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Coriolanus Introduction

In A Nutshell

If you need a lesson about mismanaged political campaigns, you don't need to wait for the next round of presidential primary debates on Fox News or MSNBC. All you need to do is pick up a copy of Shakespeare's least-favorite, least-performed tragedy: Coriolanus.

(Wait, don't leave—it gets better, we promise.)

Written around 1608, Coriolanus is Shakespeare's last tragedy—that we know of. (Anyone sitting on some undiscovered Shakespeare manuscripts? No one?). Set in the early Roman Republic, it's all about the rise and fall of a big time war hero who kicks serious butt on the battlefield and then fails miserably when he returns home and runs for political office.

What separates this play from most of Shakespeare's other tragedies is that our "hero" is—we're going to say it—an unlovable jerk. (Compare Hamlet, who is seriously flawed but in a likeable, relatable, teenage-angsty kind of way.) Although Coriolanus deserves a h/t for uttering some of Shakespeare's very best insults, most audiences have a hard time connecting with his character.

You know, because he's an arrogant snob whose creepy mom raised him to be a trash-talking, killing machine. NBD.

Truth: Coriolanus doesn't win a whole of popularity contests. (Unless you talk to T.S. Eliot, who argued that Coriolanus is Shakespeare's best "artistic success" [source], like gee, Eliot, who asked you?) Artistic questions aside, Coriolanus is definitely Shakespeare's most political play. It dramatizes the power struggle between the early Roman Republic's two main social classes: the aristocrats (patricians) and the common Citizens (plebeians). And guess who has all the power? (Hint: it's not the plebes.)

You can probably tell where we're going with this. Modern audiences have found plenty of connections between the play and contemporary politics. Here's a quick list:

  1. In the 1930's, a French production of Coriolanus at the Comédie-Française sparked deadly riots outside the theater. Both Fascist and Communist sympathizers argued that the play was propaganda for the other side (Source).
  2. The play's dramatization of warfare has been linked to everything from the war in Iraq to the war in Serbia.
  3. The socio-economic conflict in the play has been compared to the Occupy Wall Street movement—like in Ralph Fiennes's popular 2011 adaptation.
  4. Even The Hunger Games borrows from Coriolanus to ask important questions about power and class conflict. You did notice that the novel's ruthless dictator, President Coriolanus Snow, is named after the same guy who is accused of being a wanna-be-tyrant in Shakespeare's drama, didn't you?

All these connections reminds us that problems like warfare, social inequality, and the abuse of political power are issues that are as relevant today as they were in ancient Rome and Shakespeare's England. Not too shabby for a 400-year-old play that's based on a biography some ancient historian wrote in the late 1st century.

We're talking of course, about Shakespeare's main literary source, which is Plutarch's Lives of the Greeks and Romans. See, our man Shakespeare was a huge history buff who loved using ancient Rome as a model for thinking about current social and political issues. No wonder modern-day film directors like to use Shakespeare in the same way.


Why Should I Care?

Planning on winning—or losing—any elections? (Even a popularity contest counts.) Then you won't want to miss this hand list, straight from campaign headquarters:

Dos and Don'ts of Running for Political Office: Lessons from Coriolanus

  1. No calling your votes "scabs," "dissentious rogues," or "curs" (1.1.176, 174, 179).
  2. No calling your voters on their bad hygiene. Never tell them they smell "musty" (1.1.250) or that they really need to "wash their faces / And keep their teeth clean" (2.3.68-69).
  3. If you're a big time war hero, feel free to show off your fresh battle wounds and old scars (2.3). Voters totally dig that. This can all be made easier if you're wearing the traditional Roman toga "of humility" (2.3.42).
  4. Nobody likes a tyrant, so never threaten to take away the peoples' right to political representation just as soon as you've been elected to office. It kind of defeats the purpose of asking people to vote for you.
  5. If you manage to get exiled from your homeland (3.3), do not raise an army and seek revenge. Killing their relatives and burning their city to the ground is definitely not the way to rock to vote.
  6. Confused by all the rules? Just remember this one: being a politician is like being an actor. If you hate the voters, just pretend you love them and tell them exactly what they want to hear, even if you don't mean any of it.

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