It’s incredibly striking to watch, Ralph Fiennes’ excellent new cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s play about a Roman general turned exile and traitor to his people and himself, Coriolanus, in the midst of a race for the Republican nomination for president, and in the winter of the Occupy movement. To say that it’s a merely 99 percent movement movie would diminish it—and ignore Shakespeare’s intentions to the point of ridiculousness. There’s far too much going on—Roman mothers (and what a Roman mother: Vanessa Redgrave is spectacular as Volumnia), blood feuds (this one, between Martius and Gerard Butler, surprisingly good as Tullus Aufidius), citizens who are easily manipulated and men who think they’re too good to need to earn the public trust.
But Coriolanus is a striking illustration of Shakespeare’s ability to fill whatever space his words are set in. It’s hard to imagine another author who could write a scene of a Roman mother shaming her son into refraining from sacking his home city in an act of poisonous vengeance that would play as well in modern winter coats as it does in togas. And it’s striking to see one of his plays come alive, so vividly transposed to our own time, precisely at the moment that we seem to need it.
In the opening scene of the movie, a group of conspirators come together in a dingy apartment in a bad neighborhood. The First Citizen asks the others, in preparation for a march on grain stores held by the government, “You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?” They could be the General Assembly at an Occupy encampment (the movement could use their graphic design skills, to be sure). The First Citizen’s declaration of Rome’s elite that “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,” is as perfect an articulation of the pains of rising income inequality today as it was when Shakespeare wrote it, and in the time that he imagined those words spoken.
The contempt the citizens meet with when they confront Caius Martius—the Roman general who, like many Republicans today appears to believe that the military are the only people who deserve a social safety net—is awfully familiar as well. “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues / That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, / Make yourselves scabs?” Martius spits at them. It’s hard not to imagine that America’s beseiged 1 percenters wish they could summon his eloquence in their disdain, though they might stop short at Martius’s diatrabe against popular government, his complaint that by trying to gain the consent of the citizens “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.”
And the movie reminded me of something I think at least modern Shakespeare adaptations have in common that’s quite interesting: they’ve redefined banishment as a retreat to poverty. Banishment’s a hard concept in the modern era—as we’ve filled in the land, it’s harder to imagine what it would be like to be cast out of a city state without easy access to the kind of economic, social, or cultural life you once enjoyed within its walls. And it’s also difficult to imagine getting large numbers of people on board with shunning an individual and casting that curse down the years to disadvantage his children as well.
But I think both Coriolanus and Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of Romeo + Juliet did something fascinating in their depictions of exile: they made Martius and Romeo poor. When Romeo leaves Verona and ends up living in an isolated trailer: it’s ultimately a poverty of information that kills him when he rushes back to kill himself at what he believes is Julie’ts grave. After the people turn on him and he’s banished from Rome, Martius goes homeless, sleeping rough, hitching rides, growing out his hair and beard, and ultimately stalking his great enemy, Aufidius, to his war council. When Aufidius accepts Martius’s allegiance, and shaving his head, welcomes him back into citizenship, it’s a moment so charged, it’s almost erotic. The nature of our punishments may change. But Shakespeare’s words still have the heft and magnitude to express what exile, what inequality, what hunger mean to us across the years.