My latest reading involved another of Shakespeare’s tragedies: Coriolanus. It is my understanding that this work is one of Shakespeare’s later ones, and I believe this holds a stark contrast from Lear. Lear, in my opinion, had much more complex characters, plot devices, and betrayals. While I think you could say betrayal plays a part, Coriolanus just doesn’t seem nearly as involved as Lear at face value.
As a structure, I feel Coriolanus moves fairly quickly. The acts are made up short scenes, and all build upon the main storyline. There is a slight difficult factor with understanding as lots of names sound similar, and they’re all the Roman -aius’ and ‘-tius’. Also, future readers should note that Caius Martius and Coriolanus ARE THE SAME PERSON. I would also suggest readers noting the difference between Patricians and Plebeians of Ancient Rome. The Patricians are those born to privilege who are mainly holding sway in the consul, as they have the power and moolah to make their word true. The Plebeians are the ones currently starving who would rather not be starving, and form the angry mob that waffles on their support for whichever party will give them what they want. Is it 100% necessary to know the difference? Probably not, but I do think it will help get readers sucked into the action. I would NOT say that there are major subplots for secondary characters that would confuse the reader so much that they would deem this play a hopeless case.
Coriolanus seems to span its five acts with three main sections. The first, where the audience meets the tragic hero – now named Martius, or Caius Martius, paints the picture of the epitome of a Roman soldier and war hero. The guy conquered an entire city by himself, as he raced after the retreating Volscian army. Great visual here: as his army is wondering what they should do, Maritus opens the gates covered in blood, that of his enemies or his own yet to be decided by his soldiers, and they give him the name Coriolanus, honorably named after the now-conquered city of Corioles. The audience also learns that Rome is in an uproar as the plebeians (Roman citizens not born to privilege, 0 political power, starving, angry mob) demand a voice.
The second section would be the failed attempt as a consul. Before the start of this play, Rome was ruled in a monarchy, we learn that Martius helped oust King Tarquin, and now Rome is a republic. Now, Martius is a Patrician, he should be born to rule. The guy needs a personality adjustment. He needs the people’s votes. Too bad he is known to have an anger problem, and has been heard speaking against the common people. Now the scheming politicians convince the common people to take back their votes, and in turn, turn their backs on Coriolanus. The once revered war hero are jumping on the banishment bandwagon. Better to save the politics for sleazeballs, it is far more important to keep tyrants out of the city. If he’d been a bit less full of pride, perhaps Coriolanus would have been a successful politician.
The last section is Coriolanus’s return. After his banishment, Coriolanus decides to join forces with his prior enemies and heads over to the Volscian army and his rival, Aufidius. I guess it is a good time to point out that, though both have fought each other almost to the death, they still respect one another as soldiers. In fact, based on the compliments Coriolanus continues to give Aufidius, it seems like Coriolanus holds more respect for Aufidius than for the people of Rome. Now Coriolanus isn’t one to leave with his pride broken. In joining with the Volsces, Coriolanus vows to bring Aufidius to the gates of Rome and use his anger or “revengeful services” to “fight against my cankered country with the spleen of all the under fiends.” So now, instead of letting a prideful man sit in the consul, we have an angered brute vowed to take his revenge upon his homeland, that same homeland that he fought so bravely and fearlessly to protect in the beginning of the play.
Too bad Aufidius is still a mighty warrior. He can’t just turn off being a source of brute force. So when his men get all pumped up that Coriolanus is such a fearsome warrior, Aufidius devises a plan to get the competition out of the way once and for all. He reminds his men that Coriolanus stole the name from their conquered city, that Coriolanus is responsible for countless deaths, and that they must seize their opportunity to eliminate Coriolanus while it is knocking. So, violence is everywhere.
Did I mention that Coriolanus’ own son chases and kills butterflies for fun? Or that Coriolanus’ mother raised him in violence, that him losing a limb in battle would just be an outer badge of his courage and brutality. His wife, Vigilia, seems to be the only person who doesn’t love violence. I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to take her character. On one hand, she seems kind of wimpy. She is silent almost all the time. She doesn’t want Martius to go to war, but she doesn’t stop him, or share her opinion either. She weeps when he comes home. No exclamations of joy, just silent tears. Could be a sign of weakness, or silent, resolute, strength. There’s just not a lot of characterizations happening with these supporting characters, I can’t tell how she is supposed to be portrayed to an audience.
So what makes this a tragedy? After Coriolanus has been talked down by his family (who was going to remain in Rome as it was flattened by Coriolanus and the Volscian army), Aufidius can’t stand how his army has decided to worship Coriolanus’ prowess. Aufidius convinces his people that Coriolanus is the reason they were not successful before (the war at the beginning of the play), that Coriolanus has committed treason. He doesn’t get a trial. Aufidius’ conspirators just kind of rush and stab him, kind of like Julius Caesar. The fall of Coriolanus is a pretty abrupt one, and not really worthy of the war hero he used to be. Plus side: Aufidius doesn’t go back and sack Rome, so you know, pros and cons.
Overall, I think once readers get past the name barrier (kind of like in Troilus and Cressida, there’s just a lot that sound similar which this reader finds confusing), I think Coriolanus will be enjoyable if you want some quick moving action. I’m not thrilled with the abrupt ending, though it could be fitting. Coriolanus was blinded and banished by his pride, so it is a reversal of fortune to go out with little pomp and fanfare.
Next up: A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This play doesn’t have a specific time of action, but it is one of my favorites and will help break up the run of tragedies.
279 days to go!