Coriolanus, which first appeared in 1607 or 1608, marked a vision quite distinct from and unlike the earlier great tragedies Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), and Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), which retain their appeal as much for their differences as for their likenesses to later ages. Coriolanus, on the other hand, remains modern in a number of significant ways. For one thing, there are no noble kings in the quasi-democratic society being portrayed, no amusing comic interludes with clowns and jesters that epitomize the jolly side of English sensibility, no fundamentally decent great men marred only by one tragic flaw, no declamatory soliloquies, no uplifting philosophical or poetic musings, no reassurances of a better future after the tragic hero’s downfall. Instead, the landscape not only reflects the pessimism of Jacobean London but also distressingly resembles that of the twenty-first century. The play presents a proudly democratic and secular society marred by the corrosive effects of established wealth in tandem with rigid social class divisions, a populace easily distracted by concerns of the moment and appeals to narrow self-interest (which allow rabble-rousers and charlatans to use their false rhetoric to great effect), a guns-or-butter debate that pits military preparedness against social welfare, and a fundamental question about the role of the exceptional individual in a supposedly egalitarian society. These remained the concerns of later ages as well, and they give Coriolanus a political and social resonance with twenty-first century audiences that is not the case in those great Shakespearean tragedies that focus more exclusively on questions of individual morality.
Three related themes have particular resonance. In a society that at least tips its hat toward egalitarian ideals, the character of Coriolanus is a Shakespearean version of the Nietzschean Übermensch or superman. This was a figure the Renaissance regarded with fear and fascination both in literature—as in Christopher Marlowe’s characters Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine and in John Milton’s Satan—and in real life, as in such figures as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Ralegh. These Renaissance overreachers took advantage of the new freedoms of their liberated age to accomplish wonders but in doing so shook the foundations of their society, which, though initially valuing what they represented, usually ended by destroying them. A Macbeth, a Lear, or a Richard III might temporarily threaten the state as a result of personal ambition, foolishness, or corruption, but these figures are not, like Coriolanus, a barely contained force whom those around him tolerate for his usefulness but never cease to regard nervously. (Othello comes closest to this description, but he is a basically good man led astray by personal weakness.) The dilemma William Shakespeare develops in Coriolanus anticipates the historical situations of individuals with a will to dominate, generals who accomplish what society wanted and who then turn on their own people with ferocity. Such strong personalities are needed in crisis but dangerous any other time, and from Napoleon to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin to Mao Tse-tung, society has been terrorized by such figures. Whether the reader agrees with those critics who regard Coriolanus as a play about politics or see it, as Algernon Charles Swinburne did, as a “drama of individuality” focused on an outsize hero, the problem is timeless.
As perhaps nowhere else in his works, Shakespeare in Coriolanus ties the character of his hero to his upbringing. This is in contrast to the way he explores the forces that shape Prince Hal in the Henry IV (c. 1597-1598) and Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600) series, where it is shown how little power they had over the prince. Here, Shakespeare looks at Coriolanus’s nature as peculiarly male rather than as simply natural for a great warrior, and in the scenes with his mother, Volumnia, and his wife, Virgilia, he suggests the power of upbringing. Volumnia, a stalwart Roman matron, is fiercely “masculine” in her martial virtues and has proudly raised Coriolanus in this model of manhood. Virgilia, more conventionally feminine, deplores her husband’s violent ways and their influence on their son. Few other Shakespearean heroes have their natures so linked to environment, and nowhere else, saving in the frothy problems of the comedies, is the gender difference confronted so directly. As with the superman type, the male ego in its purest untamed form has practical uses for guarding the city, but Shakespeare asks what is to be done with it during peacetime. The easy answer, and the one the Romans first choose, is exile, but this backfires when Coriolanus thereupon embraces the worst enemy of those who had rejected him. Critic John Holloway called Coriolanus a typical “scapegoat figure,” a disturbing influence in the society to be symbolically driven out to restore peace. Yet such figures cannot easily be pushed into the desert permanently as were biblical scapegoats. Those like Coriolanus must be accepted as part of society itself, to be endured or dealt with.
Another concern in the play that surfaced during Shakespeare’s Renaissance and continues to be relevant is that of mob psychology. It would be several generations before the English Civil War and almost two hundred years before the terrors of the French Revolution, but fear of mob rule was endemic in Britain since the earliest days of Elizabeth I’s rule, during Shakespeare’s childhood. This fear runs through Coriolanus, balancing the equally abhorrent specter of rule by an undisciplined general teetering on the edge of manic fury. The play offers no solution to this Hobson’s choice between governance by the whim of the “many-headed multitude” and that by aristocratic contempt for the concerns of the commonality, but it establishes the problem. The world of Coriolanus exemplifies the dilemma between distrust of the failed values of a self-serving aristocracy and distrust in the alternative, the passions of a “democratic” mob, and it explores that problem in connection with ambition, social stratification, and gender roles. Shakespeare’s entire tragic canon illuminates human nature as no other dramatist’s has done, but in Coriolanus he also provides insight into the problems of an age that was just beginning.