Shakespeare’s Coriolanus Analysis: Fallacy, Faction, and Honesty

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Nature teaches beasts to know their friends
-Coriolanus, Shakespeare

Background and Overview – Coriolanus is based on a Roman legend, which in turn was probably grounded in some truth. A few years prior to the events in the story, the last Roman king was overthrown by a group of Roman patricians (including Coriolanus) and the Roman Republic was established. With the balance of power disrupted, factions developed among the patricians (nobles) and the plebeians (commoners), with the latter group fighting for, and slowly gaining, more power. In the midst of the political conflict, famine stuck, but the patricians denied the poors’ cries for free (or near- free) corn.

Coriolanus is often called a “political play,” yet it’s an error to think that Shakespeare was rooting for either side. In fact, he rewrites history to make sure that both sides are balanced in their good and bad qualities. It’s also wrong to think he’s an advocate for republicanism or monarchy in this play, since he presents the former as fomenting corruption and the latter tyranny.

The Romans were treading new ground with their Republic, never having been without a monarch, and nobody had the guidebook for success. Coriolanus talks about the plebs having no idea what goes on in ruling a country, but he clearly does not have any idea either, despite having actively worked to bring it about. Meanwhile, those that rose in the ranks have done so by dishonesty and manipulation.

In fact, Shakespeare seems to imply the futility of politics, given that in this Rome, one actually has to become somewhat tyrannical to fill the power vacuum, perpetuating the old political situation. As Machiavelli wrote, “Whoever takes upon him to reform the government of a city, must, if his measures are to be well received and carried out with general approval, preserve at least the semblance of existing methods.”

Now, let’s analyze each of the main groups and characters to better understand the jambalaya of human fallacy and ignorance that we have before us.

The Plebs – Shakespeare was not an early Marx, and Shakespeare’s masses are not “working-class heroes” exploited by the aristocracy as your college professor might be telling you. The plebs are deeply flawed themselves. For example, when they are at war, they flee at the first sight of danger and retreat to the trenches, whereas our patrician Coriolanus fights bravely with the battle scars to show it. He refers to their unworthiness in battle:
“Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun.”

In his belief system, the plebeians haven’t proved themselves in battle, as a patrician would have to do. In fact, in this time period, the patricians were the ones who fought on the front lines. The more you had, the harder you (literally) had to fight to keep it, whereas the plebeians fought in the back of the lineup or not at all. With this in mind, it’s more understandable why it outrageous Coriolanus when they take to the streets with weapons against the patricians, and especially when they call him a traitor; in his mind, it is they who are betraying their country and consequently don’t deserve free food. In turn, the plebeians give him no credit for his military valor or deeds, and wrongly think that his only motives are to earn his mother’s affection and pride.

Actually, I wonder if Coriolanus’ very accomplishments are at the heart of their resentment. It hurts their own pride to think he could have accomplished all that he did, for reasons other than personal gain, all the while knowing that he scorns them and doesn’t care whether they love or hate him in return. I say this because it’s obvious that they want to love him, as evidenced by the fact that they initially make him consul despite his thinly veiled contempt. But the reality of his feelings is painful.
Thus, Menenius is not unjustified when he calls the plebeian hypocrites: “You talk of pride: O that you could turn your eyes toward the napes of your necks, and make but an interior survey of your good selves!”

Coriolanus, on the other hand, can see the true nature of politics, and thinks flattery is dishonorable, and therefore debasing. His words are revealing:
“[flattery is] a condition they account
gentle: and since the wisdom of their choice is
rather to have my hat than my heart, I will practice
the insinuating nod and be off to them most
counterfeitly; that is, sir, I will counterfeit the
bewitchment of some popular man and give it
bountiful to the desirerers.

So we have a grave misunderstanding on both sides. The plebeians do not understand Coriolanus’ loftier notions of justice and honesty. In his mind, he’s resisting the dishonest political culture and dishing out only what they deserve, which is why he can’t bite his tongue for five minutes. Meanwhile, Coriolanus cannot relate to the plebeians’ struggles. They are suffering and dying from hunger while the patricians dine on stuffed songbirds. He fails to put himself in their shoes and see that he’s not doing anybody any favors by keeping Rome divided. It’s also worth noting that the Republic was founded by patricians. The last king was slaughtering senators, not plebeians, who never sought to “off’ him. But he was assassinated and now they found themselves in a world dominated by the aristocracy.

Thus, Shakespeare’s politics are balanced. It’s not a story about exploitation, or about the horrors of democracy and populism. It’s a story about human fallacy.

The Tribunes – The real Junius Brutus was a patrician, grandson of one of Rome’s kings and related by marriage to the final king. In the ancient texts  he’s depicted as the guiding hand behind the overthrow itself, which is why it’s so symbolic that his descendent Marcus Brutus, friend of Julius Caesar, was involved in that conspiracy hundreds of years later. In Julius Caesar, Shakespeare wrote:
O, you and I have heard our fathers say,
There was a Brutus once that would have brookt
Th’eternal devil to keep his state in Rome
As easily as a king

After the overthrow, he became a consul, not a tribune that that deliberately stirred up trouble among the common peoples. Various American founding fathers (aristocrats) would even refer to themselves as Brutus in their writings. So why did Shakespeare choose to totally rewrite his story and make him a tribune? One reason could be that he felt compelled to include him, given his fame, but thought that adding more patricians would be redundant. Another could be that he perceived that this was Brutus’s true nature and changed his character accordingly. We’ll never know the exact workings of Shakespeare’s mind, but I suspect that it something closer to the latter motivation. People are not black and white, and Brutus probably did have some personal motivations in getting rid of the kings and establishing a new government which he could lead, despite his later canonization.

In any case, in the play, Brutus and Sicinius are two figures who have what it takes to succeed in the new political scheme. These two gilded butterflies shrewdly manipulate the crowd to their own advantage. For example, they urge the people to cry for Coriolanus’ death so that they can swoop in and graciously declare that he should only be banished. They also deliberately provoke Coriolanus into lashing out, well aware of his weakness. Indeed, early on they predicted that Coriolanus would self-destruct. And finally, Brutus is astute enough to see that they needed to change their tune and put on a humble mask once they succeeded in getting Coriolanus banished to not provoke more fear among the aristocrats.

In the end, their actions hurt Rome more than help her because they merely pretend to cooperate with the patricians; in reality they are working against them. Again, it sets a precedent for dishonest politics, so Coriolanus is not so unfair when he says:
In soothing them, we nourish ‘gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough’d for, sow’d
and scatter’d

But the tribunes are not without their redeeming qualities. Being plebeians themselves, they rightly do not want the people to starve, especially since most of them are innocent. And though they do more harm than good, their intentions are not all bad. After all, their biggest fear is that a consul will take away their newly-won office and the people will be powerless. Given the way the patricians lord over them, this is not so far-fetched. In the mouth of Brutus:
You speak o’ the people,
As if you were a god to punish, not
A man of their infirmity


The Patricians– Menenius is not only a father figure to Coriolanus (as much as one can exist with Volumnia for a mother), but also to the plebeians who believe that he’s a friend to the people. However, he does nothing to feed them or promote their political goals. Politically, he’s little more than a skilled orator, and characters like him would continue to mark the patrician faction of republican politics for some time. One of the most revealing passages in the play is when he is telling the people to blame the gods not the Senate for their hunger:
“…you may as well
Strike at the heaven with your staves as life them
Against the Roman state…For the dearth,
The gods, not the patricians, make it

What this does is set a precedent for inaction. The Senate does not control the rain, but it is within their power to ease some of the suffering. Further, it’s only briefly referred to in the play but, besides corn, the other plebs also fought for protection against usury. This led to the Secession of the Plebs in 494 B.C. and resulted in the creation of the people’s tribunes. Considering that Shakespeare’s most hated character, Shylock in the Merchant of Venice, is a usurer, this was probably seen as detestable by Shakespeare. These events, coupled with Menenius’ “rebellion of the body” speech, represent the growing power of a capitalistic merchant class

Menenius is also “The Orator.” It’s a theme in ancient writings that a state needs oratory to rein in the irrational masses and keep a populace on the straight and narrow (from the patrician’s perspective). We read in Virgil’s Aeneid, “If then, by chance, some reveren’d chief appear, / Known for his silent deeds and for his virtues dear. / Silent they wait his words and bend a listening ear.” Thankfully the people in this play are not swayed quite as easily as they were in Julius Caesar.

And so, on the one hand we have the plebeians led by their manipulative tribunes, and on the other hand the patricians who cultivate slick-tongues to control the populace as a whole.

Coriolanus – The man we’ve all been waiting for, our tragic hero Coriolanus. I can’t help but see some immediate similarities to Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Both plays center around fears that both these title characters would turn into tyrants and centers around their fall from grace. Yet despite their failings and reputation, both of these main men are capable of humility. Caesar turns down the crown Antony offers him three times and actually goes into an epileptic fit afterward; Coriolanus turns down the spoils of war and cannot even bear to hear his achievements talked about in the Senate, blushing uncontrollably. These physical signs of embarrassment and stress show that they are indeed humble in their own way, since they cannot be faked.

But at the same time, Caesar also had the hubris to make himself a long-term dictator of Rome and Coriolanus cares not at all what the plebeians think about him–he thinks he simply has the right to the consulship whether they like it or not. Perhaps most significantly, these two plays show us that the Republic started and ended with assassination. As Aufidius says, “And power, unto itself most commendable, / Hath not a tomb so evident as a chair.” It fits into the same worldview that I wrote about in my essay on Julius Caesar–life is a stage, and the script never changes.

Having been raised first and foremost as a soldier, Coriolanus approaches life based on the military values of honor, honesty, and steadfastness, but these values prove unable to guide him through the new political life, “simple soldier” that he is. More than just having the values, he’s an actual war hero, which is why Shakespeare titled the play Coriolanus instead of Marcius. It’s the name he won after military victory.

But these same qualities that led to glory in one arena led to failure in public life. His steadiness prevents him from flattering the plebeians; his loyalty to his mother prevents him from seeing through her machinations; and his sense of justice makes him want to punish the plebeians for their military ineptitude by starving them. In fact, on this matter, he’s no worse than the other patricians who believe the same as him, he’s just the only one that’s honest about it. He also is wise in his own way, showing wisdom in disdaining the material possessions his soldiers have taken: “When steel grows soft as the parasite’s silk, / Let him be made a coverture for the wars!”

Furthermore, we see that that he can give powerful speeches to his soldiers before battle, but was unable to do this in the market to the common people. In one of these he even says:
If any think brave death outweighs bad life
And that his country’s dearer than himself;
Let him alone, or so many minded
Wave thus, to express his disposition
And follow Marcius

In other words, he can talk about putting his country before himself in one arena, war, but his sense of dignity prevents him from doing so in the political arena. We are left with the impression that in another time and place his story would have ended differently. I think this is the greatest significance of the characters of Volumnia and Virgilia. Shakespeare crafted them in this way to show the culture of the patricians—Coriolanus’ background. He’s the product of the time and place in history that he occupied, as we all are, and not a wolf among sheep.

Actually, the time he felt most like a wolf in sheep’s clothing was when he was wearing the “humble toga,” forced to pander to the masses. He felt like an actor putting on a show, revealing the falsity in the new system of politics. His words lay it bare:
Most sweet voices!
Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this woolvsh toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick, that do appear,
Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to’t

The people see that he’s acting, though they misunderstand it. The tribunes step in and convince them that he has tyrannical aspirations. Another misunderstanding on the part of the tribunes was earlier when we saw Sicinius saying that he believe Coriolanus could take commands from another. In fact, he followed Titius Lartius in war, at least included Aufidius in his decision making, and utterly obeys his mother in a creepy manner. He tells her:
Your knees to me? To your corrected son?
Then let the pebbles on the hungry beach
Fillip the stars; then let the mutinous winds
Strike the proud cedars ‘gainst the firey sun

Oh the ties that bind.

If I’ve dwelled on Coriolanus’ good qualities, it’s not because I think that Coriolanus is so stellar, it’s because they are easy to overlook given his cruel words and ignorance. So what are his sins? He is spiteful toward the poorer people, generalizes about their character, and has no sympathy for their plight. He also fails to see the larger picture in which he’s doing more harm than good by refusing to compromise—he even declares he’d rather die than do this.

That a man of his stature should sink to that depravity because of his own humanity is part of what makes him a tragic hero. The other part is what I touched on before, that his goodness is also his badness. There’s no place in the world for those who live by principle. Trying to do so leads to tragedy. We see a similar message in King Lear with Cordelia.

There’s a slight uplifting note in the end when Coriolanus realizes the benefits of a peace at his mother’s urging, but it’s far from an epiphany and he fundamentally remains the same person. But it’s too late. Aufidius kills him, and the corrupt characters emerge triumphant. His mother, for example, gets all the glory, and she will raise Coriolanus’ son in the same way that she did his father, perpetuating the cycle.

These are the ushers of Marcius: before him he
carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears;
Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arm doth lie;
Which, being advanced, declines, and then men die


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