Coriolanus Is Us (Sort of)

By Michael Brosnan


Not being an expert on Shakespeare, I find myself feeling both free to make casual observations on his plays and yet worried that I might say something that is either stupidly obvious or, worse, wrong.

But I’m going to say it anyway….

I read Coriolanus recently because I heard the play has much to say on the politics of our times. In fact, the play is a reflection on the politics of any era — and carries along with a steady sense of urgency about how we will live collectively. But with Donald J. Trump playing out his own kind of Shakespearian tragedy (minus the literary art), I was hoping to find some Shakespearian insight into what has led the nation and the world into our current troubling drama — the one that seems to promise nothing but some kind of sad, tragic ending for all. Why, given all the possible people with the interest and ability to lead our nation with skill and a moral sense, have we ended up with a self-absorbed, self-proclaimed nationalist who, to make matters obviously worse, is also a world-class liar? What does this say about citizenry and politics and the suddenness of cultural shifts.

It did take long to realize that Coriolanus, the man, and Donald Trump are not cut from the same cloth — or that the tragedy of Coriolanus might also be Trump’s at some point in the near future. For one, Coriolanus is an honorable man with a clear code of conduct. He is remarkably brave in combat and for the most part honest and direct. He is, in this play at least, a fierce warrior dedicated to Rome. His downfall is not just the tragedy of a single man acting overly proud. It’s a tragedy of culture shortcomings. A lot of characters in the play have a hand in rise and fall of Coriolanus.

Coriolanus is warrior, first and foremost. But the patricians of Rome can’t just let him be. They want to honor his success in defending the city — and, while they are at it, perhaps use his fame for their own ends. What’s so interesting about this play is that Coriolanus is not interested in a political position. He knows his strengths and many of his weaknesses. In some ways, he’s a simple man with a strong code but with no sense of how to serve Rome well off the battlefield. His tragedy starts here with resisting the will of the patricians to pronounce him as Martius Caius Coriolanus and have him serve in the senate. If he were clearer minded about it all, he’d simply tell them to buzz off. But Coriolanus likes and trusts the patricians he knows best and can’t resist their persuasive argument that he deserves the title and can serve Roman well because the people will admire him. Coriolanus hates praise, but he gives in the patricians — and thus sets the tragedy in motion.

For their part, the patricians — especially Cominius — are well-polished politicians who always sound good and wise and yet are constantly manipulating those around them for their own protection and gain. The tragedy, then, is based in part in the inability of politicians, then and now, to commit to honesty and to the good of the state. They don’t mind lying (or omitting information) when it serves them. And they love to publicly praise men like Coriolanus because it makes them look good. I’ve known numerous people in my life who fit well in this patrician role — people I’ve known in professional settings who I once thought of as honorable colleagues only to learn later (too late sometimes) that I was being played. I imagine most of us have had such patricians in our lives. Certainly more than a few of our elected politicians fit this bill.

But the tragedy of Coriolanus also lies with the citizens. In the play, they are a bit wimpy and fickle. They are genuinely hungry and have reason to complain about the senate’s seeming lack of concern for their plight. But they are also unwilling to fight for Roman and seem ready to say anything that will make them appear in a better light. So they praise Coriolanus, but are easily convinced later (by the conniving tribunes) to reject him. For his part, Coriolanus can barely disguise his disdain for such fickle citizens. In the context of the play, he’s got a point: they don’t fight along side him. But his views are also hard to stomach. This is a typical human tragedy, the quickness to harshly judge others, without the ability to understand or acknowledge one’s own shortcomings or what such harsh judgment is really all about. Coriolanus engages in the simplistic game of blaming others for their plight in life. He can’t put himself in their shoes.

Every analysis of Coriolanus I’ve read seems to lay a good deal of blame for the tragedy at the feet of Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, who certainly plays a pivotal role is shaping Coriolanus’s mindset — not once, but twice in the play. Some say Coriolanus respected and loved her too much. I don’t know about that. We all listen to those we love — sometimes they sway us, sometimes they don’t. In this case, it’s fascinating how Coriolanus’s downfall is linked to his love for his family and for Rome. As he transforms himself into a far better human being in the final act, he also transforms himself into a highly vulnerable person. His enemies are aware of this — especially Aufidius — and are able to use this moment to enact revenge on Coriolanus. He dies after pleading for peace.  

To me, the tragedy is that Coriolanus is promoted to a position that doesn’t suit him. Someone should have warned him. But he has no real friends. The patricians, his mother, the citizens, the tribunes, and his enemies all have their motives in the play. Love and respect and honor go just so far. Politics and finding advantage drive much of the action in the world around Coriolanus. Maybe the tragedy is that he can’t see it clearly. Maybe he is also blinded by his own sense of invincibility.

In her remarkable book on Shakespeare’s plays, Shakespeare After All, Marjorie Garber argues that “…all these tragic figures with their titanic strengths and their titanic weakness — pride, stubbornness, vanity, and ambition on the one side, and on the other side radical insecurity, self-doubt, lack of self-knowledge, a fear of being merely human…,” is what drives the tragedy.

I would agree. Except I also see the way the other characters play a pivotal role in teasing out the worst in our tragic figures. In many ways, the feeling of devastation I feel at the end of many Shakespeare tragedies is for our collective failure to care more deeply for one another. If Coriolanus, the play, does speak to our times, I think it’s less about the shortcomings of one man in the world spotlight and more about the complexities of modern politics and a shared lack of moral force — an insistence on doing right, not for ourselves but for the greater collective good. I know that’s much easier to say than to do.

So maybe the more useful thing to say is that, when I read Shakespeare’s tragedies, I find myself wanting to be a more open, direct, and respectful, compassionate person — and hope the world will respond in kind.