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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Coriolanus–A Tragic Hero

Coriolanus is an infrequently read and less often produced Shakespearean play.  It is considered inferior because of its lack of interior conflict in its major characters, its lack of elegant and elaborate poetry, and simplistic message.  It has the pageantry of Henry V, but not the elegiac patriotism; the overweening influence of Gertrude, Constance, Eleanor, but not the same intensity or ambition; it is a play of ancient history, based on the accounts of Livy and Plutarch, but not with the same tragedic qualities of Antony or Julius Caesar.  It has intra-family conflicts, but nothing on the order of Lear, Othello, Antony, or most of the Histories. Even Jan Kott says that the Grand Mechanism does not apply because it takes place out of the context of the inexorable repetition of English history.

I, however, find the play compelling and agree with the commentary of T.S. Eliot and a relatively few other critics who feel that this is indeed a compelling work, a tragedy of pathos and power, with essential lessons of human nature and history.  I base this judgment on the fact that Coriolanus comes closer to the Nietzschian ideal than any character in Shakespeare other than Richard III.  I admit, therefore, to a philosophical bias which favors the powerful, singular, and truly heroic characters over those with reflection, doubt, and vacillation.  I don’t deny that the Hamlets, Richard IIs, Macbeths and Henry VIs are interesting psychological studies – and for that Shakespeare was far, far ahead of his time for his insights and dramatization – but that I simply have a preference for the true hero, neither good nor bad, beyond good and evil who is simply a superman.

Coriolanus is not Richard because he is politically and strategically inept and lacks the strength of character to achieve his ends.  In fact, he is less of a superman because he does not have the singularity of purpose of Richard.  Coriolanus has no particular hurdles to overcome, plots to effect, goals to achieve; which is why Kott says he is beyond the Grand Mechanism.  At the same time his supreme confidence; his understanding and dismissal of “the herd” as a vacillating, easily led, weak, and sycophantic mob; and his imperturbable will, make him above others.  His arrogance and dismissal of the common people are vindicated by their own inconsistency.  His claim that everything passes through the nobility to the common people was correct for the time – the plebians depended on the aristocracy for everything; and while Rome went through paroxysms of republicanism, it was Empire which characterized most of its history. 

So what was his tragic flaw? Ignoring the smelly rabble (Shakespeare in many of his plays referred to the common man as foul-breathed, stinking, and unpleasant)? Dismissing their inconstant and uninformed opinions? Overly proud of his own personal history which was one of valor and courage?  None of the above.  While it was true in Roman times as it is today, warriors often become civil leaders with varying results.  Heroism on the field of battle does not always translate into wise and enlightened leadership.  However, soldiers have often been called upon – because of their discipline, their courage, and their valor – to enforce a civil rule.  Coriolanus was no different.  He was right in observing that Rome was fractured and at risk from mob rule.  We don’t have to look further than Henry VI with Cade and his insane populism to begin to gauge Shakespeare’s feeling (although his politics are of great debate).  He was right in feeling that Rome needed a strong ruler.

Was it Coriolanus’ supposed overweening pride?  The text doesn’t support this.  He at various points of the play declines the adulation given to him.  After the critical battle against Antium, he refuses to accept either acclaim, booty, or rewards, preferring to defer the honors to his colleagues.  He consistently wishes to be out of the limelight, a reluctant and modest hero.  Pride is a sin of the unaccomplished, not the proven valorous; and the herd cheers him for his victories, wishes they never had repudiated him, and regrets that this repudiation resulted in their plight.  There is no doubt that Coriolanus is arrogant; but it is an arrogance based on proven valor, confidence, and righteousness.  It was not his flaw.

Brutus and Sicinius felt that Coriolanus was a tyrant in waiting, and yet they had no proof of this, only conjecture based on his arrogant and dismissive language.  They themselves were compromised because, as one critic commented, they were no more than petty labor leaders fomenting unrest and out to further their own ends.  Shakespeare himself casts them in a very unattractive light, both from descriptions of their stature and appearance to their calculating and very callow machinations.  This is no different than Brutus’ speculations in Julius Caesar – the only difference being that Brutus, while no heroic figure, had, at least at the beginning, noble motives in mind – that is to save Rome from tyrannical rule.  In short, speculations only, and no real reflection on Coriolanus.

So Coriolanus is a tragic figure in the making – he is a proven heroic figure, a respected leader, and one with a tragic flaw, although not one suspected.  He is not a politician, and in this, the most political of Shakespeare’s plays, that is a grave error.  He refuses to politic with the mob, resort to a silver tongue, achieve success and civil conquests through his words alone – especially when his conquests are a smelly, ignorant, and vacillating crowd.  All around him are thinking PR and politics – Brutus and Sicinius certainly who understand the vulgar nature of the crowd and how easily they can be won.  Menenius, a Polonius-like, garrulous father-figure who only hopes that his protégé will compromise.  Especially Coriolanus’ mother who is calculating all the time, who counts the scars on her son’s body for the PR value they have, and who knows that a combination of valor and PR are absolutely unbeatable.  But is the political naievete a tragic flaw?  I don’t think so.  In fact, I don’t think that Coriolanus was naïve at all.  He simply chose to reject the unwashed demands of the rabble and get on with ruling.

Was his attachment to his mother the flaw which undid him?  On the surface, yes, for she was the one who broke his resolve, manipulated him to her ends, and destroyed her son for her own glory (she was the one who returned to Rome the Conquering Hero, not her son).  But on the other hand, no, because she brought Coriolanus up as a dependent child, molded in the image of her ambition.  Could he have done any differently?  Could he have rejected his mother as he did Menenius?  Not likely.

Was Coriolanus a traitor?  I don’t believe so.  His powerful, indomitable (except for his mother) will demanded vengeance and retribution – the annihilation of the people who had so turned against him and his vision.  This is not petty, childish, puerile, as Bloom and others have suggested.  This is the natural and necessary consequential actions of an over-reacher, a superman.

I stated in the beginning that I don’t consider Coriolanus to be made of the same mettle as Richard III who was unique in his power, his amoral, singular, remorseless, and unstoppable pursuit of his goal, the throne and its retention.  As I also stated, Coriolanus had no goal to pursue, but was thrust into palace politics at the will of external events.  So he had no opportunity to show how his will would have been manifest if he had had a goal. 

I think that the one thing that debilitates Coriolanus as a super-hero for me is his untoward and unhealthy attachment to his mother.  I would like to think – although Shakespeare apparently did not think so – that he would reject her as he did Menenius and all others; but he could not.  Richard had no masters.  He was pure will, ambition, and desire.  A true Nietzschean Superman.  While Coriolanus had no tragic flaws, he was flawed by upbringing.

I was also sorry to see his half-hearted and pitiful explanations to Antium when he agreed not to sack Rome.  I would have preferred for him to give a royal ‘fuck you’ and walk onto the scaffold to be beheaded, his principles, character, and vision intact.

So for me Coriolanus is an imperfect hero, but a hero nonetheless, and in the mold of Richard III.  No one else come close.  The heroics of Henry V were as valorous; the unseen but implicit valor of Macbeth is well-known; but the exploits of Coriolanus are lost because of his capitulation to his heroic and unique values.  This is the tragedy; and Coriolanus is not a minor but a major tragedy.

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