Coriolanus, which first appeared in 1607 or 1608, marked a vision quite distinct from and unlike the earlier great tragedies Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (pr. c. 1600-1601, pb. 1603), King Lear (pr. c. 1605-1606, pb. 1608), and Macbeth (pr. 1606, pb. 1623), which retain their appeal as much for their differences as for their likenesses to later ages. Coriolanus, on the other hand, remains modern in a number of significant ways. For one thing, there are no noble kings in the quasi-democratic society being portrayed, no amusing comic interludes with clowns and jesters that epitomize the jolly side of English sensibility, no fundamentally decent great men marred only by one tragic flaw, no declamatory soliloquies, no uplifting philosophical or poetic musings, no reassurances of a better future after the tragic hero’s downfall. Instead, the landscape not only reflects the pessimism of Jacobean London but also distressingly resembles that of the twenty-first century. The play presents a proudly democratic and secular society marred by the corrosive effects of established wealth in tandem with rigid social class divisions, a populace easily distracted by concerns of the moment and appeals to narrow self-interest (which allow rabble-rousers and charlatans to use their false rhetoric to great effect), a guns-or-butter debate that pits military preparedness against social welfare, and a fundamental question about the role of the exceptional individual in a supposedly egalitarian society. These remained the concerns of later ages as well, and they give Coriolanus a political and social resonance with twenty-first century audiences that is not the case in those great Shakespearean tragedies that focus more exclusively on questions of individual morality.
Three related themes have particular resonance. In a society that at least tips its hat toward egalitarian ideals, the character of Coriolanus is a Shakespearean version of the Nietzschean Übermensch or superman. This was a figure the Renaissance regarded with fear and fascination both in literature—as in Christopher Marlowe’s characters Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine and in John Milton’s Satan—and in real life, as in such figures as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Ralegh. These Renaissance overreachers took advantage of the new freedoms of their liberated age to accomplish wonders but in doing so shook the foundations of their society, which, though initially valuing what they represented, usually ended by destroying them. A Macbeth, a Lear, or a Richard III might temporarily threaten the state as a result of personal ambition, foolishness, or corruption, but these figures are not, like Coriolanus, a barely contained force whom those around him tolerate for his usefulness but never cease to regard nervously. (Othello comes closest to this description, but he is a basically good man led astray by personal weakness.) The dilemma William Shakespeare develops in Coriolanus anticipates the historical situations of individuals with a will to dominate, generals who accomplish what society wanted and who then turn on their own people with ferocity. Such strong personalities are needed in crisis but dangerous any other time, and from Napoleon to Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin to Mao Tse-tung, society has been terrorized by such figures. Whether the reader agrees with those critics who regard Coriolanus as a play about politics or see it, as Algernon Charles Swinburne did, as a “drama of individuality” focused on an outsize hero, the problem is timeless.
As perhaps nowhere else in his works, Shakespeare in Coriolanus ties the character of his hero to his upbringing. This is in contrast to the way he explores the forces that shape Prince Hal in the Henry IV (c. 1597-1598) and Henry V (pr. c. 1598-1599, pb. 1600) series, where it is shown how little power they had over the prince. Here, Shakespeare looks at Coriolanus’s nature as peculiarly male rather than as simply natural for a great warrior, and in the scenes...
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