- Bloomsbury Publishing PLC
- Publication Date:
- 28 February 2013
- Shakespeare Plays
Showing 1-4 out of 4 reviews.
Personal code of honor admits no compromises; Shakespeare's strong argument against republican government
In most tragedies, and Shakespearan ones in particular, the force of the tragedic ending is based on the reader's (or audience's) sympathy with the principal character. We may not like him or her, but we feel close enough to them to suffer their loss. We've lamented in the storm with Lear, and contemplated with Hamlet. We can never really get to this place with Caius Martius Coriolanus (I'll use Martius to refer to the character, to avoid confusion with the title of the play).Martius is a Roman general of great reknown, whose tragic flaw is his contempt for the people of Rome. Led on by members of the Roman senate, the people turn on Martius, and he is cast from the city. When his mother leads a contingent to him, to ask him to lay down the arms he has raised against Rome, Martius prepares himself for their visit:"My wife comes foremost; then the honored mold Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her handThe grandchild to her blood. But out, affection!All bond and privilege of nature, break!Let it virtuous to be obstinate" (V.3, 22-25).This is a moving passage, and a rich one. Does Martius think that it is obstinate to be virtuous, because the obstinancy protects a virtue (namely his pride)? Or does he recognize that he has long since left virtue behind, and is pleading to retain virtue? Yet even here, where Martius tries to cast aside affection for his family and break the bonds he has with them, it is difficult for the reader to sympathize with Martius in the way we would with characters in other tragedies. He has not given us rich soliloquies, or even reflected on his course of action. What's more, his course of action seems clearly in the wrong. His pride against the people is contemptous, and when he is cast aside, he ends up electing to burn Rome to the ground. The way in which pride drives him to these actions, the way it drives him to atttempt to reject his bonds, is entirely opaque. The play is not weaker for it though. It is different from many of the tragedies, but no less moving and no less thought provoking. While I may not have felt the same sense of desolation that one feels at the end of Lear, this play is rewarding for the complexity of the character interactions, and the depth of the sub-text.Consider, for example, the role of the citizens of Rome. The play opens with their lodging a complaint with Martius, that he has prevented them from receiving available grain. This charge is unrefuted, and Martius instead replies that the people do not deserve it, for they have not served in the wars. They ultimately turn on Martius, and it seems that there is something prescient about this decision. While Martius was not guilty of some of the charges laid against him, his willingness to turn against Rome on the simple matter of his pride suggests a mercenary element of his character that the people have trussed out.At the same time, the people are led by tribunes who goad and manipulate them. Martius' failure is his inability to win the crowd over in this way. This portrayal is much harsher on the citizens. In these passages, they come across as animals waiting to be herded. This is like the image we get of the Roman citizens in <i>Julius Caesar</i>, where the people's emotions are so easily manipulated by Brutus and then Antony. We see elements of that here, but the people are much more complex. After banishing Martius, one citizen recalls "For mine own part, / when I said `Banish him,' I said 'twas pity." One might read this as the citizens simply turning coat again, as Martius' returns with an army. Yet, I suspect there is more to it than that. The citizens may be manipulable, but they recognize this fact. The citizens in <i>Caesar</i> show little indication that they recognize how Antony moves them at his will.This relation between Martius and the people drives the play. As noted above, Martius' downfall is due to his unwillingness and inability to placate the people. In one particularly moving passage, Martius' claims:"...I will not do'tLest I surcrease to honor mine own truthAnd by my body's action teach my mindA most inherent baseness" (III.2, 119-122).Martius, along Aristotelian lines, sees acting viciously as a way of training vicious character, and as he sees placating the people as a vice, he cannot bring himself to do it (or ultimately to do it well). On one hand, if we side with Martius, we see a populace refusing to understand and exalt the triumphs of the soldier. It is Martius who has spilled blood for the city, and the citizens who have benefited from his wounds refuse to honor them. For Martius, the conflict is clear. Yet, it is clear that Shakespeare does not want us to simply settle into Martius' point of view. Indeed, since we understand him so poorly, it is very difficult to do so. What's more, after being thrown from the city, Martius' ultimately elects to burn Rome. Civilian control over the military here seems essential. While they may have been led around by the tribunes, the people have rightly removed a highly dangerous individual, whose loyalty to Rome seems to be rooted more in his own pride at being a soldier than love for the virtues of the city or its society.Shakespeare remains ambiguous between these interpretations, and the opacity of Martius' character lends itself to this ambiguity. Rather than getting sucked into his view of the matter (even if we recognize the other side), here we are unable to really understand anyone. Martius is inscrutable and the people are being led around. I found that this issue truly rewarded reflection, and it is the sort of issue that Coriolanus raises so well.This is not to mention a host of other interesting questions raised in the play, which for the sake of brevity, I will simply mention. The gender politics of Volumnia are fascinating. She has raised Martius by the ideals of honor, even so much as to value his honorable death greater than his living company. Or what is the nature of honor? Is it tied to virtue (or is itself a virtue), or can one have strictly self-interested honor? Should we say that Martius' lacks honor in the end, or that he has a self-interested honor? Woven together, as always, with Shakespeare's unparalled poetry, these rewarding and interesting questions make Coriolanus a truly powerful play.
[Coriolanus] by [[William Shakespeare]].While not the best of Shakespeare's tragedies, [Coriolanus] just may be the timeliest. Yes, it's a play about a soldier whose pride and love for his overbearing mother ultimately bring him down. But the driving force behind the plot is a pair of manipulating politicians who know how to spin things to their advantage and lead the fickle multitude by their noses. While the people are more villains that victims, one can't help but notice that some things never change; here's one of them on their current government:<i>Care for us! True, indeed! They ne'er cared for usyet: suffer us to famish, and their store-housescrammed with grain; make edicts for usury, tosupport usurers; repeal daily any wholesome actestablished against the rich, and provide morepiercing statutes daily, to chain up and restrainthe poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; andthere's all the love they bear us.</i>All one has to do to see the truth in that is take a look at the PA governor's proposed budget . . . or the federal budget, for that matter. It's Robin Hood in reverse: give to the rich and take from the poor.
I have actually seen this as a play as well as read it, and either way, its INSANELY boring.
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