Over at the new-look Harry’s Place (where they have decided that the increasing problems with the site were those of form rather than content, style rather than substance), David T suggests that Ken Livingstone is a sort of Coriolanus figure, whereupon “mastershake” in the comments replies that “You have clearly never read, nor seen, Coriolanus.”
The disagreement raises a good question — just why is Coriolanus a tragic figure? If it’s just that he’s a great man brought down by his tragic flaw, which is his pride, as David T basically suggests, then we’d have to conclude that Coriolanus isn’t a terribly tragic tragedy, as his kind of pride is just odious, getting in the way of generating anything like the kind of affective sympathy for Martius which might make his predicament a compelling one. And it can’t just be that he’s a great man who just isn’t appreciated by an ungrateful mob or by two politicking tribunes, either. That would give us a dull right-wing interpretation of the play — which isn’t to say that it isn’t an interpretation that’s been offered many times in the past, and encoded into several well-known productions, including those staged in Nazi Germany.
But Coriolanus is a great play, and one of my very favourites (along with The Winter’s Tale and Measure for Measure). And the clue to the tragedy, it seems to me, comes in Cominius’s remark in Act Two Scene Two that “It is held / That valour is the chiefest virtue, and / Most dignifies the haver: if it be, / The man I speak of cannot in the world / Be singly counterpoised.” “If it be…” — note the conditional. Martius’s tragedy is that valour is no longer the chiefest virtue in public life. He’s been brought up by his mum to be a typical Roman hero, but that kind of Roman hero is now an anachronism, for Rome is entering the phase of her existence in which the elite must master the skills of peacetime as well as the arts of war–which in practice means learning how to manage the domestic class struggle, just as it does for politicians today–and this is what Coriolanus is particularly badly-equipped to do.
Tony Blair — who is, happily, now one of yesterday’s politicians — used to like to talk about “traditional values in a modern setting”, though that was just by way of providing rhetorical cover for his left flank as he wrestled the Labour Party ever further to the Right. Coriolanus is the tragedy of what happens when you really are living out of your time, and the modern setting is a lot less hospitable to the traditional values than you’d really prefer it to be. And this general approach to reading the play is reinforced by Aufidius’s remark right at the end of Act Four, “So our virtues / Lie in the interpretation of the time”. (And it’s true; they do.)
So it’s hard to read the mayoral election through the lens of Coriolanus — if we did, we’d have to argue that Ken Livingstone is crucially an anachronistic figure, but that Boris of the Bullingdon is not. But it’s easy to see why the Decents might be attracted to this erroneous interpretation. The political confrontation at the heart of the play, after all, is that between Coriolanus and the tribunes of the plebs, who have some influence over public opinion, and who do everything they can to bring him down. And since Boris Johnson (Eton, Oxford, and David Cameron’s Conservative Party) can’t possibly be cast as a tribune, these are the parts to be filled by the scribes of Decency — Nick Cohen, Martin Bright, and their friends on the blogs — with their relentless campaigns against Citizen Ken.
Nick Cohen might have made a plausible T of the P back in his Cruel Britannia days; but it’s weirdly implausible to see him occupying that role today, with his campaigns for the return of the grammar schools and for the Labour government to be doing more for people on £100K p.a.. (See also today’s column, which, since we’re being Shakespearian, is something rich and strange.) But within the discourse of Decency, which is what matters here, Cohen remains firmly a Man of the Left, and casting him and his ilk as Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus gives the guys at Harry’s what they need — a perspective on the election that puts the vitriolic, personalised anti-Livingstone polemic centre-stage, and shoves the ultimate victor, Boris Johnson, firmly into the wings.
UPDATE [5.5.2008]: David T replies.