Dan Sandman

15: Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

In Books, Fiction, Plays on 10/04/2015 at 12:00 pm

Coriolanus by William ShakespeareSurprisingly, Shakespeare wrote his first overtly political play Coriolanus towards the end of his career. It is about Caius Marsius, a proud Roman general who dislikes the Roman people and is disdainful towards them. Following a consummate victory against the Volsci armies, Marcius is awarded the title ‘Coriolanus’ after the city Corioles which he helped to conquer. However, because he is a dismal politician, and unable to conceal his hatred towards the public, Caius Marsius Coriolanus is exiled from Rome. Following his banishment, he joins forces with his former enemy and Volsci leader Aufidius to plot revenge.

Marsius is a blunt weapon, a brilliant soldier who turns traitor. Out of all Shakespeare’s tragic figures, he is perhaps the most difficult to sympathize with because he shows barely any redeeming human features. Perhaps all that can be argued in his defence is that he has a terrible mother, and that he is not completely cold to his wife. When we place him alongside the tragic heroes that Shakespeare created just before Coriolanus, this inhuman killing machine comes across somewhat as an oddity. Afterall, the bard had just given birth to the four greatest and most compelling tragic heroes ever to appear in English literature – Macbeth, King Lear, Othello and Hamlet.

The critic Frank Kermode argues that Shakespeare may have simply run out of steam towards the end; other critics have argued that Coriolanus may not have been written by Shakespeare at all. I think that this Roman play may have been staged to covertly make some political points about the gap between the rich and the poor at the start of the seventeenth century. There would have been a great deal of insecurity present in Jacobian society at this time, especially since the childless Elizabeth I had just passed on the crown to the Scottish born King James I, therefore ending the Tudor line. As Neil MacGregor points out, Shakespeare’s world was a restless place to live in and could be dangerous. Perhaps theatre goers were looking for something that would excite their fears; something placed within a historical setting yet relevent to their own political concerns.  Indeed, history has seen many proud military-minded men who were unrestful during times of peace; and whether we choose to focus on Coriolanus as a Shakespearian anomaly or translate its politics to a modern-day setting, it remains as strange and powerful today as it ever was.

One of my favourite Shakespeare plays.


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