The Tragedy of Coriolanus
It’s hard to empathise with Caius Martius Coriolanus. He’s not like Macbeth who starts out a noble war hero and ends up an agonised guilt-ridden murderer. Coriolanus is never agonised or guilt-ridden. He is simply, and only ever, a warrior. A very competent straightforward male representative of his class. An aristocratic no nonsense killing machine. Formed by a society that isn’t quite aristocratic, isn’t quite republican and so doesn’t quite know what to do with him.
The play opens with the citizens of Rome angrily discussing Caius Martius – he’s called “the chief enemy to the people” (Act 1.1 lines 5-6, i.e. almost immediately). Why? Because in a time of famine – these people are starving – the patricians, apparently inspired or ordered or led by Caius Martius – have refused them the surplus grain. Some of the citizens point out that he has done the country service as a soldier; another counters that “he did it to please his mother, and to be partly proud” (Act 1.1).
In that line I see the key to the whole play.
A short recap. Martius soundly defeats his old enemy Aufidius and his people the Volces of Corioles, returns to Rome in glory, gains the honorary surname Coriolanus, and is nominated to become a tribune. This must be confirmed by the citizens and he himself must appeal to them for their votes. He is loath to do this. He has already shown great contempt for them. In this he is no different from the rest of his class, except possibly Sicinius and Brutus, but he is more vicious about it. Nevertheless he consents to meet with them, they give him their votes but later regret it, refuse to confirm it. After a heated confrontation in which everybody looks bad he is banished. He joins forces with his old enemy Aufidius and they march on Rome. The citizens and patricians are terrified. Attempts to talk him into accepting a truce fail until his mother Volumnia uses her formidable eloquence against him. He retreats. Aufidius in a rage over his betrayal kills him. The tragedy is complete.
This play has fascinated me since we first read it. There is so much to look at. Are the citizens a mindless manipulated mob or a righteous working class clearly aware of the threat to their liberties? Are Sicinius and Brutus self-serving manipulators? If so, what do they have to gain by enflaming the people against Coriolanus? Or are they sincere in their (admittedly hot headed and rash) defence of the people’s liberties? And what of Coriolanus himself? In a long list of vile Shakespearean heroes, he is surely the one we can least sympathize with?
All questions for another time. For this essay I will look at the subject that continuously pushed itself into my attention each time I read/saw the play: the role of the military. Coriolanus is a warrior in a warring society. But even the relatively limited subject of Coriolanus as a soldier is complex. Therefore to make this manageable I will focus on just two aspects: Volumnia’s fostering of him to become a warrior, and the ambiguity of the Roman people’s attitudes towards war.
First Volumnia. Even before we meet her we are told what kind of woman she is and what her relationship to Coriolanus is. In the first scene, described above, Second Citizen attempts to present Martius, though he is contemptuous of and hostile to the people, as a patriot at least: “Consider you what services he has done for his country?” (Act 1.1) First Citizen counters with: “He did it to please his mother.”
Mothers are rarely visible in Shakespeare so this short line is startling. When we then meet Volumnia we are prepared for her forcefulness. She is with Martius’s wife Virgilia who is lamenting Marius’s absence and fearful for his safety. Volumnia tells her essentially, “Get a grip, you wimp” and goes on to say that if he were her husband she’d be happy he was not in her bed but on the battlefield doing honourable things. She boasts that when he was just a boy she was “pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man” (Act 1.3). She imagines him now at war:
...His bloody brow
With his mailed hand then wiping, forth he goes,
Like to a harvest-man that’s tasked to mow
Or all or lose his hire (Act 1.3)
At Virgilia’s alarm at the mention of blood Volumnia scoffs: “Away, you fool! It more becomes a man/ Than gilt his trophy” (Act 1.3) and later when informed that he has indeed been wounded she gloats, “O he is wounded. I thank the gods for ‘t!” (Act 2.1) then she and the patrician Menenius proudly recount all his twenty-seven wounds.
Later after Coriolanus has been his usual nasty self when meeting with the citizens, enraging Sicinius and Brutus who call him a viperous traitor and threaten to exile him, Menenius defends him by saying:
Consider this: he has been bred i’th’wars
Since a could draw a sword, and is ill-schooled
In bolted language (Act 3.1)
Though Menenius doesn’t mention Volumnia here, this is the logical consequence of her son-raising method and his inability to speak smoothly to the people is something she also deals with decisively. When he says, “Let them hang,” she agrees, “Ay, and burn too,” but goes on:
Pray be counselled.
I have a heart as little apt as yours,
But yet a brain that leads my use of anger
To better vantage. (Act 3.2)
She then asks him to go talk to them again, reminding him that “thou art their soldier” but it’s necessary for him to speak to them:
My praises made thee first a soldier, so,
To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before. (Act 3.2)
He does, it goes badly, he is banished, he turns his warring vengeance against Rome and Volumnia confronts him again:
Thou are my warrior
I holp to frame thee... [but]
...if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name
Whose repetition will be dogged with curses. (Act 5.3)
It is a magnificent speech and Coriolanus caves in:
O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother, O!
You have won a happy victory for Rome;
But your son, believe it, O believe it,
Most dangerously, you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come. (Act 5.3)
And come it does. Aufidius kills him for his ignoble un-warrior like treachery.
Volumnia’s dominance of her son would be well worth analysing (and probably has been) but here I would like to stay with the focus on her role in forming him as a warrior. To her, and Aufidius, and of course to Coriolanus, war is natural, necessary, and desirable – unless, as we have just seen, it is waged against one’s own people by one’s own son. However, the society in which they lived wasn’t so sure. Throughout the play we see a wavering on the question of war. As the play opens the citizens, though they want to honour and respect Coriolanus for his military victories, also want to eat, and he has been instrumental in preventing that. They know he is not alone in this attitude. When Menenius tries to justify the patricians and calls them caring fathers, First Citizen scoffs:
“Care for us? True, indeed! They ne’er cared for us yet; suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain...provide more piercing statues daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will...” (Act 1.1)
First Citizen knows what he is talking about. If not he, then his fellows, have been forced to become soldiers; this we learn from Coriolanus himself, who contemptuously rejects their right to grain because they did not voluntarily take part in the wars:
...they know the corn
Was not our recompense, resting well assured
They ne’er did service for ‘t. Being pressed to th’war,
Even when the navel of the state was touched,
They would not thread the gates. This kind of service
Did not deserve corn gratis. Being i’th’war,
Their mutinies and revolts, wherein they showed
Most valour, spoke not for them. (Act 3.1)
Clearly, the citizens of Rome are not wholly enthusiastic about war. Their brothers in Antium, in Corioles, the city of Aufidius, are on the other hand more positive. At least the serving men of the tavern where Coriolanus and Aufidius become allied in their plans to wage war against Rome are quite pleased with the news: “Why, then we shall have a stirring world again. This peace is nothing but to rust iron, increase tailors, and breed ballad-makers” (Act 4.5).
In the next scene tribunes Sicinius and Brutus praise the peace of Rome with Coriolanus gone. “The present peace/ and quietness of the people...Our tradesmen singing in their shops and going/ About their functions friendly” (Act 4.6). This contentment is shattered by the news that Coriolanus and the Volces
Are entered in the Roman territories,
And with the deepest malice of the war
Destroy what lies before ‘em (Act 4.6).
Menenius refuses to believe that this attack is led by Coriolanus but must in the end:
We are all undone unless
The noble man have mercy (Act 4.6).
From his “A hundred thousand welcomes!...welcome, warrior!” of Act 2.1 when Coriolanus returned victorious to Rome, the city and its people now face destruction at the hands of their war hero.
What goes around comes around. A society that glorifies war must suffer the consequences of war. As must its individuals.
Volumnia, who according to Professor Bloom, must, “be the most unpleasant woman in all of Shakespeare” (page 584) – which she possibly is – did not get that way because of personal failings. She is truly the opposite of what I myself believe in but I must admit to a reluctant admiration for this formidable woman. In Volumnia’s world Rome “had already embarked on the expansionist course that would culminate in its domination of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East four hundred years later” (Eisaman Maus, page 2794) and Volumnia has simply done her job as an aristocrat woman – fostered a noble warrior of the noble warring class. In her patriotic rigidity Volumnia has fostered a warrior who fails to understand or care about a plebeian class who suffers the consequences of this war. This was, I believe, one of the points Shakespeare was trying to make. We are uncomfortable with the viciousness that is sometimes revealed by the citizens but we understand their desperation as Coriolanus, the hero, does not. “Wars,” Kott points out in Shakespeare Our Contemporary, “have made the patricians rich. They have gained land and slaves. But they cannot carry on war without the plebeians...Coriolanus is an aristocrat, hates the people and is hated by them. There is a famine in Rome...” (pages 182-183).
In creating the characters of Coriolanus and Volumnia within the framework of the Roman wars, the famine and the demand of the citizens, Shakespeare has highlighted the “virulence” of “feudal history, its bare and unalterable mechanism, in an absolute form” (Kott, pages 184-185) as well as the “aggression and repression” of the men and women of the nobility of Rome and “the way both sexes deform their personalities in order to conform to highly restrictive patterns of masculinity or femininity” (Eisaman Maus, page 2799).
Class and gender. As always it comes down to that. But we’re still not comfortable with that. More than ever we want to believe that we’ve achieved equality in class and gender.
In our dreams.
We find Coriolanus uncomfortable because Shakespeare has bluntly showed us that the good guys are bad and the bad guys are good or at least justified. But that’s what he always does so why should we be surprised? Still we are uncomfortable with the “absence of any obviously correct view of the events” (Marshall, page 454). As well we should be. We are uncomfortable with the play, as we should be with our society.
Coriolanus should be required reading/seeing, not just by students but by parents, politicians, everybody. It is Shakespeare’s most modern play. It’s about the 21st century. Wars are still raging.
- The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare – the Invention of the Human. 1998.
- Eisaman Maus, Katherine. “Introduction” in The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition.
- Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary.1964.
- Marshall, Cynthia. “Coriolanus and the Politics of Political Pleasure” in A Companion to Shakespeare’s Works – the Tragedies, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard. 2003.
- The Tragedy of Coriolanus, BBC, 1983. Director: Elijah Moshinsky. Cast: Coriolanus – Alan Howard; Volumnia – Irene Worth; Menenius– Joss Ackland ; Aufidius – Mike Gwilym ; Cominius – Patrick Godfrey; Virgilia – Joanna McCallum; Sicinius – John Burgess; Brutus – Anthony Pedley; Citizen – Valentine Dyall. Good production. Straightforward and quite well done. Mike Gwilym is good.
- Coriolanus 2011. Director: Ralph Fiennes. Cast: Coriolanus – Ralph Fiennes; Volumnia – Vanessa Redgrave; Menenius – Brian Cox; Aufidius – Gerald Butler; Cominius – John Kani; Virgilia – Jessica Chastain; Sicinius – James Nesbitt; Brutus – Paul Jesson; Citizens – Lubna Azabal, Ashraf Barhom and many others. Exceedingly well done. Read more on http://rubyjandsmovieblog.blogspot.se/2014/05/coriolanus.html
Seen on stage:
- Sadly, no.