Last Updated on September 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1273
Caius Marcius Coriolanus dominates the play. He is loud and boisterous, a man of action. His physical strength and courage are almost superhuman. Coriolanus is the greatest warrior of his age. His personal heroism inspires other soldiers, and the men who willingly follow him into battle worship him almost as a god. But the play does not portray him as a natural leader, at ease with his subordinates or respecting them. When the Romans are beaten back to their trenches outside the walls of Corioles, he turns the situation around by cursing his men. He roars for "boils and plagues" to cover their bodies, calls them "souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men," and threatens to turn his sword against them if they don't "stand fast" (I.iv.31, 34-35, 41).
The qualities that make him Rome's most celebrated soldier are not the ones necessary for effective political leadership. He seems to understand this himself, though he is not an introspective man. Coriolanus's mother appears to be the impulse behind his decision to seek the office of consul. He himself is not adept at campaigning. He uses language as a blunt instrument, as in the passage cited above, not as a means of persuasion or cajoling. It goes against his nature, he says, to have to ask people for their votes: "It is a part / That I shall blush in acting" (II.ii.144-45). Menenius tries to coach his performance and reminds him that "the worthiest men" in Rome have had to put on the robe of humility and appeal directly to the citizens (II.iii.49). Coriolanus acts as if his extraordinary military service entitles him to the office of consul—he shouldn't have to coax the people into voting for him.
He despises the citizens he would be required to serve if he were elected. "Bid them wash their faces, / And keep their teeth clean" (II.iii.60-61), he mockingly says as the first group of citizens he is supposed to talk to approaches him. Coriolanus's contempt for the people is evident throughout the play. He calls them rogues, curs, rats, and foul-smelling cowards. His political beliefs stem from his conviction that only aristocrats are fit to rule. He thinks it was a grave mistake for the senators to distribute corn to the people at no charge; the common soldiers were cowardly in the battle outside the city of Corioles, he says, and they shouldn't be rewarded for "this kind of service" (III.i.123). The distribution of corn will only lead them to expect more hand-outs in the future, he argues. Furthermore, Coriolanus says, they will believe the senators acted out of fear, and this will encourage them to think they can intimidate their rulers. He thinks the citizens have been given too much power. He doesn't believe it's possible to have a stable government if ignorant citizens, as he regards them, have the right to help determine policy and elect officials.
Many commentators focus on Coriolanus's arrogance. They see his enormous pride as the key to his character. Several of them have called attention to what they regard as the hero's egotism or self-centeredness. Virtually everyone remarks on Coriolanus's ungovernable temper. His explosive rages repeatedly lead to disastrous consequences. The tribunes make use of this trait, baiting him until he roars his defiance of them and his contempt for the people. In effect, this guarantees his banishment. Aufidius similarly understands that Coriolanus can be trapped into furious and self-destructive rage, and he goads Coriolanus into an offensive display of wrath in the play's final scene. Like a child who hasn't learned to consider the impact of what he's about to say, Coriolanus expresses his emotions immediately and directly. "His heart's his mouth: / What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent," Menenius points out (III.i.256-57).
Coriolanus strikes many readers as being immature. He seems unusually dependent on his mother for praise and approval. He's willing to take a course of action that he knows is wrong—seeking the consulship—because it's what she wants him to do. In III.ii, he compromises his integrity when he gives in to her and agrees to pretend to the people that he's sorry for what he said. And he betrays his soldier's oath to the Volscians when, in V.iii, Volumnia makes her emotional appeal. Some commentators argue that Coriolanus is subconsciously aware of his immaturity, and thus when Aufidius calls him a "boy of tears" (V.vi.100), the charge strikes home and sends him into uncontrollable rage. Three times Coriolanus hurls the word "boy" back at Aufidius, as if in disbelief. To disprove the charge, he reminds everyone of what he accomplished at Corioles. "Like an eagle in a dove-cote," he scattered all before him, and he did it single-handedly: "Alone I did it. Boy!" (V.vi.114, 116).
Coriolanus's stubbornness has sometimes been viewed as a sign of immaturity. But other commentators see it as a token of his unswerving commitment to the principles and ideals that he's been taught by his mother and his society. In Coriolanus's world, honor is an end in itself, and he cannot understand why he should compromise it for the sake of political expediency. "You are too absolute" (III.ii.39), his mother tells him. Coriolanus disdains the idea that concessions must be made to the people, that he should betray his nature for the votes of ordinary citizens. He resists giving power to the people and creating the office of tribune because he knows these moves will diminish the authority of the patricians—the group to which he belongs and the only one that he believes has the ability to govern Rome. The ideals he seeks to uphold—telling the truth, keeping one's word, holding firmly to one's position—are virtues in a soldier. Unhappily, Coriolanus finds that they have less value in civil society.
His alienation from that society may be traced to this difference in values. Or it may be a result of arrogance. Whatever the reason, Coriolanus is a solitary man. He confides in one and seems entirely self-sufficient. He sees no bond of humanity between himself and ordinary people. At I.ix.90-92, after the battle of Corioles, he is unable to remember the name of the Volscian who once treated him with kindness; as a result, the man, now a Roman prisoner, will undoubtedly be killed. Coriolanus's lack of humanity is emphasized by other characters' frequent use of "thing" and inanimate or subhuman images when they talk about him. "When he walks, he moves like an engine" (V.iv.18-19), says Menenius. As Coriolanus leaves Rome for the last time, he compares himself to "a lonely dragon" (IV.i.30). And in his only soliloquy (IV.iv.12-26), he purposefully distances himself from such emotions as love and friendship.
Ironically, as many commentators have pointed out, it is precisely at the moment when Coriolanus permits himself (or is persuaded) to show his common humanity with others that he assures his own destruction. When he agrees to spare Rome, he knows it will cost him his life. But for once the fierce warrior demonstrates a sense of compassion. He chooses his fate and accepts it. Indeed, in the play's final scene he almost seems to court death. He recklessly reminds the Volscians that he was responsible for the deaths of many of their countrymen, and they respond by demanding his life in return. "Cut me to pieces" (V.vi.lll), he cries. Coriolanus's death represents an atonement for the lives of many Volscians as well as a courageous sacrifice on behalf of Rome.
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