Was Shakespeare anti-people?
October 21, 2016 § Leave a comment
A few months ago, I was visited by a city college students, to have an informal discussion on theatre. After the introductions were over, one girl asked me whether Shakespeare was anti-people.
This question stumped me for a while, and I gathered myself to ask her, ‘ What makes you think like that?’
‘In ‘Julius Caesar’ does he not treat the citizens of Rome in the most contemptuous way , calling them mobs naïve and vulnerable as to be easily swayed by the opposing politicians?’ she asked.
I replied:’ Is this not true even today? Maybe, you may call Shakespeare as our contemporary portraying the present. He was not anti-people but was definitely against mobs and bad poets, as one among the mob in Julius Caesar shouted,’ Tear him for his bad verses’ referring to one Cinna, the poet,who was earlier mistaken for Cinna, the conspirator.’
After the students had left, the question that a girl had raised earlier in the evening , set me thinking.
A renaissance man he was, could Shakespeare have been anti-people?
What were the political views of Shakespeare? In all his history plays, history is stripped of its sacredness and reduced to a mere power game , in which, winning is the ultimate arbiter of all moral values.
When Richard II, with his moon- shine thoughts of idealism and divine rights of kings is overthrown by Bolingbroke, Richard ,in a reflective mood of depression and self-pity says:
‘Was this the face
That , like the sun, did make beholders wink?
Was this the face that fac’d so many follies,
And was at last out-fac’d by Bolingbroke?
A brittle glory shineth in this face ;
As brittle as the glory is the face
(Dashes the glass against the ground)
For there it is, crack’d in a hundred shivers
Mark, silent king, the moral of the sport!
So power is sport for all the Shakespearean kings.
In ‘ Coriolanus’, which is called by the critics as a play of contradictions, his attitude towards the commoners appears to be totally ambiguous. This play of of Shakespeare, is the least discussed and staged play till the last century till Brecht took it up and called it a great play that had inspired him to write ‘Mother Courage’.
What is the reason that it did not get its due earlier? So unlike a Shakespearean play, it has no music of the spheres, no clowns to outsmart the heroes, no raging storms, but just a bleak tragedy narrating the downfall of hard-hearted, cold blooded, arrogant hero, who was richly endowed with valour and fighting skills.
There are two protagonists in the play,, one has no one name but many names and heads, collectively named the crowd, and the other is Coriolanus. There are twenty-nine scenes in the play and out of which in twenty-five of them the hero is not alone but surrounded by the crowd, the object of his remorseless despise. It is interesting to note Shakespeare has not even given names for one of the protagonists,, but he is being referred to as First citizen, Second citizen, Third citizen , First Senator, Second Senator, Third Senator, First conspirator, Second conspirator, Third conspirator etc. Of course, there are also Coriolanus’s mother, wife and son but they simply serve as background to the situations in which the tragedy is developed.
Coriolanus is an outstanding Roman soldier, a patrician (aristocrat), who has total contempt for the plebeians.(masses). Ironically, the plebeians have the right to choose the tribunes( magistrates) ,their own candidates from amongst themselves to represent them in the Senate. .
When Rome suffers from a severe famine, it is suggested that the aristocrats (patricians) should give their surplus grains with the plebeians. Coriolanus vehemently opposes the idea and says this can be done, if only the masses give up their right of voting in the elections. The common people hate Coriolanus for his arrogance.
At this point of time, Rome is attacked by a mountainous tribe called Volscians and the people of Rome have to depend upon Coriolanus for defeating their enemies. Not only the Volscians are driven out of the Roman territory, Coriolanus marches into their city and captures it. The common masses, now feeling jubilant forgive Coriolanus and and are agreeable to the proposal of the patricians for electing Coriolanus as the Consul of Rome.
But Coriolanus presence is required at the Forum to present himself as a candidate before the masses. The patricians ask him to go and show his twenty seven war wounds to the people. Coriolanus refuses to do so and that he would make no such exhibition of himself before ‘ the rats’ referring to the plebeian s. . After much persuasion by his mother and wife, he goes to the Forum to meet the masses.
Meanwhile, the two tribunes ( magistrates) elected by the plebeians, no different from the present day labour union leaders, hate Coriolanus to the extent that they convince them that Coriolanus should not be elected as the Consul, although he might have saved Rome from the enemies. On the other hand, they take a decision collectively to exile Coriolanus from Rome.
The patricians (aristocrats) the author of the proposal to elect Coriolanus as the Consul ,also betray him for political reasons and confirm his exile. Coriolanus, who has no political ideology of his own, except his haughtiness, leaves Rome to join the enemy, the Volscians. He leads their army and attacks Rome. Rome has no hero to defend it. Feeling panicky and terribly scared, the patricians plead with Coriolanus’s mother and sends her on a mission to dissuade her son from raging a war against his own home state. She goes to meet him, accompanied by his wife and his young son. She is a Spartan mother and she does not want her own son to be the traitor to his own country. After much persuasion, Coriolanus withdraws from the Rome territory along with the army he leads. He is killed by the Volscians for betraying them.
Are the plebeians and patricians right in exiling Coriolanus right in exiling him, although they know he has saved Rome from its enemies? Is Coriolanus right to have had an inexplicable hatred for the masses for being what they are? Is Coriolanus’s mother right in persuading her son to desist from attacking Rome, although she could have been aware that the price of this betrayal is death? Is Spartan political virtue more important than her son’s life?
This play opens the floodgates of many a political and ethical issue and Shakespeare’s artistic genius lies in his eloquent ambiguity.