Coriolanus is a man of action who is finally defeated by words. To what extent do you agree?
Helena Florence Rose Paver
‘Coriolanus is a man of action who is finally defeated by words.’ To what extent do you agree?
There is no question that Coriolanus has, like any other tragic hero, a large flaw in his soldier personality, a weakness that could inevitably lead to his downfall. His inability with words against his ability as a warrior is a fatal combination, and this begs the question as to whether it was this one weakness or his military strengths that were ultimately the cause of his defeat.
Coriolanus demonstrates right from the beginning of the play that his tactless way with words leads him to become his own worst enemy. In Act 1, Scene 1, Menenius cleverly uses the Parable of the Belly to highlight to the plebeians how fundamental Coriolanus is to their society, that he is ‘the storehouse and the shop of the whole body’ and they couldn’t get by without him. Yet immediately after the citizens have calmed down and accepted Menenius’ speech as ‘an answer’, Coriolanus enters and undoes all that Menenius has said by saying that the ‘dissentious rogues’ are ‘curs…hares…geese’ who ‘like nor peace nor war’, belittling them first through his use of animal imagery and again by implying their weak and fickle nature. His pride gives him the ability to completely disregard the impact his words will have on others and, eventually, himself, which indeed gives the impression that words, particularly his own, will be the destroyers of his position.
However, this tendency that Coriolanus has to speak his mind without hesitation reflects his nature as a soldier and the way that it is essential to act instantly on the battlefield, as even the slightest hesitation could be disastrous. As Menenius says, ‘his heart’s his mouth’ and that his mother has ‘bred [him] i’th’wars / Since ’a could draw a sword, and is ill-schooled / In bolted language’, which clearly shows that the reason he lacks the skill to speak like a true politician is because he has been brought up as a soldier, and soldiers need only to think of their actions and how swiftly they execute them. Communication is unimportant; what proves a fighter’s worth is his wounds not his word, whereas a statesman is the complete opposite. It is therefore apparent that whilst Coriolanus speaks irrationally and with haste in a way that is damaging towards his reputation, it is only because he is adopting his combatant nature, the only attitude he knows.
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It is not only his own words, but also the words of others that exacerbate his downfall. The Tribunes in Act 3, Scene 3 manage to persuade the mob that Coriolanus is ‘a traitor to the people’ and that they should withdraw their votes and ‘banish him [their] city’. Shakespeare uses Sicinius provoking Coriolanus into a fuming rage twice to show how strongly and negatively words affect him, as Brutus and Sicinius deliberately ‘suggest the people in what hatred he still hath held them’. In Act 3, Scene 1 the Tribune uses the word ‘shall’, a very forceful word implying necessity, which angers Coriolanus and causes him to make an insulting and vicious speech in an attempt to indicate his power over them. In Act 3, Scene 3, a similar event takes place, where again Sicinius provokes Coriolanus into a furious rage by calling him a ‘traitor’. All Coriolanus’ rant manages to do is make the citizens turn against him even more and convince them to indeed ‘banish him’. This banishment does eventually lead to his death, so in this particular instance the use of words is a key factor in his defeat.
Although throughout the majority of the play the tragic hero is seen as a poor public speaker, there are a few examples of words turning from being his enemy to being his friend. Act 1, Scene 4 sees Coriolanus giving a speech to ready his army for battle. Shakespeare cleverly changes his speech into verse for the first time, to highlight the change in the quality of his words and also to emphasise his persuasiveness. He also describes his soldiers as having ‘hearts more proof than shields’, a powerful metaphor designed to inspire them to fight. He treats the men as his ‘fellows’ rather than animals, as well as threatening to kill them if they don’t fight. This authoritative and influential speech made by Coriolanus emphasises the fact that he is able to use words effectively when he needs to. Act 1, Scene 6 also includes a powerful use of rhetoric by Coriolanus when he asks ‘make you a sword of me?’ which incorporates the extended metaphor of the body politic and of all the men working together, a very significant element as it is the first time this play sees the men working as one with the protagonist. These words certainly do not lead to Coriolanus’ downfall, but rather allow him to gain a prestigious title after winning a spectacular battle, demonstrating the true warrior that he is.
The reason that things do start to go wrong for Coriolanus, however, is because he is not well suited to be a statesman, as well as the fact that he has to ‘stand for his place’ as consul and is forced to ask the plebeians for their votes, which in the end he does not succeed in getting. Politics are about words and battles are about actions, and Coriolanus is definitely more suited for one than he is for the other. His mother’s aspirations for him to become consul are highly ambitious, yet she ‘doubt[s] not but our Rome will cast upon thee’, whereas he ‘had rather be their servant in [his] way / Than sway with them in theirs’. This makes it apparent that Coriolanus would rather fight than speak as he does not want to be a politician, and it is the first sign of conflict between him and his mother, as well as the first sign of where things begin to take a turn for the worse. Words are evidently not only his enemy but also something that he himself is scared of, reflected in his modest behaviour, and he also says that ‘when blows have made [him] stay [he] fled from words’. He knows that he is not a good speaker and would therefore rather stay a soldier. It is strongly ironic that his greatest enemy isn’t on the battlefield but in fact much closer to home. This certainly shows that Coriolanus is a man of action, and that he is trying to avoid being defeated by words, although he does not succeed.
Volumnia did not just have high ambitions for her son after winning his battle; she had been forming him through her words since he was a child to become the person that she could not be, due to the restrictions of Roman society. She ‘rejoiced in [his] absence’ when he was fighting and was ‘pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame’. Honour was what mattered most to her, and her guidance had managed to lead Coriolanus astray, as she steered herself and her son through her delusional plans to make him a great leader. She counts his wounds and ‘thank[s] the gods for’t’, which is a very unaffectionate thing to do. This lack of a true maternal presence in his life is what some believe to be the leading factor that made him abandon Rome to fight alongside Aufidius after he was accused of being a traitor and ultimately what led to his death. This is then another possible example of the use of words against him as his own mother shaped him into the man he became through her words.
Although Coriolanus is capable of speaking effectively and using words to his advantage when under pressure, he has essentially been brought up to be a soldier and is therefore not only a victim of the harmful words of others but also incapable of defending himself through his own speeches, which is the fatal flaw in his character that leads him to be defeated. Shakespeare clearly shows that, apart from a few exceptions, Coriolanus is certainly a man of action defeated by words.
Shakespeare, W. Coriolanus. (L. Bliss, Ed.) The New Cambridge Shakespeare.
Coriolanus: Godalming College Study Guide, 2011. Godalming College.