Coriolanus (2011)
dir. Ralph Fiennes

In the 2011 version of Coriolanus, starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler, the concept of power is interpreted in a way that, in my opinion, really clarifies Rome’s political situation.  When I read Coriolanus, I didn’t fully grasp that the play is largely about power and the desire to attain or maintain it.  I read it more as a play about honor and I didn’t pay much attention to the many power struggles that are present.

In Shakespeare’s play, the plebians are, in Coriolanus’ eyes, nothing.  They do not need to be considered in important decisions and they do not deserve a say in the governing of Rome.  Yet, the senate of Rome feels the need to acquiesce to their wishes.  I didn’t fully understand why the senate does this and I passed it off as merely their desire to please the people, do what is best for Rome, or a hole in the plot.

However, when watching the movie Coriolanus, it became very clear to me that the senate’s main motivation isn’t to please the people, necessarily, but to appease them so the members of the senate can to hold on to their own power.  The scenes where the common people are revolting against their government show how violent, dangerous, and—most importantly—powerful they are.  I think that the film’s interpretation of the disagreements with the plebians as a power struggle is really helpful to understanding the play.  The film portrays the senates’ decisions in a different light, as decisions that are made not out of a sense of duty, but out of fear of losing power.

The concept of power in the movie is much more unstable than it is in the play.  The audience can see from the plebians’ actions that they do have power and that the senate, a handful of people, do face a real threat from the common people.  It also shows why Coriolanus’ reluctance to engage in the game of politics is so dangerous, and why the senate wants so desperately for him to be consul (if he becomes consul, he’ll be proof to the commoners that the senate is a “force to be reckoned with”).  Power is not held as firmly—the senate could easily make a wrong move and end up being overthrown.  I think that these sorts of things are easy to miss in the play and the movie portrays them very clearly and successfully.

The movie also highlighted many other power struggles that I didn’t see before.  The tribunes’ treatment of the plebians is an attempt to not only keep their position in the government, but to attain as much power as they can—by riling up the crowds, the tribunes gain favor with and attention from the crowds and therefore also become a threat to the senate.  Coriolanus and his mother often fight for control in their relationship as well, with Volumnia always winning and keeping the upper hand.  Even Coriolanus’ son’s threat to fight him one day is a power struggle—an unsuccessful one, but attempt to gain power nonetheless.

I think that Coriolanus is a great interpretation of Shakespeare’s play and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoyed reading or watching the play. The movie shows us Coriolanus not only as the honorable Roman soldier who despises the commoners, but as the Roman with great military power who is defenseless in this scramble for political power. I think this is an important aspect of the play that one can easily miss and the film clarifies it quite successfully. (M. Royce, November, 2013)

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