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Column: No mercy in him: Reading Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus’ in the age of Trump

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Coriolanus (Ralph Fiennes) experiences his epic public meltdown in Fiennes’ 2011 film of the Shakespeare tragedy
(Weinstein Co.)

One of the pleasures and marvels of reading Shakespeare now, 401 years after his death, comes from encountering a passage or even a line that resonates as if written today, as though to demonstrate his genius not only for looking inward at the human soul, but onward at the unfolding of human experience.

Take “Coriolanus,” which I opened for the first time a few days ago not because I expected anything in particular from it, but because in my New Oxford Shakespeare it happened to come right after one of my favorites, “Antony and Cleopatra.”

But then came the shock of recognition. “Coriolanus” opens with an insurrection of the Roman common people, the plebeians, against their patrician leaders, whom they accuse of hoarding food and wealth while the people starve.

There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.
Coriolanus, described by his friend and follower Menenius
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“Care for us?” the people cry. “They ne’er cared for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their store-houses 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.”

There it is, not only the condition but its very language ripped from today’s headlines. But the scene is not ended before the arrival amid the mob of Caius Martius, soon to acquire the honorific Coriolanus for his heroism before the gates of the enemy city Corioles. Martius infuriates and then disperses the crowd with an outburst of vitriol. To him they’re “curs,” “geese,” “fragments,” “slaves” worthy of being hacked to pieces. They obey him, for the moment. But his contempt for them will tell, in time.

Donald Trump’s supporters erupted in rage when a Trump-like figure was portrayed on a New York stage this summer being assassinated in “Julius Caesar.” But it’s in Coriolanus that Shakespeare vested what the 19th century critic William Hazlitt called “the insolence of power.” That may be why the play has experienced something of a revival of late, including a kinetic 2011 film version directed by Ralph Fiennes who plays the flawed hero.

As a character, Coriolanus is the epitome of pride. Following his triumph in battle, he expects to be elected consul by acclamation, refusing to brag about his victory or even show the people his scars, as his advisors urge. Assenting finally to meet the voters face-to-face (retail politicking, as we would call it today) he hears his friends’ counsel to speak “mildly”—the word is repeated five times in eight lines — but then, out of control, he embarks on an epic meltdown.

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Informed that he is to be banished from Rome as a threat to the public, he cries out, “You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate. … I banish you!” It’s a rare reader who could avoid reading or witnessing that scene today without thinking of Trump’s rant last week, and again in Phoenix Tuesday, about the violence in Charlottesville, Va.

Coriolanus almost never appears onstage alone, but there are few characters in Shakespeare so isolated. Among the phrases the critic Harold Bloom uses to describe him are “an overgrown child” and “dangerously provocative.” Adding to the modern day parallels, Bloom observes, Shakespeare portrays the politics of Rome as an almost unending sequence of tirades.

Given the infinite variety of human personality, it’s unsurprising that the parallels between the Coriolanus of Rome and of modern America aren’t perfect. Shakespeare’s character is genuinely heroic. His flaws are internalized, but they’re at least partially the product of his upbringing by his mother, the bloodthirsty Volumnia. He’s intelligent, even if his wisdom is evident more on the battlefield than the political arena. His pride restrains him from showing off for the crowd, but at a moment when his role in a great victory is questioned, he replies, “Alone, I did it.”

Finally, there’s the sympathy he elicits in us. “That Coriolanus is not totally unsympathetic (whatever one’s politics),” writes Bloom, “is a Shakespearean triumph.”

But the play does leave us with an epigraph that defines the political leadership of Shakespeare’s Rome no less pointedly than it does that of our own time and place. Of Coriolanus, its flawed hero, his dismayed friend Menenius reflects, “There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.”

Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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