“Coriolanus” is a misanthrope’s manifesto

Dec 18, 2020 | Matthewrozsa

Earlier this month I wrote an essay about the aesthetics of fascism, and at first glance “Coriolanus” seems like an easy story to turn to fascistic purposes. Indeed, many actual fascists have embraced William Shakespeare’s early 17th century play as their own, and when director/writer Ralph Fiennes updated the story by plopping it in a highly militarized early 21st century context, some wondered if he had gone fascist himself.

Yet when I watch Fiennes’ 2011 adaptation, I keep thinking of a line from the 1998 Coen Brothers’ movie “The Big Lebowski”: “You can say what you want about the tenets of national socialism but at least it’s an ethos.”

“Coriolanus” is the story of a man who lacks any ethos, any kind of guiding ideology at all. Its tale is that of a Roman general (Fiennes) whose brilliance on the battlefield makes him a shoo-in for political office. The problem is that he doesn’t much like people, and the feeling is mutual. In an ostensibly democratic society that is a pretty big problem, and so “Coriolanus” winds up becoming the story of a man destroyed by a social expectation he cannot meet because of a hatred he cannot overcome.

Yet why can’t he overcome it? His most famous monologue in the play provides a key clue:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.

Three themes are immediately apparent here: First, that Coriolanus finds human beings to be viscerally disgusting; second, that he believes as a war hero he is inherently superior to them; and third, that he hopes to find a world where he doesn’t have to deal with the populist rabble.

These are elitist and anti-democratic sentiments, to be sure, but they seem to come more from Coriolanus’ damaged psyche than any coherent ideology. Coriolanus has spent so much time as a soldier that he has lost touch with how to live like a civilized person. Indeed, he has more in common with his hated battlefield nemesis than with anyone from the country he swore to defend with his life. Even worse, the horrors he has seen on the battlefield have made him despise those aspects of human nature he has already seen, and be negatively inclined toward any new ones he might be introduced to.

“Coriolanus” is unique among Shakespeare’s plays in that it alone deals with the theme of democracy, but the story isn’t really about the pros or cons of democratic government. It is a character study about a man who hates all human beings — with the sole exception of sociopathic warriors like himself — and is unable to assume what would otherwise be an easy career in politics because he cannot conceal that fact. How he reacts to this says more about the human condition broadly than any specific political philosophy.

Would I recommend “Coriolanus”? If you like action movies and military thrillers, yes. If you enjoy good writing (this is Shakespeare, after all), interesting characters and fine performances (especially from Fiennes), then again, yes.

Just bear in mind that you are watching a movie about a character who would definitely hate you if you met in real life. This is a manifesto not for fascism, but for hating human beings in general.