On this Memorial Day, I’m inspired by a quote to ponder what it really means to “Support Our Troops,” living and dead. The quote comes from an epilogue written for a 1778 performance of Shakespeare’s obscure Roman Tragedy, “Coriolanus:”
The most interesting thing about the play is how modern it is. One of his few plays that deals directly with the drama of democracy. And more than that, it deals with the seemingly modern phenomenon of officials undone by public opinion. So many of Shakespeare’s characters have to answer to their God or their king, or (as Coriolanus does), his family. Only rarely, do they answer to the people.Kyle Kallgren: “Coriolanus- Universal Soldier” (2016)
Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s strangest and most controversial plays. Its principal figure is a warrior, exemplary in his courage and single-minded dedication, who finds it difficult to adjust to life away from the battlefield. Refusing to compromise and contemptuous of anyone who does not live up to his exacting standards, Coriolanus, not long after being nominated for the high political office of consul, is cast into exile, accused of treason and ends up leading an army to invade and destroy Rome.Warren Chernaik, Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London
What do we not owe soldiers?
Throughout the play, Coriolanus shows nothing but contempt for popular rule. This certainly suggests that he is aristocratic in his political views, but arguably he is much more militaristic. Remember that to be a Consul or any kind of high ranking position in the Senate, the senators all served in the army for a set term. Coriolanus respects the Senate more than the Assembly because the former is full of his fellow comrades in arms.
Coriolanus is first and last a soldier, and he represents a society run by the war machine. For centuries, authoritarians who rule through a cult of personality have propped up Caius Martius as an ideal of a military society. After all, it was Mussoluini who organized his fascist dictatorship around the Roman Empire, and the play Coriolanus was taught in literature classes during the Third Reich. They probably looked like Starship Troopers.
So to recap, though we owe soldiers a lot for their courage and sacrifice, nobody owes them Blind obedience, because that is the root of fascism. Look at this actual excerpt from a literary textbook about Coriolanus that was given to children in Nazi Germany.
The poet deals with the problem of the peaople and its leader, he depicts the ture nature of the leader in contrast to the aimless masses; he shows a people led in a false manner, a false democracy, whose exponents yield to the wishes of the people for egotistical reasons. Above these weaklings towers the figure of the true hero and leader, Coriolanus, who would like ot guide the deceived people to its health in the same way as, in our days, Adolf Hitler would do with our beloved German Fatherland.Martin Brunkhorst, “Shakespeare’s Coriolanus in Deutscher Bearbeitung. Quoted from Weida
So now that I’ve established what we don’t owe our soldiers, what do we owe them?
What do we owe our soldiers?
[ ] Honesty- why are you fighting? Is dying for one’s country worth it? Unlike Henry V, in which Shakespeare makes it very clear why the king is trying to conquer France, we don’t really understand why Rome wants to destroy the Volskies, and it seems somewhat arbitrary. I think one of the ways we sympathize with Coriolanus is that he never “asks the reason why; his is but to do and die,” as Tennyson puts it. He has one speech where he rallies the troops, but it just seems flat and hollow without a clear reason why the soldiers should risk their lives.
[ ] A chance to heal When he comes home to run for Consul, Coriolanus is required to show his battle scars to the people and refuses to stay in the room when the patricians talk about them. This could be interpreted as more arrogance where he is disgusted to be in the same room as common men, but I think there’s another aspect. I think Coriolanus has PTSD, and every time he sees or hears about his scars, his repressed memories bubble up to the surface and drown him in fear. His story is partially a story of how all soldiers need help to deal with the trauma they endure on a regular basis.
[ ] Love for their courage and sacrifice. Whether the conflict is right or wrong men and women risked their lives for it, and that is worth compassion.
[ ] Good leaders. Coriolanus is a play where arguably nobody cares about the people. Coriolanus and the Patricians look down on them, and the tribunes see them as a means to gain power. With all this political in fighting who is really trying to make life better? Better for the starving Romans? Better for soldiers like Coriolanus? In a republican society like Rome, we owe it to our soldiers to participate in politics so men like Coriolanus aren’t sent to die on a whim. If we don’t use our voices, we are the common cry of curs that Coriolanus characterizes us as:
Compassion– in John Osborne’s version the title character goes mad from his trauma and of course, in Shakespeare’s version, he’s driven out of Rome and then killed by Aufidius. Even today, many soldiers suffer from poverty, sickness, life-altering injuries, and of course, PTSD. This Memorial Day, let’s all try to help ease the lives of the men and women who have suffered for us.
SHAKESPEARE AND BRITISH OCCUPATION POLICY IN GERMANY, 1945-1949 by Katherine Elizabeth Weida B.A. (Washington College) 2011