To some critics, Coriolanus is a lesser-known Shakespearean tragedy due to a lack of complexity in its hero, Caius Martius, or Coriolanus. They ignore the possibility that, compared with other biographical figures in Shakespeare’s plays dealing with ancient Rome, Coriolanus simply lacks the historical impact of Julius Caesar or Cleopatra. Recently, a Shenendoah Shakespeare production of Coriolanus proved to its audience that this overlooked play and its hero remains vital and viable. It is insulting to what we know of Shakespeare to suggest that the bard created a Rambo-like, one-dimensional warrior who richly deserves his tragic fate. Rather, in his unusual relationship with his mother, in his inner struggles with politics versus the integrity of a soldier, and finally, his tortured reaction to banishment from Rome, Coriolanus reveals a rich canvas of tragic imperfection. However, Coriolanus differs from many Shakespearean tragic heroes. While Richard II and King Lear speak eloquently, Coriolanus’ speech, while colorful, is simple and to the point. As a man of action, we see him reflected in a multi-faceted pool of the appraisal of others, from his supporters, Menenius and Volumnia, to his detracters, the tribunes and the plebeians.
The first scene of the play enacts an uprising of mutinous citizens in which Caius Martius is a major topic of conversation. Before the future “Coriolanus” is introduced to us, we learn the citizen’s opinions of the man. The plebeians blame him rather exclusively for their hunger. A patrician, Menenius, enters the fray. A citizen hails him, ” Worthy Menenius Agrippa, one that hath always loved the people” (1.1. 39-40), but, through his later political maneuvering in the play, it is doubtful that love of the plebeians is a prime motivating force for his public life. Menenius attempts to diffuse the bomb of the gathering’s anger by suggesting the blame for their hunger lies with the gods, not the patricians. (1.1. 59). He then employs a clever parable of Rome as the body, wherein the all the members rebelled against the “lazy” belly. The belly’s answer to this accusation is very clever: it lovingly distributes food to all the parts of the body, providing the most vital function. Menenius then compares the senators of Rome to the fabled belly. (1.1. 80-135). Menenius has shown himself to be a master politician in this instance, and also, that, rather than a great lover of the people and their cause, he supports the status quo in Roman life. This conflict between patrician interests and plebeian need is vital to the play and to the character of Coriolanus, for it proves his undoing.
In contrast to Menenius political savvy, when Coriolanus appears, he undoes the uneasy peace Menenius’ calm words have wrought. We see immediately why the citizens dislike him: he insults them at every turn. He arrogantly states “Who deserves greatness/ Deserves your hate, and your affections are/ A sick man’s appetite…” (1.1. 159-160). While Coriolanus, the great warrior of Rome, has revealed who he despises (Roman citizens), we may wonder who has earned his admiration. Strangely, he expresses affinity, not for a Roman patrician but towards a great enemy in battle, Aufidius of the Volsces. He lovingly states: “I sin in envying his nobility, / And were I any thing but what I am, / I would wish me only he.” (1.1. 213-215). Coriolanus admires war itself, not Rome essentially. Aufidius is noble because he fights in a manner that Coriolanus admires; Coriolanus despises the plebeians for their “petty” domestic concerns of hearth and home and because they do not fight or properly support Rome’s wars.
A glimpse of the home and hearth of Coriolanus is soon provided. Volumnia, the mother of Coriolanus, first appears in the third scene of Act I. Mother and daughter-in-law are sewing, and Coriolanus is foremost in their minds. From Volumnia’s first words, we see that she dominates Virgilia, and perhaps still dominates Coriolanus: “I pray you daughter, sing, or express yourself in a more/ comfortable sort. If my son were my husband, I should freelier/ rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed…” (1.2. 1-3). Volumnia here critiques her daughter-in-law’s behavior and embarrasses her by alluding that her sadness at Coriolanus’ absence is due to sexual longing. This speech is also disturbing for Volumnia’s excessive proprietary feeling towards her son, and the incestuous identity swapping of “If my son were my husband…” Volumnia also indicates her values: that honor and the glory of war come before all. We see a reflection of Coriolanus’ in her ardor for war and its trappings, and cannot help but wonder at the breadth of this mother’s influence on her son. Virgilia expresses far more concern over Coriolanus’ safety than his mother. Yet she is shy and retiring, as if she has been totally subdued by life with Coriolanus and Volumnia. Virgilia is present in far less scenes than Volumnia, and the mother is always first to address Coriolanus. At the play’s end, it is Volumnia’s words that sway Coriolanus when nothing else could move him.
Menenius and Volumnia seem as bookends in the matter of using Coriolanus’ glory in the wars for their own political ends. While Menenius engages in public maneuvering, Volumnia engages her control in the private sphere. They both push Coriolanus to become consul, and to display his battle wounds to the plebeians as is customary. Coriolanus seemed willing to accept the position of consul as spoil of war, but he seems more interested in fighting than in wielding the power battles can win. It is difficult to gauge his reluctance to show his wounds. We are sympathetic in the sense that this custom seems invasive and exploitive to a soldier wounded in battle. Certainly Coriolanus shows no love for the plebeians, but contempt does not seem to be his motive for wishing to forego the custom. Does Coriolanus want to be consul? He repeatedly throws away his political advantages; it is as if he is compelled to trip himself up. His tirades lead eventually to his banishment from Rome, with the help of scheming tribunes who recognize Coriolanus’ anti-plebeian sentiments for a serious threat if he should win power. Menenius fails to recognize Coriolanus’ nature along with Coriolanus’ mother. They coerce Coriolanus to take back his strong words in a public forum when they should have recognized that any public forum proves disastrous to Coriolanus. He becomes inflamed as the tribunes charge him with being a traitor. “The fires in i’th lowest hell fold in the people!” he shouts with reckless courage as the tribunes corner him. (3.3. 73). For him, it is a warrior’s swan song.
Shakespeare presents us with a tragic warrior in Coriolanus and a view that perhaps what makes a good soldier does not make a good public official. Coriolanus, in his noble arrogance and unbending “virtue” represents a dying breed of hero that cannot be compatible with the values of a modern, democratic society. Coriolanus was not fit for the political realm, but his mother and friend were blind to this fact and saw only the glory of war. He did not seek to be consul, but if it was thrust upon him, he would be consul in his own way, the way of lone warrior, blind to everything but his own code of honor. At the play’s end, we lament the death of Coriolanus along with Aufidious, but even as we mourn, we recognize that it must be so. Shakespeare has created a complex hero who causes us to reflect on the values of war and politics.
Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus. Ed. Lee Bliss. Cambridge, United Kingdom:
Cambridge University Press, 2000.