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My Mother’s Keeper?: Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

Not the best known of Shakespeare’s tragedies–in fact, probably not even the fifth best known–Coriolanus resonates nonetheless in a world where loyalties seem to adhere no more strongly than Post-It Notes. Perhaps that’s what drew actor/director Ralph Fiennes (Lord Voldemort) to make ]a stark modern-dress film of the play.

Early in the play, Caius Marcius emerges as a hard-line, law-and-order kind of Roman. Does he want to play politics, to choose the perfect words to navigate between what he wants to say and what the masses want to hear? Not on your life. Caius Marcius aims to tell the people how it is and then knock them up side the head if they do not conform. For civil unrest or foreign threat, this is your man, as we learn when he single-handedly turns the tide of battle at Corioli.

In the wake of his victory, the Romans grant Caius Marcius the honorific Coriolanus and attempt to fit the hero into the decidedly misfitted hole of a politican, a role that Coriolanus is neither desirous nor suited to play. As that ill-fated road is traveled, Roman tribunes Sicinius and Brutus conspire against Coriolanus, sending him from the cusp of the consulship to banishment in lieu of execution.

Enraged at their perfidy and the fickle nature of the masses, the proud Roman leader goes to the hated Vosci and his sworn enemy, Tullus Aufidius, in order to seek out his revenge. When confronted by an old friend and asked how he can take up arms with the enemy against his own people, Coriolanus replies with words that remind us of Jesus in Matthew 12:46-50.

Wife, mother, child, I know not. My affairs
Are servanted to others: though I owe
My revenge properly, my remission lies
In Volscian breasts. That we have been familiar,
Ingrate forgetfulness shall poison, rather
Than pity note how much. Therefore, be gone.
Mine ears against your suits are stronger than
Your gates against my force.

I say that the opening of this line reminds me of Jesus, yet the remainder goes in a completely different direction. Consider those lines from Matthew:

While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. 47 Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

48 He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers. 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

The flaw of Coriolanus is, it turns out, the tragic flaw of humanity in general, is to place the highest priority upon a personal sense of privilege. The general should certainly have been treated better, but his   mistreatment does not give him the right to turn his back on his mother, his wife, his son, and the city of his birth. Coriolanus’ sin is similar to that of Cain in Genesis 4. Feeling himself slighted, Cain lashes out at his brother (who has done him no harm) and his God (who points out that it is Cain who sinned). Perhaps Cain had a right to hurt feelings. Certainly Coriolanus did, but acting upon them as he did was completely wrong.

On the other hand, Jesus, in the passage quoted, does not reject his family but instead embraces a larger family, centering that family on loyalty to God.

Posted in English Literature, Renaissance.

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