From Phallus to Phalanx.
Is Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Coriolanus actually a Comedy?
The End of a Heroic Age.
“The tragedy of Coriolanus is one of the most amusing of
[Shakespeare’s] performances.” Samuel Johnson.
When is a Tragedy a Comedy? Telling a fool from a hero.
The main thesis of this essay is that Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Coriolanus would be better played and more meaningful if it were read as a dark comedy rather than as a tragedy. That sounds like nonsense and even blasphemy against the sacred Shakespearean canon. I think, however, that the definitions of tragedy and comedy are fuzzy and flexible enough, and that Shakespeare’s writings are complex and multidimensional enough, to make that thesis plausible.
One of the great things about Shakespeare’s plays is that you can read the lines and play the scenes in many different ways that legitimately represent the original text. And you can come up with different meanings depending on how you say, stage and act the words. Shakespeare also liked to play around the edges of story forms, combining and overlapping different genres to produce intricate dramas. It is in that context that I contend Coriolanus is a comedy.
Story forms can be categorized into three main types – melodrama, comedy, and tragedy. Melodrama is the predominant story form in our society and the form in which most people instinctively react to adversity. It is a story of good against bad, good guys against bad guys. “Who is doing this to me and how can I defeat them” is the first reaction of most people to a problem. This reaction is essentially the “fright, then fight or flight” reaction that we have inherited from of our piglet-like precursors who had to make their way in a world of giant carnivores. It is a function of the brain stem, the earliest and least sophisticated portion of the human brain which we inherited from those puny ancestors. Comedy and tragedy are more complex reactions that derive from the cerebral cortex which evolved later in humanoids.
Comedy is generally defined as a story of wisdom versus folly, wise people versus foolish people. In comedy, the problem is created by someone acting out of stupidity or ignorance, “the intervention of fools,” and the solution is for the wise to teach or restrain the fools so that they can do no further damage. Comedy involves conflicts and struggles but the action is usually peaceful, although it can become violent and even fatal. The humor in a comedy stems from our recognition of the stupidity of the characters. A comedy may have a happy or unhappy ending depending on whether the fools learn their lesson and whether violence is avoided.
Tragedy can be defined as a story of too much of a good thing becoming bad. Tragedy involves a character who pursues a too narrowly prescribed good too far until it turns on itself, becomes bad and precipitates a potential disaster. The character’s tragic flaw is a lack of perspective, the failure to see things in a broader context, for example failing to recognize that one person’s good may be someone else’s bad, that the world may contain competing goods, and that an individual’s good ultimately depends on the good of all.
Tragedy is a story of hubris versus humility, the failure of the tragic character to recognize his personal limits and reconcile contradictions within herself, within his society or between herself and society. The goal of tragedy is for the tragic hero and the audience to recognize the narrowness of the hero’s perspective – recognition of the character’s flaw at the end of the story by the character and the audience is a key to this narrative form 
The lines between melodrama, comedy and tragedy are not hard and fast, and the story forms overlap in many respects. Each, for example, can contain elements of stupidity, conflict, violence, and pride, and each can have an unhappy ending. Too much of one element can transform one story form into another. Too much conflict, for instance, could turn a comedy into a melodrama, and too much stupidity can turn a comedy into a tragedy.
Shakespeare often wrote so-called comedies that can be read as bordering on melodrama. For example, in The Taming of the Shrew, Petruchio’s treatment of Katherine can be seen as misogynistic and malevolent. In The Merchant of Venice, the treatment of Shylock by Antonio and Portia can be read as cruel and un-Christian. In The Comedy of Errors, the treatment of foreigners and slaves can be interpreted as brutal and brutish. Read in these ways these plays should perhaps be called comic melodramas or, at least, melodramatic or dark comedies.
Many of Shakespeare’s comedies also have endings that may superficially look happy but seem to contain within them the seeds of future melodramatic conflicts and even disasters. The Taming of the Shrew, for example, ends with Kate making peace by seemingly subordinating herself to her husband, but it looks like a fragile and temporary peace at best. Likewise, the marriages at the end of The Merchant of Venice look like the prelude to future marital conflicts between manipulative women and macho men, and the likelihood of unfunny abuse.
Comedy can also border on tragedy, and too much stupidity and too little dignity can turn what purports to be a tragedy into a comedy. I think this is what happens in Coriolanus. As described by Aristotle, a tragic hero is someone who suffers from hubris or excessive pride, makes an error of judgment as a result of his hubris, suffers a serious reversal of fortune which is greater than he deserves, and then recognizes that his downfall was his own fault. Applying these criteria to Coriolanus, Coriolanus clearly suffers from excessive pride and makes serious errors of judgment based on his overweening pride, but I do not think that he suffers a downfall out of proportion to his faults or that he ever recognizes that his downfall is his own fault. And his boorish behavior and outlandish language do not befit tragedy.
Coriolanus can best be seen, I think, as a comic fool, not a tragic hero, and that, I contend, is what makes Coriolanus important for us today. Shakespeare was dramatizing the end of an age of individualistic heroes and the beginning of an age in which cooperation among common people was imperative. We live in an era in which proponents of an anachronistic individualism are battling to stop a similar pro-social transformation and turn the clock back a hundred years to a Social Darwinian struggle of each against all. Coriolanus is a play that can help us understand those people and help us stop their retrograde political, social, and intellectual programs.
The Relevance of Coriolanus: Putting Things in a Historical Context.
“But no man’s a hero to himself.” Ray Bradbury.
Unless he is Coriolanus, King James I, or Donald Trump. And therein lies a tale worth telling.
Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Coriolanus is the story of a renowned Roman warrior who lived in the fifth century BCE. The play deals with real historical people and events. It is based on Plutarch’s account of Coriolanus in his Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans. The play focuses on the personality and actions of Coriolanus and on his interactions with the common people of Rome in a time of widespread popular protests against food shortages and almost continuous warfare between the Romans and their Volscian neighbors.
Although the play is full of action, colorful characters, and biting dialogue, scholars have noted that Coriolanus “has not, on the whole, been a popular play, either on the stage or with the literary critics,” and has been called Shakespeare’s “most neglected play.” It is not widely read or performed. I think that is unfortunate because the play is eminently relevant to events in our world today. There seem to be two main reasons for the play’s unpopularity.
The first reason is the repulsive personality of its main character, Coriolanus. He is characterized by an overweening egotism, a derogatory attitude almost everyone around him, and an unwillingness or inability to keep from violently insulting anyone who differs with him. As the ostensible hero of this play, most people find it hard to identify with someone as obnoxious as Coriolanus. The second reason for the play’s unpopularity is the way the common people are portrayed, which is generally seen as anti-democratic and, as such, objectionable to modern-day democratically inclined audiences. 
I think, however, that reading the play as anti-democratic and as a tragedy misses its main points and its relevance for us today. Shakespeare lived at a time of significant changes in England from a still largely medieval society to an incipient modern society. These changes met with considerable resistance and conflict. Shakespeare was aware of the changes and conflicts, and he wrote about them in many of his plays, sometimes explicitly, other times implicitly. Coriolanus, which was completed in 1608 during the early years of the reign of King James I, portrays political and social changes and conflicts that took place in fifth century BCE Rome which reflect similar changes and conflicts that were taking place in early seventeenth century England.
Both societies were moving from dictatorial to more popular forms of government, from isolated monocultures to more inclusive and diverse cultures, and from more individualistic to more socialized institutions of war and peace. The relevance of the play is that changes and conflicts of this sort have been taking place over the past century in the United States and much of the western world. In seeing the play as an anti-democratic tragedy, I think that interpreters fail to take fully into consideration the changes that were taking place in ancient Rome and Stuart England and in so doing, they misinterpret the personal and political implications of the play.
In my opinion, the play is better read as a dark comedy. In this view, Coriolanus is not a tragic hero but an arrogant ass who is the chief fool in the play, and the play includes an implicit but daring criticism of James I. The play is not anti-democratic but a plea for balance in government and justice to the lower classes. The noxiousness of Coriolanus is one of the things that made the play relevant to people in Shakespeare’s day and makes it relevant to us today.
The Plot: A Vicious or Virtuous Cycle of Debate?
The basic plot of Coriolanus is fairly simple. The backstory of the play is that Coriolanus, whose given name is Martius, after the Roman god of war, has been raised by his mother to be a proud and valiant warrior with an inflexible personality. She is a true Valkyrie who would love to be a warrior herself. The play opens with an argument between some plebian citizens involved in protesting food shortages and Menenius representing the patricians who control the food. The plebians want the government to make food available to the hungry people, which the patricians resist on the grounds that it is their food. Martius intervenes to denounce the protesters and call for them all to be hanged. How one interprets who has the better of the argument in this scene is crucial to how one views the play.
Shortly thereafter, Martius performs heroic individual military feats in defeating the Volscians and taking the city of Corioles. He is given the name Coriolanus in honor of his heroics. He then repeatedly rejects any special payment for his service to Rome because he considers himself above any kind of service to the state. He does what he does because he wants to do it. He considers any reward to be demeaning, as though he were for hire and acting heroically for pay.
Based on Coriolanus’ military heroics, the patricians propose elevating him to be a counsul, which was one of the two chief executives in the Roman government. An assembly of the plebians initially approves this appointment. But then they hear of his refusal to share food with the populace and his plans to eliminate the newly created position of tribune, which gave the plebians a say in government. Coriolanus repeatedly insults the plebians and their tribunes and rejects the idea that as counsul he would be serving them. He considers himself above doing service to anyone, let alone a bunch of lowly plebians.
The plebians retract their approval of Coriolanus’ appointment as consul and conduct a trial in which they find him guilty of treason based on his plans to abolish the tribunes and thereby overthrow the established government, a crime for which he could be executed. But because of his prior heroic service to the state, which ironically Coriolanus refuses to acknowledge as service to the state, the tribunes decide to spare his life and exile him instead. The government then distributes food to the hungry populace, much to Coriolanus’ disdain and chagrin.
In exile, Coriolanus spitefully offers his services to the Volscians whose leader literally welcomes him with open arms. Coriolanus then leads a Volscian army toward Rome with the vengeful intent of ransacking the city and killing its inhabitants. He rejects pleas from former Roman friends to spare the city from annihilation but eventually responds positively to a plea from his mother. Coriolanus decides to go back on his agreement with the Volscians and spare Rome. How the scene with his mother is played is also crucial to interpreting the play. The play ends with Coriolanus being killed by the Volscians as a turncoat.
Coriolanus is a talky play, chock full of personal and political debating. People are continually debating the virtues and vices of Coriolanus and the pros and cons of popular government. The weight of the debate continually swings back and forth between fear of tyranny and fear of mob rule, and between concern for the personal problems of Coriolanus and the political problems of Rome. The debaters circle around and around so much that many critics are flummoxed as to what Shakespeare intends.
I think this confusion is to a large extent a result of interpreters trying to fit the debates into the serious story form of a tragedy instead of a comedy in which most of the characters are confused and many of them are fools, even if they are dangerous. Most of the debates are conducted in hyperbole, and most of the speeches should be played as overblown and somewhat ridiculous. Among the main characters, only the Roman general Cominius stands out as a voice of reason and reasonableness who tries to bridge the gaps among the arguing parties.
So, is the play a virtuous cycle of debate that leads to the softening of Coriolanus and the salvation of Rome? Or is it a vicious cycle that culminates in a hardening of Coriolanus’ pride and an exacerbation of the class struggle in Rome? Explicating the historical contexts in which Coriolanus lived and in which Shakespeare wrote can help answer these questions.
Coriolanus in Ancient and Modern Historical Context.
“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.” Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Developments in fifth century BCE Rome paralleled developments in seventeenth century England and that, I think, is a key indicator as to what Shakespeare intended with this play. Rome in the fifth century BCE was politically moving from a kingship to an aristocratic republic with some democratic elements. We see in the course of the play Coriolanus the beginnings of the development of the basic ideologies and institutions – the autocratic consuls who stood in place of a king, the patrician senate that represented the rich, and the democratic tribunes and general assemblies of plebian citizens – that were the foundation of the Roman Republic for the next four hundred years. They were also the source of almost continuous conflict as the social classes represented in each of those institutions vied for power over the others. Much of the cycle of debate in the play revolves around whether Rome will be ruled by a dictator, for which position Coriolanus was a leading candidate, by an aristocracy, by the demos, or by some combination of these three possibilities.
Paralleling the political movement from one-man rule to a more popular and collective government, Roman military tactics were moving from a more individualistic and heroic form of combat – the simultaneous one-on-one battles of hordes of men that one sees in The Iliad – to a more collectivist combat of large numbers of men organized into phalanxes – groups of armed soldiers standing close together and presenting a wall of aggression and opposition to the enemy. In one-on-one combat, victory generally went to the most highly skilled and most wildly ferocious soldiers. It was the sort of combat made for heroic individuals such as Coriolanus.
Phalanx warfare, by comparison, required little skill and less intensity. Patience and fortitude were the keys. Soldiers stood shoulder-to-shoulder with spears or swords outstretched, each soldier supporting the others next to him and willing to stay in formation with his comrades no matter what. Not the sort of thing for free-lancers or egotists. They would at best look foolish and would likely endanger the rest of the group. Nor would phalanx warfare be likely to produce individualistic heroes. Heroism, in this context, was Emerson’s standing together for five minutes longer. It was, however, the sort of warfare that enabled Rome to conquer much of the world. The play Coriolanus in effect dramatizes a last hurrah for someone like Coriolanus whose heroism was becoming obsolete in Ancient Rome, but not without resistance from high-ranking supporters of the old ways.
England in the early 1600’s CE was facing a similar situation and conflict. King James I was claiming to be a divine right king whose will should be considered omnipotent. James was a scholarly and deeply religious man and was, after all, responsible for the publication of the almost universally acclaimed King James Bible. But his religiosity also took him down some dark alleyways. He was, for example, obsessed with the dangers of witchcraft and personally supervised the torturing of women to get them to confess to being witches.
Born in 1566, James became King of Scotland in 1567 and was not only raised to be a king but was raised as a king. James grew up endowed with autocratic power that he attributed to God. In The True Law of Free Monarchies, published in 1598, James claimed that “The state of monarchy is the supremist thing upon earth; for kings are not only God’s lieutenants upon earth, and sit upon God’s throne, but even by God himself are called gods.” Talk about hutzpah.
Upon assuming the throne of England in 1603, James immediately came into conflict with Parliament. Parliament represented English aristocrats who did not generally ascribe to James’ theories of divinely instituted autocratic monarchy. They insisted that what James considered the legitimate freedoms of the monarch be balanced by the freedoms of aristocrats as set down in The Magna Carta and English common law. And these patricians asserted their rights through Parliament’s control over the government’s purse. If James did not approve laws and take other actions they wanted, they would not grant him taxes to run his government and engage in wars.
This running conflict between the King and Parliament eventually erupted in civil war in the 1640’s and led to the execution of King Charles I, James’ son, who went to his death insisting on the divinity of an autocratic monarchy. These later events were past Shakespeare’s time, but he lived through the beginnings of them and portrayed similar events in his plays.
While King James and the aristocrats in Parliament were battling over their rights, the lowly English masses were demonstrating against the enclosure movement and on behalf of what they claimed as their rights as free-born Englishmen. During the Middle Ages, a portion of a nobleman’s land was generally set aside as a common area on which peasants could graze their animals and raise some crops. Over time, this use of the so-called commons became considered a legal right of the peasants. But starting in the 1500’s, patrician landowners began enclosing these common areas, and banning the peasants from using them, so that the patricians could devote the commons along with their other lands for grazing sheep. Exporting wool to the European continent became a very profitable industry for these patricians.
But the combination of closing off the commons and dedicating most of England’s other farmland to raising sheep resulted in a large decrease in the amount of grain being grown in the country. Unable to use the commons, huge numbers of peasants were bankrupted off their land. And with little land devoted to raising grain, grain shortages occurred and bread prices for the urban poor skyrocketed. The result was bread riots in the cities and anti-enclosure demonstrations and land occupations in the countryside. In the latter case, peasants would tear up the newly grown hedges that enclosed what had been common land, then they would dig into the land and plant crops. Hence these protesters were called Diggers.
In 1607, a group of some five thousand peasants known as the Diggers of Warwickshire addressed a petition to King James I asking for help against the landlords. Frequently citing the Bible, they claimed the enclosures were an offense against the King since they “deprive his most true harted (sic) communaty (sic)” of the right to live. James responded by calling their petition “a wicked instrument” and sending troops that slaughtered hundreds of the peasants.
The parallel of James’ response to the protesters with that of Coriolanus couldn’t be closer. Shakespeare was not only aware of the events in Warwickshire when he completed Coriolanus in 1608, he incorporated the arguments and the very language of the Diggers’ petition into the opening scene of the play in which a group of citizens representing the hungry Roman populace debate with a spokesperson for the Roman patricians. In their petition, for example, the Diggers repeatedly spoke of themselves as members of a body politic – “We members of the whole” – that was being starved by greedy landlords. The metaphor of a political body that is made up of members that serve different functions and need to be cared for is at the center of the debate between the protesters and the patricians in Coriolanus. Significantly, I think the protesters get the better of the argument in the play.
Changes in warfare that were taking place in seventeenth century England also paralleled those in fifth century BCE Rome. Just as Rome had moved from the individualized combat of phallic sword fighting to collectivized phalanxes, so too warfare in Shakespeare’s time was moving from the individualized battling of knights in shining armor to the collectivized combat of massed musket-wielding soldiers.
Muskets were newly developed weapons in Europe that shot bullets which could penetrate armor and made armored knights obsolete. Muskets had smooth barrels, however, which made them extremely imprecise as to aim. They propelled round lead balls that wobbled down a barrel and then out into the air in the general direction in which the musket was aimed. An individual musketeer was very unlikely to hit any specific thing at which he was aiming. But a massed row of musketeers could launch a wall of lead that would mow down an enemy army.
Armored knights were highly trained and skilled warriors whose individualized combats were often heroic as, for example, in Shakespeare’s play Henry V. As with Roman phalanxes, massed musket warfare required little skill, since aiming a musket was almost irrelevant, and it involved little in the way of individual heroics. Again, as with the Roman phalanx, heroism was standing together for five minutes longer. It was, however, massed armies of plebian soldiers that enabled England to become the world’s largest empire. Individualistic heroes of England’s recent past, such as Henry V, were becoming obsolete in Shakespeare’s time and, I think, this was one of the implications of his play Coriolanus.
Conventional Interpretations: Psychology, Sociology, and Tragedy.
Most interpretations of Coriolanus focus on the character, psychology and personal relations of Coriolanus and on the character, psychology and social relations of the rebellious citizens. The variety of interpretations of Coriolanus is vast and often contradictory. There are analyses that focus on Coriolanus’ abilities and actions as a military general and civilian leader, some in praise, others in disparagement. There are characterizations of Coriolanus as a fascist warmonger and a Leninist communist revolutionary. There are Freudian analyses of Coriolanus as suffering from Oedipal problems with respect to his dominating mother and absent father, and as a repressed homosexual whose sexuality is perverted into violence. There are laudations of him as a Nietzschean superman who is in fact above it all. There are also various interpretations of the plebians. These include mob psychology analyses of the plebian crowds in the vein of Gustave Le Bon, Malthusian interpretations of the plebians as exemplifying overpopulation problems in Rome, and Social Darwinian interpretations of the Roman plebian as a useless underclass.
But there are two common factors in almost all these interpretations of the play. One is that Coriolanus is seen as a tragic figure, a “man of war [who] cannot keep the peace,” but whose underlying soft-heartedness leads him to accede to his mother’s wishes and spare Rome in the end. The other is that the Roman plebians are seen as an irrational mob who are ignorant, gullible, and easily manipulated by the vile tribunes that supposedly represent them.
The distinguished Shakespearean scholar Harold Goddard claimed, for example, that the way in which Coriolanus concedes to his mother’s wishes at the end of the play shows that he must have been a natural poet as a child. Despite Coriolanus’ rough language and rude behavior, Goddard insists that “Coriolanus is all tenderness at the center.” Goddard also dismissed the plebians as ignorant, gullible and fickle. I don’t agree.
Coriolanus as Comedy: The Line Between Tragic Hero and Comic Fool.
I think that my contention that Coriolanus is best seen as a comedy can be illustrated by focusing on two scenes, the opening scene where Menenius confronts three plebian citizens with respect to the food shortage in Rome and the scene at the end of the play when Coriolanus accepts his mother’s plea to spare Rome from invasion.
The play opens with the entrance of a group of citizens armed with clubs and other rude weapons. These are far less murderous than the swords and spears carried by patricians and their soldiers. Emphasizing the collective nature of the group, only two of them are singled out as individuals by Shakespeare and they are called merely First Citizen and Second Citizen. These two are the leaders of the group. The First Citizen opens the play with three statements: “You are all resolved to die than to famish,” then “You know that Caius Martius [Coriolanus]is chief enemy to the people,” and then “Let us kill him, and then we’ll have corn at our own price.” To each of these statements, the group shouts its approval.
The First Citizen then goes on to explain that they are threatening violence only because the patricians, led by Coriolanus, are hoarding corn and will sell it only at an exorbitant price. The patricians are taking advantage of the plebians’ plight, the First Citizen claims, and “our sufferance is a gain to them.” It is significant that the plebians are not demanding free corn or threatening to steal it. They only want to be able to buy it at “our own price,” that is, a price they can afford. And although they condemn Coriolanus as “a very dog to the commonalty,” they don’t want to kill him and propose to do so only because he is the chief obstacle to their gaining corn. They are acting, they say, “in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.”
The way that you read and play these opening lines spoken by the First Citizen are a key to your interpretation of the play. Harold Goddard speaks for many critics in characterizing the First Citizen as “an egotistical, loud-mouthed, malicious, illogical troublemaker and knave.” And it is certainly possible to play these lines in that way. You can merely have the actor say them with a sneer and a leer, have him wave a club around in a murderous way, and you’ve got a demagogue leading an irrational mob. But, I think if you just look at the lines themselves, they are not the words of a demagogue, and the consent of the crowd to the First Citizen’s speech is not irrational. The citizens merely want to buy bread because they and their families are hungry, and they need to eliminate the person who is keeping them from doing so.
No sooner has the First Citizen finished speaking than Menenius, who is the main spokesperson for the patricians and chief apologist for Coriolanus, enters to respond to the citizens. He launches into a speech blaming the food shortage on the gods and defending the control of Rome’s grain by the patricians. He compares the patricians to the belly of the body politic that must take in all the food and then provide sustenance to the rest of the body as best meets the needs of the various body parts.
The argument is so ridiculous that even Goddard compares Menenius to the fool Polonius in Hamlet. But Goddard and most critics claim that Menenius convinces the even stupider citizens. Goddard says that the citizens “can only stammer in reply, ‘Ay, sir; well, well’” and stupidly ask “’How apply you this?’” and offer other seeming inanities. And you certainly can play Menenius as a well-intentioned fool and the citizens as ill-intentioned idiots taken in by his arguments, but I think if you just look at the lines, that is not the best way to play them.
On its face, Menenius’ speech is anything but well-intentioned toward the citizens, especially if you see it in the context of his later conversations with Coriolanus and others in which he expresses the deepest scorn and ill regard for the plebians. Like Coriolanus, he would just as soon see them starve. And I think that the citizens are anything but taken in by his arguments. Their questions and monosyllabic responses should be seen as satirical rather than sincere, which Menenius eventually seems to realize and begins to insult them at the end of his speech.
As Menenius is beginning to insult the citizens, Coriolanus comes onto the scene and his first words to them, without anything having been said to him, are “What’s the matter you dissentious rogues?” He goes on to call them “curs,” among other insults, and call for them all to be hanged. At the end of the scene, a messenger comes to inform them all that the Volscians are on attack. Coriolanus rejoices that now “we shall ha’ means to vent our musty superfluity,” that is, rid Rome of troublesome citizens by having them killed by the Volscians in battle. In this scene, Coriolanus does not look like a tragic hero who is going to fall from a height and suffer more than he deserves. And Coriolanus, for whom threats are a stock-in-trade, keeps up this kind of over-the-top rhetoric, degrading others and elevating himself, throughout the play.
It is the plebian citizens who come off as the most reasonable people in this scene. And despite Coriolanus’ implacable opposition to them, they later even grant him leniency when he is convicted of treason and faces execution. In sum, although the citizens sometimes vacillate, and their tribune spokespersons play political games during the play, they are much more sympathetic characters than Coriolanus.
The scene at the end of the play in which Coriolanus agrees to spare Rome from invasion is almost invariably interpreted as a softening of his heart in response to the emotional appeal of his mother. But I don’t think that is the best reading of the scene. In this scene, Coriolanus, after refusing to see any of his Roman friends who want to plead with him to spare Rome, reluctantly accepts a visit from his wife, son, and mother. He insists on seeing them in the presence of the Volscian commander, Aufidius, to show that he is not doing anything underhanded and to show off his strength of will against any pleas for him to change in his mind.
Through extensive entreaties from his mother, wife and son, Coriolanus stands firm in his intention to destroy Rome until his mother launches into one last-gasp appeal in which she grasps at one argument after another and then, as she is seemingly getting ready to leave in despair, hits on what seem to be the magic words. “Come, let us go,” she says, and then pointing at Aufidius, continues “This fellow had a Volscian to his mother; His wife is in Corioles, his child like him by chance. Yet give us our dispatch: I am hushed until our city is afire, and then I’ll speak a little.” In a flash, Coriolanus changes his mind and decides to spare Rome. Why?
The conventional view is that his pride is softened. My view is that his pride is hardened, and that is why he changes his mind. Coriolanus is a man who needs to see himself as superior to everyone else. He has already been trying to assert his military superiority over his Volscian commander Aufidius, which has displeased Aufidius. Now Coriolanus’ mother has implied that if he sacrifices his own mother, wife and child in the attack on Rome, he will be making a sacrifice in the service of Aufidius that Aufidius does not himself have to make. He will be putting himself at a lower level than Aufidius. It is this that Coriolanus cannot accept.
Although Coriolanus has already several times rejected his mother’s pleas, he tells Aufidius that she has convinced him, and that Rome will not be invaded. He gives the order to his commander Aufidius. He is the one taking charge. And Aufidius has no choice but to agree. Coriolanus seems to think he can get away with this because the Volscian soldiers in Aufidius’ army seem to respect and even revere Coriolanus more than they do Aufidius. Coriolanus has previously turned traitor to Rome by joining the Volscians. Now he turns traitor on the Volscians, but thinks he is above approach and reproach. Aufidius, however, has had enough, connives with some assassins to have Coriolanus killed, and that is how the play ends. Coriolanus falls, but from vain stupidity rather than tragic heroism, and this is the mark of a comedy, not a tragedy.
Trump, Coriolanus and the Present Danger.
Coriolanus is a play about power, politics, and pride. These are three things that almost invariably go together, and that’s a problem. It takes a good deal of vanity to seek political office in the first place and if you attain high office, that will itself reinforce your pride. Then of course, you will likely be surrounded by sycophants and panderers who stoke your pride, plus you will be in a position to exercise power over people and society, and that will feed your pride even more. It is a vicious cycle in which overweening power can result in overweening pride, and that is not a good thing for anyone.
Set in fifth century BCE Rome, Coriolanus speaks to issues that were relevant to people at that time and place but also to people in Shakespeare’s day and in ours today. Two issues raised in the play stand out in particular: the resistance of people to change from a more individualistic to a more collectivistic society; and, the threat posed by would-be dictators who would take advantage of that resistance to change to gain absolute power.
Over the long course of history, societies have ebbed and flowed back and forth between more individualistic and more collectivistic social orders and power structures. Writing today in the spring of 2018 in the United States, we are witnessing in this country and in many other countries around the world the resurgence of would-be authoritarians and autocrats. These Trumps, Putins, et al are being aided and abetted by billionaires who stand to profit from their support of these would-be dictators. Coriolanus can help us think about the perils of our situation in the United States in at least two ways, first, by comparing and contrasting Coriolanus with Donald Trump and, second, by comparing and contrasting our political systems with those of fifth century Rome and seventeenth century England.
Coriolanus and Trump have some key similarities. Both are enormous egotists who think of themselves as above everyone else and above the law, and who try to bully everyone to get their way. They both use a doomsday strategy in which they threaten total destruction to their opponents and even to their own societies in order to get their way. Coriolanus threatens to hang the plebians who oppose him and to destroy Rome for having rejected him. Trump routinely threatens to jail or otherwise destroy his opponents, and periodically threatens nuclear war.
Both also see themselves as the leaders of countries that have the might and therefore the right to rule over other countries. Coriolanus represents a Rome that in the recent past had essentially been an organized criminal enterprise which routinely conquered and plundered neighboring societies. In proclaiming a slogan of “America First,” Trump wants Americans to personally pursue their own selfish self-interests above all other considerations, as he always has. But, he also wants the United States to use its power to extort concessions from other countries in a zero-sum game in which we get more of everything and they get less.
Coriolanus and Trump are also both bloviators. Goddard claims that Coriolanus is merely a blunt speaker who is too honest to speak in euphemisms. But I think that in any objective review of Coriolanus’ language you have to conclude that this is a man who cannot or will not control himself so as to speak decently. And I think that his speeches are best played comically as ludicrous. Trump is, likewise, incapable of speaking of himself in other than platitudes and of others who disagree with him in other than insults. He lives in a melodramatic world in which he and his supporters are the good guys and everyone else is a dangerous bad guy. In Trump’s case, noxiousness is a matter of politics and policy as he tries to garner support by stoking fear and hate, and then showing he scorns the people his supporters fear and hate. He is ludicrous but also very dangerous in sowing the seeds of bigotry, misogyny, and dissention.
Coriolanus and Trump are both fools, albeit dangerous fools. They are also both destined from the start to fail in the long run unless they bring about the destruction of their respective societies, which Coriolanus could have done if he had gone through with his plans to invade Rome and which Trump could do with a push of the nuclear button. Coriolanus’ overreaching and overweening pride brought his career to an abrupt end.
Trump and his right-wing supporters will also, I think and hope, fall prey to demographic changes that will foil their plans to restore a nineteenth century regime of individualism, laissez-faire capitalism, and white peoples’ power in the United States. The population of the country will soon be a majority minority, and young people are overwhelmingly more progressive than their nostalgic regressive elders. Coriolanus represented the last-gasp of a heroic age as Rome evolved from monarchy to republic, and Trump represents a last-ditch effort of American right-wingers in their century-long battle to keep the nineteenth century from ending.
But the differences between Coriolanus and Trump are also important. Coriolanus was completely honest, which even his fiercest opponents recognized and admired. He would not lie or cheat. In fact, I think Coriolanus was not so much honest as above dishonesty. Trump is a chronic, almost compulsive, liar and a notorious cheater in business and probably in politics. He has repeatedly bragged about his sharp business practices, and they may be a factor if he falls from grace as a result of investigations currently ongoing.
Coriolanus was also a brave warrior who repeatedly volunteered for military service and rushed to the most dangerous spots in the battle. The down-side of this bravery was that he was essentially a thug at the head of a gang of thugs. He was the guy who could whip everyone else in the gang and so he became their leader. At the same time, Coriolanus also eschewed adulation and was immune to criticism. He had a thick skin and he was above any need for praise, but the down-side of this is that he refused correction when he was wrong. Trump was a draft dodger, and he is seemingly also a coward who has historically gotten others to fight his battles for him. In turn, Trump lives for adulation and cannot stand criticism. Trump is clearly a weaker person than Coriolanus, but not necessarily less dangerous for that very reason.
Shakespeare wrote many plays about tyrants and his art often imitated life. In Coriolanus, he also suggested the potential solution to the problem of tyranny. In the fifth century BCE, Rome was developing a split government of consuls, senate, tribunes, and popular assemblies, with different institutions representing different groups of people, each of which could check and balance the others, and which required the agreement of all of them to make the society work. Similarly, in Shakespeare’s time, Parliament, with a patrician House of Lords and a bourgeois House of Commons, along with street demonstrations of the populace, were evolving to check and balance the King. Things did not always work the way they should have, and both the Roman Republic and Stuart England suffered from repeated conflicts and civil wars.
In the United States today, we have institutions of divided government and separation of powers like those in the Roman Republic and Stuart England but, hopefully, more effective at keeping the peace while saving the country from authoritarians. The division of powers between the federal government and the state governments and within the federal and various state governments ought to provide sufficient checks and balances on a would-be dictator if these institutions do what they are supposed to do. In addition, we have a free press that did not exist in either Republican Rome or Stuart England and which provides another check on a potential autocrat. Finally, we have a free theater which can remind us with plays such as Coriolanus of the dangers we face and the collective institutions we need to rely on to meet those dangers. With supports such as these, we can hopefully keep Trump and company from turning what is already bad enough as a dark comedy into a disastrous melodrama.
Postscript: 2018 Stratford Ontario Festival Production.
A Shameful Production: Promoting authoritarianism.
I recently had the mixed pleasure of attending a performance of Coriolanus at the Stratford Festival. The production was awesome. The interpretation was awful. Worse than awful, it was shameful.
Coriolanus is a play that features protests against the mistreatment of the lower classes, warnings about the rise of dictators, and arguments in favor of checks and balances in government. These were developments in the sixth century BCE when Coriolanus lived and in early seventeenth century when Shakespeare lived. And they are still critical issues today. Shakespeare was clearly sympathetic with all three of these developments. But you would not know that from the interpretation that has been given to the play at Stratford this year.
To the contrary, the play is staged as a glorification of the authoritarianism of Coriolanus. In an age of Trump, Putin, and other authoritarians and would-be dictators, how could the Stratford management let this be the interpretation of their play?
Awesome Staging: Now you see it, now you don’t.
The director Robert Lepage is a genius when it comes to staging the play and using lights and other technologies to enhance his production. Just as one example that I can describe simply: He had Coriolanus get into a car on the stage and then drive through a series of landscapes, with the illusion of movement perfect. The other illusions are too complicated for me to describe in a few words, but walls came and went with a change of light, people were in one place then another in a flash, stage sets moved from one place to another… I have no idea how he did these things, but they worked. They were not just high-tech gimmickry aiming to distract and entertain. The gimmicks added to the story. It was the sort of thing you can imagine Shakespeare doing if he had had the technology. Brilliant.
Awful Interpretation: Tragic or Fitting Death?
Lepage’s interpretation of the play is something else. He has Coriolanus played as a man whose public persona is overly proud and harsh but who is actually humble and warmhearted underneath. Coriolanus is played as a misunderstood hero whose disdain of the masses is justified and whose death results from a softhearted response to his mother’s pleas to spare Rome. Lepage has the masses of people played as idiots and the tribunes as scoundrels. He has Menenius played as a wise elder statesman rather than a long-winded fool. These are very different than as I see them and as I have described in the essay above.
And Lepage has Coriolanus killed by one of Tullus’ men in a moment of anger rather than as a result of Tullus’ connivance as Shakespeare wrote it. Lepage has Coriolanus’ death played as tragedy. But I disagree. I think Coriolanus got the death that he wanted as proof of his superiority as he would see it, and as proof to us of his overweening pride.
Coriolanus’ pose all along has been that of a man who is above everyone and everything. He disdains praise because he considers himself above those who would praise him. He disdains reward for his service because he will not demean himself to be seen as acting heroically for gain. He even disdains the idea of public service because service implies he is beneath those whom he is serving. When he agrees to spare Rome from the Volscian army, he is asserting his superiority over his commander Tullus. And when Tullus has him killed, Tullus is effectively admitting that he is jealous of Coriolanus and that Coriolanus is his superior.
Earlier in the play, when Coriolanus first went over to the Volscians, he challenged Tullus to either accept him into the Volscian army or kill him. Coriolanus was thereby challenging Tullus either to work with Coriolanus or to admit that Coriolanus was too big for Tullus to handle, that Coriolanus would outshine him. This is just what happened and is why Tullus had Coriolanus killed. Shakespeare seems to be portraying this as a fitting death, not a tragic one, that confirmed Coriolanus’ pride and crowned his proudful life. Coriolanus was a hero for another time but a harmful fool in his own.
B.W. June 16, 2018
 Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1954.
Jared Diamond. The Third Chimpanzee: The Evolution and Future of the Human Animal. New York: Harper Perennial, 1993. Pp. 220-221, 276-310. David Sloane Wilson Evolution of Everyone. New York: Delacorte Press. 2007. Pp.51-57, 285.
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 Aristotle. Poetics. New York: Hill & Wang, 1961. Pp. 61, 81-86. Kenneth Burke. Attitudes Toward History. Boston: Beacon Press, 1961. Pp.37, 39. Paul Goodman. The Structure of Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1954. Pp.35, 172.
 Plutarch. “The Life of Coriolanus.” The Parallel Lives. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1966.
 H.R. Oliver. “Coriolanus As Tragic Hero.” Shakespeare Quarterly, 1959. P.53.
 Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.209.
 Frank Kermode. The Age of Shakespeare. New York: Modern Library, 2004. P.173.
 Scott Palmer. “Timely Tragedy.” Bag and Baggage Productions, 6/23/16.
 Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. P.244.
 Steve Hindle. “Imagining Insurrection in Seventeenth Century England: Representations of the Midland Uprising of 1607.” University of Warwick, 2018.
 Michael Wood. Shakespeare. New York: Basic Books, 2003. P.298.
 Jonathan Bate. “Introduction.” Coriolanus. New York: Modern Library, 2011. P. VIII. Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. P.244
 Frank Kermode. The Age of Shakespeare. New York: Modern Library, 2004. P 170. Jonathan Bate. “Introduction.” Coriolanus. New York: Modern Library, 2011. P.XII. Mark Van Doren. Shakespeare. New York: New York Review Books, 2005. P.246. Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. Pp. 218, 232, 234.
 Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.223.
 Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.210.
 Harold Goddard. The Meaning of Shakespeare. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1951. P.232.
 Harold Goddard.