Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s least read, least performed, and all around least popular plays. It is not as poetic compared to his other works, the story is dark and very political, and sympathetic characters are thin on the ground. And yet I am glad that Tom Hiddleston’s star power (and Ralph Fiennes’ film adaptation a couple of years before that) has brought it back into the public consciousness, because Coriolanus has a lot to offer and asks a number of thought-provoking questions about power, democracy, and the cost of integrity.
Coriolanus is not a very likable protagonist: he is cruel, elitist, violent, and loathes the people he has spent his life fighting for. When he returns as the victor of a particularly gruesome battle and decides to run for office, he finds that a good soldier does not a good politician make. Roman society may glorify warfare, but when it comes to their consuls, the very qualities that have won Coriolanus numerous battles are spat upon. When he refuses to play nice with the civilians, he is banished from Rome.
Coriolanus looks down on the plebeians and does not think that they deserve to have a say in government: they should listen to their betters and obey instead of complaining all the time. As modern readers we wince at his words, but Shakespeare complicates things by showing us that the people of Rome are very changeable, easily manipulated, and get swept up in mob mentality. Perhaps they really don’t know what’s best for them. Maybe Coriolanus (who is repeatedly described as a noble hero by other characters) has a point after all.
So do we admire Coriolanus for sticking to his opinions and not budging for anyone? Or do we think he got what was coming to him for being such a bully? Is being able to play a part a desirable quality in a politician? Do we want our leaders to play nice or do we want brutal honesty, whether we agree or not?
As much as I appreciate the play for asking these questions, I think Coriolanus could have used a couple of soliloquies. Not only would that have allowed Shakespeare to dig a little deeper when it comes to these themes, but it also would have solved what I consider to be the main problem of the play: we never truly get to know Coriolanus’ inner thoughts (although you could argue that in his case, what you see is what you get), which can make it difficult to relate to him as a character. The soliloquies are usually my favourite part of a Shakespeare play and it wasn’t until I’d finished reading Coriolanus that I realised that there wasn’t a single moment where it’s just the audience and the protagonist, alone together.
Even though it’s not the most accessible or quotable play in the Shakespeare oeuvre, Coriolanus is definitely worth a look and I’d highly recommend trying to get your hands on the 2013 NT Live broadcast (known in some circles as The One Where Tom Hiddleston Takes That Shower).