Coriolanus (Vol. 50)
For further information on the critical and stage history of Coriolanus, see .
The last of Shakespeare's major tragedies, Coriolanus is generally regarded by critics as a flawed work, and is one of the least known and least performed of Shakespeare's plays. It seems to fail as a tragedy as it evokes neither fear nor pity, since audiences are unlikely to identify with the motivations of the would-be tragic hero, Coriolanus. Furthermore, the play is marred by an unusual plot structure in which the tragic hero undergoes an initial rise and fall—Coriolanus' military victory and subsequent election to Consul, followed by his exile—only to achieve fame through military victory again before his murder. Yet, since its first production, Coriolanus has been explored by a number of critics as a text rich with sociopolitical commentary and has repeatedly been performed as an act of political expression: the play was staged several times from the 1680s until the mid-eighteenth century as a critique of contemporary English politics, was used in the Restoration and in the eighteenth century to advance competing political stances, incited riots during the 1933-34 production by La Comédie Française, and was adapted by Bertolt Brecht for post-World War II audiences.
Given that Coriolanus has severe shortcomings as a tragedy, however, recent Shakespearean critics, in an effort to explore fully the centrality of the play in modern public discourses, have focused almost exclusively on its sociopolitical themes, particularly its treatment of class conflict. Although commentators such as John W. Velz (1983) note that Shakespeare used ancient sources, primarily Plutarch and Virgil, critics Andrew Gurr (1975) and Shannon Miller (1992) emphasize the significance of Coriolanus' plot for Shakespeare's contemporaries. During Shakespeare's time, a growing class of landless and poor laborers protested their economic disenfranchisement through riots and mob violence, including the so-called Midlands Insurrection of 1607. His concern with these events—the desperation of the lower classes coupled with a widespread concern with maintaining order—reveals itself in Coriolanus in the conflict between the plebeians and the patricians: Shakespeare alters Plutarch and foregrounds the protest against the shortage of corn, the immediate cause of the Midlands Insurrection. Along with the growth of the working class, however, came increased social mobility, which threatened the status of the aristocracy and provoked a bitter reaction in government: the patricians of Coriolanus strike out at the Tribunes and the larger populace in an effort to maintain their status. Similarly, Shakespeare's time saw the rise of Parliament as a political force that could oppose the wishes of the King on such issues as taxation and new legislation; the House of Commons increasingly asserted its power to influence national policy, and its conflicts with the 'Court' party fractured the social stability of England. According to critics Clifford Davidson (1968) and Zvi Jagendorf (1990), the class war between the plebeians and the patricians reflects Shakespeare's distaste for a class conflict that he believed would destroy the body politic. But, interpreters of Coriolanus disagree on where Shakespeare's sympathies lie: J. L. Simmons (1973) places the plebeians at the moral center of the play, but Tetsuya Motohashi (1994) sees in the figure of Coriolanus the death of the heroic individual within a heteronomous social order.
Critics also contend that Coriolanus reflects Shakespeare's political allegiances, particularly as they impact and are impacted by his social criticism. Complementing his views on class conflict, Coriolanus expresses Shakespeare's concerns regarding the political squabbles that threatened the English state, according to such scholars as W. Gordon Zeeveld (1962). But, Shakespeare's responses to this instability have been variously interpreted. R. B. Parker (1984) detects in Coriolanus a commitment to "the familial link" that serves as the unifying structure through which political and social stability would be possible. By contrast, some consider Coriolanus to be a critique of the very ideal of order: Cynthia Marshall (1996) claims that the social tensions of the play are internalized in an effort to problematize bodily integrity itself, while Richard Wilson (1991) reads the play as implicitly critiquing not simply the social disturbances of the period, but the ground of those instabilities in the market economy. More recent criticism on Coriolanus thus recognizes the play to be Shakespeare's most political and topical work, such that a number of scholars now wish to reconsider Coriolanus' classification; for such readers as Patrick Murray (1972), the play is less a tragedy than "a drama of ideas after the Shavian kind."
John W. Velz (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "Cracking Strong Curbs Asunder: Roman Destiny and the Roman Hero in Coriolanus," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 58-69.
[In the following essay, Velz argues that Coriolanus does not reflect a Plutarchian perspective, as is traditionally thought; instead, the play draws on Vergil in its depiction of "the cosmic Necessity that destroys a great but flawed man. "]
Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, when it was realized that Plutarch's lives of Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, Marcus Brutus, and Caius Martius Coriolanus were Shakespeare's sources for his three great Roman plays, it has been widely assumed that Shakespeare's Rome is an entirely Plutarchian world, and that Shakespeare the Englishman and Plutarch the Greek saw Rome from exactly the same sympathetic outsider's point of view. John Dennis, in his Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare (1711), recognized that the primary source for Julius Caesar and Coriolanus was Plutarch; indeed he blamed Shakespeare for not using other authorities. In An Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare (1767), Richard Farmer showed that Shakespeare had used North's translation, not the original Greek, and no one thereafter took any background other than Plutarch very seriously until the middle of the twentieth...
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J. L. Simmons (essay date 1973)
SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Shakespeare's Heroic Tragedies: A Jacobean Adjustment," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 26, 1973, pp. 95-101.
[In the essay that follows, Simmons compares Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, claiming that the former play glorifies the plebeians as the moral center of the state.]
Shakespeare wrote many plays about heroes, but only Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus are distinguished by heroic appeals that are exclusively and definitively aristocratic. Coriolanus and Cleopatra make strange bedfellows; yet despite their different life styles they share an unyielding horror of being scrutinized and judged by a vulgar audience. When the Queen of Egypt contemplates her dishonor at the hands of Octavius, her most terrifying thought is the vulgarization of her nobility in a dramatic representation for a popular Roman audience:
Cleopatra. Now, Iras, what think'st thou?
Thou an Egyptian puppet shall be shown
In Rome as well as I. Mechanic slaves,
With greasy aprons, rules, and hammers, shall
Uplift us to the view; in their thick breaths,
Rank of gross diet, shall we be enclouded,
And forc'd to drink their vapour.
Iras. The gods forbid!
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Self-Identity And Coriolanus' Body
Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1996)
SOURCE: "Wound-man: Coriolanus, Gender, and the Theatrical Construction of Interiority," in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture, edited by Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 93-118.
[In the essay that follows, Marshall examines the ways in which the figure of Coriolanus challenges the ideal of the impenetrable body as a necessary condition of masculinity.]
Feminists have frequently pointed out the unhappy ramifications for women of Cartesian dualism. Inscribed within the separation of mind and body is a further implicit division based upon gender, since the traditional association links men with the mind, while women's more visible reproductive capacities have enforced their identification with the lower realm of the body or bodiliness. So deeply engrained is the dualistic mode of thinking that its traces appear virtually everywhere, not least in our critical practice. Those who would challenge traditional sex and gender systems have advanced a great deal of exciting work on the material conditions of the early modern theater, considering its relevance to social codes and conditions more generally, its ability to arouse erotic energies, and its various physical effects, such as the prosthetic devices used to mime gender.1 In general, recent feminist approaches to...
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Andrew Gurr (essay date 1975)
SOURCE: "'Coriolanus' and the Body Politic," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 28, 1975, pp. 63-69.
[In the following essay, Gurr explores Coriolanus as a critique of the concept of the body politic by examining Shakespeare's topical references to the Midlands riots and parliamentary quarrels.]
The incidents in Coriolanus which reflect the Midlands riots of 1607 and the parliamentary quarrels of 1606 are well known.1 Less obvious perhaps is the place of these topical echoes of contemporary troubles in the larger orchestration of the play. Topical references on their own do little more than date the play, in both senses of the word.
A fresh look at the belly fable and how Shakespeare sets it out at the beginning of the play might help to clarify where the food riots and the jibes at Yelverton and Hyde as tribunes of the people fit in the larger pattern. Both topical events raised questions of power and authority by posing the problem of sectional interests in a commonwealth which was clearly less than organically united. Through his presentation in Coriolanus, I think, Shakespeare was exposing some basic anomalies in the belly fable's cognate concept, the body politic, which shaped traditional thinking about authority in the state.
The body politic had a long and respectable history,...
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Bristol, Michael D. "Lenten Butchery: Legitimation Crisis in Coriolanus" In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, pp. 207-24. Methuen: New York, 1987.
Contends that Coriolanus depicts the uprising of a "rationally administered violence" that is thwarted by Coriolanus' death—through which the patricians are able to reassert their dominance over the plebeians.
Coote, Stephen. "Coriolanus and Seventeenth-Century Politics." In Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, pp. 86-97. New York: Penguin, 1992.
Surveys a number of contemporary events, such as the Midlands uprisings and parliamentary quarrels, that are reflected in Coriolanus.
Danson, Lawrence. "Corioianus." In Corioianus: Critical Essays, edited by David Wheeler, pp. 123-42. New York: Garland Publishing, 1995.
Analyzes the style of Coriolanus as it enhances the tragic themes of the play.
Davidson, Clifford. "Coriolanus: A Study in Political Dislocation." In Shakespeare Studies IV (1968): 263-74.
Contends that Coriolanus resists the traditional tragic structure, arguing instead that it reflects...
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