Coriolanus Essay - Criticism

Criticism

Overview

Coriolanus Published by Gale Cengage

Frank Kermode

[In his critical introduction to Coriolanus, Kermode surveys the principal areas of interest in the play. He examines Shakespeare's departure from the primary historical source of the drama, the writings of Plutarch. He comments on the deeply flamed character of Coriolanus, whose "aristocratic loutishness," ferocity, and overdeveloped sense of virtue—the duty of a nun—culminate in tragedy. Kermode likewise mentions the reluctance of Aristotle's dictum, "a man incapable of living in society is either a god or a beast," as it applies to the figure of Coriolanus. Kermode likewise envisions the theme of the work as the Roman warrior's inability to curb the source of his strengh—his brutality on the battlefield—when dealing in the political arena, an area that requires cunning and tact rather than the raw might Coriolanus possesses in abundance. Finally, Kermode considers the subject of language in the play, including the overarching metaphor of the diseased body politic, and describes the "decorous power" of Shakespeare's verse.]

Coriolanus is by no means a favorite among Shakespeare's tragedies. It is harsh in its manner, political in its interests, and has a hero who is not—whatever else may be said of him—presented as a sympathetic character. Wyndham Lewis was not alone in finding Coriolanus the least lovable of tragic heroes; he calls the play "an astonishingly close picture of a particularly cheerless ... snob, such as must have pullulated in the court of Elizabeth"—a schoolboy crazed with notions of privilege, and possessed of a "demented ideal of authority." Lewis uses him to illustrate the theme suggested by his title, The Lion and the Fox: Aufidius plays fox to the stupid lion of Coriolanus; what stings the hero to his last fatal outburst of raw anger is a charge of disloyalty, and, significantly, the word "boy." He is an ugly political innocent: "What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent." There is no gap between his crude mind and his violent tongue. And such men are dangerous. Yet the gracelessness of the hero and the harshness of the verse do not in themselves discredit T. S. Eliot's judgment that Coriolanus is Shakespeare's finest artistic achievement in tragedy; and when Shaw called it the best of Shakespeare's comedies he was perhaps making much the same point by means of a paradox: this is a tragedy of ideas, schematic, finely controlled.

The style of Coriolanus suggests a late date, and this is confirmed by the scanty external evidence. The simile of the "coal of fire upon the ice" (I.i.173) may have been suggested by fires built on the frozen Thames in January 1608; there had been no comparable frost since 1565. In Jonson's Eptcoene (1609) there is what looks like another of his gibes at Shakespeare in the line "You have lurch'd your friends of the better half of the garland" (compare II.ii.101). More impressively, the play almost certainly contains allusions to serious riots and disturbances in the Midlands in 1607. In any case, Coriolanus could not have been written before the publication of Camden's Remains in 1605, since the fable of the belly (1.1.96 ff.), though mainly based on Plutarch, derives something from Camden's version of the same tale. On the whole, 1607-8 seems the most likely date. The source of the play is North's version of Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus, and Shakespeare follows it in his usual way—sometimes very closely, with a liberal use of North's language, sometimes altering emphases, and changing the tone and balance by omission and addition. The events are transcribed almost in Plutarch's order, and the occasional closeness of the rendering of North's text may be gauged by a comparison with the source of the speech in which Coriolanus offers his services to Aufidius (XV.v.65 ff.) and that in which Volumnia pleads with her son to spare Rome (V.iii.94 ff.). Most of the characters are substantially taken from Plutarch, though Shakespeare modifies them in many ways.

Coriolanus himself is in Plutarch "churlish and uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man's conversation"; and although Shakespeare has his own view of the significance of this aristocratic loutishness, one cannot ignore the importance to his theme of Plutarch's prefatory observations on the hero's improper education. He represents this obliquely in the scene of the Roman ladies with their talk of the young Martius (I.iii), which has no source in Plutarch; and many of the alterations he makes are calculated to develop the idea that the education and presumptions of an aristocrat can make him unfit for rule in a complex society. Coriolanus has an imperfectly viable conception of urtus, of the duty of a man; it takes no account of social obligations, being based on a narrower concept of military courage and honor (see III.i.318-21). Thus he is able and honorable above all others in battle; and his modesty and piety in ordinary circumstances are suited to the role of happy warrior. But the spirit of anger, licensed in war, prevents him from dealing sensibly with the plebs, and such dealing is a necessary part of aristocracy, for which prospective leaders require a proper training. Volumnia, herself harshly embracing such narrow ideals of virtue and honor, could not give him this. Coriolanus' subservience to his mother is a mark of immaturity not only in family relationships but also in elementary politics: he is the ungoverned governor, the ill-educated prince.

Shakespeare therefore makes Volumnia more fierce than she is in Plutarch, and emphasizes the powerlessness of Virgilia's pacific spirit and her inability to affect the course of her husband's life, or even her son's. Menenius is much elaborated from the source, being useful as a commentator and as a link with the tribunes; but Shakespeare characterizes him with considerable exactness in such a way as to show that the strife between his class and the common people is not by any means the sole responsibility of Coriolanus, whose friends all share some responsibility for a situation they are anxious to ameliorate by hypocritical displays of compliance.

On the other side of the political dispute, Shakespeare is also at pains to make the behavior of the people and their tribunes somewhat less responsible and more treacherous than it is in the source. In Plutarch, the plebs have real cause for political action; before the Volscian war they are oppressed by usurers, and after it by famine. Shakespeare pays more attention to the characteristic fickleness of the mob, and to their dangerous demands, than to their needs; he does not deny members of the crowd sense and even generosity, but he will not represent their factiousness as the legitimate protest of a starving populace. He also makes them cowards in war, which in Plutarch they are not. As to the tribunes, Plutarch represents them as politicians exploiting new opportunities of power, but in nothing like the same base degree as Shakespeare. For Shakespeare looked at the story not with the sentimental republicanism of Plutarch but with a predisposition to deplore the attribution of power to the people. Given a state without kings (and Coriolanus is set in a Rome which has only recently exiled them), the proper focus of power is in Coriolanus and his friends; but they are tragically inept in its use, and negligent of the love they owe to inferiors.

The analogy of the body politic with the human body, so prominently stated in the opening scene, is vital to an understanding of the political donnes of the play, and much more important in Shakespeare than in Plutarch, though this does not mean that Shakespeare endorses the actions of his aristocrats or of Coriolanus in his double betrayal of Rome and Corioles. Coriolanus is habitually negligent of his inferiors—Shakespeare reminds us of this when he cancels out the hero's impulse of generosity towards a plebeian benefactor, whose name he can't remember at the important moment. In Plutarch...

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Politics and Society

Norman Rabkin has considered Shakespeare's representation of the body politics in Coriolanus, and finds his vision to be deeply pessimistic. Beginning with Coriolanus's passionate sense of honor, Rabkin has argued, Shakespeare undertakes a critique of political interaction in Coriolanus that is the culmination of many views on human society and history offered throughout his dramas. L. C. Knights has contended that Coriolanus demonstrates that "public crisis is rooted in the personal," and has considered both the hero's and his mother's behavior harmful to the well-being of society. The haughty warrior's view of plebeians as inferior, as little more than objects to control, is, in the critic's opinion,...

(The entire section is 5996 words.)

Honor and Heroism

Battle scene in University of Washington theatre production (1998) Published by Gale Cengage

Many critics have examined the destructive potential of Coriolanus's uncompromising belief in personal honor. Charles Mitchell has equated Coriolanus's obsession with honor with his quest for political power. As Coriolanus is a man of action, his ethical perspective derives principally from his belief in the aristocratic virtue of honor even if this belief is detrimental to society as a whole. Mitchell contends that "for Coriolanus public power signifies personal honor" and the Roman "cannot concede the possibility of power's being divided between master (the aristocrat) and servant (the plebeian)." Eugene M. Waith has enumerated Coriolanus's godlike qualities and argued that the hero's acts of courage correspond to those of the...

(The entire section is 10704 words.)

Mother-Son Relationship

Coriolanus Published by Gale Cengage

Coppelia Kahn has examined the juxtaposition of masculine and feminine in the play's combined imagery of nursing and war. According to Ratal's view, the ending of Coriolanus takes on an ironic tone as one realizes that Volumnia's maternal power results in the contradictions of Coriolanus's manhood and makes him an enemy of Rome, thereby bringing about his destruction. G. Wilson Knight has also focused on the relationship between the Roman matron and her son. Knight proposed that the hero's failure to recognize the value of love is the source of his tragedy and that his relationship with his mother is based on shared pride rather than affection. Moreover, Knight noted, this pride ultimately causes the two characters to oppose...

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Coriolanus

Very few critical evaluations of Coriolanus have been able to set aside the significance of its complex, paradoxical protagonist. Michael Goldman, in assessing Shakespeare's method of characterization in the play, has summarized the problematic nature of Coriolanus: he possesses a conflicting blend of heroic and ironic qualities that serve the warrior well on the battlefield, but have disastrous effects within society. Gail Kern Paster shares the consensus view that Coriolanus is presented through contrasts with other characters in the play—primarily Volumnia and Aufidius—though she notes that these individuals also have many of the aristocratic qualities he possesses in the extreme.

Elmer Edgar Stoll has...

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Volumnia

Scene in University of Washington theatre production (1998) Published by Gale Cengage

Critical interest in the character of Volumnia has been second only to scholarly regard for Coriolanus himself. Naturally, much of the commentary focuses on their relationship, while modern interpretations have tended toward psychoanalytical accounts. Katherine Eisaman Maus has envisioned Volumnia's ferocity as socially constructed; her aggressiveness and zeal for warfare are considered unnatural in a Roman matron, and therefore must find expression elsewhere, in this case in her exaggerated masculinity and dominance over her son. William Farnham has also discussed the important role Volumnia plays in the tragedy, first, by pressing her son to do what he cannot do—that is, compromise his personal integrity—and second, by...

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Virgilia

Coriolanus, Virgilia, Volumnia, Valeria, and others, by William Hamilton Published by Gale Cengage

With only a relatively small presence in the play, Virgilia has nonetheless attracted the attention of a few scholars who have seen her as thematically integral to Coriolanus, particularly in her role as foil to Volumnia. Catherine La Courreye Blecki has argued that Virgilia, while contrasting significantly with Volumnia, does not display meekness or passivity, as some have suggested. Rather, while she is often silent, she does contradict Volumnia when necessary. Additionally, Blecki sees Virgilia as playing a vital role in the debate over the heroic, warrior ideal with her mother-in-law.

Gail Kern Paster has seen Virgilia's silence as resistance to the aristocratic code of honor represented by the Coriolanus and...

(The entire section is 3717 words.)

Aufidius

Critics have universally acknowledged Aufidius's secondary role in Coriolanus, and most define his character in relation to that of the protagonist. Charles Mitchell has noted that to a degree Coriolanus fashions Aufidius as an ideal, and that Aufidius's actual nobility and bravery therefore cannot live up to this unrealistic projection. Ruth Nevo has contended that Aufidius's manipulation of Coriolanus proves the source of his downfall—this is typical, according to Nevo, of the pattern of Shakespearean tragedy, despite the fact the other critics have argued that Coriolanus generates his own doom.

Harley Granville-Barker has seen Aufidius as an effective counterbalance to Coriolanus. Courageous and aristocratic...

(The entire section is 2260 words.)