During our own age, Coriolanus has been the subject of critical commentary by scholars on both poles of the political spectrum. It has been scored alternatively as the conservative Shakespeare's defense of autocracy by critics on the left and the liberal Bard's endorsement of revolution against dictatorship, mass democracy, and, in fact, a communist economic system by critics on the right. The debate over Shakespeare's true political disposition continues to this day. It pivots on a tension in his plays between the characterization of evil tyrants, on the one hand, and strong warnings against the horrors of civil war, on the other. Acknowledging that Coriolanus is a political play, we can only affirm that it pits an upper-class, autocratic patrician viewpoint, as espoused and exploited by Menenius, against a lower-class, leveling plebian perspective, as espoused and exploited by the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus.
Far more interesting than the political mentality behind Coriolanus is the practical political problem that Coriolanus faces. He has distinguished himself by virtue of his heroic military feats; even his staunchest critics allow that Coriolanus has done great service to Rome. His person and his name, therefore, lend him power. But Coriolanus cannot transfer his military prowess into political clout. Indeed, the normative source of his success as a general, his dedication to a code of courageous nobility, is what undermines his power in the civil realm. The military field is a sphere of action, the civil domain is a sphere of words; Coriolanus is all action and no words. Time after time in the play Coriolanus either does not know what to say or expresses himself in a way that is deliberately inarticulate. Thus, for example, even among his fellow generals after the battle of Corioles, Shakespeare's Coriolanus stumbles when trying to express his thoughts, saying: "I have done / As you have done—that's what I can; induced / As you have been—that's for my country" (I.ix.15-17). Coriolanus cannot speak for himself for two reasons: first, he has never thought about his behavior and has nothing approximating introspection; second, his mother, Volumnia, does Coriolanus's thinking and speaking for him, a point to which we shall return shortly.
The best speaker in the play is the silvery-tongued Menenius, a veteran patrician who retains the favor of the plebians and is able to bend them to his purposes...
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