(Last of Shakespeare’s stuff for a while!)
Apparently Ralph Fiennes directed and acted in a highly-acclaimed film adaption of this play. We haven’t seen it, but we plan to someday!
More than any of the Shakespearean tragedies we’ve reviewed so far, The Tragedy of Coriolanus fits the most into the Aristotelian model of a tragedy.
Caius Martius, later named Coriolanus after his decisive victory over the Volscian army at Corioles, had been raised to be a soldier. He had made a career out of the brutal bloodshed on the Roman battlefields. It is what earns him the favor of the people, who elect him as consul.
However, when it is required that he pander to soothe a rioting public, he refuses and calls them a “common cry of curs, whose breath I hate” (3.3.124). When he is exiled from Rome, his first solution to the problem is to join the Volscians in an attempt to destroy the city. Coriolanus is so accustomed to being rewarded for confrontation he cannot vary his pattern; the trait that brought him to greatness is also directly leads to his downfall.
As always, a few novel things that might be worth reading for:
- Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, is a female character who holds more influence on the actions of others than most Shakespearean females did. In the first act, she has much to say about the value of honor and war: ”had/I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than/thine and my good Martius’, I had rather had eleven die nobly/ for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.” (1.3.18-21) Coriolanus, although a full-grown man in the play, makes statements that show how much influence his mother had on his worldview. Later on, it is she who is most successful in trying to lead him from his own destruction. Since Shakespeare’s writing for a society in which women were highly devalued, a female character having this much influence is novel.
- After he is exiled from Rome, Coriolanus seeks revenge by joining forces with Aufidius of the Volscians. The conversation is far too long to type out here, but there are homoerotic—or at least homoromantic—undertones. A prime example of this can be found in Aufidius’ monologue:
“Know thou first,/I loved the maid I married; never man/sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,/thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart/than when I first my wedded mistress saw/bestride my threshold” (4.5.112-7).
It was pretty surprising to find material like this in the Elizabethan era. 18th-century popular British literature was pretty loose with its moral judgements, but with all of monarchy’s regulations regarding what was allowed in theatres (for example, they couldn’t say “God” or similar unless it was in a reverent tone), it’s amazing this somehow got under the radar. Just further proof that queerness is not a modern-day invention.
There’s not really much to TW for in this. I mean, Coriolanus does die at the end and there is some discussion of the protagonist’s history as a soldier but most of the action in this tragedy is political in nature. There is aggression and struggle, but not in the same way that the other tragedies we’ve reviewed had them.
Even though it’s not considered one of Shakespeare’s “great tragedies,” I found it a good read and would definitely recommend it to others.