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Sunday, April 7, 2013

Coriolanus–A Nietzschean Hero

I saw an excellent production of Coriolanus last night at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington.  It is one of Shakespeare’s ‘governance’ plays (Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, and Julius Caesar) those in which he discusses various aspects of kingly rule, law, and morality.  In Measure for Measure, for example, the principle of police discipline and judicial severity is presented as a moral civic good for while it may seem unfair, arbitrary, and even unjust, it will prevent further crime and civil disharmony.  The play also includes a discussion of the role of mercy within such a punitive system and whether it strengthens or diminishes original intent. 

In Julius Caesar the principle of preemptive action is discussed.  Certain Roman senators want to kill Caesar before the commits the criminal acts they suspect him of.  In The Merchant of Venice, Shakespeare discusses the importance of law to civil society and how, even though individual cases, such as the ‘pound of flesh’ bond of Shylock, may appear unjust and trivial, the overall unity and congruence of society depends on equal, uniform, and predictable administration of justice.  In perhaps the most political play of all, Ulysses, Troilus and Hector in Troilus discuss the relative merits of honor and reason; the art of war; the succession of kings; and political maneuvering.

All of the Histories have important considerations of governance. Henry V is forced to right his own personal ambitions with his public utterances of patriotism; and how his wars kill common people.  Richard II waxes poetic about what Jan Kott has called The Grand Mechanism, the coming and going of kings and empires in an endless, repetitive cycle.  Henry IV reflects on the importance of lineage within the context of his own family and his rebellious son, Prince Hal.

Whereas Troilus is the most academic or intellectual treatment of governance with much of the text devoted to different political, moral, and civic points of view, Coriolanus is the most dramatic.  Coriolanus is a military hero and genius and is to be rewarded by the Roman Senate and made Consul.  He accepts the offer willingly, but he hesitates when told that he will have to seek the approbation of the people.  He initially refuses to ask their opinion, for he consider them a herd, a swarm, an unintelligent mass of cowards and fools; but when convinced by his mother, he agrees to act politically, use his tongue not his heart, and accept the high position offered to him.  He fails, for he cannot disguise his true feelings, and ultimately is undone by his own character.

The minor characters in the play consider him arrogant, prideful, and disrespectful; and they, like Iago, understand his tragic flaw and know they can bring him down and pursue their own venal interests. In his dealing with the crowd, he does indeed seem dismissive of them, angrily rejecting their calls for public control of the price of corn.  They don’t understand that the nobles are not hoarding corn for their own personal use, but that such stockpiles are necessary to feed the army in what is a period of almost continual war.  Coriolanus has a clear, brutal vision of the world.  Only thanks to heroic leaders like him does the Roman Republic even exist.  He is the one who attacks, does not merely defend; who fights in the name of the glory of Rome not for personal aggrandizement; and to whom nobles, Senators, and the people should listen and follow.

Shakespeare was a pre-Nietzschean in his disdain for the rabble, the herd  - as the people are called in this play – the plebian hordes.  He may write his best works about vacillating thinkers like Hamlet or uncertain, insecure heroes like Othello; but he always finds a place for powerful, determined, willful villains like Macbeth, Edmund, Iago, Titus, Goneril and Regan, and many more determined women who will do anything to protect their interests.

Coriolanus has all the civic virtues that were admired by the Greeks and the Romans – he is heroic, faithful, honorable, wise, fair, and duty-bound.  He is a warrior and political philosopher.  He understands the nature of society and its internal divisions, jealousies, and ambitions.  He understands, like most noble kings before and after him, that he serves the interests of empire, and to assure its integrity and longevity. He, however, does not have the questionable ambitions of Henry V who itches for a fight, or Henry VI who needs war against external enemies to diffuse internal strife; or Henry VIII who will fight all comers – the Pope, the Spanish, the Irish, the Holy Roman Emperor, his own wives and courtiers – to assure power, succession, and glory. 

Coriolanus understands power, rule, and political motivations; and insists that honesty and moral rectitude are essential elements of governance.   In the following passage he gives his reasons why he refuses to beg before the crowd:

I'll give my reasons,
More worthier than their voices. They know the corn
Was not our recompense, resting well assured
That ne'er did service for't: being press'd to the war,
Even when the navel of the state was touch'd,
They would not thread the gates. This kind of service
Did not deserve corn gratis. Being i' the war
Their mutinies and revolts, wherein they show'd
Most valour, spoke not for them: the accusation
Which they have often made against the senate,
All cause unborn, could never be the motive
Of our so frank donation. Well, what then?
How shall this bisson multitude digest
The senate's courtesy? Let deeds express
What's like to be their words: 'we did request it;
We are the greater poll, and in true fear
They gave us our demands.' Thus we debase
The nature of our seats and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o' the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles (III.i.119-138)

Coriolanus fights the Volscians because they are a threat to Rome, and accepts the honors offered to him because he objectively knows that he deserves them.  What appears to be an arrogant diffidence (he says his wounds are proof enough of his valor) is simply a sense of right – his place in the Roman world which he sees clearly and disinterestedly.

His tragic flaw is that he does not understand that such vision is not shared by all, and that politics always trumps valor, or at least coopts it.  He is not willing to manipulate, cajole, or pander to the mob; nor surrender to its venal demands to accomplish his goals.  He has too pure a vision, one too simple and straightforward for the vacillating, unreflective, pusillanimous crowd. For Coriolanus life is simple – do your duty with courage and valor for gods and country.  For the mob, it is about corn; and for the senators and magistrates, all about power and influence.

For those of us in modern day America, so inured as we are to political pandering, manipulation, and distortion, we may wonder why Coriolanus did not simply agree to his mother’s wishes and just flatter the mob.  It would have been so easy; but to impute such morally corrupt actions to this principled man would be foolish.

Nietzsche was not concerned with morality, but rather celebrated will no matter where it might be found.  Marlowe, another pre-Nietzschean, contemporary of Shakespeare whom the Bard admired, wrote about Tamburlaine, the Mongol marauder of Genghis Khan fame; and Shakespeare’s most pure villain – Iago – was even more in the Nietzschean mold for he had no real reason, justifiable or not, in the complete destruction of Othello.  At least Genghis Khan and Tamburlaine were conquering for empire.

Therefore, however Nietzschean Coriolanus might be in his heroism, courage, and valor, his disdain for the herd; his complete, absolute, and unflappable belief in himself; and the supreme satisfaction he derived from his victories, he was far from a Superman, beyond good and evil.  Coriolanus was moral and principled – as any in Shakespeare’s work.

Shakespeare includes an additional element to the play which separates it from Troilus and Cressida which, despite its diversions into the world of jealousy and sexual duplicity, remains an unremitting political play.  Coriolanus becomes a human tragedy because of Volumnia, his mother who betrays him in the end. She has brought him up to be a valiant solider and hero, and has the cunning and cruel indifference of ambition behind her.  Rather than be concerned about her son’s well-being, she wants him to be wounded so that he can show off his scars.  Even death is preferable to a clean escape.  We can only guess how Coriolanus became so obeisant and devoted to his mother; but in the text and on stage she is a frightening character with whom no one wants to deal.  We know that she began her training of Coriolanus began when he was very young, and she never wavered in her intentions.

A true Nietzschean hero wouldn’t be bothered by mothers any sooner than they would be by the herd, society, or anything that would stand in their way.  Coriolanus, partly because of his rigid and uncompromising moral rectitude and because of his doting, demanding, and fearful mother, is undone.  He is a moral but, despite his valor on the battlefield, a weak man. 

Coriolanus is one of my favorite characters in Shakespeare.  While he may lack the poetry of Richard II, the complexity of Hamlet, the intelligence of Rosalind or Beatrice, or the malevolence of Richard III or Macbeth, he is admirable for his unremitting criticism of society and his equally uncompromising view of the value and superiority of the intelligent, the heroic, and the aristocratic.

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