Coriolanus (expertly recounted by Brent here) begins as a political parable and mutates into something much stranger and more horrifying. From the very first scene Caius Martius (later Coriolanus) is at odds with the Roman plebeians, his illustrious military service to Rome overshadowed by his open disdain for common folk. Much of Coriolanus' hatred is bitterly prejudicial ("Bid them wash their faces / And keep their teeth clean," he says after being cajoled into eliciting their support for his consulship). And yet, his tirades against flattery still seem fresh and incisive in the era of the 24-hour media campaign:
CORIOLANUS: I will, sir, flatter my sworn brother, the people, to earn a dearer estimation of them. 'Tis a condition they account gentle; and since the wisdom of their choice is rather to have my hat than my heart, I will practice the insinuating nod and be off to them most counterfeitly.
He says he will, but he will not; he cannot; he simply isn't capable. The closest he can come to glad-handing the people is to say that he will, and in prose, rather than the iambic pentameter reserved for conversing with patricians. As grotesque as Coriolanus is, his unwillingness to dissemble, and the sharp contrast between him and the duplicitous tribunes that plot his downfall, Sicinius and Brutus, are what maintain our sympathy toward him.
When the tribunes successfully rouse the people into exiling Coriolanus, he joins forces with the Volscian general Aufidius, whom he had formerly routed in the name of Rome, and turns to attack his native city. I have to respectfully disagree with Brent that Aufidius is not "fleshed out;" though he has little stage time his relationship with Coriolanus is fascinating. I usually don't fall in for critical theories that see homoeroticism everywhere, but there is no doubt in my mind that Aufidius' obsession with Coriolanus is sexually charged:
AUFIDIUS: Let me twine
Mine arms about thy body, whereagainst
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke,
And scarred the moon with splinters...
Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
Coriolanus, for his part, says of Aufidius, "And were I any thing but what I am, / I would wish to be only he." But once allied with his enemy, Coriolanus quickly forgets his former regard and retreats into himself. On the brink of exile, he rails that "There is a world elsewhere," but Coriolanus deems himself too large, too limitless, to admit any one or thing into his own private world. At the head of the Volscian army, he seems to have transformed into something superhuman, a terror unbound to the world:
He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
Till he had forged himself a name o' th' fire
Of burning Rome.
These words are Cominius', the current consul and Coriolanus' former friend. Brilliantly, Shakespeare establishes the report of the march on Rome before the march itself, in a dialogue between Cominius and Coriolanus' mentor Menenius that sounds like the conversation between two men on death row, or the same having arrived together at the gates of Hell. "If he could burn us all into one coal," says Menenius to the tribunes, "We have deserved it." The theme of their exchange is that Coriolanus, no coward before, has become all the more frightening having shaken off the ties of family, friendship, and state:
COMINIUS: I offered to awaken his regard
For's private friends. His answer to me was
He could not stay to pick them in a pile
Of noisome, musty chaff. He said 'twas folly,
For one poor grain or two, to leave unburnt
And still to nose th' offense.
MENENIUS: For one poor grain or two?
I am one of those! His mother, wife, his child,
And this brave fellow too, we are the grains.
As his mother, Volumnia, sallies forth from the city walls to beg for mercy, Coriolanus himself echoes this, saying, "I'll never / Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin."
Volumnia is a grotesque, seen in the opening act bragging about sending her son to war and thanking the gods for his wounds. At the end, her plea for mercy begins sympathetically but becomes increasingly desperate and unpleasant, parodying her former praise of an honorable death. Coriolanus breaks down and relents, though his words suggest he knows that to do so will mean the undoing of both his honor and his life:
O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But for your son--believe it, O believe it!--
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him.
And indeed, Coriolanus, returning empty-handed from Rome, is killed by the people of Corioles, the city he had sacked single-handedly and from which he had taken his name.
This is the final irony of Coriolanus: Convinced he needs no one but his self, he tries to fashion himself into a sort of ronin, loosed from any relationship or deed that might seek to define him, to become the "author of himself." But Coriolanus is not Hamlet and he has no inner wellspring from which to draw. He can cast off "Caius Martius," the name his mother gave him, but in the end he is his mother's son. Even the name "Coriolanus," which Aufidius denies him on the precipice of his murder, anchors him to a place outside of himself.
Not knowing that Coriolanus' mother has begged peace of him, Menenius continues to despair, but his praise is rendered absurd: "The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes." When the myth of Coriolanus' making is undone, he is left with nothing. And though he loathes flattery, even of himself, and loathes the people for preferring his "hat" to his "heart," he fails to realize that he is more hat than heart--it is the accounting of his deeds that most defines him, more than his deeds and far more than his character. Though he disdains their speech, calling them mere "voices," without their voices he exists hardly at all.