Never has Shakespeare entertained me so much. He has confounded me, interrogated me and mirrored me but never has he handed me a summer Hollywood blockbuster – a chilling and thrilling script of violent tragedy stoking societal passions from all sides.
Despite the gripping plot, I tried to focus on Caius Marcius’ character. As in all of Shakespeare’s plays, the characteristics of a hero or villain shape the play and bend our sympathies – not the action or twisting storylines. Through this reading I discovered the deep tragedy of Coriolanus’ life and, again, found myself sympathizing for a man with whom I shared little in terms of personality, characteristics or moral conviction.
Ironically, Coriolanus does not fit anywhere, despite his nurturing which would seek to make him great everywhere. Burdened with his military prowess, all states would willingly use him but then shun him when he exhibits any personal, rather than professional, opinions and choices. Neither Roman nor Volscian societies leave room for the man, only for the great soldier. He must suffer the fate of a product – manufactured and used according to others’ needs then discarded when dysfunctional. The tribunes know they share the same function but also know how to remain relevant by manipulating their manufacturer and refraining from exhibiting any personal character. They don’t even claim to have their own voice but rather the voice of the people.
In contrast, Shakespeare describes a staunch man in Coriolanus, embittered toward the citizens of Rome. He fully embraces the fact that their support shifts like the winds and how they sooner praise a hero as condemn him. He forces many of democracy’s faithful to evaluate its practical application – rulers elected to power by the mob while manipulating that same mob in order to maintain that power which does not technically belong to them but rather to the people. Coriolanus sees the farce and scorns how the people willfully embrace this illusion and how the nobility pander to it. Rather than behave as a tamed agent of that system, like the tribunes, he uncontrollably voices his opinions. He cannot shroud his sensibilities though he would want to, and promises to, several times.
His mother’s guidance sets him on a path to standardize warlike honor and to the pinnacle of a soldier’s glory. He respects and listens to his mother above all other people and shifts his thinking at the twisting of her tongue. While witnessing their interactions, one sees a man’s nature repressed for the sake of a profitable nurturing – a nurturing which would ultimately spurn him. He bows to her advice and represses his natural inclinations. His mother manipulates him in the same way as the tribunes manipulate the people! He speaks of power when his mother cultivates the root of it.
Can one compare Coriolanus to the very people he would see weakened and disavowed of their “power”? the mighty, god-like soldier compared to a group which outnumbers any army or government? the man who sways in his allegiances? someone who willfully succumbs to the illusion of his power when others in government determine his fate? the proudly disrespectful man calmed by the words and manipulations of a loved benefactor?
Why would he resent an entity which resembles him so much? Perhaps Coriolanus’ and the people share a similar nature, manipulated and contorted by the nurturing of those in real power. During certain episodes, it seems that Coriolanus opposes the people as if, like his mother, he would oppose himself, his natural self – the weak little boy within who pines after his mother’s attention in hopes of feeling accepted for his nature, the society that loves its illusions only because they don’t want to feel insignificant.
Consider, also, Coriolanus’ relationship with Aufidius. As bitter enemies, they share many similar characteristics – national pride, violent propensities, a deep investment and love for honor and nobility, etc. Yet, as many have said before, two people so alike rarely get along – like two hurricanes colliding with equal force. We witness the demise of Coriolanus at the hands of his mirror image, a representation of Coriolanus’ nurturing demolishing the boy of Coriolanus’ nature. But even though their nurturing set them at odds, I wonder if they, too, shared natural characteristics and might have shared a friendly bond in appreciation of the magnetic pull that brings the two hurricanes to collision. Perhaps they could have been one hurricane.
Alas, we call this a tragedy because Shakespeare presents Coriolanus as a victim to his inescapable nurturing. Perhaps the boy wanted peace, companionship, acceptance and a family life. But the world denies him as a result of his experience, his nurturing by the will of manipulation. Will the world, then, also deny the people as a result of their experience in the grip of manipulation?