Coriolanus is a man of action who is finally defeated by words. To what extent do you agree?

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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 ...

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