Roman Remains

by Theodore Dalrymple  (April 2008)

It is often said that we know nothing of Shakespeare’s personal views. This is largely because he had such a genius for expressing almost every possible human type from within, as it were, as if he had experienced everybody’s thoughts and emotions for himself and as his own; and, just as we supposedly cannot know the true personality of an endlessly versatile actor because he is always playing a part, so (it is supposed) we cannot know what a man thought who was able to see every question from every possible angle, and who never once appeared in his own guise or spoke in his own voice. Moreover, his plays show moral problems; they do not preach their solutions. Shakespeare never thumps a tub, or buttonholes you like a drunk at a cocktail party.
 
I think, however, that the unknowability of Shakespeare’s views can be exaggerated. We can safely deduce, for example, that he was not puritanical in his views, but neither was he an amoralist. In politics, likewise, he was neither a utopian nor a complete cynic.
 
Moreover, since the dramatic effect of his plays depends on the plausibility of his depictions, when he shows the crowd (always more or less of a mob) as foolish, fickle and frenzied, we must suppose that he thought this to be at the very least a plausible depiction. Shakespeare was no friend of tyranny, but neither did the multitude ever appear heroic in his works.
 
In his last tragedy, Coriolanus, Shakespeare examines political life in as unsparing and unsentimental a way as Machiavelli. Coriolanus is a patrician warrior who serves Rome with unequalled military prowess and bravery, but he is devilishly proud and utterly disdainful of the lower orders. He even blames them for smelling: which brings to mind a German saying, ‘It smells of poor people here,’ and George Orwell’s observation that to accuse people of smelling is the most hurtful insult that you can direct at them.
 
Unfortunately, after his great victory at Corioli (hence his honorific title), Coriolanus stands for the office of Consul, one of the most important political offices in Rome. To be elected he needs the approbation of the plebeians: and, rather as in a general election in a western democracy, to obtain it he has to abase himself before them for a short time.
 
He has difficulty in doing even this because he is so haughty; for although the plebeians know full well he has fought many battles and been wounded many times, they want him to expose his scars to them in person. This, of course, is much beneath his dignity, but Coriolanus manages to come to some kind of accommodation with the plebeians, until their own representatives, the tribunes, inflame them against him by telling outright lies about him. They do this because they see it as a way to increase their own power, to which Coriolanus is an obstacle. They succeed in having Coriolanus exiled from Rome.
 
He does not take his banishment lying down, however; in revenge, he joins the forces of Rome’s enemies and soon has Rome at his mercy. The plebeians who, at the behest of their tribunes, had called for his banishment now blame those same tribunes for Rome’s plight and seek to kill them.
 
Coriolanus has been welcomed into the enemy camp, but the leader of the Volscians (the enemy), Tullus Aufidius, is jealous of Coriolanus’s popularity with the Volscian people. Formerly Number 1, he is now very much Number 2. Coriolanus spares Rome when he is in a position to capture and destroy it, merely because of the appeal made to him by his mother; Tullus Aufidius, jealous of his power, accuses him of treason and has him done to death. The Volscian crowd that formerly adulated him switches in an instant into a murderous mob. Having had him killed, Tullus Aufidius then extols him in the last speech in the play
 
I think it fair to say that no one comes out of this well. Coriolanus has virtues of course - he is extremely brave - but he is mulishly inflexible and his disdain of the common people, merely because they are the common people and not, like him, noble, is not very appealing, or even very intelligent. Moreover, he seems to have  no inner life, only an external role to play, that of the hardened warrior, braver, stronger, more unyielding than anyone else; he is, like so many modern politicians, unappealingly one-dimensional. He has, as they say, no hinterland; one cannot imagine him being interested in philosophy or art, or having a strange and passionate hobby, such as collecting things; if there were no wars for  him to fight in, he would cease to exist for himself; and one would no more wish to spend an evening in his company than in that of, say, Mrs Clinton.
 
Shakespeare, who knew how to depict the internal life of people better than anyone who ever lived, has not simply made a mistake with Coriolanus, in showing him to be an empty vessel filled up by activity. He is showing us a type that appears to me to becoming more common: someone for whom public adulation, though always on his own terms, is a kind of scaffolding that keeps the whole edifice of the personality upright, that prevents the ego from crumbling into nothingness.
 
Tullus Aufidius is that very commonly-encountered figure, the mediocrity whose ambition and ruthlessness is greater than his capacity: the type that now seems to rule the world, or a very large part of it (and perhaps always has done so). 
 
The common people are far from adulated by Shakespeare. No vox populi, vox dei for him, far from it. The first scene opens with the mob, the stage direction being ‘Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs and other weapons.’ The First Citizen addresses the crowd:
   You know that Caius Marcius [Coriolanus] is chief enemy to the
   people.
The crowd replies enthusiastically that they know it.
   Let us kill him [continues the First Citizen], and we’ll have corn
   at our own price.
 
This idea seems a very one to the mob, who agree with him.
   No more talking on’t! Let it be done!
Then the First Citizen enunciates what might be called the first principle of socialist economics, upon which (implicitly, of course) Shakespeare pours scorn):
   What authority surfeits on would relieve us. If they would yield
   us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess
   they relieved us humanely; but they think we are too dear.
In other words, the fundamental problem of economics is one of distribution; and if it were sorted out, all would be well. The redistributionists have ye always with you.
 
As for the tribunes, they are archetypical demagogues, unscrupulous and cynical. They understand that their constituents, the plebeians, are as the wheat through which the wind blows, bending in whatever direction the latest gust comes from. They also understand that hatred is by far the strongest political passion. The fact that Coriolanus deserves well of his country because he has won a famous victory will not satisfy the people for long:
   Doubt not [says Sicinius, one of the tribunes]
   The commoners, foe whom we stand, but they
   Upon their ancient malice will forget
   With the least cause these his new honours…
 
The other tribune, Brutus, then suggests that they tell the people lies about Coriolanus:
   We must suggest the people in what hatred
   He still hath held them; that to’s power he would
   Have made them mules, silenc’d their pleaders, and
   Dispropertied their freedoms, holding them,
   In human action and capacity,
   Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
   Than camels in their war, who have their provand
   Only for bearing burthens, and sore blows
   For sinking under them.
These lies are plausible; Coriolanus does indeed hold the people in contempt; but it is not true that he wishes to establish his own dictatorship, as the tribunes later pretend. And the tribunes, while goading the people on, pretend that they are moderates, intent upon holding the people back.
 
Has political life really changed very much since Shakespeare’s day, at least as portrayed in Coriolanus? If anything, it seems to have regressed towards it, having perhaps (but only perhaps) have moved away from it for an interlude of a century or two.
 
Demagogues and war heroes we have with us still, while discernable principles seem very few and far between. The crowds are still demanding that the candidates display their war wounds: when Mrs Clinton ‘mis-spoke’ she was trying to demonstrate that she, too, knew what it was to be under fire. The desire and willingness to present others in the worst possible light, as a sufficient argument in itself, is still with us. At the same time, a man of utter consistency, such as Coriolanus, would still be chewed up and spat out by the whole political system, just as he was nearly two thousand five hundred years ago.
 
The fact is that Coriolanus is not an attractive man, even though he’s honest as the day is long and his integrity is unshakeable. When he captures Corioli, he denies himself any share of the spoils, but grants it in its entirety to his soldiers (later in the play, the tribunes allege that the spoil was never given in fact to the soldiers, thus implying that Coriolanus is not only a hypocrite but materially grasping, neither of which is true). Even his good qualities send shivers down our spine; he is cold and humourless.
 
In other words, it seems that integrity, like all other moral qualities, is best in moderation. Of course, we abhor complete unscrupulousness such as the tribunes display; it is contemptible; we want our politicians to be more honest than they. But we wouldn’t want our politicians to be as inflexible in their integrity as Coriolanus either.
 
So if we had to write a job description for politicians, with all the qualities that we require of them, what would we put? Must be honest but not too honest? Must have principles but be prepared to abandon them as the occasion requires? Must be truthful but know when to lie and dissimulate? Must love the people but not be guided by them? Must be strong but without obstinacy? And how do we find such people?
 
Who will be prepared to stand up and say, ‘Yes, I am an honest man, but not too honest?’ On the contrary, we force every candidate to present himself as if he were the paragon of all virtues, each virtue being inflexibly adhered to; and, when he presents himself as such, his enemies then proceed to examine his past record and demonstrate that he failed to reveal those discreditable episodes in which all human lives are so rich.
 
This amounts to a megalomaniac’s charter: and only human pachyderms, those with the thickest skins, need apply. I don’t know about others, but one of the reasons I would never put myself forward for high office is that I would not want my life picked over by people who disagreed with my views, although, as human lives go, mine has been only averagely bad. I would need to want power very badly indeed to risk having my worst actions exposed to public view, though my worst actions have not been so very terrible.   
 
Is there any lesson to be drawn from Coriolanus, that is to say a lesson that can be compressed into a line or two? I always feel nervous about trying to compress a work of literature into a two line moral: for if the point of such a work can be satisfactorily boiled down into such a moral, what is the point of the expanded version?
 
Well, Coriolanus teaches us that politics is an irredeemably dirty business, made dirtier by sea-green incorruptibility on the one hand and utter lack of scruple on the other. These extremes are often in dialectical relationship to one another: therefore, elect no one without a sense of humour, or at least of irony.  
 
But which of the candidates has a sense of humour?

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