Paul Foot

Tribunes and the people

(January 1990)

From Theatre Reviews, Socialist Worker Review, No.127, January 1990, pp.27-28.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.


“SHAKESPEARE was a Tory without any doubt”. Thus Nigel Lawson, in what must rank as one of the Great Asininities of the 1980s, in an interview in the Guardian in September 1983. Asked to explain himself Mr Lawson slid into characteristic incoherence:

“I think that in Coriolanus the Tory virtues, the Roman virtues as mediated through Shakespeare are ... it’s written from a Tory point of view.”

In milder and more coherent prose, William Hazlitt, perhaps the greatest Shakespearean critic of all time, tended to the Lawson view:

“Shakespeare himself seems to have had a leaning to the arbitrary side of the question, perhaps for some feeling of contempt for his own origin; and to have spared no occasion of bating the rabble.”

In their different ways, Lawson and Hazlitt are both wrong. But from the productions of Coriolanus I have seen over the last 30 years, it is easy to see how anyone could come to that conclusion.

The productions without exception have featured Coriolanus as a hero, the citizens as dupes, and the tribunes as self-serving hypocrites.

This was true of the Coriolanus played by Laurence Olivier (1959), Alan Howard (1977), Ian McKellen (1986) and now Charles Dance.

The present Royal Shakespeare production by Terry Hands seems to me even worse than his former effort in 1977: and that was unpolitical enough.

The Coriolanus Shakespeare wrote is something completely different to the stiff, unbalanced and unconvincing play which is constantly produced in our theatres.

Any socialist who goes to see Coriolanus must get seated early and listen, for the first few exchanges of the first scene of the first act lay the foundation stone for the entire play. The stage direction is apt:

“Enter a company of mutinous citizens, with staves, clubs and other weapons.”

In Terry Hands’ production the citizens are all dressed up in the same silly black uniforms. They are easily convertible into a mob. But in Shakespeare’s text each citizen has a character, and a separate argument.

The first citizen takes the lead at once and proclaims: “We are all resolv’d rather to die than to famish”. With this agreed, he goes to the second proposition: “Caius Martius is chief enemy of the people”. There then follows a summary of the attitude of the Roman ruling class of the time which is not all that different from the British ruling class today.

“If they would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us humanely; but they think we are too dear; the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularise their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes ere we become rakes; for the gods know, I speak this in hunger for bread not in thirst for revenge.”

Immediately, the second citizen argues with the general view, pointing out Martius’s services to the country, and demanding: “Nay, speak not maliciously.” The argument goes on for a bit until the patrician Menenius arrives to stop the rebellion.

Menenius certainly was a Tory, not so much a Thatcher or a Lawson as a Whitelaw or a Macmillan, offering nice words and boring little homilies to the plebs he detests.

His chief opponent in the argument which immediately follows is the second citizen, the one who previously had doubts about so rash a course. When Menenius claims the senate cares for the people, the second citizen explodes in fury:

“Care for us? True indeed, 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; repeat daily any wholesome act established against the rich and provide more piercing states daily to chain up and restrain the poor ...”

Menenius tries to argue against this with a pleasing enough little metaphor about the limbs in mutiny against the belly which provides the nourishment for the limbs, but he is not very persuasive. And now, very early on in this first act, Caius Martius strides onto the stage, apparently justifying everything the citizens say about him with his first sentence:

“What’s the matter you dissentious rogues that rubbing the poor itch of your opinion make yourself scabs?”

He then delivers himself of the first of his many diatribes against the common people, calling them in quick succession, curs, geese and hares. He is beside himself with rage because he has just come from the Senate where they have made some concessions to the popular upsurge, granted slight reductions in corn prices and even agreed to the appointment of peoples’ tribunes. Shouts Caius:

“The rabble should have first unroof’d the city ere some prevailed with me. It will in time win upon power, and throw forth greater themes for insurrection’s arguing.”

He is against all concessions and would even take on all the demonstrators with his sword, had not a messenger suddenly announced the declaration of war with a neighbouring tribe, the Volsces. Martius immediately rushes off to war to become a great general and cover himself with blood and glory. One reason he loves war so much is that it provides plenty of opportunities to rid Rome and the patricians of “our musty superfluity” by which he means the poor and the unemployed.

Back comes Martius from the conquered city of the Volsces, Corioles, to be acclaimed Coriolanus, and to seek the all-powerful post of consul. To do that, he must go through certain ceremonies to show his love for the people. He must appear in humble clothes in the market place, speak to the people and, if they ask, show them his wounds. He despises this ritual.

The fascination in his character lies not so much in his personal pride, which is prodigious, but in his inability to accept the advice of the Whitelaws and the Macmillans around him; to be nice to the people in order more effectively to rob them. He can’t stand being nice to them. He hates their working clothes, their stinking breath, their vulgar accents. Above all he hates the tribunes, who come from his class but have agreed to represent another one.

The tribunes know perfectly well what Coriolanus is. He is (the word is apposite since it has Roman roots) a fascist. If he becomes consul, they reflect, “our office may, during his power, go sleep.”

They therefore argue with the people to reject Coriolanus as consul. In the modern British theatre these scenes are always produced with a heavy bias towards Coriolanus. The tribunes are shown to incite the people against their will and better judgement. Once again, the text is different. The conversation between the tribunes and the citizens immediately after the “humble pie” scene in the market place goes like this.

Sicinius (tribune): How now my masters have you chose this man?

First Citizen: He has our voices, Sir.

Brutus (tribune): We pray the Gods he may deserve your loves.

Second Citizen: Amen, Sir. To my poor unworthy notice, he mocked us when he begged our voices.

Third Citizen: Certainly, he flouted us outright.

Once more there is an argument. The First Citizen, who was the agitator in the first scene, now takes up the cause of moderation.

First Citizen: No, ’tis his kind of speech, he did not mock us.

Second Citizen: Not one amongst us, save yourself, but he says he used us scornfully. He should have showed us his marks of merit, wounds received for’s country.

Sicinius (tribune): Why so he did, I’m sure.

Citizens: No, no; no man saw them.

The citizens are disgusted by Coriolanus before even a tribune speaks a bad word of him. It is only then that the tribunes bring to bear the political arguments which, in the light of Coriolanus’s contemptuous behaviour and his record, are extremely serious ones.

The best arguments come from Brutus. In Hands’ production these arguments are screamed and spat at the crowd as though the very decibel count would force them into the minds of the mob. In the text, though, they are powerful arguments about the advancing dictatorship:

“When he had no power
But he was a petty servant to the state,
He was your enemy, ever spake against
Your liberties and the charters that you bear
I’ the body of the weal ...”

and again a bit later on:

“Did you perceive,
He did solicit you in free contempt
When he did need your loves: and do you think
That his contempt shall not be bruising to you
When he hath power to crush?”

This is the argument used to incite people to action against coming tyranny. In the Paris Commune, for instance, the militants argued for the bloody hand to avoid the severed hand; for the terror of the many against the incomparably more horrible terror of the few.

The people respond, reject Martius for consul and, as he makes more and more angry noises against them, threaten to kill him. This threat is withdrawn by advice of the tribunes.

Eventually, as the play heaves back and forth from class to class, the tribunes decide on a compromise – banishment – which, like so many compromises since proves disastrous to them and the people.

The people are not the collection of fickle idiots and their tribunes are not the screeching hypocrites which appear in Hands’s latest production, and all the other prestigious productions of recent times. The people have a case, and they argue it sensibly between them. The tribunes have a very strong argument, and they put it straight to the people they represent.

When a senator asks if they intend “to unbuild the city and to lay all flat”, they answer with a great shout: “the people are the city.”

This is not to pretend, Dave Spart-like, that Coriolanus is a revolutionary play against the fascist menace. That would be as ridiculous an interpretation as is the fashionable Lawson view. The people can be fickle: they do switch from side to side to side. They are as likely to murder a king as to worship him. Equally, their representatives are more likely to guard their own backsides than to fight for others of a different class.

Coriolanus is a complex character, who gets our sympathy for his hatred of hypocrisy as much as he earns our contempt for his contempt of the common people.

This is probably the best political play ever written, precisely because it shifts and moves between arguments and counter-arguments not of dummies and stereotypes but of real human beings.

Shakespeare knew well enough from his own life experiences (the biggest Midlands riots against the enclosures took place not far from where he was born) that the people had a case. He was also nervous, as almost everyone is, of what may happen if the class born to rule and used to rule is suddenly toppled from power.

It is utterly ruinous of the play to take one side and its delicate balances against the other, to glorify the excesses of Coriolanus or to make imbeciles of the tribunes, as this most recent production has done.

Bertolt Brecht loved Coriolanus more than any other play. He spent hours with it, rehearsing it, adapting it and even rewriting it to make sure the people had a proper say. In the end he admitted he could not improve on the original. What a tragedy it is that to please the likes of Nigel Lawson so many modern producers of Coriolanus do not learn the same lesson.


Last updated on 17.1.2005