Coriolanus - Stephen Orgel, A.R. Braunmuller, Jonathan Crewe, William Shakespeare In anticipation of the release of a new filmed version of Coriolanus, I reread the play in Dec 2011.

It remains a difficult play to enjoy, and I'm going to retain my 2-star rating - it's OK compared to other Shakespeare plays.

The protagonist is an arrogant, spoiled, immature patrician whose disgust for Rome's plebeians is so manifest and violent that his enemies easily manipulate the citizens into banishing him. He flies to his chief enemy, Tullus Aufidius, the leader of the Volsces, and returns to Rome at the head of an invading army.

Coriolanus' enemies suffer for being relatively pale and forgettable. In Rome, the cynical manipulators of the rabble are the tribunes Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus; and Tullus is a coldly pragmatic politician, not a charismatic villain like Iago (Othello or Aaron (Titus Andronicus) (as Marjorie Garber notes in Shakespeare After All, comparing him to the Octavian of Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra).

The most interesting character in the cast is Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother. Though I think for most modern readers there's little to like or sympathize with in a woman who exults in her son's bloody mindedness:

I pray you, daughter, sing; or express yourself in a more comfortable sort. If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love. When yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when for a day of kings' entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering how honour would become such a person, that it was no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him; from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he proved himself a man. (Act I, sc. 3)

Another reviewer has pointed out another problem with the play and that's its unrelenting grimness. I recently watched an Othello performed at the Globe Theater in 2008 where the importance of humor (even if dark) was showcased in the performance of Othello's servant and the hapless naivite of Roderigo. There are a few scenes that could be milked for laughs (in particular I'm thinking of Act IV, sc. 6, when the citizens are falling all over themselves saying how they really didn't mean to banish Coriolanus) but they are few.

This being Shakespeare, though, the language is marvelous and our author always manages to articulate the views of all his characters. In light of the current political climate both here in the U.S. and abroad, I found some passages particularly a propos. E.g.,

Care for us! True, indeed! They ne'er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there's all the love they bear us. (Act I, sc. 1)


He that will give good words to thee will flatter beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs, that like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you, the other makes you proud. He that trust to you, where he should find you lions, finds you hares; where foxes geese; you are no surer, no, than is the coal of fire upon the ice, or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is, to make him worthy whose offense subdues him, and curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness deserves your hate; and your affections are a sick man's appetite, who desires most that which would increase his evil. He that depends upon your favours swims with fins of lead and hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye? With every minute you do change a mind, and call him noble that was now your hate, him vile that was your garland. What's the matter, that in these several places of the city you cry against the noble senate, who, under the gods, keep you in awe, which else would feed on one another? (ibid.)


Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night; it's spritely, waking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy; mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war's a destroyer of men. (Act IV, sc. 6)