'Coriolanus': The Tragedy of Virtus

Anthony Miller

Abstract


From the opening entry of "a company of mntinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons" to the next to last, barely coherent action-"Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!" "Hold, hold, hold, hold!"-Coriolanus displays an ancient world riven by war and civic turmoil. For all its occasional evocations of a marmoreal Romanitas, it is also a busy play. Its protagonist accepts with relish and superhuman energy the opportunities for martial action that his world presents: Coriolanus is probably the most active of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, certainly the one least given to reflection. Yet the play's busyness is not always warlike. Much of it consists of talk, especially the contentious talk of political debate. Characters plan courses of action, rehearse public appearances, plot acts of vengeance, conjure with names, report off-stage events-and even events that the audience has seen occur on-stage. Much of the discussion revolves around Coriolanus himself. His nature and motives, his martial prowess and farouche political manners, are incessantly and variously canvassed. To a belligerent citizen, Coriolanus's heroics are performed to please his mother, and to be partly proud; to the indulgent Menenius, his nature is too noble for the world; to Aufidius, shrewd and grudgingly admiring, his actions are a matter for almost obsessive, but inconclusive, rumination.

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