Humanity Versus Heroism in Shakespeare’s Richard Iii and Coriolanus

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Shakespeare’s Richard III and Coriolanus are both characters who possess all the qualities of potentially invincible, fearless, and heroic warriors. They fail to emerge as heroes because neither of them are able to live beyond their idealistic motives as warriors, and incorporate humanity into their characters. Richard is consumed by his God-like complex, unexpectedly finding that his conscience is plagued by his acts of murder and perjury. For Coriolanus, it is his uncompromising sense of a hero’s honesty and honor that ultimately leads to his downfall. Whether their intentions are virtuous or treacherous, both Richard and Coriolanus come to ruinous ends because they refuse to group themselves with the rest of mankind that is compromising and essentially human. However, even with this duality of humanity and heroism, Shakespeare complicates his stance by questioning whether such a thing as a true hero can exist. This complexity is answered in part by the emergence of Volumnia as a potential heroine.

For both characters, this lack of humanity can be traced back to their mothers, developing the theme of a child’s debt to his mother. Richard’s character is shaped by his mother, the Duchess of York, since she says to him: “Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell/A grievous burden was thy birth to me” (140, l.168). While cursing Richard, she even condemns herself for not “strangling thee in her accursed womb” (139, l.137). This illustrates the hostility and hatred with which she raised Richard, forming the basis of his later rejection of love. Richard rejects love, but for him it is a defense mechanism to counter others’ disgust and contempt for his deformity: “I, that am curtailed by this fair proportion…/Deformed, unfinished/And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover…/I am determined to prove a villain” (34, 1.24).

Richard is just as preoccupied with warfare as Coriolanus is, although he is driven by his obsession for power. While Coriolanus is moved by his deeply rooted integrity and truth, Richard is moved by a malicious desire to achieve an all-encompassing power. Although Richard’s deformity may have been at the root of his resentment as a child, his ugliness actually enhances his power in manhood, since it makes his feats appear even more outrageous and accomplished. His victory over Lady Anne is not a success which brings him closer to the throne, but a triumph which makes him feel even more invincible: “Was ever a woman in this humor wooed?/…And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!” (48, l.228). The vengeful invincibility that the Duchess of York instilled in her son leads him towards power and heroism, but ultimately destroys him.Coriolanus is raised by Volumnia to be stoically mechanical and military-minded, as well as painfully conscious of his nobility, pride, and class superiority. This is apparent when Volumnia says to Virgilia: “I, considering how honour would become such a person…/was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame…/I had rather eleven [sons] die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” (14, l.26). Her guiding force is not filial love, but patriotism. Because she withholds love and acceptance from Coriolanus except for his aggressive achievements, Coriolanus learns to be completely self-sufficient. For this reason, he finds himself unable to love, since he was not taught to love. Because he lacks “nourishment” from Volumnia, just as the plebeians lack and demand nourishment in the form of food from him, he resents the plebeians for not achieving his same level of self-sufficiency. It is because of Volumnia’s up-bringing Coriolanus becomes inflexible and severe with his ideals, placing honor above everything else.

Ironically, part of Richard and Coriolanus’ ability to be heroic warriors rests in this learned ability to be human and to display feelings, placing them in a hopeless situation. Much of their initial power and success is founded on their unbending obstinacy and fearlessness. It is Richard’s dogged and spiteful indifference that enable him to make his way up. He murders people uniformly one after another, regardless of their relation to him. To protect his crown, Richard orders Buckingham to murder the innocent princess: “Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead/And I would have it suddenly performed” (127, l.18). Even Buckingham balks at such a heartless decision. This does not stop Richard, the cunning Machiavellian villain who allows nothing to stand in his way of the precious throne.

Similarly it is this trait of heroic courage which makes Coriolanus the victor at Corioli when his men falter in battle: “You shames of Rome!/…You souls of geese,/That bear the shapes of men…/Mend and charge home,/Or, by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe/And make my wars on you…” (20, l.33). With these charged, insulting words, Coriolanus ignites his men into action and triumph.

Shakespeare employs a further irony to illustrate Richard and Coriolanus’ failed, or even unattainable heroism. While Richard is the most realistic character in Richard III, and Coriolanus is the most consistent character in the play, both are surprisingly doomed for failure. Shakespeare portrays Richard very realistically as a dynamic and multi-faceted character. Richard is a villain, but an honest villain. Just as Coriolanus’ honesty prevents him from pretending to love the plebeians, Richard makes no attempt to hide his treachery as he reveals his innermost feelings through his heartfelt soliloquies. While Richard’s next move remains an enigma to everyone else in the play, he is faithfully and consistently honest to his readers. From the start, he admits his plot to murder his brother Clarence, gleefully proclaiming that his plan will succeed if “King Edward be as true and just/As I am subtle, false, and treacherous” (34, l.36). Richard’s driving force for power is as strong as Coriolanus’ will to retain his pride and honor.

Shakespeare is able to emphasize Coriolanus’ consistency by dramatizing he inconsistency of the plebeians and of Volumnia. Initially, the plebeians, roused by the tribunes, condemn Coriolanus for his arrogance and contempt for the lower classes, eventually banishing him from Rome. However, when the plebeians find themselves in danger of being attacked by the Volscians led by Coriolanus, they blame the tribunes for driving Coriolanus to the enemy’s side: “When I said banish him, I said ?twas pity.” Another citizen answers with “And so did I; and, to say the truth, so did many of us/…and though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will” (113, l.141). Likewise Volumnia is fickle in nature. She has spent her life teaching Coriolanus to live strictly by the code of honor. Now she encourages him to kneel before the plebeians and feign humility in order to keep his position as consul.

In contrast, Coriolanus is consistent in that he never once backs down from his principles of integrity and honor. He displays consistency of character when he refuses to accept any spoils of war from the victory of Corioli, since that would equate his victory with a mere financial gain. By joining the Volscians against the Romans, Coriolanus remains true to his military and patrician codes. To back down before the plebeians in humility would be to go against the strict code of class superiority that his mother instilled in him. Instead of wounding his pride, Coriolanus would rather be banished from Rome. In this sense, his banishment is still another reflection of his consistency. However, by ending the play with Coriolanus’ death, Shakespeare seems to be saying that a character cannot be both consistent and heroic, just as in Richard’s case, a character cannot be both realistic and heroic.

Through these uses of irony in Richard III and Coriolanus, it would appear that the very definition of humanity makes heroism unattainable. Before the final battle which culminates in Richard’s death, there is already the foreshadowing of his downfall. After being plagued by dreams of ghosts and dark predictions, Richard’s iron-hearted demeanor begins to crumble. He is visited in succession by each of the people he ruthlessly murdered, finally experiencing guilt and despair for his sins: “I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;/And if I die, no soul will pity me” (167, l.201). For the first time, Richard is admitting his humanity by admitting his guilt. However, this only pushes him further towards his downfall.

Coriolanus experiences a similar epiphany, but his final acceptance and acknowledgment of love is realized too late to save him from death. Ironically, Volumnia is the one who initially denies Coriolanus of love, but also the one who gives him this opportunity to accept love. Opposing Coriolanus’ stubborn pride by appealing to his filial pride, she is able to save Rome, and save her son: “Think with thyself/How more unfortunate than all living women/Are we come hither: since thy sight, which should/Make our eyes flow with joy, hearts dance with comforts,/Constrains them weep and shake with fear and sorrow;/Making the mother, wife, and child to see/The son, the husband, and the father tearing/His country’s bowels out” (128, l.96). At the same time, by prodding him towards this decision, Volumnia is leading Coriolanus to his death by making him vulnerable to Aufidius.

In this sense, Volumnia emerges as Shakespeare’s only potential, considerable hero/heroine. She outlives the supposed hero of the play, whose death is only another act of submission to her. In the prime of his glory, Coriolanus is nothing more than a manifestation of Volumnia’s own masculine strivings. Even she realizes this: “Thou art my warrior;/I holp to fame thee” (63, l.16). She is able to even out-master Richard in manipulation by molding Coriolanus into a puppet who will take the consequences of her mistakes.

Ultimately, the key to Volumnia’s heroism lies in her ability to be cunning and manipulative, while still displaying the qualities of emotion and compromise which characterize humanity when it proves to her advantage. In persuading Coriolanus to feign love for the plebeians, she argues: “Now it lies on you to speak/To the people; not by your own instruction,/…But with such words that are but rooted in/Your tongue, though but bastards and syllables/Of no allowance to your bosom’s truth” (79, l.52). Because Coriolanus is unable to refuse his mother anything, he backs down. This is what essentially pushes Volumnia to the forefront of the heroine: unlike Coriolanus who fights for her sake, Volumnia will do anything for the good of Rome, even if it means sacrificing her own son. In the end, she saves Rome from the Volscians, emerging as a divine savior to the plebeians and nobility alike: “This Volumnia/Is worth of consuls, senators, patricians,/A city full; of tribunes, such as you,/A sea and land full” (135, l.56).

By examining this complex duality within a hero, Shakespeare does not present humanity and heroism as opposing forces, but in fact, neatly manifests both concepts in the character of Volumnia. It is because both Coriolanus and Richard initially fail to acknowledge that part of themselves which makes them human and mortal, that they are unable to escape their doom. It is in this subtle and intricate fashion that Shakespeare’s “hero” turns out to be a female character, defying the stereo-typically masculine hero-warrior, and making femininity both primary and subversive.

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