by William Shakespeare
This Roman tragedy tells the story of Caius Marcius. He is a great warrior, but he’s lost when it comes to politics. After going to battle to fight for Rome, the people rejoice and give him a hero’s welcome when he returns. Soon he decides to use his popularity to enter into the political arena but the delicacies of pleasing the masses are beyond him. His enemies carefully manipulate the crowds into turning against him and he finds himself cast out of the city. He feels completely betrayed by the nation he has given up everything to protect and decides to give his allegiance to a former enemy, Tullus Aufidius.
There’s a moment when the mob, which only so recently called for Coriolanus’ exile, recants its words. Slowly a few people in the crowd start claiming, I never wanted him exiled, neither did I, me either, etc. It’s terrifying how easy it is to persuade a mob because no one feels like they are making the decision, they are only agreeing with everyone else. There’s nothing more dangerous than mindless followers.
The most memorable character in this dark story is Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia. She is one tough cookie. She would rather her son die in battle than disgrace himself with cowardice. This attitude shows us why Coriolanus is as brutal as he is. He’s been trained that valor and glory are all that truly matter and anyone who doesn’t strive to earn those things is worthless.
In the end, that attitude, perpetuated by his mother’s guidance, is his downfall. It’s his disdain for the public he protects that turns their favor against him. He sees himself as so much better than them and because of that it’s easy to manipulate their loyalty away from him. There’s a chilling scene towards the end when we see what that legacy of violence has done to Coriolanus’ son as well. The reign of blood will continue with him.
BOTTOM LINE: An intense look at politics and war, as relevant today as it was centuries ago. It’s slower moving than many Shakespearean plays, so it’s no for everyone, but it should particularly appeal to fans of Julius Caesar. This isn’t my favorite of the tragedies, but it’s a powerful story.
The first film version was finally made in 2011 starring Ralph Fiennes and Gerard Butler. It’s a good introduction to the play if you can’t find a live production near you. I was lucky enough to get to see it at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington D.C. last month. It starred Patrick Page as Coriolanus and he was incredible. I’m so glad I had the chance to see it performed live before I read it. It’s always easier for me to enjoy the language of the play when the action and plot are already clear in my mind.
I read this as part of the Let’s Read Plays yearlong event hosted by Fanda. From November 2012 to October 2013 participants will read 12 classics plays throughout the year, at least one each month.