A Harsh Truth From Coriolanus

One of the most monumental moments in Shakespeare’s tragedies comes in Act Four of Coriolanus. After he has been banished from his native Rome, he travels to Antium and submits his life and service to his inveterate arch rival Tullus Aufidius, the military leader of the Volsces. This initially struck me as puzzling since Coriolanus‘ very name was awarded from destroying the Volscian city owed to his namesake: Corioles. He now purposes to fight for the side that he had been fighting so tirelessly against for years on end. Coriolanus was truly a great warrior, yet he himself knew it all too well and condescended the common people of Rome. When awarded the title of Coriolanus and informed that, “The senate are well pleased to make [him] consul,” he is asked to speak to the people. He arrogantly replies with, “let me o’erleap that custom,” (having nothing but contempt for them). This creates a fundamental problem; although he is a warrior dedicated to fighting the cities’ enemies, he cares nothing for the people he’s fighting for. Shakespeare notes in the play, “The people are the city,” and I believe much of this play is a meditation on that one idea.

Despite this flaw in Coriolanus’ character, he still almost ends up winning the consulship; thenceforth two newly elected tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus revolt against him by reminding the people of how Coriolanus cares nothing for them, and how they believe his consulship would be disastrous for the people. The people turn against Coriolanus much like they turn against the conspirators in Julius Caesar, and he is publicly denounced and extirpated into exile.

The problem here is obvious when we make the distinction that Coriolanus is more a warrior that fought against his enemies rather than for Rome; a warrior nonetheless at heart, he has to be in action somewhere, and naturally he picks a target that fuels him most; the country that rewarded his years of life-risking service with humiliation and banishment. He goes to Aufidius and confides in him that he will, “fight against his canker’d country with the spleen of all the underfiends.”

Where before, Coriolanus fought against Aufidius because he was, “a lion that [he was] proud to hunt,” presumably because Aufidius was the one man that could actually rival him in and on the battlefield and one of the only men he truly respected. His cause now turns to, “mere spite,” “revengeful services,” & “benefits for thee[Aufidius]”.

This momentous moment of the ultimate betrayal of Rome in The Tragedy of Coriolanus is a very interesting commentary on how great men can fall when they are acutely aware of their own greatness and feel bound to put it to use, whether for good or ill; yet exercised nonetheless.

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Wisdom From A Problem Play

In Measure for Measure Claudio is condemned to die by Angelo, the man commissioned by the duke to take his place for an interim term. Claudio’s offense is particularly mild as he merely got his girlfriend Julia pregnant before they were officially solemnized. Claudio’s life goes from happy to dire overnight, and death pervades his every thought while he awaits to see if he will end up paying with his life at his young and inexperienced age.

The duke, disguised as a friar, goes to visit Claudio in prison. He asks him if he hopes for pardon from the acting deputy Angelo. He responds that he is prepared for death yet hopes to live. The disguised duke responds with one of the most magnificent speeches in all of Shakespeare which begins:

“Be absolute for death: either death or life shall thereby be the sweeter.” 3.1 5-6

Shakespeare is showing the vexing nature of having a divided mind, and how having an attitude of indifference makes bad haps seem worse and good ones seem unimportant; we therefore must be absolute. This actually makes sense applied to anything. If we set out to do and we are absolute, we are either going to achieve what we set out to accomplish, or fail knowing that we gave it our all, which is a win in itself. If we are not absolute our failures sting the more and our triumphs seem all the more as trivial.

Shakespeare cautions us to be grateful in any case:

“Happy thou art not; for what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get, and what thou hast, forgetest.” 3.1 21-23