Coriolanus: Politics Never Really Changes.


*originally posted on May 21st on the “Unchaining The Titan” Tumblr blog*

So election season is upon us and, what with all the canvassing and leaflets and posters and propaganda that I find myself assaulted with, I am reminded of the story of Coriolanus. The play Coriolanus was written by William Shakespeare although like most of his works he got the idea for the story from an existing tale. In this case Shakespeare was inspired by the historical account of Gaius Martius Coriolanus, meaning “Gaius Martius, Conqueror of Corioles”.

The Romans gave their victorious generals nicknames invoking the glories they achieved in the name of Rome. For example Scipio, who destroyed the Romans rival superpower Carthage in Africa gained the title Africanus. The man who conquered the German tribes gained the name Germanicus. If any Roman had ever set foot here in Ireland and conquered our wild pagan ancestors he might have went home with the nickname Ibernacus, and probably the flu. It goes without saying that perhaps the title Ibernacus, Conqueror of the Hibernians, belongs to the head of todays European Union rather than any dead warlord. Thus it was that the triumphant soldier Gaius Martius gained the name Coriolanus and established a reputation for general badassery.

But who cares right? It’s just a story. Even worse, it’s Shakespeare. I don’t think it’s as unimportant as it might seem. You’ll find that the old saying is frustratingly reliable and that indeed, history always repeats itself. So let me fill you in on the rest of the story and relate it back to the upcoming elections in Ireland.The people of Rome can’t get jobs or bread to feed their families and are overly reliant on the cities public dole. Sounds familiar… They’re pushed to the limit and riots breakout, they even get so far as to launch an attack on the citadel, the ancient Government Buildings if you will. They line up outside the senate house crying “Bread! Bread!” And are faced down by soldiers of Romes government, agents of the state, in full riot gear. It’s about to get ugly. Then Gaius appears and attempts to calm the furious and desperate citizens down in the only way he knows how. He tells them how much he hates them and calls them lazy, weak cowards. He addresses them as “fragments”, implying that they’re not completely human. It works, surprisingly, and they go home, to eke out a living struggling to get by with no hope for any improvement or aid from the government of the nation. You have to admit, they gave up pretty easily there. Maybe he was right and they really were lazy, weak cowards. Sometime later, Gaius gloriously leads his legions to conquer the city of Corioles, an enemy of Rome. He practically takes the place single handedly after he gets separated from his army. For his troubles he gains the nickname Coriolanus and also a number of wounds. The wounds are important.
Coriolanus later decides to try his hand at politics and goes begging for the peoples “voices”, meaning he wants their votes. He goes into a public place, full of the common citizens and asks them to put him in government. Well that’s the first connection. He doesn’t make any promises however, he doesn’t appeal to them by saying he will be any more kind to them or that he’ll try to make reforms in their favor to get them what they want. He has literally no public relations policy. Instead he says that he has always hated the people, he still hates them and if he’s elected he’ll go on hating them for a pack of lazy peasants. He isn’t winning any supporters with this tactic so he goes on to hit them where it hurts, he kicks them in their patriotic pride. Reminding them of the many wounds his body has received in over two dozen bloody battles, he forces them to face the fact that he has placed his life in harms way for the cause of Rome itself. Not for her people, but for the idea of Rome. Then they relent and he starts to hear cries of support. The Romans were suckers for patriotism, they literally loved the idea of Romes greatness more than the idea of personal prosperity. Interestingly, Coriolanus’s pride is balanced by his distaste for flattery. He can’t stand to hear people talk of his courage and his victories, because that would imply that he values their opinions. Well, he doesn’t, and he makes it clear that their praise falls on deaf, unsympathetic ears. In fact he plays down his many wounds and honors and portrays them as nothing. Like storming an enemy city single handed ain’t a big deal. Soon as he turns the people over to his side he makes a hasty exit from the market to avoid listening to them singing his praise. So he’s undeniably proud and ambitious, but nonetheless, the man has some humility to balance him out, along with being brutally honest. Uncommon characteristics for a political candidate.

So what’s the connection here? What’s it got to do with us? This is where things get interesting. So Coriolanus has a very narrow election manifesto, he says “Vote for me, because look at all I’ve achieved in the name of our nation”. For him, Rome comes first- “Roma Veni Primori”. Coincidentally, the Sinn Fein posters say “Eire Chun Cinn”- Putting Ireland First. There’s your next connection. And although the Labor posters say populist slogans like “Working Together” and the Fine Gael posters say “A Fairer Ireland”, you’ll find that what they’ve actually done while in office was put the interests of Ireland or Ireland Inc. ahead of the people they claim to represent. Like Coriolanus they ask for our voice because of the results they have achieved in the name of something other than the common people, that’s us. But unlike Coriolanus, they lie. They make promises they cannot keep, already we’re hearing of reduction of tax rates if they’re elected, that they’ll deal with medical card issues, after they’re elected. This is merely spin and we all know it. Unlike Coriolanus, our politicians lack integrity. They will say anything to get into power. They have to with all the political skepticism floating about these days, and they also have to toe the line if they’re a member of a party. He may be swallowing his pride when he goes begging in the market for people’s voices, but old Gaius never lies or makes false promises, or gives false hope. He won’t be buttered up by flattery and he won’t pretend he’s on your side when he isn’t. He stands on the side of Rome Inc. Take it or leave it. If anything that would be his election slogan,
“Take it or leave it, scum.”
-Vote Coriolanus.

So that’s where we stand, in my opinion. Surrounded by politicians that you can’t possibly trust but who promise us a bright future if we support them. They won’t say what they really think and then if they do, we can’t be sure that it really is what they really think. It’s all spin and public relations these days. We haven’t even got a Coriolanus to call us scum and tell us the truth. He may be proud and a bit of a tyrannical dick, but the man had a point when he called the peasants weak and cowardly. All he had to do was insult them and they went home with their tails between their legs. They never do manage to overthrow the state, though they claim that they would like to. A small show of strength and indomitable resolve from the General, their will crumbles and they go back to complaining about the government but not doing anything to change it. We might just see ourselves in those lazy plebeians if we dare to look.
Despite what might come across as bitterness or political disillusionment, I will be voting. Like Jay Gatsby, I’m a creature of hope. I’ll be voting for Direct Democracy Ireland, if anyone cares, because their entire manifesto seems to be reforming the system and giving more democratic rights to the public rather than carrying on with more of the same, nice promises soon broken. I don’t think they can get enough support to get in actually, and if they do I’m not sure they’ll be able to do a better job than the last two governments, but I’ll give them my voice anyway because I feel as though they deserve a chance. 

May 21. 2014. Dublin.


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