I may as well say it up front: my usual method for dealing with Shakespeare plays doesn’t work with Coriolanus. However, in my defense, I think that’s less an indictment of my method than it is an indication of how inscrutable and difficult it is to make sense of this play. It may be that Coriolanus is produced much less frequently than Shakespeare’s other tragedies because of this resistance to clear-cut interpretation.
First, a little about my method. I believe that in most of Shakespeare’s plays, there is a fairly obvious idea (or even several ideas) around which the reader can build an interpretation. For example, Romeo and Juliet, as I’ve pointed out, is largely seen as a romantic tragedy, but my method proposes that it is really a play about the consequences of disobedience. I will point out central ideas in other plays in the coming months on this site, because, as all teachers know, once you find a way “into” the play, it becomes easier to understand the plot, its message, and the characters’ actions.
And yet, as I said above, Coriolanus resists this kind of interpretation. Could it be that, as a late tragedy (probably around 1608), the play represents an experiment with new ideas and was less concerned about thematic unity? Certainly that’s possible–just as it’s possible that Shakespeare tired of creating consistent characters and actions to reveal an easily identifiable theme. It’s equally possible that my desire to find a ruling idea in each play is misguided. However, before we get lost in arcane discussions on the meaning of interpretation, let me explain exactly why my method doesn’t work with Coriolanus.
To begin with, there is little to like about the title character. Caius Martius (later called “Coriolanus” to reward him for his victory over the Volscians in their town of Corioles) is proud to the point of pompousness, and he disdains the general public–the part of society with whom we modern denizens of democracy are most likely to feel kinship. These two things–Martius/Coriolanus’s change of names in the middle of the play and the hatred which the protagonist openly displays for the “little people”–make it very hard for me to identify with him. It’s true that later in the play Coriolanus displays an admirable humility about his own accomplishments, but from the very opening lines, it’s easy to see why generations of readers have pronounced his name “Coriolaynus” instead of the more Latinate “Coriolahnus”: he’s obviously an asshole. From the very beginning of the play, we see the pride, inflexibility, hauteur, and contempt for inferiors that will later bring Coriolanus to his death.
It’s a fate that he seems to deserve, at least in part. For me, it’s really hard to feel sorry for Coriolanus. When he is banished from Rome because the lower classes, fed up with his disparaging and insulting attitude towards them, reject him as tribune, I’m pretty much on their side. But the problem is that Shakespeare won’t let us stay on the side of masses. Their fickleness and stupidity make it too hard to identify with them, and the one character who tries to work them over to Coriolanus’s side, Menenius, ends up looking like a bumbling fool. Then the newly banished Coriolanus teams up with his arch-enemy, Aufidius of the Volscians, to teach Rome a lesson. I tried hard to like Aufidius, but in the end, he comes a cropper, too, showing that he is a jealous bastard, since he, too, uses the mob to control Coriolanus, who winds up dead at their hands. Aufidius can’t even kill his enemy himself, but has to enlist the help of the lower classes.
What of the female characters in this play? Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, is pretty much a blank page, although she does stand up to her brassy mother-in-law, Volumnia, in a weak-willed way once or twice. And as for Volumnia, the name says it all. I think of her as being loud and pushy, and having voluminous quantities of chutzpah. She is the consummate stage mother, crowing about Coriolanus’s military prowess and her own willingness to see him dead before dishonored. She has a heartless, Lady Macbeth quality to her, which is one thing in a wife, but quite another in a mother.
Thus I’m afraid I have no all-encompassing reading of Coriolanus, nothing to tie it together and make it easy to digest for readers who are new to Shakespeare. Perhaps one message the play delivers is that all mobs are alike; whether they’re Roman mobs or Volscian mobs, the only thing they can be counted on is to make the wrong choice and turn vicious and violent in the end. While this message was probably acceptable to an Elizabethan audience, it is particularly hard for the modern Western reader, who has been trained to believe that democracy is the best form of government. Another, more appealing, message in the play could be that heroism, the kind that epic poems are made of, simply doesn’t fit in the real world. In other words, Coriolanus is like this Seth Meyers skit where a Game of Thrones character goes to a baby shower.
A couple of years ago, Ralph Fiennes directed and starred in a film version of the play, which owes much to first-person shooter gaming videos and our obsession with news reports. It’s a clever production, with fine acting from Fiennes (who cannot completely shake off his Voldemort role) and Vanessa Redgrave (who plays Volumnia in a fashion reminiscent of Angela Lansbury in the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate) , but the real question is, given the difficult nature of Coriolanus itself, why would Fiennes choose this vehicle to display his obvious talent? If any readers have some ideas about this, please post a comment!