“Coriolanus” revisited

And now, on to the second of the tragic beef-witted lords – Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.

When I last read this play, I was puzzled. Why, after exploring some of the deepest aspects of human existence, did Shakespeare choose to end his sequence of tragedies with this?

That sequence had started some ten years earlier, with Julius Caesar. There are, admittedly, some earlier plays which may be considered tragedies: there’s the early Titus Andronicus, a play many Shakespeareans admit into the canon only with embarrassment, and excuse as being merely an early pot-boiler; and there is the exquisite Romeo and Juliet, which is in many ways closer to the comedies than to the later tragedies. There are a couple of history plays as well that may be considered tragedies – the demonic Richard III, and, a few years afterwards, the surprisingly lyrical Richard II. But despite these earlier forays, it was in 1599 that the great tragic sequence was set in motion by Julius Caesar, and soon, masterpiece followed masterpiece: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth – works regularly cited when we wish to refer to the very highest peaks of the literary imagination. And the sequence ended with two plays that seem to stand apart from the others in certain ways – Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. In the former, while not shirking the tragic, Shakespeare returned to the comic mode – and not merely as a means of providing relief: we are frequently invited to see the tragic protagonists themselves as comic figures, and, by the end, while we may sympathise or even empathise with these characters, we feel little sense of loss, little regret for what might have been. These are characters who never, even by the end, attain self-knowledge.

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare takes us a step further down this road: Coriolanus isn’t even aware that there is any self-knowledge that needs to be acquired. What puzzles Antony doesn’t even begin to puzzle him, because he has never so much as considered it. He treads his tragic path without for one moment recognising its tragic gravity, never so much as experiencing any sense of loss, or of regret. How easy it would have been for Shakespeare to have shown Coriolanus consciously and heroically sacrifice his life to a greater, nobler cause; but this Coriolanus is too thick even to realise that he is in any danger: he goes to his death as he has lived – without a thought, without reflection, without awareness. Antony and Cleopatra, for all their shortcomings, seek for and finally give themselves to a vision of transcendence: Coriolanus, far from having a vision of transcendence, does not even have an adequate vision of the world he inhabits. He cannot even feel any of the shame that had so consumed Sophocles’ Aias.

Apart from his physical courage, Coriolanus has no quality at all that is conducive either to sympathy or to admiration: merely a brute fighting machine, and no more. He does not even have in him any sense of patriotism: as soon as he is out of favour, he turns without compunction, without a thought, against the Rome that had formerly nurtured him. Any mental struggle is conspicuous only by its absence. The tragic sequence that had begun with the introspective Brutus and the intellectual Hamlet ends with this. What a curious trajectory!

And Shakespeare depicts all this in the most austere of terms. Where Antony and Cleopatra had overflowed with bright, vivid colours and with some of the most gorgeous poetry that even Shakespeare ever wrote, Coriolanus has virtually no poetry in it at all: much of the play is in blank verse, but there is not a single passage, not a single line, that finds a place in the memory – not mine, at any rate: such prosaic blank verse I have never seen. Far from the kaleidoscopic hues of Antony and Cleopatra, what we get here is an unrelieved gun-metal grey. At the climactic point of this play, Coriolanus’ mother and wife plead to him to relent; compare this to the scene in Measure for Measure, where Isabella pleads to Angelo to relent: Isabella’s pleas are some of the most passionate lines of dramatic verse ever committed to paper, and the depiction of the mental turmoil this occasions in Angelo is extraordinary in its corrosive power: and yet, the same author who wrote those scenes in Measure for Measure could write the climactic scene of Coriolanus without conveying any such passion, any such power. It is not because he couldn’t: on the evidence of the plays written immediately before and after, his poetic and dramatic genius had not by a jot deserted him. If he doesn’t invest these scenes in Coriolanus with passion and power, if he keeps his soaring poetic imagination earthbound, it is because this is what he wanted.

But why he should have wanted it so is beyond me. That this is indeed a great play I have no doubt: it is clearly the work of a master dramatist, fully in control of his art. But it continues to puzzle me.

7 responses to this post.

  1. It has been a while since I last read this play. When the recent film version came out I head a really interesting interview with Ralph Fiennes that made me want to read this again soon. However I have not done so yet.

    Just wild speculation as to why Shakespeare put such an oblivious character in this play. Perhaps like myself, as he got older he began to pay more attention to the fact (though he likely always knew) that in real life that there really are so many people who truly are this shallow and unaware of themselves.


    • Hello Brian, I haven’t seen the film yet. Indeed, neither have I seen the BBC production – although I do have the DVD, and should get round to watching it shortly. Real life does, of course, contain many people who are unintelligent and self-unaware, but what intrigues me is that Shakespeare chose to make such a person a tragic protagonist.

      I’ve seen Ralph Fiennes on stage in Ibsen’s Brand: he’s a fine actor.


  2. “By chance I had come upon Coriolanus, and as if reeling in a frenzy I discovered in myself all the characteristics of that strangest of the Romans: pride, arrogance, wrath, contempt, mockery, all the salty, leaden, golden, metallic elements of the emotions.” from Confusion by stefan zweig


  3. Posted by Avi Chatterjee on November 19, 2012 at 2:46 pm

    ‘Coriolanus’ is an odd one, to be sure, but surely there is passion in the climactic scene with Volumnia.

    ‘O mother, mother!
    What have you done?’

    It may not be great poetry, but I suggest it is great drama. And the difference can be hard to pin down, as much of ‘Antony and Cleopatra’ would suggest.


    • That is, I grant you, a marvellous moment. Yet oen ecan’t help wondering why Shakespeare restrained the flight of his poetic fancy – even in a scene like this. One wonders why Coriolanus is notallowed even the slightest awakening of self-awareness. Even those lines you quote: the audience can see in them the various levels of meaning, but I doubt Coriolanus can. And is the death of any tragic protagonist so casually staged as that of Coriolanus? It’s an odd one, as you say. But whatever we make of it, there’s no doubting that this is what Shakespeare had intended.


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