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Author Topic: [Not on the list] Coriolanus--William Shakespeare  (Read 4339 times)
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Robert Skipper
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« on: January 04, 2012, 06:28:17 AM »

Pride goeth before destruction...
January 4, 2012

"Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall."  Proverbs 16:18

The Bible takes a dim view of pride, as the above quote indicates.  But Aristotle described it as “the crown of the virtues.”  Authors who condemn pride, almost always present it as an excess of self love, an inflated regard for one's person, one's accomplishments, or one's possessions.  But what if one truly deserves the praise?  What if one estimates one's worth with a cold and objective eye, only to discovers in oneself a simply marvelous fellow after all?  Shakespeare's tragedy, Coriolanus, deals with a truly noble hero who got into trouble because he couldn't step down from that pedestal he truly deserved. 

The Tragedy of Coriolanus didn't make it onto the Decade List, but I read it anyway.  A few years ago, I had my freshmen students read some works not normally assigned in philosophy classes, including a long essay by Montaigne and a few short selections from Francis Bacon.  That same semester, I had them read the lives of Coriolanus and Alcibiades by Plutarch.  So, Shakespeare's play gave me an excuse to review the Plutarch as well.  Clearly, the Bard borrowed most of his material from Plutarch.  But a “life” differs from a play, and Shakespeare's way of compressing numerous scattered anecdotes into a coherent plot spanning only a few weeks impressed me greatly.  I must confess, though, the play lacked any surprises.  One pretty much knew from the first scene that the fast-changing Roman political structure had already left Coriolanus behind as it lumbered toward a more inclusive rule while he clung to his dying patrician (and timocratic) ideals.  And, after all, surely no good can come to someone who greets the general populace initially thus:

   CORIOLANUS: What's the matter, you dissentious rogues
    That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
    Make yourself scabs?” (Act I, Scene 1)

Coriolanus built his entire self on the ground of military honor.  He held nothing in greater regard than heroism, and he let that concept define him and rule his life.  He cared neither for money nor power.  He would rather live in a bivouac than a palace.  And everyone, political enemies included, had to acknowledge the superhuman sacrifices he made on their behalf; however, Coriolanus simply had no control over the contempt he felt for those who couldn't claim a noble lineage or a distinguished military service. 

The action takes place in ancient Rome, circa 500 B.C.E., at the beginning of the Republic, when Rome had no greater status than one city among others.  The tragic hero of the play, Caius Marcius, received his third name, Coriolanus, for an incident in which he and a small group of soldiers had routed their enemy, the Volscians, into hiding within the walls of their town, Corioli.  The rest of the Roman soldiers thought the battle over, and let the Volscians flee, but Marcius rushed in after them alone and found himself trapped inside the city as the gates closed.  His comrades gave him up for dead, but he soon emerged with many captives.  Upon returning to Rome, he refused the money and honors that others tried to give him, but he couldn't stop them from calling him by a new name. 

The main conflict develops when the patricians unanimously urge him to accept the political role of consul.  Unfortunately, the new constitution required popular approval for such an appointment.  So Coriolanus had to go out among the hoi-polloi and canvas for votes.  To him, this amounted to abasing himself to those unworthy to kiss his feet.  The prospect turned his stomach, but he tried anyway.  And in fact, he succeeded at first.  But after he left the scene, those citizens to whom he had spoken began to talk themselves into resentment at his obvious haughtiness.  They tried to retract their support, and the ensuing arguments ended with Coriolanus speaking treason against the constitutional provisions that gave the general citizenry any say at all in government.  Much as the people wanted to kill him then and there, they settled for his banishment.

But they soon discovered that a banished Coriolanus had even more teeth than a cantankerous domestic one.  He presented himself to his old enemy and leader of the Volscians, Tullius Aufidius, offering either to let Aufidius kill him or to join together and attack Rome.  Aufidius figured he stood a much better chance of defeating Rome with someone on his side who knew all their secrets, so he agreed to accept Corioanus as a fellow general. 

The final act takes place outside the walls of Rome, when it looks like Rome will soon fall into the hands of the Coriolanus and the Volscians.  Coriolanus's mother, wife, and child plead with him to make a peace that benefits everyone, rather than to carry out a revenge that only diminishes both states.  Coriolanus, who has refused to listen to anyone else until now, becomes putty in his mommy's hands.  When he returns to the Volscians, having achieved everything except the defeat of Rome, he finds himself in a tense situation, needing great diplomacy and tact.  When Aufidius refers to him as a “boy of tears” and demands he defend himself against the charge of treason, he loses his temper and reminds all the gathered Volscians how he got his name,

    CORIOLANUS: Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads,
    Stain all your edges on me.  'Boy'!  False hound!
    If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there
    That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
    Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli.
    Alone I did it. 'Boy'!


The assembled crowd replied, not surprisingly,

    ALL THE PEOPLE:  Tear him to pieces.  Do it presently.  He kill'd my son.  My daughter.  He kill'd my cousin Marcus.  He kill'd my father.  (Act V, Scene 6)

But you saw that one coming from miles away, I'll bet.  In fact, throughout the play, Coriolanus's knee-jerk, fiery blasts directed at anyone who hinted he might have a weakness made for some comic moments.  His political enemies quickly figured out that all they had to do was bait him at the right moment and he would self destruct on cue. 

I enjoyed this play for its carefully controlled plotting, and for its stately, unfolding of a doom we could all foresee; and it also explores some interesting psychological issues, such as whether one bears any responsibility for the resentment of others?  But, overall, I can't say I loved it, as it never surprised or moved me.  I found little to sympathize with in Coriolanus, since he brought all his troubles on himself through his failure to reflect on his values or control his anger.  Impatient brute strength and daring may have served him well in battle, but did little to help him take his place within a civil society.  For him not to see that makes him a fool, not a tragic hero.
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