17. General question: T.S. Eliot remarked in his essay collection The Sacred Wood that while Coriolanus is by no means among Shakespeare's most appreciated plays, it is nonetheless among the most properly "classical" dramas that the playwright composed; far more so than, say, Hamlet. What, then, constitutes the classical quality and design of this play? Consider the representation of the protagonist Coriolanus as well as the play's basic structure and action.
Coriolanus is certainly structurally sound, but unlike other tragedies like Hamlet, Othello, or Julius Caesar, its characters lack any sort of depth, and the plot offers no leniency them to develop and/or change: "Structurally, the play falls into three main divisions, which overlap the five acts. The first shows Coriolanus at his heroic best, in the Volscian war, and culminates in his triumphant return to Rome. The second portion traces his failed attempt at the consulship, his fall from grace and his banishment. The third witnesses Coriolanus's return to Rome at the head of the Volscian army, reaches its climax when Volumnia convinces him to spare Rome, and then follows him to his death in Antium at the hands of the jealous Aufidius" (Sparknotes Editors).
The characters in this play are static. The rigidity of the plot gives no room for their growth. If they do have any sort of inner turmoil, Shakespeare does not reveal it. In his other tragedies, we see what goes on inside a character's head through monologues or soliloquies (Hamlet's "to be, or not to be" contemplating suicide, Macbeth's "tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow" reacting to his wife's death, Brutus' "I know no personal cause to spurn at him, but for the general" considering Cassius' words about Caesar's ambition). The dynamic created from a character's thoughts versus outer dialogue and actions gives a character more depth and makes him or her more human, thus allowing the audience to connect to a character or characters on a more personal level. In Shakespeare's other plays, the characters make the story, but in Coriolanus, the opposite is true: its characters stay within the confines of the context in which the play presents them. What is set up to happen happens, and what a character is presented to be, he or she remains constantly so throughout the play.
In Coriolanus, the audience must rely on a character's dialogue and interaction with other characters to gain a sense of who they are. Coriolanus is presented as a valiant but hot-headed, loyal but stubborn Roman patrician. His pride, and his hatred of and prejudice against the plebeians greatly overshadow his ability to be a good politician and ultimately lead to his downfall. Most of Shakespeare's tragic heroes are victim to their own doubts and insecurities, but Coriolanus seems to be fixed in his ideals. There is no indication of him anywhere throughout the text in which he doubts his own sense of morality. He does what he says and he says what he does.
I believe that Coriolanus is a good play, in the classical sense, but it does not have a lot of the things that make Shakespeare's other tragedies great: surprise, psychological thrill, irresolute characters, moral ambiguity.
Spark Notes on Shakespeare's Coriolanus. 27 Sep. 2010.