Coriolanus: the wrap-up

So. Coriolanus.

It’s a strange play. Intense. Political. Intensely political. It’s a tragedy, there’s no way around it. But is Martius a tragic hero?

Now, way back when…just after we started this project, we read Titus Andronicus, and we kind of asked this very question of that play, as well.

I called that one a play of revenge, a horror show.

That was Shakespeare’s first tragedy, and this–Coriolanus–is the last.


Now, according to our old friend Aristotle, the tragic hero is subjected to a reversal of fortune (almost always from good to bad). This reversal is supposed to create fear and pity in the audience, finally resulting in a catharsis, a release of emotions, an emotional cleansing.

Again, according to Aristotle, the reversal of fortune is caused by the central character’s hamartia. Many have incorrectly translated this as “tragic flaw” as if it was some kind of character flaw or personality defect that causes the downfall. But, technically, this is incorrect. Hamartia is an “error in judgment.” It comes from hamartanein, which was the situation of an archer missing his target; so, really, it’s more like the character is trying to achieve his goal, but a mistake carries his downfall.

Aristotle also posits that the tragic hero should achieve some kind of anagnorisis, or recognition or revelation about his situation and his position in the world/universe (or sometime just between himself and his antagonist).

Well, for Titus we had…

  • reversal of fortune: He enters a powerful general, a candidate for Emperor… only to become, by the end, a powerless, outcast (and possibly even deranged) civilian; once a father of twenty-five sons and a daughter, he is, in his last breath, a man with only one living (though banished) child…
  • hamartia: Titus sends Alarbus to his doom, despite the fact that anyone would be moved to, if not to call off the sacrifice altogether, then at least to choose another martyr (Aaron, please, can it be Aaron?).
  • anagnorisis: None, he just goes, inextricably, unalterably, toward his own demise.

And what about our Roman general this time around?

Martius enters the play a powerful general, one whom we see show his prowess on the field of battle, capturing Corioles, and coming close to becoming consul, only to become, by the end, an outcast, a traitor to his nation, but one who is killed by what he thought were his new friends. So reversal of fortune? Check.

Is there an error in judgment? Not really, maybe a string of them, culminating in his abandonment of Rome. But really, in this case, I think we’re actually closer to the incorrect translation of “tragic flaw” here: Martius’ pride, arrogance, and unforgiving snobbery, are what do him in.

And what about anagnorisis, that recognition/revelation? If the turning away, casting aside, of Rome is his hamartia, then possibly he does: when he finally capitulates to Volumnia in Act Five, Scene Two, that and the speech that follows could–I suppose–be seen as a recognition of his error. But it still feels a bit of a stretch

So, tragic? Sure. But, a hero? Jeez, I don’t know…he’s so unpleasant. (Of course, Macbeth’s not exactly a bowl of cherries…but somehow the Scot FEELS more tragic, but maybe that’s because he doesn’t turn into a total A-Hole until after the murder, and Martius is pretty much a jerk from the beginning).

So I’m as conflicted about this play as I am about its hero.

I love some of the speeches. Hate the structure. Then again, I’m intrigued by the structure. But hate the use of women. But I love Volumnia. The people in the play irritate the hell out of me, with their unforgiving nature (a perfect foil to Martius), and their ease of manipulation. But I like what the play has to say about deceit in politics (very Julius Caesar-like in that respect). I like the possible Marxist interpretation, as well as the psychology behind Volumnia’s (heck, her whole society’s) love of wounds and scars. And the homosociality? Fascinating.

Unlike some other plays (cough, Timon, cough), I don’t find this more fascinating than frustrating… no, this is more like a recent play, Antony and Cleopatra: more frustrating than fascinating. But here only barely so.

So where do I put it? Well, as you can tell from my last statement, I rank it ahead of Antony and Cleopatra in the tragedies…but that’s a pretty damn low bar–that’s my least favorite tragedy. It’s a toss-up for me for seventh place of the tragedies between this and another of its Roman play brethren–Julius Caesar. In fact, I’m going to give Coriolanus the edge by the thinnest of margins. So in the lowest third of the tragedies, but in the upper half of all plays.

It’s just not a great or fun reading experience, but I can’t wait to see this done on a stage, though…it could be very, very cool.

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