Coriolanus is possibly Shakespeare’s most disappointing play. Not because it’s a bad play – indeed, by the standards of most writers, it is a masterpiece. But it is Shakespeare’s last tragedy, and follows on the heels of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra (I exclude Timon of Athens from this list as that one is unlikely to be anything more than an early draft) – i.e. it follows on the heels of some of the most awe-inspiring achievements of the human imagination. And this play, with its long and unremitting focus on essentially simple characters and simple situations (simple, at least, in comparison with its predecessors), just does not live up to expectations.
But for all that, regarded in its own right, it’s a fine play. In some ways, it seems that Shakespeare had gone out of his way to write a complete antithesis of its predecessor, Antony and Cleopatra. Where the earlier play had depicted a wide range of humanity in a dazzling variety of colours and in constantly changing forms, Coriolanus focuses intently on a small group of characters who seem unable to change or to develop; and instead of the extravagant splashes of colour, we seem to have here an austere, monochromatic grey. Where, in Antony and Cleopatra, the stage seems barely big enough to contain such overflowing vitality, here, in one of Shakespeare’s longest plays, we focus unremittingly on a simple narrative line, uncluttered with any subplot.
Coriolanus is a fighting machine, and little more. All those elements of the human character that are traditionally regarded as “feminine” – tenderness, gentleness, compassion, fellow-feeling – seem to have been sucked out of him. The very first time we see him, he bids a starving multitude to “go hang”. And then, we see his mother, and begin to understand how her son came to be this way – for Volumnia is possibly the most “masculine” character Shakespeare ever created. In certain respects, she reminded me of Ma Jarrett in the Jimmy Cagney film White Heat – a harsh woman who takes great pride in seeing her son as the unthinking, beef-witted man of violence that he is. This deeply unattractive man is the son she had wanted: she has moulded him in her own image.
And the society these characters inhabit is also without those qualities that many would consider make us human: pity, compassion – these are all conspicuous by their absence. There is love there: Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia obviously have a great love for each other. But, until the very striking scene near the end of the play where they meet for the last time, it is a love entirely devoid of tenderness. The only virtue that is respected in this society is the ability to fight. Coriolanus is openly contemptuous of the plebians: it is not merely that he does not love them – he positively hates them, and is happy to say so openly. Of course, the other patricians (Menenius & co) similarly hate the plebians, but they at least have the good sense not to express their hatred so openly. This may indicate an honesty on the part of Coriolanus that the others do not have, but Coriolanus’ honesty is indicative not so much of moral probity as of a lack of common sense. There are those two tribunes of the people, of course, but they are not presented as particularly humane either: these tribunes are also patricians, after all, and for them, popular support is merely a tool in their political games. They are deeply authoritarian, and, at one point, demand the immediate execution of Coriolanus for daring to question the validity of their positions of power. In short, the characters are all deeply unlikeable throughout.
The middle section of the play is surprisingly comic, as Coriolanus, in standing for public office, has to present himself to the very people he so despises. The build-up to the climactic scenes in Act Three is slow, and the climax – where Coriolanus turns against everyone, and is banished for his “pride” – is entirely predictable: but I imagine a good cast would be able to get a lot of laughs from these scenes. However, the humour is far from good-natured or genial, and the drama is deadly serious: for a state that depends on its military success for its well-being, someone such as Coriolanus is indispensable; but how can this same state function if this same Coriolanus is granted political power?
After Coriolanus’ exile, the pace of the drama quickens considerably, and the climactic scene comes, of course, when Volumnia – the woman who had moulded her son into what he is – finds herself, ironically, appealing to those very elements that she had previously inhibited in her son – mercy, compassion, fellow-feeling. There follows perhaps Shakespeare’s most wonderful stage direction:
He holds her by the hand, silent
And Coriolanus’ lines are full of a sense of wonder, as he suddenly finds elements in his own character that he had not previously known about:
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!
It is surprisingly moving. Yet at the same time, it is disturbing that a man could regard the awakening of compassion in his soul as “unnatural”, and as something to be laughed at. Even the mass-murderer Macbeth knew of pity (“like a naked new-born babe striding the blast”): to Coriolanus, it seems a new discovery, and something that is inherently absurd.
In yielding to compassion for the first and only time in his life, Coriolanus effectively signs his own death warrant. And yet, Shakespeare seems unwilling to grant him a heroic end. Even the drunken hedonist Antony was granted a measure of heroism; even the very unheroic Cleopatra had died a great queen. But the death of Coriolanus is presented almost casually.
It’s hard to know what Shakespeare intended with all this. There is much to admire in this play, but little to like. And it’s undeniable that, in comparison to the tragedies that had preceded this, the characters and situations are all very simple. Was Shakespeare getting tired of the tragic form? It seems unlikely, as the dramatic verse is finely wrought throughout, and is obviously not the work of a man uninterested in what he is doing. But finely wrought though it is, there is little in it that is memorable – no wonderful lines, no passages of poetry that leap off the page. After the overflowing abundance of riches in Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare, it seems, was determined in this play to be as austere as possible. The outcome commands respect, certainly, but I doubt anyone will be listing Coriolanus amongst their favourite plays.