Coriolanus: Inordinate Passions and Powers in Personal and Political Governance


Unhae Langis


Passion and governance, at both the personal and civic levels, lie at the core of the tragedy, Coriolanus, a politico-ethical dramatization of Aristotle’s classical query: is the good man a good citizen? is his good compatible with the common good? In this tragedy, Shakespeare explores how the eponymous hero’s ascent from “th’ casque to’ th’ cushion” abruptly turns to his exile: his exceptional merit singles him out for “exception” from the state of Rome, as Aristotle presages in Politics. An obsolete custom of promoting a war hero to political leadership and defensiveness on either side of the patrician/plebeian divide creating political ineptness in the patricians and bravado in the tribunes, results in a showdown of extremes: Coriolanus’s exceptional, absolutist nature against the tribunes’ exceptionary power. The breakdown of civility and the civil process reflects the breakdown of the civil state, as the tribunes seize extrajuridical power to “defend” the republic when, in fact, Rome has devolved into a “state of exception.” Emblematizing what the state suffers as a whole, Coriolanus’s incontinence in virtue serves, nonetheless, as foil to the excesses and deficiencies in the other key political stakeholders—the tribunes’ exertion of arbitrary power, the patricians’ political imprudence and weak will, and the plebeians’ fatal combination of political naiveté and impulsiveness. Shakespeare’s tragedy vividly dramatizes how incontinence and vicious conduct by its constituent citizens bring about the breakdown of the body politic, and, thereby, reinforces the Aristotelian notion that the well-being of the state is dependent on the virtue of its individual citizens.

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