NovelGuide: Coriolanus: Essay Q&A
1. Is Coriolanus an innocent victim of the scheming tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, or is he responsible for his own downfall?
Though Brutus and Sicinius are the chosen representatives of the people, they focus far more on their own interests than those of the people - speaking of the people's interests only in public (III.iii.93-96). In private, they speak fearfully of the kind of power that Coriolanus may wield as consul, not because it may hurt the people, but because it threatens their own offices. Sicinius tells Brutus that for their own sake, they must encompass his "sure destruction" (II.i.232); Brutus agrees that otherwise, "our authority's for an end" (II.i.233) and "our office may, / During his power, go sleep" (II.i.212-213).
Unlike the patricians, the tribunes mean-spiritedly ignore the good Coriolanus has done for Rome, and see only his faults - his pride and contempt for the people. They cold-bloodedly manipulate the people against Coriolanus, by suggesting to them that he hates them (II.i.242), while always being careful to protect themselves by making it appear that they supported him. Once they have passed sentence on Coriolanus (without a trial), they refuse to allow his supporters to speak in his defense (III.iii.108). They bring about their ends in a cunning, underhand way that contrasts starkly with the guileless (if extraordinarily rude and insulting) openness of Coriolanus.
Nevertheless, by Shakespeare's standards, the tribunes are low-key villains because they do not have to try hard to entrap Coriolanus. His own undoubted failings make him an easy target. When he appears before the plebeians to ask them to restore their support for him to be consul, the tribunes plot to "Put him to choler [anger] straight" (III.iii.25). It takes only a few words from Sicinius, accusing him of being a "traitor to the people" (III.iii.66) to throw Coriolanus into a fury, cursing the tribunes and the people. Such a man is manifestly unsuited to the office of consul in an emerging democracy, and it could be said that the tribunes have done Rome a favor in preventing his election to the office. Indeed, Coriolanus does not appear to want to be consul for his own sake; he is only fulfilling Volumnia's will, which is another confirmation that he should not be consul.
If the tribunes were only preventing Coriolanus from attaining this office, it would be possible to claim that their scheming brought about a happy result for Rome. But in an extreme and vindictive measure, they also banish Coriolanus from his native land. In spite of his faults, Coriolanus does not deserve such treatment, and in this episode he is largely an innocent victim. The tribunes have wielded power without an awareness of the possible consequences. They are set to become the victim of their own plotting when Coriolanus plans to attack Rome with Aufidius. This turn of events makes their political scheming redundant. They are only saved by the intervention of Volumnia, whose victory, ironically, means the downfall of her son for breaking his word to the Volscians. Coriolanus's humiliating death in an enemy city is partly due to the tribunes' banishing him, but it is equally due to his decision to obey Volumnia rather than honor his agreement with the Volscians.
Thus, Coriolanus's downfall is partly due to the tribunes' scheming, but partly due to his own personality and decisions. The tribunes could not have succeeded in their plots if Coriolanus were a more moderate, more integrated man.
2. Analyze Coriolanus's relationship with his mother Volumnia.
In a world where women were viewed as subservient to men and were expected to spend their time in such feminine pursuits as sewing and music, Volumnia has found an outlet for her fierce ambition and pride: her son. She has brought Coriolanus up to be a great warrior, and is so hungry for his fame that she looks forward with eagerness to his acquiring new battle wounds. She tells Virgilia that if he were ever to be killed in battle, she would take comfort in his heroic reputation.
Coriolanus, for his part, is utterly dominated by Volumnia. He twice betrays his own sense of duty and integrity, and both times, it is under the influence of his mother. On the first occasion, ambitious for her son to be consul, she persuades him to flatter the plebeians and pretend a humility he does not possess, in order to gain their votes. Coriolanus knows that such pretence is against his nature, but he bends to her will. On the second occasion, after Coriolanus has allied himself to Aufidius, Volumnia persuades him not to attack Rome. Coriolanus again does as she tells him, thereby betraying his alliance with the Volscians and his duty as a military commander. Again, as he does Volumnia's will, he is aware of the fatal seriousness of his self-betrayal. In relation to his mother, this otherwise almost invincible warrior has remained immature, a child. When Aufidius attacks him as a "boy of tears" (V.vi.99), referring to the tears of Volumnia, to which Coriolanus proved vulnerable, he speaks the truth.
It is emblematic of Volumnia's dominance over her son that it is she, not Coriolanus, who is hailed as the savior of Rome after she persuades him not to attack the city. He, in contrast, must return to Corioli to give an account of his actions to the Volscians, where he is killed by the envious Aufidius's band of Conspirators, and Aufidius treads on his corpse. Volumnia survives, and it is tempting to speculate that she would "dine out" on her son's reputation for years to come.
3. Analyze the role of the plebeians in the play.
Coriolanus is set at a time in history when Rome was in transition from a monarchy to a republic. The plebeians were engaged in a power struggle with the traditional rulers, the patricians. This situation was reflected in the struggle between monarch and Parliament in England during the reign of King James I (1603-1625), who was monarch at the time Shakespeare was thought to have written Coriolanus. Hence the plebeians' behavior in the play comments on political events in Shakespeare's time.
The plebeians are portrayed as fundamentally good-hearted, as they are at first willing to overlook Coriolanus's pride in respect to his reputation as a war hero. However, they are also portrayed as irrational, dangerously fickle, and incapable of thinking for themselves. Influenced by the manipulations of the tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, they are easily persuaded to withdraw their support of Coriolanus and are soon demanding his death. The plebeians are too politically na�ve to see through the tribunes' scheming, and are used as tools by them to have Coriolanus banished. Then, when news comes of an imminent attack on Rome by Coriolanus and the Volscians, they claim that they never wanted him banished. The Volscian citizens are similarly fickle, first hailing Coriolanus as a hero after he makes peace with Rome, and then, under the influence of Aufidius's Conspirators, crying out for his death. The overall impression of the plebeians is that they are unfit to govern. This is also true of their representatives, the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius. They are cynical, self-serving men whose chief concern is to escape the consequences of their actions, as when they tell the plebeians to falsely inform Coriolanus that they, the tribunes, were on his side all along. More importantly, when the Volscians are preparing to attack Rome, neither the tribunes nor the plebeians have any solutions, having banished the one person who could have helped them - the great soldier, Coriolanus.
However, in line with the ambiguities of the play, it is possible that the plebeians do their class a great favor when they banish Coriolanus. Given his excessive pride and contemptuous attitude to the plebeians, it is difficult to see how he could be anything but a disastrous consul who would only increase divisions between the patricians and plebeians. But if the plebeians do right by themselves in getting rid of Coriolanus, it is more by accident than considered judgment, which they are never seen to exercise.
4. Analyze the relationship between Coriolanus and Aufidius.
At the beginning of the play, Coriolanus and Aufidius are sworn enemies, though each admires the other. They are both great generals and committed to martial valor, but Aufidius is not Coriolanus's equal: he has been defeated every time they have met in battle. This rankles with Aufidius. In Act I, scene x, after his fifth defeat at Coriolanus's hands, Aufidius swears that should they meet again, one of them will die, and that he will get revenge by any means, fair or foul. This foreshadows Aufidius's eventual decision to betray Coriolanus.
When Coriolanus is banished from Rome, he throws himself on Aufidius's mercy and offers to ally himself with his former enemy against his birth land. Aufidius is moved, and his hostility turns to an intense love and submissive adoration of Coriolanus, with a strong homoerotic undertone. This element of erotic fascination gives an air of precarious instability to this alliance, which, it seems, may only last as long as Aufidius's infatuation. Aufidius is a warrior, not a love-struck girl; how long will it be before he resumes his habitual military valor, and when he does, can there be two commanders of the Volscians? Just as the seeds of Coriolanus's banishment were already present as he was being acclaimed as a war hero, so the seeds of his destruction by Aufidius are present in his former enemy's embrace. Indeed, only two scenes later, Aufidius's envy is already triumphing over his love for Coriolanus. The Volscian soldiers are showing more affection for Coriolanus than for Aufidius, and Coriolanus is aggravating Aufidius's sense of inferiority with his customary proud attitude. Inevitably, Aufidius begins plotting Coriolanus's downfall. Aufidius's duplicity and betrayal are contrasted with the straightforward honesty of Coriolanus. Aufidius's treatment of Coriolanus seems the more wicked because Coriolanus, to whom scheming and underhandedness are utterly foreign, trusts Aufidius with his life.
Both Coriolanus and Aufidius define themselves by the martial ideal of "virtus" or valiantness. When, because of his devotion to his mother and family, Coriolanus goes against the dictates of valiantness and calls off the planned Volscian attack on Rome, Aufidius sees a division within him that he can exploit. He denounces Coriolanus as a traitor for breaking his word to the Volscians, and has the Conspirators kill him. In treading on Coriolanus's corpse, he pretends a victory over Coriolanus that eluded him during the Roman's life. In this crude act of dominance, which shocks the onlooking Lords, he paradoxically shows himself to be the lesser man to Coriolanus.
5. What are the different types of virtue in the play, and how do they interact?
The character Coriolanus embodies the ancient Roman quality of "virtus," valiantness or martial valor. In his emphasis on this quality, Shakespeare follows his source for Coriolanus, a work called Lives (also known as Parallel Lives) by the Greek historian and essayist Plutarch (c. AD 46-127). Plutarch mentions that at the time Coriolanus lived, valiantness was prized by Romans above all other virtues. Coriolanus's valiantness protects Rome against her enemies, including the Volscians, and enables the city to increase its empire by conquest. By its very nature, valiantness is inflexible and uncompromising. The quality was instilled into Coriolanus by his mother Volumnia: "Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck'st it from me" (III.ii.129).
However, Coriolanus has another quality that is at war with his valiantness. Called by the ancient Romans "pietas," it is the loving respect due to family, country and gods. Once again, the person who most inspires this quality in him is Volumnia. When she and the rest of his family visit the exiled Coriolanus in order to persuade him not to attack Rome, Coriolanus feels his martial resolve begin to melt the minute he sees them coming. He tries to suppress his love and affection for them ("But out, affection! / All bond and privilege of nature, break! / Let it be virtuous to be obstinate" - V.iii.24-26), but in vain. By appealing to his sense of "pietas," Volumnia persuades Coriolanus to override his valiantness and make peace between the Romans and Volscians.
Coriolanus is aware that his awakening to a softer humanity is a "happy victory" for Rome, saving the people from bloodshed and death on a massive scale, but he also knows it is a personal disaster for him. He has betrayed both his word as a soldier to the Volscians and his own sense of honor. Aufidius recognizes the fatal split in Coriolanus's nature and knows that he can exploit it to destroy him: "I am glad thou hast set thy mercy ["pietas"] and thy honor ["virtus"] / At difference in thee" (V.iii.200-201).
Coriolanus returns to Corioli to give an account of himself to the Volscians, but he knows that he has failed in the quality for which they embraced him, "virtus." In spite of this, the people's instinctive response when he arrives is to welcome him as a hero, acknowledging that peace is something to be valued. But their sentiment is not shared by Aufidius, who is as wedded to martial valor as Coriolanus; also like Coriolanus, he cannot adapt to changing times.
He is jealous of Coriolanus's popularity and still wants to conquer his old enemy. He has his Conspirators kill Coriolanus and, in a final, shocking parody of valiantness, stands on his corpse. Coriolanus has, in effect, been sacrificed to the ideal of "virtus."
The play suggests that "virtus," while vital in time of war, is destructive of society, family, and individuals in time of peace. Being divisive and uncompromising, it is also unsuited to forming a developing state. Its time, along with the glory days of the valiant Coriolanus and Aufidius, is past.