Shakespeare's Coriolanus

2020-10-07 @Literature

Here’s a little tragedy that should appeal to anyone with a palate for political extravaganza. The tragedy is the bard’s last, but by no means least across any dimension. Similar to Julius Caesar, the plot draws on Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, with the touch of impressive prosody and characterization.

Caius Marcius (Coriolanus) is one of the most impulsive and intractable antiheroes to represent someone of this political caliber among all the Bard’s plays at my perusal.

While held to near legendary esteem in battle, as Caesar, Alexander, and arguably Macbeth, Coriolanus’s structural weakness is his tongue which he cannot tame to save his life. Hopelessly conceited, infatuated with his own legend, he demonstrates virtual contempt for the public who’s very approval he craves to acquire a Consular seat.

Once exposed to the podium, whatever diplomacy and restraint he premeditated crumbles to ash. The slightest impulse, the barest provocation sets him ablaze, expressing his earnest disposition in total plainness.

I’m not versed in political affairs and don’t know where you would categorize a contemporary Coriolanus - left, right, militant?

In all, however, the personage was molded for slaying vermin at the battlefield.

The senate sympathizes with him, yet the Tribunes (the people’s representatives) detest his existence like an incurable disease. Regretfully, the Tribunes manipulate the public opinion with the same alacrity as Coriolanus his blade in the course of carving the Volsicans (Rome’s chief enemy).

Unfortunate it is, as there’s hint of some otherwise independent brainwork among the public, which the Tribunes subdue without a second consideration.

Beyond Coriolanus, one of my favourite personages is Volumnia, the mother. She’s one of those ambitious mothers whom fortune could have easily steered towards maniacal villainy, as Titus Andronicus' Tamora (queen of the Goths), or (from the top of my head, appealing to Chaucer’s Man of Law’s tale) the treacherous mother to the Syryan Sultan, or Donegild, mother to King Alla of Northumberland. All personify vice better than Lucifer.

But Volumnia’s moral compass turned out solid. Her only sign of extravagance lies in that same ambition for her son that he reserves for himself. At every instance she expects nothing less than that he wreck chaos on the battlefield. And she yearns that he acquire the public voice by nearly divine ordinance.

That should be enough of an appetizer. How about some noteworthy excerpts:

The famous ‘belly’ discourse (1.1.98-160)


 Note me this, good friend;
 Your most grave belly was deliberate,
 Not rash like his accusers, and thus answer’d:
 'True is it, my incorporate friends,‘ quoth he,
 'That I receive the general food at first,
 Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
 Because I am the store-house and the shop
 Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
 I send it through the rivers of your blood,
 Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o’ the brain;
 And, through the cranks and offices of man,
 The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
 From me receive that natural competency
 Whereby they live: and though that all at once,
 You, my good friends,‘–this says the belly, mark me,–

First Citizen

 Ay, sir; well, well.


 'Though all at once cannot
 See what I do deliver out to each,
 Yet I can make my audit up, that all
 From me do back receive the flour of all,
 And leave me but the bran.’ What say you to’t?

Coriolanus' sentiments towards having to plead to the people for consular vote (2.3.119-131)


 Most sweet voices!
 Better it is to die, better to starve,
 Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
 Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here,
 To beg of Hob and Dick, that do appear,
 Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to’t:
 What custom wills, in all things should we do’t,
 The dust on antique time would lie unswept,
 And mountainous error be too highly heapt
 For truth to o'er-peer. Rather than fool it so,
 Let the high office and the honour go
 To one that would do thus. I am half through;
 The one part suffer’d, the other will I do.

Coriolanus anticipates the collapse of his inner-faculty in order to beg pardon (3.3.110-122)


 Well, I must do’t:
 Away, my disposition, and possess me
 Some harlot’s spirit! my throat of war be turn’d,
 Which quired with my drum, into a pipe
 Small as an eunuch, or the virgin voice
 That babies lulls asleep! the smiles of knaves
 Tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys' tears take up
 The glasses of my sight! a beggar’s tongue
 Make motion through my lips, and my arm’d knees,
 Who bow’d but in my stirrup, bend like his
 That hath received an alms! I will not do’t,
 Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth
 And by my body’s action teach my mind
 A most inherent baseness.

Coriolanus reproaches Volumnia for not showing her classic battle spirit in midst of his hardship. (4.1.1-12)


 Come, leave your tears: a brief farewell: the beast
 With many heads butts me away. Nay, mother,
 Where is your ancient courage? you were used
 To say extremity was the trier of spirits;
 That common chances common men could bear;
 That when the sea was calm all boats alike
 Show’d mastership in floating; fortune’s blows,
 When most struck home, being gentle wounded, craves
 A noble cunning: you were used to load me
 With precepts that would make invincible
 The heart that conn’d them.

How Coriolanus comes to construe his friends (5.1.26-28).


 I offer’d 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 the offence.

5.4.16-26. Menenius, on Coriolanus.


 So did he me: and he no more remembers his mother
 now than an eight-year-old horse. The tartness
 of his face sours ripe grapes: when he walks, he
 moves like an engine, and the ground shrinks before
 his treading: he is able to pierce a corslet with
 his eye; talks like a knell, and his hum is a
 battery. He sits in his state, as a thing made for
 Alexander. What he bids be done is finished with
 his bidding. He wants nothing of a god but eternity
 and a heaven to throne in.

Questions, comments? Connect.