Coriolanus – The Failed Politician

While not one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays, I have now seen a couple of productions of it, even if one of the productions is actually a movie. Okay, a theatrical production and a movie are two completely different things, and sometimes I find that I tend to be drawn towards one medium more than the other, and unfortunately, in the case of Coriolanus, I have found myself attracted to the film. I guess one of the main reasons is that with film the scope can be much larger while the play tends to be quite limited in what you are able to do. Secondly, the film version of Coriolanus had machine guns and tanks (and I have to say that I love Shakespeare with machine guns and tanks). Anyway, here is the trailer for the film (simply because I have to include it in this post):


However, as tempting as it is, this post isn’t actually about the movie but rather a play that was performed at the Donmar Warehouse and then shown in cinemas around the world by National Theatre Live. This did make the production a little problematic, even though Donmar didn’t use machine guns (they returned to more traditional Roman dress, though I do wonder whether Shakespeare’s original production also used Roman dress), since as I mentioned a stage production is a lot more limited in what one is able to do. For instance, the rioters are represented by only a couple of people (as is the senate, and Volscians), which means that we have to resort to a lot more imagination. Also, Donmar took quite a minimalist position using only a few props, though they did use lighting and video techniques. Once again, this isn’t a bad thing, but we are forced to use a lot more imagination.
Anyway, while I generally don’t embed more than one video into my posts, since this post is on the Donmar production it is only fair to include their trailer as well (so you at least can get a bit of an idea of what the production was like):
As I have suggested, this isn’t one of Shakespeare’s more popular plays, despite the fact that it was written during his more mature period. Mind you, it isn’t that the play is amateurish – far from it – the themes and ideas are up there with the best of his works, and it is also a tragedy in the true sense of the word. However, for some reason, when I do a Google Images search, the only two productions that seem to pop up are the movie and the Donmar production (though there are a couple of others, just not many). I guess the reason for this is that in the grand scheme of things Coriolanus is actually quite an obscure figure.

Okay, Coriolanus may not be a Julius Caeser or a Mark Antony, but then again neither is Macbeth, Hamlet, or King Lear, yet these are some of Shakespeare’s most popular plays (and despite many of us recognising the names of Caeser and Antony, the two plays based around them tend not to be performed, and the only film I know is this really bad production where Marcus Brutus has an American accent). I probably should mention that Bertold Brecht did create an adaptation of Coriolanus called The Plebians Rehearse the Uprising.

Anyway, it is probably a good idea for me to give you a bit of a background on the character, though if you are interested in reading Coriolanus (on the internet), you can find a full version of it here.


The Roman General

Shakespeare borrowed heavily from Plutarch’s Lives, a collection of essays written in the 2nd Century AD about a number of famous Greeks and Romans. Plutarch doesn’t just write a series of biographies on these characters, he also compares one of the Greeks with one of the Romans (though he doesn’t always do this). The thing was that I was expecting Plutarch to compare Coriolanus with Themistocles, since both of them were great generals who were exiled from their respective cities, however, when I glanced at my edition I discovered that he actually compares him with Alcibiades. The more I think about it though the more I feel that Alcibiades is probably closer in character than Themistocles (Alcibiades was a rat bag that had the habit of rubbing people up the wrong way, despite the fact that he won his fare share of victories).
The Rome of Coriolanus is actually quite early in the piece. While the government had been established, with the addition of the tribunes, who would speak for the people of Rome, the city-state was still very much that – a city that ruled only a small area of the Italian peninsula. At the time Italy was mostly a collection of independent city-states that would regularly be at war against the other, which brings us to the opening of the play.
At the beginning of the play Rome is at war with a neighbouring city state – the Volscians – but is also suffering a food shortage. In fact there is a significant amount of unrest as the people of Rome protest at the ever increasing price of corn. It is here that Coriolanus shows his true colours – namely that he is an enemy of the people and that the people are not deserving of grain due to their lack of military service (which was a bit of acurrent catch because you couldn’t actually join the army unless you were a property owner). We then jump to the city of Corioli where Coriolanus battles with Aufidius and the Volscians, and wins.
Coriolanus returns to Rome a hero, and during the proceedings is nominated to the role of Consul, Rome’s highest office. However, there is a catch – the people of Rome have to agree to accept him as Consul. As such Coriorlanus (actually, his name is Caius Marcius, but after defeating the Volscians he is given the title Coriolanus, namely because he defeated the city of Corioli) must do something that he is incredibly loathed to do – beg the people for his vote. He succeeds, however he does have enemies, in the form of the tribunes of the people – who quickly sway the people’s opinions back against him.
The problem is that Coriolanus once again shows his true colours, and when he is denied the consulship, he rages against the people and their representatives the Tribunes. As such they turn against him even more and vote to exile him, with the support of the Senate. As such, without a home and without the people he turns to the only other people that he knows – the Volscians (which is why I thought Themistocles was a more suitable comparison as when he was exiled from Athens he went and joined their mortal enemies – the Persians). At first Aufidius is a bit hesitant to let Coriolanus into his ranks, however, when he discovers that he has been rejected by Rome and that Coriolanus seeks revenge against his humiliation, he allows him to join.
As such Rome suddenly faces one of their greatest challenges to date – a rouge general. Coriolanus, now leading the Volscians, goes to war against Rome and is securing victory after victory, and despite numerous pleas, he refuses to change his course – that is until he is confronted by his wife, his mother, and his son. Where his former colleagues failed, his family succeeds, and Coriolanus lays down his arms and withdraws.
Big mistake.
Aufidius and the Volscians not only see this as a sign of weakness, but also betrayal, and after a vicious argument they kill him for his treachery, and thus the play ends.

The Fickle Mob

While there are a number of common themes that seem to run through Shakespeare’s tragedies, one that tends to stand out in this play is the fickleness of the people. I remember discussing Shakespeare at one of my book club meetings and there was an agreement amongst us that Shakespeare really doesn’t seem to like ordinary people. In fact he seems to have a very low opinion of democracy, namely because where the mob rules then chaos reigns. Whenever we see the mob appear in Shakespeare they are always portrayed as this riotous and destructive force that tends to create a chaotic mess.
Okay, Shakespeare’s England was hardly an autocracy – there was a parliament that the Monarch had to put spending decisions before, however, it was nowhere near the modern representative system that we have today. Parliament in Shakespeare’s time was still made up of aristocrats and wealthy landowners – the ordinary people really didn’t have all that much say in how the government should run, and if they rioted then they would be brutally suppressed.
However this was not necessarily the case in Ancient Greece and Rome. Sure, in the beginnings Rome was ruled by the landowners, but after numerous revolts the position of the tribunes were established to speak on behalf of the people. Yet by establishing this position the problems of having to deal with the mob quickly arose. It was clear that Coriolanus had a distinct dislike of the common people – as far as he was concerned they were crude, brash, and contributed very little to the state – an opinion that he seems to share with Shakespeare. Yet he reluctantly agreed to continue with tradition, put on his rags, and to beg the people for their vote.
The problem is that the people are very easily swayed. Along with his contempt for the people, it is very clear that Coriolanus also holds the tribunes in utter contempt as well – since they represent the people they are no better than the people. Coriolanus is a soldier, but he is not a politician, which means that he is prone to speak his mind. The tribunes pounce on this flaw and easily persuade the people to turn against him and vote him down.
This is the thing with the mob – they are easily swayed. Okay, maybe Shakespeare wasn’t as familiar with Greek History than he was with Roman (he couldn’t read Greek – though he did have access to Plutarch’s Lives, which did include the Greeks), but we see this problem arise within Athens, which inevitably lead to their downfall – by giving power to the mob you open them up to being swayed by whatever fine sounding speaker comes along. The mob is swept up by the words of this master orator, and end up handing power over to the orator, usually to their peril. Mind you, we still see this today – consider Obama’s 2008 election campaign, and Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign – both reached out to touch the mob in a way that makes them respond and then persuades them that by giving them their support then their lives will be much better. Okay, Obama’s worse crime in that regard is that he gave the people false hope, however, we have seen similar great speakers cause much more damage to their respective countries – Hitler and Lenin are prime examples.

The Soldier Politician

I would say that it’s not all that uncommon for military leaders these days to enter into the political sphere – one Governor-General of Australia, General Peter Cosgrove, was in the military, and there were rumours that General Colin Powell would run for the position of president of the United States, however, it is nowhere near the extent that it was in the ancient world. Mind you, when you think of it, one of the qualities that successful general exhibits are the quality of leadership, which is probably why Ulysses S Grant and Dwight D Eisenhower both became president of the United States after winning their respective wars. Also, it wasn’t as if the United States suffered under their leadership either (though with Cosgrove, his position is purely ceremonial).

However, as I mentioned, in the Ancient World it generally went without saying. For instance, in Ancient Athens if you were a citizen then it was expected that you would have at some stage fought in one of their wars. Even when they were at peace there was still some battle waging somewhere. The same was the case with Rome – propertied landowners generally spent time in the legions, and if they were successful positions in the Senate were readily available. Furthermore, if you had managed to rise to the rank of General then you would more likely than not find yourself with a fair amount of clout (though I should mention that in Athens the position of general was an elected position).

However, just because you were a successful soldier does not necessarily mean that you would be successful in the political sphere – it takes a certain type of person to be a successful politician. It is clear that Coriolanus was not one of those people. For instance, he was more than willing to speak his mind. In fact, one of his major traits is that he does not mince his words. Unfortunately having such a trait is not suitable for a politician. Okay, Tony Abbott did manage to become Prime Minister of Australia, however, we all know (at least those of us in Australia) what happened to him.

I don’t think Shakespeare is necessarily criticising the role of the military in government, though we must remember that by the time he was writing his plays the era of the warrior king had passed. Mind you, that era wasn’t long past since the Hundred Years War, and the War of the Roses was still fresh in the minds of the people. However by the time Shakespeare came along the monarchs had abandoned their tents for their palaces, and would conduct their wars from the safety of their Presence Chamber (there would be no more King Henry V marching out at the front of his armies to confront his enemies in battle).

It was clear that Coriolanus was a great leader – he was brave and he was willing to risk his life for his men. When he invades Corioli he abandons his troops and charges into the city to confront Aufidius in hand to hand combat. In fact, it is his wounds that he sustained, having come out of that battle covered in blood, that he shows as proof of his ability to be a great leader. Sure, for a time the wounds spoke wanders for him, but in reality, he was not fit for the world of politics. It wasn’t long before the tribunes managed to turn his supporters among the populace against him, and in doing so revealed that the only way he knew how to confront his challenges was through anger.


A Fatal Flaw

I have to say that I am one of those people that tend to reject the idea of the fatal flaw as being the centre piece of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes. Sure, one can’t get more tragic tham Coriolanus (well, okay, you can), but I still feel that maybe the fatal flaw is a bit too simplistic to characterise the hero’s downfall. However, is it possible to actually point to one single thing in Coriolanus to say that it was this that resulted in his downfall? Personally, I don’t think so because like many of Shakespeare’s characters there is a lot of complexity therein. I actually think that there are a number of aspects to his character that all together lead to his untimely demise.
  1. His open contempt of the plebians was no doubt going to cause problems, however, he did manage to humble himself and bring them over to his side – so we can’t put that down as a fatal flaw;
  2. His inability to mince words is only one part of his character, and while that did create animosity, it was not so much to the extent that his contempt of the people did;
  3. His uncontrollable rage certainly played a significant part in him being expelled from the city, however once again that is only another aspect of an incredibly complex character;
  4. His betrayal of his homeland with his journey to Corioli to join forces with Aufidius is hardly a character flaw but rather a response (and a natural one at that) to him being rejected by his country men;
  5. His desire for revenge once again would hardly be considered a character flaw namely because this, once again, was in response to his rejection;
  6. His strong connections to his family only come out at the end, and while his choice to withdraw his troops from Rome brought about the anger of the Volsci’s, this did not necessarily put him in that position in the first place, therefore I cannot consider this to be his fatal flaw.
Once again, by considering the nature of the play, and the complexity of Coriolanus’ character, I have to reject this idea of a single fatal flaw as being the main reason for the hero’s demise. In a way, much like Hamlet, he is a victim of circumstance, and also a victim of his own internal struggles. There isn’t one aspect to his character that we can point to and say ‘hah! fatal flaw!’, but rather aspects of the character as a whole and the situation that he finds himself in. Sure, the idea of the fatal flaw may be enough to pass a highschool essay, but I feel that if we are to grow in our understanding of Shakespeare and the characters that he created, he must throw away this concept and start looking at the play, and the character, as a whole.

Oh, and while I said I wouldn’t do it, I simply cannot help but throw in a picture of Coriolanus with machine guns.

If you are interested in other opinions, there is an excellent review of the play on Shakespeare Solved.

Creative Commons License


Coriolanus – The Failed Politician by David Alfred Sarkies is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. This license only applies to the text and any image that is within the public domain. Any images that are the subject of copyright are not covered by this license. Use of these images are for illustrative purposes only are not intended to assert ownership. If use wish to use the creative commons part for commercial purposes, please contact me at david dot sarkies at internode dot on dot net directly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s