the real decisions in “Coriolanus’’ are made far from public view and are designed primarily to solidify the establishment’s hold on power. (Sound like any financial system you know?)
All the play lacks is a reference to super PACs to remind us, once again, that Shakespeare is not only timeless but ever-timely.
Yep, on a number of levels, “Coriolanus’’ is a shrewd recession-era, election-year choice by Commonwealth Shakespeare Company artistic director Steven Maler, who will direct the drama on Boston Common from July 25 to Aug. 12. While “Coriolanus’’ is fundamentally the tale of one unyielding man’s downfall, a disgust with the political process pervades the play.
One of the most striking contemporary echoes resounds in the second act, when a plotting pair of tribunes named Brutus and Sicinius agree that they must, at all costs, prevent Coriolanus from being named consul of Rome — and they know exactly how to do it.
Like a modern-day political consultant with a fistful of opposition research, Brutus sketches out a plan to use Coriolanus’s own record and public statements against him. It is imperative, he tells Sicinius, to persuade the people that Coriolanus views them as nothing more than beasts of burden, utterly dispensable, and that he is intent on taking away their freedoms so he can concentrate power in his own hands — a distortion of the facts.
Apart from the ornate Shakespearean language, their exchange could almost be a campaign memo outlining strategy for the wearisome months of demonization, demagoguery, and attack ads that await us in the presidential race between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. Just add an ominous TV voice-over and update the lingo, and you could envision Brutus’s message fitting right into an Obama campaign commercial portraying workers as victims of Romney’s tenure at Bain Capital or a GOP ad depicting the president’s health care plan as socialized medicine.
Nor is it merely the stealthy, self-serving machinations of power brokers that make “Coriolanus’’ such a compelling reminder of the unsavory side of politics, then and now, and of the contradictions embedded in democracy. We the people don’t come off so well either. The play is shot through with mistrust for the wayward judgment of the general public — or, as one character calls them, “the beastly plebeians’’ — who are easily bamboozled and stampeded by hot-button issues. With apologies to author Thomas Frank, “Coriolanus’’ could be subtitled “What’s the Matter With Rome?’’
Shakespeare poses the question of what we seek in our leaders, and the maddening answer seems to be: It depends. The Romans are happy to have Coriolanus use his relentless single-mindedness to fight and bleed on their behalf and defeat their foes (“O, me alone! Make you a sword of me?’’ Coriolanus asks), but when he brings that same quality to civilian life, they recoil.
Not that Coriolanus does much to help his own cause. Like William Russell, the cerebral presidential candidate played by John Larroquette in the current Broadway production of “Gore Vidal’s The Best Man,’’ he is repulsed by the idea of pandering to the public. His mother, Volumnia, a shrewd tactician who functions as a kind of campaign manager, urges him to moderate his stern demeanor and play the political game until he attains high office. But he has already made his views on the matter clear, telling her: “I had rather be their servant in my way than sway with them in theirs.’’
While President Obama has been accused of being aloof and is still dogged by his 2008 remark that some people who are bitter about their economic situation “cling to guns or religion,’’ and the super-wealthy Romney has made one gold-plated gaffe after another, providing ammunition to those who say he is hopelessly out of touch, both of them are downright hail-fellow-well-met compared with Coriolanus.
When an ally implores the military man to “speak to the people,’’ Coriolanus retorts that he cannot “put on the gown, stand naked, and entreat them for my wounds’ sake to give their suffrage.’’ Shakespeare’s message is clear: Politics is no place for one not given to prevarication or self-promotion.
Yet Coriolanus’s stubborn pride is ultimately his undoing. He is a cold, unsympathetic figure who treats citizens with breathtaking disdain. Confronted with their complaints about the food shortage, he responds with scorn. On another key question, he refuses to compromise until it is too late; when he does finally ease his rigid stance, matters have proceeded so far that his concession only paves the way to his doom. He’s a man of principle, so the play’s complete title, “The Tragedy of Coriolanus,’’ rings true. But his ruin is also inevitable.
As with so much of Shakespeare, “Coriolanus’’ could be read as a cautionary tale that political leaders steadfastly choose to ignore. Amid the convulsions of the Arab Spring, despots who had long ignored the will of the people found themselves toppled. And in Europe, just two weeks ago, popular discontent with austerity measures led to election results that plunged Greece into a political crisis and caused the ouster of French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
During one scene in “Coriolanus,’’ when the title character is being pressured to prove that he loves “the common people,’’ he sneeringly promises that he will “practice the insinuating nod’’ and present himself “most counterfeitly’’ in order to please them. But Coriolanus never does so. He remains entirely himself.
I’m guessing that many presidential candidates — possibly including Barack Obama and Mitt Romney — have wished they had that option.
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.