JOURNAL OF A COMPULSIVE READER
By Charles Matthews

Sunday, September 11, 2011

7. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare

Selected Criticism:

From Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, by Harold Bloom:

That Coriolanus ["the greatest killing machine in all of Shakespeare"] is not totally unsympathetic (whatever one's politics) is a Shakespearean triumph, since of all major figures in the plays, this one has the most limited consciousness. Notoriously the victim of his dominating and domineering mother, Coriolanus is an overgrown child.
....
[The citizens] in the play are not a rabblement, and Shakespeare does not take sides against them.... Shakespeare ... allows some justice to the people's side of this clash. They are fearful and irascible, but Caius Martius is dangerously provocative, and they are more right than not to banish him.... [H]is tragedy is not the consequence of their fear and anger, but of his own nature and nurture.
....
There is a substance in [Lear and Macbeth, Brutus and Hamlet] that prevails; in contrast, Coriolanus is quite empty. Lear's passion, Macbeth's imagination, Brutus's nobility, Hamlet's infinite consciousness precede accomplishments and outlast events. We cannot envision Coriolanus in any contexts or circumstances other than his own, and yet he cannot survive his context or his circumstance.... Raised by his mother to be an infant Mars, he always remains just that, despite his ceaseless drive toward autonomy.
....
Shakespeare subtly does not offer us any acceptable alternatives to Coriolanus's sense of honor, even as we are shown how limited and crippling that sense becomes when it is challenged. The hero's mother, his friends, and his enemies, both Roman and Volscian, move us to no sympathy whatsoever.
....
One way of seeing the change in Shakespeare is to contrast Cleopatra's question regarding the fatal asp -- "Will it eat me?" -- with Coriolanus's "Alone I did it," his final vaunt to the Volscians. Cleopatra's whimsical, childlike question is endless to meditation, and charms us, and fill us with fresh wonder at her personality; Coriolanus's boast it childish, and its poignance is infinitely more limited.
....
Starting back from inwardness gave him (and us) Coriolanus, which is surely the strangest of all Shakespeare's thirty-nine plays. I mean strangeness in a double sense: uncanniness and also a new kind of aesthetic splendor, reduced yet unique. Giving up a great deal, Shakespeare achieves formal perfection, of a sort he never repeated.
....
Volumnia ... must be the most unpleasant woman in all of Shakespeare, not excluding Goneril and Regan.... [The] pathological grotesquerie [of Volumnia's bloodthirstiness] cannot be far away from satire, like so much else in Coriolanus. With such a mother, Coriolanus, nasty as he can be, must be forgiven by the audience. I have never seen this tragedy played for laughs, like Titus Andronicus, but one has to wonder just what Shakespeare is at, as when the next hero-to-be, Coriolanus's son, is described at play. [Or when,]  as the current hero marches home, his mother and his friend greedily count up his wounds, to be shown to the people when he stands for the office of consul.... Can this be performed, except as comedy?
....
What is not at all comic, but at last truly tragic, is the confrontation between Coriolanus and Volumnia when she exhorts him to turn back as he leads his Volscians against Rome:
Vol.                                          There's no man in the world
     More bound to's mother, yet here he lets me prate 
     Like one i'th'stocks. 
[V.iii. 158-60]
Volumnia's most unpleasant moment, this transcends nastiness because pragmatically it murders Coriolanus, as he informs his mother.
I like Bloom's sense of the comic potential in the play, which the BBC-TV version surely ignored. Yet at the same time, that production managed to elicit sympathy for Volumnia that Bloom doesn't share, largely through the performance of Irene Worth. And I think that's one of the limitations of Bloom's criticism here, that it doesn't fully take into account the possibilities of performance even while he's suggesting ways in which it might be performed. Worth almost succeeds in turning Coriolanus into The Tragedy of Volumnia.

From The Reader's Encyclopedia of Shakespeare (1966):

Coriolanus is different from most of Shakespeare's other tragic protagonists. In none of the crises of his career is he master of his conduct. Instead, his enemies manipulate him into tantrums that serve not his purposes but theirs. Even his death is an automatic response to artfully contrived provocation. He is a puppet, whose strings are pulled by his enemies. The catastrophe of such a marionette is almost funny. It may arouse some melodramatic excitement, but more scorn than pity or terror. For this reason, Coriolanus, on the analogy of Jonson's "comical satire," might appropriately be called a "tragical satire."
--Oscar James Campbell
Yes, Coriolanus is manipulated by his enemies. But he is also manipulated by his friends.

The Good must never fail to prosper, and the Bad must be always punish'd. Otherwise the Incidents,and particularly the Catastrophe which is the grand Incident, are liable to be imputed rather to Chance that to Almighty Conduct and to Sovereign Justice. The want of this impartial Distribution of Justice makes the Coriolanus of Shakespear to be without Moral.... [Aufidius] not only survives, and survives unpunish'd but seems to be rewarded for so detestable an Action by engrossing all those Honours to himself which Coriolanus before had shar'd with him.... The Good and the Bad then perishing promiscuously in the best of Shakespeare's tragedies, there can be either none or very weak Instruction in them.
--John Dennis, 1712
Dennis's insistence on Moral Instruction is antique, of course. And yet there is something about Aufidius's triumph that is unsettling even to the modern reader/viewer of the play.

The Tragedy of Coriolanus is one of the most amusing of our author's performances. The old man's merriment in Menenius; the lofty lady's dignity in Volumnia; the bridal modesty of Virgilia; the patrician and military haughtiness in Coriolanus; the plebeian malignity and tribunition insolence in Brutus and Sicinius, make a very pleasing and interesting variety: and the various revolutions of the hero's fortune fill the mind with anxious curiosity. There is, perhaps too much bustle in the first act, and too little in the last.
--Samuel Johnson, 1765
I almost suspect that Johnson was so puzzled by the play that he couldn't find anything coherent to say about it.

Coriolanus is a store-house of political common-places. Any one who studies it may save himself the trouble of reading Burke's Reflections, or Paine's Rights of Man, or the Debates in both Houses of Parliament since the French Revolution or our own.... Coriolanus complains of the fickleness of the people: yet the instant he cannot gratify his pride and obstinacy at their expense, he turns his arms against his country. If his country was not worth defending, why did he build his pride on its defence?
--William Hazlitt, 1817
To the modern reader, the politics of Coriolanus may seem the least interesting aspect of the play. But Hazlitt reveals the striking relevance of its political concerns to the revolutionary world of the early nineteenth century. At the same time, he recognizes that the human particularities of the play, the character of Coriolanus, transcends any political theorizing.

The high interest of Coriolanus is that Shakespeare is intent on showing us in it how he loved his mother.... Volumnia has quick temper but ore insight and good sense; she is always able to control herself in deference to judgment. Shakespeare's mother, Mary Arden, who could not read or write, had in her probably the wisdom of the finest English natures; she saw her own faults and her son's, and usually counselled moderation. It was not his quick, adventurous and unfortunate father whom Shakespeare adored; but his wise, loving mother. Every mention of her in the play is steeped in tenderness; even the paltry prejudiced Sicinius has to admit that Coriolanus "loved his mother deeply." 
--Frank Harris, 1911
Even aside from the wacky biographical reading of the play, it's hard to believe that Harris read the same Coriolanus as Bloom.

By "amusing" [Samuel Johnson] did not mean "mirth-provoking"; he meant that in Coriolanus a lively interest is excited and sustained by the variety of the events and characters; and this is true. But we may add that the play contains a good deal that is amusing in the current sense of the word.... [T]hroughout the story we meet with that pleasant and wise old gentleman Menenius, whose humour tells him how to keep the peace while he gains his point, and to say without offence what the hero cannot say without raising a storm. Perhaps no one else in the play is regarded from beginning to end with such unmingled approval, and this is not lessened when the failure of his embassy to Coriolanus makes him the subject as well as the author of mirth.... What is amusing in [Coriolanus] is, for the most part, simply amusing, and has no tragic tinge.... Even that Shakespearean audacity, the interruption of Volumnia's speech by the hero's little son, makes one laugh almost without reserve. And all this helps to produce the characteristic tone of this tragedy.
--A.C. Bradley, 1929
I appreciate Bradley's giving Menenius his due, though I'm not sure "pleasant and wise old gentleman" is the way I'd characterize the frequently anxious and sometimes seriously mistaken Menenius.

Coriolanus cannot be ranked with the greatest of the tragedies. It lacks their transcendent vitality and metaphysical power. But while neither story nor characters evoke such qualities, those they do evoke are here in full measure. The play is notable for its craftsmanship. It is the work of a man who knows what the effect of each stroke will be, and wastes not one of them. And while ease and simplicity may sometimes be lacking, an uncertain or superfluous speech it would be hard to find. Was Shakespeare perhaps aware of some ebbing of his imaginative vitality ... and did he purposefully choose a subject and characters which he could make the most of by judgment and skill?
--Harley Granville-Barker, 1927
Well, probably not.

The pride of Coriolanus has two very contradictory faculties. It is the tragic flaw in his character and therefore has the well-known power of pride the preëminent deadly sin to produce other faults and destroy good in the spirit of its possessor; but it is at the same time the basis of self-respect in his character and thus has power to produce good in his spirit. Whether destructive of good or productive of good, it is a fierce pride, accompanied by a wrath that makes it work at white heat. The wrath is like the pride it accompanies in not always having the qualities of a deadly sin; it can at times be righteous wrath, directed against human baseness. Hence both the pride and the rath of Coriolanus can be admirable as well as detestable.
--Willard Farnham, 1950
As I said, it's an ambiguous tragedy.

From Soul of the Age: A Biography of the Mind of William Shakespeare, by Jonathan Bate:

It is somehow symptomatic of Shakespeare's particular interest in male bonding that Aufidius in Coriolanus speaks of his love for his wife and his happiness on his wedding night, but suggests that he takes more pleasure in seeing his military adversary arrive on his doorstep and in reminiscing about a dream of wrestling Coriolanus to the ground on the battlefield.... The imagery her is, to say the least, suggestive.
....
If Antony and Cleopatra is about the tragic consequences of the dissolution of Romanness, Coriolanus is about the equally tragic result of an unyielding adherence to it.... [Coriolanus's] pride and his desire to stand alone are only allayed when he faces his other, wife, and son pleading for him to have mercy on the city. Volumnia appeals to the bond of family; after her eloquent entreaty, Coriolanus hovers for a moment in one of the most powerful silences in Shakespeare. He sets aside his code of many strength, accepts the familial tie, and in so doing effectively signs his own death warrant. He has for the first time fully recognized the claims of other people, escaped the bond of absolute self. The knowledge of what he has done brings a kind of peace: "But let it come," he says of his inevitable end. He is speaking here in the voice of Stoic resignation. Coriolanus is a study in the consequences of the lack of that "pliableness" that Montaigne, following Epicurus, recommended as the basis of a well-lived life.

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