Some years ago, on a visit to one of the countries carved from the ruins of Yugoslavia, I asked a friend, a sensitive writer who had just agreed to take a government position, how he could endure serving the thug who headed the state. He looked at me. “Our murderers,” he said with a thin smile, “are better than their murderers.”
Ralph Fiennes’s new film of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus conjures up a Balkan world of jostling murderers, though it is not clear that one is better than another. The setting nominally is Rome, but a Rome imagined as a decaying Central European city, with graffiti-covered concrete buildings stretched along mean streets, hard-faced, heavily armed police struggling to keep the hungry populace from erupting into riots, and sleek politicians performing in a parliamentary charade that only half-conceals the fact that the military is the state’s sole coherent, cohesive force.
There is a good reason that the generals wield such power. Rome has enemies, foremost among them the Volscians, whom the film depicts as at once provincial and dangerous: in their headquarters the Roman generals watch grainy footage of the Volscian paramilitary leader Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) interrogating and executing a Roman prisoner from whom he has ex- tracted strategic information that might prove useful for his next bloody incursion into Roman territory.
The scene of torture and execution is not in Shakespeare’s script, though the words spoken in it are. Deftly lifted by the screenwriter John Logan from a scene late in the play, they are reset near the beginning and given to different characters in order to depict the grim challenge faced by Rome and to embed that challenge within our own news cycle. The videotaped execution is one of many moments in Fiennes’s Coriolanus in which the news about which Shakespeare’s characters constantly speak—“The news is, sir, the Volsces are in arms,” “There came news from him last night,” “Yonder comes news,” “What’s the news in Rome?” “What’s the news? What’s the news?”1—is given the form that typifies our own nervous scanning of scenes of mayhem and menace.
Shakespeare’s tragedy—which he wrote late in his career, probably around 1608—readily lends itself to modernizations. In the 1930s Fascists in Germany, France, and Italy embraced the play for what they took to be its contempt for liberal democracy and its celebration of the martial heroism of a fearless leader. (The Führer Coriolanus, a school edition of the 1930s told its young readers, is trying to lead the Roman Volk to a healthier society, “as Adolf Hitler in our days wishes to lead our beloved German fatherland.”2)But the play’s depiction of the masses in revolt also made it a favorite of the Communists. In the 1950s Bertholt Brecht reworked the script in order to enhance its championing…
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