What do you do with a problem like Coriolanus?
This could sum up the history of this play. Caius Martius is a soldier in the Roman army. After a battle, where he received his nickname Coriolanus, he is convinced by his friends to run for senator. He clashes with the people whom has to vote for him, because he doesn’t really have any sympathy for them and they are incredibly fickle and dense.
Volumnia: If it be honour in your wars to seem
The same you are not, which for you best ends
You adopt you policy, how is it less or worse
That it shall hold companionship in peace
With honour, as in war, since that to both
It stands in like request?
Coriolanus: Why force you this?
Volumnia: Because that now it lies you on to speak to th’people. (Act 3, Scene 2.)
This is a play that on the surface condemns both fascism and democracy. Hence the problem with Coriolanus.
The play is quite different from most of Shakespeare’s other tragedies. Coriolanus is a
soldier, a man of war. This is his downfall, but it also leaves us audience with very little insight to his character and feelings, other than when he is shouting at the people of Rome about how foul breath they all have. It doesn’t really seem like Coriolanus understands this things you humans call emotions, even when their his own. All he knows is that he understands war, doesn’t like the people of Rome and his very drawn to the leader of the group they are fighting whom he has never beaten in a fight.
I watched the Ralph Finney version with my dad, one of the few Shakespeare adaptations he likes. We talked a lot about Coriolanus as a character. Apparently men like Coriolanus are driven by a desire to be the best. This being the best creates a sort of arrogance with people who don’t even try (very similar to what Jack Nicholas’s character talks about in his ending dialogue in A few good men). It also means you are drawn to the people who are you equal, as Coriolanus and the Volscian general Aufidius are to one another. Apparently the bro-mance between these men are quite common in highly competitive, male dominated environments. Who knew?
It’s difficult to talk about author intent, so we will probably never know what Shakespeare intended us to feel regarding Coriolanus and what he is saying. It is argued that the play was written around 1608. A year before (1607) the English Midlands had experienced a grain riots, mimicked in the opening scene where the starving people of Rome are planing to rob the grain reserves. At the same time the situation between the monarchy and the royal council (a proto-parliament introduced by the Magna Carta in 1215) where becoming more tense. The English Civil war between the royalist and parliamentarians broke out in 1642. The young men watching Coriolanus would be the men leading the two sides in the war. Coriolanus might be a reflection on how the two sides looked at one another at the time.
Before I go I also have to mention the star of the play, Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia. She raised him as a single mother, and it’s clear that since she was not allowed to be a soldier herself (being a woman and all that) she lives through Coriolanus.
Volumnia: I had rather had eleven [sons] die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action. (Act 1, Scene 3)
She is one of the stars of the show, and reading her compared to Coriolanus and Aufidius is quite interesting. It’s like they have the same essence, but Volumnia has been cultivated in a different way than Coiolanus and Aufidius. I don’t want to spoil, but this is a very high recommendation for everyone who want to see the diversity of Shakespeare.