My first thought was “oh god, not another Roman war play.” But like every other Shakespeare play, it found a home in me. I read it and watched two different productions of it. It’s striking how many different aspects an actor or director can choose to amplify.
The play opens with the citizens of Rome close to rioting because they are hungry. The food they grow is either eaten by the wealthy, sold back to the farmers at exorbitant prices or it rots in storage. Menenius, one of the upper class patricians, soothes the crowd with a humorous, sympathetic explanation of trickle-down economics. Just as they are nodding their heads and saying “OK, that makes sense,” Coriolanus, a celebrated solider who hopes to be elected to the highest office in Rome, shows up. He sneers,
*What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues;
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion
Make yourselves scabs? (I, i)
Good god, I think. I am going to hate this guy. I am completely on the side of the citizenry. But then it turns out that the citizenry behave much like a particular swathe does in our country. They believe any ludicrous thing they are told if it appeals to their small-minded impatience. They are uneducated, unreflective and stubborn. The only thing I can’t fault the citizenry for is that they are hungry. They have that point.
Coriolanus is an easy man to hate because he is arrogant, lacks social skills, and would certainly despise me. But by the end of the play I felt some empathy for him. For starters he has this Mother. Volumnia. She makes her first appearance with her daughter-in-law who sews meekly while Volumnia goes on for 17 lines about what a god her son is.
There was a hint about this mother-son relationship in the first dialogue of the play when one of the hungry citizens remarks on Coriolanus’ war record:
*Men can be content to say it was for his country, he did it to please his mother. . . (I, i)
Coriolanus is happy and independent on the battlefield. He fights as though he is the only one there. In fact he seems to find his fellow soldiers an annoyance. And back in town in the world of relationships, civility, and diplomacy he’s a disaster. In order to get this Counsel position he wants (and feels he is entitled to by virtue of who he is) he has to ask for votes much like our politicians do. He has to cajole, finesse and charm the citizenry. He whines to Menenius.
C–What must I do?
M–Speak to them in a wholesome manner
C–Bid them wash their faces and keep their teeth clean.
Coriolanus behaves so badly the citizenry reject him. He throws a temper tantrum and threatens to sub-due them by force. This is treasonous and the police are called in. Menenius hustles him home to Mother. Volumnia tells him to crawl a little, to be contrite, get the position he wants and then crush the citizenry. Do it for Mother.
*Pray be content, Mother. I am going to the marketplace. Chide me no more. (III. ii)
But he can’t do it. He erupts again. Psychologically he is a boy of 10 whose mother has always indulged him, and who has taught him he is superior to rank and file human beings. He can only function in a world where he is left alone to feel superior. He finds that world on the battlefield and alone with Mother.
Coriolanus is exiled. He leaves pouting “I shall be loved when I am lacked.” (IV, i)
Or when they don’t have him to kick around any more.
Then in a stunning display of immaturity, in an attitude of “I’ll show them!” he goes to the enemy and offers to fight with them against his home. The enemy are the Volsces (pronounced like Bolshis) and their leader Aufidius is both brave and canny. Coriolanus only recognizes the soldier. “He is a lion I am proud to hunt” he says. (I, i)
Coriolanus dresses like a peasant and does for Aufidius, the worthy lion, what he could not bring himself to do for his own people: he begs, he is submissive. The scene between the two of them plays like a love scene. If I have my human development theory straight, everything would be unconsciously sexual to Coriolanus. Every experience would be intense, self-centered, sexual, and immediate. Aufidius on the other hand could coolly assess this opportunity and think about what he wants to do with it. He could slit Coriolanus’ throat right there. But Aufidius is smart. He will kill Coriolanus after using his knowledge to conquer Rome.
Rome is just about to cave in to the Volsces when they realize that Coriolanus intends to raze the city, not conquer it. Mother is called in. Volumnia plays the martyr card and I had to smile when I read this. It seems mothers have been doing this, oh, forever:
*Thou hast never in thy life
Showed thy dear mother any courtesy
When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood. . .
Yada yada yada (V, iii, italics mine)
When this doesn’t work, Volumnia goes deadly and declares she will curse her son while she is burning to death.
Coriolanus finally breaks down and briefly becomes “people who need people,” a vulnerable human being. He acknowledges that occasionally something else might be more important than whatever he, on an impulsive whim, might want. He says he will broker a peace. Probably not he personally since he doesn’t have that skill set but we take his drift.
Aufidius has been quietly astonished at this family dynamic with its weird mother/wife-boy/man relationship. Coriolanus holds out his hands and in effect says to Aufidius, “You see how I couldn’t possibly refuse her, even at the point of victory. Could you refuse her?”
When the two men meet later, Aufidius calls Coriolanus what he is, a mamma’s boy, provoking him into another of his tiresome rages. The scene plays like a sexual climax with the Volsces chanting, “Kill, kill, kill, kill” which they do. The stage directions say “Aufidius stands on him.”
I pitied Corilanus in the end. I know how a dominating and powerful parent can prevent one from growing up and individualizing. Coriolanus’s world was split. Psychologically he could only exist by shutting out the complicated, nuanced world of other people. His only meaningful relationship was with his mother. The two of them lived in the toxic mess they had created together. A line from Macbeth seems to fit here:
*The love that follows us sometimes is our trouble,
Which still we thank as love. ( Macbeth I, vi)
Here are more lines from Coriolanus:
*Such a nature . . . disdains the shadow which he treads on at noon (I, i)
*There is a world elsewhere. (III, iii)
*Chaste as the icicle (V, iii)