William Shakespeare. Coriolanus

Who is to blame for Coriolanus's banishment?

by Ian Mackean

What would you have, you curs,
That like not peace nor war? The one afrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares.


In Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Coriolanus's banishment is the climax of a series of events in which several forces play a part, all pushing him towards his inevitable downfall. As is usual in Shakespearean Tragedy, the hero, at the peak of his achievements, falls, due to a fatal flaw in his character. Coriolanus's flaw is his arrogant pride and lack of temperance, and his fall is great, from national hero to outcast.

A particular feature of this play is that Shakespeare has shown us how the hero's character came to be flawed. We see that the flaw has its roots in the family and society which moulded his personality. This insight does not enable us to excuse Coriolanus for his behaviour, but it does prevent us from presenting a simple black and white case on the question of who is to blame for his downfall.In Coriolanus's Rome the citizens fall roughly into two categories, the patricians and the plebeians. The two factions are seen to coexist in a state of more or less mutual antagonism, with stability being maintained by a willingness to compromise on both sides. The patricians are prepared to give the plebeians, in Coriolanus's words:

Five tribunes to defend their vulgar wisdoms,
Of their own choice. (1.1.214)

And the plebeians acknowledge their need for leadership:

Truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south (11.111.21)

Coriolanus, however, does not fit in with his society. His valour places him above the plebeians, and his lack of politic sense places him outside to the circle of patricians. He cannot understand the concepts of expediency and respect necessary for the maintenance of a stable society by its authorities. He naively sees society in simplistic terms of good patricians, and bad plebeians.

In soothing them, we nourish 'gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough'd for, sow'd, and scattered. (111.1.68)

In his intense egocentricity he thinks he is right and everybody else is wrong. On the appointment of tribunes he criticises the decision of the patricians, and does so in ominous terms which show the price he is prepared to pay for his principles:

'Sdeath, the rabble should have first unroof'd the city
Ere so prevailed with me. (1.1.216)

His position in society is insecure because he has no social matrix to give him support or restraint. He is an odd man out, and as such his relationship to society depends entirely upon his own character and behaviour.

His character is such that it takes him to the two extremes of status in society, particularly in the eyes of the plebeians. The play opens with the plebeians determined to murder him:

First you know Caius Martius is chief enemy to the people . . .

Let us kill him and we'll have corn at our own price

No more talking on't, let it be done. (1.1.6)

Yet later they are prepared to elect him consul, and later still they are for killing him again. Bearing in mind that these threats are by no means idle, we see that his position is extremely precarious; one calculated shove will topple him for good. The shove comes from the tribunes, who recognise his fatal flaw and use it as a lever to manipulate him. Coriolanus must take his share of the blame in this for allowing himself to be so easily manipulated.

Coriolanus's flaw is his pride, his insistence on voicing his opinions regardless of the consequences, and the narrow-mindedness which makes him immune to change. He firmly believes that the duty of every Roman male is to achieve valour, and valour is the only virtue he recognises.

If any . . . love this painting wherein you see me smeared;
If any fear lesser his person than an ill report;
If any think brave death outweighs bad life,
And that his country's dearer than himself;
Let him alone . . . follow Martius (1.V1.67)

It is his single-minded determination that has led to his success, but it also leads him to hate and despise all those who, in his view, fail to live up to their duty:

What would you have, you curs,
That like not peace nor war? The one afrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares. (1.1.167)

The strength of his feeling is emphasised by of the revolting physical imagery he uses in addressing the plebeians:

What's the matter you dissentious rogues
That rubbing the poor the itch of your opinion,
Make yourself scabs? (1.1.164)

All the contagion of the south light on you,
You shames of Rome! You herd of - boils and plagues
Plaster you o'er, (1.1V.30)

The idea of 'countrymen' means little or nothing to him. Though he seems to be fighting for Rome, it is as a personal ideal, or symbol, and he holds his fellow Romans in utter contempt. They are an insignificant rabble to him, and he makes little distinction between them and the enemy:

Would the nobility lay aside their ruth,
And let me use my sword, I'd make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter'd slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance. (1.1.196)

I would they were barbarians, as they are,
Though in Rome litter'd; not Romans, as they are not. (111.1.236)

It is not the fact that he holds these opinions, however, that seals his doom, it is the fact that he cannot refrain from voicing them vehemently in public on every possible occasion. He insists on acting in this way, against the good advice, to dissemble, from Menenius and his mother, even when his life is at stake

Let them pull all about mine ears, present me
Death on the wheel, or at wild horses heels,
Or pile ten hills on the Tarpeian rock,
That the precipitation might down stretch
Below the beam of sight: yet will I still
Be thus to them. (111.11.1)

The tribunes of the people, Brutus and Sicinius are well aware of this aspect of his character, and of the ease with which they can use it to their advantage:

Brutus: Being mov'd he will not spare to gird the gods.
Sicinius: Bemock the modest moon. (1.1.255)

Brutus and Sicinius are motivated partly by their knowledge that if Coriolanus were made consul he would strip them of their power:

Sicinius: I warrant him consul
Brutus: Then our office may,
During his power, go sleep. (11.1.219)

And partly by a their personal feelings of spite and jealousy of this man who has achieved much more than they ever will:

Sicinius: Was ever man so proud as this Martius?
Brutus: He has no equal
. . . Mark'd you his lip and eyes?
. . . The present wars devour him! He is grown
Too proud to be so valiant. (1.1.251)

It is not difficult for them to goad him into publicly making a treasonous statement, for which he is banished.

From the point of view of Roman society there is no one to blame but Coriolanus himself. As illustrated by Menenius's story of the body and its parts (1.1.95 - ), the motif of the play, the harmonious operation of the community is the criterion by which the actions of its individuals must be judged. By this criterion, although the military service Coriolanus has done for Rome is undeniably great, it is also undeniable that he is likely to do a great deal of harm to the living fabric of the society. On this point, Sicinius and Menenius, representatives of the two factions of society, cannot help but agree:

Sicinius: He's a disease that must be cut away.
Menenius: Oh, he's a limb that has but a disease. (111.1.292)

In terms of the action of the play, therefore, we must appoint blame primarily to Coriolanus himself for his arrogance and open display of hatred, and secondarily to the spiteful jealousy of the tribunes, and the indecision and gullibility of the plebeians.

The play gives us, however, evidence of the causes behind human character. Through the character of Coriolanus's mother, and the nature of Roman society itself, we can see why Coriolanus is the way he is. We can note the influence of Roman society itself in its upholding valour as a high virtue. This is seen in the eagerness of the patricians to praise him for his supreme soldiership.

If I should tell thee o'er this thy day's work,
Thou't not believe thy deeds: but I'll report it,
Where senators shall mingle tears with smiles
. . . ladies shall be frighted . . . the dull tribunes
That with the fusty plebeians hate thine honours,
Shall say against their hearts, 'We thank the gods
Our Rome hath such a soldier'. (1.1X.1)

But this social influence will be common to all Roman families and sons, and cannot be responsible for the extreme nature of Coriolanus's character. Far more important an influence has been his mother. Volumina has brought him up of with only one aim in mind; to make him a great soldier:

When yet he was but tender bodied . . . when for a day of Kings' entreaties, a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding . . . To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee daughter, I sprang of not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child, than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.

Virgilia: But had he died in the business, madam, how then?

Volumina: Then his good report should have been my son. (1.111.5)

We have a further insight into the way Coriolanus's character has been formed from an early age through Valeria's report of young Martius, Coriolanus's son, over whom, no doubt, Volumina has had huge influence.

Valeria: 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 . . . he did so set his teeth and tear it. Oh, I warrant how he mammocked it! (1.111.60)

The view that Coriolanus's character is, 'What he cannot help in his nature' (1.1.40), due to the influence of his mother, is supported by professor of psychiatry, Charles K Hofling M.D.:

Volumina thus is seen to be an extremely un-feminine non-maternal person, one who sought to mould her son to fit a preconceived image gratifying her own masculine (actually pseudo-masculine) strivings. Her method . . . was to withhold praise and the scant affection she had to give from any achievements except aggressive and exhibitionistic ones.

Therefore we can feel great sympathy for Coriolanus when he says:

I muse my mother
Does not approve me further, who was wont
To call them woollen vassals, things created
To buy and sell with the groats, . . .
Why did you wish me milder? Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am. (111.11.7)

This insight makes the question of who is to blame much less clear-cut, and perhaps even meaningless.

The problem for Rome is essentially a practical one, of how to ensure self-preservation, and all the insight and understanding in the world would not lessen the necessity of taking steps against Coriolanus.

Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus. The Arden Shakespeare. Methuen. 1976

© Ian Mackean, September 2000

See also: Plays made into movies >

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