As the new film shows, updates of the bard's tales require both excess and respect for the text.
Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus, now in theaters, drips with masculine aggression from the film's very first moments. A tattooed man runs his blade across a whetstone while watching a modern Rome fall to pieces on television. A rigid, pulsating march scores glimpses of Romans starving and rebelling as the area falls into a state of emergency. General Caius Martius scornfully interacts with the hungry rioters; because they do not serve in the military, he deems them unworthy. Everything is filtered through the mind of a man singularly focused on war.
Though the story comes from William Shakespeare, it is genre fare through and through. Little might be known of the bard's life, but it is understood that he wrote for money, striving to foster a business and lure audiences ranging from commoners to King James himself. Though language might make his work seem high-brow today, as Eugene Woodbury frames it, it was genre fiction "fossilized in the public mind" until it became literary fiction.
Shakespeare delighted in bawdy extremes, in suicidal star-crossed lovers, psychotic breaks, fairy pleasures, and the most horrific revenge. But human truths—notions of love, family, honor, envy, jealousy, vengeance—underlay his excesses. That's why his tales have not only stood the test of time, but also been repeatedly adapted for new eras. The modernization started in the 1920s with Birmingham Rep's modern staging of Cymbeline. By the '50s and the '60s, Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival and the Royal Shakespeare Company were running wild with new interpretations that continue on both the stage and screen—from minimalist productions to Taming of the Shrew in a multi-racial American Old West.
While never the most popular work among latter-day Shakespeare adapters, Coriolanus has rested as the sinister soldier in the background, bursting forth when needed. In Hitler's Germany, the play served as educational propaganda preaching military bravery and heroism in the face of questionable democracy. Post-war, it became the tool for Brecht to write about Marxism. By the late '80s, it helped presage the rise of leather-clad Tarantino tough men: Papp's festival saw Christopher Walken as Coriolanus strutting across the stage in a black t-shirt and long leather jacket. Today, Fiennes naturally frames the title character as the modern military hero who cannot deal with a government that pays mind to civilian protestors and commoners. As Manohla Dargis puts it, "the rule of the mob, the political hypocrisies, and the grinding of war's engine transcend any age."
But the magic of Coriolanus is that Fiennes understands Coriolanus as both a military hero and a problematic figure of masculinity. Coriolanus is a fractured icon—the result of a mother fiercely passionate about military honor—so focused on his duty that he has no tact, warmth, or ability to function outside of combat. His machismo makes him a machine, a Shakespearian Terminator going to battle with no concern for societal norms. Shakespeare's creation here smoothly fits in with the modern world and its many crises—about war, about men and women, about governments and people.
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As Fiennes's Coriolanus shows, the key to making modernizations of Shakespeare successful is finding the right balance between reverence for the original text and attention to its present-day implications. Ian McKellan's spin on the bard's iconic villain in Richard III, for example, thrived because it mixed reality and fiction to solve the problem of explaining English royalty's complicated lineage to a 1995 audience. By framing England as a fascist state in 1930s Europe, Richard's rise to power is contextualized within a recognizable era. Our knowledge of Hitler, Mussolini, and WWII become gateways into England's messy aristocratic past. The film is also evocative and more than slightly campy. McKellan's eyes gleam as he plays Richard and talks to the camera, allowing the bloody quest to be equal parts political history and tantalizing, deadly mischievousness. The actor recognizes the subtle moments of wit within the dense, historical text.