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Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s strangest and most controversial plays. Its principal figure is a warrior, exemplary in his courage and single-minded dedication, who finds it difficult to adjust to life away from the battlefield. Refusing to compromise and contemptuous of anyone who does not live up to his exacting standards, Coriolanus, not long after being nominated for the high political office of consul, is cast into exile, accused of treason and ends up leading an army to invade and destroy Rome.
Though Coriolanus, more than any other play by Shakespeare, mounts a sustained critique of Roman values, productions again and again have situated the play in “states unborn” at the time of its supposed action. The most recent film version, starring and directed by Ralph Fiennes, relocates the play to the Balkans, bristling with state-of-the-art military hardware. In 1933-1934, a production of the play at the Comédie Française occasioned riots by rival groups of socialists and fascists, each of whom saw the play as right-wing polemic. Translations published in Nazi Germany described Coriolanus as “the true hero and Führer,” opposed to “a misled people, a false democracy… weaklings.” In the 1950s, Bertolt Brecht, skeptical of heroism, rewrote the play, turning it into “the tragedy of a people that has a hero against it.”
The Fiennes film, shot in Serbia with soldiers from the elite Serbian anti-terrorist unit, the SAJ, playing Roman soldiers and advising the cast, shows that similar values still motivate conduct today. According to the Serbian actor Dragan Micanovic, who played one of the major roles in the film, “after 400 years, we still have Coriolanuses in the world… We learn so little from our mistakes” (London Daily Telegraph, January 20, 2012).
Equating maternity with warfare, Volumnia speaks of her son as having in infancy sucked “valiantness” from her breast, seeing her role as conduit for the masculine, militaristic values of Rome. In the Roman ideology where “valor is the chiefest virtue” (act 2, scene 2), heroism is proved by being wounded, and the most convincing proof is dying in battle. At one point, Volumnia rejoices that her son has been wounded, adding to the 25 wounds he has already been able to show to illustrate his prowess: “O, he is wounded, I thank the gods for’t” (act 2, scene 1). To Volumnia, nothing is more beautiful than blood, the emblem of masculinity.
At a key moment in the play, surrounded by his enemies, the proud and inflexible Coriolanus cries, “I banish you… There is a world elsewhere” (act 3, scene 3). But for a Roman like Coriolanus, brought up in the ideal of service to the commonwealth, striking blows “for Rome,” there can be no world elsewhere: he carries Rome with him wherever he goes. When his old comrades Cominius and Menenius come to beg him to spare Rome after, exiled, he leads an army of Volscians to Rome’s gates, they see him as implacable, a machine bent on destruction. In this scene, Coriolanus, solitary and unyielding, claims to be able to resist the promptings of “instinct” and “stand / As if a man were author of himself, / And knew no other kin” (act 5, scene 3). But in this scene alone, the words “Rome” and “Roman” echo no fewer than 15 times, ten of them spoken by Coriolanus himself. When, in a final appeal, his mother, wife and son come before him, the pressure becomes too much for him to bear, and he realizes that if he spares Rome, he will inevitably bring about his own destruction. Forever an outcast, he can find a home nowhere on earth.
Throughout the play, Coriolanus treats the plebeians with undisguised contempt. According to him, they are fickle, unreliable, instinctively opposed to the “worthy” and virtuous: “You cry against the noble senate, who / Under the gods, keep you in awe” (act 1, scene 1). Any concession to the “rabble” is unjustified, “dangerous lenity,” a recipe for disaster. In language that is frequently violent, lacking discretion, he treats his domestic opponents like foreign enemies encountered on the battlefield and his allies as weak and irresolute. The deeply conservative sentiments expressed in many such passages in Coriolanus have met with different responses by later critics. Some (probably including T. S. Eliot, who praised Coriolanus as a far greater play than Hamlet and wrote an unfinished poem titled Coriolan) saw Shakespeare as an advocate of traditional conservative values. Others, like the 19th-century essayist William Hazlitt or Brecht, a century later, were repelled by what they saw as the play’s reactionary ideology.
But Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is neither a model of conduct nor a horrible example: he is a tragic hero, brought down by his own inherent faults of character, qualities admirable in some circumstances, disastrous in others. Cicero in his treatise De Officiis, enormously influential during the Renaissance, makes exactly this point, though not specifically about Shakespeare’s character. Greatness of spirit, appropriate “in times of danger and toil,” when not allied with a concern for justice and the common good, becomes barbarism, the wilfulness characteristic of tyrants:
But if the exaltation of spirit in times of danger and toil is devoid of justice and fights for selfish ends instead of for the common good, it is a vice; for it not only has no element of virtue, but its nature is barbarous and repellent… From this exaltation and greatness of spirit spring all too readily self-will and excessive lust for power. (De Officiis, I. xix)
If Coriolanus cannot be accused (like Julius Caesar, the figure Cicero has in mind in this passage) of “lust for power,” the “self-will” he displays throughout the play is dangerous both to him and to the health of the Roman state, and leads to his downfall. Schiller’s Wallenstein, another proud warrior “high above the common herd,” fits Cicero’s description even more closely.
The circumstances of Schiller’s play differ considerably, but Wallenstein shares with Coriolanus a “commanding spirit,” impatient of restraint, inspiring those around him with both admiration and dread and like Coriolanus, he dies alone. Coriolanus, in the closing moments of Shakespeare’s play, seems to court death, stirring up memories of the Volscian sons and fathers he has killed, as he defiantly asserts his view of himself as a solitary heroic individual, without ties.
Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads,
Stain all your edges on me…
If you have writ your annals true, `tis there
That like an eagle in a dovecote, I
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles.
Alone I did it, boy! (act 5, scene 6).
The one man Coriolanus considers a kindred spirit is his bitter enemy, the Volscian general Aufidius. Throughout the play, the embraces of lovers are equated with hand-to-hand combat, with the marital embrace coming off second-best. Coriolanus’ greeting to his fellow Roman soldier Cominius on the battlefield, early in the play, presents the companionship of men as morally superior and more satisfying emotionally than the softer attractions of the marriage bed. Aufidius’ outburst, on recognizing the disguised Coriolanus in the Volscian camp, is overt in its expression of homoerotic desire, equating love and war in potentially disruptive terms. Love and hate, the ties of friendship, passionate rivalry, competitive emulation, and sexual union, are confounded.
Let me twine
Mine arms against that body where against
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke,
And scarred the moon with splinters.
[He embraces Coriolanus.]
Here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valor. (act 4, scene 5)
The key words here are “contest” and “contend,” terms that suggest both imitation and enmity. What they are contending for, in the ideology common to Romans and Volscians, is honor, the hope of being the subject of praise during one’s lifetime and leading a “noble memory” after death, but the expression of love here implies its opposite. In welcoming the Roman general as a comrade in arms, Aufidius tells him of a recurrent dream he has had, charged with sexual energy, which is virtually a dream of copulation. It is no surprise when, later in the play, this homoerotic desire turns into uncontrolled hatred. Aufidius, openly violating the accepted canons of honorable behavior, vows that he would stop at nothing to destroy his enemy, taking any opportunity he can find.
The world of Coriolanus is one where love and fierce, uncontrollable hatred, honor and dishonor, love of country and rejection of any ties of loyalty, can never be disentangled. It is, as the Ralph Fiennes film shows, a world disturbingly like our own, in a state of seemingly continuous warfare, with no quarter, conditions that test the values by which we purport to live. The martial hero, despising the rituals of civilization, becomes a ravenous beast in a savage universe where, in a moment, predator can turn into prey.
Warren Chernaik, Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London, is the author
of The Myth of Rome in Shakespeare and his Contemporaries (2011), The Cambridge
Introduction to Shakespeare’s History Plays (2007) and other books.