Did Coriolanus have a tragic flaw or was he flawed by upbringing?

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Your question is essentially a "nature versus nurture" question, but Coriolanus's personality is more nuanced than the question suggests. What is his nature, after all, when his attitude varies depending on his audience? Who nurtured him, when he is surrounded by characters who all influence, and have influenced, his...

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Your question is essentially a "nature versus nurture" question, but Coriolanus's personality is more nuanced than the question suggests. What is his nature, after all, when his attitude varies depending on his audience? Who nurtured him, when he is surrounded by characters who all influence, and have influenced, his thinking and his choices?

He holds his friend Cominius, and his mentor, Menenius, in high esteem, and earlier in the play, he is willing to be guided by them. He loves his son ("my brave boy"), he adores his wife ("best of my flesh"), and he worships his mother ("the most noble mother of the world"). For their sake, he goes along with his election to the consulship, although he loathes politics. For their sake, he is willing to beg the forgiveness of the plebeians after insulting them all in the Senate. When he is banished from Rome, he says a sorrowful farewell to these five people. When his single-minded rage leads him to make war on Rome, these people—in particular, his mother—break the spell of Coriolanus's anger, and he relents, which leads directly to his execution. For these people, he will sacrifice everything.

We are told repeatedly that Coriolanus is a proud man. The theme of his pride is hammered upon throughout the play: by the tribunes, who find it overweening, by his friends, who want to temper that pride with humility, and by his mother, who has spent her life building up her son's pride and now has to reason with it. You could argue that his pride is his inborn "tragic flaw", since it does lead to his downfall. But it is also the result of his upbringing by his fierce, ambitious mother, whose respect and affection mean more to him than any other thing. It was Volumnia's desire to see her son a hero that made Coriolanus the man he is, and it is Volumnia's tears and pleading at the end of the play which lift the fog of rage from Coriolanus's eyes and make him relent. He is a stubborn, inflexible person, but he is more than anything else his mother's son. In a way, you might even argue that the tragedy of Coriolanus is the tragedy of Volumnia, whose ambitions for her child led her to weaponize his personality, feeding and honing his pride until she could no longer control it. She must beg her son not to storm Rome, although she knows—they both know—that if he relents, he will be executed by the Volscians. He relents because she begs: she is the only one who still has a vestige of influence over him. Insofar as Volumnia influenced Coriolanus by the way she raised him, she is responsible for his death. Perhaps the "tragic flaw" of Coriolanus is his love for his mother and his need for her love.

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Coriolanus's tragic flaw is a product of both nature and nurture. By both upbringing and personal inclination, he's incapable of compromising with the demands of political life. As far as Coriolanus is concerned, it's enough to provide Rome with stability and order, as he's already done. He's done his duty as a Roman and as a soldier, and that should be enough. Yet whether he likes it or not, Coriolanus is not just a general; he's now a political figure, and that means pandering to the masses, flattering them, going out of his way to make himself popular among them. And that's something that Coriolanus is unable and unwilling to do.

Coriolanus is very much his own man, but he's also been strongly influenced by his mother, Volumnia. She is the archetypal Roman matriarch, a woman with a strong sense of what duty to the Roman state involves. As a member of the social elite, she naturally possesses a haughty disdain for the common people, thinking them vulgar, fickle, and ignorant. This attitude has been passed on to her son, with ultimately tragic consequences. For one reason or another, Coriolanus simply will not play along with the game of politics, and this is what leads to his downfall.

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Having a tragic flaw does not necessarily mean that the flaw is innate from birth. There are various interpretations of what a tragic flaw is. Though fate often plays an essential role in tragedy, a tragic flaw is commonly agreed to be a fault that helps bring about a hero’s downfall. Coriolanus arguably has many flaws which contribute to his demise, but pride is perhaps the most discussed. Many characters in the play talk about how his upbringing contributes to his defects.

Volumnia brags that she sent a very young Coriolanus “to a cruel war” in order to “seek danger where he was like to find fame.” He made her proud by fighting bravely. Because he has succeeded in battle his whole life, he knows little other than war. Coriolanus acts aggressively even during peacetime. His friend Menenius defends his harsh language towards the plebeians as speaking “not like a citizen” but as “a soldier.”

Of course, his disdainful attitude towards the commoners seems to come from his mother, who taught him that they were superior to the poor people. Interestingly, Volumnia takes credit for his courage but disavows his pride: “Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck'dst it from me, / But owe thy pride thyself.” Perhaps Coriolanus has developed this trait on his own, but arguably he learned it from her teachings and his city’s admiration for his exploits.

Ultimately, Coriolanus’s bad relationships with others, refusal to compromise, and pride, as well as circumstances out of his control, cause him to be murdered. Therefore, though Coriolanus’s upbringing indeed shapes his personality, he still has at least one major tragic flaw.

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