“’Coriolanus’, more even than ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Henry V,’ is Shakespeare’s political play.”


An Introduction

By Dennis Abrams


coriolanusShakespeare’s final tragedy, Coriolanus is said to be his purest expression of classical tragic form, whereby a hero meets a sudden (and brutal) reversal of fate.  It seems likely that while researching his earlier Roman tragedies Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra (relying heavily on Plutarch of course), Shakespeare’s eye was caught by the story of the glittering yet ultimately catastrophic career of one Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman general whose brilliance on the battlefield was matched only by his failings as a politician.  The story, like many of Shakespeare’s later plays, is a fable no matter how you look at it, but a fable with potentially different readings:  in one, Coriolanus is a tragic hero deserted by a fickle populace; in another, he is a villain whose arrogance threatened dictatorship. As usual, Shakespeare makes room for both of positions and more besides, using the politics of his own day to press home to audiences and readers still pressing questions about how democracy should operate.  (John F. Kennedy was, according to Gore Vidal, fascinated by the play.)  During its performance history, Coriolanus has been interpreted, on one hand, as propaganda for Hitler and his Third Reich, and on the other, as a communist manifesto enshrining the power of the masses. As the soldier Aufidus, watching Coriolanus’ star on the decline, notes, “our virtues/Lie in the’ interpretation of the time’ (4.7.49-50)


Uncertain, although the language (and subject matter) put it close to Antony and Cleopatra (along with Pericles and Timon of Athens) in 1608-1609, and there are allusions within the play to historical events such as the Midlands food riots and the “great frost” of 1607-08, which seems to support this.  Regardless, it is the last of the tragedies, and perhaps the first of Shakespeare’s plays intended for indoor performance at the Blackfriars theatre.


As with the other Roman plays, North’s 1595 edition of Plutarch’s Lives is the central source, and as was also the case with Antony and Cleopatra, some passages are lifted almost word for word.


The 1623 Folio is the sole authoritative text, probably set directly from a transcript of Shakespeare’s foul papers.


From Harold Bloom:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA‘The insolence of power is stronger than the plea of necessity. The tame submission to usurped authority or even the natural resistance to it, has nothing to excite or flatter the imagination: it is the assumption of a right to insult or oppress others that carries an imposing air of superiority with it. We had rather be the oppressor than the oppressed. The love of power in ourselves and the admiration of it in others are both natural to man: the one makes him a tyrant, the other a slave. Wrong dressed out in pride, pomp, and circumstance, has more attraction than abstract right. Coriolanus complains of the fickleness of the people: yet, the instant he cannot gratify his pride and obstinacy at their expense, he turns his arms against his country.’  — William Hazlitt

Coriolanus, more even than Julius Caesar and Henry V, is Shakespeare’s political play. That interests me less than its experimental nature, since it appears to be a deliberate departure from the modes of the five high tragedies: Hamlet (1601), Othello (1604), King Lear (1605), Macbeth (1606), and Antony and Cleopatra (1606). Shakespeare turned forty after having written the last of those three plays in just over a year. Coriolanus (1607) has as its protagonist a battering ram of a soldier, literally a one-man army, the greatest killing machine in all of Shakespeare. That Coriolanus is not totally unsympathetic (whatever one’s politics) is a Shakespearean triumph, since of all major figures in the plays, this one has the most limited consciousness.

Notoriously the victim of his dominating and devouring mother, Coriolanus is an overgrown child. Anywhere except upon a battlefield he is, at best, a disaster waiting to happen. Confronting the mob of Roman plebeians, he is guaranteed to insult them into an absolute fury. Shakespeare, as Anne Barton brilliantly demonstrates, is careful to distinguish the Roman commoners of Coriolanus with the crowds in Julius Caesar or the followers of Jack Cade in Henry VI. Barton says of the plebeians in Coriolanus: ‘They care about motivation, their own and that of their oppressors, and they are by no means imperceptive.’ They are not a rabblement, and Shakespeare does not take sides against them. Caius Martius (to give Coriolanus his actual name) would be better suited as a general of the Volscians, Rome’s war-like enemies, then he is as a Roman leader, an irony that Shakespeare enforces throughout. From Caius Martius’s perspective, the common people of Rome deserve neither bread nor circuses. In their view, he is a menace to their survival. Shakespeare, as Hazlitt would not admit, allows some justice to the people’s side of this clash. They are fearful and irascible, but Caius Martius is dangerously provocative, the common people of Rome deserve neither bread nor circuses. In their view, he is a menace to their survival. They are fearful and irascible, but Caius Martius is dangerously provocative, and they are more right than not to banish him. His worship of ‘honor’ grants no value whatsoever to their lives. Still, he is more his own enemy than he is theirs, and his tragedy is not the consequence of their fear and anger, but of his own nature and nurture.

As noted before, in fourteen consecutive months, Shakespeare had created Lear and the Fool, Edgar and Edmund, Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Compared with that eightfold, in personality or in character Caius Martius scarcely exists. Had Shakespeare wearied of the labor of reinventing the human, at least in the tragic mode? There is little inwardness in Caius Martius, and what may be there is accessible neither to us or to anyone in the play, including Caius Martius himself. What, then, was Shakespeare attempting to do for himself, as a dramatist, by composing Coriolanus? Norman Rabkin, in a lucid interpretation of the play, sees Martius as essentially congruous with prior tragic protagonists:

‘In accepting the name Coriolanus, Martius accepts public recognition for what he has done, and necessarily compromises himself. Like Lear, Macbeth, Brutus, and Hamlet, Coriolanus makes us realize here how much the hero is created by what he has accomplished, defined by the events through which he has passed.’

But are Lear and Macbeth, Brutus and Hamlet, so created and defined? There is a substance in them that prevails; in contrast, Coriolanus is quite empty. Lear’s passion, Macbeth’s imagination, Brutus’s nobility, Hamlet’s infinite consciousness precede accomplishments and outlast events. We cannot envision Coriolanus in any contexts or circumstances other than his own, and yet he cannot survive his context or his circumstance. That precisely is his tragedy, and that, rather than politics, is Shakespeare’s principal concern in this play. To invoke again Chesterton’s phrase that always haunts me, Shakespeare’s most vital protagonists are ‘great spirits in chains.’

Coriolanus is in chains, because of his nature and his situation, yet he is anything but a great spirit. Raised by his mother to be an infant Mars, he always remains just that, despite his ceaseless drive toward autonomy. When the crowd banishes him, he defies them in his most memorable speech:

You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate

As reek o’th’rotten fens, whose loves I prize

As the dead carcasses of unburied men

That do corrupt my air: I banish you!

And here remain with your uncertainty!

Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!

Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,

Fan you into despair! Have the power still

To banish your defenders, till at length

Your ignorance – which finds not till it feels,

Making but reservation of yourselves,

Still your own foes – deliver you as most

Abated captives to some nation

That won you without blows! Despising

For you the city, thus I turn my back.

There is a world elsewhere!


Out of context, this is magnificent; within the play, it may be more pathetic than heroic. Coriolanus should indeed have gone into exile; he might then have matured in ‘a world elsewhere.’ Instead, as Hazlitt noted, with grim satisfaction, Coriolanus goes to the Volscians, and leads them against Rome, hardly an honorable enterprise, unless ‘honor’ means only the battle prowess of the individual, whatever his cause. Anne Barton almost uniquely maintains that Coriolanus does find a home among the Volscians, because they are more archaic than the Romans and universally worship war. I find this puzzling, since the play’s pragmatic point is that Coriolanus ends homeless: he cannot bear to return to Rome, and he cannot stay in the service of the Volscians. Barton’s contention is that Coriolanus has learned the truth that the commons have rights also, but dies before he can ‘rebuild his life.’ Hazlitt seems to me closer to the play’s realities when he observes that Coriolanus lives and dies in ‘the insolence of power.’ The tragedy of Coriolanus is that there is absolutely no place for him in the world of the commonal and the communal, whether among Volscians or Romans. But why Shakespeare chose to write so curious a tragedy is still the question I wish to address.”


But if Bloom is not particularly interested in the play’s political aspects, for Jan Kott, it’s all political:

coriolanus_full_final-1“Among all great Shakespearean plays, Coriolanus has been one of the last frequently performed. The play has had few enthusiasts and admirers, although among their numbers were such personalities as Coleridge, Swinburne, Brecht and Leon Schiller. But most people were discouraged, revolted or – at best – unmoved by it. The play was not a success in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and in the three centuries that followed; nor is it our times. It has been called a bleak tragedy, or a monodrama. In Coriolanus there is no enchanting poetry, no music of the spheres; there are no great lovers, or superb clowns; no raging elements, or monsters conceived in imagination but more real than actual experience itself. There is only an historical chronicle, dry as a bone, though violently dramatized. There is also a monumentalized hero, who can rouse all sorts of emotions, but never sympathy.

However, Coriolanus is not really a monodrama. In fact, the tragedy has two protagonists, although one them has many heads and many names. I would not point him out at once, but rather begin with the assertion that Coriolanus is never alone. At least, in the physical or dramatic sense. In twenty-five scenes of the play, out of twenty-nine, crowds are present. Twelve scenes take place in the streets of Rome, in the Forum, and on the Capitol; two scenes at Corioli, ten on fields of battle and in military camps. The crowd is nameless rather than having many names. Characters are called: First Citizen, Second Citizen, Third Citizen; First Senator, Second Senator; First Sentinel, Second Sentinel; First Officer, Second Officer; First Conspirator, Second Conspirator. Characters of military and political leaders are only very broadly outlined. They emerge for a moment from the crowd and are lost in it again. There are also Coriolanus’ mother, wife and son. But even they do not have a life of their own and simply serve as background to the situations in which the tragedy will be developed.

No doubt the dryness of Coriolanus must have had a discouraging effect on readers and audiences. The play is, indeed, harsh and austere. But the austerity of dramatic matter does not sufficiently explain the dislike almost universally felt for so long for one of Shakespeare’s most profound works. In my view, the reasons for this dislike must be looked for elsewhere. It resulted from the ambiguity of Coriolanus – political, moral, and, in the last resort, philosophical. It was the sort of ambiguity difficult to swallow.

Coriolanus, as written by Shakespeare, could not wholly satisfy either aristocrats, or republicans; friends of the people, or their enemies. The play annoyed those who believed in the masses, and those who despised them; those who recognized the purpose and didactics of history, and those who laughed at it; those who saw mankind as a mound of termites, and those who saw only lone individual termites painfully experiencing the tragedy of existence. Coriolanus did not fit in with any historical or philosophical conception current in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries.

Coriolanus could not please either classicists or romanticists. To the former it seemed incoherent, vulgar and brutal; to the latter it was too bitter, flat and dry. The case of Troilus and Cressida repeated itself here: that was another Shakespearean play suffering from misapprehension; a play, whose philosophical essence, in spite of all the apparent differences, is very much akin to Coriolanus. In both plays ideas are violently and ironically contrasted with practice; this does not, however, result in recognizing praxis as the final and only standard of value.

Coriolanus is only seemingly a monodrama, or a tragedy on an ancient theme. No doubt the play could be considered in terms of polis or urbs – a city state-protagonist, fate. The hero breaks moral law, the city is threatened with destruction. The hero must choose between his life and the city. He chooses death. The city has been saved and erects a temple to Fortune. Rome is the city, Coriolanus the hero. But fate, as visualized by Shakespeare, although it pursues, corners and breaks the hero in the mode of Greek furies, has a modern aspect. Fate is represented here by class struggle. But it is a Rome of plebeians and patricians.

The action of Coriolanus takes place after the expulsion of kings in the half-legendary times of the early Roman Republic. The story is briefly described by Livy, and Plutarch gives a detailed account of it in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. The English version by Sir Thomas North was published in 1579. It was from this translation that Shakespeare took the plot, characters and outline of events.

Rome has been engaged in warfare with neighboring peoples. In  Rome itself a struggle of the poor against the rich is going on. Plutarch has this to say about it:

‘The Senate did favour the rich against the people, who did complain of the sore oppression of usurers, of whom they borrowed money. For those that had little, were yet spoiled of that little they had by their creditors, for lack of ability to pay the usury: who offered their goods to be sold to them would give most. And such as had nothing left, their bodies were laid hold on, and they were made their bondsmen…The Senate would give no care to them, but made as though they had forgotten their former promise, and suffered them to be made slaves and bondmen to their creditors, and besides, to be turned out all that ever they had: they fell then even to flat rebellion and mutiny, and to stir up dangerous tumults within the city.’

Wars had made the patricians rich. They have gained land and slaves. But they cannot carry on war without the plebeians. Plebeians have gained the right to elect their tribunes and to participate in government. The bravest of the Romans is Caius Martius of an old patrician family. Having captured the town of Corioli from the mountainous people of the Volscians he has been given the name Coriolanus. He has rendered Rome meritorious services. He is a great general, and on his body there are twenty-seven scars from wounds inflicted by the enemy. The patricians nominate Coriolanus for the office of Consul. The nomination has to be approved by the people. Coriolanus is an aristocrat, hates the people and is hated by them. There is famine in Rome. Coriolanus objects to the distribution of grain, unless the plebeians renounce their right to elect tribunes. The angry people refuse to approve Coriolanus’ appointment to the consulate. The tribunes accuse him of plotting against the republic. Coriolanus has to stand trial. The people force the patricians to banish Coriolanus from Rome forever. Coriolanus now dreams of revenge. He goes to the Volscians and proposes to his recent enemies an expedition against Rome. He assumes command of it himself.

This is the first chapter of the Roman legend of Coriolanus. There is a republican moral in it. A leader who despises the people betrays the country and goes over to the enemy. An ambitious general aiming at dictatorial power is extremely dangerous for the republic. The people have been right to exile Coriolanus. But now the second chapter begins. Coriolanus, at the head of the Volscian army, approaches the gates of Rome. The city has no military leader, is defenseless and doomed to destruction. Plebeians and patricians accuse each other of having driven out Coriolanus. They try to appease him, beg for mercy. All in vain. The Romans then send Coriolanus’ wife and mother as envoys. Coriolanus agrees to conclude peace, and retreats with the enemy army from the gates of Rome.

There are two endings to the story. The first, quoted by Livy, is sentimental and idyllic. Grateful Romans erect a temple in honor of Coriolanus’ wife and mother, while he himself returns to the Volscians and dies peacefully after a long life. The other ending is far more dramatic. Coriolanus knows that by retreating from Rome he has condemned himself to death. Breaking his contract with the Volscians he has betrayed for the second time. And he is murdered by them as a traitor.

The latter ending is quoted by Plutarch. But the author of Lives does not seem to be at all aware of the fact that Coriolanus’ history contains two morals, contradictory to each other. The moral drawn from the second chapter is very bitter, indeed. The city that exiles its leader becomes defenseless. The people can only hate and bit, but are unable to defend their city. The masses are an element as blind and destructive as fire or flood. Among this multi-headed and just nameless crowd, only Coriolanus was a great man. The country showed itself ungrateful to him. It could not contain him. He was a born ruler. History is cruel and abounds in traps. The great ones fall, the little ones remain.

Plutarch did not see either the tragedy of Coriolanus, or the tragedy inherent in history. In his Lives he set the Greek ethical ideal of harmonious personality against the Roman virtus. The moral drawn from Coriolanus’ biography, as narrated by him, was psychological and empirical:

‘A rare and excellent wit untaught, doth bring forth many good and evil things together, as a fat soil that lieth unmanured bringeth forth herbs and weeds…he was so choleric and impatient, that he would yield to no living creature: which made him churlish, uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man’s conversation…his behavior was so unpleasant to them by reason of a certain insolent and stern manner he had, which because it was too lordly, was disliked. And to say truly, the greatest benefit that learning bringeth unto men, is this: that it teacheth men that be rude and rough of nature, by compass and rule of reason, to be civil and courteous, and to like better, the mean state than the higher.’

So much for good Plutarch. Coriolanus’ history is virulent, indeed. But it was Shakespeare who first saw the virulence in it. He must have been particularly struck by it, since he made it the main theme of the drama. In the Histories and Tragedies – the latter being more condensed than the former – Shakespeare shows feudal history, its bare and unalterable mechanism, in an absolute form. History is being performed on the apex of social hierarchy. It is personal, uses names, though the names are few. Only occasionally frightened townsmen appear. They learn about the sovereign’s death, a war, or a coup d’etat. They view every change of king as an elemental disaster. History takes place above them, but it is they who have to pay for it.

Feudal history could easily find its model and reflection in the story of Roman emperors. Comparisons between Caesar and Brutus were a frequent theme of Renaissance moralizing; stories of tyrants were a favorite plot of pre-Shakespearean and Elizabethan tragedy. Tacitus and Suetonius were quoted more frequently than other Roman authors. Busts of the twelve Caesars decorated the palaces of all Christian kings. Republican Rome was far more remote and less familiar to the Renaissance. The only comparable contemporary institution was the Venetian Republic, but even it was governed by the Doge and aristocracy. People of the Renaissance were fascinated by the problem of absolute power; the mechanism by means of which a good prince is transformed into a tyrant. To them it was an everyday affair. It was one of the great Shakespearean themes. But not the only one.

Shakespeare was a far greater innovator in Julius Caesar and in Coriolanus than in Antony and Cleopatra. In the first two plays he introduced into tragedy republican Rome. No doubt he looked at it through the experiences of late Renaissance and searched for the confirmation of his bitter, most pessimistic and cruel philosophy of history. But the matter he used was different somehow and could not be contained in the unchanging circle where the beginning and end of every reign was marked by sufferings of the fallen monarch. The metaphor of the grand staircase, climbed by every ruler in turn, with the scaffold at the first and the last step, could not be applied to this view of history any more.

Coriolanus still has a mark of grim greatness and is crushed by history. But the history that breaks Coriolanus is not royal history any more. It is the history of a city divided into plebeians and patricians. It is the history of class struggle. History in the royal chronicles, and in Macbeth, was a Grand Mechanism, which had something demonic in it. History in Coriolanus has ceased to be demonic. It is only ironic and tragic. This is another reason why Coriolanus is a modern play.”


And finally, from Garber:

coriolanus_poster“The play is set in the early years of Rome, and a modern audience will experience The Tragedy of Coriolanus with the triple perspective it has learned to except from Shakespeare’s account of history: the play’s events and characters intersect with (1) the context of Roman history, and of the play’s source in Plutarch’s Lives, the time of the dramatic action: (2) the events and historical figures of Shakespeare’s day, the time of the play’s composition; and (3) the present – always shifting – historical moment, the time of the current staging or reading. The interplay among these various levels can produce some of the most effective, and most poignant, moments in a production. Like all Shakespearean plays, Coriolanus tells several different kinds of stories at once, depending upon which set of characters and issues is placed in the foreground. In this play the various levels are exceptionally clear, and exceptionally evenhanded, which is one reason why the play has been so successfully staged and appropriated across the political spectrum.

One reading might concentrate on Coriolanus, or Caius Martius, himself, the lone aristocrat, the heroic individual; another might take up the narrative of the common people, the hungry, disempowered ‘voices’; a third might emphasize the roles of the women in the play, or the family group constellated by the three ‘V’s’ (the mother Volumnia, the wife Virgilia, the friend Valeria) and the boy Young Martius, Coriolanus’ son. If, for example, we emphasize the character of Coriolanus, we might produce a reading about the nobility of tragedy, about the Aristotelian pattern of the rise and fall of a great men, and, coincidentally but not accidentally, about the upholding of Roman ideals, and the self-made man who is author of himself and of his tragedy. T.S. Eliot regarded Coriolanus as Shakespeare’s ‘most assured’ dramatic success, and a chancellor of England praised the hero’s ‘Tory virtues.’ A focus on the common people (plebeians, citizens), on the other hand, would draw attention to issues of class and politics, and to the material need for corn (grain) and for power. Although the general Cominius is the one who says ‘I shall lack voice,’ it is actually the people who do so, despite the fact that they are referred to metonymically as ‘voices’ throughout. Bertolt Brecht admired Coriolanus from a political perspective far removed from that of T.S. Eliot (or Edmund Burke, who also cited Shakespeare’s hero with approval). Brecht’s adaptation stressed the historical and economic location of the play, situated between feudalism and nascent capitalism. Similarly, a close examination of the place of women in the play, or a production that placed the issue at its center, would raise questions not only of social roles and marginalization but also of psychology and psychoanalysis. Volumnia has refused to ever treat her son like a child, sending him out to war at an early age, and she emphasizes her own values of manhood; he reacts by seeking her approval, overestimating her power, and both anxiously courting her favor and curtly rejecting it. The extended childhood in which this grown man finds himself will culminate in his exposure as a ‘boy’ and his subsequent downfall.

Thus Aristotelian tragic readings, class and materialist analyses, and psychoanalytic interpretations – to give just a few examples out of a host of possibilities – can readily coexist, one or the other taking precedence as the reader’s, actor’s, director’s or teacher’s focus changes. None is intrinsically ‘wrong’ or ‘right’ (though in practice some are more convincing than others), and the play-text does not privilege one point of view over another, though any single interpretation may do so. What has been especially striking about productions and citations of this play is the way it has been appropriated, consistently over the years, as a commentary on a current political situation, and on issues of morality, ethics, social responsibility and individual virtue in politics.”


THIS is going to be interesting…

Our next reading:  Act One of Coriolanus

My next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning


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1 Response to “’Coriolanus’, more even than ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Henry V,’ is Shakespeare’s political play.”

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