The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus


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The more pervading effect of beauty gives place to what may almost be called explosions of sublimity or pathos. As with the style, so with the metre. The trend of Shake- speare's blank verse is increasingly towards a freedom which removes it from the simpler, more obviously metrical verse-form that prevails in his early and middle plays.

This freedom comes through a number of variations 2 of the normal so-called "iambic" 1 The Age of Shakespeare, II.

XI type of blank verse. Still more significant, as a metrical test, is the number of " light " and " weak " endings 2 to lines. The endings thus classified are the surest metrical mark of Shakespeare's later work. Coriolanus stands next, with a percentage of In The Tempest ? From the absence of specific and incontestable evidence as to the precise date of the composition of Coriolanus, this test of the percentage of "light" and "weak" endings has been pressed strongly by critics.

In the case of no other play is this particular test so important. Metrical considerations, therefore, point clearly to a late date, while the whole tone of Coriolanus ranges it with the other tragedies of passion and weakness. Now within this late period, the likeliest year seems to be late or , for two or three reasons. The date of Antony and Cleopatra is The two tragedies had a common source : Shakespeare might well pass from the one to the other.

Several resemblances 3 between the two plays favour this view. Antony and Cleopatra, in. Cleopatra's scornful description of the Roman mob v. The instability of the "common body" is pictured I. He makes a character say jestingly, " Well Dauphine, you have lurched your friends of the better half of the garland? The date of The Silent Woman is There would not be much point in the allusion a satirical allusion — if Coriolanus were not at the time quite a recent play. That the passages are independent of each other is very improbable, the use of "lurch" being out of the common, as Jonson doubtless meant to imply.

It would not be the only satirical glance at Shakespeare in Ben Jonson's works 1.

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We can hardly, therefore, be far wrong in accepting late , or early , as the year when Coriolanus was written ; preferably, I think, Three other scraps of conjecture are worth mentioning inasmuch as they support this conclusion. Similarly, Chalmers found in the references to famine and death allusions to the year V Neither of these points, however, can be emphasised strongly. The "famine" comes from Plutarch's narrative. The play has much affinity to Coriolamts. Some think that the fable of the belly and other members of the body one of those wide-spread popular tales which appear, with slight local variations, in many lands and literatures was known to Shakespeare through Camden's Remains as well as through North's Plutarch.

But the reference, if certain, would not help us much in determining the date of Coriolamts, as the Remains appeared in Plutarch, a Greek writer of the first century A. His Introduction to the reprint of North in the Tudor Translations seems the last word that can be said on the merits of Plutarch and North, and Shakespeare's relation to both writers. Part of what is said in this section 11 of the Introduction to Coriolanus is merely adapted from Mr Wyndham. And it is this, for two reasons.

Plutarch deals with great men of action. The end of drama is action, and the end of life is action ; and the story of those who do great things will always interest their fellow-creatures, most of whom do very little. Plutarch's dramatis persona are "makers of history," the field of their activities is the State, their successes and failures are in the grand manner. The material was great, but the material was not greater than the insight and skill of the artist.

Plutarch sees the essentials of personality and has the power to transmit what he sees. The Lives are written on the principle that the proper study of mankind is man, and that man should be studied not only in his noblest deeds, but also in the seeming trifles, the slight, significant touches, which really reveal so much of character. The Lives, therefore, have the interest of drama rather than of historical writing as commonly practised ; and so when he came to dramatise the lives of Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare found his work already done in part.

Imperfectly acquainted with the political issues of the epochs which he describes, he had a keen eye for character in its multifarious varieties, and the incidents which specially attracted him were those which threw light upon some notable personality. Thus, while Holinshed supplied rough ore which had to be carefully sifted and refined, Plutarch's material had already gone through these processes, and only needed the crowning embellishment of poetic handling.

Hence page after page out of the 'lives' of Caesar, Brutus, Antony, and Coriolanus is, with curiously slight modifications, transposed by Shake- spere into dramatic form. His genius finds its scope not in invention, but in animating Plutarch's narrative with the vivid life and play of dialogue 1. The resemblance between the speech which Shakespeare places in Volumnia's mouth and her speech as rendered in North's Plutarch is no mere matter of borrowed language.

The general relation of Coriolanus to North's Plutarch may conveniently be considered under three main heads — diction, characterisation, and construction. The first thing that strikes 1 Boas. He is " saturated with North's language and possessed by his passion 1. Other passages too which might be compared with their originals, though the comparisons will be found less striking, are Menenius's "pretty tale" L 1 , parts of the description of the campaign at Corioli e.

Some of these resemblances are pro- bably no more than verbal coincidences 2 due to Shakespeare's unconscious recollection of what he had read in North. In other scenes, notably in iv. That indeed is the distinguishing mark of Elizabethan prose : witness, for example, Bacon's style. Verse is always an earlier literary product than prose, and Elizabethan prose had not fully emancipated itself from the verse-influence. Sometimes in Coriolanus Shakespeare's close adherence to North leads him, consciously or not, into historical 1 Wyndham. Metre required un- fortunate in Coriolanus, V.

The date 2 is impossibly late for the play. Julius Ccesar alone suffices to prove that Shakespeare was familiar with North's book years earlier. XVli errors 1 ; and once 2 we can supplement a deficiency in the Folio by referring to the parallel passage in North. It has been justly said that Shakespeare's deviations from history in his historical plays, Roman and English, are mainly changes of time and place, and seldom involve misrepresentation of character or fact.

I presume that Shakespeare regarded Plutarch's story of Coriolanus as not less historical than his story of Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare's Corio- lanus seems to me essentially, if with some heightened traits, the Coriolanus of Plutarch ; and he reproduced no less closely Plutarch's picture of the son's subjection to the mother.

Plutarch puts this relation in the foreground. He tells us at the outset that Coriolanus's deeds were done for Volumnia's sake alone, and "at her desire he took a wife also, and yet never left his mother's house therefore. The admirable scene ill. The Aufidius-element in Coriolamcs is an expansion of Plutarch's account. We see in Shakespeare's Aufidius the struggle between a certain generosity of nature, which compels him, as a soldier, to admire Coriolanus's soldierly grandeur, and the gradual ascendancy of his personal bitterness.

This struggle is outlined by Plutarch. He speaks of Aufidius first as "a man of a great mind," and then shows how this greatness of mind 1 See the notes on 1. As to the historical credibility of the whole story, Mommsen, after summarising it, says : " How much of this is true cannot be determined ; but the story over which the naive misrepresentations of the Roman annalists have shed a patriotic glory affords a glimpse of the deep moral and political disgrace of the conflicts between the orders " at Rome. The nominal date of Coriolanus is about B. Virgilia and Menenius are practically new characters.

In Plutarch, Virgilia is a imita persona, referred to on two or three occasions, once by name. The fact that in Plutarch's narrative she is so overshadowed by Volumnia gave Shakespeare his cue. Also, insight would tell him what type of woman were most likely to be chosen for wife by a mighty warrior. Somehow Virgilia and Coriolanus turn our thoughts to Desdemona and Othello. Menenius illustrates, more than any other character in Shakespeare that occurs to me, how a seed of suggestion will fructify in Shakespeare's imagination.

All that Plutarch says about Menenius is, that he was " chief man " of the embassy of "the pleasantest old men and the most acceptable to the people " who were sent by the Senate to remonstrate with them after their secession to the Mons Sacer outside Rome ; that he used successfully " many good persuasions and gentle requests to the people"; and ended with his "notable tale" of the belly and the other members of the body. As drawn in Coriolanus, Menenius represents a sort of inference from Plutarch's words "the pleasantest old men" and from the style of reasoning he addressed to the people.

Shakespeare evidently argued that "the man who used an apologue in which the belly figures as the most important of human organs, doubt- less fully recognised its claims in daily life 2. Shakespeare does not expressly say that the idea originated with Volumnia, but he certainly creates 1 See the introductory notes in i, 8 and in. XIX that impression in our minds 1.

The dramatic scheme required that the credit should be transferred to Volumnia : subordinate characters must not detract from the importance of the prot- agonists. In the construction of the tragedy the great thing is the concentration of the interest on Coriolanus himself. The histori- cal material furnished by Plutarch appeals to Shakespeare only in so far as it shows up the character of Coriolanus and the causes of his downfall.

Everything is subordinated to this purpose, everything alien to it eliminated. This method runs throughout his dramatisations of history. What fascinates Shakespeare is history as the revelation of individual character ; of personal strength, as in Henry V, of personal weakness, as in Richard II. To achieve this concentration of interest, Shakespeare simplifies and compresses Plutarch's complicated story of the political troubles at Rome. He makes Rome instead of the Mons Sacer the scene of Menenius's address to the people. He combines the troubles over usury and the scarcity of corn into one general grievance against the patricians.

In Plutarch's account the outcry against the extortions of usurers precedes the war with the Volscians, and is indeed the immediate cause of the plebeians' refusal " to go to the wars " and of their " secession. The corn difficulty, when Coriolanus opposed the free distribu- tion, came into prominence later, after Coriolanus's rejection for the Consulship his candidature for which does not follow directly after his return from the war 1.

This rejection is in Plutarch only one incident in the struggle, that centres round Coriolanus, between the patricians and plebeians ; and it does not at once lead to Coriolanus's banishment It is the starting- point of greater embitterment and trouble between Coriolanus and the people instigated by the Tribunes , which ends in the people voting for his banishment.

Shakespeare, however, seizes on the rejection as the most dramatic episode of the whole conflict and makes it stand out as the thing which brought matters to a head. And in handling the incident he shows characteristic im- partiality. For in Plutarch's Life Coriolanus raises no difficulty about wearing the "gown of humility" and showing his wounds. These were customs which other men had complied with and Coriolanus could have followed their example and in Plutarch did without loss of self-respect But Shakespeare divines that compliance would be repugnant to his hero's impossibly proud, egoistic spirit, and so assumes his reluctance and grudging, ill-conditioned observance of the formality.

On the other hand, Shakespeare makes the people far more unreasonable over the election than Plutarch's account strictly warrants. In the Life the people do not accept Coriolanus as Consul and then suddenly veer round, on the same day, and refuse to ratify the election.

Plutarch makes them reject Coriolanus point-blank on the election-day, though they had previously felt that " it would be a shame to deny and refuse him," after all his services to the State. And in Plutarch the motive of their change is reasonable : they realise, when face to face with it, the danger to themselves of placing such power as the Consulship con- ferred in the hands of one who had always shown himself so hostile to the popular cause.

But in Shakespeare they are 1 In Plutarch there is clearly some interval "shortly after". Shakespeare does away with it, to increase the impression of the people's ingratitude. XXI merely the poor dupes of the Tribunes, fickle weathercocks that shift with every wind of suggestion, every gust of passion and vanity. In fact, the whole tendency it has been remarked is to degrade to a sort of street-riot what was really an orderly and constitutional movement of reform. But does constitutional history lend itself to dramatisation?


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After Coriolanus's departure from Rome Shakespeare simplifies and condenses the narrative greatly. According to Plutarch, the leaders of the Volscians Aufidius excepted were unwilling to make war on Rome, " considering that they were sworn to keep peace for two years," and only consented when the Romans themselves "gave them great occasion" by decreeing that all Volscians who happened to be in Rome should leave the city an insult which Coriolanus was thought to have brought about by a crafty device.

Then Coriolanus, with Aufidius, invaded the territory of the Romans and returned with great spoil to Antium ; repeated the invasion with a larger army, but without Aufidius, came within "forty furlongs of the city," received envoys from Rome, and under a thirty days' truce to which a section of the Volscians were opposed retired again into Volscian territory ; and at the expiration of the time came back, received two more embassies from Rome, and eventually withdrew, at his mother's intercession, and made peace.

All this is cut down in the tragedy to a single invasion that follows closely on Coriolanus's arrival at Antium. Some of Shakespeare's omissions are interesting. Thus, Plutarch says that directly after Coriolanus's banishment, when "Rome was in marvellous uproar and discord" between nobles and people, the Senate was further troubled by reports of "sights and wonders. Hamlet, 1. Plutarch mentions that when Coriolanus first invaded the Roman territory "he was very careful to keep the noblemen's lands and goods safe from harm and burning, but spoiled all the whole country besides," and that he acted thus " to increase still the malice and dissension between the nobility ana tne commonalty.

Of actual additions to the story, the most notable are the scenes of "relief," viz. The whole representa- tion, too, of the Roman people imparts an element of humour edged with raillery. And Shakespeare may claim for his own the handling of the child-motive, so wonderfully effective, especially where the boy's high paternal spirit serves to break the tension. Plutarch mentions several times Coriolanus's "young children" two ; for dramatic purposes the half was certainly better than the whole. Finally, even where Shakespeare draws largely upon North's Plutarch, he lends his own heightening touches that spell " Shakespeare," e.

Their rendering of environment and period, of customs and manners, seems inci- dental rather than designed and systematic, and it shows a lordly indifference about that correctness on which we set so much store. And so a play like Julius Ccesar, while it presents with substantial accuracy the political facts on which it is based, cannot lay claim to correctness as a picture of Roman life and manners. The same remark holds good of all Shake- speare's historical plays. Whether he is treating English history, or Roman, or Celtic as in Macbeth , the social circum- stances and customs attributed to his dramatis fiersonce have a strongly Elizabethan tone.

For instance, " he arrays his characters in the dress of his own times. There is a good deal of "local colour" Danish names and words etc. The atmosphere of Macbeth is northern. The Merchant of Venice, I. It is through a street of Shakespeare's own London that Coriolanus is pictured n.

Illustrations are drawn freely from Elizabethan sports and pastimes and customs, e. The religion is a blend of pagan and Christian touches ; " augurers" and In a Roman play the only coins which happen to be mentioned are Greek "drachma," I. Romans would have been puzzled by allusions to " the stocks" v. Such inaccuracies and incongruities conflict with the modern feeling. Now correctness of local and historical setting is required in a novel or play. On the stage all the accessories 1 of scenery and dress must represent faith- 1 Attention to these matters is comparatively modern on the English stage.

The actors represented Macbeth and his wife, Belvidera and Jaffier [in Otway's Venice Preserved], and most other characters, whatever the age or country in which the scene was laid, in the cast-off court dresses of the nobility XXV fully the place and period of the action. Present taste is exacting in its demand for harmony of effect, and harmony is- broken when things unlike and discordant are brought together. But it wouid be equally uncritical and unfair to judge the Elizabethan drama from a modern point of view and to look for " realism " of effect. To begin with, the Shakespearean theatre possessed practically no scenery, and only the rudest stage- equipment.

Doubtless the poverty of its arrangements had something to do with the indifference of the dramatists as to accuracy in points of detail. Descriptions of places needed not be precisely correct, when a chalked board was the sole indication whether the scene was laid on the banks of the Tiber or the Thames. There was little incongruity, after all, in making Caesar wear a "doublet" : the actor who took part would appear in one. In the second place — but this is really the more important cause — the general conditions and characteristics of that age were wholly different.

It is the difference between a creative characters, by a sort of prescriptive theatrical right, always retained the costume of their times — Falstaff, for example, and Richard III. But such exceptions only rendered the general appearance more anomalous Every theatrical reader must recollect the additional force which Macklin gave to the Jew [Shylock] at his first appearance in that character, when he came on the stage dressed with his red hat, peaked beard, and loose black gown, a dress which excited Pope's curiosity, who desired to know in particular why he wore a red hat.

Macklin replied modestly because he had read that the Jews in Venice were obliged to wear hats of that colour.

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The red hat, I believe, is now discarded, but the loose gown retained for Shylock. Tradition assigns to Macklin the honour of having restored to the stage the tragic rendering of the part of Shylock, which had been turned into a vulgar, comic caricature of the Jews. The Elizabethan was a creative, imaginative era, the classics were a new acquisition, and Elizabethan writers drew upon these new stores of inspiration and interest with the free imaginativeness that cares more for the life than the strict letter 1.

Poets took classical themes and reset them amid romantic surroundings, unconscious or careless of the confusion of effect that was produced by the union of old and new. In time the creative impulse dies away ; the critical spirit rises, and with it come fuller knowledge, care over details, and accuracy. In an interesting passage on the treatment of history in the old Miracle plays Mr Boas says.

The personages in the plays are Jews or Romans, but there is no attempt to reproduce the life of the East or of classical antiquity. On the contrary, we see before us the knights, the churchmen, the burghers of the Middle Ages, with their religious and social surroundings In the Coventry Series the Jewish high-priest appears as a mediaeval bishop with his court for the trial of ecclesiastical offences, in which those fare best who pay best.

Herod and Pilate are practically feudal lords, the one an arbitrary tyrant, the other ready to do justice in ' Parliament. Coriolanus ranks among the less popular of Shakespeare's plays ; nor is the reason far to seek. This tragedy has, it seems to me, no prominent character who excites and keeps our full sympathy. And our intercourse with the other dramatis persona leaves us, somehow, dissatisfied. In Aufidius the better element is borne down by the worse— ever a sorry spectacle ; and in the patricians who abandon the champion of their order, in the Tribunes whose ruling passion is an ignoble self-assertiveness, in the foolish and fickle crowd, there is little to lead us to think well of humanity.


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The whole picture is in a key of greyness. There are, it is true, relieving notes, in the silent graciousness of Virgilia, the genial presence of Valeria, and Menenius's easy wit. As a representation of human nature Coriolanus does not make for optimism. It deals out blame all round. A single epithet or phrase seldom hits off one of Shakespeare's characters. The complexity of his portraiture eludes the method of simple classification that suits Ben Jonson's studies of " humours. They are drawn, like the dramatis persons of King Lear, on large and easily traced lines that harmonise with the simplicity of an early age of history.

Shakespeare has not endowed either with those subtleties and contradictions of temperament which seem to be the outcome of a more involved environment. One great quality dominates in each. Coriolanus stands for Pride, Volumnia for Patriotism. The essence of pride, I suppose, is a sense, just or unjust, of unlikeness and superiority to others.

This egoism has its good side. Thus Coriolanus is unlike others in his lofty ideal of bravery and service to the State, and in his indifference to the material results of bravery. He transcends all on the battle- field, and shames all in his scorn of personal reward. The Tribunes, indeed, accuse Coriolanus of aiming at a " tyranny," but the design, we feel, does not exist outside their mean imaginations.

The charge of ambition iv. One doubts whether Coriolanus really cared greatly for the consulship, or would have troubled about it, but for his mother's instigation and the feeling that it was due to him as a great patrician and would give him power to keep down the "people. Amid the restrictions of civil life the defect of his qualities must come into play. His proud, intractable, explosive spirit chafes against the compromises, the practical give-and-take of normal life.

His is a one-sided character, he has no gift of self-adapta- tion : he cannot be " other than one thing," or drop in peace-time the "austerity and garb" of war iv. Plutarch had described him as a man that "never yielded in any respect," and Shakespeare puts in Volumnia's mouth the rebuke, " you are too absolute. Now a man who "never yields " is in colloquial phrase " impossible. Passionate 1 impracticability has to be paid for heavily.

The expulsion, therefore, or death of Coriolanus was a foregone conclusion. His candidature for the consulship merely precipi- tated the catastrophe. It was bound to come, some way or other. The immediate cause of his undoing is class-pride rather than 1 " He was a man too full of passion and choler " — Plutarch. This trait is conspicuous throughout the tragedy. He hates the " people " with an intensity that verges on monomania. It is the very fanaticism of caste. The fact that the exhibition of this unsociable temper and its effects furnishes the pivotal idea of the action accounts for the impres- sions of remoteness which Coriolanus leaves on our minds.

As Hamlet, from the character of Hamlet, is the most modern of Shakespeare's tragedies, so Coriolanus, from the character of Coriolanus, is the least modern. May be that Hamlet appeals to us more than it did to Shakespeare's contemporaries : " it was not until the nineteenth century, whose speculative genius is a sort of living Hamlet, that the tragedy of Hamlet could find such wondering readers 1. Moreover, however much we may admire Coriolanus's noble qualities — his soldierly greatness, his devotion to his ideals and indifference to the con- sequences of his devotion, his absolute personal disinterestedness, hispielas and gentleness in all the relations of family life and friendship — yet we do not care for him as we care for so many of Shakespeare's characters — as we care for Henry V.

We could be content with a little less of the heroic in Coriolanus were he a little more human. This want of sympathy between him and us tells against the play as a whole, for the whole hinges on him. Coriolanus is Coriolanus. He illustrates the old saying that great men have great mothers. Coriolanus is essentially his mother's son.

The affinity between them is one of the outstanding features of the play and has high dramatic significance. For it " makes the exceptional pride and greatness of the hero possible 2 '' ; produces to borrow a phrase of Coleridge a " credibilizing effect. From Volumnia come his pride though she daringly disclaims it — III. She, we soon realise, has been the guiding influence of his life, and surrender to this influence has meant much 2. Only, Volumnia surpasses Coriolanus in pure im- personal patriotism, and by it saves him, against himself, from the crowning crime.

Volumnia is not merely the typical Roman matrona, she is Rome itself. But a woman cannot translate her patriotism into action when patriotism in action means, primarily, fighting. To Volumnia, therefore, is denied that sense of supreme personal achievement which transports the proud spirit of Coriolanus beyond all bounds, and that sense of Rome's injustice and ingratitude by which his love of Rome becomes "love to hatred turned" — the madness that burns in the brain.

And difference of sex may be not unconnected with another difference in. But in the main these two figures produce a wonderful effect of harmony : each constructed on an ideal basis, beyond any other of Shakespeare's characters, each illustrating the personality of the other, and each creating an. If Volumnia helps us to understand Coriolanus she helps us, unconsciously, to appreciate Virgilia. Actually Virgilia speaks less than forty lines : yet how clearly Shakespeare sets her before us, how sensible we are of her presence!

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We know what she is, and we feel that she is there. To some extent this impression of her "gracious" Virgilia represents a negative process of character-delineation : she is all that Volumnia is not ; and Valeria serves to mark the distance between them. Coriolanus's eloquence is part of Plutarch's account of him. XXXI Valeria is essentially part of the characterisation, not of the plot or construction, of the play. We might eliminate her without in any degree affecting the actual story. But the character-interest would be less effective. For Valeria is an intermediate type, something that stands half-way between the strenuous almost "mankind," IV.

Menenius is as much a relief from Coriolanus as Virgilia from Volumnia. Coriolanus is nothing if not extreme : Mene- nius, with his riper wisdom of life, knows that extremes furnish too stern a fare for human nature's daily food. He belongs to the class of whom Shakespeare has painted so many representa- tives — the sage old "councillors" who in Antonio's phrase "hold the world but as the world. He is the typical aristocrat with popular sympathies: "one that hath always loved the people" i. Averse from all extremes, Menenius is the very man to smooth away difficulties and bring opponents together.

His real good nature makes the role congenial to him. It flatters his un- aggressive vanity. The one strong, strenuous thing in Mene- nius is his affection for Coriolanus. That the exercise of all his tact and good temper should not avail to keep Coriolanus in the path of common sense and moderation only shows the in- curably impracticable genius of the latter. Self-conflict always interests, and it is mainly from this point 1 There are hints, indeed t. He himself had protested the base purpose : " I'll potch at him some way, Or wrath or craft may get him" i.

His welcome iv. The very warmth of Aufidius's sympathy and admiration carries him too far. Moved by an almost quixotic impulse of generosity, he places Coriolanus IV. Characters who hunt in couples are commonly much of a muchness : witness Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. It is so with the Tribunes. Plutarch, however, calls Sicinius "the cruellest and stoutest 1 " of the pair, and Shakespeare preserves something of the distinction.

At any rate, Sicinius generally takes the lead. He is the first to foresee Coriolanus's candidature for the consulship and the advantage to which they may turn his reluctance to comply with the usual formalities It is Sicinius who first rebukes the citizens for choosing Coriolanus In the altercations with Coriolanus himself, and with Menenius about Coriolanus, the chief spokesman of the popular side is always Sicinius ; and when the tide sets against them he shows the bolder front. Brutus, indeed, is the more eloquent cf. However, in the main, they are "Arcadians both," editions of the same thing, and that no very attractive thing.

Shakespeare seems to have set to work to depict blatant and unscrupulous demagogy, and to have thrown his heart into the task. The Tribunes live before our eyes : inflated with vulgar pride of office, and far more concerned with "our good" than the good of the citizens But the personal consideration dominates, and to attain their end they play with equal unscrupulousness on the stupidity of the people and the fiery temper of Coriolanus.

Their servile cunning finds an easy victim in each. Shakespeare's treatment of " the people " in Coriolanus has elicited curiously diverse comments. Coleridge says : "This play illustrates the wonderfully philosophic im- partiality of Shakspere's politics. His own country's history furnished him with no matter, but what was too recent to be devoted to patriotism.

Besides, he knew that the instruction of ancient history would seem more dispassionate. Compare this with Sir Thomas Browne's aristocracy of spirit. For him. Coriolamts overflows with Shakespeare's personal and passionate feelings against the people : " un- qualified contempt for the populace," "a violent aversion," "a detestation of the masses. Throughout the scene he holds, very modestly, in the background. Coriolanus when he cannot bring himself to ask the Consulate of the people in requital of his services. But to identify Shakespeare with Coriolanus's anti-social spirit derogates, surely, from that sympathy which alone enabled him to touch humanity at so many points.

Individually, "his poor and humble are, almost without exception, sound and sweet, faithful and pitiful 1 " ; and where shall we find truer, stouter hearts than those of the " soldiers " i. That Shakespeare "recognised the manly worth and vigour of the common English character is evident 2. Shakespeare shows himself anti-democratic in that he lays bare these weaknesses — fickleness, liability to be flattered and swayed, lack of clear judgment, especially where political interests are at stake.

Like Chaucer 3 , he impeaches the collective wisdom of the mass. He does it with many touches of caustic humour, and, of course, the sting of the satire lies in the way he makes the 1 Bradley. He is speaking more particularly of King Lear and Timon of Athens, but the remark appears to me to hold good of all the plays, judged as a whole.

The Clerkes Tale, — : u O stormy peple! XXXV people behave, not in what he makes their enemies say of them. But the satire stops a long way short of " detestation " ; and Shakespeare's attitude in general may, I think, be summed up in this conclusion, that " he had no respect for [the people] as politicians, but a great respect and regard for their hearts 1.

Somehow one feels that Henry V. It is remarkable that this impression, though very strong, can scarcely be called purely tragic ; or, if we call it so, at least the feeling of reconciliation 2 which mingles with the obviously tragic emotions is here exceptionally well-marked. The death of Antony, it will be remembered, comes before the opening of the Fifth Act. The death of Cleopatra, which closes the play, is greeted by the reader with sympathy and admiration, even with exultation at the thought that she has foiled Octavius ; and these feelings are heightened by the deaths of Charmian and Iras, heroically faithful to their mistress, as Emilia was to hers [Desdemona].

In Coriolanus the feeling of reconciliation is even stronger. The whole interest towards the close has been concentrated on the question whether the hero will persist in his revengeful design of storming and burning his native city, or whether better feelings will at last overpower his resentment and pride. He stands on the edge of a crime beside which, at least in outward dread- 1 Bradley.

And when, at the sound of his mother's voice and the sight of his wife and child, nature asserts itself and he gives way, although we know he will lose his life, we care little for that : he has saved his soul. Our relief, and our exultation in the power of goodness, are", so great that the actual catastrophe which follows and mingles sadness with these feelings leaves them but little diminished, and as we close the book we feel, it seems to me, more as we do at the close of Cymbelitie than as we do at the close of Othello. In saying this I do not in the least mean to criticise Coriolanus.

It is a much nobler play as it stands than it would have been if Shakespeare had made the hero persist, and we had seen him amid the flaming ruins of Rome, awaking suddenly to the enormity of his deed and taking vengeance on himself; but that would surely have been an ending more strictly tragic than the close of Shakespeare's play. Whether this close was simply due to his unwillingness to contradict his historical authority on a point of such magnitude we need not ask 1. In any case Coriolanus is, in more than an outward sense, the end of his tragic period. It marks the transition to his latest works, in which the powers of repentance and forgiveness charm to rest the tempest raised by error and guilt.

At the same time, Shakespeare, being a very practical teacher, keeps before us the fact that worldly failure is a very definite thing. We see the great possibilities, for them- selves and for society,of a Hamlet or Coriolanus leading tonothing but " self-torture and self- waste " ; and there is poignant tragedy, if not the highest, in the contrast between what might have been so far as we can judge and what is.

But always this sense of tragedy is tempered by the conviction that the self-torture is part of a discipline which converts the seeming waste into ultimate gain. Titus Lartius, j- tribunes of the people. A Roman Herald. Tullus Aufidius, general of the Velscians. Lieutenant to Aufidius. Conspirators with Aufidius. A Citizen of Antium. Two Volscian Guards. Volumnia, mother to Coriolanus. Virgilia, wife to Coriolanus. Valeria, friend to Virgilia. Gentlewoman attending on Virgilia. ACT I. A street. Enter a company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons.

First Cit. Before we proceed any further, hear ine speak. Speak, speak. First Citizen. You are all resolved rather to die than to famish? Resolved, resolved. First, you know Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people. We know't, we know't. Let us kill him, and we'll have corn at our own price. Is't a verdict? No more talking on't; let it be done: away, away! Second Citizen.

One word, good citizens. We are accounted poor citizens ; the patricians, good. Let us re- venge this with our pikes, ere we become rakes : for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge. Would you proceed especially against Caius Marcius? Consider you what services he has done for his country?

The Dark Side:

Very well ; and could be content to give him good report for't, but that he pays himself with being proud. Nay, but speak not maliciously. I say unto you, what he hath done famously, he did it to that end : though soft-conscienced men can be content to say it was for his country, he did it to please his mother, and to be partly proud ; which he is, even to the altitude of his virtue. What he cannot help in his nature, you account a vice in him. You must in no way say he is covetous.

If I must not, I need not be barren of accu- sations ; he hath faults, with surplus, to tirg. The other side o' the city is risen : why stay we prating here? Come, come. Worthy Menenius Agrippa; one that hath always loved the people. He's one honest enough: would all the rest were so!

Enter Menenius Agrippa. What work's, my countrymen, in hand? The matter? Our business is not unknown to the senate; they have had inkling, this fortnight, what we intend to do, which now we'll show 'em in deeds. They say poor suitors have strong breaths : they shall know we have strong arms too. Why, masters, my good friends, mine honest neighbours, Will you undo yourselves?

Richard Copestake took over as tribune Sicinius Velutus, slipping into the role confidently, while other understudies produced an almost seamless transformation amid what must have been the chaos backstage. Coriolanus was Shakespeare's last tragedy and the last of his Roman plays. It takes place during a time of famine, with the common people showing disdain for the patricians whom they suspect have hoarded corn for themselves.

War with the neighbouring Volscians halts the rioting and Caius Martius is so insanely brave in the capture of the town of Corioli that he is rewarded with the title Coriolanus. Back in Rome, patricians encourage Coriolanus to become a consul. But his petulance and arrogance mean he is unable to humble himself to win over the commoners and is banished from Rome. His collusion with his former enemy Tullus Aufidius leads to their marching on Rome only for Coriolanus to have to make the ultimate choice: whether to continue his quest for revenge or to spare his mother, wife and young son.

The RSC last performed Coriolanus in If this performance is anything to go by, it's sad that the play should remain on the shelf for so long before being dusted off. Coriolanus is a great railer, almost a Thersites, as Richard Burton proved when he sang out attacks on the populace in his performance. Burton's perpetually hurt and hurting warrior - as distant as possible from Olivier's ''pillar of fire on a plinth of marble'' - is happily preserved in a recording of the play. As the Renaissance scholar Brian Vickers points out, Coriolanus is extraordinarily responsive to human appeals, against which he tries to steel himself, accepting the role others thrust on him, serving as Rome's citadel or battering ram.

Everyone in the play tries to put Coriolanus to some political use. For the patricians, including his mother, he is a bogy to scare off foreign enemies and keep the citizens in line. The Tribunes, on the other side, play on the people's awe for Coriolanus, knowing how his combined shyness and hauteur can be made to disappoint them. He is like a rock star whose most ardent fans can turn and rend him if their enthusiasms are frustrated. It is interesting that the two great impersonators of Coriolanus put themselves in the rock star's position of power and vulnerability - Olivier by marrying the movies and Vivien Leigh, Burton by his marriages to Elizabeth Taylor.

Each woman was, in some measure, a destructive Volumnia, but as wife instead of mother. Brecht rightly pointed out the interplay of foreign and domestic politics in the drama. The militarism of Rome makes it come to resemble the enemy it fears, inhibiting freedom in order to remain invincible abroad. The General Cominius talks of Coriolanus as if he were the bomb, on which the Roman people must keep their monopoly: alone he enter'd The mortal gate of the city, which he painted With shunless destiny; aidless came off, And with a sudden re-enforcement struck Coriolanus like a planet.

Such power is dangerous to those who wield it as well as those it threatens. And power, unto itself most commendable, Hath not a tomb so evident as a chair [ rostrum ] T'extol what it hath done. View all New York Times newsletters. Among other things, power so threatening calls up its counterpoise, locking Rome and Corioli in a military embrace neither can relax.

As Aufidius tells Coriolanus: I have nightly since Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me; We have been down together in my sleep, Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat, And wak'd half dead with nothing. Maintaining the ''deterrent'' of Coriolanus within democratic procedures is the political problem of the play. As Brian Vickers wrote:. Coriolanus is the protagonist on one side, organized and rehearsed by the patricians, while on the other the Tribunes groom their protagonist, the mob. As well as resembling an election campaign, this sequence recalls two rival theatrical productions.

His mother handles the visuals, telling Coriolanus how to act humble in public: for in such business Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th' igonorant More learned than the ears. Coriolanus, much like the Robert Redford character in ''The Candidate,'' wonders how he will ever recover his own identity in all this campaign posing: I will not do't Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth, And by my body's action teach my mind a most inherent baseness. The Tribunes hope to foil the patricians' campaign strategy with planned demonstrations: And when such time they have begun to cry, Let them not cease, but with a din confus'd Enforce the present execution Of what we chance to sentence.

In the political sequences that follow, the manipulators come to feel manipulated. The people act against their idol, but feel they had only the illusion of choice: ''Though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will. If the play is Shakespeare's most profound study of politics, it is also his most pessimistic.

The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus
The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus
The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus
The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus
The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus
The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus
The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus
The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus
The Ultimate Guide to Coriolanus

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