Written about 1608, Coriolanus maintains the mature Shakespeare’s shift in historical settings from the Middle Ages to earlier periods. It is one of Shakespeare’s most relentlessly political plays, with a hero’s personality that seems almost as schematic as Timon of Athens’ (also derived from Shakespeare’s favored source in Plutarch’s Lives). This hero of the early Roman republic is an extreme example of those generals, such as Othello and Macbeth, whom Shakespeare shows to mesh awkwardly with civilian society and its values, including their relationships with women. Coriolanus reflects his mother Volumnia’s preoccupation with masculine virtues, despising domestic politics in comparison to battlefield success.
While his aristocratic assertiveness infuriates the Roman Tribunes, representatives of proletarian values, it serves Rome well in his defeat of its Volscian enemies from the rival city of Corioles, a victory that earns Coriolanus his name. However, this success intensifies the Tribunes’ fears: they subvert the election of Coriolanus as Consul, leading to his sentence of exile as an enemy of Rome. When, in revenge, he leads the Coriolans against Rome, he resists the pleas of friends to make peace, but finally negotiates a reconciliation, after his mother’s entreaty, only to be murdered by the resentful Coriolan general, Aufidius, whose leadership he has usurped.
The play fits reasonably well into the formal mould of neoclassical tragedy in topic and values, so it was not ignored in the eighteenth century though heavily adapted, which led to celebrated productions by John Philip Kemble, with his sister Sarah Siddons as Volumnia, beginning in 1789. An alternative, modern approach was developed by psychoanalytic criticism, pursuing an Oedipal fixation on dominant mothers such as Volumnia (perhaps why T. S. Eliot favoured it over Hamlet). Modern political extremism and cynical manipulation have made the play’s focus on exploitive politics more relevant, as with Brecht’s interest in recreating the script. None of these approaches greatly endears the play to current audiences. In Peter Hall’s notable production at Stratford in 1959, Laurence Olivier managed to inject sardonic humor into the contemptuous comments of Coriolanus, but this wry note left his highly emotional treason and final self-sacrifice out of tune for such a skeptical mind.
However, examined objectively, the play shows that Coriolanus usually fails to carry through his obtuse views, submitting (for example) to the rigors of election, only to be falsely accused of treason and exiled. Similarly, at the play’s climax he reluctantly resolves his dilemma of divided loyalties by enforcing compromise on both adversaries, knowing full well that by making peace he may expose himself to fatal hostility from aggressors on either side. To attribute his achievement to mere mother-fixation destroys tragic interest in the play, with its typical Shakespeare hero who intuits a higher moral order too late to save his own life. Modern productions often attempt a more sympathetic approach, for example, by stressing a youthful idealism in the hero, like the deft modernization of him by Toby Stephens as a Bonaparte figure in a revolutionary age, in the brilliantly successful RSC production in 1994, directed by David Thacker. The script’s brutality and absolutism plausibly fitted a Revolutionary Age, gaining modern relevance as well as colorful costumes and sets.
Contributed by Hugh Macrae Richmond