Shakespeare the Playwright: A Companion to the Complete Tragedies, Histories, Comedies, and Romances

By Victor L. Cahn | Go to book overview

CORIOLANUS

This play contains many elements familiar from other tragedies and histories of Shakespeare. The subject is politics, and at its center is the mob, an uglier group than the one portrayed in Julius Caesar or Henry VI, Part 2. One prominent theme is how the struggle for political power gives rise to an inner conflict: responsibility to the state versus fidelity to one's integrity. This struggle is undergone by Brutus in Julius Caesar, Antony in Antony and Cleopatra, and several figures from the histories. The title character grows in self-awareness but is destroyed by a world in which he can no longer function. That predicament is shared by Brutus and Hamlet, among others. We are also conscious of the relationship between the welfare of a ruler and the health of the state, a theme at the heart of Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and all the history plays.

But this play is unique, for it is more cynical than the other tragedies. Although the hero is young, the tone that dominates is that of angry old age. Whether Shakespeare the man was as unhappy is impossible to determine. Nonetheless, the play's bitterness is not tempered by any of the hope or regeneration that is part of other tragic plays.

The primary source is the volume that served Shakespeare for his other works about Rome: Plutarch Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, as translated by Sir Thomas North. The fable of the belly (I, i) was apparently borrowed from William Camden Remains of a Greater Worke Concerning Britain ( 1605). Shakespeare followed Plutarch's presentation closely, but made a few significant changes. Plutarch's Coriolanus has been raised by his mother, Volumnia, and as a result suffers primarily from a poor education. Shakespeare's Coriolanus has been totally dominated by his mother, and her indoctrination and continued influence are at the core of his personality. Shakespeare also develops minor characters more fully, in particular Menenius and Aufidius, both of whom become intriguing counterpoints to Coriolanus.

The events of the play are set in approximately 490 B.C. At the start, the mob is swarming about, grumbling in discontent. The cause of their unhappiness is

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