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One of Shakespeare's final tragedies, Coriolanus cannot be considered one of his greatest plays, and it has never been one of
Perhaps Shakespeare's most overtly political play, more so even than the histories,Coriolanus takes as its hero a man completely lacking in political gifts--a stubborn soldier, brought down by an overweening pride and an inability to compromise with the forces that seek his downfall. A representative of the patrician class of Rome, Coriolanus' prowess in battle would seem to make him an ideal hero for the masses; however, he utterly lacks the common touch, and his fear of popular rule allows him to be construed as an enemy of the people. Set in the immediate aftermath of Rome's transition from monarchy to republicc (indeed, we are told that Coriolanus played a part in the expulsion of the last king, Tarquin), the play portrays its hero as trapped between two worlds--he is a kingly figure, born to command; yet, at the same time he finds himself inhabiting a republican political reality that--though he himself has helped to create it--he cannot endure. Thus, his fate of exile is appropriate; he truly has no place in the new political life of his city.
Though Coriolanus is himself unsubtle, preferring to express himself directly (indeed, this contributes to his downfall), he is surrounded by craftier, more manipulative characters. His close friend, Menenius, serves as the perfect foil; for though he shares Coriolanus's aristocratic sensibilities and suspicion of the plebeian class, Menenius's smooth tongue and talent for compromise enable him to skate through the difficulties that debilitate Coriolanus. Menenius's counterparts on the plebeian side are the two tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, whose talent for demagoguery and manipulation of the masses enable them to turn the people of Rome against Coriolanus--an easy task, given the hero's propensity for violent outbursts. Meanwhile, his Volscian counterpart, the great general Tullus Aufidius, is similar to Coriolanus in tThe most significant figure in Coriolanus's life, however, is his domineering mother, Volumnia. As a woman, she lacks the ability to achieve power on her own in the male-dominated Roman society; she also lacks a husband through whom she might indirectly enjoy public clout. Thus, Volumnia raises her son to be a great soldier, and it is her ambition, more than his, that puts him on the disastrous track toward the consulship. Moreover, Volumnia's controlling nature constitutes a major cause of Coriolanus's fatal childishness; and while his legendary stubbornness holds sway in every other situation, she alone can overcome it and convince Coriolanus to spare Rome--and, thus, unwittingly set his doom in motion.
emperament but has a resentful streak that leads him to betray Coriolanus when he feels himself to be eclipsed in glory.
Structurally, the play falls into three main divisions, which overlap the five acts. The first shows Coriolanus at his heroic best, in the Volscian war, and culminates in his triumphant return to Rome. The second portion traces his failed attempt at the consulship, his fall from grace and his banishment. The third witnesses Coriolanus's return to Rome at the head of the Volscian army, reaches its climax when Volumnia convinces him to spare Rome, and then follows the great soldier to his death in Antium at the hands of the jealous Aufidius.
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Analyze the character of Coriolanus.
The play's eponymous hero is a difficult man with whom to sympathize. His virtues include his military prowess (amply displayed in the play's battle scenes) and his sense of honor--but his honor easily lapses into unpleasant pigheadedness. Among his primary enemies lurk two clever schemers, Brutus and Sicinius, but, as Coriolanus is incapable of scheming himself, he is at a disadvantage from the beginning. Yet the two tribunes are hardly Edmunds or Iagos; Coriolanus' difficulties are less their fault than the fault of his own stubbornness and lack of self-control. Convinced that humility and compromise clash with his own nature, he simply cannot make the gestures necessary to win the plebeians' respect, and his inability to control his unruly tongue only facilitates his adversaries' plans to bring him down. Ultimately, his chief fault is childishness, a failing reflected in his submissiveness to his mother, Volumnia. It is her ambition and bloodlust, more than anything else, that have shaped his character.
Discuss the play's political stance.
The plot centers around a class conflict, between the political and economic elite, or patricians, and the poorer but more numerous plebeians. The recent expulsion of Rome's kings has created a power vacuum, and the two classes now fight over whether elite opinion or the popular will should hold sway in the Roman polity. As a number of critics have pointed out, these same issues of class conflict and the question of oligarchic vs. popular rule similarly plagued Shakespeare's own time, as tensions rose between King James and the English Parliament. However, the playwright veils his own point of view on such issues with deliberate ambiguity. On the one hand, Coriolanus's expulsion seems to be a clear warning about the dangerous volatility of the popular will; the plebeians quickly bend under the tribunes' manipulation instead of considering Coriolanus' service to his country. However, while his exile seems unjust, Coriolanus remains manifestly unsuited for the consulship, in both character and temperament; his angry contempt for the plebeians seems to stem less from political principle than from self-interest and pride. Thus, the play vividly presents political issues while refraining from taking sides.
Discuss the role of women in Coriolanus.
The world of the play is a man's world; the two chief arenas in which one can gain power--politics and war--exclude women. The female characters seem confined to the domestic sphere: We see them sewing, gossiping, welcoming their heroic husbands home from war, and engaging in other appropriately female activities. However, the character of Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother, shows how a strong-willed woman can have an impact in a male-dominated society: Volumnia lives through her son, raising him to be a warrior, delighting in his victories, and, ultimately, hoping to see him reach the peak of political power, the consulship. Through it all, he remains dependant upon her, so much so that she is able, at the end of the play, to succeed where all his male friends have failed--in convincing him to forgive the Romans and spare Rome from destruction. For this feat, she is hailed as her city's savior, while he, the great warrior, slinks off to die in Antium--an ironic reversal and a triumph for maternal and female strength.
The mob of plebeians, which holds the stage as the play opens, lacks an individual identity but nevertheless constitutes one of the most important "characters" in the story. These commoners form something of a rabble, open to manipulation by the play's politicians, but Shakespeare does not portray them in an entirely negative light. They have taken up arms, true, but not without cause: As one of them puts it, "the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not thirst for revenge (I.i.22-23)." Moreover, their principal complaint in this scene seems altogether reasonable: Why should the patricians control the supply of grain in a time of famine, one wonders--and indeed, the eloquent aristocrats never sufficiently answer the question.
Of course, Menenius does makes an attempt at a response, with his story about the stomach and the body. His behavior toward the plebeians contrasts starkly with Martius's--the common people like him, calling him "one that hath always loved the people"; they say of him, "...he's one honest enough! Would all the rest were so!"(I.i.49-52). Although he does not genuinely care for them any more than Martius does (he never actually takes their side in any of the play's political disputes), the people nevertheless favor him because he possesses a gift the play's hero lacks--the gift of public relations. In this scene, he takes an angry mob and quiets it with a story. "You must not think to fob off our disgrace with a tale," one of the plebeians says, but that is exactly what Menenius does. His deftly politicking speeches contrast sharply with Martius's language here, which is primarily constituted of sputtering curses: "what would you have," Martius asks the crowd, "you curs / That like nor peace nor war (I.i.166-67)?" The pattern for the play is set: While Martius's bullheaded pride and brashness may serve him well on the battlefield, his lack of delicacy will prove his undoing among the populace.
Menenius's little tale does more than highlight the contrast between his persona and that of Martius: It also offers a kind of rudimentary political philosophy for the Roman body politic, which has only recently expelled its last king, Tarquin, and made itself a republic. The play shows us a city suffering from a power vacuum; wily patricians like Menenius and crafty demagogues like the tribunes now struggle to fill this vacuum, Menenius with his organic conception of the state and the tribunes with their notion of popular rule. Moreover, this political situation can be traced back to Martius; we learn that as a youth he had a hand in King Tarquin's overthrow. One can, thus, see the play's initial situation as an Oedipal moment: The young Martius has overthrown the royal father-figure and is poised to take his place--except that in republican Rome, the kingly Martius cannot take Tarquin's place without becoming himself a tyrant.
Brutus and Sicinius also recognize this potential for a renewed tyranny, and they express their fear of such a possibility in their first words of the play. These two cynics represent the politician par excellence and are the closest thing the play has to villains, but the ambiguities of Coriolanus are such that the audience can (for now, at least) sympathize with them and their fear that Martius will destroy the popular rule that they embody. Later on, they will overreach their proper limits and forfeit our sympathies, but here, when Sicinius comments on Martius's extreme pride (I.i.250), we can only agree with his observation.
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