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Why isn't Coriolanus considered to be one of Shakespeare's "great tragedies"?

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Posted September 8, 2013 at 3:56 PM via web

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Why isn't Coriolanus considered to be one of Shakespeare's "great tragedies"?

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enotes | Valedictorian

Posted September 8, 2013 at 3:56 PM (Answer #1)

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Although Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's mature tragedies, it is not generally considered to be in the same league as Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth and Othello. The main reason for this lies in the nature of the title character, a highly unattractive, bloody elitist that critic Wyndham Lewis once described as a "cheerless snob." It is difficult to muster sympathy for Coriolanus. Our initial impression of the Roman general is dominated by his two-word response to the disorder of the plebians, "Hang em!" (I. i., l.190). Coriolanus is politically unsophisticated. He himself is incapable of machinations and all too easily falls prey to the simplistic schemes of others. Nor does he have any burning ambition beyond the retention of military honors that he has already attained. Hence, there is nothing clever about the play's title character, nor need any of the other characters be clever to determine his fate. At the same time, Coriolanus is highly reactive and emotionally insecure. Above all, as his crude "Hang `em" indicates, Coriolanus has no facility with language. He is the polar opposite of Hamlet, a man who acts without thinking and without giving us any direct insight into his thought processes. In King Lear, the real action of the play occurs inside of Lear's mind; in Coriolanus, the action is external.

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