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There’s no better place than Washington, D.C., to appreciate one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays, such as the masterful Coriolanus.
To get to the Shakespeare Theatre Company to watch a production of the play, you may drive near the Lincoln Memorial, past the Commerce and Labor Departments, or by the Federal Trade Commission and the National Gallery of Art. You may pass by the U.S. Capitol Building across from the Supreme Court, Library of Congress and Folger Library—all examples of classical Roman architecture.
The halls of Washington are filled—many might say, overfilled—with lawyers, who operate on the basis of classical Roman law. The buzz around Washington is of political power, the exercise of which most fascinated the ancient Romans.
And, as in Rome, the distinctive Washington pastime is the “power lunch.” A lobbyist, or a demander of one sort or another, takes someone in power to lunch, loosens him or her up with a nice drink and some fine food, and then gets around to “the ask.”
Our city’s hallmark ritual was first noted, appreciated and described in Coriolanus, when the avuncular senator Menenius ponders how best to reach the rebellious general Coriolanus:
He was not taken well—he had not dined.
The veins unfilled, our blood is cold, and then
We pout upon the morning, are unapt
To give or to forgive. But when we have stuffed
These pipes and these conveyances of our blood
With wine and feeding, we have suppler souls
Than in our priest-like fasts. Therefore, I’ll watch him
’Til he dieted to my request
And then I’ll set upon him. (act 5, scene 1)
Besides the architecture and customs of Washington, some great Washington personalities resemble those in Coriolanus.
An impressive number of U.S. Presidents were elected after a successful career in the military as Generals. Some successfully made the transition—like George Washington, Andrew Jackson and Dwight Eisenhower. More, like Coriolanus, could not make the transition successfully—perhaps most famously in the case of Ulysses S. Grant, who lacked judgment in his political associates and thus appointed some real scoundrels. According to the Washington talk, David Petraeus was on track to make a similar transition until recently, but he showed that he lacked judgment in his personal deportment.
In his disdain for parts of the political game, Coriolanus resembles our current president. Washington pundits dwell upon President Obama’s refusal to “play the game” of endless schmoozing, glad-handing other politicians, calling supposed power-brokers for supposed advice and inviting politicos over to watch the Super Bowl or take in a flick. He disdains such practices as a waste of time and energy, if not downright silly. This is understandable, as many of them are.
Nearly as silly, in fact, as the customs in Coriolanus’ time for aspiring politicians. Soldiers returning from battle who wished to move into the political realm, then by becoming consuls to the senate, were supposed to show their scars in the marketplace. Coriolanus considered this the silliest custom imaginable, an insult to his just deserts:
Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this wolvish toge should I stand here
To beg of Hob and Dick that does appear
Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to’t. (act 2, scene 3)
Perhaps it sounds that way to us as well, but there’s a price to be paid for abjuring the prevailing initiation rites, as his mother Volumnia explains to her son. After some argument, Coriolanus yields, as he always does to his mother, and is willing to give it a try. But after grudgingly beginning to follow the custom, he stops abruptly and rants about its stupidity. His political foes jump on that mistake, and make the most of it. Coriolanus pays dearly for it.
Someone who disdains the customs of local politics—however it may be for good reasons—must realize that there’s a price to be paid for abjuring or disdaining such practices, or might even be wise to go into another profession. Coriolanus could have stayed in the military and remained a hero. His life would have turned out much better.
Washington, like Rome, has had some great leaders who were mega-mother lovers, like Coriolanus with his beloved mother, Volumnia.
Douglas MacArthur’s mother rented an apartment at West Point the whole time her son was a Cadet, since they couldn’t stand to be apart.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s mother was the 20th-century version of Volumnia, and he of Coriolanus in his devotion to her. Sara Roosevelt loved her only child. Indeed, he was the love of her life, and she probably of his.
FDR and Eleanor were met by Sara at dockside when they returned from the vast and leisurely European tour of their honeymoon. There and then, she informed them that, as her wedding present, she had bought them a townhouse on the Upper East Side, fully furnished it, and—best of all—bought the adjoining townhouse with two floors having entrances between them.
Their evening dinners en famille would find FDR sitting at one end of the grand table and Sara at the other. Eleanor, the sundry nannies, and the children would be sitting between them.
Sara handled all the family finances. She managed Eleanor and Franklin’s checking and savings accounts, and paid all their bills—even after FDR became President—until the day she died.
Perhaps most importantly, Coriolanus reminds us of the arc of politics in Washington, as in ancient Rome. As Lyndon Johnson put it—in his own distinctly un-Shakespearean way—“What’s chicken salad one day is chicken shit the next.”
LBJ lived that tale, being among the most revered of Presidents when first taking office, and for the ensuing two years when he passed a flurry of civil rights, social and political legislation which marked the Great Society. He became among the most reviled of Presidents when he left office, engulfed in the Vietnam War.
Lyndon Johnson was not alone. Many other have ridden into Washington with solid reputations and high expectations—people like Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter—only to undergo dramatic if not tragic falls.
Such is the story of our times in Washington, and such is also the story of classical times in Rome, as we are reminded when we see a production of Coriolanus, after driving by all those beautiful buildings modeled after those of Rome.
Ken Adelman, a longtime Trustee of the Shakespeare Theatre Company and now on the Board of the Utah Shakespeare Festival, was an Ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. Arms Control, Director under President Ronald Reagan.