Personality and politics.

Coriolanus is a difficult play, with an action which is direct, complex and violent. The protagonist leads the Romans to victory over the Volsces but is too proud to seek plebeian support for the consulate. When the people reject him, he switches sides and leads the enemy in a successful campaign against Rome. But just before destroying the city he relents through the intercession of his family and makes peace.

The plot seems confusing. Scholars of Brechtian leanings take the play to depict a struggle between the upper classes and the people. Psychoanalytic readers emphasise the destructive influence of the mother. Both interpretations certainly find a basis in the text; nevertheless they come to contradict each other.

If the play is political, then the logic of the action is broken off at the moment when Coriolanus yields to pressure from his family. For when the hero abandons the siege, he weakens his own criticism of the plebeian neglect of the defenses. A comparable objection can be raised against the theory that the play portrays personality formation in childhood, for Volumnia is far more reasonable than the son she has supposedly ruined. And if the son's unreasonableness is due to violent experiences
after childhood and adolescence, the end of the play is difficult to understand — why then should the general spare his native antagonists at the very moment he has them in his power?

Neither interpretation is consistent with the assumption that Shakespeare is a considerable thinker and an expert on human nature. The contradiction stands as long as we believe that the play focuses on either psychological or political intricacies.

Romeo as statesman?

Let us, instead, consider the tragedy from the same standpoint as the youthful play from Verona, just substituting political feelings for heartbeat.

Coriolanus goes through two strong reversals. First, he is an ambitious general who frees the Romans through his bravery. He has his energy and drive from his mother, his contempt for the people likewise. His pride agrees well with his ambitions as a warrior and also with his mother's influence, but it clashes with the young man's political dreams since the consulate can be won only with the support of the citizens. They know that, and so does Coriolanus' mother, but her son stubbornly refuses to put aside his contempt for the vacillation and caprice of the lower classes.

After the first turn-around, Coriolanus repeats his self-contradiction towards the Volsces, and this time with a peculiar addition. He is now finally able to conquer his pride and submit to the arch-enemy Aufidius, but only in order to satisfy his even stronger hatred for his native city. Again we observe that his alliance with the Volsces agrees with his contempt for the plebeians, but we are then in trouble over the end of the story when the general fails his allies even though they may kill him as a result.

Is there an inner connection after all? Yes, at all three stages we witness a young man who cultivates and acts on every one of his own feelings of the moment, even if they clash with one another, and who nevertheless censures the people for a like inconstancy. His headstrongness causes no problem in the struggle against the Volsces since ruthlessness is useful against an enemy in war. But it blights his ambition to become a consul and to revenge himself on the plebeians. In every situation the hero is completely in the grips of his momentary feelings, and he disintegrates when conflicting feelings come together.

The sum total is a romantic attitude to emotions. The sentimentality consists in the hero surrendering to whatever impulse is predominant at the moment, whether it be ambition, self-assertiveness, revenge, mother domination, or patriotism. All five tendencies can be in conflict at the same time, and life becomes chaotic, in as much as neither his feelings towards his mother nor his hatred of the plebeians comes through as a basic attitude. Hence Coriolanus the general is, on the political level, in the same position as Romeo the lover. Both end up in a maze of contradictions from the point of view of the totality of their attitudes.

Such a tragedy is neither just about politics nor just about mother dominance, although these two issues figure in the play as important sources for the development of the plot. The third and major theme, though, is the eternal conflict between moment and duration. The fourth theme is the
result of this struggle, viz the destruction of the protagonist. Killing off the hero makes the tragedy complete, in that the message becomes clear. It shows us the ultimate consequence of a life in the transient. It would have been unreasonable to judge Coriolanus solely for his attachment to his mother, since Volumnia tries to bring him to reason regarding the people. Equally it would not have been right to let him die because of his contempt for the plebeians, since he does save them in the end. But he falls as a just victim to his own inconstancy, which leads to faithlessness in everything.