Coriolanus the Overgrown Child: Analysis of Language to Interpret the Character
Shakespeare conjures in Coriolanus a character who manifests at times the immaturity and childishness of a typically arrogant and naïve Shakespearean antagonist; yet so too does he render a sense of Coriolanus’ virtuous nobility and honesty which one would find in an archetypally sympathetic Shakespearean protagonist. Thus, Shakespeare splits critics and audiences alike into these two camps, although Coriolanus is seen to be a great spirit due to the fact that his major flaw – being the brutality of his behavior towards the people – is in fact born from the same candor which makes him so honorable throughout the play, thus suggesting that his flaws do not come from malevolence, but from misguided principles. Shakespeare conveys to the audience an aura of Coriolanus’ greatness primarily through his nobility and modesty, manifested throughout the play.
Following his conquest of Corioles, Cominius and his men heap praises upon him such as ‘we thank /our Rome hath such a soldier.’ Through the contrast of the grandiloquence of this speech when compared with the bare and uncomfortable words of Coriolanus, ‘I have done as you have done,’ his humbleness and modesty as well as his reluctance to speak arrogantly of his own deeds are accentuated. Martius further displays this modest quality when he refuses the proposed plunders of the battlefield, ‘but cannot make my heart consent to take / a bribe to pay my sword,’ enhancing his greatness in the audience’s mind by his use of the word ‘bribe’, which alludes to the looting by his comrades in Corioles, thus elevating his nobility, as he fights for the cause, and ‘for my country’, rather than for his own reward. Furthermore, the synecdoche of ‘sword’ to represent the whole of his valiant fighting manifests Coriolanus’ great modesty by his reluctance of describing his own deeds, thus accentuating his nobility, and amplifying the greatness of his actions.
Similar modesty is manifested in his muting of his actions as described to the crowd – ‘Scratches with briers, / scars to move laughter only,’ which further exemplifies Coriolanus’ discomfort with being lauded through the meiosis of his great gashes, seen by the audience as he returned from Corioles, as ‘scratches,’ hence amplifying that Coriolanus has no need to justify himself to others, portraying him in a truthful and humble light. This nobility is further accentuated when he is compared with the glib Tribunes of the people, whom Shakespeare portrays as deceitful and manipulative. Shakespeare supplements this humbleness and nobility through the scenic juxtaposition of Act 3: Scene 3, and Act 4: Scene 1. Following Coriolanus’ self-exiling from Rome, one might expect his unrelenting choler to brew up yet again, but Shakespeare uses the juxtaposition of his anger at the plebeians in Act 3: Scene 3, ‘you common cry of curs, whose breath I hate,’ with the composed and noble Coriolanus in Act 4: Scene 1, ‘I shall be loved when I am lacked.’ Shakespeare amplifies the contrast between these two scenes with the cacophony of his diction in Scene 3: Scene 3, compared with the mellifluous sound of his words in Act 4: Scene 1, hence enhancing his kindness and sensitivity in Act 4: Scene 1, and evoking a sense of pathos for the expelled Coriolanus, elevating his great image.
Shakespeare uses an inversion of the family roles in Act 4: Scene 1, with Coriolanus consoling his irate and emotional family, ‘Come, leave your tears; a brief farewell,’ whilst the audience has previously seen his family calm his own choler in Act 3: Scene 2, ‘Come, come, you have been too rough,’ which through the inversion of the situations, and the repetition in the two scenes of ‘come,’ raises Coriolanus’ great image as he says stays composed in a torrid circumstance as the rest of his family crumbles, leaving him with a strong and heroic image as he leaves for Antium. Coriolanus’ image is made more honorable by the frankness and honesty of his character; he cannot act or masquerade, and feels compelled to portray his true character in public situations, rather than ‘play the part’ of a tribune or politician. This phenomenon is portrayed by Menenius’ view that ‘his nature is too noble for the world. / He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,’ which makes striking and bold to the audience – through the grand metaphorical reference to the Gods – his refusal to cajole the people or the politicians. Menenius further conveys Coriolanus’ candor through ‘his heart’s his mouth,’ which, through the synecdoche, is representative of Coriolanus’ habit of speaking things as they are, by the simplicity and plainness of the phrase itself, when compared with the grandiosity of the metaphorical reference to the Gods referenced before. Coriolanus’ language itself so too portrays his innate honesty; when the plebeians declare that he will be hurled off the Tarpein Rock, he replies by saying ‘No I’ll die here. / There’s some among you beheld me fighting,’ which portrays his definitive probity, through the conclusively short phrase and end-stop of his first sentence combined with a lack of grandiloquence. His willingness to fight also portrays his innate honesty – the resolution of a dispute by physicality rather than words carries with it an inherent candor and lack of masquerading, compared to the slyness and shrewdness of words.
Coriolanus’ hatred of imitation is similarly manifested in his protests to his family who want him to speak mildly to the people, ‘would you have me / false to my nature? Rather say I play / the man I am,’ which utilizes the enjambment to emphatically place ‘the man I am’ on a separate line to make clear his principles of speaking his own voice, rather than the voice of a glib politician. When the conflict of Coriolanus and the people comes to a head, he finally gives up with his efforts to be repentant, and instead bursts into a raging fury, beginning with a cacophonous and choleric outburst to the plebeians, ‘you common cry of curs.’ Despite the childish nature of this rage, the honesty manifested is paradoxically somewhat admirable, and it offers a break from the glib and oily nature of the tribunes. Coriolanus finishes this rage with, ‘Thus I turn my back. There is a world elsewhere,’ which portrays him in a great light as he leaves, by sentencing himself to be exiled, rather than being ordered by the plebeians whom he loathes. He leaves the scene in a light true to his character, and his final line uttered breaks the rhythm of iambic pentameter with a line of iambic trimeter, portraying the unexpected end to his rage (exiling himself) and the magnificence with which he left the scene on his own volition, hence leaving the audience with an image of Coriolanus as a great spirit as Act 3 ends. Despite these noble qualities, many critics see Coriolanus as a severely-flawed antagonist on account of his arrogance and narcissism.
In the first scene of the play, Coriolanus angrily reacts to the riots of the plebeians who are unhappy about the ongoing famine, with Shakespeare initially portraying him as hubristic and childish. Upon being told of this civil strife, he breaks into a choleric speech, saying ‘and hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye?’ which through the two sets of spondaic rhythms at the end of the line, conveys Coriolanus in a supercilious light through the disruption of the iambic meter. He further says about the plebeians, ‘I’d make a quarry / with thousands of these quartered slaves,’ which supplements Coriolanus’ arrogant light by his use of the word ‘slaves’ to describe the Plebeians which conveys his imperious and elitist outlook on those who are socially inferior to him, dictatorially seeing himself as superior to the public. Coriolanus is similarly degrading to his own soldiers, whom he humiliates by hurling hyperbolic insults towards them, such as, ‘you herd of – boils and plagues / plaster you o’er,’ which uses the grandiloquence of his language in conjunction with the aposiopesis – which represents the confusion and rashness of Coriolanus’ insults, portraying them as empty words to vent his anger – hence conveying him to the audience as childish by the manner of his rage, which one could compare to a child’s tantrum.
This image is amplified further by the hubris of his speech when addressing them, manifested in ‘Mark me and do the like,’ which through the contrast of ‘you herd of’ in the afore cited quote with ‘mark me,’ exaggerates the difference between ‘you’ and ‘me’, thus portraying the lowly opinion that Coriolanus has of his men, and the separation between the men and their arrogant leader, hence further conveying Coriolanus’ haughtiness. His commands are subsequently undermined through the bathos of Coriolanus’ grandiloquent rage at his soldiers, followed by their refusal at going into battle with him because of the foolishness of his plan – ‘foolhardiness! Not I,’ – which renders the childishness and imprudence of Coriolanus to the audience as he is undermined by his inferiors, hence amplifying the image of an overgrown child.
Coriolanus’ childish image is further seen in the crudity of his diction, manifested in his insults hurled at the tribunes, ‘bald tribunes’, ‘old goat’, and ‘rotten thing,’ which are accusations one would find coming from the lips of an enraged child rather than those of an established military leader. This immaturity and lack of composure is further exhibited in his hyperbolic reference to the Gods in ‘by Jove himself,’ which shows through the haughtiness of his outburst a sense of a tantrum. These same hyperbolic outbursts are seen frequently in the diction of the protagonist in King Lear, who is unanimously seen by critics, at the beginning of the play, as a childish and immature character, thus enhancing the sense that Shakespeare wishes Coriolanus to be portrayed as an overgrown child.
Coriolanus’ mother, Volumnia, plays a key role in Coriolanus’ depiction as an overgrown child by the way she dominates and governs his life, as a mother would to their young offspring. The bathos manifested when Volumnia demands that he goes back to the marketplace, and Coriolanus instantly abandoning his principles, ‘pray be content. / Mother, I am going to the market-place,’ portrays the image of him buckling when his mother opposes him. Volumnia’s control is made even more pronounced by Coriolanus directly addressing her – ‘Mother’ – which suggests that he is merely going ahead with it to please her, rather than by his own volition.
Shakespeare creates, in Caius Martius Coriolanus, a complex character, leaving the audience with conflicting opinions of him as the play draws to an end. He is, by all accounts, the typical tragic protagonist, whose flaws eventually prove to be his own downfall, and this proves to be the case in Coriolanus – though it is his characteristic honesty to the hostile people which has him exiled, and his final emotional succumbing to his family which has him branded a traitor, and consequently slaughtered. The audience is therefore left with sympathy for Coriolanus, feeling that the honesty of his diction, and the sensitivity eventually shown to his family, are noble qualities which lead to his murder, thus Coriolanus dies in a virtuous light, leaving the image of him in the audience’s minds as one of a great spirit.
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