~by Josh Cabat
That’s the word that kept going through my mind as I sat and watched Ralph Fiennes’ film adaptation of Coriolanus. It’s not so much that the movie will stand among the greatest attempts to put Shakespeare on film, which it surely will. For me, it went much deeper. This is an unloved play, and with good reason; it is a play with no clear moral center, a political tragedy in which all sides are unattractive and which features the most unlikable “hero” in all of Shakespeare. No less an authority than Stephen Booth summed up the general feeling when he said to me, “I don’t know how anybody could love that play.”
But I do, because it’s the play that made me a Shakespeare person. Like many, I didn’t particularly care for Shakespeare in high school. Perhaps it was being forced to sit through an audio recording of Burton’s Hamlet for four days. When I was asked to read it in college, I had never even heard of it. I was immediately and deeply struck by the sheer modernity of the play; aside from the language, and the antiquity of the setting, it felt as though it had been written yesterday. My high school teachers had tried to tell me that Shakespeare was relevant, but I wasn’t buying; Coriolanus finally showed me that this was so, and changed the direction of my career.
Fiennes’ adaptation, a remarkable directorial debut, confirms what I first felt in college. It was almost redundant of him to update the setting of the play, since the connections to modern times are plain to see in the text. That said, the contemporary setting presses the point home most effectively. In the end, I’ve always believed that there was a reason that Shakespeare essentially abandoned tragedy after this play. In playing out these personal and political difficulties to their logical conclusions, it’s as though he realized that these were knots so complex that they could never be untied. Is it any wonder, then, that he subsequently moved on to a genre where the thorniest of problems could be solved with a simple wave of a magic wand?
I have great hope that this brilliant film will deservedly bring the play more into the mainstream. Coriolanus is indeed unlovable; that what makes it such a crucial work.
Josh Cabat is the Chair of English of the Roslyn, NY Public Schools. He was the co-founder of the NYC Student Shakespeare Festival, and is currently a Teaching Artist at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. He is an alumnus of the Folger TSI from 1993, and earned his MA in English Literature from the University of Chicago and his BA in English Literature from Columbia University.
Coriolanus is currently playing in NY and LA, and will release for a wider run on January 20th. Will you and/or your students see it? Do you think there are more modern politics or references in Shakespeare’s canon? Let us know what you think in the comments!