Coriolanus and the Emotions of Revenge

7th World Shakespeare Congress, Valencia, short paper session 3.4: Revenge as a Mediterranean Phenomenon Before and After Hamlet.

Charles A. Hallett:
“Anger’s My Meat”: Coriolanus and the Emotions of Revenge

Coriolanus has been receiving far more attention than it had formerly been given. Frequently, however, the nature of the hero seems to be misconstrued, largely because two fundamental questions concerning the play are left unasked and therefore unanswered. It may seem obvious that this play should take place in Rome. But the Rome we find in Shakespeare’s drama is not the Rome that Shakespeare found in Plutarch’s Lives. It is his own construction. To understand Coriolanus, we must first grapple with the question, What did the Rome Shakespeare created in Coriolanussymbolize for Shakespeare? Then, turning to Coriolanus himself and seeing that at the crisis of the drama in Act III he undergoes a near-total reversal, from valiant, loyal citizen to vengeful hater of everything Roman, we must ask a further question, Precisely what is it about Rome that now seems so despicable to Coriolanus that he would raze it to the ground? I believe that answers to these two questions may be gained by contrasting Coriolanus with Hamlet. The differences between the worlds of Coriolanus and Hamlet throw light on aspects of Coriolanus that may otherwise remain obscure.

“Anger’s My Meat”: Coriolanus and the Emotions of Revenge
by Charles A. Hallett

Frankly, I am puzzled as to why the theme of revenge in Coriolanus has received so little attention. While I shall be making as strong a distinction as I can between this play and Hamlet, Shakespeare’s one play written in the revenge-tragedy form, yet of all Shakespeare’s other plays (with the possible exception of Titus Andronicus ), there is not one in which the passion of revenge plays a greater role in the catastrophe than it does in Coriolanus. Yet, while the subject of revenge has frequently been explored in plays as diverse as Macbeth, III Henry VI, Winter’s Tale and even Twelfth Night, few have seen fit to examine the dynamics of revenge in Coriolanus, where the entire two final acts are devoted solely to this passion.

It has been stated (I believe accurately) that each of Shakespeare’s plays is sui generis. Where many other playwrights hit a mother lode and mine it until it is dry, each of Shakespeare’s plays is unique. Yet, as widely varied as his characters, plots and themes are, Shakespeare has set at the heart of each of the tragedies one of the limited number of human passions, and that passion–like the mainspring of a watch– drives the action of the play.

But if the number of passions is limited, the causes out of which each passion can arise and the course that each passion can take are as various and numerous as the human beings who feel them. That Shakespeare well knew this is evidenced by the array of different circumstances he depicts as motivating his characters to seek revenge, as well as by the varied means they choose to pursue it. For a multitude of reasons, only a few of which I will list in this paper, Hamlet and Coriolanus, which of all of Shakespeare’s plays are the ones in which revenge is most prominent (again excepting Titus, which I prefer to regard as having been written by the Seventeenth Earl of Oxford), are also, in every other respect, about as different a couple of tragedies as Shakespeare ever penned.

Revenge can take many forms and to better understand why one case, Hamlet’s, for example, is so distinctive from another, say Coriolanus’s, it is necessary to analyze the forces working on the different individuals, first to cause them to desire revenge and, second, to determine what they will accept as satisfying their craving for that “wild kind of justice.”

That Hamlet is set in Elsinore and Coriolanus in Rome may at first glance appear no more significant than the fact that Taming of the Shrew is set in Padua while Two Gentlemen (another play in which I prefer to detect the hand of the Seventeen Earl) is set in Verona. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that the reason the plays are so different is not merely that they are set in different times and places but that they are set in different universes, one Christian and the other pagan. In the one, Shakespeare never for a moment allows us to forget the existence of worlds beyond the visible. Events at Elsinore are constantly being referred to and weighed by standards established for man’s conduct in realms other than the material, the existence of those higher realms being palpable and unquestionable.

If Hamlet seems to wear its Christianity lightly, this is not because it is not a defining element; it is only that the Christian assumptions of the play were both the warp and the woof in the fabric of daily life in Elizabethan England. Shakespeare could and did take them for granted. Pagan Rome, on the other hand, though familiar to scholars to varying degrees, was a world apart to the London theater-going public. If the audience was to know what Shakespeare meant them to see as at stake in the minds of virtuous pagan Romans, he would have to introduce them to his pagan world early in the play. Thus, in Coriolanus, we are quickly made aware of the fact that life in pagan Rome is itself the theme. And the salient feature of Shakespeare’s Rome is its power to encompass and stamp with its character all aspects of life. Rome is the foundation and ordering principle in the lives of all those who would call themselves Roman. In the eyes of its inhabitants, the Rome of Coriolanus has swollen so large in significance as to obscure man’s view of anything beyond the mundane. With the universe contracted to the physical dimensions of Rome and with no other order of being impinging on the material order, Rome paradoxically takes on mythic proportions.

The crucial point is not how accurately Shakespeare depicts life as it was lived in pre-Christian Rome but how aware the viewer must be of the distinction Shakespeare makes between his pagan Rome and, say, his Christian Elsinore. Christians, much like anyone else, develop loyalties to the communities in which they reside. However, the focus of their lives, the orientation of their spiritual being, is not to be found in the ground they tread on or the edifices they live in. Their summum bonum transcends material existence. Every moment of Hamlet is steeped in this assumption. No matter how deep one’s despair, suicide is not an option, because the Everlasting has fixed his canon against it. And if one’s desire to remain faithful to God’s injunctions is not a strong enough deterrent, then fear of the unknown in the afterlife usually is. Ophelia, who dies under questionable circumstances, is denied Christian burial because she may have damned her soul. To save his soul, Claudius would repent, but even to save his soul he will not give up those things he killed to get. Hamlet, ever conscious of souls and their states, stumbles onto the King while the King is at prayer. Hamlet would kill him, but he doesn’t, lest he become the agent that sends Claudius’ soul heavenward.

These and many other elements in Hamlet define the play’s world as Christian. Yet even with all these Christian trappings, Shakespeare is not necessarily saying that the Dane’s belief in the hereafter is true. He might, in fact, have wanted to depict Elsinore at the time of Hamlet as a peculiarly superstitious place. The Ghost makes his meaning abundantly clear: one may argue endlessly about exactly where the Ghost comes from; however, what is not at question is that the Ghost is real and that he comes from somewhere else. The universe of Hamlet is multileveled. And it is this figure from beyond this world that motivates the revenge action of the play.

Not so in Coriolanus. By contrast, the universe of Coriolanus is limited to the mud, bricks, and mortar of Rome. Rome is the defining entity in the lives of all its citizens. Their spiritual atmosphere is the air of Rome, their mental horizons end at the walls of Rome, and their lives end under the soil of Rome. They are born in Rome, they are then shaped by Rome, so that they may serve Rome. They are even to die for Rome, and Rome will then remember them. Rome is their cradle, their world, their grave, and their monument.

Rome’s presence is so palpable in the play that it is felt to be a walking, breathing entity on the stage, which in a way it is, in the character of Volumnia. Much as the Ghost signifies that the world of Hamletreaches out beyond the temporal, Volumnia, with her easy insistence on the primacy of everything Roman, delimits the dimensions of the world of Coriolanus as coincident with the walls of Rome.

If the universes of the plays are spectacularly opposed to one another, the characters of the heroes are no less so. How could it be otherwise? While Hamlet is everything the Renaissance prince ought to be, the soldier, scholar, and courtier, he is first and foremost a man strongly given to introspection, a thinker rather than a doer–a fact highlighted by his more than two hundred lines of soliloquy rich in metaphysical speculation. Coriolanus, though no fool, is primarily a warrior, a man of action little given to inward rumination. He has hardly a reflective moment. When he does speculate, it is on the health and nature of Rome. In fact, he is the quintessential Roman. His virtues are those that Rome instills into her best sons. His fierce, unquestioning and uncompromising loyalty unto death to those principles he recognizes as constituting Romanness are his strength and will become his destruction. When Rome proves to be less consistent in her views and more flexible in her virtues than she has taught him to be, the groundwork is laid for revelations with the most serious consequences. If Rome itself proves no more stable than her mutable plebeians do, how can she demand of her faithful servants a singleness of purpose that she herself lacks? When Coriolanus hears the flower of Roman society advocate the use of hypocrisy because of its expediency, he feels like a deceived lover who has just learned the truth. His idol has betrayed him. Revenge is the only answer to such betrayal.

Let us see how Shakespeare develops this reversal theme in Coriolanus, moving his protagonist from idealistic Roman to disillusioned revenger.

Shakespeare devotes Act I to developing Coriolanus as a paragon among Romans. We learn so much of the training he received and his responses to his lessons that it is almost as if we are witnessing his growth under the watchful eyes of the patricians, all of whom seem to be his mentors. The impression of his youthfulness is enhanced by the fact that everyone around him (except his wife) is so much older. First there is that embodiment of Rome, his mother. Then there is Menenius, whom he regards as a father. Next there are the generals under whom he serves, Lartius and Cominius. He has learned from these to be what Rome needs, a stalwart warrior. Cominius calls him “flower of warriors” (1.6.33). And Lartius, thinking him killed in battle, eulogizes him with “Thou wast a soldier / Even to Cato’s wish” (1.4.58-9). His tutelage is completed at Corioles where his valor earns him the name of Coriolanus.

What, then, are the virtues of the true Roman? To love Rome above all else and be valiant in her defense. Valor is the preeminent virtue.

… The deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be uttered feebly. It is held
That valour is the chiefest virtue and
Most dignifies the haver. If it be
The man I speak of cannot in the world
Be singly counterpoised. (2.2.80-85)

What makes a Roman is not the mere fact of his having been born within the walls of Rome. Coriolanus makes this quite explicit:

I would they were barbarians, as they are,
Though in Rome lettered; not Romans, as they are not,
Though calved i’ th’ porch o’ th’ Capitol. (3.1.237-9)
Romanness, in this play, is something to be achieved. It requires that you understand what she expects of her sons and that you put her before all else, including yourself. As Coriolanus expresses it:

If any think brave death outweighs bad life
And that his country’s dearer than himself;
Let him alone, or so many so minded,
Wave thus to express his disposition,
And follow Martius. (1.6.71-75)
Rome, then, in this play, is the summum bonum. Whereas in Elsinor, actions are constantly being referred to and weighed by standards established for man’s conduct in realms other than the material order, in Rome, Rome itself is all-embracing. There is nothing beyond, no immortal, invisible presence to Whom one can turn for refuge against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

In act II we have the attempt of a grateful Rome to reward her reluctant hero.

… You shall not be
The grave of your deserving. Rome must know
The value of her own. ‘Twere a concealment
Worse than a theft, no less than a traducement,
To hide your doings and to silence that
Which, to the spire and top of praises vouched,
Would seem but modest. (1.9.20-25)
However, all Rome is not unanimous in Coriolanus’s praise. Since he has opposed giving the plebeians their tribunes, the tribunes fear what will happen to them when he becomes consul. So, in act II, the conflict shifts from Rome’s war with external enemies to the discord the tribunes sow within Rome itself by manipulating the opinion of the mutable masses.

Under the watchful eye of his mother and Menenius, Coriolanus reluctantly performs the humiliating ceremony of begging from the plebeians what he has already earned defending Rome on the battlefield. And he is named consul. But the tribunes are not so easily defeated as the Volsces.

There were two classes in Rome. For Coriolanus, the difference between them wasn’t wealth vs. poverty. The distinction was between those who had virtue and those who didn’t. The virtuous could be counted on; they were committed to personal reliability. They adhered to an ethic that placed their personal well being beneath fidelity to an unalterable code of conduct. Consequently, they were reliable, both in peace and war.

You that will be less fearful than discreet,
That love the fundamental part of state
More than you doubt the change on’t, that prefer
A noble life before a long, and wish
To jump a body with a dangerous physic
That’s sure of death without it . . . (3.1.151-56)
These are the people to whom Horace was speaking when he said “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.” The other class was the mutable, rank-scented meiny, the “slippery people / Whose love is never linked to the deserver / Till his deserts are past” (Antony & Cleopatra 1.2.186-88; “this common body, / Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream, / Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide, / To rot itself with motion” (Antony & Cleopatra 1.4.44-47). The members of this second class are incapable of true judgment, because they are guided only by their light, volatile, inconstant opinions.

In the third act, the conflict shifts once again. Coriolanus is now pitted against the other patricians. The entire thrust of the first two acts has been to establish clearly the enormous gap that exists between the contrasted stoical constancy of the patricians and the untrustworthiness of the fickle plebeians. Imagine Coriolanus’s surprise in Act III when his mother and Menenius exhort him to fight fire with fire. If the tribunes are crafty and scheming, if they will use any means to win including lying and rabble-rousing demagoguery, then one must beat them at their own game.

Volumnia tries to ease her son’s over-scrupulous conscience by assuring him that hypocrisy in a good cause is no sin:

… Now it lies you on to speak
To th’ people, not by your own instruction,
Not by th’ matter which your heart prompts you,
But with such words that are but roted in
Your tongue, though but bastards and syllables
Of no allowance to your bosom’s truth. (3.2.52–57)
But those were not the lessons we saw taught and learned in act I. The lesson Coriolanus absorbed then was that the heart of Roman virtue was steadfastness and reliability in the face of shifting circumstances. The cynical realism that his mother suggests he embrace in act III has the unmistakable ring of the Machiavellianism that Coriolanus associates with the tribunes and therefore has no place in his ideal concept of Roman honor:

… Nay, mother,
Where is your ancient courage? You were used
To say extremities was the trier of spirits;
That common chances common men could bear;
That when the sea was calm all boats alike
Showed mastership in floating; fortune’s blows
When most struck home, being gentle wounded craves
A noble cunning. You were used to load me
With precepts that would make invincible
The heart that conned them. (4.1.3-11)
A rift develops between Coriolanus and his mentors.

Coriolanus is often said to be proud, unyielding, and politically rash. His unremitting loyalty to his values hardly wins him the respect that we give to Hamlet for his. Yet more than once Shakespeare depicts Coriolanus keeping faith with the virtue of honor that makes him a citizen of Rome, remaining true to the highest value that Shakespeare’s pagan Rome affords its hero, his heart “invincibly” loyal.

Coriolanus’s is the invincible heart that learned the precepts with a depth of sincerity and commitment absent from those who instructed him. Shakespeare has drawn him of heroic dimensions, with a need to devote his enormous energy to something larger than himself. His virtues, valor, honor, constancy, all presuppose that they will find their expression in the service of a state worthy of Coriolanus’s loyalty. He believes Rome to be such an entity. But suddenly, in act III, Coriolanus finds himself unexpectedly opposed by the other patricians. Unaccountably, they are willing to grant the plebeians the tribunes with whom they will have to divide their power. Coriolanus insists that Rome cannot survive a divided rule:

… This double worship,
Where one part does disdain with cause, the other
Insult without all reason; where gentry, title, wisdom,
Cannot conclude but by the yea and no
Of general ignorance–it must omit
Real necessities, and give way the while
To unstable slightness. (3.1.142-48)

No one denies the accuracy of his appraisal; it is just that he seems not to be dancing to the same music they are hearing. Pragmatism is the order of the day: Salvage what you can lest you lose all. Speaking for the patricians, Volumnia, the image of Rome, puts it bluntly:

You are too absolute. (3.2.39)


* * * *

These are the climactic moments out of which the catastrophe will develop. And Shakespeare will work this development through those dramatic techniques he has perfected over his entire career. Primary among these is the use of the reversal. Up to this point, Coriolanus’s enemies have been the patricians’ enemies, too–the Volsces and the tribunes. As the guardian of all he and the patricians regard as Roman, Coriolanus would fight either of these enemies to the death. Rather no Rome than a Rome subjected to any power hostile to its nobility. However, act III calls into question everything that has gone before. Suddenly the patricians are not only advocating compromise with the treacherous tribunes; they will willingly embrace the very tactics that render the tribunes loathsome. Beyond that, his mother upbraids Coriolanus for not acknowledging the expediency of using hypocrisy to deceive the tribunes.

Though this new guidance flies in the face of everything he had previously been taught by these same people, Coriolanus tries to conform to their pleas that he allow his tongue to say things abhorrent to his heart. But the tribunes, better schooled in the devious uses of rhetoric, are too crafty for Coriolanus. They know that he, like Macbeth, is most sensitive concerning what he is proudest of. They call him traitor.

Ironically, Coriolanus is most vulnerable now because in his compliance with his mother’s wishes, he almost feels that he in fact is a traitor. He throws off the cloak of hypocrisy, calls them a “common cry of curs” and answers their sentence of banishment by proclaiming that “I banish you.” Shortly thereafter, he denies his name, while announcing his intention to raze Rome to the ground (5.1.11-15). Baffled by what he perceives as Rome’s abandonment of her fixed place in the firmament and her betrayal of those who placed their faith in her, Coriolanus goes into exile promising to turn the full fury of his revenge on Rome.

What is it that Coriolanus is revenging? Though the passion may be the same as Hamlet’s, the motives are as dissimilar as the worlds the two men inhabit. Suddenly the self-sacrificing hero becomes consumed with thoughts of himself. He has been betrayed, not by the tribunes (they are beneath contempt); he has been betrayed by Rome. He can banish Rome when he goes into exile because the Rome he was faithful to he can no longer associate with the physical Rome.

The ideal Rome his mother had created for him and identified with the walled city he walked, talked, and ate in was supposed to be in opposition to the city the mutable groundlings took for Rome. But his mother had misled him: there was no such place–only in his idealizing imagination. Consequently he offers to join Aufidius against “our dastard nobles, who / Have all forsook me . . . So use it / That my revengeful services may prove / As benefits to thee. For I will fight / Against my cankered country with the spleen / Of all the under fiends” (4.5.78-79, 91-95).

When the Rome that Boethius served turned against him, Boethius found consolation in the fact that this was no more or less than what one should know to expect from the world. It was a conformation that one should be willing to abandon this world for the sake of the next. Such consolation is unavailable to Coriolanus, because the play depicts a world entirely cut off from the transcendent. The distinguishing trait of the world Shakespeare has created in Coriolanus is that man’s moral life is bound up solely with his loyalty to Rome. Virtue here was an unquestioning willingness to subordinate one’s impulses and desires to the needs of Rome. Virtue, then, had nothing to do with achieving salvation for one’s soul but only with the performance of one’s duty.

In the opening act of the play, Coriolanus wholeheartedly embraces the role of valiant warrior because he assumes Rome to be worthy of his allegiance. With Rome having proven false to the very ideals she taught, Coriolanus has nothing to fall back on. He has been stripped of every belief that engendered in him the willing renunciation and sacrifice that made him the epitome of Romanness. The self that had found fulfillment in abnegation now turns inward and focuses its energies on feeding its own hurt. Its food is images of revenge. But not a revenge, as in Hamlet, which the hero only reluctantly takes up because it lays across his path (“O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right!”). Coriolanus’s revenge has more the ring of “How dare they do this to me,” with a very strong emphasis on the “me.” The paradox that sustains the moral life of most communities and characterized the opening of Coriolanus — that the self is healthiest when it is not the subject of its energies — finds a horrible vindication in the spectacle of the self seeking self-justification. Nothing looms so large in the view of the vengeful Coriolanus as his injured self. Nothing is too precious to be sacrificed to its hunger.

This sounds much more like Medea than Hamlet, and for good reason. Coriolanus’s motive for revenge is almost exactly hers. Both gave their unconditional love and devotion to a being they assumed worthy of their deepest reverence. They each had within themselves the resources and needs to prostrate themselves in worshipful adoration before something higher than themselves. The power to conceive of an ideal raised both Coriolanus and Medea to their highest fulfillment. When they found their gods to be idols made of clay, their sense of betrayal knew no limits, their sense of degradation no depths. Each was a person with huge capacities for both good and evil. While they were believers, their self-sacrifice was of the dimensions martyrs are made from. But, discovering the depths of their betrayal, both become aware that all their sacrifices have been mocked. Once thus disillusioned, the offended self becomes enflamed with the sense of injustice and the need for swift revenge.

Shakespeare in Europe
University of Basel, Switzerland







About Words Infinitum- A Teacher's Haven

Am I a bird for Maya Angelou? If yes, why do I and so many of you around me feel caged? why not free? Am I a free spirit, then?If yes, then why don't I locate my limits? Because I can see I have lost the way. The quest for enlightenment is taking me acknowledge just Him ..and this strife just becomes so rewarding and so assuringly peaceful when I see myself having adopted His favourite occupation- the one he designated to his prophets. What is obstructing this self -actualization?
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