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Theatre / Coriolanus

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As the play is Older Than Steam and most twists in Shakespeare's plots are now widely known, all spoilers on this page are unmarked.

"This Martius has grown from man to dragon: he has wings — he's more than a creeping thing."

Coriolanus is a play by William Shakespeare. It is one of his plays set in Ancient Grome (alongside Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra) and is considered to be Shakespeare's "last tragedy" before he turned to his final phase of serious romance problem plays. The play is an adaptation of the "Life of Coriolanus" from Plutarch's Parallel Lives and is set in the early Roman Republic.

Caius Martius is a Roman general, who is an excellent soldier, brave commander, and brilliant on the battlefield but incorrigibly conservative, arrogant, and openly contemptuous of the ordinary folk. He is so unpopular personally that 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 for sedition when he levies calumnies against the power of the tribune of the plebs, at which point he gives a bitter speech about the evils of democracy and the ingratitude of the rabble. Caius Martius, now hungry for revenge against his homeland, offers his services to the Volsces and their leader Tullus 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.

It has the reputation of being the only Shakespeare play banned by a modern democracy — specifically France in the 1930s, because it was being co-opted by fascist groups. It was also briefly banned in West Germany but was the subject of a notable production and adaptation in East Germany under Bertolt Brecht's Berliner Ensemble.

    Notable productions 

This work provides examples of:

  • Adaptational Villainy: In Shakespeare's play, the "rabble" are painted as being unfairly harsh on Coriolanus, as in the opening scene where shortage of grain is blamed on Coriolanus as an example of irrational mob phobias. In Plutarch's original history, it is made clear that Coriolanus was always extremely unpopular and antagonistic to the Roman people and populace, opposing the rights of the plebians and the power of the tribunate well before the grain incident. Furthermore, Plutarch reports that when the mob initially proposed to throw him off the Tarpeian Rock, this was immediately voted down by the people, whereas Shakespeare takes this brief passing remark to make it a constant threat to Coriolanus' life.
  • 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!" Which also turns out to be Tempting Fate.
    Aufidius: Let him die for it.
  • 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. Ironically this ultimately leads him to betray Roman and Volscian alike.
  • Blood Is the New Black: Coriolanus in both Plutarch and Shakespeare is described as being covered in blood after a battle. 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.
  • 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.
  • Democracy Is Bad: Keeping in mind that The Roman Republic and even the Athenian Commonwealth differs fundamentally from the modern concept of democracy, and even more so from Shakespeare's Elizabethan era:
    • Coriolanus is a Tragic Villain, his point about the common people being easily manipulated by populist tricks is valid, and his dislike for electioneering and the campaign cycle and trying to put on a peaceable facade to get votes is still empathetic even if his attitude is contradictory i.e. he hates the people but doesn't want to lie to them to make them like him enough to vote him for Consul, and then hates the people for voting against him anyway.
    • 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 risk. Likewise, both Brutus and Sicinus point out that had Coriolanus come to power, he would have likely become a dictator or tyrant since his personality and unwillingness to work with other people would make him unfit for public office.
  • 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.
  • Foe Romance Subtext: Invoked. Canon, and in spades. Very few people who are familiar with the play would say there is anything remotely ambiguous about the tension 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 DVD commentary, Ralph Fiennes 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".
    • In the 2013 Donmar Warehouse production, Aufidius (Hadley Fraser) plants a welcoming kiss on Coriolanus (Tom Hiddleston) and it lingers suggestively long. 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.
  • Grammar Nazi: Menenius has a moment in Act 2, Scene 1.
    Menenius: I can't say your worships have delivered the matter well, when I find the ass in compound with the major part of your syllables.
  • 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.
  • 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 examples 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).
  • Manipulative Bastard:
    • 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.
  • 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!"
  • Officer and a Gentleman: During his campaign against the Volscian city of Corioli, Martius insists his men behave themselves and commit no war crimes, and he insists on treating the Volscians honorably.
  • 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.
  • The Peter Principle: Plutarch's biography and Shakespeare's play both present this as Coriolanus' tragedy. His virtues in the battlefield and a warzone, as an excellent commander and noble general who doesn't commit war crimes, translates in peacetime into vices that make him unfit for public office, a terrible politician, and a man whose patriotism combined with a contempt for people has him openly proclaim that he would try to repeal or abolish the office of the tribune.
  • Powder Keg Crowd: It seems that every single time a crowd appears, it only takes a few sentences to rile them to murderous fury.
  • 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 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.
  • Slave to PR: Coriolanus refuses to become this, even when he actively needs to appeal to the public to win election as Consul. Far from humility, Coriolanus' refusal to appeal to the people by making himself palatable and appealing to popular interests is a symptom of his overwhelming arrogance and pride.
  • 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. Despite being snarky and absolutely scathing toward those he does not respect, he is a good man who truly wants what's best for Rome.
  • Smug Snake: Dependent to some extent on the actors, but the two tribunes are likely to come across as this.
  • Tempting Fate: The now-betrayed Volscians stab Coriolanus to death after his Badass Boast above.
  • Those Two Guys: The tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, who do their best to mobilize the Roman people against Coriolanus during his campaign for Consul.
  • 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 Aufidius immediately accepts Coriolanus' offer of an alliance.