Coriolanus is the last of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, and has often been criticized as an inferior piece of work. There have been exceptions: T. S. Eliot said that Coriolanus was one Shakespeare’s most accomplished artistic successes. And in recent years, the critical evaluation has been shifting. Still, the play is rarely staged, and because of its unfamiliar subject matter I will spend a good bit of time summarizing the plot.
The story of Coriolanus was no more well-known in Shakespeare’s day than in ours. The life of Coriolanus is recorded in Plutarch, and Shakespeare drew from Thomas North’s translation, but there is no evidence that this story had ever been staged prior to Shakespeare’s play. Further, Plutarch’s Lives were not so popular in Elizabethan England as the Moralia, so Shakespeare would have had to put some time in the library to dig up this story.
Caius Martius, as his name implies, was a devotee of Mars. He was Rome’s greatest warrior in the time of the early Republic (5th century B.C.), whose greatest exploit was the single-handed (according to Shakespeare) conquest of the Volscian city of Corioli (or Corioles), after which he was given the honorific title, “Coriolanus.” Several features of his initial situation should be noted. First, as Plutarch points out, Coriolanus’ father died when he was young and he was raised by his mother, Volumnia. Plutarch records that Coriolanus did everything for the pleasure of his mother. Shakespeare plays up this aspect of Coriolanus’ character a great deal, and gives a lot of attention to the character of Volumnia. She is a martial, thoroughly Roman mother, who presses her son into war and praises him for his deeds of honor (1.3.1ff). When he returns from battle, she shows an excessive interest in his wounds (2.1.139ff). Allegorically, she symbolizes Rome herself, the “nursemaid” of Coriolanus and all the Romans.
Second, very early Shakespeare introduces the rivalry between Martius and the Volscian commander Aufidius. Martius has bested Aufidius several times in single combat, and looks for opportunities to fight his rival again. Both Volumnia and Aufidius play crucial roles in the tragedy.
Third, from the first lines of the play, the plebs (citizens) are expressing their hatred for Martius, blaming him for the lack of bread (1.1.24ff). Martius, for his part, despises the plebians (note his first entrance, 1.1.162ff). This conflict between Martius and the plebs takes a specific form in his conflicts with the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus. The tribunate is an innovation of Roman politics at the time the play is set, and is the particular institution that gave Rome its particular form of “mixed” government. Tribunes represented the interests of the people; thus, the creation of the tribunate broke the aristocracy’s monopoly of political power. Yet, tribunes did not rule alone, so the government was not purely democratic. Tensions inherent in this “mixed” situation are at the heart of the politics of the play; Coriolanus himself expresses the problems caused by the democratic element in his speech decrying the “double worship” of Roman politics, the absurdity of forcing men of wisdom to wait upon the “yea or no of general ignorance” before making a decision (3.1.140ff). One of the crucial moments in the plot comes here, with Coriolanus’ attack on the democratic tribunate.
Following his victory at Corioli, Coriolanus stands for consul. Under the Republic, the consul was the highest magistrate. Two consuls were elected to one-year terms, a kind of co-presidency that ensured that no one would gain too much power. To become consul, Coriolanus has to gain the voices of both the Senate and the people. The former he easily secures, but to gain the support of the people he must don the robes of a pleb and go around asking for their support. Reluctantly, Coriolanus follows this custom, and gains the voice of the people. But the tribunes convince the people to withdraw their support, and manipulate Coriolanus into an anti-popular outburst that ends with him being charged with treason. His friends appeal to him to flatter and cajole to win back the people, but Coriolanus is too proud and is eventually banished from Rome (3.2.108ff; 3.3.121ff).
Coriolanus immediately goes to his old rival, Aufidius, and offers to attack and conquer Rome for the Volscians. Aufidius accepts his help, but intends to betray Coriolanus later. Coriolanus’ Volscian forces win several battles and threaten Rome. In response, the Romans send Menenius, the closest thing Martius ever had to a father, to appeal to him to leave Rome alone. Coriolanus refuses, so the Romans send Volumnia and Coriolanus’ wifee, Virgilia. Though he steels himself to resist “instinct,” he buckles to his mother’s appeal and withdraws. Though knowing that he has broken faith with Aufidius, Coriolanus returns to the Volscians, who accuse him of treachery and kill him.
The dramatic possibilities of the story are obvious: Volumnia must decide between loyalty to Rome and loyalty to her son; Aufidius is faced with the dilemma of accepting or rejecting his rival’s aid; Coriolanus is caught in conflicts of various sorts �Ebetween plebs and patricians, between family and civic loyalties, between the Romans and Volscians. In the end, he is torn apart by these conflicts.
PLUTARCH AND SHAKESPEARE
Shakespeare diverges from Plutarch’s telling of the story at several significant points. In Plutarch, Volumnia fails as a parnt beecause she is too indulgent toward her son, but in Shakespeare she seems too domineering and manipulative. In fact, in Shakespeare’s presentation, Volumnia is both too indulgent and too domineering. She fills him with a lust for violence and hatred for the plebs (cf. 1.3.57ff), but indulges the consequences of this so long as she sees her son winning fame. As a symbol of Rome, Volumnia tolerates pointless violence so long as her ambitions are realized.
The other main changes from Plutarch have the effect of isolating Coriolanus from others. Where Plutarch says that Volumnia had “children,” Shakespeare’s Volumnia emphasizes that she has only one son. Where Plutarch says that Coriolanus took Corioles with “a few” companions, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus can boast “Alone I did it.” In Rome, there would have been two consuls up for election, but in Shakespeare’s play there is no second consul. Throughout the play, Martius is less a general than a Homeric warrior who prefers single combat. This isolation is a key to the thematics of the play; several times in the play he is described or describes himself as being godlike in his singleness and splendor �Eas Volumnia approaches to convince him to leave Rome alone, he tries to persuade himself to “stand as if a man were author of himself and knew no other kin” (5.3.35ff).
I wish to explore this play from three angles. First, comparison of Coriolanus, set in the early Republican period, with Antony and Cleopatra, set just before the empire of Augustus took shape, shows something about Shakespeare’s understanding of the shifts in Roman culture. As Cantor points out, Coriolanus makes little reference to sex or food, and there are no feast scenes on stage.Antony and Cleopatra, by contrast, has one long feast scenee (2.7), and many references to food throughout the play. And, the whole of Antony and Cleopatra is about a love affair. Cantor says that Coriolanus‘ Rome is dominated by a spirit of “public service, energy, self-discipline,” while Antony and Cleopatra is dominated by eros, pleasure-seeking (Antony even has a servant boy named Eros). This is not entirely due to the presence of exotic Oriental settings in Antony and Cleopatra; the Romans of the play have become as indulgent as the Egyptians.
Republican ideals of service, sacrifice, patriotism, in short, have given way to Imperial obsession with pleasure and indulgence. One sign of this is the way that dilemmas are reduced to dilemmas between two private desires, rather than between a public and private loyalty. Where Volumnia must choose between her son and her city, Octavia, in a parallel speech, must choose between two private relations �Eher husband or her brother (Coriolanus 5.3.104-13; Antony and Cleopatra 3.4.12-20). Another sign of the shift is the role of ambition. Republican Rome encouraged ambition, since it provided avenues for talented men to rise in the military or politics. Imperial Rome discouraged ambition; any ambitious and hungry man is a threat to the single ruler at the top. Already inJulius Caesar, Shakespeare shows that empire is inimical to ambition: Caesar fears “lean and hungry” men like Cassius, who might challenge Caesar. He wants “sleek, fat” men like Antony, who will be pacified by pleasure. When political and military advance is discouraged, men find private ways to spend their time and energies. Hedonistic indulgence is a direct consequence of Empire.
Second, critics have given wildly divergent accounts of the politics of Coriolanus. On the one hand, Coriolanus‘ contempt for the commoners �Ehe calls them a “common cry of curs” and geese; he complains of their body odor and bad breath �Ehas been taken as a criticism of aristocratic elitism. On the other hand, it is true that the people don’t know what is good for them. They gleefully banish their Hector, not realizing what this will cost them.
Neither of these, I think, gets to the heart of what the play says about political life. Rather than taking sides in the debate between aristocracy and democracy, Shakespeare points to a more fundamental political issue. As a political play, Coriolanus can be seen as an exploration of the relationship of ingratitude and politics. Ingratitude is a recurring theme in thee play (2.2.; 2.3), since from Coriolanus’ perspective the people who oppose him are ungrateful for all he has achieved for the sake of Rome. On the other hand, Coriolanus is clearly contemptuous of the city he protects, or at least of the commoners in that city. Neither Coriolanus nor the tribunes remember the contributions of each to the city, and the city certainly does not function as an ideal civic body, as Menenius’ parable of the stomach would imply (1.1). Forgetfulness breeds ingratitude; ingratitude breeds faction; and faction ends in civil war or scapegoating.
Another political theme of the play has to do with the intersection of psychology and politics, especially as that psychology is formed by nurture and education. Volumnia has trained Coriolanus for martial success, in a sense to achieve the kind of success that she would have were she not a woman. But this martial training makes it impossible for Coriolanus to “perform a part thou hast not done before” (3.3.109-110), the part of wooing the commons.
This leads into the final theme: Coriolanus’ arresteed development as a man. According to Plutarch, Coriolanus was so attached to his mother that he continued to live with her even after marrying Virgilia, and Shakespeare plays up the oddity of their relationship. Despite his manly manliness, Coriolanus has never cut himself away from his mother’s apron strings, and lives only for her looks and her praise. When she threatens to withdraw that praise, he crumbles and gives himself willingly to the Volscians. Coriolanus has a young man’s awkwardness in verbal conflict; though unparalleled on the battlefield, he is easily manipulated and bested in debate, in the fully adult world of Roman politics. His rivalry with Aufidius looks like nothing more than an adolescent rivalry, more than slightly charged with homoerotic resonance (1.8). In the end, Aufidius provokes Coriolanus with the coup de grace �Ehe calls him a “boy of tears.”
Insofar as there are allegorical dimensions to Volumnia’s role, Coriolanus’ adolescent obsessions are perhaps representative of the Roman character. Shakespeare sees Rome as a city populated by boys, eager for fame, quick to react to insults, cruel and violent, unable to live as adults without continual attachment to the “nursemaid,” mother Rome. Perhaps too, Shakespeare offers this as a perspective on Papal Rome, whose members need to leave Moma and cleave to a bride.
posted by Peter J. Leithart on Thursday, July 22, 2004 at 03:50 PM
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