Shakespearing #32 by David Foley
Coriolanus is an anxious play. I’m not scholarly enough to know how closely it reflects the anxieties of its times, but it certainly reflects the anxieties of ours. First of all there are the people. What to do about the people, those “woollen vassals”? All very well to get sentimental about them when they’re marching with Henry V through France, but what happens when they turn into a mob “whose rage doth rend”? What happens when the native good sense of the people shows up at a town hall and starts screaming about death panels? Or Shariah law? Or birth certificates?
Like a lot of things in Shakespeare, his attitude towards the people is marked by an unresolvable tension. On the one hand, he’s got a commoner’s appreciation for their canny wit and a humanist’s sympathy for their burdens. At the same time, the people are fickle, easily swayed, subject, as a group, to such irrational shifts of loyalty and opinion that their movements become as senseless as a natural force. (The rest of the above quote says, “Whose rage doth rend/Like interrupted waters.”) Their persuadability without sense makes them, in Coriolanus, a pliable force for ruthless, boneheaded politicians. (It’s the combination of ruthlessness and boneheadedness that makes Sicinius and Brutus feel so contemporary.)
But matching Shakespeare’s queasiness about the people is his queasiness about nobility. Coriolanus is his most problematic avatar of nobility yet. This scarred and indomitable warrior has all the qualities of the noble soul—including a conception of honor, world, and self so abstractly elevated that he is unable to imagine his way into an understanding that doesn’t reflect his own. It’s no accident that his most passionate relationship is with his enemy, Aufidius, who, when Coriolanus shows up at his house, cries, “Let me twine my arms about that body.” (You can have some queer fun with Coriolanus, a man’s man whose second most intense relationship is with his mother and who’s always ready to “clip” another warrior in his arms.)
From a dramatic perspective, Coriolanus allows Shakespeare to do what Shakespeare does best: create drama out of the clash of immovable entities. Coriolanus gets off to a slow start—you have to work your way through some not very interesting battles that mostly set up Coriolanus’s terrifyingly inflexible nature (“Boils and plagues/Plaster you o’er,” he yells at his recalcitrant soldiers.)—but once the play gets going, Shakespeare gets a lot of dramatic and even comic juice out of Coriolanus’s inability to react to any circumstance except by the laws of his own monolithic nature.
Wherein the anxiety. Not only are there no good choices here—the people, the politicians, the nobility are all alike incapable of governing themselves much less the state—but they’re incapable of finding some common understanding by which they might proceed together. And, if they can’t do it, the barbarians, the Aufidiuses, will have the run of the place. I’m trying to think if there’s another Shakespearean tragedy that ends without some sense of a restored order, a new regime to seam together the divided state. Rome has been saved from destruction, but no one on hand seems capable of pulling the nation together. We don’t even return to Rome. The last scene takes place in Corioli, the Volscian city from whose defeat Coriolanus earned his name. After they murder Coriolanus, the Volscians bear him off, now a “noble memory” and, for them, a trophy of a civilization that was supposed to work but didn’t.
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.