Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Coriolanus: One Against the World

It's never easy to make a Shakespeare play review. There are so many things to say, and yet I don't know where to start or how to say them. Being somewhat excluded from the "famous" tragedies such as Hamlet, Macbeth, or King Lear, I find Coriolanus has been underrated, where it deserves better acknowledgement.

The setting is Rome. Caius Martius is a renowned soldier who fights with all his heart and might for Rome. His iron-like character he partly owes to his ambitious mother, who, like Alexander's, desires glory, honour, and prestige for her son. Raised as a soldier, Caius Martius becomes an excellent war-machine, but a bad politician - especially when it comes to his relationship with the plebeian. He hates them, and they hate him.
He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese:
Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust Ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland.
After his glory in Corioles, he is granted the position of a consul and the nickname 'Coriolanus'. Not for long. Soon after, he takes the bait that the tribunes lay for him, and he loses control of his temper, giving a speech that ruins everything he has. He is banished shortly after. Or, from his point of view, he banishes the people.

Coriolanus has one dire enemy - Tullus Aufidius, a Volsce. They have fought several times and Coriolanus always wins. Both share the same hatred toward one another. But his banishment changes everything. Now he goes to Aufidius and offers him help to defeat his own country. Aufidius accepts the offer, thinking that he will be the one who benefits.
Now this extremity
Hath brought me to thy hearth; not out of hope--
Mistake me not--to save my life, for if
I had fear'd death, of all the men i' the world
I would have 'voided thee, but in mere spite,
To be full quit of those my banishers,
Stand I before thee here.
That my revengeful services may prove
As benefits to thee, for I will fight
Against my canker'd country with the spleen
Of all the under fiends.
Not really. Aufidius envy Coriolanus' charisma that inspires people - his people - to follow him. He doesn't shine beside Coriolanus. Aufidius decides to find a way to get rid of this Roman. He gets his chance soon enough.

The people of Rome, hearing that Coriolanus has joined armies with Aufidius, send messenger after messenger to seek his mercy. These messengers are his old friends, and yet, Coriolanus doesn't budge. No, he is determined to see Rome destroyed. But Coriolanus, stubborn and hard-hearted as he is, still has some soft spots in his heart. So when his mother, wife, and son come to meet him, his determination melts away. He proposes peace between Rome and Volsce. Aufidius sees this as a reason to kill Coriolanus, and he seizes the chance without delay.

Coriolanus, Act V, Scene III. Engraved by James Caldwell from a painting by Gavin Hamilton.
The ending is by no means fair for the hero. Alone he dies while his mother becomes a patroness. Alone he dies, with none of his family and friends knowing. His death doesn't change anything in the system that he hates so much. Just another fall of man.


If there's any fault in Coriolanus' character, I don't think it is pride, as Brutus and Sicinius think. A proud man would love to hear his "nothings monster'd", or his deeds shouted loud with "acclamations hyperbolical." No, it is not haughtiness or pride. Coriolanus sets a high standard for himself and measures other people's worth using the same standard. That's his problem.

He hates the people because they ask much without showing they deserve to have the things they demand. He calls his fellow soldiers cowards because they don't show courage and valour equal to his. He despises people who puts his own interests, especially materially,  over the country. This standard he follows, and he thinks he's just doing what he -and everyone else - should do.
I have done
As you have done; that's what I can; induced
As you have been; that's for my country:
He that has but effected his good will
Hath overta'en mine act.
His second fault is of course his unbridled tongue. His friends, such as Menenius and Cominius might share his feelings and opinion about the people, but they keep their mouth shut. They know how to 'flatter' the people - saying things that they would love to hear (pretty much like many politicians nowadays). But Coriolanus cannot speak words that 'are but rooted in his tongue'. He speaks what's in his heart too plainly that it sounds so harsh and rude.
His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for's power to thunder. His heart's his mouth:
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent;
And, being angry, does forget that ever
He heard the name of death.
It's so easy to sympathise with people in this play. I mean, Shakespeare's always brilliant when it comes to characterization, but Coriolanus is one of those that just sticks in one's head. Not just him. Cominius and Menenius, Volumnia and Virgilia, even Aufidius, are all fascinating characters that people can easily relate to.

To sum up all, Coriolanus, for me, is another play about a man "more sinn'd against than sinning."

1 comment:

  1. I agree with "His second fault is of course his unbridled tongue". It's just that people could not understand him, and he them. Coriolanus might be a charismatic leader, but certainly not a politician...