William Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” – Ben Clark

A clear example of Freud in literature doesn’t necessarily equate to “a good time” for the readers (the characters themselves don’t need to be spoken for). Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is just that kind of tragic good time that may keep Freud and his disciples forever relevant. The play is much more beyond this Freudian reference, yet subtly so. T.S. Eliot deemed Coriolanus, alongside Antony and Cleopatra, “Shakespeare’s most assured artistic success,” but to find this success in the play is to mine a less lustrous vein than that which mints the shilling Shakespeare. That is to say: it is sometimes the greater act of artistry when a talent of the highest order restrains his virtuosity, especially when virtuosity is said artist’s bread and butter. Coriolanus can still be read with a pencil and should be, as always, to mark the language, but more impressive in this play is the depth of Shakespeare’s psychological penetration, his abject but distinct portrayal of politics, and a pronounced existential irony.

Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort) produced an adaptation of Corliolanus set in a 21st century reimagining of Rome (complete with fully automatic machine guns). He also plays the titular role opposite Gerard Butler’s Aufidius.

Ralph Fiennes (Voldemort) produced an adaptation of Corliolanus set in a 21st century reimagining of Rome (complete with fully automatic machine guns). He also plays the titular role opposite Gerard Butler’s Aufidius.

To start and to end, one must begin with the titular hero. Caius Martius – Shakespeare changed the “c” to a “t” to emphasize martial – earns the cognomen Coriolanus after fighting into and out of the hot gates at Corioles, killing many Volsces and bruising their general, Aufidius, in their sixth meeting as single combatants. He returns to Rome with his new name and some wounds, which evidently guarantee his being appointed consul. The problem is that Coriolanus can stand neither politicians nor plebeians. His mother urges him to try, but soon Coriolanus’s half-hearted prosaicism turns to treason in iambs – or so his detractors accuse. Forthright he is banished from Rome, but he swears to return. Coriolanus joins the Volsci and subordinates them all, including Aufidius, in his campaign against Rome. On the verge of sacking the city, his mother, wife, and little son convince him to make peace. Aufidius, slighted again by Coriolanus, does not himself kill the hero but rather has him stabbed in the back. The play ends with Aufidius’s impromptu eulogy, concluding with a call to help him carry the body: “Assist.”

Two relationships dominate the play: that between Coriolanus’s mother, Volumnia, and her son; and that between Coriolanus and Caius Martius – that is, between Coriolanus and himself. The relationship between Aufidius and Coriolanus is tertiary, but certainly warrants discussion. It should be noted that Shakespeare’s source for the play was the biography of Coriolanus given in Plutarch’s Lives. Many elements in the play diverge from this non-fiction basis, most importantly the personality of Volumnia, but such things are subject to the license of our poet and any further instances can be sought out by the reader in the excellent Oxford Shakespeare Coriolanus, edited by R.B. Parker.

Plutarch (45 – 120 CE) as depicted within Jacques Amyot’s translation of Parallel Lives c. 1565.

Plutarch (45 – 120 CE) as depicted within Jacques Amyot’s translation of Parallel Lives c. 1565.

Volumnia is a widow to a man never mentioned, and she later compares herself to Juno, who bore Mars without male impregnation. But some of her first words in the play are “if my son were my husband”; clearly there is something amiss. As the man she might influence most in a patriarchal society, Coriolanus is molded from infancy to be as hard as Volumnia could have been had she a y-chromosome. Thus, half of what he does is at her urging/pleading/seducing, while the other half is directly antagonistic to her. His every wound is an occasion for glee, at least insofar as it may be licked—an image from the play—by those plebeians that would elect Coriolanus consul. Another bloody image:

The breasts of Hecuba
When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier
Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning.

Volumnia’s character is, like any, a product made by many hands, so she should not be read as a force of nature, as some great, bitchy squall. Yet inexorability is in the knells. Volumnia returns to Rome, triumphant in peace as her son was in war, but silent; both son and mother now know that the one must die. Coriolanus, the voice of both, dies defiantly as Volumnia gains her living quietus.

Caius Martius Coriolanus (who will henceforth be referred to as Run C.M.C.) is a badass, and for this, Volumnia deserves some credit. Again, half of Run C. M. C.’s behavior is in defiance of his mother’s explicit design, but even then he is implicitly after her image – one telling example is that his treatment of the plebeians is akin to her treatment of him. Another is that his first reference to his son is not as his son, but rather as Volumnia’s grandson. This is in part due to Run C.M.C.’s compulsive solitude. He excels when standing against and apart, and this is his greatest appeal to both readers and characters within the play.

Gavin Hamilton’s Coriolanus Act V, Scene iii (c. 1803) depicts Volumnia’s appeal to Coriolanus for peace.

Gavin Hamilton’s Coriolanus Act V, Scene iii (c. 1803) depicts Volumnia’s appeal to Coriolanus for peace.

He is also a phallic symbol when all the men hoist him, blood-soaked, above their heads, chanting his name, and he shouts “O, me alone! Make you a sword of me?” He is also a frequent object of Aufidius’s dreams, in which they took off their helmets and fought, “fisting each other’s throat – and waked half dead with nothing” (indeed). Martial relationships are consistently expressed through marital imagery, and Aufidius is so exuberant at Run C.M.C.’s offer to join forces that he declares:

…Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But then I see thee here
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.

Further evidence of Shakespeare’s modernity is unneeded.

Besides psychology, there is a bit more. There’s some comedy, albeit strange and from four hundred years ago. Again, there is wonderful Shakespearean nuance in language and characterization, and we finally see from the playwright a definite decree on politics – essentially that it is mudslinging in quicksand. Run C.M.C.’s campaign on Rome is his ultimate rejection of his mother’s dominance, but the peace treaty is his recapitulation to the superego. It is equally so for Volumnia, who cannot allow her society, though it be the mechanism of her odiousness, to fall, even if it means the death of her place within that society: her son.

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