Saturday, March 17, 2007

Reader's Diary #242: William Shakespeare: Coriolanus (FINISHED)

According to Wikipedia, "the warrior Coriolanus is perhaps the most opaque of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, rarely pausing to soliloquize or reveal the motives behind his prideful isolation from Roman society." That Coriolanus's personality is mostly revealed, whether accurately or not, through the eyes of others is one of favourite aspects of this play.

Unlike a lot of Shakespearean heroes and villains, Coriolanus is not a black or white character. That this was intentional, I think Shakespeare hints at through Aufidius when he says, "So our virtues lie in the interpretation of the time." I'd go over further and say the assessment of Coriolanus is not only dependent on the time, but also on the individual audience member (or reader, in my case).

Before our kids were born, my wife and I read a lot of parenting books while we waited. One of the tidbits of advice came back to me while reading Coriolanus; look at a child's traits in a positive light. "Nosey" becomes "curious", "stubborn" becomes "determined", and so forth. In other words, always look on the bright side of life. But pride, the focal theme of Coriolanus, isn't as clear as those examples. Is pride a virtue or a vice? We constantly talk about how we should be proud of ourselves and who we are, yet still remind ourselves that "the pride cometh before the fall."

One of the better moments of Shakespeare's exploration of pride, comes when Coriolanus is running for consul. To succeed, Coriolanus needs to woo the commoners, the plebians, yet he has already expressed his dislike for them. His opponents, of course push this issue and Coriolanus's (almost) humorous defence is that while it is true that he dislikes them, he should at least get credit for being honest. But isn't there a good point here? Don't many of those who run for government think they are better than the average citizen? If they didn't think that they could do a better job, why run? Yet it would be career suicide to campaign on that angle.

Needless to say, Coriolanus does not make it to consul. Not one to take things lightly, Coriolanus goes on a tirade and gets himself banished from Rome. (Too bad we couldn't do that nowadays.) It is then that he befriends an old foe and plots to seek revenge. Fortunately for the Romans, his mother and wife are able to convince him to make peace instead. But since this is Shakespeare, Coriolanus dies in the end, a victim of Aufidius's pride.

I fear that in my synopsis I've given the impression that Shakespeare takes a stance against pride. But I think it is more complex than that, and what he really accomplishes is showing that virtues and vices are often two ends of the same spectrum. It's a thinking play for sure and I'm unsure of why it isn't more popular. My only guess is the cynical tone. Coriolanus often comes across as egotistical, the senate is full of lying schemers, and the plebians are shown as fickle. Not one of his more uplifting commentaries on humanity, he at least gives us more direction on what might be part of the problem; we oversimplify motivations and values.


Barbara Bruederlin said...

This would be a play I would enjoy seeing performed, I think. I like drama that is a little more ambivalent.

John Mutford said...

Given the choice between going to see Coriolanus or King Lear, I'd pick Coriolanus any day.