A common theme in Shakespearean drama is the influence of power on the lives of those who have it, seek it or abuse and lose it. Coriolanus is perhaps the most political of Shakespeare's plays and depicts the story of a man who is born with the potential for greatness yet is burdened with great weakness of excessive pride which leads to his eventual dishonor and death.
Coriolanus was a successful warrior but was politically unsophisticated. He attained power as a soldier but did not know how to transfer that power to the peace and prosperity of the people he ruled. He is burdened by the vanity of the Roman aristocracy which refused to accept the common people.
Coriolanus was thus crippled by his mother Volumnia whose distorted view of the world and her son's role in it created an emotionally maladjusted man who had no emotional life outside his relationship with her. Consequently he became isolated and withdrawn from normal human interaction. This lack of experience in socializing with his peers and mingling with a variety of individuals from all walks of life, prevented him from learning how to relate to the needs and emotions of others. While a strong and powerful man, Coriolanus remained an emotional boy who had never matured. He never learned how to love another except his mother in a relationship which depended upon Volumnia for his identity. His wife, a truly courageous character, cannot compete with the power of her mother-in-law for her husband. Coriolanus was continually manipulated by his mother and brainwashed with ideas of his superiority over all other men. Such was the product of Roman aristocratic ideals and Shakespeare used his drama to illustrate how the immoral behavior of the ruling class had a destructive effect on the peace and prosperity of all of society.
Like others in his class, there is no margin for compromise in Coriolanus's life because such concession would demonstrate weakness, whereas Coriolanus believed that he was entitled to a rule of absolutism. While Coriolanus might have remained the hero, his pride forced him to fail.
Shakespeare demonstrates this early in the play when a civil insurrection illustrates the political confrontation which existed between the classes. Instead of offering compromise and understanding, Coriolanus reacts with anger and inflexibility. His responses are always the overpowering responses of the military leader and he never becomes the benevolent politician.
This is partially due to his aberrant attachment to his mother and his willingness to risk everything rather than endure her rejection. He continually agrees to her demands, rather than considering the good of the common people.
Not satisfied with a successful soldier, she pushes him into politics. Despite his own misgivings, he does so and the result is the poorest match of man to career. He is doomed to failure. Ultimately when he is banished from Rome, he joins the enemy to win back his city, but Volumnia pleads with him not to attack Rome. Ever dependent upon her approval, he agrees and is left with only his dishonor and shame and ultimate death at the hands of his enemy Aufidius.
Coriolanus was a failure at wielding his political power because he did not have the capacity nor the emotional strength to learn how to surrender a bit of his position for the greater good and for the retention of power. His pride overwhelmed his sensibility and he responded out of ignorance to all situations involving his power. Like Meneius, whose "belly speech" reflects a disdain for the common man, Coriolanus rejected Brutus and others who might have helped him. He refused to accept social cooperation because of his distorted sense of social reality. Without the burden of pride, Coriolanus might have achieved more success in fulfilling social order among his people.
Yet Coriolanus is not the tragic hero. He is more the failure because he is only faintly aware of his own conflicts and dilemmas. He believes despotism will be acceptable to the...
(The entire section is 2,173 words.)