Monday, January 23, 2012

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for ‘s power to thunder.

Coriolanus, by most reckonings Shakespeare’s last tragedy, is probably also his least known (Only Timon of Athens or Cymbeline could really contest it for obscurity, I think), but since there’s a new film adaption that’s been getting rave reviews, it seemed like a good time to give it a shot.

Coriolanus is a warrior, but not just any warrior. He’s more like a Shakespearean Superman, completely fearless and virtually indestructible. However, unlike Othello, maybe his closest analog, he isn’t beloved. He’s arrogant and has little regard for the opinions of those he considers beneath him, which is almost everyone, excluding his mother, Voluminia, his wife, Virgilia, and his mentor, Menenius, . Having returned from a battle with the Volsces, led by his chief rival, Tullus Arfidius, in which he more-or-less singlehandedly won the day, Coriolanus is honored by the senate, but, through the scheming of certain senators, the people are turned against him, and his day of victory becomes one of sorrow, as he is exiled from Rome. He allies himself with Arfidius, his former enemy, to destroy Rome, but, at the last minute, is convinced by his mother to broker a peace instead. Of course, this being a tragedy, he is betrayed and killed in the final pages of the play.

Coriolanus is a little different from the typical Shakespearean lead because we’re not given much of a glimpse into his psyche. There are no real soliloquies, no soul-searching, for him. He’s a man’s man, a warrior who values battle and valor for their own sake and always speaks his mind. He’s not a very sympathetic protagonist in a lot of ways, but the conspiracies that slowly destroy his life turn him into an antihero for the people—a term the patrician Coriolanus would probably detest—in the sense that, who hasn’t felt like they were under-appreciated despite clearly being the best at what they do?

There’s an interesting fascist undertone to the play as well. Coriolanus is openly contemptuous of the common folk, disparaging them for wanting to influence the workings of empire, and, while the play never explicitly states that he is correct, his tragic heroism gives his statist leanings a sheen of idealism, something for Shakespeare scholars to fight over for a while, when they get tired of arguing about sexism in Taming of the Shrew.


Christopher said...

Cymbeline's not much of a tragedy, though. I'm through Act I--so far, I like it a lot. I'm really intrigued by Volumnia.

Brent Waggoner said...

She's probably the most interesting character. It's sort of strange to me how little the villains are fleshed out--even Arfidius only gets one really in-depth scene--but it all seems intentional. I saw several analyses that seemed to think it was supposed to be a "god tragedy", or whatever you'd call those myths where one god kills another.

Christopher said...

Oh, I think Arfidius is pretty fascinating, even just in the first act.

Christopher said...


Brent Waggoner said...