"Coriolanus": Audience Approval of Aristotelian Tragedy


In terms of its principal character Coriolanus seems to have much in common with such plays as Othello and Macbeth: a great but erratic general becomes entangled in actions that ultimately destroy his career in part through qualities intrinsic to his military profession: quickness and severity of judgment, familiarity with violence, concern with status and authority, and an insensitivity to the nuances of private society which complicates relationships with women to a dangerous degree that proves ultimately ruinous, indeed fatal. Moreover, to a considerable extent these male figures are not presented by Shakespeare in a way which encourages audience identification or even sympathy with their attitudes and problems, to the point that I have argued that, rather than being Aristotelian tragedies in which we regret the fall of a great man, they are tragedies with a divided plot, in which evildoers are punished and the oppressed and virtuous characters are vindicated, even survive, and finally dominate. This double structure of fortunate outcomes, punishing the evil and sparing the rest, may be the reason for the other two tragedies' greater popularity than Coriolanus. This last seems to come closer to the idea of tragedy with a single plot favored by Aristotle, in which a great man falls because of some error of judgment, rather than the destruction of an evil nature like that, say, of Richard of Gloucester. Of course, as a soldier, Coriolanus does kill people, but only in the socially-approved defence of his country, not for private reasons. Moreover, while Coriolanus becomes nominally a traitor to Rome, in practice his behavior is never depraved, corrupt, or cruel, merely tactless and intemperate. Indeed one may go so far as to say that he comes close to being Aristotle's Magnanimous Man in Book IV of the Nichomachean Ethics, "who values himself highly and at the same time justly." Aristotle goes on to describe this ideal figure in terms that match the character of Coriolanus closely:

He will incur great dangers, and when he does venture he is prodigal of his life as knowing that there are terms on which it is not worth his life to live. He is the sort of man to do kindnesses, but he is ashamed to receive them, the former putting a man in a position of superiority, the latter in that of inferiority; accordingly he will greatly overpay any kindness done to him. . . . Such men seem likewise to remember those that they have done kindnesses to, but not those from whom they have received them. . . . Further it is characteristic of the great-minded man to ask favors not at all, or very reluctantly, but to do service very readily. . . . It is a property of him also to be open, both in his dislikes and his likings, because concealment is a consequence of fear. Likewise to be careful for reality rather than appearance, and talk and act openly (for his contempt for others makes him a bold man, for which reason he is apt to speak the truth).

Throughout the play Coriolanus illustrates these traits, often to his own disadvantage, as in the early scenes where he abuses the shallow values of the citizenry, only to save their city when it is under attack. This is not a figure to appeal to the common people either in Rome or in the audiences of the popular theatre. The concerns and devices outlined by Cinthio and Lope de Vega to involve audiences simply do not apply. There is little comedy, and not much empathy is elicited from spectators either for Coriolanus or his opponents, only for the well-meaning handful of mediators like Menenius who try unsuccessfully to reconcile the ungracious general to the ungrateful population he serves.

The play's relative neglect is attributable to the same limitations as its nearly contemporary analogue Timon of Athens to which it offers a kind of mirror image. At the start of Coriolanus Caius Martius, as he is then called, expounds the defects of those around him while Timon initially only sees their virtues. Each has a kind of grandeur but both are treated more as pathological case histories than occasions for audience involvement and appreciation. Typically each play's emotional rigor has exposed it to ideological interpretation, Freudian in the case of Coriolanus because of the hero's deference to his dominant mother, Marxist with Timon because of the play' fixation on class and monetary factors.

The Aristotelian single plot, showing a great man ruined, risks leaves the audience victim to negative emotions such as fear of a similar fate. Castelvetro attempts to rationalize such a plot as a source of pleasure: "feeling displeasure from the misery of another that has come on him unjustly, we realize that we are good, since unjust things displease us; this realization is a very great pleasure to us because of the natural love we have for ourselves" (Gilbert, 351). However, it is not clear that Timon's ruin is so unmerited, since he consistently disregards advice to remedy his prodigality and then fails to temper his ultimate misanthropy, induced by the ostracism which his deserved poverty has precipitated. Thus his story is simply a moral fable about the grim consequences of bad judgment and not tragic at all. Martius Caius Coriolanus ultimately displays a far more complex character and trajectory. The tensions, both political and military, between the proletariat and the aristocracy are complex; and Coriolanus is to some degree a victim of this external social problem, even if he fails to adjust to it readily enough. Granted this sense that we may all fall victims to the impersonal tensions of the state, one may be tempted to accept Castelvetro's attempt to justify such a tragedy as meaningful, rewarding, and even pleasurable:

We learn silently and without realizing it that we are subject to many miseries and that we cannot believe that the course of human events runs smoothly. This delights us much more than if some other man, acting as a teacher and openly presenting the subject, taught us the same thing. For experience of things that have happened impresses instruction more on our minds than does the mere voice of a teacher.
(Gilbert, 351)

This much is certainly true, that presenting on the stage a story based on history like that of Coriolanus is more vivid that an abstract advocacy of the political expediency of humility. But even this validation seems to me to underestimate the audience potential of this neglected play, which may suggest that Aristotle's preferred single-plot tragedy can generate some kind of less negative catharsis than simply fear of a similar fate. If so, then pleasing an audience by presenting a positive outcome remains an interpretative possibility with Coriolanus just as much as with Shakespeare's other major tragedies.

In the case of Coriolanus I think audiences have the possibility to reverse the process of self-discovery they can achieve through Richard III. In the latter we are initially tempted by the outrageous wit and virtuosity of an outsider bent on destroying a corrupt society for his own advantage, but we end by realizing the disastrous outcomes this affiliation has committed us to. In the case of Coriolanus we are presented with a reverse introduction to that of Richard of Gloucester: a similarly dominant figure within the government establishment of Rome who also appears egotistical and supercilious in the opening scenes of the play, and is dependent on his mother. But we feel no attraction or identification with Caius Martius whatsoever, and he totally lacks Richard's mental agility and political finesse. In the opening scene the citizens prepare us with negative expectations which are more than justified by the hero's early appearances. To many critics Caius Martius remains this way and meets his just deserts after finally groveling to his mother as usual. This reduces the play to the role of a footnote to Freud's Oedipal theory, and an aesthetic equivalent to the stark morality of the tales of Chaucer's Monk: great men are doomed. However, beneath this simplified pattern lurk several paradoxes in Shakespeare's version, the uncovering of which may give the thoughtful spectator the rich satisfaction of discovering a latent affirmation of high human potentiality. Certainly this why I enjoy the play despite its narrow focus, its lack of humor and variety in comparison with double-plotted tragedy, and its avoidance of tragicomedy's complex devices to induce involvement and suspense.

It is true that in the hero's mother, Volumnia, we have an example of the recurrent pattern of an extremely assertive woman who dominates her environment, a role which obviously fascinates Shakespeare to the point that we can hardly avoid noticing the relevant strength of his own mother, Mary Arden, in handling the Arden family's affairs. Earlier militant examples of this type of persona include Joan la Pucelle, Queen Margaret, and Constance in the history plays, most of the comedies' heroines, and Lady Macbeth, Cleopatra, and even Lear's daughters, in the tragedies. All conform to Lope de Vega's stress on the manipulative skills of his female characters, like his Julia. One can see why seventeenth-century women were so fascinated by Shakespeare's plays. Be that as it may, we also have an explanation for the headstrong behavior of Caius Martius: temperamentally he is his mother's son. This is extremely irritating to the other characters on stage and their overwhelming censure may be readily accepted by the audience, unless it is smart enough to pick up on the fact that in practice Caius Martius usually says one thing but does another. If we look closely at how he actually behaves, it turns out that he never ultimately departs from the strict letter of his duty and civic obligation, even while he seems initially to be refusing to do so. In this he is like the reluctant son in the parable who professes disobedience but unwillingly does what he is ordered to do, unlike his brother who assents but disobeys (Matthew, 21.28-32). Perception of this kind of consideration is enormously satisfying to the alert spectator (not to mention aspiring literary critics).

It is apparent that the exile of Coriolanus results less from his provocations than from the calculated initiatives of those, like the tribunes, whose own inadequacy cannot endure the humiliating contrast provided by a hero's very existence. Nevertheless, it is true that Caius Martius is a scathing critic of the common people as soldiers. In this he is rather like the fierce drill sergeant who saw one through basic infantry training and seemed to hate every minute of doing so, but produced a highly disciplined squad in the end. Just before his supreme feat of single-handed invasion of the city of Corioli, Caius Martius blisteringly denounces his timorous Roman troops, who have broken before their enemy's first assault:

You souls of geese,
That bear the shapes of men, how you have run
From slaves that apes could beat! Pluto and hell!
All hurt behind; backs red and faces pale
With flight and argued fear! Mend and charge home,
Or, by the fires of heaven, I'll leave the foe
And make my wars on you.

In the end it is the shame of seeing him fight on alone that spurs them into action. So he turns weaklings into heroes, whom he does not hesitate to praise thereafter: "which of you / But is four Volsces?"(1.6.77-8). In the end he refuses exceptional personal reward from his commander, Cominius, for the victory over the Corioli that gives him his new name, in favor of those who finally saw fit to fight alongside him:

I thank you general;
But cannot make my heart consent to take
A bribe to pay my sword. I do refuse it,
And stand upon my common part with those
That have beheld the doing.

For this gesture of modesty, no less, he is greeted with cheers by the very troops whom he had shamed. This kind of generous humility is something Caius Martius rarely gets credit for from hostile critics, and spectators who note it will find themselves moving contrary to shallow censure of the hero, to delighted approval and satisfaction with him, which Cinthio sees to be the goal of his kind of tragedy. Throughout Martius is harsh to those around him for positive reasons: he wants all Romans to do more than well. In playing the role in the best production of the play I have ever seen, Laurence Olivier caught just this note of sardonic provocation in his abuse of incompetents which turned insult into humorous challenge, introducing a tone of wry humor in place of mere superciliousness. This discovery of a latent purposefulness in the hero's manner averted most of the distaste the role usually occasions.

If this defense of Coriolanus seems over-partisan it is worth noting that the playwright deliberately includes such a positive evaluation into his script, spoken by two anonymous Roman officials, surely acting as neutral chorus:

He hath deserved worthily of his country: and his ascent has not been by such easy degrees as those who, having been supple and courteous to the people, bonneted, without any further deed to have them at all into their estimation and report. But he hath so planted his honors in their eyes, and his actions in their hearts that for their tongues to be silent and not confess so much, were a kind of ingrateful injury; to report otherwise were a malice that, giving itself the lie, would pluck reproof and rebuke from every ear that heard it.

Recognition that the problem with Coriolanus may not be his pride but his modesty is another term of appreciation that a self-knowingly perceptive spectator will enjoy giving to him. Even when confronted with his mother's ambition that he become consul, Coriolanus can bluntly dissent:

Know, good mother,
I had rather be their servant in my way
Than sway with them in theirs.

Almost no censor of Coriolanus recognizes that in the face of his own distaste for praise and high office, he still meets the expectations of his family, the citizenry, and his political obligations. With whatever awkwardness, he undergoes the full rigor of popular solicitation of votes and legally secures election as consul, which Shakespeare carefully has Menenius enunciate:

You have stood your limitation, and the tribunes
Endue you with the people's voice. Remains
That in th'offical marks invested, you
Anon do meet the senate.

It is only the unjust conspiracy of the envious tribunes to revoke this concluded election (2.3155-263) that precipitates their denunciation by Coriolanus which is used to discredit him: "H'as spoken like a traitor, and shall answer / As traitors do" (3.1.162-3). To endure this charge patiently would be almost as dangerous as to denounce it, so that the reproach of his mother is more expedient than fair. However, the terms she uses to persuade him to patience indicate once more that Coriolanus is not as habitually intemperate as he is made to seem:

You are too absolute,
Though therein you can never be too noble,
But when extremities speak. I have heard you say
Honor and policy, like unsever'd friends,
I'th'war do grow together; grant that, and tell me
In peace what each of them by th'other lose
That they combine not here.

Once again, Coriolanus defers to the advice that he should conduct himself deferentially despite the abuse showered on him, when Comenius says "answer mildly" (3.2.139). However, the false charge is again leveled against him of high treason against the state:

We charge you, that you have contriv'd to take
From Rome all season'd office, and to wind
Yourself into a power tyrannical,
For which you are a traitor to the people.

After this context of accusation has been established, it hardly matters what Coriolanus says. Any defense is discredited before he makes it, as the start of the scene makes clear: the tribunes have already decided that a verdict of guilty is certain, only the penalty remains to be settled, which is that of exile. Of course, like Lear and Othello, Coriolanus loses his temper as this rigged trial evolves, to no great purpose, but one can hardly say that he does so without just cause, unlike the circumstances behind the misguided judgments of the two other figures.

The alert spectator at this point must conclude that Coriolanus has been treated unjustly, as it is the tribunes who have violated the constitution, not he. One appreciates the force of Castelvetro's description of the pleasure of watching tragedy: "feeling displeasure from the misery of another that has come on him unjustly, we realize that we are good, since unjust things displease us; this realization is a very great pleasure to us" (Gilbert, 351). This experience is very similar to the feeling of indignation aroused by Ibsen's hero in An Enemy of the People, in which we know to our own satisfaction that the chemist who denounces the polluted water supply is right and the city council who denounce him are wrong. We are happy to side with him in his defeat.

However, this is only the end of Act Three of Coriolanus, and we enter into much more difficult issues when Coriolanus decides to lead the Volsci against Rome. The decision is not easy to evaluate politically, like Cordelia's commitment to leading the invasion of Britain by a French army. So the spectator becomes entangled in that suspense which Lope de Vega says is crucial to audience involvement. Is Coriolanus wrong to set out to destroy his native land, behaving like the traitor he has already been judged to be by the Romans? Shakespeare felt the issue was significant; it recurs in Cymbeline when Belarius justifies his abduction of the sons of Cymbeline because he has been wrongly held guilty of treason: "Having receiv'd the punishment before / For that which I did then: Beaten for loyalty / Excited me to treason" (5.5.343-5). Taking Aristotle's preferred mode of tragedy it could plausibly be argued that Coriolanus invites censure in the severity of his planned revenge: few would say that the harm suffered by one individual, however offensive, justifies the destruction of the whole state in reciprocity. This is an exciting question which gives interest to the remainder of the play and involves all its cast in the debate, over several scenes, thereby inviting the audience to respond with its own verdict. There is no predictable outcome, as Lope requires: "holding the spectator in suspense ought to be managed by the poet that it is not hidden in the clouds, but the action goes on unrolling in such a way that the spectator sees himself conducted to the end, but it is uncertain how the play is coming out" (Gilbert, 257). In the end Coriolanus achieves a remarkable compromise, preserving Rome but ensuring the Volscian demands are met. Only a fresh plot by the resentful Corioli military ensures his execution by a different community to his own, now misled by the jealousy of another officer of state, Aufidius, whom Coriolanus has superceded. Even this negative conclusion was transcended in Lawrence Olivier's performance in the role (Stratford-on-Avon, 1955). When Coriolanus was stabbed to death by Aufidius on an upper gallery and fell back into empty space, Olivier was saved from a potentially fatal fall only when his ankles were seized at the last moment by nearby attendants, thus transforming a humiliating death for the character into an acrobatic triumph for the actor—and a relief for the audience that offset the hero's artificial death by avoidance of the actor's real one (see end note).

Conventional judgment about the script's political conclusion downgrades Coriolanus to the level of maternal dependency which he is supposed to display from the start (an inexact judgment, as I have tried to show). If this neurotic reflex is all that is involved, the play is pointless: a mother-fixated killer finishes mother-fixated and rightly doomed as a traitor to successive communities. The pleasure for the discerning spectator is to see the deeper option: knowing the inevitable fatality for himself of the decision to avert further war, he still accepts that sacrifice ("most mortal" [5.3.189]), in the interest of preserving both societies. We are coming very close to the biblical benediction: "Blessed are the peacemakers." Coriolanus has always put his personal advantage below his other obligations ultimately, and he now consciously lays down his own life to save that of two communities. It is a truly heroic solution of which one can say that the play ends happily for humanity.

So where does that leave us in terms of the audience role in the performance of Coriolanus? Though the play comes close to Aristotle's single-plot tragedy of the destruction of a great man, there are strong offsets to the negative feelings such a type of play may arouse. The hero is less flawed than supposed by superficial judgments, as alert audiences may delight in perceiving, and after intense suspense about a ruinous outcome, he largely eludes the disaster which his planned attack on his native society implies. This achievement of peace is a sign that the greatness of Coriolanus is truly productive, which is reassuring to audiences about the possibility of happy outcomes. His death is accepted both by him and by the audience as the almost inevitable price of averting the ruin of one or both states with which he has been involved, because of the kind of personal tensions generated by this positive outcome. That Coriolanus can accept this sacrifice for a higher good must seem reassuring to audiences about positive aspects of human nature. Only by seeking happier elements in this play can a rewarding relationship between the script and its audience be perceived. Otherwise the play may be reduced to the dullness of an illustration for psychoanalytic dogma.


Gilbert, Allan H., ed. 1962. Literary Criticism: Plato to Dryden. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

End Note

Dutton Cook's A Book of the Play describes how in "The Castle Spectre" Kemble would "climb from a sofa up to a gothic window high above him, and then, alarmed by the approach of his negro sentinels, fall from the height flat again at full length upon his sofa, and to pretend to be asleep as his guards had previously left him. Kemble is said to have done this 'as boldly and suddenly as if he had been shot'. . ." Comments Mr. Boaden: "It is melancholy. . . that the Cato of a company should be allowed to risk his neck." So Olivier's risky fall in Coriolanus is not without stage precedent.

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Except where otherwise specified, all written commentary is © 2016, Hugh Macrae Richmond