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Coriolan de William Shakespeare

Richard Hillman

Death of a hero: Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

R. Brian Parker


Cet article se concentre sur deux aspects de l’œuvre : d’une part, sa complexité et ambiguïté politique, d’autre part, sa représentation d’un héros militaire destiné à sa propre destruction. Au niveau politique, la pièce s’est prêtée historiquement aux arguments tant de la droite que de la gauche, ce qui reflète sa position ironique à l’égard des deux côtés. Au niveau personnel, elle rattache la tragédie essentielle à l’impossibilité du personnage principal de rester autre que fidèle à soi-même, d’où la transformation paradoxale de son assassinat par une foule enragée en un acte d’affirmation de son identité solitaire.

Texte intégral

1Coriolanus has been described as “Shakespeare’s most complex play” (Vickers, p. 7) and has been interpreted in widely different ways: as tragedy, as intellectual debate, as satire, and even as comedy (by Bernard Shaw); as a vindication of traditional hierarchy (which provoked enthusiastic right-wing riots at the Comédie-Française in 1934) or as an assertion of the common people’s rights; as a deeply pessimistic play that sees no value on either side of the class struggle; as a play whose vision transcends both extremes with serenely stoic or Christian or ironic impartiality; and, more recently, as an exercise in political deconstruction. Every generation, in short, has felt itself free to interpret Coriolanus according to its own intellectual and political bias, and the great variety of effect that has ensued is legitimized by the sophisticated balance and irony of the text itself.

2Having spent several years editing Coriolanus as fully as I could, I am left with the problem of what to say about it in the confines of a forty-minute paper. Should I focus on one particular aspect of the play, or should I try to restate what seems to me the complexity at its heart? I have decided on the latter, and shall focus on two linked aspects of the play: its political sophistication, and its sympathetic, yet also critical, understanding of the mindset of a professional soldier, the eponymous Roman hero whose success and destruction form the action of the play. The political sophistication of the play has two main strands. It shrewdly balances left-and right-wing attitudes to government and war – a major factor again in our lives today, of course – with both attitudes treated ironically and the balance between them so evenly held that Coriolanus was actually used as propaganda by both the Nazis and the Communists. There is a famous adaptation, for example, by the German Communist playwright, Bertolt Brecht.

3This political even-handedness was amusingly illustrated by a modern-dress production of Coriolanus mounted by the Canadian director John Hirsch at the Old Globe Theatre at San Diego in 1988 – an American election year that coincided with the scandals of “Irangate” in Washington, when the CIA were discovered to have clandestinely sold weapons to Iran and used the profits to destabilize the left-wing Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua. Attracted by what he called the play’s “deep ambiguity”, Hirsch had Coriolanus played by an actor who resembled Colonel Oliver North, the key figure in the Iran affair, and Rome’s enemies, the Volscians, dressed as Sandinista guerrillas led by a bearded, Castro-like Aufidius in camouflage battledress with a cigar. On the other hand, Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, was represented like Rose, the doyenne of the powerful Kennedy family, in a Roosevelt-style wheelchair that she used ruthlessly as a battering ram; while his wife, Virgilia, had an alcohol problem (like one of the Kennedy wives – I forget which); and his old friend, the wily senator Menenius, was portrayed as a white-suited, “pork barrelling” old Southern democrat like Tip O’Neill or Sam Rayburn. The hilarious result was that the production (which was also technically brilliant) was a huge success because both political extremes in that very polarized electorate of Southern California assumed that it supported their own point of view – the left derisively mocking Colonel North with reviews headlined “Cori-Ollie-anus”, and the right equally convinced that the play exposed the damage that happens to any society that pays too little attention to the military leaders it depends on.

4Another, and especially interesting, aspect of the play’s political analysis is its demonstration of the parallels and interaction between authority structures in the state and those within the family unit, what R. D. Laing has called “the politics of the family”. While Coriolanus is clearly a creation of his mother, Volumnia herself can be seen as a typical product of the patriarchal culture of Rome. The “personal” in this play equates closely with the “political”, as a current feminist mantra maintains. And, of course, influences between these levels are reciprocal: Rome’s military ethos ultimately destroys Coriolanus, but his fate in turn alters the history of Rome, introducing its great period of republicanism.

5Secondly, beside the play’s political sophistication, I am intrigued by the reasons why Coriolanus goes back to be killed by the Volscians after his mother has persuaded him to spare Rome. These reasons are not directly addressed by the play, so the last scene can seem to be an ironic anticlimax; but I want to suggest that the situation is truly tragic because such behaviour is inevitable for someone with the mindset of a professional soldier, who has been killing and risking his own life ever since he was sixteen.


6However, before I explore these two theses – the play’s political sophistication and the hero’s mindset – I need to make a few remarks about Coriolanus more generally. Although it will never be “popular” in the way that Romeo and Juliet, Richard III, or Hamlet are, because it is too intellectually ambiguous in context and too packed and non-lyrical in style, Coriolanus is produced quite frequently, as John Ripley’s 1998 stage history of the play makes clear. During England’s “imperial” period, from the mid-nineteenth century to between the two World Wars, it was especially popular, with the great nineteenth-century star John Philip Kemble even choosing it for his farewell performance, and Sir Frank Benson regularly reducing audiences to tears in the early twentieth century by Coriolanus’ submission to his mother, then dastardly death from treachery. And it has also been the role in which an extraordinary number of famous actors have more recently established their reputation: Lawrence Olivier, Richard Burton, Albert Finney, Ian Richardson, Anthony Hopkins, and, most recently, Maggie Smith’s son, Toby Stephen. It always seems to surface at times of political unrest, moreover (as in the Comédie-Française incident already mentioned), so the recent spate of productions and the play’s inclusion as a set text for the 2007 Concours may perhaps have sinister implications!

7Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus in 1608, when he was 44 (four years before his retirement), and there are several things to note about this. Coriolanus is the last of a long series of history plays and historical tragedies in which Shakespeare represents warrior heroes with increasing criticism; and, written at the height of his powers, it gives a final disillusioned (but neither cynical nor despairing) look at the problems of political power. It was probably the first play he wrote for the King’s Men’s new indoor theatre at the Blackfriars, whose audience was dominated by lawyers and lawyers-in-training who might be expected to welcome more intellectually taxing material than the more heterogeneous public audiences of the Globe (though it played there too, of course). And it reflects two highly controversial issues of its own day. One was the escalating struggle between the new Scottish King James I, who believed in absolute royal power, and the English Parliament’s traditional insistence on the precedence of Common Law. In other words, Coriolanus was composed right on the cusp of the appearance of representative democracy in England, a struggle that was to lead to Civil War in 1639, when Parliament chopped off the head of James’s son, Charles I. Shakespeare gives no indication of his own sympathies in this struggle, but what is truly remarkable is how prescient Coriolanus is about what issues were at stake and how the struggle would historically develop. And even more central to the play is the dreadful grain famine of 1607-8 in the Midland counties immediately around Stratford-upon-Avon, which the big landowners exploited by price raises and grain hoarding, leading to a peasant rebellion that was savagely repressed and that Shakespeare would certainly have been right at the heart of, because he spent most of 1608 in Stratford, his mother having just died there and the London theatres being shut for most of that year because of plague – which, incidentally, is also reflected in the large amount of disease imagery in the play and its recurrent fears of the crowd’s infectious breath. It is the famine (and the Senate’s exploitation of it) that Shakespeare makes the chief complaint of the rebellious plebeians of Rome, altering his source (North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives) to do so, and drawing parallels between the Senate’s callous handling of the famine and Volumnia’s unmaternal exploitation and denial of nurture to her son for personal vainglory – the two levels of “politics” that I mentioned earlier.


8Basically, what was politically in question in England at the beginning of the seventeenth century was the concept of the state as a fixed hierarchy, with authority as unquestionable: a traditional, well-established position presented in the equally traditional parable of the belly and the body’s members with which the wily old Menenius distracts and cleverly delays the plebeian rioters in the first scene. One of the recurrent mistakes made by small-l “liberal” critics is to take this parable and Menenius himself too seriously and to assume that they represent Shakespeare’s own opinion. (A big production at the Canadian Stratford made precisely that mistake last summer.) The bodymembers allegory is shown to be at complete variance with the facts of Roman political life, however; and for a seventeenthcentury audience, accustomed to hearing the story used as a justification for kingship (it was a favourite trope of King James himself), it would seem incongruous that in this version there is no head (no monarch), but just members and the smiling, belching belly. Moreover, Menenius’ argument is also revealed to be mere lip service, used as a way to delay the rioters until help arrives. Immediately after Coriolanus comes in to back him up, Menenius’ tune changes to “Rome and her rats are at the point of battle” (I.1.159). Menenius is a dangerous character, dramaturgically, because like Falstaff, on whom he is modeled, he seems a sensible compromiser and makes the audience laugh. One must recognize, however, that he is a voluptuary, revelling in feasts and heavy drinking while he claims to sympathize with the literally starving poor. And he trims his sails to whomever is uppermost in power: growing “most kind” (IV.6.11) to the Tribunes when they are in control of the city, but telling them, “You have made fair work!” (105), when he hears that Aufidius and the Volscians have launched another attack. But Shakespeare’s characters are rarely simple, and Menenius does seem to have real love for Coriolanus and genuine grief (combined with a little spitefulness) when the man he called his “son” rejects him. So our response to him remains emotionally ambiguous, as with Prince Hal’s rejection of Falstaff.

9And the other patricians are no better. They even let Coriolanus be hooted out of Rome by the mob, which explains his anger against patricians and plebeians alike (another change from Plutarch), and provides the burden of the one brief soliloquy that Shakespeare permits this least introspective of tragic heroes, as he decides angrily to join the Volscians to attack his native city:

O world, thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn,
Whose double bosoms seem to bear one heart,
Whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise
Are still together, who twin, as ’twere, in love
Inseparable, shall within this hour,
On the dissension of a doit [i.e., a trifling amount], break out
To bitterest enmity. (IV.4.12-18)

10Coriolanus has learned the same sharp lesson of instability as his enemy Aufidius will voice later: “So our virtues / Lie in th’interpretation of the time” (IV.7.49-50).

11And the plebeians are no better either. Shakespeare sympathizes with their desperation, echoing phrases from King Lear about their hunger (which should be obvious in performance), and shows them individually as touchingly self-critical, requiring only that their votes be asked for “kindly” (which puns on “kind” meaning “naturally kin”). En masse, however, they are the usual Shakespeare mob: irrational, unstable, savage, and at the mercy of every whim and demagogue. They are also, for the most part, bad soldiers, reluctant to risk their lives, ready to run, and eager to loot (another change from Plutarch).

12The Tribunes (who are often compared by modern critics to crooked union bosses) manipulate them as cynically as do the patricians. Yet the Tribunes are not outright villains either (which was another mistake in the recent Canadian production). Their cause is basically just, and Shakespeare gives us an attractive if slightly ludicrous vignette (which again is not in Plutarch) of their relaxed, almost smug satisfaction with the citizens after Coriolanus has been banished and before news arrives of the Volscians’ renewed attack on the city.

13However, the cynical explanation they find for Coriolanus’ agreeing to be second-in-command to Cominius (I.1.264-70) – that this will let him take the credit for victory but leave Cominius to bear responsibility for a defeat – gives us their measure immediately. The Tribunes are clever but mean-minded men without much patriotism, imagination or any breadth of political experience – tacticians, not strategists: clever at internal power struggles but ignorant of foreign policy – and with much too much self-importance. On the other hand, they do learn quickly. It is they who persuade Volumnia to plead with her son to spare Rome (not Valeria, as in Plutarch); and at the end the tribune Sicinius “politically” (in both senses) hurries off to join in Volumnia’s victory parade. (She has lost a son, we might say, and gained a tribune!)

14Thus, the facts of Roman life on both sides – including his own character – give Menenius’ parable the lie. What Shakespeare shows us is no organic “body politic”, with all classes working together for the common good, but a Rome torn by factional strife, Machiavelli’s politics of the power struggle. And, characteristically, the only person who states openly what all confess to privately is Coriolanus himself in his attack on the Tribunate (III.1.110-14). But if Coriolanus has no sense of the body politic – merely of class struggle and the realities of power – what then is his link to the state? It is, of course, the link of personal loyalty, working only through his mother, Volumnia. Besides testing the metaphor of the body politic – the cliché of Menenius’s famous speech – Shakespeare also tests the cliché of the mother country – “our dear nurse,” as Volumnia puts it (V.3.111), habitually identifying Rome with herself.

15The central image of the play is Coriolanus against the rest, whether enemies, friends, or family. His habitual hauteur is splendidly caught in Sir Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of John Philip Kemble on the jacket of my edition (which William Hazlitt – a radical – said made him look like a man about to sneeze!). He lacks almost any developed sense of comradeship, even with his equals. He prefers to do things alone – the word reechoes through his speeches (“O, me alone!” [I.8.77], “Alone I did it” [V.6.17]). He is only at home on the battlefield and then only fully when he is in single combat. He refuses praise less from modesty than to keep his comrades at a distance; and (differing once again from Plutarch) he even forgets the name of the Corioles friend who calls out to him for help, shrugs and makes no further effort to save him.

16The plebeians are mere raw material for his battles – or “rats” hungry for unearned grain – or disembodied “voices” with pestilential breaths. And even Aufidius, the Volscian chieftain whom he sees too idealistically as his one chivalric equal, is rapidly pushed into second place when Coriolanus joins him, taking over his Volscian command as inevitably and effortlessly as earlier he had done Cominius’ Romans.

17This relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius is fascinatingly subtle. Because war is several times said to be preferable to the marriage bed – it’s said five times: by Coriolanus, by Volumnia, by Cominius, by Aufidius, and by one of Aufidius’s servants – modern producers have often suggested an unacknowledged homosexual “rough trade” relationship between the rival warriors. But actually this vulgarizes a much more subtle insight. Freud points out that a son’s over-attachment to a mother who is as narcissistic and manipulative as Volumnia often results in the son’s flight from female company and a compensatory attraction to another male – who is really a surrogate for himself, or rather for what he himself would like to be. And the purpose of this identification is not to love but to be loved by this idealized other person, so the attraction necessarily has a strong element of rivalry about it – or “emulation” (competitive imitation), to use Aufidius’s own term – an ambiguous, hair-trigger mixture of love and hate whose balance can shift with disconcerting abruptness (as it does several times in the play).

18The war-rather-than-marriage trope is a Renaissance commonplace, however. Much more important psychologically – indeed crucial – is the “boy of tears” sneer – the image of a damaged adolescent still agonizingly dependent on his mother with which Aufidius breaks down Coriolanus’ self-control at the end and betrays him to his death. That term “boy” is both the psychological and the political heart of Shakespeare’s play, as I read it, because clearly Coriolanus is Volumnia’s creation as Volumnia is Rome’s, and the behaviour she approves in Coriolanus’s son, Young Martius tearing a butterfly apart (another Shakespeare addition), shows us just how Coriolanus has been raised.

19For Volumnia, Coriolanus seems to have become a husband surrogate (one of her first remarks is “If my son were my husband […]” [I.3.2-3]), her means in a patriarchal, maledominated society to vicarious influence and fame. (His father is never even mentioned in the play – not once, by anyone.) She shows almost no feeling for her son as a separate person, exulting grotesquely with Menenius over the number of wounds he has received – to his wife Virgilia’s distress – and is adamant that he must now stand for the supreme post of consul, though he tells her very plainly he does not want that position. And whereas Plutarch says her fault as a mother was over-leniency, Shakespeare, with brilliant insight, has made Volumnia rather over-severe: one of the taboo-on-tenderness school of childraising. Her method of dominating her son is demonstrated in the scene where she cajoles and emotionally bullies him to return to plead again with the plebeian electors who have already rejected him – a scene that Shakespeare has added, and which anticipates the climactic persuasion scene before Rome. Her method is to demand that her love be earned, and her final tactic, which always works, is icy withdrawal with a threat of her own death: “At thy choice, then!”, “Do your will” (III.2.125, 139).

20And what is fascinating is that Coriolanus treats the plebeians just as his mother treats him: as inferiors to be disciplined, their gentler side ignored, mere means to his own glory, who must earn the patricians’ care by risking their lives in war, as he does, who must be threatened into unpalatable action as his mother threatens him. He even tries the same tactic of abandonment – “I banish you!” (III.3.124), “thus I turn my back. / There is a world elsewhere” (135-36) – and trails off into exile with the classic little boy’s threat, “I shall be loved when I am lacked” (IV.1.16). Beneath the politics of the state obviously lie the politics of the family: we are watching the indictment of a whole way of life, the perverting Roman emphasis on virtus, where “valour is the chiefest virtue” (II.2.82), not just one man’s weakness.

21Hence the tensions of the climactic persuasion scene before Rome, in which Volumnia denies the distinction her son is desperately trying to make between “mother” and “country”. If class struggle were the political core of the play (as left-wing critics tend to argue), this scene would not work as a climax. What is on trial is the Roman way of life itself. The scene is a virtual replay of the previous browbeating scene with more serious overtones: Volumnia pleads, cajoles, threatens, sneers, instructs the other pleaders, then uses her ultimate weapon, withdrawal with talk of her own death. And Coriolanus crumbles. On one level it is a scene of bitter irony because Volumnia has no real sense of what she is doing: she insists on treating as patriotism what is clearly psychological dependence and seems (at least until the scene is over) to have no idea of the damage she has done her son.

22Yet the surrender is also moving, less because it is heroic than because it is a genuinely loving act on Coriolanus’ part, made not as a Roman or a warrior but as a family man, a son, a husband, and a father. And though this is undercut by Volumnia’s apparent imperviousness as she goes off for her first personal victory parade, and by Coriolanus’ own apparent lapse into boasting arrogance on his return to the Volscian capitol, still, for one moment, he does realize fully what has happened to him and the price he is paying for it and will have to pay:

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. – (V.3.186-90)

23Coriolanus has tried to live “As if a man were author of himself, / And knew no other kin” (V.3.36-37); but confronted with his mother’s cold obduracy and his own unassuaged need for her, he has to accept her definition of him again, knowing it will destroy him. He is playing out a scenario drafted generations before he was born.

24Yet his cry must be taken at its face value too; the scene is “unnatural” (V.3.185), as he says it is. The mutual kneeling of parent and child recalls the similar scene in King Lear, and Coriolanus’ decision to put his feelings for his mother above all else – despite their warping and her own cold lack of reciprocity – is an affirmation at the same level of relationship that Lear too finally comes to rest on. It is tragic because though – as in King Lear – it will not last and nothing can be built upon it, Coriolanus’ decision is an affirmation of the familial link on which a healthy society has to be built and which Shakespeare has come to see as the true political core of human society set against the constant flux of history and the naked worship of power in Aufidius’ acceptance of “th’interpretation of the time”.


25But as with King Lear, this is not the end of the play; and so we come to my second main point. How is a director to present the final scenes of the play, after the great pleading scene, so as to avoid a sense of ironic anticlimax? As in Lear, spiritual victory has to be paid for: by Volumnia no less than Coriolanus; and in each case it is cued by an enigmatic silence.

26After Coriolanus’ submission, the habitually voluble and assertive Volumnia surprisingly falls completely silent, not only for the remainder of the pleading scene but also in the scene of her triumphant return to Rome. Why? This is so striking a change in her behaviour that it must mark some definite alteration in her, and grief would seem to be the most plausible explanation. She is now confronting the reality of sacrificing her only son, a sacrifice she glibly bragged about at the opening of the play. And if she realizes what she has done, her fate too is tragic.

27The short scene of her triumphal return has therefore been interpreted in diametrically different ways. Traditionally, she has exulted in it, though sometimes with an ironic directorial addition. In several recent productions she has flung back her cloak at the climax of the civic welcome, to reveal Young Martius, dressed and armed as a replica of his father in the battle scenes: clearly, nothing has been learned; the psychological warping and class arrogance will continue. At the other extreme, the productions of the play at the Canadian Stratford have emphasized the ironies of the situation by presenting the triumph scene (which is only a single speech of six-and-a-half lines, spoken by a minor character) as a torch-lit procession under cover of night, with the black-garbed women hurrying silently home grim-faced and weeping. At the National Theatre’s production in 1984, Irene Worth skillfully combined exultation with grief, acknowledging the crowd’s applause with outstretched arms while tears streamed down her face: “Small, twitching smiles acknowledge the plaudits”, wrote one reviewer, “but her eyes express a terrible desolation, since she already realizes he must die” (King).

28How we respond also partly depends on our opinion of Coriolanus’ wife, Virgilia. Plutarch says Volumnia married her son to a girl she was certain she could control, and that is certainly how Volumnia behaves in their first scene together. But, even this early, Virgilia quietly shows independence by refusing to go visiting while her husband is away. In the banishment scene later, she and Volumnia weep together – Coriolanus calls them “these sad women” (IV.1.26) – and she is quite as fierce as her mother-in-law in attacking the two Tribunes soon after. And it is Virgilia, not Volumnia, who heads the group petitioning Coriolanus to spare Rome, so anxious is she to see him again. And their meeting is very moving. Earlier he had called her his “gracious silence” (II.1.171) because, unlike Volumnia, Menenius, the Tribunes, and Aufidius, she does not use words to bend the truth. And the long kiss they now exchange suggests a passionate physical bond that lies much deeper than language, and that Volumnia, who never mentions her own husband, can neither displace nor understand. (As was Roman custom, Volumnia’s marriage was probably a dynastic one, with the bride much younger than the husband.) The clues to a separate strength in Virgilia have led some directors to go so far as to show her leading the women’s triumph in V.5 and showing off her son to the cheering crowds, while Volumnia trailed grief-stricken behind, broken by the consequences of what she had done. This is a possible, though not I think probable, reading of that enigmatic short scene.

29The other striking silence is the lack of any explanation for Coriolanus’ return to his enemies’ capital and certain death, when we have heard that the reprieved Romans are ready now to “unshout” (V.5.4) his banishment. Characteristically, there is no soliloquy in which we see him come to his decision. He still desperately wants Aufidius to approve of his behaviour, of course. In the pleading scene he tried to get the Volscian leader to admit that, in similar circumstances, he would have made the same choice; to which Aufidius merely replied with sinister ambiguity, “I was moved withal” (V.3.195). (Coriolanus has not heard Aufidius already plan his assassination, of course, as we have.) And he may also hope to reconcile the warring tribes, as Volumnia disingenuously suggested and as he himself repeats to Aufidius. But he also recognized that Volumnia’s persuasion might prove “most mortal” to him and Hamlet-like said fatalistically, “But let it come” (190) – and the Roman writer Cicero reports a version of the legend in which Coriolanus actually committed suicide. He goes back to Antium expecting trouble.

30There is certainly a spurious quality at first about Coriolanus’s return to the Volscian capital, which contrasts with his earlier triumphal entry into Rome. He makes his entrance with a crown of cheering commoners, which is exactly the kind of unstable “paparazzi” popularity he has hitherto despised (and, sure enough, in a few more lines these same Volscian commoners are howling, “Tear him to pieces!” [V.6.121]). Moreover, this solitary, self-sufficient hero, who could not bear even his mother to praise him and scorned looting and material gain, now disingenuously trumpets his own achievements (for the first time using the generalissimo’s plural of “we” and “our”, instead of “I” and “my”) and even sinks to bragging about the booty he is bringing back – which, pathetically, is only enough to pay one third of the Volscians’ campaign expenses. There is a sense of unconvinced and unconvincing bad faith in such behaviour, and Coriolanus only recovers his true stature when Aufidius attacks him and he can revert to his usual antagonism. And this, I want to suggest, is the key to understanding his return and the reason the last scene escapes anticlimax.

31Remembering his exultant solitariness in the earlier scenes (and the fact that Volumnia forced him to face death “beardless” as soon as he reached sixteen – two years before the usual Roman call-up age), some ideas from Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power may clarify his cast of mind for us. Talking of a victorious warrior’s sense of unique power, Canetti says:

The moment of survival is the moment of power. [...] Whether the survivor is confronted by one dead man or many, the essence of the situation is that he feels unique [...] and when we speak of the power which this moment gives him [over others], we should never forget that it derives from his sense of uniqueness and from nothing else. [...] There is nothing that can be compared [to it], and there is nothing which more demands repetition. (p. 227)

32Coriolanus’ exultant and striking sense of apartness – the solitariness that distinguishes him from other Shakespeare heroes (even Hamlet) – his belief that he can “stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin” (V.3.35-37) – is not only a cause of charisma and prowess in war but itself a result of war, of surviving numerous confrontations with death from early adolescence. Killing, says Canetti, is one of the best ways to forget your own mortality and get an emotional “high”. Moreover, this sense of invulnerability and superiority becomes an experience that demands repetition. “The satisfaction in survival”, continues Canetti,

can become a dangerous insatiable passion. [...] The careers of heroes and soldiers suggest a kind of addiction ensues, which in the end becomes incurable. (p. 230)

33Valeria’s anecdote of Coriolanus’ son, Young Martius, obsessively and implacably pursuing and “mammocking” a butterfly (which is a Shakespeare addition) provides a paradigm for this state of mind. “One on’s father’s moods”, comments his proud grandmother! (I.3.69)

34And besides this pattern of compulsively repeated risk, Canetti also points out that, though most humans try to avoid confronting the knowledge of death, a “hero” always chooses the opposite way of coping with it:

He has sought out danger and confronted it. [...] Out of all possible situations, he has chosen the one involving risk and then enhanced that risk. [...] This is the way of the hero. (p. 228)

35After the humiliation of yielding so completely to Volumnia – and in his idol Aufidius’ presence too (which is a detail added by Shakespeare) – I suggest that it is psychologically inevitable that Coriolanus should seek to regain his self-respect – his sense of who he is – by once more confronting the sort of peril that for him confirms his own “unique” worth. Once more, for the third time in the play, he will brave the Volscians single-handed and thus recover his sense of who he is beyond his mother’s son, his personal identity.

36Plutarch has Coriolanus murdered before he can speak in his own defence; but, in addition to his hollow justifications for sparing Rome, Shakespeare also gives him a final striking speech of self-assertion when Aufidius calls him “boy of tears” (V.6.103) – his deliberately provocative “eagle [fluttering] the dovecote” reminder of his previous defeats of the Volsces, with its characteristic vaunt, “Alone I did it” (115-17). “Cut me to pieces, Volsces” (V.6.112), he urges scornfully, and adds with bitter ambiguity, “Stain all your edges on me” (113). Coriolanus does not die fighting; nor commit suicide; nor accept death stoically; nor submit to being sacrificed. His death is, in fact, a last act of aggression, his final way of humiliating – beating – Aufidius. He dies as he has lived.

37In performance, despite the weaknesses Coriolanus has revealed and the falseness of his present position, one cannot but empathize with this last, defiant gesture, because he stands suddenly again for what he has always represented at the deepest level of the play: an appeal to what my friend Bill Blissett once brilliantly described as “the solitary achiever, whatever is unsocial and not to be educated, alone and raging in each of us” (p. 159). The heart of Coriolanus’ tragedy, suggests Michael Goldman, lies in his attempt to be true to himself: “Character lies in the interpretation of the time as Aufidius puts it and is thus susceptible to change and falsehood. And yet it is the most enduring thing about us. Perhaps this is what tragedy is about – that there is such a thing as human character” (p. 163). Thus the play ends as a tragedy of stoic individualism, turning death to personal self-assertion: a private “negative” victory to offset the public, more “positive” assertion of self-sacrificing love at the end of Volumnia’s great pleading scene. All Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies have such ironic double climaxes, but in none is it more powerful than in this story of the hero’s final solitude. “O me alone! Make you a sword of me?” (I.8.76), he shouts early in the play. In the heat of battle I am sure this line was meant to be declaimed exultantly; but, in retrospect, its significance is wholly tragic.



Secondary Sources

BLISSETT, William. “Coriolanus and the Helms of [the] State”. Familiar Colloquy: Essays Presented to Arthur Barker. Ed. Patricia Bruckmann. Ottawa: Oberon Press, 1978. Pp. 144-62.

CANETTI, Elias. Crowds and Power. Trans. Carol Stewart. New York: Viking Press, 1962.

FREUD, Sigmund. The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud. Trans. under the general editorship of James Strachey, in collaboration with Anna Freud, assisted by Alix Strachey and Alan Tyson. 24 vols. London: Hogarth Press, 1953-74; rpt. 1978. (“Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood” [1910], 9: 63-138; On Narcissism: An Introduction [1914], 14: 88ff.)

GOLDMAN, Michael. “Characterizing Coriolanus”. Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985. Pp. 140-68.

KING, Francis. Review of the National Theatre’s production of Coriolanus. The Sunday Telegraph 23 December 1984, n. pag.

LAING, R. D. The Politics of the Family: Massey Lectures 1968. Toronto: CBC Enterprises, 1969.

PARKER, R. B. “Cori-Ollie-anus: Shakespeare’s Last Tragedy and American Politics in 1998”. Shakespeare: Text and Theatre. Ed. Lois Potter. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1999. Pp. 194-208.

RIPLEY, John. Coriolanus on Stage in England and America, 1609-1994. London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

VICKERS, Brian. Shakespeare: Coriolanus. London: Edward Arnold, 1976.


R. Brian Parker, Professeur émérite à Trinity College, University of Toronto, est éditeur scientifique de Coriolan pour The Oxford Shakespeare. Outre de nombreux articles critiques, il a également préparé l’édition de Volpone, par Ben Jonson, et celle d’A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, par Thomas Middleton, pour la collection The Revels Plays. Sa recherche reste partagée entre le théâtre de la Renaissance et celui de l’époque moderne, avec une concentration depuis plusieurs années sur Tennessee Williams.

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