Coriolanus is one of the most politically oriented of Shakespeare's plays; it depicts political confrontation between social classes. However, though Coriolanus opens with a civil insurrection and features the political manipulations of tribunes and aristocrats, Roman political strife is not the principal subject matter. Rather, it provides a context for the main plot, which is another sort of story. The play is first and foremost a Tragedy, the personal story of a great man whose greatness is accompanied by moral and psychological failings that bring about his downfall. As Coriolanus' story unfolds, Roman politics fall away, and the climactic confrontation in 5.3 does not oppose social classes or even political rivals. Rather, it presents an internal conflict within the protagonist, the clash between his pride in himself and his psychological dependence on his mother.
Coriolanus' importance to the plot is immediately established in Act 1, where he is prominently regarded as a brilliant military hero. Moreover, after the tragedy has run its course, the statement that 'he shall have a noble memory' (5.6.153) confirms this status for the protagonist. In between, his excessive pride produces catastrophe. Even before Coriolanus appears, his pride is carefully established as a major theme of the play in the remarks of the First Citizen. Then, it is flagrantly demonstrated with his first entrance. After Menenius has established a truce of sorts with the rioting commoners, Coriolanus appears and destroys it. His first three lines are a burst of anger that immediately creates a gulf between himself and the people that will never be bridged. He has the pride appropriate to a warrior, but he lacks a sense of ordinary social intercourse, let alone of compromise. He does not consider the justice of the commoners' complaints; he is simply offended that they should question aristocratic authority at all. His response is to suggest a massacre: 'Hang 'em! ... I'd make a quarry / With thousands of these quarter'd slaves' (1.1.189-198). From this initial outburst to his final anger at Aufidius' taunt that he is.a 'boy of tears' (5.6.101), Coriolanus is incapable of flexibility. He has sense enough to see the propriety in other approaches—he understands Volumnia's Machiavellian argument in 3.2, and, too late, he courts the Volscian common people in Act 5—but his pride repeatedly overwhelms his common sense.
The influence of Volumnia is the driving power behind Coriolanus and the play. Well may she boast to her son, 'Thou art my warrior: / I holp to frame thee' (5.3.62-63), for she has bred in her son the pride that makes him believe that he and his class are incontestably superior. Yet Coriolanus is entirely incapable of dealing with the play's developments. At two crucial moments, Volumnia makes demands of her son that are inconsistent with his sense of his own superiority. After her persuasion in 3.2 he attempts to compromise with the political world, but the tribunes trigger his too-ready anger and he is banished from Rome. Thus, he loses his only honorable standing—as a Roman warrior—and he deserts to the Volscians. When his mother comes to plead that he refrain from assaulting the city, in 5.3, he is trapped. If he destroys Rome, he will destroy himself psychologically through his mother's rejection, but by giving in to her he accepts an ignominious death at the hands of Aufidius. His responses are woefully limited, and his inflexibility proves his undoing; he is fragile in his great strength. Yet it was his mother who bred in him the sternly martial pride that brought him to eminence in the first place. This ironic situation demonstrates the basic theme of all Shakespearean tragedy: great strength is inextricably interwoven with correspondingly great weakness.
The changing world of Rome provides the secondary component of the play, its political plot. The heavy political emphasis of much modern commentary on Coriolanus is not misplaced, for the conflicts that spark the tragic hero's downfall are representative of the social clashes that constitute much of political history. The play stresses a theme that was important to Shakespeare when he wrote his earlier English History Plays: the impact of immoral behavior in the ruling class on the peace and prosperity of all of society. As Shakespeare knew from his source, Plutarch’s Lives, the ancient warrior was thought of as a member of peaceful society as well as a leader in war. To maintain his honor, he was obliged to participate in society by submitting to its laws and customs just as did his non-heroic fellow citizens. Coriolanus lacks the moral discipline to honor this social contract; indeed, he would rather abandon the contract altogether and join Rome's enemies than honor it and accept Rome's common people. Not only does he imperil himself, he endangers the city's very existence. Thus, the personality defects of the protagonist have profound political consequences.
The other aristocrats are conscious of the need to compromise with the commoners, and to a certain extent they counteract Coriolanus' ill effects. However, their grudging willingness to accept the need of such an arrangement also corrupts the social contract. Menenius' 'belly speech' (1.1.95-153) is politic and mild, but it is accompanied by an undisguised disdain for the common man, the 'great toe' (1.1.154) of society. In 3.2.41-86 Volumnia recommends that Coriolanus be hypocritical with the people. This Machiavellian speech betrays a cynical disregard for 'th'ignorant' (3.2.76) that flouts the social co-operation that it supposedly furthers. Coriolanus' indignant assumption that Brutus knows nothing of 'service' (3.3.83) is typical of the aristocratic rejection of social co-operation, though the tribune is obviously an industrious representative of his constituency. In fact, one may conclude that Brutus provides more useful service to the commoners than the proud warrior does to his own caste. Coriolanus represents the ideal of one sort of virtue: the warrior's single-minded quest for glory as the military hero of his people. This ideal is no longer desirable in a community that acknowledges the demands of all its people. The emergence of the new political morality causes Coriolanus' fall; put another way, the stresses of that emergence are enacted in his catastrophe and death.
These themes are reinforced by a fascinating and bizarre motif, the confusion of normal love, sexual and maternal, with the warrior's enthusiasm for war. Coriolanus embraces a fellow warrior on the battlefield and declares that his delight equals that of his wedding night (1.6.29-32), and later, Aufidius responds to him in similar fashion, in a passage (4.5.107-127) of extraordinary sensuality. The general Cominius announces that his patriotic feelings are 'more holy and profound, than mine own life, / My dear wife's estimate, her womb's increase / And treasure of my loins' (3.3.113-115). When we first see Volumnia, in 1.3, she compares the thrill of giving birth to Coriolanus with that of seeing him as a soldier, and goes on to identify the beauty of a mother's breast with the sight of a head wound. She later attributes Coriolanus' fierceness in combat to her nursing of him, in 3.2.129. In her final manipulation other son, she equates motherhood with the state in a violent image—'. . . assault thy country [and] tread / ... on thy mother's womb' (5.3.123-124)—that reinforces our sense that she is a horrifyingly abnormal mother. In fact, when Coriolanus attempts to resist Volumnia's influence, he supposes himself outside the procreative process, 'as if a man were author of himself (5.3.36). This recurring theme of emotional misplacement is a strong reminder that the moral world of Coriolanus and Volumnia is an unhealthy one, and that their story can only come to a tragic end.
The common people are not the cause of the city's near fall. Their objections to the rule of the aristocracy are given a fair presentation, especially in Act 1, where the First Citizen makes a sensible argument against the unfair distribution of corn that is the cause of the commoners' rebellion. Yet the cynicism of the tribunes, combined with the fickleness of the crowd, supports the aristocratic argument that the common people are not worthy of power. The critical element in Rome's catastrophe is Coriolanus' decision to defect, not simply his banishment, and he would not have defected had he not been driven from Rome by the ungrateful people who were manipulated by the tribunes. Moreover, this issue is reprised in the episode of the Volscian commoners in 5.6, where Coriolanus is again abandoned by a fickle mob.
Thus, the faults of both the aristocracy and the plebeians are exposed. The combination has produced a bewildering range of critical assessments, and Coriolanus has been declared to be the vehicle of fascist, conservative, moderate/pragmatic, liberal, and communist sentiments. While Shakespeare certainly displayed a conservative bias in favor of the established, hierarchical society, he was aware of, and wished to present, both sides of the political question. As a playwright, he was more interested in dramatic effect than in political science, and in this work he heightened the human foibles that lead to conflicts of the sort that he found in his sources.
The common people as a social and political class are more prominent in Coriolanus than in the history plays, which may reflect developments in England just before the play was written. (Also, the Roman plays, set in a remote time and place, offered Shakespeare a chance to explore more fully the fissures in society that government Censorship might well have disallowed in works dealing with relatively recent English history.) In Coriolanus, Shakespeare emphasizes a corn shortage as the cause of plebeian discontent, while in Plutarch it was a relatively minor factor. Scholars connect this alteration with the extensive corn riots—called the Midlands Insurrection—that shook much of rural England in 1607. These demonstrations, which extended to brief losses of governmental control of some areas, raised issues of poverty and powerlessness that had not been publicly considered in generations. As a landowner and agricultural investor, Shakespeare may be presumed to have taken a particular interest in the phenomenon. He may even have witnessed a riot—or at least spoken to witnesses—since disturbances erupted near Stratford at a time when he may have been there. Thus, the class warfare we see in Coriolanus may reflect events in England, which, though Shakespeare could not know it, was only a generation away from a cataclysmic civil war.
Thus, Coriolanus displays the political concerns of the history plays within the more grandiose framework of a tragedy. Shakespeare emphasized the stresses that result from these political concerns, rather than attempting to alleviate them, and Coriolanus is a very complex and dynamic play. Its rough, spontaneous poetic style is accompanied by structural devices intended to reinforce our sense of crowded conflict. Surprises in tone startle us at several important points: Volumnia's violent manner of speech in a pointedly domestic setting, in 1.3; the banished Coriolanus' unexpected appearance in Antium in 4.4; and the silence at the close of Volumnia's long, final speech. This is one of Shakespeare's most brilliant coups de theatre,
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