Talk about a terrible November! First a concussion, and then a terrible flu. Throughout it all, Coriolanus sat sadly on my bedside table, gathering dust and filling me with guilt. It looks like we are going to be a month behind here on ‘oh for muse of fire,’ which really bothers me to no end. I am a perfectionist who likes to get things done well before they are due. Trust me, I tried to tough the concussion out, but that just made it worse. Turns out that a good smack to my head was the only thing that could actually prevent me from working – and from reading Shakespeare.
I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I have been trying to read the plays in order of alleged publication date. That means I read Measure for Measure in October – and that means that Measure for Measure made Coriolanus almost impossible to read. How do you go from something so incredibly gripping and shocking to something that just…isn’t? How do you even begin to enjoy Coriolanus even if you haven’t read a handful of arguably superior plays right before it? ‘You can’t,’ you think. And as much as I want to agree, and as much as I dislike this play, I want to try. So that’s what we’re going to do: get to the root of Coriolanus and shape it into something interesting and enjoyable.
We open in Rome, where the plebeians are unhappy. They are famished, and are threatening to revolt. Also, they hate Caius Martius – later known to us as Coriolanus.
Would you proceed especially against Caius Martius?
Against him first. He’s a very dog to the commonalty.
Consider you what services he has done for his country?
Very well, and could be content to give him good report for ‘t, but that he pays himself with being proud.
They hate Caius Martius for his pride – and his pride actually makes the play unbearable as well. Even Harold C. Goddard writes about this play’s unpopularity – and how the titular character’s personality is a huge reason why it is rarely staged or read. “One often wonders,” he writes, “how often it is read except by scholars and students.” And by bookish 24 (well, 25 on Sunday!) year old biomedical engineers, it seems.
Why should the plebeians care about what Caius Martius has done for Rome? They’re still hungry, aren’t they? Menenius, a patrician, tries to calm them down – he tells them that his fellow patricians have been trying their best to care for the plebeians.
Care for us? True, indeed! They ne’er cared for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.
Well, here’s some modern political commentary for you. In the modern world, this citizen could be talking about Republicans and capitalism. To be completely honest, the plebeians are making some relatively reasonable requests.
For corn at their own rates, whereof they say
The city is well stored.
Hang ’em! They say?
They’ll sit by the fire and presume to know
What’s done i’ th’ Capitol, who’s like to rise,
Who thrives, and who declines; side factions and give out
Conjectural marriages, making parties strong
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there’s grain enough?
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quartered slaves as high
As I could pick my lance.
Caius Martius is so difficult to love. As a character, he stands for everything I am against. He is violent, prideful, and he hates the poor. But be patient – we can make a tragic hero out of him yet.
Martius tells Menenius that the people have been granted tribunes. We see two of them – Brutus and Sicinius – quite often in this play. They, too, see Caius Martius as having too much pride.
To top off this potential revolt, Aufidius and his Volscian army are nearby and ready to tear Rome to pieces. There is a lot of bloodshed in this play – but is it really a play about war? We’ll see.
We cut to Volumina, Martius’ mother, who is sewing with Virgilia, his wife.
I pray you, daughter, sing, or express yourself in a more comfortable sort. If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love. When yet he was but tender-boiled and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when for a day of kings’ entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering how honor would become such a person – that it was no better than picture-like to hang by th’ wall, if renown made it not stir – was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.
Caius Martius is a terrible person, I think. In the short while we’ve known him, we’ve seen him to be hard-hearted, cruel, and prideful. And Volumina is to blame.
While Shakespeare really knows how to write lovable women – Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing, and Rosalind from Love’s Labor’s Lost, for example – he also is fantastic at writing terrible women – and Volumina is one of them.
So let us consider this: when Caius Martius was a young boy, he was lovely both physically and in spirit. He was sensitive and impressionable. Volumina took one look at her child and knew she could mold him into whatever she pleased. She sent him off to war before he was a man, and she ruined him. She is the reason that Caius Martius is so heartless, so cruel, and so prideful. She committed the ultimate crime: she forced her child to become something he was not destined to be. So what chance did he have?
When we keep this in mind, Coriolanus becomes a totally different play. It is not so much as war as it is about a man who has been playing a role he was forced into for his entire life.
Valeria, a friend, arrives. She takes a moment to talk about Caius Martius’ son.
O’ my word, the father’s son! I’ll swear ’tis a very pretty boy. O’ my troth, I looked upon him o’ Wednesday half an hour together. H’as such a confirmed countenance. I saw him run after a gilded butterfly, and when he caught it, he let it go again, and after it again, and over and over he comes, and up again, catched it again. Or whether his fall enraged him or how ’twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it. O, I warrant how he mammocked it!
Taking this at face value, it looks like little Martius is a demonic child who tears butterflies apart. Harold C. Goddard sees it differently, though. The butterfly, he notes, symbolizes the human psyche. I was actually already aware of this, because I am also a huge lover of Greek mythology. The child’s struggle with the butterfly, then, symbolizes the struggle between his soul as it is, and Volumina’s desire to change it into something else. Because, unfortunately, Volumina sees young Martius as another opportunity to mold a child into a war hero. Like his father before him, young Martius is a beautiful child, still whimsical enough to chase butterflies – and who is also struggling against Volumina’s will. We know that Volumina is ready to see this child as another Caius Martius because right before Valeria began to speak, she spoke of his preference for swords and drums. But he’s a child, and the preference is Volumina’s.
Virgilia is a very quiet character. She seems soft and sweet and, strangely enough, she seems to love her husband. This reminds me of Richard II, because it’s so difficult to understand why Richard’s queen seems to love him so. But both these women clearly know men that we don’t – and maybe Virgilia knows who her husband is separate from who Volumina forces him to be.
Meanwhile, the Romans and Volscians are at each other’s throats in Corioles. ‘Hey,’ you think, ‘that sounds suspiciously like the title of this play.’ It does, and soon I’ll be able to call Caius Martius by his second name.
Martius, despite being the worst person in the universe, is an excellent soldier. He beats the Volscians back into the gates of Corioles. He follows after them, shuts the gate, and fights them alone. He emerges bloody and victorious, and allows his fellow Romans to enter.
The others, of course, are dazzled by this display. But Martius doesn’t seem to want their praise:
Sir, praise me not.
My work hath yet not warmed me. Fare you well.
The blood I drop is rather physical
Than dangerous to me. To Aufidius thus
I will appear and fight.
Caius Martius rejects praise quite a lot, and you have to wonder why. Is he just being annoying? Maybe – but maybe he does this because he is constantly being praised for being something that he wasn’t meant to be. I really do not think that Martius’ soul is as invested in being a hard warrior as Volumina would like it to be. Praise reminds him of what he is doing, so he pushes it away. He would rather mindlessly push onward instead of think about who he has become.
To add to all of this, Martius also defeats Aufidius, who is his greatest rival. To honor him for all of this, he is given the name Coriolanus. You know, because he wasn’t full of himself enough before all of this.
Martius Caius Coriolanus!
I will go wash;
And when my face is fair, you shall perceive
Whether I blush or no. Howbeit, I thank you.
I mean to stride your steed and at all times
To undercrest your good addition
To th’ fairness of my power.
I don’t know if Coriolanus acts humble for show, or because he actually has the capacity to be modest. Who knows? If Volumina hadn’t preyed upon him, who would Coriolanus be? Would he be humble?
What’s important, though, is that the commoners still hate Coriolanus. I mean, they’re still hungry. A few tribunes and a successful siege doesn’t change that.
Some people (read: patricians) are actually quite happy to see Coriolanus come home. They expect that he will be elected consul.
On the sudden
I warrant him consul.
Then our office may,
During his power, go sleep.
I don’t blame the tribunes for being uneasy – Coriolanus would be a terrible consul. None of this is meant for him.
The Senate intends to nominate Coriolanus for consul, but more than one person knows that his personality makes him a questionable choice.
‘Faith, there hath been many great men that have flattered people who ne’er loved them; and there be many that they have loved they know not wherefore; so that, if they love they know not why, they hate upon no better a ground. Therefore, for Coriolanus neither to care whether they love or hate him manifests the true knowledge he has in their disposition and, out of his noble carelessness, lets them plainly see ‘t.
If he did not care whether he had their love or no, he waved indifferently ‘twixt doing them neither good nor harm; but he seeks their hate with greater devotion than they can render it him and leaves nothing undone that may fully discover him their opposite. Now, to seem to affect the malice and displeasure of the people is as bad as that which he dislikes, to flatter them for their love.
Coriolanus’ hatred of the common people is one of the things I just can’t stand about him. I don’t think it’s ever really clear why he hates them – he just does. Perhaps Coriolanus seeks their hatred because he hates himself. He doesn’t want to be loved as he is – as the person Volumina has forced him to become.
The Senate, meanwhile, is trying to praise Coriolanus. As usual, he is having none of it.
Your Honors, pardon.
I had rather have my wounds to heal again
Than hear say how I got them.
Sir, I hope
My words disbenched you not?
No, sir. Yet oft,
When blows have made me stay, I fled from words.
You soothed not, therefore hurt not; but your people,
I love them as they weigh.
This isn’t a good enough excuse for me, which is why I can pretend that Coriolanus must have some deep-rooted hatred for himself.
Here’s the problem with this whole consul business though: Coriolanus needs votes from a number of plebeians. And he hates plebeians. He is encouraged to remind them of all he’s done for Rome, but he isn’t into that. Funny, for someone so prideful he doesn’t seem interested in boasting:
To brag unto them “Thus I did, and thus!”
Show them th’ unaching scars, which I should hide,
As if I had received them for the hire
Of their breath only!
However, the commoners are willing to hear him out. They know that Coriolanus has done a lot for Rome, even if he is awful. And they don’t want to seem ungrateful.
[…] Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude, of the which, we being members, should bring ourselves to monstrous members.
Coriolanus is still struggling with what he has to do, however. He has a habit of going on and on about one thing for ages, and it’s a bit annoying. He does this because he’s stubborn, and his mind isn’t easily changed by the people around him.
What must I say?
“I pray, sir?” – plague upon ‘t! I cannot bring
My tongue to such a pace. “Look, sir, my wounds!
I got them in my country’s service when
Some certain of your brethren roared and ran
From th’ noise of our own drums.”
O me, the gods!
You must not speak of that. You must desire them
To think upon you.
Here, Coriolanus is boasting. Perhaps he hates the commoners for being lazy and for being below average soldiers. Or perhaps he relishes their hate, as I mentioned before. Who knows?
Shockingly, even though Coriolanus openly mocks them, the plebeians agree to vote for him.
Most sweet voices!
Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here
To beg of Hob and Dick that does appear
Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to ‘t.
What custom wills, in all things should we do ‘t?
The dust on antique time would lie unswept
And mountainous error be too highly heaped
For truth to o’erpeer. Rather than fool it so,
Let the high office and the honor go
To one that would do thus. I am half through;
The one part suffered, the other will I do.
This reminds me a lot of Hal’s speech about ceremony in Henry V. If I could ask Coriolanus one question, I’d ask him this: what Volumina wills, in all things should he do it? I think, much like Hamlet is unaware of how his ghostly father has influenced him, Coriolanus is unaware of how much of Volumina is in him.
The tribunes (exasperatedly, I’m sure) tell the plebeians that Coriolanus was mocking them. They choose not to vote for him, in a very shocking McCain-saying-nay-to-the-healthcare-bill twist.
Coriolanus, of course, loses his temper when he finds out that the commoners have turned against him.
How? No more?
As for my country I have shed my blood,
Not fearing outward force, so shall my lungs.
Coin words till their decay against those measles
Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought
The very way to catch them.
You speak o’ th’ people
As if you were a god to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.
We let the people know it.
Brutus is right – the reason people find Coriolanus to be so prideful is because he is constantly trashing the plebeians. It has nothing to do with him talking about his own heroism, and everything to do with how he treats those who are below him in class.
Coriolanus lets his temper get the better of him, and attacks the law that gave the people tribunes. This results in a massive uproar, and the tribunes accuse him of treason and try to have him executed. But his fellow patricians rush to his rescue. I can’t help but wonder why they are so loyal to Coriolanus – it’s as if they see him as above and below them at the same time. It is a weird dynamic that they have, I will say.
Consider this: he has been bred i’ th’ wars
Since he could draw a sword, and is ill schooled
In bolted language; meal and bran together
He throws without distinction. Give me leave,
I’ll go to him and undertake to bring him
Where he shall answer by a lawful form,
In peace, to his utmost peril.
Whose fault is all of that, Menenius? Why is Volumina never mentioned? She sent Coriolanus to the wars – he didn’t do it to himself. This isn’t who he was destined to be.
Meanwhile, Coriolanus continues to stubbornly refuse to appeal to the plebeians.
I muse my mother
Does not approve me further, who was wont
To call them woolen vassals, things created
To buy and sell with groats, to show bare heads
In congregations, to yawn, be still, and wonder
When one but of my ordinance stood up
To speak of peace or war.
I talk of you.
Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am.
It appears that Volumina taught Coriolanus to hate plebeians. Of course! It is a learned behavior – I would still argue that he actively seeks their hate on purpose, though.
Again, it seems that Coriolanus has no idea how much of an affect his upbringing had on him. He asks Volumina if she would have him be false to his nature – but what is his nature? Does he even know who he is outside of what his mother has taught him?
Volumina convinces Coriolanus to pretend to tolerate the commoners. He promises to do so (of course, it takes like a hundred lines to convince him) – but I instantly doubted that he could do it.
My doubts were not unfounded, because Coriolanus immediately loses his temper when he is called a traitor. In response to his lashing out, he is sentenced to death. The commoners and patricians ends up with a compromise though: banishment.
You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty;
Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts;
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders, till at length
Your ignorance – which finds not till it feels,
Making but reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes – deliver you
As most abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising
For you the city, thus I turn my back.
There is a world elsewhere.
And then he leaves. I keep saying that Coriolanus was not meant to be this way, and you may be wondering why he hasn’t shown his true colors yet. He is the product of a lifetime of manipulation, and there is a chance that he is too far gone to ever change his ways. I’d say banishment might be a relief to him, but that would be wrong considering what he chooses to do next. But I am getting ahead of myself.
The scene in which Coriolanus says goodbye to his family was surprisingly touching.
Come, leave your tears. A brief farewell. The beast
With many heads butts me away. Nay, mother,
Where is your ancient courage? You were used
To say extremities was the trier of spirits;
That common chances common men could bear;
That when the sea was calm, all boats alike
Showed mastership in floating; fortune’s blows
When most struck home, being gentle wounded craves
A noble cunning. You were used to load me
With precepts that would make invincible
The heart that conned them.
O heavens! O heavens!
Nay, I prithee, woman –
Virgilia cannot be consoled. I’m telling you, there has got to be something to Coriolanus. Yes, this is Rome, and she needs her husband for protection. But something tells me that Virgilia doesn’t merely tolerate her husband – she loves him.
I truly thought I knew where this play was going when I reached Coriolanus’ banishment. I thought he would learn what it was like to be a commoner, to be poor and unwanted. I thought he would undergo a personal change, especially since he would be far away from Volumina.
But, no. Instead of finding himself, Coriolanus dons a disguise and seeks Aufidius out.
CORIOLANUS, [removing his muffler]
Not yet thou know’st me, and seeing me, dost not
Think me for the man I am, necessity
Commands me name myself.
What is thy name?
A name unmusical to Volscians’ ears
And harsh in sound to thine.
Say, what’s thy name?
Thou hast a grim appearance and thy face
Bears a command in ‘t. Though thy tackle’s torn,
Thou show’st a noble vessel. What’s thy name?
This was actually pretty hilarious to me. Coriolanus spent most of this play acting like he and Aufidius had some grand rivalry between them, but Aufidius doesn’t even recognize him off the battlefield. What a blow to Coriolanus’ ego!
Why did Coriolanus seek Aufidius out, you ask?
It is spoke freely out of many mouths –
How probably I do not know – that Martius,
Joined with Aufidius, leads a power ‘gainst Rome
And vows revenge as spacious as between
The young’st and oldest thing.
That’s right. Instead of finding himself, Coriolanus decides that his best bet is to burn Rome to the ground. Which means you’re thinking that my theory about his sensitive past is can’t be true. But consider this: Coriolanus is facing something incredibly terrifying right now. He does not have his mother or the patricians to direct him. And he doesn’t know who he is or what he’s supposed to be doing. So he retaliates in the only way he knows how: with violence.
Coriolanus, shockingly, is incredibly popular among the Volscians. Aufidius doesn’t like this, and immediately begins plotting against him. What a shocker! It’s almost like joining up with your literal enemy was a terrible idea.
The last act of this play is, quite frankly, the most annoying. Coriolanus is so stubborn that it takes multiple characters over multiple scenes to shake him out of his violent rage. Coriolanus turns the patricians away – he even turns Menenius away, and Menenius (against his better judgement, I’m sure) loves Coriolanus like a son.
The women approach him with young Martius in tow.
[…] My wife comes foremost, then the honored mold
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood. But out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.
What is that curtsy worth? Or those doves’ eyes,
Which can make gods forsworn? I melt and am not
Of stronger earth than others.
My mother bows,
As if Olympus to a molehill should
In supplication nod; and my young boy
Hath an aspect of intercession which
Great Nature cries “Deny not!” Let the Volsces
Plow Rome and harrow Italy, I’ll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.
My lord and husband.
These eyes are not the same I wore in Rome.
The sorrow that delivers us thus changed
Makes you think so.
Like a dull actor now,
I have forgot my part, and I am out,
Even to a full disgrace. Best of my flesh,
Forgive my tyranny, but do not say
For that “Forgive the Romans.”
This, frankly, is the most interesting passage in the play. Coriolanus sees Virgilia, in all her sweetness, and is undone. I wish we had seen more of their relationship. I also find it interesting that Coriolanus mentions that he has forgotten his part – it really comes together with what I was saying about him playing a part that he was not meant to play in life.
Volumina begs with Coriolanus, and seems annoyed that there is no mercy in him. But why should she be so shocked at this? She’s the reason Coriolanus is merciless. Eventually, however, he breaks.
[He holds her by the hand, silent.]
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!
You have won a happy victory to Rome.
But, for your son – believe it, O, believe it! –
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come. –
Aufidius, though I cannot make true wars,
I’ll frame convenient peace. Now, good Aufidius,
Were you in my stead, would you have heard
A mother less? Or granted less, Aufidius?
I think this is the most emotion we have seen from Coriolanus this entire play. Act five may be incredibly annoying, but it also shows us what this play could have been.
Coriolanus blames his change of heart on his mother, but I truly believe that this is the one thing she wasn’t able to manipulate him to do. I think Coriolanus, with his loved ones in front of him, felt warmth that Volumina had tried so hard to stamp out of him his whole life. I think this decision was his own, but he is unaware of that because every other decision in his life has been because of his mother’s intervention. I think this is the person Coriolanus could have been, if he hadn’t been forced into his current life.
I want to point out that Volumina is praised for convincing Coriolanus to abandon his siege on Rome. But she is being praised for doing something completely out of character: for kneeling down before her son and begging. I wonder how she feels about this, or if she even noticed it at all.
It doesn’t take long for Aufidius to decide that he isn’t impressed by all of this.
There was it
For which my sinews shall be stretched upon him.
At a few drops of women’s rheum, which are
As cheap as lies, he sold the blood and labor
Of our great action. Therefore shall he die,
And I’ll renew me in his fall.
Aufidius kills Coriolanus with everybody watching – and claims to feel sorrow over it only a moment after. Did Coriolanus know that this was going to happen? How couldn’t he have? Did he think his abandonment of the Volscians was going to be easy?
Is this what he wanted?
Coriolanus is, objectively, not a great play. There isn’t a lot of pretty poetry in it, and the titular character is unbearable. It’s so hard to root for him, unless you insist on giving him some sort of tragic backstory that is never fully confirmed in the actual play. But if that’s what it takes, so be it. Coriolanus’ own worst enemy isn’t himself, but rather his mother.
It looks like Timon of Athens is next, but I’ll start it next week. I don’t think Shakespeare would want me to read something so cynical on my birthday weekend!