Coriolanus, written either before or just after Pericles, is the last pure tragedy Shakespeare wrote, and perhaps the greatest of his Roman plays. It tells the story of a Roman general and war hero, who brings his own doom through hubris and thirst for vengeance. Bruce King in his introduction to Coriolanus writes that its refusal to take sides or show any of the characters in a particularly positive light makes it as a play ahead of its time. There’s no sympathetic character or a cause for the viewer/reader to identify with, and so for all it’s brilliance, it is problematic to approach.
In Rome, the starving people are rioting. The main target of their rage is the patrician general Caius Martius, who has nothing but contempt for the rioting plebs. They are, however, the least of his troubles – the Volscian army is marching towards Rome, and their victory seems certain. Martius goes to battle; to him this is personal for he hates the Volscian general Aufidius. The two meet on the battlefield, and after fighting each other, reach something of an angry stalemate, forcing the Volscian into retreat while the Roman victory is somewhat Pyrrhic. Aufidius swears that one day he will kill Martius.
Martius, now honoured as Coriolanus, doesn’t quite return in triumph – the Senate is well aware of the flaws of his character, and representatives of the plebs are horrified by the idea that he should be promoted into a position of real power. But the Senate is not intent on giving Coriolanus position – he is made to appeal to the plebs (which he hates, for he dislikes democracy), and just as it appears that he has gained their support, the Senate pulls the plug on his consulship. Cornered, a man who is not a politician but a soldier, he lashes out and is banished from Rome.
You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, which finds not till it feels,
Making not reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes, deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.
Full of revenge, Coriolanus leaves his home, and after some soul-searching joins the Volscian army, intent on marching with them to Rome and destroying it in vengeance. Realising that they cannot expect their success to continue without Coriolanus in their army, the Romans try to appeal to him. Their attempts are in vain, but when Virgilia and Volumnia appeal to him, implying that they will die with their fellow Romans if he chooses to destroy the city, he finally relents. Aufidius has planned all along to murder him once he has stopped being useful, and by switching sides, Coriolanus seals his fate. Accusing him of treachery, Aufidius kills him. He is then horrified by what he has done, and orders Coriolanus to have an honourable burial.
Caius Martius Coriolanus is a bit of a wanker. In his introduction to Coriolanus, Stanley Wells points out that for all his unpleasantness, he is also a staggeringly successful soldier, and I think that that is perhaps his biggest fault. He is a man who only knows one thing. He knows how to be a good soldier, and that is different vastly from being a good politician or even a good man. He lacks the skills to maneuver the civilian politics, he despises those who have not fought for their country (aside note: the plebs were allowed to join the army, but they rarely progressed through the ranks – forever stuck as the proverbial cannon fodder was hardly an incentive for them to become soldiers), he distrusts civilian democracy. In Aufidius he has, in a strange way, a soul mate – the two men may be enemies, but they also have a healthy respect for one another. As Coriolanus early on points out, Aufidius is “a lion I am proud to hunt”- he sees Aufidius as his equal and therefore worth his while as an enemy, while the plebs and the senators don’t deserve his concern as enemies or allies. He is also a man who has neither intuition nor introspection; when he is banished from Rome he is incapable of seeing any fault in his own conduct. He addresses the people only because he is persuaded to do so, not because he understands the importance of it. When he is banished, he lays the blame on everyone but himself. In a man more charming, more prone to listening to others, even a little bit more willing to compromise, this unyielding quality would be a sign of integrity – Coriolanus only manages to look stubborn, arrogant and completely out of touch with his surroundings.
Coriolanus is his mother’s son – Volumnia perhaps has the social skills that he lacks, but she displays similarly singular mind. Her cause is first and foremost her son. She props him up when propping up is needed, pleads with him when she knows that he’s destroying himself. She loves her son, but I am not convinced that he can return her love – her love, or his wife’s love, or even his son’s love. He can only do right by them, which isn’t quite the same. It is interesting that Coriolanus has virtually no interaction with his wife; in the play she is practically mute; present but not speaking. Much has also been made of the relationship Coriolanus has with Aufidius – the peculiar, mutual reverence often seen as homoerotic, and adding another layer to the modern interpretations of the character.
Is it any good?
Yes – although it’s the second longest (after Hamlet) of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s streamlined and austere, the language as dry as it is poetic.
Coriolanus is the only Shakespeare play that has been banned in modern times – in 1930s France because it was popular among fascists, and in post-WWII Germany for being militaristic.
What say thou?
There are lots of excellent speeches and poetic language, even if Coriolanus doesn’t really talk much about himself. Others have plenty to say about him though, including this excellent speech from the end of Act 4, by Aufidius:
All places yield to him ere he sits down;
And the nobility of Rome are his:
The senators and patricians love him too:
The tribunes are no soldiers; and their people
Will be as rash in the repeal, as hasty
To expel him thence. I think he’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature. First he was
A noble servant to them; but he could not
Carry his honours even: whether ’twas pride,
Which out of daily fortune ever taints
The happy man; whether defect of judgment,
To fail in the disposing of those chances
Which he was lord of; or whether nature,
Not to be other than one thing, not moving
From the casque to the cushion, but commanding peace
Even with the same austerity and garb
As he controll’d the war; but one of these–
As he hath spices of them all, not all,
For I dare so far free him–made him fear’d,
So hated, and so banish’d: but he has a merit,
To choke it in the utterance. So our virtues
Lie in the interpretation of the time:
And power, unto itself most commendable,
Hath not a tomb so evident as a chair
To extol what it hath done.
One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail;
Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail.
Come, let’s away. When, Caius, Rome is thine,
Thou art poor’st of all; then shortly art thou mine.
Coriolanus himself is different from many other of Shakespeare’s tragic characters in that while he appears self-assured (to the point of being entirely falsely modest), he doesn’t have a huge need to explain himself (unlike, say Hamlet). He is largely what the reader/viewer projects on him. Honourary mentions to Aufidius and Volumnia – by lacking his singularity, Aufidius also lacks the flaws that make Coriolanus so easy to hate, while Volumnia can be seen the power behind the throne; she more than Virgilia thrills in Coriolanus’ success and drives him on, but also has the wisdom and compassion her son lacks – and (at least in the end) the ability to see him for what he is.
2011 film by Ralph Fiennes, starring Ralph Fiennes. Also stars Gerard Butler as com(passionate) Anfidius, Vanessa Redgrave as a magnificent woman general Volumnia, and Jessica Chastain as hesitant Virgilia not sure whether she approves of her husband, or where she fits between him and his mother. The action is set in a modern day war zone – could be Balkans, could be anywhere – and is extremely cleverly updated. By showing the brutality of war, of what it really means to be a successful soldier, Fiennes goes some way on explaining who Coriolanus is. A man cannot go on killing, nevermind how noble his driving principles, without it having some deep effect on his soul.