Thoughts on “Coriolanus”

This one is, I think, another historical, given that it shares a number of traits of the historicals, including the fact that the title character, although prominent throughout the play this time, is actually in terms of character placed at least on equal ground if not sidelined a bit by the other characters.  Since the historicals — aside from “Julius Caesar” — have been the plays that I’ve liked the least, that’s also not a good sign.

The basic plot is that there is a war between Rome and another city, and Caius Marcius, soon to be Coriolanus (named for the city he fights) manages to defeat that city and return to a hero’s welcome.  He tries to use that to become Consul, but he needs the support of prominent citizens who dislike him because during a famine he was opposed to opening up the storehouses to give food to them.  He is in general a prickly and intemperate person who shows some arrogance and a disdain for the common person.  After the citizens give him their support, two other prominent citizens who were opposed to him from the start conspire to have it removed, which ultimately results in violence, which then means that they want to charge him with treason.  Implored to show more humility, he does that for a brief period of time but then loses it again, but at least ends up exiled instead of executed.  He then goes to his former foes and in fact to his nemesis and offers to side with them against Rome.  He is successful, but before the final battle a number of people appeal to him to relent, whom he rejects rather rudely, including his former mentor and best friend.  Finally, his mother and wife appeal to him to relent, and he does and accepts a treaty over it.  His nemesis, then, mostly out of jealousy, gets him charged with treason for accepting the treaty and finally manages to beat him in a fight, killing him.

Why I say that the main character isn’t the focus is not because the plot doesn’t focus on him and what he does, because it does, but instead because for much of the plot we see things from the perspective of others and not from him.  He shows up to rant a bit but then gets sidelined while the others react to that.  He’s also not very sympathetic, because it doesn’t seem to be the case that he’s really a man of principles no matter how much he protests that he is.  In some sense, his hard-headedness is the issue for him, but it doesn’t really seem like a tragedy because it really does seem like he could have done otherwise.  We don’t want to see him succeed and don’t really see the outcome as simply following from who he is.  These traits make me consider this a historical than a drama or tragedy.

Another thing that makes me think that is that the historicals tend to me more descriptive in their plots than narrative.  Shakespeare tends to have the historicals outline what is happening rather than building that, likely because it is expected that the audience will already know things about the characters and the plot, but that can make things drag a bit.  As an example, there’s a lot of time spent on the initial battle, but it ultimately just describes what happened.  For everything that is important about the battle, it could have been done in a speech as the main character is trying to convince the people to support him and so we didn’t need that at all.  We can compare this to the battles in Macbeth which are both more relevant to the plot and yet are described in far less detail and take up far less space.  Also, in the historicals versus the tragedies the historicals tend to simply have the characters act as expected without having anyone — or even the characters themselves — comment on it as being indicative of them or as being a problem.  Yes, people implore the main character to put aside his pride, but not in a way that really casts judgement on it.  Compare that to what people said about Macbeth or about what Hamlet says about himself and we can see that these flaws are used far more there to develop the character while here they are just used to describe what is happening to move us through the plot.  So, again, more descriptive than narrative.

That being said, Shakespeare is indeed a talented playwright and so even though I’m not as fond of the historicals they quite often still work out to be at least moderately entertaining.  Here, while I didn’t care for the main character and found the plot mostly descriptive, I also wasn’t bored going through it either.  Thus, I’m not going to consider it a classic and am not going to say that it was a play that I really enjoyed, I don’t actively dislike it either.  The most I can say about it is that it’s an average historical:  written well, but with the traits that I don’t care for.

Up next is “Timon of Athens”.


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