A RECONSIDERATION OF CORIOLANUS
Why do so many politicians hate the people?
Coriolanus, responding to his fans: “He that depends upon your favors swims with fins of lead and hews down oaks with rushes”; Roman citizens, rising in protest against the wealthy senators of Rome: “They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us”; Coriolanus, choosing between revenge on the Romans and saving his mother’s life: “Though I cannot make true wars, I’ll frame convenient peace.”
Much as we never see the whole Empire State Building from a mid-Manhattan block, we never see all of Shakespeare. Each generation of play- and moviegoers gets to know him through a kind of mini-canon, twelve or so plays out of his few dozen, usually dominated by one that becomes the play for its age. The play of the 1990s was Hamlet, not only because it was a perennial favorite on New York stages but because a series of movie stars (Mel Gibson, Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh) introduced the King of Denmark to us as the personification of the Sensitive ’90s Guy. In the early aughts, the play to beat was King Lear, a pyrotechnic display of a mad old man exposed to the elements and punished for his sins against the young, which resounded with playgoers awash in headlines about man-made environmental disaster.
Some may say it’s too early to call, but I’m going to forecast that Coriolanus will be the play of this decade.