Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies
Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 969-1056).
ACT ONE OVERVIEW: Martius set up in all valor and rigidity: he scorns the starving plebeians, and wins accolades in war, including the surname Coriolanus. Meanwhile, his enemies the tribunes are stirring, and the envious Volscian Aufidius resolves on his destruction.
Act 1, Scene 1 (978-84, the Plebeians complain about the aristocrats’ treatment of them during a grain shortage; Menenius schools them with a tale about the senators being Rome’s “stomach,” and Martius soon shows up to issue a scathing denunciation of the common folk; the Tribunes whom Martius scorns analyze their foe’s prideful character)
Coriolanus offers us an intense character study — Martius isn’t a deep tragic hero like Macbeth or Hamlet, but Shakespeare’s characterization of him is pure. Structurally and rhetorically, too, the play is superb — an excellence that T. S. Eliot recognizes when he writes in “Hamlet and His Problems” from his 1921 collection of essays The Sacred Wood, “Coriolanus may be not as ‘interesting’ as Hamlet, but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success.” (In the same passage, Eliot suggests that Hamlet is literature’s “Mona Lisa” — oddly compelling stuff, but not a true masterpiece.)
Shakespeare got the story of Coriolanus from Livy’s Histories and Plutarch’s Parallel Lives. Martius is a semi-legendary early Roman who would have lived in the early C5 BCE, so the expulsion of the last Tarquin ruler Lucius Tarquinius Superbus took place less than two decades before the play’s events (respectively, 509 BCE and the 490s BCE). It’s hard to say how real such a person is since early historians mingled historical figures with mythic characters.
The play takes for granted some knowledge of a basic point of contention in early Roman times: the struggle of the orders between commoners or plebeians and aristocrats or patricians. It was some measure of compromise on the part of the aristocratic patricians that allowed the city of Rome to develop into a vital republic and then a mighty empire. The immediate context of Martius’ unpopularity would have been that he opposed the reforms stemming from the political rebellion of the plebeian class in what has been called the initial secessio plebis of 494 BCE. This is how the office of the Tribunes took its origin, as part of a compromise allowing some relief and a voice to the lower orders in Rome.
Martius has his moments, and of course military strength and cohesion were Roman aristocratic virtues. He certainly possesses the military virtues. Still, the crux of the entire play is that one can be so Roman that one isn’t truly Roman. That kind of rigidity isn’t how Rome got to be Rome — “virtuous, honorable, and inflexible” is a recipe for disaster. The Romans were also eminently practical: they were assimilators, builders, willing to expend energy on those they conquered. They were exploiters, too, but it wasn’t all fighting, killing, and dominating. Martius insists on a virtue until it becomes foolishness — he violates Aristotle’s notion of virtue as the golden mean between two extremes. The sweet spot is right in the middle: neither foolhardy courage nor cowardice, but doing one’s duty in spite of genuine fear. That’s valor. Satis sanus est. Augustus said, “festina lente,” make haste slowly. That’s Roman practicality: take your time. Martius can’t hold to this mean because he is an extremist for Romanness. The man’s over-the-top quality is the root of his tragedy — he possesses and acts upon the extremity of a virtue tied to a particular class, and this quality in him will lead him to disillusion and betrayal.
As for the beginning of Coriolanus, see also the opening sceneof Julius Caesar, wherein Murellus gets fed up with the cobbler and others, with their jokes and holiday-making over Caesar. “Wherefore rejoice?” asks Murellus, chastising the holiday-making plebeians in the name of defeated Pompey the Great. Well, Shakespeare seems never to have cared much for the rabble, and all his rabbles tend to be Elizabethan: “the rag-tag mob.” He was a businessman, a property owner, a bourgeois, and conservative at least in that regard, so he didn’t have a high tolerance for anarchy and disorder. I’ve never been able to agree with the sometime modern view of Shakespeare as a cultural or political iconoclast because his plays just don’t seem to me to support that construction.
The First Citizen sums up his self-justification for egging his comrades on to kill Caius Martius with the words, “I speak this in hunger / for bread, not in thirst of revenge” (980, 1.1.19-20). This sounds like basic class warfare of the sort that actually occurred in early Rome: misery, hoarding, and profiteering. So there’s dissent in the air, and Martius has no sympathy with the commoners at all. In fact, he openly despises them.
The patrician Menenius Agrippa tries to talk reason into the citizens with his substantial “body” analogy (980-81, 1.1.79-144). The people, he suggests, are like a living body’s mutinous members, doing nothing while being supplied by the stomach, the aristocratic class. The senators are the digestive function, the belly: it’s an ancient “trickle down” theory of how society and the economy work. Without the patricians, the idea goes, the common people would fall into famine and disorder, and finally into decay.
The citizens don’t seem impressed with this analogy at all, and then Martius himself shows up and pours aristocratic oil on the common people’s smoldering resentment of his entire class: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, / Make yourselves scabs?” (981, 1.1.153-55) His view is that they cannot and must not be given any authority. Why? Martius tags their inconstancy, their fickleness, as the cause for this incapacity: “With every minute you do change a mind / And call him noble that was now your hate” (982, 1.171-72). He, we know, affines himself to the patrician order, which is closely allied with the military order; this order he obviously considers worthy of respect and capable of steady virtue. One look at modern polls, and we might half agree with him — how contradictory they are! No firm principles, no clear understanding emerges, at least much of the time: “public opinion exists only where there are no ideas,” as Wilde said. Still, it’s taking this distrust of the common man and woman’s sagacity very far indeed to call them “scabs.”
Act 1, Scenes 2-3 (984-87, Aufidius looks forward to battling Martius; Volumnia lessons Virgilia about what constitutes masculine virtue, while Valeria points to young Martius’ shredding of a butterfly; the news is that Martius is now near the Volscian city of Corioles)
Aufidius is introduced to us in the second scene, and he seems jealous of Martius, to whom he always loses. He probably feels a bit like the rental car company that has to try harder because “they’re number two.” The Volscians are a rival people neighboring Roman territory, and conquering such neighbors is how Rome grew first into a great city and finally into an empire. Aufidius is the chief warrior of the Volscians, but the Roman Caius Martius is a stronger, abler soldier. Jealousy and envy flows through Aufidius, bordering on obsession and hatred. But the feeling and regard go both ways — Martius regards Aufidius as a worthy adversary, and that’s something he needs. The first act sets us up for this struggle: we will see Martius charging in through the gates of Corioles, a retreat occurring and then Martius spurring the Romans into battle again. But for the moment, Aufidius explains to a Volscian senator that things look bad in Rome, what with all the class strife; the Romans are gearing up for war, and the Volscians are in arms as well since they expect a fight to come their way. As for Aufidius himself, he looks forward to nothing so much as close, even single, combat with his personal adversary: “If we and Caius Martius chance to meet, / ‘Tis sworn between us we shall ever strike / Till one can do no more” 985, 1.2.34-36).
In 1.3., we find that Martius’ mother Volumnia is a typical, upstanding Roman matron: “I pray you, daughter, sing or express yourself in a more comfortable sort…” (983, 1.3.1-2), she tells Martius’ wife Virgilia, explaining to her that she ought to rejoice in the absence of her husband since that absence signifies he is doing what a man should do. Virgilia must respect the military bearing and mission of Martius: it’s better to be a warrior than a lover and a man of peace. “Either come home bearing that shield, or lying dead upon it,” as the Spartan mothers used to say to the sons they sent off to war. Volumnia’s friend Valeria refers to young Martius (son of Caius Martius and Virgilia, that is) showing some of his father’s ferocity: the boy apparently shredded a hapless butterfly in her view (986-87, 1.3.54-61).
Act 1, Scenes 4-9 (988-93, Martius shows his valor against Aufidius and the Volscians)
Battlefield scenes abound, with Martius showing his valor. In 1.5, he is even shut alone within the gates of the Volscian city Corioles, and bravely fights his way to freedom. In 1.6, the Roman troops, as was common amongst ancient armies, take advantage of this opening and then immediately fall to plundering the city, prompting Martius to denounce them — or at least the common soldiers, whom he sardonically refers to as “our gentlemen” (991, 1.7.42) — and pine to fight Aufidius directly, along with his fellow Volscians (Antiates is a term for the people of the Volscian capital Antium, modern Italy’s Anzio). By 1.7, Cominius (historically, that’s Postumus Cominius Auruncus, with the play’s events taking place around 493 BCE), who commands the Roman forces, has ordered a retreat for strategic purposes. By 1.9, Martius and Aufidius square off, Martius saying “I’ll fight with none but thee, for I do hate thee / Worse than a promise-breaker” (993, 1.9.1-2), and the outcome is predictable: the Roman wins, and Aufidius (Attius Tullus Aufidius historically) and his Volscians are driven back behind their own gates in Corioles.
Act 1, Scenes 10-11 (993-96, Cominius hails Martius as Coriolanus and heaps honors upon him, though Martius is unsettled by such attention; Aufidius tells a few of his soldiers that he will destroy Martius by any means necessary)
Cominius declares that “Rome must know / The value of her own” (994, 1.10.20-21). In other words, there’s a political dimension to the acts of valor that Martius has performed, loathe though the latter may be to think of them in that way. He sounds genuinely noble when he cites his reasoning: “When drums and trumpets shall / I’th’field prove flatterers, let courts and cities be / Made all of false-faced soothing” (994, 1.10.42-44). Contrast this with Aufidius’ anguished determination in the next scene: he tells a few of his men, “I’ll potch at him some way / Or wrath or craft may get him” (996, 1.11.15-16). To borrow a modern idiom, we might say that Aufidius has let go of his strict adherence to the ancient honor code and given in to the imperative that he must get Martius “by any means necessary.” Of course, Martius doesn’t know about this change of heart on the part of his supposedly steadfast, worthy enemy.
ACT TWO OVERVIEW: Martius is expected to stand for consul, and upon the Tribunes’ insistence, goes through with the ritual of it all. The commoners give their voice and then exasperate him by revoking it. Martius has failed to translate his military prowess into a political platform.
Act 2, Scene 1 (996-1002, Menenius takes down the Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius for disliking Martius’ pride; Martius is welcomed home and is expected to stand for consul, but the Tribunes plot to work his destruction from that very honor)
The Tribunes of the People are a grudging gift to the plebeians — some measure of representation. Brutus and Sicinius can’t stand Martius’s open contempt for the common lot, or his arrogance and rigidity. It’s more than a personal thing with them — they suppose Martius will use power tyrannically because all he cares about is “Rome,” which reduces (in their view) to his own class. See their analysis of the man’s flaws and the threat he poses (1001, 2.1.191ff). Next, the Tribunes scheme to make sure that Martius’ election to the consulship will be revoked (1002, 2.1.229-44).
Act 2, Scene 2 (1002-06, two Officers debate Martius’ hatred of the plebeians; Cominius praises Martius’ valor against the Volscians; Martius pleads that he be excused from practically begging for the consulship before the common folk, but Sicinius insists on the ceremony being honored)
The First and Second Officers debate the merits of Martius’ attitude in hating the plebeians for their inconstancy and lack of honor: “he seeks their hate with greater devotion than they / can render it him” (1003, 2.2.17), says the First Officer, and it’s only his undeniable valor as a soldier that keeps them in awe.
Well, now that Martius is expected to stand for the consulship, he must supposed to stand in the public square, exposing himself to view, and ask the plebeians “pretty please with sugar on it” for the honor he believes he has already earned with his military prowess. Martius would accept the office and the power of the consulship, but he rigidly opposes the vulgar means by which it must be obtained. To praise for his valor even from Cominius, Martius says, “I had rather have my wounds to heal again / Than hear say how I got them” (1004, 65-66). As for standing in view of the public, his plea is, “Please you that I may pass this doing” (1005, 2.2.136), but Sicinius will have none of it: the ceremony must not be omitted, not “one jot” (1005-06, 2.2.136-38).
It isn’t difficult to understand Martius’s position, starchy though the man is. He’s a patrician and a warrior, but in order to take his place in the political order — i.e. to follow the “natural” career path for such a warrior — he must submit to such means, and use his valor and deeds as a bargaining chip. So why seek the office of consul then? Why not just retire to his estate and live nobly? Well, this is what he’s required to do; he must pimp his valiant achievements, so to speak, if he wants to perpetuate his name in the classical way. The Greek and Roman “afterlife” is just as easily identified with one’s posthumous reputation as with any fine notions about beds of asphodel in Elysium or the more shadowy, grey-tinged landscape of leveling Hades. And while an illustrious Roman is still alive, this clan- or class-driven drive to take up an honorable, traditional office is close to its equivalent. Not to be an actor in the game is to be forgotten more quickly than one would like. Martius’s dilemma, I suppose, is that to attain its full value, the honor he stands upon must be recognized by others. Unused or not put into some appropriate form and enlisted in fitting action, it rusts and falls to oblivion.
Act 2, Scene 3 (1006-11, Coriolanus appears before the people and gruffly seeks their voices; the people consent but then revoke their consent, with the Tribunes egging them on to work Martius’ destruction from this honor’s granting and rescinding)
Unfortunately, Martius doesn’t have the temperament or the impulse control to run even a brief campaign for office. The scene in which he refuses to stand for the consulship and then gets talked into doing so is the stuff of modern situation comedy: a character says, “I’ll never do such and such,” and then you see a jump-cut of the same character doing exactly such and such. Martius’ best effort is, “You know the cause, sir, of my standing here …” (1007, 2.3.58). Martius tries to play the situation as a piece of insincere street theater: “I will practice / the insinuating nod and be off to them most counterfeitly” (1008, 2.3.90-91), he says in open third-person contempt, but the plebeians are too savvy to let him off the hook so easily. They want their money’s worth. If it’s play-acting, he at least has to give a convincing performance to satisfy their humor; anything less would be an insult. They don’t need Tim Roth on that short-lived TV show Lie to Me to teach them about Martius’ micro-expressions of contempt, not to mention the fact that they stink in his high-born nostrils.
The citizens assent, but almost immediately begin to have second thoughts: “He mocked us when he begged our voices” (1009, 2.3.148), says the Second Citizen. The Tribunes see the value in this turnabout, and it can hardly be unexpected by them. At the end of the third scene, they goad the people to revoke their own approval of Martius’ consulship, even telling them to say it was the Tribunes’ fault that Martius was approved in the first place. They’re playing Mark Antony in the marketplace: “mischief, do what thou wilt.” To snatch away an honor granted, the idea runs, is much more galling than to refuse it at the outset. Brutus and Sicinius know that Martius won’t brook such a grave insult to his accomplishments and pride.
ACT THREE OVERVIEW: Martius is talked into feigning contrition before the people for his earlier arrogance, but when the tribunes cry “tyranny!” he explodes, scorns Rome and finds himself banished. The tribunes have played the rigid man like a fiddle.
Act 3, Scene 1 (1012-20, Martius scorns the plebeians’ revocation, and blames the patricians for having granted them a voice at all; Cominius and Menenius try to change his mind, but by the act’s conclusion Martius will be accused of tyranny and treason and banished; the Senate has returned Corioles to the Volscians)
In the first scene, Martius addresses the dynamics of power, an issue about which both sides have some smart things to say. Brutus and Sicinius are standing around (as usual) as Martius talks with his fellow patricians in a Roman street. Martius says derisively that the people are a “Hydra” (1014, 3.1.96) and that, “In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst our Senate / The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition …” (1013, 3.1.73-74). His name-calling skills are crisp as ever: “so shall my lungs / Coin words till their decay against those measles / Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought / The very way to catch them” (1013, 3.1.81-84). If two sides vie for power and there’s no supremacy either way, what happens? Somebody must lead: there must be order, not anarchy (1014, 3.1.112-15). This is Martius’ military background informing his political philosophy. Brutus and Sicinius don’t necessarily disagree, but they’re coming at the matter from their own class-based perspective, and they resent Martius’ assumption that the plebeian order and its demands are fundamentally illegitimate, even worthless. The general sees it as patrician cowardice even to play ball with the plebeians. The charge of treachery and tyranny Brutus and Sicinius level at this point is as yet unfair (1015, 3.1.165), since Martius hasn’t yet done anything treasonous. But events are running in the Tribunes’ favor, so they take advantage, calling loudly for Martius’ apprehension and execution at the Tarpeian Rock (1017, 3.1.210-12). Menenius will try to get Martius to smooth things over (1019, 3.1.326-28), but we may well suspect how that plan will go.
Act 3, Scene 2 (1020-23, Martius’ patrician relatives and friends — chiefly Volumnia, Cominius, and Menenius — fearing civil strife, talk him into feigning contrition in the Market, and he promises)
In the third act, we have seen Martius first getting talked into presenting himself to the plebeians, then infuriated by the result, and now his well-wishers, fearing the worst sort of civil unrest, try to convince him to pretend to be contrite in the Market where the people assemble. Volumnia’s argument seems to be the canniest: “If it be honour in you wars to seem / The same you are not … / how is it less or worse / That it shall hold companionship in peach / With honour …?” (1021, 3.2.47-51) It’s hardly certain that Martius buys any of this rhetoric, but he accedes to his mother’s request: “Well, I will do’t” (1022, 3.2.101).
Act 3, Scene 3 (1023-27, In the Market, the Tribunes charge Martius with “tyranny,” deliberately provoking him to scorn and abandon Rome)
Brutus and Sicinius are politically adept, we can tell, and their plan is based on a thorough understanding of their noble quarry — they will simply keep jabbing him with accusations that get under his skin until he explodes with rage, and says something irrevocably damning to his own cause: “Being once chafed, he cannot / Be reined again to temperance” (1024, 3.3.27-28). In politics — even ancient politics — saying what you really think can get you into an infinite amount of hot water, and that is exactly what happens here.
Charged with tyranny (Brutus and Sicinius’ first sally, and as it turns out all that’s needed), Martius immediately takes the bait: “The fires i’th’lowest hell fold in the people!” (1024, 3.3.71) he snarls, and the game is up. “Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts …” (1026, 3.3.129), he hisses at his fellow Romans, and concludes with “Despising / For you the city, thus I turn my back. / There is a world elsewhere” (1027, 3.3.137-39). Rome is no longer worthy; he has been led to this point by his principled rigidity. Martius was bred to think of himself as the ultimate Roman, at least in his narrow, class-starched way, but now, by the end of the third act, he is thoroughly disillusioned with Rome and its people. He will soon find, as many ancients apparently did, that exile isn’t as sustainable a model for a compromised person’s future as it might seem. Rome is a world unto itself, and leaving it isn’t going to bring Martius peace.
By the end of Act 3, Martius, who has no patience with the democratic-spirited ritual of “kissing hands and shaking babies,” has arrived at a vital point in his unfortunate path not only to personal disgrace but to something worse: self-conscious betrayal of the Roman state and its citizens.
ACT FOUR OVERVIEW: Martius abandons Rome and transfers his loyalties to Aufidius and the Volscians; he begins hostilities against Rome, striking fear into both patricians and plebeians.
Act 4, Scenes 1-4 (1027-31, Martius prepares to leave Rome; Volumnia denounces Tribunes; Nicanor the spy informs Adrian that Rome is in turmoil; Martius travels to the gates of Aufidius’ home)
Martius takes a sad but stoic farewell from Rome, telling his wife and mother, “The beast / With many heads butts me away” (1027, 4.1.1-2), and to Menenius, “Tell these sad women / ‘Tis fond to wail inevitable strokes / As ’tis to laugh at ’em” (1027, 4.1.26-28).
That doesn’t stop Volumnia from curtly denouncing tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, as she does at (1029, 4.2.40-45). We next hear a conversation between a Volscian named Adrian and Nicanor, a Roman spy for the Volscians, who tells his acquaintance that Rome is full of “strange insurrections” (1030, 4.3.12-13), with all factions working against one another. Nicanor’s assumption that Aufidius “will appear / well in these wars” (1030, 4.3.28-29), however, is somewhat off the mark: it is Martius himself who will shine most brightly in such broils against Rome.
By 4.4, Martius is at the gates of the enemy city, having turned his back on Rome, and in disguise he comes to the home of Aufidius, expecting either to be accepted or killed. At this point, it probably doesn’t matter to him which fate he is dealt: he has become alienated from what makes him who he is: Roman military and class ideology, a sense of belonging with the best. So either fate would put an end to the chaos of the present situation, and Martius doesn’t deal well with uncertainty or chaos — something that links him with other tragic or near-tragic figures like Othello, or Belarius of Cymbeline. “If he slay me,” says Caius of Aufidius, “He does fair justice; if he give me way, / I’ll do his country service” (1031, 4.4.24-26).
Act 4, Scene 5 (1031-36, Martius visits Aufidius, who has dreamt of him and who welcomes him; servingmen air their views on war)
Martius is at first almost turned away by a servant who calls him an ass or a “daw” (1032, 4.5.42-43), but he eventually gets his message through and finds acceptance. Martius is trapped, and it’s symptomatic that the rhetoric employed by this sometime man of few words swells to prolixity as he makes his attempt to convince Aufidius of his sincerity and usefulness; see (1033, 4.5.64-99).
Aufidius admits to envying Martius, even to the point of what sounds to some critics like homoeroticism: “Thou has beat me out / Twelve several times, and I have nightly since / Dreamt of encounters ‘twist thyself and me — / We have been down together in my sleep …” (1034, 4.5.120-23). These are in any case enemies who know each other’s qualities intimately, almost to the point of identifying with each other.
The intimacy between Martius and Aufidius stems in part from their outsized stature; neither man is entirely contained by his political and geographic particulars. Hegel’s master-servant dialectic implies that authentic selfhood requires reciprocity, mutual recognition. Aufidius may not exactly be a servant-consciousness, but Martius has been the master, one who doesn’t need to “think” himself deeply. Aufidius knows that Martius is a production into which a great deal of energy has been invested (a constant and convincing projection of strength takes a lot of a person’s energy), but also that he is not very self-aware regarding his beliefs and self-image, as we would put it today.
So now there’s nowhere for Martius to turn except to the opposite side and to an enemy with whom he feels a certain affinity based on his appraisal of the man’s personal value as a soldier and an aristocrat. Martius is in Aufidius’ clutches in spite of his own command of affairs among the Volscian generals. But for the moment, anyway, Martius receives an astonishingly warm welcome from his old adversary, who says openly that he has high hopes for what he will be able to do for the Volscians in the military and intelligence line against Rome.
Several servingmen round off Scene 5 with gossip, with the second such relating how assiduously Aufidius is wooing his old nemesis: “Our general himself makes a mistress of him, sanctifies himself with’s hand …” (1035, 4.5.193-94). A first and third serving man unite in their excitement at the coming-on of war: “Let me have war, say I” and “The wars for my money” (1036, 4.5.218, 4.5.228). Their view is similar to what many have opined: that peace makes a people dull and soft, while war makes them strong.
Act 4, Scene 6 (1036-40, the Tribunes and citizens are alarmed by news that the Volscians, led by Martius, are attacking Roman territories)
Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius seem quite self-assured at the beginning of this scene since they think Rome is doing fine without Martius. They soon find out, however, that the Volscians are now raiding Roman territories and that Martius is among their leaders. There is no denying the impact of this information: it throws the tribunes into a panic. Cominius tells them and surrounding citizens, “You have holp to ravish your own daughters and / To melt the city leads upon your pates, / To see your wives dishonoured to your noses” (1038, 4.6.85-87). This isn’t unrealistic since attacks on civilians during ancient wars were vicious — another example of such references would be Henry V’s threats against the town leaders in Harfleur, his question to them at the end of Henry V 3.3 being, “will you yield, and this avoid, / Or, guilty in defence, be thus destroy’d?” Some of the citizens in the present scene, put in mortal fear by what they’ve heard, repent their action against Martius; laments one, “I ever said we were i’th’wrong when we banished him” (1040, 4.6.163).
Based on what Cominius in particular says, the tribunes have no trouble discerning that they are not among friends: “These are a side that would be glad to have / This true which they so seem to fear” (1040, 4.6.159-61). There is no way to divorce the dreadful news from the class struggle going on in Rome.
Act 4, Scene 7 (1040-41, Aufidius airs his resentment of Martius)
Aufidius says of Martius, “He bears himself more proudlier, / Even to my person, than I thought he would / When first I did embrace him” (1040, 4.6.8-10). We register Aufidius’ deep resentment in still other passages: “All places yields to him ere he sits down, / And the nobility of Rome are his …” (1041, 4.7.28-29). But the trouble is that Martius can’t “Carry his honours” (1041, 4.7.37), whether due to pride, a judgment in defect, or nature. Aufidius is all but psychoanalyzing his longtime foe. The virtues of a man are subject to “th’interpretation of the time,” say Aufidius (1041, 4.7.50), and we may recall Titus Andronicus, that last honorable Roman amongst scores of Latin-parsing rascals. An ethical person surrounded by immoralists must come to a bad end, as Machiavelli informs us in The Prince. There’s no honor for Martius in the self-destructive treason he is committing now. Aufidius ends the scene with an instructive rhyme: “When, Caius, Rome is thine, / Thou art poor’st in all; then shortly art thou mine” (1041, 4.7.56-57).
ACT FIVE OVERVIEW: Martius scorns Cominius and gives Menenius a letter containing terms, but melts at the sight and sound of Volumnia, Virgilia, and Young Martius. Aufidius uses the peace agreement to betray Martius as a traitor to the Volscians, and has him murdered.
Act 5, Scenes 1-2 (1041-45, Cominius’ visit fails to soften Martius’ resolve, and Menenius has only slightly better luck; hopes remain that Volumnia and Virgilia will succeed)
Caius Martius took Roman values to a destructive extreme, a fault that cost him the people’s approval and much more: once again, Aristotle’s point about keeping to the golden mean applies. Martius has turned honor and strength into rigidity, absolute hardness, invulnerability. The fifth act delivers the ultimate consequences of this point. We hear that Cominius has visited Martius to soften his resolve, and failed utterly: “‘Coriolanus’ / He would not answer to, forbade al names. / He was a kind of nothing, titleless, / Till he had forged himself a name o’th’fire / Of burning Rome” (1042, 5.1.11-15). Ever the absolutist, Martius is determined to burn his past behind him, leaving nothing but a fiery present wherein his talents may generate a fierce new reputation.
In 5.2, Menenius tries his hand, with slightly better success since Martius hands him a letter, saying “I writ it for thy sake” (1045, 5.3.86). But we also find that Martius is firm in his contractual obligation to Aufidius and the Volscians. This is trouble because Martius is nothing if not a man of his word. As stated earlier in 5.1., the hopes of Rome will turn now to the chance that Martius’ wife and mother might be able to succeed where Cominius and Menenius have failed.
Act 5, Scene 3 (1045-50, Martius’ family prevail upon him to make peace, and Aufidius realizes the opportunity this presents to him)
Volumnia, Virgilia, and Young Martius now visit the Volscian camp to try their hand at getting Martius to relent. Little else remains since the Romans have refused the conditions set forth in the letter he had given to Menenius out of pity. It is clear that the very sight of these three begins to soften the stoic resolve and warlike fury of Martius, even before they speak: “I melt, and am not / Of stronger earth than others” (1046, 5.3.28-29). He has little choice but to hear them speak, and their arguments prove lethally effective. Volumnia frames her case by pointing out that her son has put his family in an impossible dilemma: “how can we for our country pray … / together with thy victory …?” (1048, 5.3.108-09), and later adds, “Think’st thou it honourable for a noble man / Still to remember wrongs?” (1049, 5.3.155-56)
The sight and sound of his beloved family works its magic, and Martius gives in — for the third time, since he relented under pressure in originally standing for consul, then in feigning contrition in the marketplace, and now during the hostilities he has brought to Rome’s doorstep. This time, the cause is pietas, to whichMartius accedes with what seems like relief mingled with foreboding: “O my mother, mother, O! / You have won a happy victory to Rome; / But for your son … / Most dangerously you have with him prevailed …” (1050, 5.3.186-89). Aufidius, hearing all this and Martius’ weak offering that he will at least “frame convenient peace” (1050, 5.3.192), makes an aside that reveals his treacherous nature: “I am glad thou hast set thy mercy and thy honour / At difference in thee. Out of that I’ll work / Myself a former fortune” (1050, 5.3.201-03). He knows that Martius’ peace-making can be turned into a reason to dismiss him from the Volscians’ good graces. We might at this juncture find it appropriate to read Martius’ impending downfall as something like a gloss on the brittleness of the stoic philosophy, which has here shown itself vulnerable to that most Freudian of enemies, “the return of the repressed”: that is, all the human feeling that Martius tried to bury or burn away now comes flooding back, with disastrous results for him.
Act 5, Scenes 4-6 (1050-56, Menenius laments getting only a letter importing conditions from Martius; good news arrives regarding Martius’ peace offer; Martius returns to Corioles, only to be betrayed by Aufidius before the city’s lords and then cut down by assassins)
Menenius laments that he had so little success with Martius, while it’s reported that the people in their desperation have captured the tribune Brutus and are threatening to kill him if Martius’ wife and mother don’t bring home good news. But good news comes, and that sets the stage for Martius’ sad end in Corioles, even as he returns to that alien city to great acclaim. Aufidius speaks with several conspirators of his faction, and resolves in bitterness to kill his old adversary: “he sold the blood and labour / Of our great action; therefore shall he die, / And I’ll renew me in his fall” (1055, 5.6.46-48). As formerly, Aufidius proves himself devious in deed as well as vow: violent fraud is fine with him. Power is an economy that relies on the principle of scarcity: more for one person is less for another.
When Martius reveals to the Volscian lords that he has “made peace / With no less honour to the Antiates / Than shame to th’Romans” (1054, 5.6.79-81) and offers to show them the exact conditions in writing, his reward is Aufidius’ “Read it not, noble lords, / But tell the traitor in the highest degree / He hath abused your powers” (1054, 5.6.84-86). Assassins soon thereafter kill Martius at Aufidius’ bidding, only to provoke the latter’s remorse: “My rage is gone, / And I am struck with sorrow” (1055-56, 5.6.147-48).
In Coriolanus, there really does seem to be a classical touch in that the play, like many Greek tragedies, is much more about attitude than action. It isn’t always so in Shakespeare’s plays, which have plenty of physical action and events. Coriolanus repeats Martius’s excessive virtues and over-the-top expression of them, and the attitudes of others towards these expressions. This is a pattern that repeats a number of times in the play, and lends it its structure.
Of course, Martius Coriolanus doesn’t have the complexity of a Macbeth or a Hamlet. He is a one-dimensional man; unlike even the melodrama villain Richard III, he can’t run with chaos and make it his element. He is a character devoid of inner conflict or turmoil; his consciousness is unified in its patrician, militaristic cast; this unity makes him as oddly compelling as he is ultimately resourceless in the face of the dreadful fate that overtakes him. Perhaps there’s a limitation that Shakespeare is respecting in the material itself, from Plutarch, and he has brought out as much from it as he can, and goes mainly with structural excellence over depth of character.
Samuel Johnson the neoclassical critic wrote that when we’re shown vice, it ought to disgust us — otherwise, the play’s influence over us will be bad. In Coriolanus, virtue actually becomes disgusting to us, which is a problem. Being so Roman that you’re un-Roman isn’t an attractive proposition. We might compare this process to its obverse in Antony and Cleopatra, wherein Mark Antony is so Roman that he’s capable of embracing eastern luxury, dallying with Cleopatra the Hellenistic Egyptian ruler, and yet remaining Roman — at least until the end of the play, where things go badly for him. Antony remains admirable in defeat, but I don’t see that Coriolanus does.
As Machiavelli says, where the crowd is, there’s room only for the crowd and for its own “opinion,” which must be acknowledged. Our unfortunate Roman general can’t abide in that fact; he can’t project an appearance that differs from who he really is. In the end, what he is turns out to be so limiting that he can’t overcome the force of circumstance. Finally, it is worth referring to an ancient pattern that sheds further light on the tragedy that befalls Coriolanus. It’s the one we can find in the biographies of the Greek general and (according to Plato) favorite pupil of Socrates, Alcibiades (c. 450-404 BCE), and the Athenian historian (see his excellent book The Peloponnesian War) and general Themistocles (c. 524-459 BCE). The former was a skilled, aristocratic general whose labyrinthine career made him at times lauded and vilified by the Athenians and who met a bad end in Phrygia, while Themistocles (not born an aristocrat) was exiled to Argos and ended up in the service of the Persian ruler Artaxerxes I. Both of these men were the product of their times and of the complex Athenian value system by which their people lived. In both cases, a strong feeling of betrayal or, to borrow a Miltonic phrase, “sense of injured merit,” seems to have led profoundly talented men to take on the status of traitors to their group. The superiority that may have put stable prominence before these leaders’ eyes was treated by the Greeks in a rather mercenary fashion, like a tool to be cast aside as soon as present work was done, and so they ended up alienated from what had made them who they were. Caius Martius Coriolanus’ fate is not dissimilar to those of Themistocles or Alcibiades: he is the excess of the code that generated or scripted him, and the excess of that caste-based honor code proves destructive both to him personally and to the Roman state.
Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.
Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake