“Coriolanus did not love the people. But this does not mean that Coriolanus should be condemned. In that sentence there is in a nutshell the bitter drama of Renaissance humanism; of any humanism, in fact.”


Act Five, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Jan Kott:

coriolanus final art“But Shakespeare’s world is crowded, and there are no empty spaces in it. There are just patricians, plebeians, and enemies of Rome. Coriolanus can only choose his place in the world that has been set on fire. He does not, and cannot, go away into nowhere, as romantic heroes do. Situations are historically determined, are above and independent of him. Coriolanus will go to the Volscians. History has proved the plebeians right: the enemy of the people has become the enemy of Rome. In the first three acts of Coriolanus a bare drama of class attitudes has been played out. One could call it also a drama of historical inevitability. There is no discrepancy in it between social situation and action, or psychology. Coriolanus could be nameless [MY NOTE:  Isn’t he really ‘nameless’ by Act Four anyway?], just as the First, Second, and Third Citizens are nameless. He is just an ambitious general, who hates the people and went over to the enemy camp when he was unable to achieve dictatorial power. It is only from the moment of Coriolanus’s treason that the world ceases to be clear-cut and arranged according to one principle. History is not a teacher of lay morality any more. The world’s contradictions become the next theme of the tragedy. This new theme is no less proper to Shakespeare than the former. Even the style has been changed: it is grotesque, pathetic, and ironical in turn. Coriolanus mocks himself and the world, as Hamlet has done when talking to Polonius. He even tells his dreams. ‘The time is out of joint,’ just as it has been in the kingdom of Denmark,

Third Serving Man:

Where dwell’st thou?


Under the canopy.

Third Serving Man:

Under the canopy?



Third Serving Man:

Where’s that?


I’ th’ city of kites and crows.

Third Serving Man

I’ th’ city of kites and crows! – What an ass it is!

— Then thou dwell’st with daws too?


No, I serve not thy master.


A traitor’s role does not fit Coriolanus. He is not determined by his situation, or by his social existence. His inner self does not agree to it. History has declared the plebeians right, but Shakespeare does not admit that history has been right, or at any rate ultimately right. History has proved stronger than Coriolanus; it has caught him and driven him into a blind alley; has made a double traitor of him. History has made fun of Coriolanus, but has not succeeded in breaking him. In Acts IV and V Coriolanus outgrows both Romans and Volscians, plebeians and patricians. In his defeat there is victory; at least victory in the sense that Conrad’s heroes experienced it.

‘His nature is too noble for the world,’ says Menenius about Coriolanus. While the people’s tribune, Brutus, throws the following words in Coriolanus’s face:

    You speak o’ th’ people

As if you were a god to punish, not

A man of their infirmity.


These two views are only superficially contradictory to each other. Coriolanus despises the world because the world is mean. He wants to destroy the world, including Rome, because the world and Rome do not deserve to exist:

I offered to awaken his regard

For ‘s private friends. His answer to me was,

He could not stay to pick them in a pile

Of noisome musty chaff. He said ‘twas folly,

For one poor grain or two, to leave unburnt

And still to nose th’ offence.


Coriolanus opposes the world with his own absurd system of values. His defeat originated the moment he agreed, in spite of himself, to go to the Forum, show his scars and ask for votes. This was demanded of him not only by his mother, by Menenius Agrippa and the patricians, but also by the people and their tribunes. Shakespeare’s dramatic irony shows itself in the fact that both parties – even though in conflict and hating each other – demanded from Coriolanus a gesture of compromise. In the sudden reversal of values, brought about in the ending of the tragedy, Coriolanus is the only one who rejects compromise and gestures, or at least tries to reject them:

      Like a dull actor now,

I have forgot my part…


The world has again proved stronger than Coriolanus. Brutus was right: Coriolanus is only a man, full of weaknesses, like all other men. Coriolanus wants to destroy the world, because the world contradicts the laws of nature. But in the name of the same law of nature Coriolanus has been condemned by his mother, wife, and son. He has fallen into a trap set for him by the ruthless and all too real world. He falls victim to his own mythology, to a mad dialectic of the law of nature

….But out, affection!

All bond and privilege of nature, break!

Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.


    I melt, and am not

Of stronger earth than others. My mother bows,

As if Olympus to a molehill should

In supplication nod; and my young boy

Hath an aspect of intercession which

Great Nature cries ‘Deny not.’


Coriolanus has realized that he has been cheated in the distribution of parts. He wanted to play the role of an avenging deity, while in the scenario of history it was only the role of a traitor. All that is left him is self-destruction. He will not spare Rome to confirm his own nobility, to get out of the part imposed on him. But in saving Rome he has to commit another treason. As a perjurer he will be killed by the Volscians. Coriolanus’s death is at the same time tragic and ironic. It is tragic in the world created by Coriolanus; tragic according to his mad and absolute system of values. It is ironic in the real world. Coriolanus’s bravery and nobility will be praised by the man who has killed him, the Volscian leader, Aufidius. He will pay the final tribute to Coriolanus, just as Augustus Caesar will to Antony, or Fortinbras to Hamlet. There is joy in Rome, and peace is celebrated. For the first time in this gram drama, full of clattering swords and howling crowds, there is music, and the sun rises. Coriolanus ends in the same was as Durrenmatt’s Visit. Anton Schill has been murdered, the people of Gullen enjoy their new affluence, and joyously celebrate the feast of justice.

The trumpets, sackbuts, psalteries, and fifes,

Tabors and cymbals and the shouting Romans

Make the sun dance. Hark you!


Here likes the thorn in the flesh of this drama which for a long time has been the reason for its unpopularity. The image of the world is flawed and lacks cohesion. Contradictions have not been solved, and there is no common system of values for the polis and for the individual. ‘He loves your people; but tie him not to be their bedfellow,’ says Menenius Agrippa to Brutus referring to Coriolanus. This is not true. Coriolanus did not love the people. But this does not mean that Coriolanus should be condemned. In that sentence there is in a nutshell the bitter drama of Renaissance humanism; of any humanism, in fact.”


Let’s move on to something fun – Coriolanus’s death.  The 1959 production at Stratford, directed by Peter Hall and starring Laurence Olivier had one of the most famous and talked about takes on this in recent memory.  From Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare and Modern Culture:

“There are numerous ways to set a production in relation to a political moment, and not all of them are consonant with Brecht’s idea of an epic theater. As one successive alternative, we might briefly consider the 1959 Stratford production of Coriolanus directed by Peter Hall and starring Laurence Oliver in the title role. (Hall was twenty-eight years old at the time, Olivier was over fifty. Olivier’s Caius Martius in the early scenes, boasting of his victories to his mother, then exhibiting modesty about them to the Senate, was seen as the performance of a privileged English schoolboy behaving according to a familiar code: ‘Nobody,’ wrote Laurence Kitchin, ‘lacking knowledge of English public school mores, could have hit exactly this note of sulky pride, a result of the man of action’s narcissism held back by the necessity to belittle success in the presence of social equals. So Olivier as Coriolanus was at first a reticent young British public-school type, though gifted with a powerful tone of command – and disdain. By the close, however, in an athletic feat (and a visual tableau) that made the production and the performance legendary, he leaped headfirst from a twelve-foot platform without the support of wires, his ankles caught at the last minute by two (doubtless terrified) actor soldiers, and dangled upside-down, the stage picture a deliberate echo of the dead body of Mussolini. After the Fascist dictator was captured and shot by Italian Communist partisans, Mussolini’s body was taken to Milan and hung, upside down from a meathook, as a lesson and a sign of ridicule.

coriolanus death olivierThis was in April 1945, almost fifteen years before the Hall

Mussolini is in the middle

Mussolini is in the middle

production – but the memory of the image endured. Shakespeare’s text indicates that ‘the Conspirators draw, and kill Martius,’ after the people have cried ‘Tear him to pieces!…He killed my son! My daughter!…He killed my father!’ (5.6.121-23). But the Hall/Olivier image made Martius active rather than passive – and, at the same time, presented a visual quotation that associated him, for a brief but indelible moment, with Italian Fascism. (Mussolini, it might be noted, was killed – and then displayed – side by side with his mistress; Olivier/Martius, needless to say, is, as he declares proudly, and with no sign of his earlier reticence, ‘alone’ (5.6.117)). As Cynthia Marshall nicely observed, ‘when Olivier played Coriolanus, a performer sometimes accused of overacting took on the character of a man who would be nothing but ‘the thing I am.’”


From Bradley:

“…His mother and friends urge him to deceive the people with false promises. But neither false promises nor apologies are needed, only a little humanity and some acknowledgment that the people are part of the state. He is capable of neither, and so the conflict is hopeless. But is so not because the people, or even the tribunes are what they are, but because he is what we call an impossible person.

Coriolanus performed in Japanese by Chiten for the Globe to Globe FestivalThe result is that all the force and nobility of Rome’s greatest man have to be thrown away and wasted. That is tragic, and it is doubly so because it is not only his faults that make him impossible. There is bound up with them a nobleness of nature in which he surpasses every one around him.

We see this if we consider, what is not always clear to the reader, his political position. It is not shared by any of the other patricians who appear in the drama. Critics have called him a Tory or an ultra-Tory. The tribune who calls him a ‘traitorous innovator’ is quite as near the mark. The people have been granted tribunes. The tribunate is a part of the constitution, and it is accepted, with whatever reluctance, by the other patricians. But Coriolanus would abolish it, and that not by law but by the sword. Nor would he be content with that. The right of the people to control the election of the consul is now new thing; it is an old traditional right; but it too might well be taken away. The only constitution tolerable in his eyes is one where the patricians are the state, and the people a mere instrument to feed it and fight for it. It is this conviction that makes it so dangerous to appoint him consul, and also makes it impossible for him to give way. Even if he could ask pardon for his abuse of the people, he could not honestly promise to acknowledge their political rights.

Now the nobleness of his nature is at work here. He is not tyrannical; the charge brought against him of aiming at tyranny is silly. He is an aristocrat. And Shakespeare has put decisively aside the statement of Plutarch that he was ‘churlish, uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man’s conversation.’ Shakespeare’s hero, though he feels his superiority to his fellow-patricians, always treats them as equals.’ He is never rude or over-bearing. He speaks to them with the simple directness or the bluff familiarity of a comrade. He does not resent their advice, criticism, or reproof. He shows no trace of envy or jealousy, or even of satisfaction at having surpassed them. The suggestion of the tribunes that he is willing to serve under Cominius because failure in war will be credited to Cominius, and success in war to himself, shows only the littleness of their own minds. The patricians are his fellows in a community of virtue – of a courage, fidelity, and honor, which cannot fail them because they are ‘true-bred,’ though the bright ideal of such virtue become perfect still urges them on. But the plebeians, in his eyes, are destitute of this virtue, and therefore have no place in this community. All they care for is food in peace, looting in war, flattery from their demagogues; and they will not even clean their teeth. To ask anything of them is to insult not merely himself but the virtues that he worships. To give them a real share in citizenship is treason to Rome; for Rome means these virtues. They are not Romans, they are the rats of Rome.

He is very unjust to them, and his ideal, though high, is also narrow. But he is magnificently true to it, and even when he repels us we feel this and glory in him. He is never more true to it than when he tries to be false; and this is the scene where his superiority and nobleness is most apparent. He, who said of his enemy, ‘I hate him worse than a promise-breaker,’ is urged to save himself and his friends by promises that he means to make. To his mother’s argument that he ought to no more mind deceiving the people than outwitting an enemy in war, he cannot give the obvious answer, for he does not really count the people his fellow-countrymen. But the proposal that he should descend to lying or flattering astounds him. He feels that if he does so he will never be himself again, that his mind will have taken on an inherent baseness and no more simulated one. And he is sure, as we are, that he simply cannot do what is required of him. When at least he consents to try, it is solely because his mother bids him and he cannot resist her chiding. Often he reminds us of a huge boy; and here he acts like a boy whose sense of honor is finer than his mother’s, but who is too simple and too noble to frame the thought.

Unfortunately he is altogether too simple and too ignorant of himself. Though he is the proudest man in Shakespeare he seems to be unaware of his pride, and is hurt when his mother mentions it.  It does not prevent him from being genuinely modest, for he never dreams that he has attained the ideals he worships; yet the sense of his own greatness is twisted round every strand of this worship. In almost all his words and deeds we are conscious of this worship. I take a single illustration. He cannot endure to be praised. Even his mother, who has a charter to extol her blood, grieves him when she praises him. As for others,

I had rather have one scratch my head i’ the sun

When the alarum were struck, than idly sit

To hear my nothings monster’d.

His answer to the roar of the army hailing him ‘Coriolanus’ is, ‘I will go wash.’ His wounds are ‘scratches with briars.’ In Plutarch he shows them to the people without demur; in Shakespeare he would rather lose the consulship. There is a greatness in all this that makes us exult. But who can assign the proportions of the elements that compose this impatience of praise: the feeling (which we are surprised to hear him express) that he, like hundreds more, has simply done what he could; the sense that it is nothing to what might be done, the want of human sympathy (for has not Shelly truly said that fame is love disguised?)., the pride which makes him feel that he needs no recognition, that after all he himself could do ten times as much, and that to praise his achievement implies a limit to his power. If anyone could solve this problem, Coriolanus certainly could not. To adapt a phrase in the play, h e has no more introspection in him than a tiger. So he thinks that his loathing of the people is all disgust at worthlessness, and his resentment in exile all a just indignation. So too he fancies that he can stand

As if a man were author himself

And knew no other kind,

While in fact public honor and home affections are the breath of his nostrils, and there is not a drop of stoic blood in his veins.

What follows on his exile depends on this self-ignorance. When he bids farewell to his mother and wife and friends he is still excited and exalted by conflict. He comforts them; he will take no companion; he will be loved when he is lacked, or at least he will be feared; while he remains alive, they shall always hear from him, and never aught but what is like him formerly. But the days go by, and no one, not even his mother, hears a word. When we see him next, he is entering Antium to offer his services against his country. If they are accepted, he knows what he will do: he will burn Rome.

As I have already remarked, Shakespeare does not exhibit to us the change of mind which issues in this frightful purpose, but from what we see and hear later we can tell how he imagined it; and the key lies in the idea of burning Rome. As time passes, and no suggestion of recall reaches Coriolanus, and he learns what it is to be a solitary homeless exile, his heart hardens, his pride swells to a mountainous bulk, and the wound in it becomes a fire. The fellow-patricians from whom he parted lovingly now appear to him ingrates and dastards, scarcely better than the loathsome mob. Somehow, he knows not how, even his mother and wife have deserted him. He has become nothing to Rome, and Rome shall hear nothing from him. Here in solitude he can find no relief in a storm of words; but gradually the blind intolerable chaos of resentment conceives and gives birth to a vision, not merely of battle and indiscriminate slaughter, but of the whole city one tower of flame. To see that with his bodily eyes would satisfy his soul, and the way to the sight is through the Volscians. If he is killed the moment they recognize him, he cares little – better a dead nothing than the living nothing Rome thinks him. But if he lives, she shall know what he is. He bears himself among the Volscians with something that resembles self-control; but what controls him is the vision that never leaves him and never changes, and his eye is red with its glare when he sits in his state before the doomed city.

This is Shakespeare’s idea, not Plutarch’s. In Plutarch there is not a syllable about the burning of Rome. Coriolanus (to simplify a complicated story) intends to humiliate his country by forcing on it disgraceful terms of peace. And this, apart from its moral quality, is a reasonable design. The Romans, rather than yield to fear, decline to treat unless peace is first restored, and therefore it will be necessary to assault the city. In the play we find a single vague allusion to some unnamed conditions which, Coriolanus knows, cannot now be accepted; but everywhere, among both Romans and Volscians, we hear of the burning of Rome, and in the city there is no hope of successful resistance. What Shakespeare wanted was a simpler and more appalling situation than we found in Plutarch, and a hero enslaved by a passion and driven blindly forward. How blindly, we may judge if we asks the questions: what will happen to the hero if he disappoints the expectation he has raised among the Volscians, when their leader is preparing to accuse him even if he fulfills it: and, if the hero executes his purpose, what will happen to his mother, wife, and child: and how can it be executed by a man whom we know in his home as the most human of men, a tender husband still the lover of his wife, and a son who regards his mother not merely with devoted affection but with something like religious awe. Very likely the audience in the theatre was not expected to ask these questions, but it was expected to see in the hero a man totally ignorant of himself, and stumbling to the destruction either of his life or of his soul.”

And with that…we are done with Coriolanus.  What did you think?  Did it meet expectations? Go beyond what you expected?  If you’ve never read it before, how did you like it?  If you have, how has your reading of the play changed?  Please…share your ideas and questions with the group!


My next posts: Thursday evening/Friday morning, Sonnet #142; Sunday evening/Monday morning, my introduction to our next play, the remarkable Cymbeline.


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4 Responses to “Coriolanus did not love the people. But this does not mean that Coriolanus should be condemned. In that sentence there is in a nutshell the bitter drama of Renaissance humanism; of any humanism, in fact.”

  1. peajayar says:

    In reading the play Coriolanus comes across to me as a more complex character than that portrayed by Ralph Fiennes. Not a play to “like” as much as a play to admire.

    • Mahood says:

      I’m in two minds about Coriolanus…is he more complex than has historically been given credit for, or is he just a fearless (and stupid?) warrior – unable to read & understand the crowd and praised by his devotedly cruel (and politically shrewd) mother?

      For some reason, Machiavelli was in my mind as I read this play…and yet (as far as I could see), there was no direct reference to him…I’m trying to remember where the author of ‘The Prince’ would have been referenced by Shakespeare…Richard III (one of his earlier plays) is, on the face of it, far more ‘Machiavellian’ than Coriolanus (his ‘maturer ‘play)…was Shakespeare making a point when this character (as defined by Shakespeare) was not as ‘Shakespearean’ as we might expect of late Shakespeare?

      • Mahood: Good questions. I’ll give you a longer lesson tomorrow, but I suspect one of the reasons why you’re of two minds about Coriolanus (as I suspect most people who read and/or see the play are) is that we’re not sure exactly how we feel about him, or, maybe more to the point, we’re not sure how we ARE supposed to feel about him. Is he a tragic hero? An ass? Both? One of the things that makes this play so difficult (and experimental and even daring) is that there are no clear answers. I’ll leave you with that, but more tomorrow.

        And as for Machiavelli, it seems to me that both Iago and Edmund are close to the epitome of Machiavellian…

      • Mahood (and everybody else): I think this from Bradley helps to explain our mixed emotional (and intellectual) response to “Coriolanus”:

        “The question why this should be so will at once tell us something about the drama. We cannot say that it shows any decline in Shakespeare’s powers, though in parts it may show slackness in their use. It has defects, some of which are due to the historical material; but all the tragedies have defects, and the material of Antony and Cleopatra was even more troublesome. There is no love-story, but there is none in Macbeth, and next to none in King Lear. Thanks in part to the badness of the Folio text {MY NOTE: I disagree with him, it’s not the badness of the text], the reader is impeded by language and irritated by the mangling of Shakespeare’s metre, yet these annoyances would not diminish the effect of Othello. it may seem a more serious obstacle that the hero’s faults are repellent and chill our sympathy; but Macbeth, to say nothing of his murders, is a much less noble being than Coriolanus. All this doubtless goes for something; but there must be some further reason why this drama stands apart from the four great tragedies and Antony and Cleopatra. And one main reasons seems to be this. Shakespeare could construe the story he found only by conceiving the hero’s character in a certain way, and he had to set the whole drama in tune with the conception. IN this he was, no doubt, perfectly right; but he closed the door on certain effects, in the absence of which his whole power in tragedy could not be displayed. He had to be content with something less, or rather with something else, and so have we.

        Most of the the great tragedies leave a certain imaginative impression of the highest value, which I describe in terms intended merely to recall it. What we witness is not the passion and doom or mere individuals. The forces that meet in the tragedy stretch far beyond the little group of figures and the tiny tract of space and time in which they appear. The darkness that covers the scene, and the light that strikes across it, are more than our common night and day. The hero’s fate is, in one sense, intelligible, for it follows from his character and the conditions in which he is place, and yet everything, character, conditions, and issue is mystery. Now of this effect there is very little in Coriolanus. No doubt the story has a universal meaning, since the contending forces are permanent constituents of human nature; but that peculiar imaginative effect or atmosphere is hardly felt. And, thinking of the play, we notice that the means by which it is produced elsewhere are almost absent here. One of these means is the use of the supernatural, another a treatment of nature which makes her appear not merely as a background, nor even merely as a conscious witness of human feelings, sufferings, and deeds, but as a vaster fellow-actor and fellow-sufferer. Remove in fancy from Hamlet, Lear, and Macbeth all that appeals to the imagination through these means, and you find them utterly changed, but brought nearer to Coriolanus. Here Shakespeare has deliberately withdrawn his hand from those engines. He found, of course, in Plutarch allusions to the gods, and some of them he used, but he does not make us feel that the gods take part int he story. He found also wonders in the firmament, portents, a strange vision seen by a slave, a statue that spoke, He found that the Romans in their extremity sent the priests, augur, and soothsayers to plead with Coriolanus; and that the embassy of the women which saved Rome was due to a thought which came suddenly to Valeria, which she herself regarded as a divine inspiration, and on the nature of which Plutarch speculates. But the whole of this Shakespeare ignored. Nor would he use that other instrument I spoke of. Coriolanus was not the man to be terrified by twilight, or to feel that the stars or the wind took part against or with him. If Lear’s thunderstorm had beat upon his head, he would merely have set his teeth. And not only is the mystery of nature absent; she is scarcely present even as a background. The hero’s grim description of his abode in exile as ‘the city of kites and crows’ is almost all we have. In short, Coriolanus has scarcely more atmosphere, either supernatural or natural, than the average serious prose drama of today.

        In Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies there is a second source of supreme imaginative appeal — in one or two the chief source — the exhibition of inward conflict, or of the outburst of one or another passion, terrible, heart-rending, or glorious to witness. At those moments the speaker becomes the greatest of poets; and yet, the dramatic convention, admitted, he speaks in character. Coriolanus is never thus the greatest of poets, and he could not be so without a breach of more than dramatic convention. His nature is large, simple, passionate; but (except in one point) his nature is not, in any marked degree, imaginative. He feels all the rapture, but not, like Othello, all the poetry of war. He covets honor no less than Hotspur, but he has not Hotspur’s vision of honor. He meets with ingratitude like Timon, but it does not transfigure all mankind for him. He is very eloquent, but his only free eloquence is that of vituperation and scorn. It is sometimes more than eloquence, it is splendid poetry; but it is never such magical poetry as we hear in the four greatest tragedies. Then, too, it lies in his nature that his deepest and most sacred feeling, that for his mother, is almost dumb. It governs his life and leads him uncomplaining towards death, but it cannot speak. And, finally, his inward conflicts are veiled from us. The change that came when he found himself alone and homeless in exile is not exhibited the result is partly seen in the one soliloquy of the drama, but the process is hidden. Of the passion that possesses him when his triumph seems at hand we got a far more vivid idea from the words of Cominius than from any words of his own:

        ‘I tell you he does sit in gold, his eye
        Red as ‘twould burn Rome.’

        In the most famous scene, when his fate is being decided, only one short sentence reveals the gradual loosening of purpose during his mother’s speech. The actor’s face and hands and bearing must show it, not the hero’s voice; and his submission is announced in a few quiet words, deeply moving and impressive, but destitute of the effect we know elsewhere of a lightning-flash that rends the darkness and discloses every cranny of the speaker’s soul. All this we can see to be perfectly right, but it does set limits to the flight of Shakespeare’s imagination.”

        And maybe this is what makes the play so difficult to love, and so experimental. It is as if Shakespeare set out to write as earth-bound (in every sense of the term) tragedy as possible.

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