What would you have, you curs,
That like not peace nor war? The one afrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares.
In Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Coriolanus's banishment is the climax of a series of events in which several forces play a part, all pushing him towards his inevitable downfall. As is usual in Shakespearean Tragedy, the hero, at the peak of his achievements, falls, due to a fatal flaw in his character. Coriolanus's flaw is his arrogant pride and lack of temperance, and his fall is great, from national hero to outcast.
A particular feature of this play is that Shakespeare has shown us how the hero's character came to be flawed. We see that the flaw has its roots in the family and society which moulded his personality. This insight does not enable us to excuse Coriolanus for his behaviour, but it does prevent us from presenting a simple black and white case on the question of who is to blame for his downfall.In Coriolanus's Rome the citizens fall roughly into two categories, the patricians and the plebeians. The two factions are seen to coexist in a state of more or less mutual antagonism, with stability being maintained by a willingness to compromise on both sides. The patricians are prepared to give the plebeians, in Coriolanus's words:
And the plebeians acknowledge their need for leadership:
Coriolanus, however, does not fit in with his society. His valour places him above the plebeians, and his lack of politic sense places him outside to the circle of patricians. He cannot understand the concepts of expediency and respect necessary for the maintenance of a stable society by its authorities. He naively sees society in simplistic terms of good patricians, and bad plebeians.
In his intense egocentricity he thinks he is right and everybody else is wrong. On the appointment of tribunes he criticises the decision of the patricians, and does so in ominous terms which show the price he is prepared to pay for his principles:
His position in society is insecure because he has no social matrix to give him support or restraint. He is an odd man out, and as such his relationship to society depends entirely upon his own character and behaviour.
His character is such that it takes him to the two extremes of status in society, particularly in the eyes of the plebeians. The play opens with the plebeians determined to murder him:
Let us kill him and we'll have corn at our own priceNo more talking on't, let it be done. (1.1.6)
Yet later they are prepared to elect him consul, and later still they are for killing him again. Bearing in mind that these threats are by no means idle, we see that his position is extremely precarious; one calculated shove will topple him for good. The shove comes from the tribunes, who recognise his fatal flaw and use it as a lever to manipulate him. Coriolanus must take his share of the blame in this for allowing himself to be so easily manipulated.
Coriolanus's flaw is his pride, his insistence on voicing his opinions regardless of the consequences, and the narrow-mindedness which makes him immune to change. He firmly believes that the duty of every Roman male is to achieve valour, and valour is the only virtue he recognises.
It is his single-minded determination that has led to his success, but it also leads him to hate and despise all those who, in his view, fail to live up to their duty:
The strength of his feeling is emphasised by of the revolting physical imagery he uses in addressing the plebeians:
The idea of 'countrymen' means little or nothing to him. Though he seems to be fighting for Rome, it is as a personal ideal, or symbol, and he holds his fellow Romans in utter contempt. They are an insignificant rabble to him, and he makes little distinction between them and the enemy:
It is not the fact that he holds these opinions, however, that seals his doom, it is the fact that he cannot refrain from voicing them vehemently in public on every possible occasion. He insists on acting in this way, against the good advice, to dissemble, from Menenius and his mother, even when his life is at stake
The tribunes of the people, Brutus and Sicinius are well aware of this aspect of his character, and of the ease with which they can use it to their advantage:
Brutus and Sicinius are motivated partly by their knowledge that if Coriolanus were made consul he would strip them of their power:
And partly by a their personal feelings of spite and jealousy of this man who has achieved much more than they ever will:
It is not difficult for them to goad him into publicly making a treasonous statement, for which he is banished.
From the point of view of Roman society there is no one to blame but Coriolanus himself. As illustrated by Menenius's story of the body and its parts (1.1.95 - ), the motif of the play, the harmonious operation of the community is the criterion by which the actions of its individuals must be judged. By this criterion, although the military service Coriolanus has done for Rome is undeniably great, it is also undeniable that he is likely to do a great deal of harm to the living fabric of the society. On this point, Sicinius and Menenius, representatives of the two factions of society, cannot help but agree:
In terms of the action of the play, therefore, we must appoint blame primarily to Coriolanus himself for his arrogance and open display of hatred, and secondarily to the spiteful jealousy of the tribunes, and the indecision and gullibility of the plebeians.
The play gives us, however, evidence of the causes behind human character. Through the character of Coriolanus's mother, and the nature of Roman society itself, we can see why Coriolanus is the way he is. We can note the influence of Roman society itself in its upholding valour as a high virtue. This is seen in the eagerness of the patricians to praise him for his supreme soldiership.
But this social influence will be common to all Roman families and sons, and cannot be responsible for the extreme nature of Coriolanus's character. Far more important an influence has been his mother. Volumina has brought him up of with only one aim in mind; to make him a great soldier:
Virgilia: But had he died in the business, madam, how then?Volumina: Then his good report should have been my son. (1.111.5)
We have a further insight into the way Coriolanus's character has been formed from an early age through Valeria's report of young Martius, Coriolanus's son, over whom, no doubt, Volumina has had huge influence.
The view that Coriolanus's character is, 'What he cannot help in his nature' (1.1.40), due to the influence of his mother, is supported by professor of psychiatry, Charles K Hofling M.D.:
Therefore we can feel great sympathy for Coriolanus when he says:
This insight makes the question of who is to blame much less clear-cut, and perhaps even meaningless.
The problem for Rome is essentially a practical one, of how to ensure self-preservation, and all the insight and understanding in the world would not lessen the necessity of taking steps against Coriolanus.
Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus. The Arden Shakespeare. Methuen. 1976
© Ian Mackean, September 2000