Theatre / Coriolanus

Coriolanus is one of William Shakespeare's lesser-known (but extremely well thought-of by critics) plays, with such political overtones that it remains the only Shakespeare play banned by a modern democracy (France in the 1930s).

Caius Martius is a Roman general; brilliant but arrogant and contemptuous of the ordinary folk. When we meet him at the start of the play, there are food riots going on in Rome and Caius Martius is being blamed for taking the grain supplies for the army. While others try and calm the situation, Martius simply retorts that the commoners aren't worthy of having the grain as they have not done military service.

After defeating the army of the Volsces tribe and capturing the city of Corioles, Martius is given the name "Coriolanus" as a reward, and is persuaded to run for Consul. However, two of his opponents conspire to whip up the commons against him and he is hounded out of Rome after making a bitter speech about the evils of democracy.

Caius Martius, now hungry for revenge against his homeland, offers his services to the Volsces and their leader Aufidius. Marching on Rome, he has the city at his mercy, but is persuaded by his wife and mother to spare the city. When he returns to Aufidius, he is murdered for his betrayal.

A film version was made in 2011, directed by Ralph Fiennes who also played the lead. Gerard Butler played Aufidius, with Vanessa Redgrave (in a highly acclaimed performance) as Volumnia and Brian Cox as Menenius. It's a Setting Update into a generic Crapsack World "Calling itself Rome" (though filmed in Belgrade, Serbia and alludes heavily to the Yugoslav Wars). The film was largely acclaimed for being able to successfully please both Shakespeare purists and action movie junkies.

This work provides examples of:

  • Always Someone Better: When Coriolanus joins the Volscians as Aufidius' "partner", but ends up being more popular with the soldiers than Aufidius, the latter realises that Coriolanus really is better than him. He's not happy about it.
  • Ambition Is Evil: This, along with Pride is the root of most of the problems, on both sides of the commoners vs dictators debate.
  • Badass Boast: "Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads, stain all your edges on me. Boy! false hound! If you have writ your annals true, tis there, That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli. Alone I did it, BOY!"
  • Berserk Button: Coriolanus can, with some effort, hold on to his temper when he knows it's the right thing to do, but not when someone calls him a traitor.
  • Blood Is the New Black: In the 2013 Donmar adaptation, Martius is covered in blood after the battle at Corioli.
  • Blood Knight: Coriolanus lives for combat, and it's frequently pointed out that it's the only thing he really knows. Unfortunately, he is quite open about his total contempt for anyone who does not fight.
  • Break the Haughty: Both Coriolanus and his mother suffer greatly for their pride.
  • Cradling Your Kill / Moment of Silence
  • Covered with Scars: Following his victory at Corioles, Coriolanus has a total of twenty-seven scars. It's not stated how severe they are, but that's still an impressive number.
  • Death by Adaptation: In the 2011 film, Menenius kills himself shortly after Coriolanus rejects his offer for peace.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Sort of. Even though Coriolanus is clearly not meant to be seen as absolutely correct, his points about how the common people are extremely fickle and gullible and demand a say in government despite knowing absolutely nothing about it are arguably quite valid.
    • On the other hand, Coriolanus gets utterly owned whenever he tries to go up against the public, once with his own people and again (fatally) with the Volsces. This seems to say that while the public might be fickle, gullible, and naive, a good leader has to win them over regardless, and fails to do so at their own peril.
  • Destination Defenestration: In the 2011 film Aufidius and Martius go out the window together in their first confrontation.
  • Even Bad Men Love Their Mamas: Could just as easily be called "Even Bad (or at least Haughty, Power-Hungry) Mothers Love Their Sons, even if their influence screws said son up something fierce."
  • Evil Matriarch: Volumnia may not be exactly evil, but she is certainly extremely cunning and manipulative.
  • Fragile Flower: Coriolanus's wife, Virgilia.
  • Foe Yay: invoked Canon, and in spades. Very few people who are familiar with the play would say there is anything remotely ambiguous about the Foe Yay between Coriolanus and Aufidius.
    • This Cracked article points it all out.
    • In the 2011 adaptation, the way that Aufidius looks at Martius—especially when he's cradling his dead body in his arms—screams this trope at the top of its metaphorical lungs.
    • In the 2013 Donmar Warehouse production, Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) plants a welcoming kiss on Coriolanus (Tom Hiddleston) and it lingers suggestively long.
      • In addition, the production leaves out a scene in which the Volsces decide that Martius has to die, which turns his death from a state-sanctioned assassination into a crime of passion carried out by Aufidius and his men in the immediate wake of Martius' betrayal.
    • Not to mention this moment...
    Aufidius (to Martius): ...but that I see thee here,/Thou noble thing! more dances my rapt heart/Than when I first my wedded mistress saw/Bestride my threshold.
    • Oh, and in the DVD commentary of the 2011 movie, Ralph Feinnes mentions that when Martius appears in Antium and Aufidius initially confronts him, he intentionally directed it so that he and Gerard Butler are close enough to kiss "if they wanted to".
  • Good Guns, Bad Guns: In the 2011 film, the Romans use Colt M933 carbines, while the Volscians use Zastava M70 rifles.
  • Gray and Gray Morality: Coriolanus' total contempt for the common people is clearly shown to be a serious fault, but he makes some good points (see Democracy Is Bad above) and the two men who claim to be "voices of the people" are described, as ambitious by Menenius, and are manipulative toward the people they "speak for".
  • Honour Before Reason: While the boundary between "honour" and "pig-headed stubbornness and pride" is quite blurred in Coriolanus' case, his honour is the reason he always gives for his refusal to play the political games.
  • Hot-Blooded: Depends to some extent on the actor playing him, but Coriolanus' temper is a serious problem especially when his Berserk Button gets pressed.
  • Hypocritical Humor: While provoking the Volscians into killing Coriolanus, Aufidius contemptuously mocks him for giving in to women's tears, despite admitting at the time that he would have done the same.
  • Important Haircut: In the 2011 movie the Volscians start shaving their heads in imitation of Coriolanus, and the 'throne' he sits on is the barber's chair they use for this initiation. The bearded Aufidius is not happy.
  • Insult Backfire: While it's meant more as constructive criticism than as a true insult, various people tell Coriolanus that he is not respectful enough towards the people in the hope that he will change his tune. Unfortunately, his contempt for the commoners (and for lying, two-faced politicians) is such that he considers it a good thing that he is totally open about what he thinks of them.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Could be applied to pretty much everyone at some point but the main ones are Martius (despite his Democracy Is Bad beliefs, his judgment of the people is a very accurate description of their behaviour within the play) and the Tribunes (while clearly only interested in furthering their political careers, again their description of Martius as hating the common people, prone to instability and rash decisions and generally not the sort of person you want as Consul (basically the equivalent of a President) is very accurate).
  • Knife Fight: In their first confrontation in the 2011 movie, Coriolanus and Aufidius put down their rifles to duel each other with knives. Things are less gentlemanly in the final scene, when a group of Aufidius men attack him en masse.
  • Large Ham: Coriolanus in the 2011 movie.
  • Manipulative Bitch: Volumnia (Coriolanus' mother) is an absolutely brilliant emotional manipulator. She plays her son like a fiddle in every major conversation they have.
    • The tribunes manipulate Coriolanus just as much as his mother, but not to his advantage.
    • Likewise Aufidius at the end; the Volscian lords are at least willing to hear Coriolanus' side of things, but Aufidius provokes him into losing his temper again and he's killed by the mob.
  • Mirrored Confrontation Shot: The poster for the 2011 movie.
  • Never My Fault: The nobles who banished Coriolanus act this way. "...though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will."
  • Not Helping Your Case: Every effort Menenius and Volumnia make to stop Coriolanus turning the people against him fail due to his obstinacy and quick temper. This is a rare case where the person is not making matters worse because of not understanding the situation, and is well aware that he's losing support, but keeps going anyway.
  • No, You: Coriolanus responds to his banishment by shouting at the commoners, "I BANISH YOU!"
  • One-Man Army: Coriolanus. This guy charges alone into an enemy city and emerges alive and victorious. Given his rank, an example of a Four-Star Badass.
  • Only Sane Man: What Menenius is, what Coriolanus sees himself as.
  • Patriotic Fervour: Coriolanus gets his from his mother, who openly states she would prefer her sons die in battle for Rome rather than live long lives not serving their country.
  • Powder Keg Crowd: It seems that every single time a crowd appears, it only takes a few sentences to rile them to murderous fury.
  • Pride
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Menenius makes a heroic effort to keep Coriolanus' temper in check (especially in public), and genuinely seems to be trying to do what's best for Rome. Sometimes verges on Only Sane Man territory, except that there are other figures (like Volumnia) who seem to actually understand what's going on.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Coriolanus' decision to make peace rather than sack Rome for the Volscians lets Aufidius provoke them into killing him. Unusually, Coriolanus is well aware of this likelihood, telling his mother that she has probably killed him when she convinces him to spare Rome.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Seems to be being played dead straight after Coriolanus' exile, but ultimately subverted when Coriolanus' family manage to talk him down and make him agree to a peace, even at the cost of his own life.
  • The Rival: Coriolanus and Aufidius are well matched, and always in competition.
  • Rousing Speech: Coriolanus makes several of these, though they often contain threats to his own soldiers if they don't keep going.
  • Shaming the Mob: Menenius tries to do this a few times, constantly reminding the people of everything Coriolanus has done for them, and that he has not actually committed any crime worthy of death or exile. Unfortunately, his efforts are undermined by Coriolanus' pride and short fuse.
  • Shell-Shocked Veteran: The 2011 film certainly had elements of this.
  • Sleazy Politician: Both of the tribunes, who, despite claiming to stand for the people, stand for themselves, and manipulate the people for their own gain. Subverted with Menenius, who despite being a snarky man who is absolutely scathing toward those he does not respect, is a good man who truly wants what is best for rome.
  • Smug Snake: Dependent to some extent on the actors, but the two tribunes are likely to come across as this.
  • Took a Level in Badass
    Menenius: This Martius is grown from man to dragon. He has wings. He's more than a creeping thing.
  • Worthy Opponent: Coriolanus and Aufidius acknowledge quite near the start that they respect each other greatly ("He is a lion I am proud to hunt"), which is why (along with absolutely bucket loads of Foe Yay) Aufidius immediately accepts Coriolanus' offer of an alliance.