Caius Martius Coriolanus
"Caius Martius Coriolanus." Just reading that makes our carpal tunnel flare up. So, before we go any further, let's talk about this guy's name(s). He starts out as just plain "Caius Martius," but, after he leads an army that defeats the city of Corioles, he earns himself a new nickname: "Coriolanus" (1.9.64-72). It sticks. By the time we reach Act 2, scene 1, this is what everybody calls him. Since Shmoop likes to run with the in-crowd, that's what we'll call him, too.
Flawed Tragic Hero
Truth: Coriolanus hasn't exactly won any popularity contests with audiences in the last 400 years or so—kind of like he doesn't win any popularity contests with the plebeians, who kick off the play by rioting in the streets and threatening to go after him with a bunch of clubs and pikes and what not (1.1). Nice. The dude may be the war hero who saves Rome from its enemies and who once helped to banish the old tyrant king Tarquin, but let's face it: Coriolanus just rubs people the wrong way.
First, he's a lower-class hating snob who thinks the plebeians don't deserve any political power (or even any food, apparently). He's the poster boy for the kind of aristocratic arrogance that dominates the play. Plus, he's got a seriously hot temper, an unwillingness to compromise, and a tendency to say the first thing that comes to his mind.
Result? One seriously flawed hero. Here he in action, when the plebs riot on the streets of Rome and demand better access to the city's food supply:
What's the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourself scabs? (1.1.174-176)
Translation: you guys are gross and probably shouldn't try to think for yourself. See? Not exactly how you go about winning friends and influencing people. Naturally, this kind of behavior gets Coriolanus into a ton of trouble, especially when he decides to run for Rome's highest political office. (Would you vote for this guy?) Ultimately, his snobbery, pride, hot temper, and trash-talking ways get him booted out of Rome and accused of treason.
Of course, there's always another way to look at it. Some people think that Coriolanus' refusal to pander to the plebeians is what makes him awesome, refreshing, and heroic. According to this argument, Coriolanus is admirable because he's not willing to compromise his values (even if his values are totally messed up) just so he can gain popularity with a group of people he doesn't respect.
Either way, Coriolanus is the ultimate model for the classic tragic hero: the kind of character who's so flawed that his downfall is completely inevitable.
To Be or Not to Be Hamlet
Of course, tragic heroes—like Hamlet—are usually at least a little likeable. Not our boy. In fact, Coriolanus can be so unlikeable that it's hard for audiences to connect with his character. Part of the problem is that he's not the kind of dude who likes to spill his guts to the audience and share his innermost thoughts with us. Unlike our soliloquy-loving boy Hamlet, Coriolanus is never going to tell us about his childhood or share his philosophies about life and death and love. This makes it hard for some audiences to relate to him.
We hear you: we just made a big deal about how Coriolanus always speaks his mind, especially when it comes to telling us how much he hates the plebeians. Well, yes. At the same time, Coriolanus has surprisingly few soliloquies for such a blunt, vocal guy. (Depending on which literary critic you ask, Coriolanus has between 1 and 3 soliloquies in this play.)
Some audiences see his lack of soliloquies as evidence that he's not a very introspective character and that he lacks self-awareness and complexity. Others read this as Shakespeare's way of asking us whether or not we can ever truly get to know a person (or a dramatic character). There's evidence in the play to support either argument: what do you think?
Man of Action
Just how good of a warrior is Coriolanus? We find out that when he was only 16 years old, he took down Rome's tyrant King Tarquin (2.2) and he's got the battle scars to prove it. Just ask his mom, Volumnia. She brags about her son's wounds non-stop, declaring at one point that: 'He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five / wounds upon him' (2.1.143-15). (We're thinking mostly paper cuts and hangnails.)
He doesn't get wussy with age, either. During the siege of Corioles, he rushes through the city gates and single-handedly takes down a boatload of enemy soldiers, inspiring his troops to waste the entire city (1.4). Then, before he even has time to wipe the blood spatter off his face, he rushes over to another battle site and whoops up on his arch enemy, Tullus Aufidius (1.8). It's no wonder that his fellow war buddies treat him like a golden god. Even the plebeians admit that he's got some serious military skills, which is why they agree to vote for him when he runs for consul. "Ingratitude," says one of the Citizens, "is monstrous" (2.3.10).
So, what's the problem?
It turns out that our hero is better at warfare than politics. In fact, the same qualities and traits that make our guy an awesome warrior—like aggression, brutal honesty, and a love of the old ultraviolence) are the same qualities that make him a lousy politician. He's so obnoxious and offensive that the plebes end up taking their votes back (2.3). In other words, Coriolanus' character lets Shakespeare beat us over the head with the following idea: Military skill does not just automatically make one qualified to lead a country (or, um, a city like Rome.)
If anything, the play suggests that being a good actor is what makes a politician successful. And Coriolanus stinks at acting. He just can't pretend that he cares about the common voters when he actually hates their guts. That's why he's always running around telling us that begging for votes is "a part / That [he] shall blush in acting" (2.3.181-172). (Check out "Themes: Art and Culture" for more on this.)
Home Again, Home Again, Jiggity Jog
At the same time, Shakespeare wants us to think about what happens to soldiers when they return home from war. Roman society values Coriolanus because he's because he's really, really good at defending and protecting his "country."
Notice the way his fellow patricians are always bragging that he's a big, bad, killing machine? They say he's more like a "dragon" than a "man" (5.4.13) and they insist that he moves like an "engine" that makes the ground "shrink" (5.4.19, 20). At one point, they brag that he makes his enemies "shake" with his "grim looks" and "thunder-like" words (1.4.78. 76, 77). But there's never any talk about what a great human they think he is. The Roman patricians talk about him like he's a "machine" because they want to use him as a weapon to intimidate their enemies.
And then he comes hope and can't stop talking and acting "like a soldier" (3.3.72). The moment he's back, he's supposed to flip the switch to "off" and start making nice. Guess what? Rome can't have it both ways. At least not according to Shakespeare, who shows us that Coriolanus can't just switch roles the second he steps back onto his home soil. Go to "Themes: Warfare" if you want to think about this some more.
The other important thing to know is that Coriolanus has a freaky relationship with his mom, Volumnia. He may be a big time war hero, an important member of the patrician class, and a grown man with a wife and kid, but he's just a mama's boy at heart. He runs for political office just to please her (3.2), he bows down before her when he returns from battle (2.1), and he lets her manipulate and bully him into arranging a peace treaty between Rome and the Volscians (5.3).
Oh, and that last thing? That gets Coriolanus killed, because the Volscians accuse him of treason and use it as an excuse to hack him down in public (5.6).
At the very least, we can say that Coriolanus' psychological relationship with his mom is a mark of his emotional immaturity, especially when he lets her boss him around like he's a little kid. (We can tell that Coriolanus might be insecure about the fact that she treats him like a child because he totally flips out when someone calls him "boy" [5.6]. You know, just a little.)
A lot of literary critics even go so far as to argue that Coriolanus' mom is the whole reason for his tragic downfall. If this is true, then it's a pretty big deal. The argument goes that tragic heroes always experience a huge downfall because of some kind of personal flaw, like pride or anger. If Coriolanus falls because of his mom—well, that's a whole different kind of tragedy.Caius Martius Coriolanus' Timeline