I think this is highly underrated and as good as some of Shakespeare’s best plays, up there with Hamlet. It examines leadership and rule, good governance, notions of honour, and class. Coriolanus is the title granted to a war-toughened and effective general in recognition of his brave conduct and services to his country. The play revolves around him going to Rome to receive this accolade and be confirmed to the senate by the nobles and the commons. However he doesn’t believe in the powers currently held by the common people, rejects the idea of common rule as undeserved and fickle, and makes no bones about telling everyone this loudly and repeatedly. For this he is promptly run out the city.
What I like about Coriolanus, and why I compare it to Hamlet, is because you are never really sure what is going on, or what is really being said. A really great piece is one that can be read over and over and always be seen from a new angle, a new perspective. Coriolanus is like that. It is saying so much and debating itself. The argument of common rule versus noble rule plays out in a myriad of ways. The common mob are fickle, they welcome Coriolanus as a hero, then run him out as a villain. However they are deliberately stirred up by a pair of politicians who are jealous of Coriolanus’s popularity and fear his influence. So it not simply the fickleness of the commons but the corruption of the nobles which prove bad rule. Indeed Coriolanus himself is an example of how the idea of nobility, of power tempered by loyalty to principle and honour, can be too severe and lacking in humanity, even and especially when it is uncorrupted.
I love how the story plays out, examining which should be the highest loyalty – loyalty to country? Loyalty to family? Loyalty to principle and conscience? There is no conclusion and the play is so thought-provoking. It’s a wonder this isn’t taught in schools as one of the more widely known plays. It’s so relevant and identifiable with the issues of today. Great play.