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.