Shakespearing 32.1 by John King

More thoughts on Coriolanus

I confess: I don’t get Coriolanus. Not on a gut level, anyway.

Coriolanus Folio

Perhaps one has to be a soldier to see into the hero’s spirit properly. A soldier before the modern epoch. Certainly before Ulysses S. Grant.

The idea that one’s identity can be granted stature and honor through killing on the field of battle seems like an atavistic ideal, when a soldier’s survival seemed less random, before bombs and IEDs and the fog of war would make survival seem miraculous, and reason to rejoice, and mourn, considering all of one’s comrades who did not survive.

Coriolanus has a hawkish worldview and was protective of empire, just like Dick Cheney, except that unlike Cheney, Coriolanus fought firsthand for his ideals rather than let other people risk their lives for his desire for desolation and violence.

And yet.

If valor is the chief virtue, then Coriolanus would have been named consul. Not dictator, like Caesar, but consul. But he didn’t love the common people.

The common people of an empire that he risked his life and honor for on the battlefield. The common people he has tacitly fought for. The common people who would rebel against the empire in times of peace, and let empire protect them in times of war. They are “dissentious rogues.” They are “curs that like not peace nor war.”

One has to wonder—as the mind (my mind anyway) drifts from the story, since I don’t quite care about Coriolanus, or his worthy adversary Aufidius—whom Shakespeare felt empathy for in this play. Both the citizens and Coriolanus seem to have too much pride, even if Coriolanus seems to have more legitimate cause for pride. As David Foley said last week, “Coriolanus is [Shakespeare’s] most problematic avatar of nobility yet.”

I don’t care, usually, about Macbeth either. In Othello and Hamlet and Twelfth Night, I care about all of the characters. In Macbeth I sort of like the porter. The rest are annoying, and it is a fine cast indeed that can entertain me. Coriolanus is much the same way.

Except that Coriolanus has a drinker in it: the Roman patrician Menenius.

Menenius is in the thick of Roman political life, but paradoxically strives to be above the hypocrisy of the capital by quipping his honest way like a classic Shakespearean clown, without the costume. When he encounters two tribunes of the people and anticipates their resistance to Coriolanus’s consulship, he becomes combative:


Come, sir, come, we know you well enough.


You know neither me, yourselves nor any thing.

He soon takes his leave by telling them, “more of your conversation would infect my brain.” Politics is folly.

Menenius’s abhorrence of cynical and hypocritical politics, his inability to serve officially and hold his tongue, puts him in the same category as Benjamin Franklin in this country.

Politics, for Menenius, is tragic folly. He cannot keep Coriolanus, having joined with Aufidius, from ravaging Rome. Menenius’s sense of identity, as a Roman, is annihilated by this.

The emotional gymnastics that bring about Coriolanus’s climactic change of heart are inexplicable to me.

If only the play had been called Menenius.



John King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.