(Shakespearean Criticism)


The last of Shakespeare's major tragedies, Coriolanus is generally regarded by critics as a flawed work, and is one of the least known and least performed of Shakespeare's plays. It seems to fail as a tragedy as it evokes neither fear nor pity, since audiences are unlikely to identify with the motivations of the would-be tragic hero, Coriolanus. Furthermore, the play is marred by an unusual plot structure in which the tragic hero undergoes an initial rise and fall—Coriolanus' military victory and subsequent election to Consul, followed by his exile—only to achieve fame through military victory again before his murder. Yet, since its first production, Coriolanus has been explored by a number of critics as a text rich with sociopolitical commentary and has repeatedly been performed as an act of political expression: the play was staged several times from the 1680s until the mid-eighteenth century as a critique of contemporary English politics, was used in the Restoration and in the eighteenth century to advance competing political stances, incited riots during the 1933-34 production by La Comédie Française, and was adapted by Bertolt Brecht for post-World War II audiences.

Given that Coriolanus has severe shortcomings as a tragedy, however, recent Shakespearean critics, in an effort to explore fully the centrality of the play in modern public discourses, have focused almost exclusively on its sociopolitical themes, particularly its treatment of class conflict. Although commentators such as John W. Velz (1983) note that Shakespeare used ancient sources, primarily Plutarch and Virgil, critics Andrew Gurr (1975) and Shannon Miller (1992) emphasize the significance of Coriolanus' plot for Shakespeare's contemporaries. During Shakespeare's time, a growing class of landless and poor laborers protested their economic disenfranchisement through riots and mob violence, including the so-called Midlands Insurrection of 1607. His concern with these events—the desperation of the lower classes coupled with a widespread concern with maintaining order—reveals itself in Coriolanus in the conflict between the plebeians and the patricians: Shakespeare alters Plutarch and foregrounds the protest against the shortage of corn, the immediate cause of the Midlands Insurrection. Along with the growth of the working class, however, came increased social mobility, which threatened the status of the aristocracy and provoked a bitter reaction in government: the patricians of Coriolanus strike out at the Tribunes and the larger populace in an effort to maintain their status. Similarly, Shakespeare's time saw the rise of Parliament as a political force that could oppose the wishes of the King on such issues as taxation and new legislation; the House of Commons increasingly asserted its power to influence national policy, and its conflicts with the 'Court' party fractured the social stability of England. According to critics Clifford Davidson (1968) and Zvi Jagendorf (1990), the class war between the plebeians and the patricians reflects Shakespeare's distaste for a class conflict that he believed would destroy the body politic. But, interpreters of Coriolanus disagree on where Shakespeare's sympathies lie: J. L. Simmons (1973) places the plebeians at the moral center of the play, but Tetsuya Motohashi (1994) sees in the figure of Coriolanus the death of the heroic individual within a heteronomous social order.

Critics also contend that Coriolanus reflects Shakespeare's political allegiances, particularly as they impact and are impacted by his social criticism. Complementing his views on class conflict, Coriolanus expresses Shakespeare's concerns regarding the political squabbles that threatened the English state, according to such scholars as W. Gordon Zeeveld (1962). But, Shakespeare's responses to this instability have been variously interpreted. R. B. Parker (1984) detects in Coriolanus a commitment to "the familial link" that serves as the unifying structure through which political and social stability would be possible. By contrast, some consider Coriolanus to be a critique of the very ideal of order: Cynthia Marshall (1996) claims that the social tensions of the play are internalized in an effort to problematize bodily integrity itself, while Richard Wilson (1991) reads the play as implicitly critiquing not simply the social disturbances of the period, but the ground of those instabilities in the market economy. More recent criticism on Coriolanus thus recognizes the play to be Shakespeare's most political and topical work, such that a number of scholars now wish to reconsider Coriolanus' classification; for such readers as Patrick Murray (1972), the play is less a tragedy than "a drama of ideas after the Shavian kind."


(Shakespearean Criticism)

John W. Velz (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Cracking Strong Curbs Asunder: Roman Destiny and the Roman Hero in Coriolanus," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1983, pp. 58-69.

[In the following essay, Velz argues that Coriolanus does not reflect a Plutarchian perspective, as is traditionally thought; instead, the play draws on Vergil in its depiction of "the cosmic Necessity that destroys a great but flawed man. "]

Since the beginning of the eighteenth century, when it was realized that Plutarch's lives of Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius, Marcus Brutus, and Caius Martius Coriolanus were Shakespeare's sources for his three great Roman plays, it has been widely assumed that Shakespeare's Rome is an entirely Plutarchian world, and that Shakespeare the Englishman and Plutarch the Greek saw Rome from exactly the same sympathetic outsider's point of view. John Dennis, in his Essay on the Genius and Writings of Shakespeare (1711), recognized that the primary source for Julius Caesar and Coriolanus was Plutarch; indeed he blamed Shakespeare for not using other authorities. In An Essay on the Learning of Shakespeare (1767), Richard Farmer showed that Shakespeare had used North's translation, not the original Greek, and no one thereafter took any background other than Plutarch very seriously until the middle of the twentieth century. In Shakespeare's Roman Plays and Their Background (1910), for instance, Sir Mungo MacCallum considered only Plutarch, Amyot, and North in the chapter titled "Ancestry of Shakespeare's Roman Plays"; MacCallum's book is still in print—and his bias is still current.1

The tacit assumption that Shakespeare's Rome was Plutarch's Rome has enough truth in it to make it understandable. Shakespeare and Plutarch both admired the altruism and patriotism of Roman character at its best. Moreover, Shakespeare, like Plutarch, was quite sure that character is destiny; and it has been proposed that Plutarch had something important to contribute to Shakespeare's tragedies of character, even outside the Roman plays.2 Shakespeare also adopted Plutarch's interest in the disparity between principles and behavior, in a philosophy adhered to but not adequately lived by. One thinks of Caesar's abandonment of "the main opinion he held once" of superstition,3 and of Cassius' similar turn away from "Epicurus . . . / . . . his opinion" (JC: V. i. 76-78). We may compare Antony's decline from spartan fortitude (Ant. I. iv. 55-71) and Coriolanus's inability to carry out his determination to "stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin" (Cor. V. iii. 35-37ff). Hints for these inconsistencies are to be found in the relevant lives. Beyond all this, Plutarch's interest in the Delphic ethical principle, . . . nothing too much, informs the Roman plays. Plutarch's Antonius and Caesar are among his most compelling exempla, and Shakespeare carries over the Plutarchian emphasis.

But granted these connections, there is more in Shakespeare's Roman plays, more in Shakespeare's Rome, than Plutarch can account for. As an example, Titus Andronicus contains touches from the lives of Scipio and Coriolanus, yet is essentially a non-Plutarchian play. It is of interest that the general neglect of this play before the mid-twentieth century coincides with a prevalent assumption that Shakespeare's Rome is Plutarch's. MacCallum did not find a place for Titus among "Shakespeare's Roman Plays," and even recently some commentators (such as Charney, Simmons, Platt, and Cantor) have given little or no attention to the play. Shakespeare's Roman world also embraces the non-Plutarchian Cymbeline and the non-Plutarchian Lucrece, about both of which one might say something similar to what has just been said of Titus. Although these three portraits of Rome are not the concern of this essay, it is worth remarking that a purely Plutarchian perspective eliminates one half of the six works in which Shakespeare contrived a Roman setting. We must look beyond Plutarch if we are to find the full meaning of Rome in Shakespeare.

It can be argued that Shakespeare's Rome owes a very great deal to Vergil.4 Shakespeare saw the conflict between history and human individuality as Vergil saw it, a heroic struggle with cosmic implications. The tragedy of Shakespeare's Roman heroes is the tragedy of men brought into conflict (as Dido and Turnus are in the Aeneid) with the inexorable movement of history: men who (however heroic) are doomed by their opposition, witting or unwitting, to the mystical process by which Rome is fulfilling its destiny. Like Vergil, Shakespeare had a strongly teleological view of history: to both writers the destiny to be fulfilled is the whole meaning of history.5 To Shakespeare the reign of Elizabeth was what the reign of Augustus was to Vergil, the destined peace which Providence has awarded a favored nation after the anguish of assassination and civil war. Richmond's prophecy of a fertile and peaceful Tudor future (R3 V. v. 18-41) and Cranmer's prophecy of the glorious reign of Elizabeth (H8 V. v. 17-38) are "Vergilian" speeches: we may compare either one with Anchises' prophecy of the Augustan hegemony (Aeneid VI, 789-807). In their providential view of history, Shakespeare and Vergil are kindred spirits. The fact that British history had putative roots in Rome through the Matter of Britain as Spenser, for example, dealt with it in Book III of The Faerie Queene would simply reinforce for Shakespeare the analogy between the Pax Elizabethana and the Pax Augusta.6

If there is an analogue to Vergil's world-view in Shakespeare's English histories, the Roman histories would surely seem an appropriate place to look for Vergil also. I believe that Vergil is there—that new dimensions emerge in Shakespeare's Roman world if one stands on the Aeneid to observe it. The subject is a large one, and what can be said in brief compass can be no more than indicative. The concepts and the possibilities for interpretation are best seen, perhaps, in Coriolanus, with its intensities and its hyperboles of action and moral posture; it will be the model here. But mutatis mutandis what can be said of Coriolanus is valid for all six of Shakespeare's Roman works.

Before turning to Coriolanus and to the ways in which a Vergilian perspective can inform a reading of that play, it should be pointed out that beyond a teleological view of history Shakespeare and Vergil also share Janus' vision: to Shakespeare as to Vergil the present looks both ahead and back. The Trojan past and the Roman future are equally present in Vergil's epiphanies. In a similar manner Julius Caesar constantly reminds us of the Caesarism that will come eventually, even as we are made aware of the morally significant past inhabited by Pompeius Magnus, Cato Uticensis, and Lucius Junius Brutus. Marcus Brutus's tragedy is partly that he is living in the unrecoverable past as if it were the present. Vergil and Shakespeare both had eminently diachronic minds; by comparison with these two, Plutarch seems a synchronic thinker. In the Henriad Shakespeare focuses moral attention on the seminal deposition and assassination of Richard II, much as in the Aeneid Vergil focuses moral attention on the seminal fall of Troy. And Shakespeare's English histories are dominated by prophecies as Vergil's epic is. There is, in short, a prehistory and a posthistory to a Shakespearian history play, whether English or Roman, as there is to Vergil's poem.

This Janus vision is a particularly prominent feature of the Roman works. Shakespeare's sense of Roman history is something like that of Lucius Annaeus Florus, who divided the life of the nation into ages or periods, as one divides a human life into stages.7 Shakespeare exploits the dramatic possibilities inherent in movement from one "age" to another—each of his six Roman works is set at the confrontation between two periods of political and social history, a morally tense moment when a diachronic vision may offer scope and with it both irony and pathos. The action of Lucrece is a prologue to the fall of the old Tyranny and the institution of the Rupublic; Titus portrays Rome at the other end of its history, just at the point of its submission to barbarian invasions; in Caesar Rome is at standing water between Republic and Second Triumvirate; Antony and Cleopatra shows the death of the Second Triumvirate and the birth of the Imperium—at the climax of that play "The-time of universal peace is near" (IV. vi. 5); Cymbeline, as several recent commentators have pointed out, suggests the advent of the Pax Christi as well as the Pax Romana (as Holinshed informed Shakespeare, Cunobelinus was King of Britain at the time of Christ's birth).8 The "tide of times" (JC III. i. 257) is just at the moment of turning in each of Shakespeare's six Roman settings, and that, surely, is not a coincidence. What it may mean can best be shown by an examination of Coriolanus, perhaps Shakespeare's most compelling portrayal of the tragic possibilities of Roman history.

Coriolanus is a play set at the shadowy moment between the first and second ages of Rome (to use the Florian categories).9 As Shakespeare dramatizes it, this moment comes between the heroic age of personal achievement and the age of the city-state in which an organic society will be the moral standard. So close to this moment is the action that we are told that Martius first proved his valor in the struggle against the old order, the Tarquins (II. ii. 85-96), while we see the tribuni plebis created as an institution of the Republic in the first scene of the play. Menenius Agrippa lectures on the organic nature of the body politic to a club-wielding mob in that same first scene. The conflict between past and future—or perhaps we should say the conflict between past and a present being born out of the past—pervades the play. If we wish to put the conflict in Greek terms, we could say that the play pits a Mycenean hero of Achilles' stamp against a Periclean polis in the birth pangs. To put it in Vergil's version of this Greek paradigm, the play pits a Turnus figure, titanic, passionate, visceral, atavistic, against the inexorable momentum of history.

In Vergil this momentum is divinely sanctioned; in Shakespeare, history is less obviously the utterance of the gods. But in Coriolanus Rome is nonetheless caught up in the current of history: the triumphs and the failures of the Republic lie ahead and the movement towards them has begun.10 We see this in Rome's hesitant movement towards the political and civic arts and away from those military arts that Martius clings to as Turnus clings to them in Latium when Latinus and Aeneas would move towards negotiation. That there is no Aeneas in Coriolanus to prefigure Rome's maturity—to personify its teleology—and that Rome itself is embryonic in the play, still in many ways a Mycenean society, has concealed from critics the analogy between Coriolanus and Turnus. The one exception known to me is Howard Felperin, who speaks of Coriolanus as like "the Turnus of the ninth book of the Aeneid, also a caricature of martial bloodlust and an unwitting opponent of Rome's unfolding destiny."11

Coriolanus is strikingly like Turnus. Alone and invincible, he fights inside the enemy's walls and, Turnus-like, is characterized by imagery of beasts of prey. In Aeneid IX Turnus is an eagle preying on swans and rabbits (253), a wolf skulking outside a sheep pen (59), and a wolf carrying off a lamb (563-66); Coriolanus is an eagle in a dovecote (V. vi. 113) and a bear pursuing children (I. iii. 29). The sortie inside the walls of Corioli is in Plutarch, but Martius does not fight alone there as in Shakespeare. In Livy, Shakespeare would have found Coriolanus alone inside the walls, but it seems likely that the prominence of the Volsci in the assault on the Trojan palisade in Aeneid IX (see, e.g., 11.503ff.) would have encouraged Shakespeare to conflate Vergil with Plutarch (and perhaps Livy), although the Volscians are assailants in Vergil, defenders in Plutarch, Livy, and Shakespeare.

The wall is as morally significant a symbol of Roman civilization in Shakespeare as it is in Vergil. In Vergil and Shakespeare alike, the sempiternal moenia are the protection of the urbs against the predator, the barbarian, the monster. Particularly compelling emblems for the play, then, are the wild beast raging within the gates of a beleagured town and the quasi-barbarian horde advancing against the gates of another town in company with a...

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Social Class

(Shakespearean Criticism)

J. L. Simmons (essay date 1973)

SOURCE: "Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Shakespeare's Heroic Tragedies: A Jacobean Adjustment," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 26, 1973, pp. 95-101.

[In the essay that follows, Simmons compares Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, claiming that the former play glorifies the plebeians as the moral center of the state.]

Shakespeare wrote many plays about heroes, but only Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus are distinguished by heroic appeals that are exclusively and definitively aristocratic. Coriolanus and Cleopatra make strange bedfellows; yet despite their different...

(The entire section is 19177 words.)

Self-Identity And Coriolanus' Body

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Cynthia Marshall (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: "Wound-man: Coriolanus, Gender, and the Theatrical Construction of Interiority," in Feminist Readings of Early Modern Culture, edited by Valerie Traub, M. Lindsay Kaplan, and Dympna Callaghan, Cambridge University Press, 1996, pp. 93-118.

[In the essay that follows, Marshall examines the ways in which the figure of Coriolanus challenges the ideal of the impenetrable body as a necessary condition of masculinity.]

Feminists have frequently pointed out the unhappy ramifications for women of Cartesian dualism. Inscribed within the separation of mind and body is a further implicit division based upon...

(The entire section is 10293 words.)

Shakespeare's Politics

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Andrew Gurr (essay date 1975)

SOURCE: "'Coriolanus' and the Body Politic," in Shakespeare Survey, Vol. 28, 1975, pp. 63-69.

[In the following essay, Gurr explores Coriolanus as a critique of the concept of the body politic by examining Shakespeare's topical references to the Midlands riots and parliamentary quarrels.]

The incidents in Coriolanus which reflect the Midlands riots of 1607 and the parliamentary quarrels of 1606 are well known.1 Less obvious perhaps is the place of these topical echoes of contemporary troubles in the larger orchestration of the play. Topical references on their own do little more than date...

(The entire section is 37337 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Bristol, Michael D. "Lenten Butchery: Legitimation Crisis in Coriolanus" In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O'Connor, pp. 207-24. Methuen: New York, 1987.

Contends that Coriolanus depicts the uprising of a "rationally administered violence" that is thwarted by Coriolanus' death—through which the patricians are able to reassert their dominance over the plebeians.

Coote, Stephen. "Coriolanus and Seventeenth-Century Politics." In Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, pp. 86-97. New York: Penguin, 1992.

Surveys a...

(The entire section is 480 words.)