Coriolanus (Vol. 30)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Coriolanus, see SC, Volumes 9 and 17.
Generally considered the last of Shakespeare's tragedies, dating in composition to the period 1605-1609, Coriolanus has received mixed critical reception, with debate centering on its view of history, politics, and power, the development of its characters, and its concept of tragedy. Eighteenth-century readers were often critical of the play's uncomplimentary depiction of the Roman plebeians and its transgression of Neoclassical dramatic rules, considering it particularly egregious that Aufidius and the tribunes go unpunished. Samuel Johnson, however, thought highly of the play, praising in particular its characterization and its depiction of the protagonist's declining fortunes. Nineteenth-century critics, including such luminaries as August Wilhelm Schlegel and William Hazlitt, also took a generally favorable view of the play, praising both its characterization and its unified structure.
The nineteenth century saw the beginning of a discussion of the play's politics that has continued to the present day, with critics debating the attitudes it manifests towards both patricians and plebes as well as its possible relationships to Jacobean political concerns. Among recent twentieth-century critics, A. P. Rossiter (1952) considered Coriolanus to be "the greatest of the Histories" for its realistic depiction of the ironies of political interaction. Norman Rabkin (1966) interpreted Coriolanus as an indictment of both of the extreme political convictions illustrated in the play: anarchy and absolutism. Lisa Lowe (1986) examined ways in which issues of gender and sexuality raised in the play relate to its treatment of political conflicts. Others, such as David George Hale (1971) and Stanley Cavell (1984), have examined various key political metaphors in the play.
Another consistent critical concern has been the character of the protagonist, with critics often focusing on Coriolanus's pride, his contempt for the Roman masses, or his lack of self-perception as the reasons for his downfall. For H. J. Oliver (1959), John Bayley (1981), and Nicholas Grene (1992), the protagonist's tragedy lies in unresolvable contradictions between his sense of self and the political and social demands of his culture. Recent analyses of Coriolanus' character often focus on his relationship with his mother, Volumnia. In a psychoanalytic perspective of the central character, Madelon Sprengnether (1986) placed the play in the context of the general patterns of gender relationships in Shakespearean tragedy. Sprengnether argued that in Coriolanus, as well as in other Shakespearean tragedies, the protagonist's ambivalence towards qualities considered "feminine" and his anxieties about his masculinity have tragic consequences. Bruce King (1989) suggested that Coriolanus' "strong ties to his family, especially to his mother, … undermine his claim to selfhood," while Coppélia Kahn (1992) examined the interrelationship between the roles of motherhood and war-making in the play.
D. J. Gordon (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "Name and Fame: Shakespeare's Coriolanus," in Papers Mainly Shakespearean, Oliver and Boyd, 1964, pp. 40-57.
[In the following essay, Gordon examines the acts of naming in Coriolanus as a means to exploring the play's social commentary and its approach to the concept of honor.]
Name is Fame, is Honour, and is won by deeds; in Rome, by deeds in war.
Now in those days, valliantnes [so North renders Plutarch (in Plutarch's Lives, 1895)] was honoured in Rome above all other vertues: which they called Virtus, by the name of vertue selfe, as including in that generali name all other speciali vertues besides.
So Cominius the General in his formal encomium, his laus of Caius Marcius, begins:
It is held
That valour is the chiefest virtue and
Most dignifies the haver.
We are shown the deeds of Coriolanus, and their rewarding in the field: the garland, the horse, the name with the consenting acclamations. Cominius proclaims:
Therefore be it known,
… that Caius Marcius
Wears this war's garland; in token of the
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Politics And Power
A. P. Rossiter (essay date 1952)
SOURCE: "Coriolanus," in Angels with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, edited by Graham Storey, Longmans, 1961, pp. 235-252.
[In the following essay, which was originally delivered as a lecture in 1952, Rossiter praises Coriolanus as the "greatest of the Histories," contending that the play realistically depicts the ironies of politics.]
Shakespeare may have felt some disappointment with Coriolanus. He would not be the last; for I think that few see or read it without feeling that they 'don't get as much out of it as they hoped to' or that it 'somehow doesn't seem to pay' or is 'less profitable than others I could think of; or something like that. But whatever he thought he meant by the play is likely to be very different from what we make of it, unless we keep our attention fixed on what was going on inside Shakespeare's head in 1607—and what was going on in the year 1607 too. I do not mean that unless we know the barley-markets for 1606-8 and the state of malt-investments, we cannot understand Coriolanus. I suggest only this: that there are many ways of interpreting this play, and the one that begins nearest to Jacobean times is one that is necessarily a long way from our own. Moreover, so far as I can judge, the interpretations that arise spontaneously in our own times are so violently opposed to...
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H. J. Oliver (essay date 1959)
SOURCE: "Coriolanus As Tragic Hero," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter, 1959, pp. 53-60.
[In the following essay, Oliver considers Coriolanus a tragic play because Coriolanus' character precludes participation in a democracy.]
Coriolanus has not, on the whole, been a popular play, either on the stage or with the literary critics. Some of the later twentieth-century commentators have been more appreciative (notably D. A. Traversi, Hardin Craig, Peter Alexander, and H. C. Goddard) but nobody has accorded the play the place of honor that one might expect for Shakespeare's last tragedy; and it is hardly too much to say that this reluctance to rate the play highly is the result of a failure to interpret sympathetically the character of the hero.
Sometimes, to be sure, criticism of the play has taken other forms. [In Shakespeare: A Survey, 1925] E. K. Chambers wrote that "it lacks variety and decorative quality, and the inexhaustible buoyancy of its predecessors gives way to deliberate and purposed effort. For the first time since some of the painful humours and strained wit-combats of his early experiments, Shakespeare has become tedious", and [in The Language of Shakespeare's Plays, 1952, I for Evans writes that] "it is as if Shakespeare had left part of the tragedy half-worked, or as if he had...
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Women In Coriolanus
Madelon Sprengnether (essay date 1986)
SOURCE: "Annihilating Intimacy in Coriolanus," in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, edited by Mary Beth Rose, Syracuse University Press, 1986, pp. 89-111.
[In the following essay, Sprengnether uses a psychoanalytical approach in exploring the relationship between Coriolanus and Volumnia.]
Whatever else they are about, Shakespeare's tragedies demonstrate, with a terrible consistency, the ways in which love kills. My argument here concerns the structures of homoerotic and heteroerotic bonding that constitute the primary forms of relationship in the tragedies, the assumptions regarding femininity they entail, and the manner in which they combine, with particular deadliness, in the late tragedy Coriolanus. In this play, which reveals a deep fantasy of maternal destructiveness, one can see elements of a preoedipal plot that underlies the other plays, though less explicitly articulated in them. In this plot, the hero both desires and fears the annihilation of his identity that intimacy with a woman either threatens or requires. This is, in effect, a matriarchal plot, in which union with the body of a mother/lover is fatal to the hero. In order to demonstrate the relevance of this argument to Coriolanus I will first discuss preoedipal object-relations theory as it illuminates...
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Alvis, John. "Coriolanus and Aristotle's Magnanimous Man Reconsidered." Interpretation 7, No. 3 (September 1978): 4-28.
Claims that Coriolanus typifies the classical ideal of the honorable man as characterized in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics.
Coote, Stephen. Coriolanus. London: Penguin Books, 1992, 98 p.
Interprets Coriolanus as demonstrating Shakespeare's concern with man as a political animal and with the confrontational nature of language.
Huffman, Clifford Chalmers. Coriolanus in Context. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1971, 260 p.
Investigates the English and Italian sources that influenced Shakespeare's Coriolanus and explicates the play's commentary on Jacobean England.
King, Bruce. Coriolanus. London: Macmillan, 1989, 113 p.
Surveys several different ways of approaching Coriolanus and various methodological problems that confront the critic.
Miller, Shannon. "Topicality and Subversion in William Shakespeare's Coriolanus." Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 32, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 287-310.
Contends that, in Coriolanus, Shakespeare criticizes the British monarchy and "pave[s] the way for rebellion against Carolinian absolutism."
Miola, Robert S. "Coriolanus: Rome and the Self."...
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