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Julian Meynell's Books

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Shakespeare's Coriolanus

Coriolanus - Roma Gill, William Shakespeare

Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's lesser known works and is not amongst his best.  However, Shakespeare in an off day is still really great and the play is well worth reading,  It concerns the life of the early Roman Martius or Coriolanus, who lived in the very early Republic.  Martius is a born warrior, who after earning himself the agnomen of Coriolanus for taking the city of Corioles runs for Consul and ends up being chased out of Rome by a mob led by political agitators.  Further tragedy then ensues.

A few things are notable about Coriolanus.  First, its tempting to think of Shakespeare single-handily inventing modern literature.  That means that the reader is unprepared for Coriolanus, which is of the plays I have read by far Shakespeare's most classical work.  Coriolanus has a personality that one would associate with the heroes of the classical era.  I was very much reminded of Achilles.  Its also classical in that Coriolanus cannot be bothered to explain his motivations, not even in a soliloquy.

There are a number of things that are good about it.  I've always enjoyed mob scenes, which I don't associate with Shakespeare, but there are some fine ones here.  There is a real obsession with names and naming that would be right at home in Wuthering Heights or Ian Fleming and that is fascinating.  The language is interesting in that Shakespeare gives it a kind of brutality.  Whats most interesting is that the same character traits that make Coriolanus a hero are the ones that lead to his downfall.  His bravery, his unwillingness to act prudently, his pride, his scorn, his convictions that he is right and damn the consequences lead to his military success and his political failures.

Apparently, some people think of the plays politics being antidemocratic.  I do not think that the play has much to say about politics.  Shakespeare I don't think ever questioned the cultural assumption that Kings were the only way to go.  I don't think that this play is advocating that against democracy bcause democracy would not have been anything but a fanciful habit of a few of the ancients.  It is antimob, but the background of the Roman Republic like all Shakespeare's plays set in Italy, is chosen for its exoticism.  Italy was a kind of magical land, where Shakespeare did not hae to be constrained with realism as to the facts and could concentrate on psychological realism and artistry instead.

Coriolanus, in the end concentrates on people and dilemmas that were passing out of history even as Shakespeare wrote.  But, for instance, if we read the Iliad, we can recognize that we might meet a Hector or an Odysseus, but we'll never meet an Achilles or an Agamemnon.  We can still appreciate the beauty and artistry.  Is this play one of Shakespeare's best?  No.  Is it really good?  Yes.