[In his critical introduction to Coriolanus, Kermode surveys the principal areas of interest in the play. He examines Shakespeare's departure from the primary historical source of the drama, the writings of Plutarch. He comments on the deeply flamed character of Coriolanus, whose "aristocratic loutishness," ferocity, and overdeveloped sense of virtue—the duty of a nun—culminate in tragedy. Kermode likewise mentions the reluctance of Aristotle's dictum, "a man incapable of living in society is either a god or a beast," as it applies to the figure of Coriolanus. Kermode likewise envisions the theme of the work as the Roman warrior's inability to curb the source of his strengh—his brutality on the battlefield—when dealing in the political arena, an area that requires cunning and tact rather than the raw might Coriolanus possesses in abundance. Finally, Kermode considers the subject of language in the play, including the overarching metaphor of the diseased body politic, and describes the "decorous power" of Shakespeare's verse.]
Coriolanus is by no means a favorite among Shakespeare's tragedies. It is harsh in its manner, political in its interests, and has a hero who is not—whatever else may be said of him—presented as a sympathetic character. Wyndham Lewis was not alone in finding Coriolanus the least lovable of tragic heroes; he calls the play "an astonishingly close picture of a particularly cheerless ... snob, such as must have pullulated in the court of Elizabeth"—a schoolboy crazed with notions of privilege, and possessed of a "demented ideal of authority." Lewis uses him to illustrate the theme suggested by his title, The Lion and the Fox: Aufidius plays fox to the stupid lion of Coriolanus; what stings the hero to his last fatal outburst of raw anger is a charge of disloyalty, and, significantly, the word "boy." He is an ugly political innocent: "What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent." There is no gap between his crude mind and his violent tongue. And such men are dangerous. Yet the gracelessness of the hero and the harshness of the verse do not in themselves discredit T. S. Eliot's judgment that Coriolanus is Shakespeare's finest artistic achievement in tragedy; and when Shaw called it the best of Shakespeare's comedies he was perhaps making much the same point by means of a paradox: this is a tragedy of ideas, schematic, finely controlled.
The style of Coriolanus suggests a late date, and this is confirmed by the scanty external evidence. The simile of the "coal of fire upon the ice" (I.i.173) may have been suggested by fires built on the frozen Thames in January 1608; there had been no comparable frost since 1565. In Jonson's Eptcoene (1609) there is what looks like another of his gibes at Shakespeare in the line "You have lurch'd your friends of the better half of the garland" (compare II.ii.101). More impressively, the play almost certainly contains allusions to serious riots and disturbances in the Midlands in 1607. In any case, Coriolanus could not have been written before the publication of Camden's Remains in 1605, since the fable of the belly (1.1.96 ff.), though mainly based on Plutarch, derives something from Camden's version of the same tale. On the whole, 1607-8 seems the most likely date. The source of the play is North's version of Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus, and Shakespeare follows it in his usual way—sometimes very closely, with a liberal use of North's language, sometimes altering emphases, and changing the tone and balance by omission and addition. The events are transcribed almost in Plutarch's order, and the occasional closeness of the rendering of North's text may be gauged by a comparison with the source of the speech in which Coriolanus offers his services to Aufidius (XV.v.65 ff.) and that in which Volumnia pleads with her son to spare Rome (V.iii.94 ff.). Most of the characters are substantially taken from Plutarch, though Shakespeare modifies them in many ways.
Coriolanus himself is in Plutarch "churlish and uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man's conversation"; and although Shakespeare has his own view of the significance of this aristocratic loutishness, one cannot ignore the importance to his theme of Plutarch's prefatory observations on the hero's improper education. He represents this obliquely in the scene of the Roman ladies with their talk of the young Martius (I.iii), which has no source in Plutarch; and many of the alterations he makes are calculated to develop the idea that the education and presumptions of an aristocrat can make him unfit for rule in a complex society. Coriolanus has an imperfectly viable conception of urtus, of the duty of a man; it takes no account of social obligations, being based on a narrower concept of military courage and honor (see III.i.318-21). Thus he is able and honorable above all others in battle; and his modesty and piety in ordinary circumstances are suited to the role of happy warrior. But the spirit of anger, licensed in war, prevents him from dealing sensibly with the plebs, and such dealing is a necessary part of aristocracy, for which prospective leaders require a proper training. Volumnia, herself harshly embracing such narrow ideals of virtue and honor, could not give him this. Coriolanus' subservience to his mother is a mark of immaturity not only in family relationships but also in elementary politics: he is the ungoverned governor, the ill-educated prince.
Shakespeare therefore makes Volumnia more fierce than she is in Plutarch, and emphasizes the powerlessness of Virgilia's pacific spirit and her inability to affect the course of her husband's life, or even her son's. Menenius is much elaborated from the source, being useful as a commentator and as a link with the tribunes; but Shakespeare characterizes him with considerable exactness in such a way as to show that the strife between his class and the common people is not by any means the sole responsibility of Coriolanus, whose friends all share some responsibility for a situation they are anxious to ameliorate by hypocritical displays of compliance.
On the other side of the political dispute, Shakespeare is also at pains to make the behavior of the people and their tribunes somewhat less responsible and more treacherous than it is in the source. In Plutarch, the plebs have real cause for political action; before the Volscian war they are oppressed by usurers, and after it by famine. Shakespeare pays more attention to the characteristic fickleness of the mob, and to their dangerous demands, than to their needs; he does not deny members of the crowd sense and even generosity, but he will not represent their factiousness as the legitimate protest of a starving populace. He also makes them cowards in war, which in Plutarch they are not. As to the tribunes, Plutarch represents them as politicians exploiting new opportunities of power, but in nothing like the same base degree as Shakespeare. For Shakespeare looked at the story not with the sentimental republicanism of Plutarch but with a predisposition to deplore the attribution of power to the people. Given a state without kings (and Coriolanus is set in a Rome which has only recently exiled them), the proper focus of power is in Coriolanus and his friends; but they are tragically inept in its use, and negligent of the love they owe to inferiors.
The analogy of the body politic with the human body, so prominently stated in the opening scene, is vital to an understanding of the political donnes of the play, and much more important in Shakespeare than in Plutarch, though this does not mean that Shakespeare endorses the actions of his aristocrats or of Coriolanus in his double betrayal of Rome and Corioles. Coriolanus is habitually negligent of his inferiors—Shakespeare reminds us of this when he cancels out the hero's impulse of generosity towards a plebeian benefactor, whose name he can't remember at the important moment. In Plutarch...
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