Sunday, 23 November 2008
Coriolanus: 'There is a world elsewhere.'
The clip above is from the BBC production of Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Coriolanus, with Alan Howard playing the eponymous Roman general, an arrogant patrician with a violent temper forced into exile after clashing with the plebeians who suspect the trenchant soldier is plotting to establish a dictatorship and so do away with their rights.
Shakespeare's source for the life of Coriolanus is the Greek writer Plutarch, who in his Parallel Lives compares the Roman to the Athenian general Alcibiades, another aristocrat who, despite his military prowess, found himself at odds with the citizenry's democratic whims and suffered exile, not once but twice, decisions which proved disastrous for Athens in its conduct of the Peloponnesian War.
Alcibiades' narrative suggests the limits of democracy in the pursuit of national aspirations. The realisation of national aspirations more often than not requires vision, ruthlessness and hardship – qualities which the masses and their leaders are rarely capable of showing and reluctant to advocate. Venizelos, for example, at a moment of national crisis, put his trust in the judgement of the masses and called elections, with fatal consequences, climaxing in the Asia Minor Catastrophe; whereas Alexander the Great – a king – had much greater, though not total, freedom to decide the affairs of state and men's fortunes and in this way spread Hellenism far and wide. Would Alexander have conquered the East if he had been an Athenian constrained by the city's democracy? Certainly not. And would Alcibiades have realised his ambition of attaching the West to the Athenian empire if he had had at his command the latitude of a Macedonian basileus? Maybe.