Monday, November 22, 2010

Coriolanus: Pride Plus Betrayal Equals Bad News for Everybody

Coriolanus at the Gates of Rome by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, 1730
In a Rome more ancient than that of Julius Caesar or Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus centers around the marquee-stealing pride of an exceptional Roman soldier, and – no surprise here – the disastrous effects of that greatest of errors.  The arrogant master of arms in question is Coriolanus, but don’t look for that name to pop up until the penultimate scene of Act One; until then, the man who will be known as Coriolanus goes by Martius.  This original name is a great fit, since his prowess on the battlefield inherently associates him with Mars (Roman god of war), and all things martial.

No, not that kind of martian.
Though his reputation precedes him, we don’t get to see our martian friend in action on the battlefield before we see him in the throes of his other powerful passion – hating the common people.  Charming, right?  Being of Roman nobility, Martius disdains the lower class, and is only too happy to give these “dissentious rogues” a piece of his discriminating mind when the need arises.   The commoners have been kicking up an accusation-heavy fuss concerning their oppression at the hands of the ruling class (particularly as it relates to corn for some reason), and have thus been granted tribunes to represent them in the government.  Martius is livid.  He’s really not a “no taxation without representation” kind of guy.   Martius speaks his mind in all things, so his feelings about the common people and their representatives are no secret.  As the play opens, the protesting citizens label him “chief enemy to the people.”

Don't mess with these Romans' corn