What makes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Coriolanus tragedies?

Julius Caesar and Coriolanus are tragedies because they depict the undeserved fates, leading to murder in both cases, of extraordinary men whose deaths deserve to be honored and pitied. They differ in that Julius Caesar does not deserve his assassination at the hands of those who loved him whereas Coriolanus does not deserve his exile from Rome, orchestrated by those who loved him, and is murdered by a Volscian leader, pointedly not a Roman, who found Coriolanus’ death politically necessary for the order of his state. While Caesar and Coriolanus are both flawed in their ambition, which paradoxically is also a strength for each of them under certain situations, Caesar, who in being “constant as the North Star” is above all of inconsistent humanity, is able to give his underlings a sense of power even if they truly do not possess any. Coriolanus is unable to flatter the commoners in such a manner and plays less the politician, more the warlike general.

Caesar is killed so early in the narrative that sports his name that little of his strengths and weaknesses are portrayed. For better or worse, he is proud, confident and ambitious, yet he turns down the crown three times when it is offered to him by Antony, and in his daily consideration of entreaties by his people he rebuffs the poet who has written him a warning of the coming attempt on his life by stating that those proposals which are nearest to him will come last. His greatness seems self-evident, as his military triumphs and favor with the people are, though barely hinted at, expressed in passionate terms. After Antony inflames the citizenry towards taking revenge on the conspirators, the commoners punish Casca the poet, not the murderer, “for his bad verses,” and though this is a blackly comedic portrait of a fickle commons it is evident that the masses are moved to their irrational behavior due to their deep love of Caesar and despair over his death. In fact, the love Brutus holds for Caesar and expresses to the multitudes even after having taken part in Caesar’s murder argues more for Julius’ greatness and Brutus’ fatal choice to betray him than for Caesar’s deserving of that death for his ambition.

Similarly, Coriolanus’ greatness is given an added sheen by the respect accorded him by his murderer and his former enemies the Volscians, who allow him to lead them into battle despite his having conquered their city and murdered their families in the past. However, his death ends the narrative, and therefore Shakespeare, and this is why Coriolanus is widely regarded as a “problem play,” has plenty of time to complicate Coriolanus’ status as a tragic hero by imbuing him with flaws that cut deep into the heart of Rome, his beloved city-state. As the play occurs earlier than the events portrayed in Julius Caesar and depicts Rome as a new republic, Rome is not ruled by a singular personality but by two consuls and two tribunes. The tribunes being the voices of the people and often commoners themselves, the highest political perch for an aristocrat like Coriolanus is that of consul. If Coriolanus, who has earned the new name that cements his tremendous achievement of having conquered Corioli, is spoken of as a great general of many great victories, one wonders why he is not consul already. It is evident that the reasons for that are Coriolanus’ reluctance to perform the ritual of the voices, which will get him the consulship, as well as his inability to speak politically with the commons rather than in his usual bluntly honest way. Unlike Julius Caesar, he does not conceal from the lower classes his view of his superiority over them and tells them matter-of-factly that they should not have any political power at all. However, this bluntness also clearly serves as one of his strengths. In military rather than political battles his soldiers respect his experience, and thus his berating them when they are less valiant than him in thrusting themselves into deadly situations inflames their courage to fight alongside him. Thus it is in this military frame of reference where Coriolanus thrives, in sharp contrast to Caesar, whose military competence, while great in its own right, comes secondary to his political ability to curry the favor of the people. Hence, while Caesar is given his rightful state burial in the city that he loved and whose inhabitants loved him back, Coriolanus’ great funeral occurs in Volsce, the more martial city-state, and his crowning achievement is not becoming emperor but rather the conquering of the enemy’s territory, which gives him, in a name, a crown that can never be taken away.

In conclusion, Julius Caesar and Coriolanus depict separate tragedies experienced by Romans. In Caesar’s case, the tragedy of the Romans is to discover that some of their very own have killed their champion, while in Coriolanus’ case Romans exile and leave him to his own devices without first honoring him for his remarkable military achievements.

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2 Responses to “What makes Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and Coriolanus tragedies?”

  1. michaeleriksson Says:

    A question concerning Julius Caesar: From second-hand statements, I was under the impression that Shakespeare had a comparatively critical take on Caesar, seeing him more as a dictator (in the modern sense) and someone whose death, on the balance, was not a bad thing. Have I misunderstood this?

    • larsaumueller Says:

      No, I don’t think you have misunderstood it at all. Obviously I felt differently when I read the play myself, but one of the pleasures of reading is that most fiction leaves itself open to many interpretations.

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