When in Rome, Do as Coriolanus Doesn’t

November 2, 2020 by Essay Writer

Particularly interesting in a genre that by its definition is meant to be a crowd-pleaser, Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus provides a protagonist who is not particularly likeable. Constantly insulting in his speech, prideful and short-tempered, Coriolanus, unlike his mother Volumnia, is neither able nor willing to accommodate political necessities in Rome. His shortcoming may be viewed as a character fault, or simply a product of his culture.

There is evidence that Coriolanus is not able to compromise, equivocate, or be diplomatic simply by his very nature. He would have us believe that it is his unfailing love of the truth that prevents him from any sort of political accommodation. To pander to the plebeians, show off his scars, or even withhold his tongue would be somehow dishonorable. This may be an element in his reticence, but it cannot be everything, for as Volumnia points out, he is completely willing to use less-than-honest strategy in warfare, such as by saying false niceties to win over a town that otherwise would be a tough battle and cost many lives. Coriolanus knows how to be diplomatic; he simply refuses to be so in the political sphere.

Nonetheless, there are other factors that may explain his shortcoming. For better or for worse, we are given the indication that Coriolanus has always been controlled by his mother, Volumnia. She is a strong, downright overbearing presence in his life. From the very beginning, it is observed that as for all of his military achievements, he “did it to please his mother” (I.1.36-37). She has crafted him and manipulated him to be the perfect warrior, vicariously living through him to achieve glories that she cannot. This being so, a few possibilities present themselves. Firstly, we may imagine that Volumnia, who for whatever reason is and always has been quite crafty, has purposely reared her son to be headstrong and dislikeable, because were he to be good at the same sorts of verbal games that she is good at, it would be a threat to her control of him. It is much easier to manipulate someone defenseless then someone who understands the “game” equally well.

A second possibility is that Coriolanus willfully rejects his mother in the only way permitted him, passive-aggressively. He says of himself that, although he thinks he deserves it, he does not actually want the consulship. It would be socially unacceptable for him not to pursue it, and regardless, he cannot tell his mother no. However, saying yes and then doing a poor job in pursuing it will work just as well. In this way, he may be purposefully inciting the plebeians so as to ensure that he will not be consul, and therefore escape that which, for whatever reason, he did not desire. Self-destruction may be the only escape he can allow himself. The toll it takes on him personally makes this possibility less likely, but at the very least he may be rebelling against his mother by rebelling against her techniques, which have always ruled his life, in refusing to use the dramatic skills she coaches on him.

A third possibility is that Volumnia purposely destroys her son. She says that she wishes he were killed on the battlefield – that is, his glory is more important than his life. Perhaps she, knowing her son’s disposition, maneuvered him into a position in which she knew he would incite the plebeians, so that she could gain either personal or secondary glory. The personal cost to her makes this idea somewhat far-fetched, but it is interesting nonetheless, especially as it is her own wiles that do eventually bring about his destruction, just as before they had always motivated him to achievement.

There are also reasons irrespective of his mother that might explain his tragedy. He may simply have a short temper. He is constantly baited by the Tribunes, and even when he agrees to ask for the people’s vote, he does so insultingly. His pride may also prevent him from what seems like debasement. Although he makes affectations of humility, readers are left with the feeling that his dislike of hearing compliments is due to excessive pride; the compliments of people so far below him mean nothing to him. He sees himself as someone who is by necessity alone, because he has no peers. Conflict is the only state of affairs that he understands, and so even when it does not exist, he creates it. Combined with his extreme prejudice against the lower classes, he decides not to deal with them politically and deliberately baits them.

In this way, he is at least somewhat a product of the Roman military culture. He compromises on the battlefield because he is generally dealing with equals; in the domestic arena, though, the plebeians are so far below him that they do not merit any respect whatsoever. In his opinion, they are non-entities. This attitude may be a product of his privileged status, his experience on the battlefield, or the example he was reared with in the model of the despotic kings before him. Volumnia, though, is good at the compromise necessary in politics, because the city is her “domain.” While the men traditionally fight the wars, women guard the household, and so are more used to the necessities of civic life. Simply having to deal with men also would train them in round-about means of enforcing their will, where a man would simply fight to get his way. As a woman and a second-class citizen herself, she may also be more sensitive to the winds of political change that demand plebeians have equal rights to patricians, or may simply have confidence in her abilities to control the people either directly or through her son, once the consulship is secured. Coriolanus may also think that this sort of versatility in politics is associated with women, and to use it would be contrary to his own manliness.

Conceivably, Coriolanus may attempt to defend his intransigence as being true to “Romanness,” the military ideal. But irrespective, he certainly takes it too far, when he is more willing to sack his own town, killing his family and friends, then compromise at all. Either due to his relationship with his mother or something else, his short-temper and hubris leave him unable and unwilling to make the necessary overtures to the public. Rome is only narrowly saved from his stubbornness, and he assures his own self-destruction.

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