A Brechtian Tragedy

Ben Gee


Of all the major playwrights who enjoyed Shakespeare’s Coriolanus (1608), Berthold Brecht (1898-1956) may be the most well-known. He reserved great praise for the play’s apparent rejection of intimacy with the audience, and even felt driven to produce his own Coriolanus (Coriolan, 1957), which remained unfinished at his death. In many ways, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus anticipates the theatrical philosophy Brecht and his followers would eventually come to embrace, epic theater theory – the belief that plays should inspire rational, inward self-reflection rather than outward identification. Brecht considered Shakespeare’s Coriolanus an ideal example of epic theater theory and its constituent element, the alienation effect: separating the audience from sympathizing with the characters or drama in order to draw them closer to reality, and call their critical attention to larger social themes offered by the playwright. Through an anticipatory use of this alienation effect, Coriolanus reveals a transition in Shakespearian tragedy from a more classical, Aristotelian model of tragedy that values sympathy towards a newer, more experimental Brechtian model that restricts sympathy. Using this Brechtian lens, the rejections of sympathy from Shakespeare’s Caius Martius Coriolanus become intentional theatrical tactics, exerting a subversive effect on audience perception of Coriolanus and strengthening the case to consider the play an experimental tragedy.

This paper will begin by defining Brecht’s treatment of Coriolanus, and what he admired in the play as proto-Brechtian. Secondly, it will turn to Shakespeare’s interaction with Aristotelian tragic principles and the ways that Coriolanus experiments with those dramatic concepts. Finally, this paper will argue that Shakespeare’s Coriolanus experiments with Aristotelian principles by bending them towards a more Brechtian style, particularly with the ideas of the tragic hero, hamartia, and catharsis, achieved by frustrating the audience’s repeated attempts to sympathize with the tragic protagonist.

In his adaptation of the play, Brecht applied a Marxist lens to re-envision the play’s political struggle as one between a powerful but anti-populist war hero (Coriolanus) and Rome’s historically oppressed lower class, characterized by the emerging desire for collective action. Brecht scholar Kenneth Tynan observed that Brecht’s prevailing theme in Coriolan centers on the downfall of “[an] individual who blackmails society with his indispensability” (Tynan, 162). No one individual, no matter how great, should take precedence over the state or the interests of its common people. Brecht’s Martius falsely believes that he remains indispensable to Rome as its best general, and therefore he can treat the people as terribly as he pleases. This indispensability ultimately proves hollow and obsolete when Coriolanus turns upon Rome after being banished, expecting it to mutely collapse in his absence - only for the working class to unite, and courageously fortify the city against him. Brecht’s Volumnia perceives her son’s failure at indispensability to Rome during the revised intercession scene, in which she explains to Martius:

The Rome you will be marching on

Is very different from the Rome you left.

You are no longer indispensable

Merely a deadly threat to all. Don't expect

To see submissive smoke. If you see smoke

It will be rising from the smithies forging

Weapons to fight you (Brecht, Plays, 142).

Brecht’s Rome finally liberates itself from Coriolanus and the need for his military leadership, and its people find the true expression of their voices in doing so. His Coriolanus refuses sympathy from the audience throughout the play in ways similar to Shakespeare, although Brecht crucially provides an alternate conduit for audience sympathy in the beleaguered and honorable people of Rome, in order to accomplish his Marxist social intentions. However, Shakespeare provides no such opportunity for any frustrated sympathies in the audience to settle, partially because his theatrical goals do not advance a political ideology of his own.


In the play’s first scene, Coriolanus wrathfully scorches the audience’s closest surrogate yet in the uprising citizens, and additionally attacks their Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius before they appear and their true character emerges. This rhetoric rejects the opportunity for friendly relations, and paints Coriolanus in an unsympathetic light with the audience very early on in the play in such a way that readies audiences to connect to the plebeian perspective going forward. Furthermore, Martius’ repellent conduct marks a clear derivation from Shakespeare’s traditional character arc for tragic protagonists. After Martius’ sudden entrance, he spitefully exclaims, “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, that rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, make yourselves scabs?” (I.i.152-4). In just three lines, Martius forcefully alienates himself from the audience, which knows from having previously witnessed the First Citizen’s eloquence and Second Citizen’s respectful disagreement that the people of Rome do in fact possess just grievances, and had thoughtfully considered means to remedy this desperate deprivation. Martius instead discredits the people as dehumanized patches of itchy skin, which upon being stimulated produce more hurtful scabs – a visceral, discomfiting bodily image that shall pervade Martius’ rhetoric throughout the play, but here serves as an unpleasant introduction into Martius’ rabid anti-populist worldview.

Martius’ itching metaphor particularly repels an audience. Just as itching usually gets performed reflexively or without thinking, Martius alleges that the assembled citizens actualize their incendiary opinions in a similarly unknowing manner. By doing so, the numerous scabs formed by the exertion (or itching) of popular opinion creates harm for the entire body politic, risking bodily infection from outside forces like the Volscians, and threats of rebellion from within. This deadly opening metaphor perfectly captures the essence of Martius’ anti-populism, his least sympathetic trait, at a time when the audience cannot but see themselves in the objects of his derision, and thus feel isolated from the domineering general in their first impression of the protagonist.

Norman Rabkin considers Martius’ repellent behavior in scene 1 as deeply influential upon the audience: “By the end of the first scene we are bewildered. Though the populace is ugly enough to throw our sympathy to Martius, his undignified fury cools those sympathies. Unable to determine whose side we are to be on, we may begin to think that this is going to be the kind of play in which not sympathy but mocking contempt is the playwright’s aim…” (Rabkin, 55). Rabkin astutely describes the audience’s frustration, as it instinctually seeks a recipient for its sympathy but cannot embrace either main contender. However, Rabkin goes on to slightly hyperbolize the first scene’s consequences on genre when he states that if Coriolanus does not stand on a foundation of sympathy, it must instead manifest the playwright’s mocking contempt. Coriolanus does not indulge in bitter satire, or pervert the force of sympathy as Rabkin suggests, it merely withholds sympathy and leaves us with a nihilistic, pessimistic vision of Rome and its inhabitants. The alienation effect within the first scene sets into motion a crucial theme of the play, the protagonist’s eventual utter isolation. Martius will and must ultimately suffer abandonment by the plebeians, patricians, his family, and even the audience – and in order to also sever the audience’s connection to Martius, the play must display him in an unfavorable light from the beginning.

Traditionally in Shakespearian tragedy, the tragic hero’s first moment on stage highlights their admirable or mighty qualities far more than their base and abhorrent ones. Other characters will introduce the protagonist prior to our first interaction with them, usually negatively. Once the protagonist arrives onstage, they silence their critics and behave according to the height of their station. For example, in Othello’s first scene Iago viciously debases Othello as a rash, incompetent, and corrupt general. But when the Moor first strides onto the stage, he boldly confronts a superior force arrayed against him with all the confidence of a just, righteous, and valiant man, in direct contradiction of Iago’s bitter accusations. In Coriolanus, however, Martius acts exactly as the mutinous citizens describe him – “A very dog to the commonality” (1.1.24). Only Martius cannot escape this preemptive opening criticism from other characters, reinforcing viewers’ initial doubts rather than abolishing them, and strengthening the play’s important forces of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Oscar James Campbell pictures Martius’ first appearance as a radical change from the Shakespearian tragic norm: “A character cast to play such an admonitory role cannot be treated like an ordinary tragic hero. And Shakespeare deals with Coriolanus from the moment of his first appearance through the whole course of the play to the catastrophe in a manner directly opposite to the one he invariably adopted for his real tragic protagonists” (Campbell, 29). Campbell argues that Shakespeare deliberately binds Martius within himself, stifling his ability to connect with the audience in such a way that diametrically opposes the construction of prior Shakespearian tragic protagonists. Martius possesses little sense of humor or irony, rarely deviates from passionate anger, and possesses merely one soliloquy – in essence, an outwardly more limited consciousness than his tragic predecessors. If the audience does not feel connected to Martius after first encountering him, Campbell argues, then Martius becomes a different kind of tragic hero, and Coriolanus innately experiments with genre.

The first scene signals a change in Shakespeare’s portrayal of the tragic hero away from the traditional Aristotelian conception, and into a newer, more amorphous dramatic region. Charles Reeves defines Aristotle’s tragic hero as “[A ‘good’] man, whose misfortune… is brought upon him not by vice or depravity but by some error of judgment” (Reeves, 173). Prior to Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s tragic heroes followed this general pattern – a good man, tainted by a great flaw (hamartia), commits an error in judgment that results in their destruction. Macbeth’s great misjudgment, regicide, ends in death upon a bloody battlefield. Martius, however, cannot offer an equally massive error in judgment directly leading to his death, especially because most of his critical decisions were made by others, and forced upon him.

Martius also challenges the final two conditions for the tragic hero: The “good” man; and a tragic flaw, or hamartia. For the first condition, Martius’ unsympathetic demeanor and cruelty to the people challenges the perception of him as a “good” man, someone we can easily admire or sympathize with. Like Isabella in Measure for Measure, Martius follows a puritanical model of virtue that places impossible expectations on fellow human beings, making him appear cruel despite his virtue. For the second condition of hamartia, Martius possesses many vices but no single, cardinal flaw that reaches the same grandiosity of Macbeth’s ambition, Othello’s jealousy, or Lear’s paranoia. Martius’ missing hamartia, central error in judgment, and embodiment of a “good” man all remain questionably obscure in Coriolanus, indicating that the play challenges the Aristotelian notion of the tragic hero, and moves beyond it towards a less grand, more unsympathetic Brechtian hero.

The play’s experimental engagement with audience sympathy reaches greater heights in Act 3 scene 1, displaying a chaotic argument between Martius, his supporters, and the two plotting Tribunes. The people had just revoked Martius’ consulship in a riot outside the Senate building, armed with a resurgent hatred towards Martius. Cominius immediately recognizes the conspiracy behind this revolt, growling “The people are abused, set on” - but he can do nothing to stop the popular wrath, and neither can any of the terrified patricians alongside him (3.1. 61). Up to this moment in the play, the sympathies of the audience have remained in a fragile balance between Martius and the Roman people. The imminent conflict threatens to upset this tenuous equilibrium, significantly reducing the play’s crucial ambiguity and ambivalence. To resolve this dilemma, the play introduces an potent paradox into 3.1: A protagonist who remains true to himself, firmly holding the righteous position, but whose over-harsh words and actions still make him appear in the wrong.

Martius immediately launches into an increasingly unsympathetic barrage of speeches against the people, their Tribunes, and even their very existence as legitimate actors in Rome’s political process. His speeches contain much of value, drawing upon incidents the audience has witnessed themselves and know as true – but his delivery, venom and relentlessness alienate us from him in spite of his righteous position. He thunders,

Now as I live,

I will. My nobler friends, I crave their pardons.

For the mutable rank-scented meinie, Let them regard me, as I do not flatter,

And therein behold themselves. I say again,

In soothing them we nourish against our Senate

The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,

Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed, and scattered

By mingling them with us, the honored number

Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that

Which they have given to beggars (3.1.68-78).

If the Senators had not foolishly given power to the people, Martius alleges, nourishing their discontent, such an uprising would never have taken place. The people’s worth, Martius claims, lies truly reflected in his reactionary tone and disposition – for unlike other men, Martius refuses to flatter, and treats people exactly as he esteems them. For the audience, such a display of brutal hatred inverts King Lear’s dictum on sin by casting Martius as a man more sinning than sinned against, despite the people’s unjust attempt to depose him. G. Wilson Knight writes of Martius, “His despisal, certainly, is shown at every turn to be justified. But, justifiable or not, it is a poison” (Knight, 179). Martius allows no empathy, compassion, or mercy to enter his castigations of the people, ironically convincing many in the audience to dislike him even further at the very moment they should most sympathize with him.

Soon after, Martius inadvertently proclaims a key experimental element of the play – the impact on audience sympathy brought about by a tragedy with “two forces, neither supreme.” Martius exclaims,

By Jove himself,

It makes the Consuls base, and my soul aches

To know, when two authorities are up,

Neither supreme, how soon confusion

May enter betwixt the gap of both and take

The one by the other (III.i.110-114).

This statement speaks on several figurative levels, culminating in a fascinating explanation of the play’s manipulation of sympathy. On the surface level, Martius contends that if two equal forces occupy Rome’s government (patricians and plebeians), confusion will reign and ultimately consume the city in chaos. However, Martius’ incisive assertion also applies to the sympathies of the audience, and how even at this very moment they interact differently with the play and its characters than they normally would react to tragedy. Like Martius’ ideal vision of Rome, a tragedy operates better when one force (or object of sympathy) holds sway. In Coriolanus, that principle vanishes – the two sympathetic forces of Martius and the people, neither supreme in the contest for our sympathy, creates a maddening inability to connect with either.

To clarify our perceptions of Martius, the distinction between sympathy and general likeability becomes imperative in Coriolanus. In the classical sense, sympathy entails a subject (an audience) suffering alongside an object of sympathy; for likeability, a character’s virtues, charisma, or attractiveness makes them easy to support. These terms are not mutually inclusive; a character can appear highly sympathetic, even as we despise them. Macbeth provides an excellent example of this phenomenon: As Macbeth pronounces the famous “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow…” speech, he has already murdered several innocents and grown tyrannical beyond recognition. Despite those monstrous actions, Macbeth still generates sympathy – not because we “like” Macbeth, but because we feel connected to his internal struggle and capable of suffering alongside him. In Coriolanus, Martius rejects every opportunity to expose himself to being vulnerable, thwarting the repeated and instinctual attempts of the audience to sympathize with the play’s tragic protagonist.

At the climax of Act 3, the banishment scene, Martius once again places the sympathies of the audience in an impossibly difficult situation. In his “World elsewhere” speech, Martius reacts to his punishment by reciprocally banishing the people, foreshadowing his imminent betrayal of Rome and later efforts to destroy it. At face value, the moment of Martius’ banishment demands sympathy. Although Martius had sought peace with the people by humbling himself before them, the Tribunes deliberately goaded him by unfair accusations into losing his temper once again, creating the appropriate pretext to exile him. However, Martius’ fearsome reaction to this gross injustice inhibits rather than encourages sympathy:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate

As reeks of the rotten fens, whose loves I prize

As the dead carcasses of unburied men who do corrupt my air: I banish you.

And here remain with your uncertainty.

Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts;

Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,

Fan you into despair! Have the power still

To banish your defenders, till at length

Your ignorance - which finds not till it feels –

Making but reservation of yourselves, deliver you as abated captives to some Nation that won you without blows… (3.3.124-37).

Something reprehensible arises from Martius’ twisted metaphor, “whose loves I prize / As the dead carcasses of unburied men who do corrupt my air” – which equates the crowd’s potential for love, their most human quality, to the pungent smell of the dead. The people’s arbitrary love and hate corrupts the very air that Martius breathes. He then echoes his Act 1.1 insult to the people about itches and scabs: “Your ignorance – which finds not until it feels,” forms a parallel to his former accusation that the people use their minds reflexively, not deliberately. Finally, Martius curses them to still possess “the power to banish your defenders,” leading to both a solemn prediction and bitter hope of Rome’s eventual captivity to “some / Nation that won you without blows.” In Brecht’s play, the people prove capable of defending themselves, undermining Martius’ claim to sole responsibility for Rome’s continuing sovereignty; contrastingly, Shakespeare’s play makes it abundantly clear that the people cannot defend themselves without Martius, reflecting as poorly on them for banishing him as Martius’ unsympathetic hatred for the people does on himself.

Martius’ “World Elsewhere” speech introduces a direct conflict for sympathy in the play between himself and the Roman people, whereas before this conflict merely took place below the play’s surface. When Martius proclaims, “I banish you!” to his banishers, the audience has to choose either him or them, no middle ground - especially after Martius declares war on Rome by joining the Volscians. By sympathizing with Martius, supporters tacitly assert that Rome deserves its fate for crimes against a single man. Must an entire polity suffer for its mistreatment of a single member, however great? Likewise, in sympathizing with the people a similar situation arises. Supporters must ask themselves, as J.C.F. Littlewood does, several uncomfortable questions: “Who is it who has betrayed Rome? What will Rome be without him?” (Littlewood, 342). Rome’s people unjustly banished its greatest defender, gratifying its freedom at the expense of security. Now, the battle for sympathy between Martius and the people takes on frightening severity. After Macbeth kills Duncan, Shakespeare still provides us intimate access to the inner workings of Macbeth’s soul, a soul reeling in shock and desperately searching outside itself for justification and comfort. Martius banishes the people without a single ounce of self-doubt, with his soul at peace with itself - but resultantly ever more distant from an audience still desperate to know him, a rejection that fuels the play’s experimentation with alienating the crutch of audience sympathy.

In the play’s final scene, Martius dies amid a paroxysm of rage, cut down by Aufidius’ men – but through the end Martius obstinately refuses to accept anyone else’s love or support, changing the impact of tragic catharsis in the play. Philologist Leon Golden classifies literary catharsis in the Aristotelian tradition as “…Either the ‘purgation’ of the emotions of pity and fear from the consciousness of the audience that witnesses the tragedy or as the ‘purification’ in a moral or ethical sense of these emotions” (Golden, 51). Both definitions suggest a tragedy’s closing power lies primarily in how it handles the accumulated audience’s emotions of pity and fear, but by using different methods. The former classification, “purgation,” necessitates a dramatic climax that transcends or purges the audience’s fear and pity through sheer theatrical force. The latter, “purification,” seeks to purify the tragic hero of guilt in order to inspire great pity towards them. In Shakespearian tragedy, “purgation” primarily drives the cathartic energy. For “purification” catharsis to take effect, the tragedy must ultimately establish the protagonist’s purity before their death - but none of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists are fully free of guilt, compromising the potential for an audience’s emotions to “purify” at the play’s end. Rather, the audience purges its pity and fear as it watches Macbeth vanquished in battle, Hamlet collapse of duplicitous poison, Othello and Desdemona lying together on a bloodstained bed, or King Lear’s crushed soul finally passing on and into death.

However, in Coriolanus Shakespeare turns away from the classical model of purgation, and experiments with an attempt at the catharsis of purification. Compared to Shakespeare’s other tragic protagonists, Martius does not deserve full responsibility for his fate, instead being coerced by others into positions he did not wish for nor want to accept. He did not aspire to the Consulship, protesting “I had rather be their servant in my way than sway with them in theirs,” only agreeing after his mother browbeat him into filial submission (2.2.187-9). The Tribunes set out to ruin Martius at any cost, manipulating him into a political trap that results in a sham trial, and banishment on trumped-up charges. Betrayed and exiled, Martius takes up arms against his city to cleanse it of corruption – but ultimately spares it at the cost of his life, once again coerced at the forceful behest of his mother. A victim of his tragedy, and his will perpetually bent by others into shapes they desired rather than taking its own form, Martius ostensibly receives a purification of guilt at his death, purifying the audience’s emotions along with him.

However, Shakespeare complicates this simple cathartic narrative by inciting Martius to his characteristic wrath, paradoxically making him appear as an unpleasant and unsympathetic martyr at peace with his own death, but still resistant to our sympathy. The moment before Aufidius gives the fatal order, Martius thunders:

“Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads,

Stain all your edges on me. ‘Boy’! False hound,

If you have writ your annals true, ‘tis there

That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I

Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles.

Alone I did it. ‘Boy’! (5.6.112-7).

Confronted with almost certain death - the inevitable consequence of his mercy for Rome - Martius himself experiences catharsis, purifying his spirit. Martius knows that in compromising himself to forgive Rome, he selflessly places forgiveness above revenge, and holds the lives of others above his own. He can now let go of all his accumulated emotions, and die at peace with his faithfulness to principles that defined his life. Martius selflessly embraces his own destruction, directly commanding the Volsces to “stain their edges” on him – and in order to maximize their anger and ease the process, he mockingly reminds them of his brutal conquest of Corioles. The strange poignancy of his description of the Corioles massacre, “like an eagle in a dove-cote,” intimates a latent poetic vein within Martius that uncharacteristically softens his speech. Martius makes absolutely sure that no one, onstage or offstage, feels close or connected to him, completing his full and utter isolation from humanity - but also suggesting that at in the end, Martius at last becomes the “author of himself” (5.3.36). Martius transcends his emotions, but the audience feels rejected during these final moments, and cannot fully resolve their own emotions of fear and pity. However, Martius steps forward as a cathartic vessel for us, undergoing purification on our behalf.

    In serving as both object and subject of purification catharsis, Martius exposes a deeper social theme offered by the play – a theme that Brecht would later alter into an empowerment of the working classes, but in Shakespeare’s play remains obscure. Kenneth Burke proposes that Martius’ death reflects the wrongs in Roman society, specifically its propensity to scapegoat: “His primary role as cathartic vessel resides in the excessiveness with which he forces us to confront the discriminatory motives intrinsic to society as we know it” (Burke, 48). Martius bears his admirable qualities to excess, forcing a confrontation between a mighty individual and his society. In the end, the individual and his greatness tragically fall, ushering in an era of general peace. A certain necessity accompanies the death of Martius, Burke claims – Martius had grown too great for Rome, forcing one to consume the other lest both mutually perish. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus critiques from Martius’ death both the problems of extreme individualism, and society’s ability to coexist with such mighty individuals.

    Through this Brechtian lens, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus definitely appears as a genre experiment in the realm of tragedy in two complementary ways: Unmooring the sympathies of the audience, and creating a protagonist worthy of “purification” catharsis but simultaneously repellent. Coriolanus departs from traditional Aristotelian boundaries of tragedy, and moves into more experimental territory, a dramatic area to which Berthold Brecht would later grant “A local habitation and a name,” epic theater theory (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, 5.1.17). Throughout the play, Martius consistently holds the moral high ground. On paper, the audience should absolutely sympathize with Martius, the righteous victim of political opportunists and vicariously aspirational family members. However, Shakespeare taints Martius with character flaws like a propensity for excoriating rhetoric, and the stubborn refusal both to empathize with others and allow people to empathize with him. After destabilizing our sympathy towards Martius, the play presents us with a clear opportunity for purification catharsis at the play’s end, with the protagonist dying to purify himself of guilt, and thereby inviting the audience to do the same. However, the play throws several obstacles in the way by virtue of Martius’ unpleasant words and underlying vices, challenging the audience to extend sympathy for Martius in spite of his faults. The tragedy forces the audience to confront its reluctance to sympathize with Martius, because he refuses to sympathize with us. Shakespeare does not obligate an audience to like or even sympathize with Caius Martius Coriolanus, but perhaps he challenges us to find it within ourselves to overcome these dramatic obstacles, and sympathize with Martius even in spite of his many faults. Coriolanus asks a pressing question of its viewership: Can you liberate yourself from the comforts of an easily sympathetic hero, and work to identify with an unwilling dramatic recipient?

Works Cited

  1. Kenneth Tynan, “Brecht on Shakespeare,” Observer, 1965.

  2. John Ripley, Coriolanus on Stage in England and America, 1609-1994, Associated University Press NJ, 1998.

  3. Norman Rabkin, “The Polity and Coriolanus,” Modern Critical Interpretations of Coriolanus, Chelsea House Publishers NY,1988.

  4. G. Wilson Knight, The Imperial Theme, Oxford University Press, 1931.

  5. J.C.F. Littlewood, “Coriolanus,” The Cambridge Quarterly, v.2 no.4, 1967.

  6. Oscar James Campbell, “Shakespeare’s Satire: Coriolanus,” pg. 29, Twentieth-Century Interpretations of Coriolanus, edited by James E Phillips, 1970.

  7. Leon Golden, “Catharsis,” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association, Vol. 93 pg. 51-60, 1962.

  8. Kenneth Burke, “Coriolanus – and the Delights of Faction,” Modern Critical Interpretations of Coriolanus, Chelsea House Publishing NJ, 1988.