Populist Revolutions

The political and social opposition faced by Coriolanus continues to erupt worldwide today

The Rome of Coriolanus is facing an uprising from an economically restless people. The conflicts between a frustrated population and the leadership that can’t — or won’t — help them persist throughout history. We’ve seen revolutions of the kind Coriolanus faces in the centuries since Rome, since Shakespeare’s play, and today.

In Coriolanus, Rome is in the midst of a grain shortage, and the plebeians have no political recourse to oppose the patricians’ control over how the remaining grain is distributed. This leads to riots in the streets. Shakespeare saw this unrest in his own time as well; between 1586 and 1631, at least 40 food riots erupted in England when incessant rains wiped out crops. Simultaneously, the government increased the enclosure of formerly public land, reserving it for private farming. Both the ancient Romans and the Elizabethan English took to the streets to demand seats at the table.

The pressures of economy and food security have not disappeared with the passage of time, however. In just the last few years, there has been tremendous worldwide upheaval spurred by restless populaces feeling unseen and unheard by those in power:

Iceland: 2009–2011

In Iceland, the financial collapse and fears of supermarkets running out of food led to a series of anti-government protests. Known as the Kitchenware, or Pots and Pans, Revolution, the large protests ultimately led to a the drafting of a new Icelandic constitution. This was not written just by career politicians; thanks to the protests and wide engagement, the drafting process included input from 1,500 Icelandic citizens. This constitution has yet to be implemented, however, and protests have begun to reappear.

Arab Spring: 2010–2012

The Arab Spring was a series of uprisings across the Arabic-speaking world. It began with the Tunisian Revolution in December 2010, and spread over the course of the next year and a half, including major uprisings in Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, Egypt, and beyond. While each country had its own specific set of inciting factors, common threads included economic inequality, which scientists suggest was exacerbated by rising food prices and shrinking farmland. This, in turn, contributed to popular dissatisfaction with dictators and absolute monarchies that didn’t give the general population sufficient power in government. Social media also played a large role, as those caught in the uprisings could communicate worldwide with just 140 characters. A major slogan of the Arab Spring was “the people want to bring down the regime,” reflecting the populist sentiment at its core.

Syria: 2011–Present

The Syrian Civil War is an ongoing conflict that grew out of the Arab Spring. Severe economic inequality was compounded by the worst drought in Syria’s recorded history, lasting for three years and decimating crops. The resulting food shortage increased the price of food while Syrians were simultaneously losing work. These economic factors, combined with persistent human rights violations, ignited a popular rebellion calling for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad. His regime repressed these protests violently, setting off a civil war that continues today with several factions fighting one another.

South Korea: 2016–Present

In November 2016, South Korean President Park Geun-hye was at the center of a corruption scandal. The South Korean population began a series of massive protests that were peaceful and almost festive in nature, with the aim of forcing the president’s impeachment. They were successful; by early December, the South Korean Parliament voted to impeach the president, and just this month the Constitutional Court officially removed her from office.

United States : 2016–Present

Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump rode a wave of popular unrest to political success by claiming to speak for the common American. While their beliefs and goals were at odds, they had in common a groundswell of support from people who were opposed to established politicians, believing that they were better heard and represented by a candidate perceived as outside the system. The economic inequality fueling this dissatisfaction has been steadily rising: those born in 1940 had a 92% chance of earning more than their parents did, while those born in 1980 have just a 50% chance. The Sanders rallies and Trump victory, as well as the nationwide protests that have sprung up since the election, are all born from a similar desire to feel seen and supported by the government.

Join us for Coriolanus at Lantern Theater Company, March 9 — April 16, 2017. Visit our website for tickets and information.

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