Coriolanus begins in chaos, with a weapon-wielding citizenry immediately identifying Caius Martius (who has yet to earn the title “Coriolanus,” meaning the Consul of Corioles) as both a villain and a target: he is “the chief/enemy to the people,” (I,i,7-8) “Let us kill him” (I,i,10). Thus Shakespeare plunges us into the angry, agitated mood that permeates the play.
In his introduction in the Riverside Shakespeare, Frank Kermode notes that, “Coriolanus is by no means a favorite among Shakespeare’s tragedies. It is harsh in its manner, political in its interests, and has a hero who is not – whatever else may be said of him – presented as a sympathetic character.” (p.1392) But, he notes “Yet the gracelessness of the hero and the harshness of the verse do not in themselves discredit T.S.Eliot’s judgement that Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s finest artistic achievement in tragedy; and when Shaw called it the best of Shakespeare’s comedies he was perhaps making much the same point by means of a paradox: this is a tragedy of ideas, schematic, finely controlled.” (p. 1392)
I include those observations because I think they, like the play, are brilliant. I love Shaw’s comment (and Shaw loved Shakespeare); I loved the play; and I love that I loved it. I hadn’t read it before, and the task felt daunting. I procrastinated. I wondered if my project was doomed to end with this “C” play… I’d heard that it was long (true), boring (untrue), and difficult (even less true). It sparkles, and Shakespeare’s portrait of this intriguing but deeply flawed man is the shine on the diamond.
It would be easy to dismiss Coriolanus as just plain bad or evil – as folks are wont to do with Iago – but that would be a very superficial assessment. He does not know quite who he wants to be – he is deeply confused but instead of looking at his many selves he lives in and for his ego, and that’s his downfall.
It is interesting to consider the play’s title, Coriolanus, because our tragic hero starts and ends up as Caius Martius. Only in the middle of the play does he earn and then quickly lose his title of Consul of Corioles, or Coriolanus. Why, then, name the play with the title he neither truly earns, deserves, nor lives up to? I think Shakespeare did it with intentional, sly, irony.
Many themes run through Coriolanus, but the most salient for me is the question of what makes a good warrior and what makes a good statesman/politician/leader – and shall the twain ever meet? Certainly many a populace has examined this question as it related to their own country; John McCain comes to mind in recent American history.
Caius Martius is a good, brave, determined, and confident soldier. But not necessarily a military leader. The accolades – that he mostly gives himself – are about his own prowess; not as a motivator or role model. His peers admire him; his mother kvells over his warrior ways. Shakespeare infuses his language with violence. Within moments of greeting the angry rabble we meet as the play opens he exhorts: “Hang ye!” and “Hang ’em” (twice!) (I,i,181, 190, and 203), and “let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry [heap of dead bodies]/With thousands of these quarter’d slaves (I,i,198-9). Nice to see you, too, Martius!!! He boasts constantly about his wounds and scars, and threatens constantly to bare various parts of his body to show them off.
He’s arrogant and proud to a fault. At his coronation as Coriolanus he tries ardently to avoid (literally and figuratively) the time-honored tradition of donning the “cloak of humility” to address the populace (II,iii,40). How ironic, because in his case it would truly be a cloak; a vestige veiling his true self. A costume. He begs the wise Menenius to let him wriggle out of the ritual:
“I do beseech you,/ Let me o’erleap that custom; for I cannot/Put on the gown, stand naked, and entreat them/For my wounds’ sake to give their suffrage. Please you/That I may pass this doing.” (II,ii,135-9)
He asks not once, but but twice, like a stubborn child (and that moniker will annoy him immensely later). This hitch hints that his stint as leader might go less than smoothly. He shows such scorn and disdain not only for the tradition, but for the people themselves. He acknowledges often his inability to cater to them in any way: “I cannot bring/My tongue to such a pace.” (II,iii,50-1) Herein lies the root of his “evil,” but least he is honest. He is not interested in the masses. He is interested in himself. Even all his valor seems more targeted at proving what a stud he is; not in defending or supporting a country and a people he loves.
Later, though Menenius (a wise advisor who wastes his efforts trying to shake some sense into his young protege) and Martius’ mother (a most meddling albeit well-meaning matriarch) implore him to act (and I use that word quite intentionally) calm and receptive in his address, he just cannot bring himself to do it. They plead: “Ay, but mildly.” (III,ii,144), and “Calmly, I do beseech you.” (III,iii,31) – to no avail. He cannot be other than who he is: Martius, not Coriolanus. He just puts his foot in his mouth and pisses people off left and right. He’s a Roman bull in a china shop.
Does a brave, valiant, aggressive warrior necessarily make a good statesman? Does a good statesman have what it takes to make war not politics? Are those qualities that make one or the other good necessarily mutually exclusive or can they overlap? In this case, at least, the answer is obvious. As good a military hero as he might be, for Martius, it decidedly does not translate to transitioning to a good, beneficent, compassionate, empathetic, wise ruler. He is not Coriolanus.
One of the citizens hits the nail on the head when Coriolanus confusedly asks: “Your enigma?” (II,iii,90): “You have been a scourge to her enemies,/you have been a rod to her friends; you have not indeed/lov’d the common people.”(II,iii,91-3) – and the common people are, after all, his constituents. He might make a good Secretary of Defense or Head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but not President.
So the rabble turns on him despite his military prowess; they want his head. The senate concedes, but banish rather than behead him. And ever the churlish child (remember this later when being called a ‘boy” sets him off in the last scene), he turns tail and takes off for the home of his sworn arch enemy Aufidius – who, by the way, he has just brutally defeated to earn his title, and who has sworn vengeance on him, to propose a peace pact so that they may join forces to attack and subdue his own people. Those people would include his trusted advisor, Menenius, as well as his mother, wife and her good friend – Volumia, Virgilia, and Valeria (or the Vagina Monologues, as I affectionately thought of them. Sorry, Ms. Ensler), and his son.
His exile does not induce an epiphany; he does not see the light. No, he just thinks, ‘to hell with them. If they don’t see the wonder in me that I see in me, I will just befriend my mortal enemy and betray my friends, Romans, and countrymen. And family.’ This is where he lost me. I thought he was just a valiant soldier who just couldn’t quite grasp the whole political thing. Or maybe just wouldn’t compromise his principals and play the political game.
He runs off to collude with with Aufidius, who cautiously and slyly agrees. His acquiescence may seem precipitous but I feel that what he lacks in Martius’ military prowess he more than makes up in wisdom and foresight. He’s a better leader, but there wouldn’t be a tragedy called Coriolanus if he’d prevailed. On the eve of destruction along come Menenius, the Vagina Monologues, and Martius Jr to try to talk some sense into him. He’s already dispensed with one emissary – Comimius – consistent with the overwhelmingly strong trend in Shakespeare to shoot the messenger.
He appears almost inhuman at this point – consumed by insult and hell-bent on apocalyptic revenge. Comimius notes that “Coriolanus/he would not answer to; forbade all names;/He was a kind of nothing, titleless,/Till he had forged himself a name a’ th’ fire/Of burning Rome.” (V,i,11-15) Menenius tries to reason with him and begs him to reconsider. He denies him and sends him away – with a letter, the content of which we never see. Martius, Judas-like, denies his own “Wife, mother, child, I know not”(V,ii,82). But when they appear to petition to prevent his maniacal march and suggest that “Making the mother, wife and child to see/The son, the husband, and the father tearing/His country’s bowels out” (V,iii,101-3) might not be the best idea. But no amount of groveling, begging, or hair pulling and breast beating persuade him until it dawns on his mother to appeal to his ego, where he lives. She suggests that rather than conquer his own country, he play the part of hero (and I emphasize ‘play the part’ because the tragic in this hero is that he’s hardly a hero) and march triumphantly home having brokered a peace with arch enemy Aufidius, thereby getting him off their back. “Aufidius, though I cannot make true wars,/I’ll frame convenient peace.” (V,iii,190-3). Convenient only to stoke his inflamed ego. And so he leaves Aufidius with, um, his sword in his hands with nothing to do with it but trail along with it limp in his hands. Following Coriolanus, yet again, victorious, into Rome.
Aufidius hardly takes it lying down. He notes that Coriolanus has screwed him yet again, for a few women’s tears: “At a few drops of women’s rheum, which are/As cheap as lies, he sold the blood and labor/Of our great action; therefore shall he die,/And Ill renew me in his fall.” (V,vi,45-8) He justifies this sentence by deeming him a traitor guilty of egregious betrayal.
Menenius, meanwhile, shows his glee and reverence for Martius in a soliloquy which must have been the template for the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man in the World” ads:
“The tart-/ness of his face sours ripe grapes. When he walks, he/moves like and engine, and the ground shrinks before /his treading. He is able to perceive a corset with /his eye, talks like a knell, and his hum is a battery. He/sits in his state, as a thing made for Alexander. What/he bids be done is finish’d with his bidding. He wants/nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to throne in.”
Fie, says Aufidius, and calls Martius a “boy of tears” (V,vi,100) – a ‘girly man’ in current vernacular. This just puts Martius over the edge. The affront to his manhood – his ego – is too much. He questions Aufidius three times; as if he can’t possibly have heard him correctly. But in deeming him a “boy,” Aufidius kills him before he kills him. He emasculates and negates him in one fell swoop. The conspirators, “kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him” (V,vi,30) like Julius Caesar in the senate.
Aufidius, in stark contrast to Martius, and perhaps as a harbinger of better things to come – a more balanced warrior/statesman with both the scarecrow’s brain and the lion’s heart, exclaims “my rages gone,/And I am struck with sorrow” (V,vi,147-8), and “he shall have a noble memory.” (V,vi,153). Really? Interestingly, the Vagina Monologues witness neither the execution nor the unwarranted eulogy. Shakespeare protects them from the horror, and us from their reaction, perhaps to emphasize that his death is both the right thing and the last word.
The irony in the title is that Martius was never Coriolanus. His lack of humility did him in: “his stoutness/When he did stand for consul, which he lost/By lack of stooping.” (V,vi,26-8) He lived in his ego. It eclipsed all that really mattered, and then eclipsed him, too.
Next up: Cymbeline