Study for Coriolanus by George Frederic Watts – Image Source
The Tragedy of Coriolanus
Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare’s better known plays, and as best I can tell it is not generally considered among his better tragedies. I certainly didn’t feel the emotional impact present in such tragedies as Hamlet and King Lear.
The play tells the story of a Roman warrior, Caius Martius, later called Coriolanus after his victory in Corioli. The first act is violent: the Romans battle with the Volscians and the scenes move quickly among the various parties. But then the battle ends, Coriolanus returns victorious to Rome, and the political shenanigans which form the heart of the play begin. The Senators wish to reward Coriolanus by electing him Consul, but this requires the votes of the Plebeians, who aren’t inclined to favor Coriolanus thanks to his disdain for them. Political infighting leads to accusations of betrayal and the play’s tragic end.
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people,
The tongues o’ the common mouth: I do despise them;
For they do prank them in authority
Against all noble sufferance.
What I find most interesting about Coriolanus is the character of Coriolanus. He is called by others proud many times, and he openly disdains the Plebeians. But he also seems embarrassed when the tales of his valor are recounted, claiming to fight only for love of Rome, not for reward or recognition, and whatever his mother asks he will almost certainly do. His greatest fault is declared his pride—although in the manner of Mr. Darcy, I suppose he could argue it as pride appropriate to his noble station—but to me it seems that Coriolanus’ greatest faults are his hair-trigger temper and his complete and total lack of tact. In other words, he is a terrible politician. Had he never succumbed to the wishes of others to run for Consul, much grief and anguish would have been avoided. He could have maintained his pride and disdain for others and still remained a Roman hero. But then we wouldn’t have a drama!
Of course, now that I write the above, I see just how much Coriolanus’ pride does come in to play. It is when his pride is wounded, accused of crimes against his beloved Rome, that his temper is most violent. Somehow it always comes back to hubris in the tragedies…
…had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.
Second to Coriolanus in interest is his mother, she who wishes for her sole son only that he might be a great warrior. Her words almost seem heartless, willing that Coriolanus might die nobly rather than sit safely at home. It is clear that she has strongly shaped her son’s personality.
Coriolanus is hardly my favorite Shakespeare—I still favor the comedies—but I did enjoy reading it. As the action ramped up in the fourth and fifth acts I found myself unwilling to set it down, so much did I want to learn the outcome. I knew that things couldn’t end well, but there’s always the question of just how exactly bad would they go. Would Rome, thanks to political infighting, become vulnerable and fall before their enemy? Would Coriolanus’ actions (and words) lead to the deaths of his family? Would his enemy, Tullus Aufudius finally win in battle? Would, in short this be a tragedy with a high body count, or low?
Perhaps most interesting about reading Coriolanus is reflecting on how some things never change. A successful politician must still “flatter” the people, and the people are as like to change opinion at the slightest affront as in days past. It only requires the words of a few with influence to sway a great mass. We may be many centuries removed, not just from Shakespeare, but from Coriolanus’ 5th century BC, but human nature remains the same.