[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...
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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, destructive of the mutual respect and cooperation essential to social order.
H. M. Richmond has observed that Coriolanus cannot be held solely responsible for the dire political situation in Rome, viewing this perception as a simplification of the complex drama of conflict between aristocratic and popular political views represented in the play. James Holstun has highlighted Menenius's much studied political metaphor, his fable of the belly. Some critics have envisioned this story—which associates the aristocracy with the nourishing belly and the commoners with the lower extremities of the body—as a key to Shakespeare's view of hierarchical political order. Holstun, however, points out that the dramatist made satirical use of this...
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Honor and Heroism
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 classical Greek demi-god Hercules and that Shakespeare's work, therefore, is a "heroic drama" rather than a tragedy." D. J. Gordon has analyzed Shakespeare's critique of honor in Coriolanus, seeing the play as a demonstration of the destructive results that honor won in war may bring about when displaced onto civil society.
Other commentators have also recognized the negative effects of Coriolanus's heroic nature, but acknowledged Shakespeare's ironic and paradoxical use of aristocratic virtues in characterizing his protagonist. Matthew N. Proser has considered Coriolanus's heroic flaw of unyielding constancy, which when linked to the Roman warrior's lack of an...
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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 each other. Significantly, the critic interpreted Coriolanus's yielding to Volumnia in Act V, scene iii as the triumph of love over pride.
Harold C. Goddard has scrutinized Volumnia's part in her son's ruin, focusing especially on the effects of Coriolanus's martial upbringing. Goddard argued that the hero was a "rare and sensitive" child who was molded by his war-like mother into a cruel soldier and whose gentler feelings, as well as his sense of outrage at this treatment, were transmuted into excessive pride, courage, and arrogance. Goddard also downplayed the effect of Volumnia's pleading on Coriolanus's decision to spare his native city, instead attributing this act of mercy to the presence of the hero's wife and son, who...
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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 judged Coriolanus differently than most Shakespearean tragic heroes. He explained that typically the Shakespearean protagonist is forced by fate, circumstances, or a villain into acts that conflict with his own beliefs and thus lead to catastrophe. According to Stoll, these forces do not operate in Coriolanus, since in this work the hero brings disaster upon himself. Derek Traversi has also cited conflicts within Coriolanus as the source of his tragedy. The critic has suggested that these internal struggles are meant to reflect the larger problems destroying the entire "social organism" of Rome. Emphasizing the opposing images of "vitality" and "insentience" in the tragedy's poetry, Traversi maintained that these image patterns shape...
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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 superseding his self-centered honor with the honor she possesses as his mother.
Christina Luckyj's assessment of Volumnia is indicative of a minority opinion that favors a broader conception of her role in the play. Arguing against the standard view, Luckyj has contended that Volumnia possess a full and tragic awareness of the consequences of her actions on Coriolanus, and that Shakespeare endowed her with a dynamic character that evolves throughout the course of the drama.
[Luckyj remarks on the complexity of Volumnia's character, veiling her as a "dynamic, powerful" figure. Responding to many past critics who have offered simple or reductive interpretations of Volumnia,...
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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 Volumnia. This line of thought owes particular debt to John Middleton Murry, one of the first critics to comment significantly on Virgilia's character. In Murry's view, Virgilia's defining characteristic is her "gracious silence." She thus represents a powerful, non-verbal critique of the pride demonstrated by Coriolanus and Volumnia. Murry has also observed that Virgilia is perhaps the only feeling character in a play primarily concerned with heroic ideals and political abstraction.
John Middleton Murry
[In this excerpt, Murry considers the frequently overlooked figure of Virgilia, observing that despite the fact that she speaks scarcely more than one hundred words in Coriolanus she figures...
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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 in Granville-Barker's view, Aufidius cannot be described as basically evil, but instead resorts to treachery only after numerous honorable attempts to defeat Coriolanus on the battlefield have failed. As Stanley Wells has observed, Aufidius also offers valuable insights into the theme of the play. Aufidius remarks, "So our virtues / Lie in th' interpretation of the time," commenting on the relativity of judgment that is one of the play's minor motifs. Wells has also noted that Aufidius provides a final comment on Coriolanus's character which insists that his fame and "noble memory" are deserved in spite of his degrading death.
[In the following excerpted preface to...
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