The way to test a great work of art is to ask how it survives decontextualisation, transposition into a new context. One good definition of a classic is that it functions like the eyes of God in an Orthodox icon: no matter where you stand in the room, they seem to be looking at you. For instance, by far the best cinema version of a Dostoevsky novel is Akira Kurosawa's The Idiot, which is set in Japan after the Second World War with Myshkin played as a returning soldier. The point is not simply that we are dealing with an eternal conflict that appears in all societies but that, with each new context, a classic work of art seems to address the very specific qualities of that epoch.
There is a long history of such successful transpositions of Shakespeare: to mention just a few modern film versions, Othello in a contemporary jazz club (Basil Dearden's All Night Long, 1962); Richard III in an imagined fascist UK of the 1930s (Richard Loncraine, 1995); Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, set in Venice Beach, California (1996); Hamlet in corporate New York (Michael Almereyda, 2000).
Shakespeare's Coriolanus poses a special challenge to recontextualisation: the play is so exclusively focused on its hero's militaristic, aristocratic pride and contempt for ordinary people that one can easily see why, after the German defeat in 1945, the Allied occupying power prohibited its performance. Indeed, the play seems to offer a rather narrow interpretative choice. What are the alternatives to staging the play the way it is, surrendering to its anti-democratic allure?
For his forthcoming film adaptation, Ralph Fiennes (with the writer John Logan) has done the impossible, confirming in the process T S Eliot's claim that Coriolanus is superior to Hamlet. He has fully broken out of the closed circle of interpretative options and presented Coriolanus not as a fanatical anti-democrat but as a figure of the radical left.
Fiennes's first move was to change the play's geopolitical co-ordinates. Rome is now a contemporary colonial city state in crisis and the Volscians are leftist guerrilla rebels, organised in what, today, we would call a "rogue state". The effects of this are felt in many luminous details, such as the decision to present the border between the territory held by the Roman army and the one held by the rebels as an access ramp on a highway, a kind of guerrilla checkpoint. (One can dream further here: how about fully exploiting the film having been shot in Serbia by making Belgrade the "city that called itself Rome", imagining the Volscians as Albanians from Kosovo and Coriolanus as a Serb general who changes sides to join the Albanians?)
Gerard Butler was an excellent choice for the role of Aufidius, the Volscian leader and opponent of Caius Martius (who is later renamed Coriolanus). Butler's biggest hit was Zack Snyder's 300, in which he was cast as Leonidas, king of the Spartans. In both films, he plays more or less the same role: the warrior leader of a rogue state fighting a mighty empire. Snyder's film, the saga of the 300 Spartan soldiers who sacrificed themselves at Thermopylae in an effort to halt the invasion of Xerxes's Persian army, was attacked as the worst kind of patriotic militarism, with clear allusions to the recent tensions with Iran and events in Iraq. However, it can be defended against such accusations - it is the story of a small, poor country (Greece) invaded by the army of a much larger state (Persia). When the last surviving Spartans and Leonidas are killed by volley after volley of arrows, are they not in a way being bombed to death by techno-soldiers operating sophisticated weapons from a safe distance, like US troops today, who launch missiles from warships moored in the Persian Gulf?
Attempting to convince Leonidas to accept Persian domination, Xerxes promises him peace and sensual pleasures if he joins the new global empire. All he asks of him is that he kneel down in recognition of Persian supremacy. If the Spartans do this, they will be given authority over the whole of Greece. Is this not what Ronald Reagan demanded from the Sandinista government in Nicaragua in the 1980s?
The Spartans, with their discipline and spirit of sacrifice, resemble the Taliban defending Afghanistan against US occupation (or the elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, ready to sacrifice itself in the event of an American invasion). Perceptive historians have already noted this parallel. Here, for instance, is the blurb for Tom Holland's book Persian Fire: "In the 5th century BC, a global superpower was determined to bring truth and order to what it regarded as two terrorist states. The superpower was Persia . . . incomparably rich in ambition, gold and men. The terrorist states were Athens and Sparta, eccentric cities in a poor and mountainous backwater: Greece."
A programmatic statement towards the end of 300 defines the Greeks' agenda as being "against the reign of mystique and tyranny, towards the bright future". This sounds like an elementary Enlightenment programme - with a communist twist. Recall also that, at the beginning of the film, Leonidas rejects outright the message of the corrupt "oracles", according to whom the gods forbid the military expedition to stop the Persians. We learn later that the oracles who were allegedly receiving the divine messages in ecstatic trances were, in effect, paid by the Persians, like the Tibetan "oracle" who, in 1959, delivered to the Dalai Lama the message to leave Tibet and who was, it turned out, on the payroll of the CIA.
What about the apparent absurdity of the ideas of dignity, freedom and reason being sustained by extreme military discipline, including the practice of discarding weak children? This apparent absurdity is just the price of freedom - "Freedom is not free," as it is said in the film. Freedom is not something given, but rather is regained through a hard struggle in which one should be ready to risk everything. The ruthless military discipline of the Spartans is not just the opposite of Athenian "liberal democracy"; it is its inherent condition and lays the foundation for it.
True freedom is not freedom of choice made from a safe distance; it is not like choosing between a strawberry cake or a chocolate cake. True freedom overlaps with necessity - one makes a free choice when one's choice puts at stake one's very existence. One does it because one cannot do otherwise. When one's country is under foreign occupation and one is called by a resistance leader to join the fight against the occupiers, it is phrased not as, "You are free to choose," but, "Can't you see that this is the only thing you can do if you want to retain your dignity?" No wonder all early modern egalitarian radicals, from Rousseau to the Jacobins, admired the Spartans and imagined republican France as a new Sparta. There is an emancipatory core in the Spartan spirit of military discipline that survives once you subtract all the historical paraphernalia of Spartan class rule - the ruthless exploitation of slaves, and so on. No wonder Trotsky described the Soviet Union in the difficult years of "war communism" as a "proletarian Sparta".
Soldiers are not bad per se but soldiers mobilised by nationalist poetry are. There is no ethnic cleansing without poetry. Why? Because we live in an era that perceives itself as post-ideological. Given that great public causes no longer have the force to mobilise people for mass violence, a larger sacred cause is needed, one that makes petty individual concerns about killing seem trivial.
Religion fits this role perfectly, and so does ethnic belonging. There are instances of pathological atheists being capable of committing mass murder just for pleasure but they are rare exceptions. The masses need to be anaesthetised against their elementary sensitivity to the suffering of others and, for this, a sacred cause is needed. Religious ideologues claim that, whether its dogmas are true or not, religion can make otherwise bad people do some good. Yet, as Steven Weinberg has argued, without religion, good people would have been doing good things and bad people bad things, but only religion can make good people do bad.
Plato's reputation suffers because of his claim that poets should be thrown out of the city. It was rather sensible advice, however, at least when judged from the vantage point of the post-Yugoslav experience, in which ethnic cleansing was prepared by the dangerous dreams of poets. True, Slobodan Milosevic "manipulated" nationalist passions but it was the poets who provided him with the raw material that lent itself to manipulation. They - the sincere poets, not the corrupted politicians - were at the origin of it all when, back in the 1970s and early 1980s, they started to sow the seeds of aggressive nationalism not only in Serbia but also in other Yugoslav republics.
Instead of the military-industrial complex, we in post-Yugoslavia had the military-poetic complex, personified by Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. In The Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel mentions the "silent weaving of the spirit", the underground work of changing the ideological co-ordinates, mostly invisible to the public eye, which then explodes, taking everyone by surprise. This is what was going on in Yugoslavia in the 1970s and 1980s, so that when things exploded in the late 1980s, it was already too late: the old ideological consensus was thoroughly putrid and it collapsed. Yugoslavia was like the proverbial cat in the cartoon that falls only after he looks down and becomes aware that there is no firm ground beneath his feet. Milosevic forced us all to look over the edge of the precipice.
To dispel the illusion that the military-poetic complex is a Balkan speciality, one should mention Hassan Ngeze, the Karadzic of Rwanda who, through his newspaper Kangura, spread anti-Tutsi hatred. And, discussing the rise of Nazism in Germany, the Viennese satirist Karl Kraus quipped that Germany, a country of Dichter und Denker (poets and thinkers), had become a country of Richter und Henker (judges and executioners). Perhaps such a reversal should not startle us too much.
This brings us back to Coriolanus. Who is the poet there? Before Caius Martius takes the stage, it is Menenius Agrippa, who pacifies the furious crowd demanding grain. Like Odysseus in Troilus and Cressida, Menenius is the ideologist par excellence, offering a poetic metaphor to justify social hierarchy (in this case, the rule of the senate). In the best corporatist tradition, the metaphor is that of a human body. Here is how Plutarch, in his Life of Coriolanus, relates the story, first reported by Livy:
It once happened . . . that all the other members of a man mutinied against the stomach, which they accused as the only idle, uncontributing part of the whole body, while the rest were put to hardships and the expense of much labour to supply and minister to its appetites. The stomach, however, merely ridiculed the silliness of the members, who appeared not to be aware that the stomach certainly does receive the general nourishment but only to return it again and redistribute it among the rest. Such is the case . . . ye citizens, between you and the senate. The counsels and plans that are there duly digested convey and secure to all of you your proper benefit and support.
Coriolanus not only rebels against the Roman body politic but abandons his body by going into exile. Is Coriolanus then really against the people? Which people? The "plebeians", represented by the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, are not exploited workers but rather a lumpen proletarian mob, a rabble fed by the state. The two tribunes are proto-fascist manipulators - to quote Kane (the citizen from Orson Welles's film), they speak for the poor, ordinary people so that the poor, ordinary people would not speak for themselves. If one wants to look for the "people", they are to be found among the Volscians. Look at how Fiennes depicts their capital: as a modest city in liberated territory, in which Aufidius and his comrades, clad in the uniforms of guerrilla fighters, mix freely with ordinary people in an atmosphere of relaxed festivity. All this is in stark contrast to the stiff formality of Rome.
So, yes, Coriolanus is a killing machine, a "perfect soldier", but he has no fixed class allegiance and can easily put himself at the service of the oppressed. As Che Guevara put it: "Hatred is an element of struggle; relentless hatred of the enemy that impels us over and beyond the natural limitations of man and transforms us into effective, violent, selective and cold killing machines. Our soldiers must be thus; a people without hatred cannot vanquish a brutal enemy."
There are two scenes in the film that provide a clue for such a reading. When, after his violent outburst in the senate, Coriolanus leaves the large hall, slamming the doors behind him, he finds himself alone in the silence of a long corridor and confronted by an elderly cleaning man. The two exchange glances in a moment of quiet solidarity, as if only the cleaner can see who Coriolanus is now. The other scene is a long depiction of his voyage into exile, done in road movie style, with Coriolanus as a lone rambler, anonymous among ordinary people. It is as if Coriolanus, obviously out of place in the Roman hierarchy, only now becomes what he is and gains his freedom.
The only thing that he can do is to join the enemy Volscians. He does not join them solely in order to take revenge on Rome. He joins them because he belongs there. It is only among the Volscian fighters that he can be what he is. Coriolanus's pride is authentic, but it has no place in imperial Rome. It can thrive only among the guerrilla fighters.
In joining the Volscians, Coriolanus does not betray Rome out of a sense of petty resentment. He regains his integrity. His only act of betrayal occurs at the end of the drama when, instead of leading the Volscian army towards Rome, he organises a peace treaty, succumbing to the pressure of his mother, the true figure of superego evil. This is why he returns to the Volscians, fully aware of what awaits him there - well-deserved punishment for his betrayal.
And this is why Fiennes's Coriolanus is like the eyes of God or a saint in an Orthodox icon: without changing a word in Shakespeare's play, the film looks squarely at us, at our predicament today, offering us the figure of the radical freedom fighter.
Slavoj Žižek's most recent book is "Living in the End Times" (Verso, £12.99)
“Coriolanus" (certificate 15) will be released in the UK on 20 January