There is no record of when Coriolanus was first performed. Nor is there solid evidence of its date of composition, but 1607 or 1608 are the dates generally accepted by scholars since there seem to be echoes of some phrases from the play in Ben Jonson's Epicoene; or, The Silent Woman (1609). Menenius's parable of the belly is probably derived from a work published in 1605, William Camden's Remaines of a Greater Work Concerning Britain. The plebeians' insurrection suggests the English Midland riots of 1607 by the English peasantry against a food shortage and the practice of enclosure, whereby common lands were being removed from common ownership by the aristocracy. The style of Coriolanus also suggests a late date in Shakespeare's career. The composition date leads scholars to surmise that the play was also performed around the time it was written, although there are no records, since plays were written so that acting companies could have material to perform.
Coriolanus first appeared in print in the 1623 Folio edition published by John Hemminges and Henry Condell; these two fellows in Shakespeare's acting company published the folio as a memorial tribute to Shakespeare. The text is believed to have been set from Shakespeare's manuscript, with more complete stage directions, supposedly by Shakespeare himself, than most of his plays have. Coriolanus seems to be a good text, which is marred, however, by a number of printer's errors.
The primary source for Coriolanus is Sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, which was first published in 1579. It is believed that Shakespeare also consulted Livy's Roman History in a translation by Philemon Holland published in 1600. While Shakespeare altered, added to, subtracted from, and reshaped Plutarch's tale significantly, there are notable passages in which Shakespeare's language and North's are remarkably similar, as in the following example. Here is a small section of North's translation of Plutarch's account of Volumnia's petition to her son: "Thou shalt see, my son, and trust unto it, thou shalt no sooner march forward to assault thy country, but thy foot shall tread upon thy mother's womb that brought thee first into this world." Here is Shakespeare's adaptation;
thou shalt no sooner
March to assault thy country than to tread
(Trust to 't, thou shalt not) on thy mother's womb
That brought thee to this world.
As the last of Shakespeare's tragedies, Coriolanus is always esteemed but, perhaps because it is a political play, or perhaps because of its protagonist's bristly disposition, or perhaps because of the austerity of its verse, it is not loved as are the great tragedies which preceded it, or the miraculous romances which follow it.
Act 1, Scene 1
Coriolanus opens with a revolt of the plebeians in ancient Rome. They are out in the streets shouting for bread and the death of Caius Marcius, whom they blame for being the cause of their suffering. They accuse the patricians, members of the upper class, of hoarding the grain for themselves. The plebeians say that the patricians do nothing and thrive while they, the workers, starve. As they talk among themselves, the plebeians acknowledge that Marcius has fought for Rome and distinguished himself in the wars. But, they add, it was done out of pride and for his mother. As they are about to go to join another contingent of aroused citizens, Menenius encounters them and stops to talk with them. He is a patrician who is pleased to argue with the plebeians and instruct them. In response to their complaints, he first tells them that the patricians do take care of them and that they ought to rebel against the heavens regarding the scarcity of bread, not against the patricians. Then he tells them a story about the time the other parts of the body rebelled against the belly, complaining that the belly remained idle in the midst of the body, hoarding food, while the other members of the body worked and it did nothing. The belly responded, Menenius tells them, that it was not so, that the belly stored all the food and then distributed it to the other organs of the body through the rivers of the blood stream, keeping only the waste. Menenius explains that his story is a parable. The patricians represent the belly and the people, the parts of the body. He insultingly calls one of the leaders of the group "the great toe of this assembly."
As Menenius is reproaching them for revolting, Marcius enters. His first words are provocations to the citizens. He calls them "dissentious rogues" and "scabs." When one of them observes ironically that they "have ever your good word," he retorts that anyone who speaks well to them is a terrible flatterer. He calls them dogs, neither fit for peace nor war, unreliable and untrustworthy, worthy only of being hated. At the end of his harangue he asks Menenius what they want. Grain at an affordable price, Menenius tells him. Marcius is moved again to fury, belittles the people and concludes by saying he wishes the Roman Senate would give him permission to slaughter them by the thousands. Menenius attempts to calm his rage, noting that he had almost subdued the wrath of the people but Marcius re-enflamed it by his rhetoric. Menenius then asks Marcius what the crowds are doing in other parts of the city. Marcius reports that they have broken up, having won some concessions from the patricians, particularly, the appointment of five tribunes to represent them. The two that Marcius recalls, and the only tribunes who appear in Coriolanus are Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus. Scornfully, Marcius orders the people to get out of the street and go home.
In the midst of this turmoil a messenger from the Senate enters reporting that the Volsces, enemies of Rome, are in arms and preparing to attack. Marcius is excited and begins to speak of Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians, a rival soldier Marcius admires, with whom he has often fought and with whom he longs to fight again. Marcius compares Aufidius to a lion he is proud to hunt. The Senate then orders Marcius to join the Roman general, Cominius, in the war. The soldiers and the senators exit in martial joy leaving the two tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus alone. They comment on Marcius's pride and call him insolent. They are concerned, moreover, that the present war will bring out even greater superciliousness in Marcius.
Act 1, Scene 2
The scene shifts to Corioles, the capital city of the Volsces, where Aufidius and some senators are discussing intelligence briefings. They have determined that the Romans know that they are ready to attack, that there has been a popular uprising in Rome, and that Marcius and Cominius are leading an army, no doubt, toward Corioli. Aufidius maps out his strategy and shows himself to be just as eager to encounter Marcius in a fight to the death as Marcius has said he was to fight with Aufidius.
Act 1, Scene 3
In Rome, in Marcius's house, Volumnia, Marcius's mother, is urging Virgilia, his wife, not to be gloomy because her husband is away at war but to be cheerful. Volumnia tells Virgilia of the joy she felt the first time Marcius returned from war a hero. Rather than being excited by heroism, Virgilia expresses her anxiety over the possibility of his death. But Volumnia responds that her dead son's good reputation would have replaced her son for her, that she would be proud to have her son die for his country. Valeria is announced. Virgilia asks permission to withdraw rather than entertain a visitor. Volumnia refuses and paints a picture of Marcius in battle, reveling in describing him wounded and bleeding. When Virgilia protests, Volumnia dismisses her as a fool; she glorifies bloody warfare over maternal tenderness and predicts that Marcius will vanquish Aufidius.
When Valeria joins them, the conversation turns to how much like his father Marcius's son is. Valeria describes how she saw him clamp his teeth in rage a few days earlier as he tore apart a butterfly. The women try to persuade Virgilia to lay aside her embroidery and go outside with them, but she refuses any exercise or amusement until her husband returns safely from the war. Valeria cajoles her with news that Marcius and Titus Lartius are camped outside the gates of Corioles and feel sure of victory. Virgilia insists on remaining at home as Volumnia and Valeria depart.
Act 1, Scene 4
Not far outside the gates of Corioles, Marcius, Titus Lartius and the soldiers they command are camped. Marcius bets Titus Lartius that the Roman and Volscian forces have already joined in battle. He loses his horse in the bet when a messenger informs them the armies are in view of each other but the battle has not yet been joined. Volscian troops pour out of the gates of Corioli and beat the Roman soldiers back to their trenches. Enraged, Marcius follows the Volsces back into Corioles and is locked inside with them. As the leaders of the Roman forces grieve over him and speak tribute to his memory, expecting him to have been slaughtered, Marcius appears at the gates, bleeding and being assaulted by the enemy. The Roman forces led by him charge the gates, enter the city, and rout the Volsces.
Act 1, Scene 5
Inside Corioles, Marcius curses the soldiers who are looting the city before the battle is completely won. Marcius, on the other hand sets out to join Cominius's forces and to continue fighting. Lartius tells him to rest since he is bleeding and has fought hard already. Marcius rejects both his advice and the praise implicit in it, saying he has hardly warmed to his work and longs to find Aufidius and battle with him.
Act 1, Scene 6
Cominius is congratulating his troops on having fought well, but warns them that the Volsces will attack them again. A messenger arrives and reports that the Volsces have driven Marcius and Lartius's troops back to their trenches. When Marcius enters bloody but victorious from the last battle, disdaining the poor fighting of the common soldiers, however, Cominius understands that the messenger reported old news. Cominius informs Marcius that his troops are retrenching after an indecisive battle with the Volscians. Marcius requests a division of men to seek Aufidius. By his heroic presence and his rousing words, Marcius inspires a courageous battalion of soldiers to join him, and they go off to battle.
Act 1, Scene 7
Lartius prepares his troops for battle in the field.
Act 1, Scene 8
Marcius and Aufidius encounter each other on the battlefield. They exchange words of hate and fight. During the fight, several Volscians come to the assistance of Aufidius. Alone, Marcius drives them all off, including Aufidius, and then laments that Aufidius has shamed and betrayed him, Marcius, by not fighting man to man.
Act 1, Scene 9
Victorious, the Romans assemble at their camp where Cominius pays tribute to Marcius's valor in battle, insisting on praising him as Marcius shuns the commendations. When Cominius awards him a tenth of all the spoils of war taken from the wealth of defeated Corioles, Marcius refuses it, calling rewards a bribe and flattery. Cominius tells him he is too modest, and, in honor of how he fought at Corioles, confers the additional name of Coriolanus on him. He becomes Caius Marcius Coriolanus. When they are alone, Coriolanus tells Cominius that he must embarrass himself for there is one thing he would request. Of course, Cominius says name it and it is yours. Coriolanus tells them of a poor man in Corioles who gave him hospitality during the battle. Later Coriolanus saw that man was taken prisoner; now he asks that his freedom be granted. Lartius asks for the man's name in order to carry out Coriolanus's request. Coriolanus realizes he has forgotten it and says he is weary, his memory is tired, and he asks for some wine. Cominius sends him to his (Cominius's) tent so that his wounds can be cared for.
Act 1, Scene 10
In the Volsces' camp, Aufidius concedes to his men that Corioles has been taken by the Romans. A soldier reminds him that the Romans will return the city if certain conditions are met. Aufidius is bitter at having to accept terms, but more incensed that he has not beaten Marcius. He vows that he will kill Marcius the next time he encounters him and that he no longer cares if it is with honor in a fair fight.
Act 2, Scene 1
In Rome, Menenius and the people's tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, are discussing the war and waiting for news. The conversation turns to Marcius, whom the tribunes say loves the people the way wolves love lambs, to devour them. Menenius asks them to name Marcius's faults and to show one in him that is not more pronounced in themselves. They say he has a host of faults, but pride and boasting are the greatest of them. In response, Menenius tells them that they are known among the patricians for their incompetence and pride, especially for the way they aggrandize themselves when they perform the functions of their office. Marcius, he says, is far superior to them. As he speaks, Menenius sees Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria approaching; he leaves the tribunes, and greets them. Volumnia informs him that Marcius has written to her, to his wife, to the senate, and to Menenius that he is returning home. They rejoice. Volumnia even rejoices in the anticipation that Marcius is coming back wounded, numbers his wounds (twenty-seven), describes them, and compares them to wounds he has received in previous battles. The thought of his wounds distresses his wife, Virgilia. They continue to talk of the war, of Marcius's heroism, and of his fight with Aufidius.
As they speak, Cominius and Lartius, with Marcius between them, crowned with a garland of oak leaves, enter. A herald proclaims Marcius's feats of war to the assembled crowd, and he is welcomed by all, but demurs, saying such acclaim offends his heart. Seeing his mother, he kneels before her and she bids him stand, calling him by his newly won name, Coriolanus. Coriolanus then greets Virgilia, whom he gently chides for weeping at his return, telling her that tears are for the widows he has made in Corioles, and for the mothers there he has left without sons. He then greets Menenius. There is great celebration among them. Volumnia expresses her pride and notes there is one honor more she hopes to see bestowed upon her son, to be elected consul. Coriolanus responds that he would prefer to serve Rome in his way than have to ask for the people's votes. As they speak, they move on to the Capitol, leaving the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, alone. They acknowledge that Coriolanus is popular with the people for his valor in the war and for saving Rome from conquest. They fear, moreover, should he become consul, that their powers will be severely curbed. They take heart in the belief that Coriolanus has such a temper and a temperament that he will not be able to keep the people's love for long. They note, moreover, that they have heard him swear he would not go through the vote-getting ritual of putting on a simple gown, standing in the marketplace, showing the scars of his wounds to the people and asking, humbly, for their votes, or voices. The tribunes hope to take political advantage of that and to remind the people how much Marcius (they continue to call him) has always hated them and treated them with contempt. A messenger enters to report to them that at a rally in the Capitol, it is being suggested that Marcius be named consul. Brutus and Sicinius set off to the Capitol to observe and sharpen their plans for their victory over Marcius.
Act 2, Scene 2
Two officers are preparing the seating for the dignitaries before a rally at the Capitol, where Marcius will be nominated for the office of consul. They discuss his merits and his attitude towards the people. One remarks that the people's love is unsteady. They easily turn from loving a public figure to hating him. Therefore, Marcius is wise not to care about the people's love. True, the other agrees, but Marcius is not indifferent but actively, it seems, seeks their hatred. That, he says, is as bad as flattering the people for their affection. As the patricians, the tribunes, and their attendants arrive, the officers conclude, nevertheless, that Marcius is a worthy man.
Menenius takes the podium and reviews their business. Having decided what terms to impose upon the Voscians, he says, the only thing left to do is confer honor upon Coriolanus. He requests, therefore, that Cominius, who is presently the consul and who was the general of the army, speak about Coriolanus. The senators call upon him to speak and ask the tribunes to report to the people what has been said. In their response, there is already the signal of discord when they say they will report the events, but that it will be easier to make a good report of the proceedings if Coriolanus shows himself more kindly disposed to the people than has been his wont. Menenius reproaches them for inappropriate speech and they rebuke him for his reproach. Cominius mounts the podium to speak on behalf of Coriolanus, and Coriolanus rises to leave the assembly, saying he would "rather have my wounds to heal again / Than hear say how I got them." Brutus, one of the tribunes, suggests that Marcius's attitude towards the people is really the cause of his leaving the assembly. Coriolanus tells him not at all. But he begins, in heat, to add that he does not much value the people because they have shown him nothing worthy of his admiration. Menenius intervenes, telling Coriolanus to stay, but Coriolanus says that he cannot sit and listen to himself praised, "To hear my nothings monstered," he says. And he leaves. Menenius points to this as a sign of Coriolanus's humility.
Cominius begins to speak. It is a typical nominating speech, charting Coriolanus's career and accomplishments. Menenius and the senators cheer him on, and as Cominius finishes his speech, the senate calls for Coriolanus to return. Menenius tells him that the senate is pleased to make him consul and that the only thing that remains to be done is for Coriolanus to speak to the people. Coriolanus thanks them for the honor, accepts it, but begs to forgo the custom of putting on the gown of humility, show his wounds, and solicit the people's approval. Sicinius, the tribune, explains that the people must have their votes heard and that all customary ceremony must be observed. Menenius encourages Coriolanus to go through the traditional formalities. Coriolanus answers that it will embarrass him to go through that ceremony, for it would make it seem as if he had performed his heroic deeds just to win the people's good opinion, and that the ceremony "might well / Be taken from the people." The tribunes note that statement as a mark against him, arguing that it shows his antipopulist sentiment. Menenius tells Coriolanus not to make an issue of the matter, to just go through it and get it over with, so that he may become consul. Alone, the tribunes agree that Coriolanus will simply use the people, condescendingly, for his purposes. They leave for the marketplace to inform the people of the events that have just transpired.
Act 2, Scene 3
A group of citizens is discussing the upcoming vote and their own power and responsibility. They decide to give Coriolanus their voices, saying that if Coriolanus "would incline to the people, there was never a worthier man." Coriolanus enters wearing the gown of humility. Menenius is by his side, gently scolding him, saying he is wrong to object to performing this ritual, that many worthy men before him have done it. Nevertheless, Coriolanus remains disdainful and sarcastically asks Menenius if he ought to show his wounds saying to the people, look at the wounds I got in my country's service when some of your class fled like cowards from the battle. Exasperated, Menenius tells him to act judiciously or he will ruin everything. Still, as the people approach him, Coriolanus tells Menenius he could treat them a little better if only they would wash and brush their teeth.
The scene in which Coriolanus endures the process of standing for election before the plebeians, who enter in small groups, is composed of a series of dialogues between Coriolanus and the people. These exchanges are punctuated by a short soliloquy Coriolanus speaks between interviews in which he says it would be better to die or starve than endure what this custom enforces. The encounters terminate with his apparent success. They are examples of the people's rather good-spirited and naïve acceptance of Coriolanus and of his condescending, over-polite mockery and even of his downright antipathy towards them. Moreover, he stands in his gown but never lifts it to bare his wounds to their sight; technically he is not fulfilling his obligation.
When Coriolanus departs to change his clothes and go to the Capitol, the tribunes and the people recapitulate the events in the marketplace. The people feel that they have been misled about Coriolanus's sincerity and the tribunes egg them on to rescind their votes; in speeches of deep irony they instruct the people to account for their change of heart by explaining that the tribunes had confused them by their (the tribunes') strong support for Coriolanus's candidacy. It is particularly ironic and fitting that, in attempting to undo Coriolanus, the tribunes give the people a true account of all his virtues, telling them to say that is what they had been told by the tribunals before the election (which is not so) and that is why they were wrongly swayed to consent to make him consul. The people leave for the Capitol and the tribunes go by a shorter way, hoping to get there first. They are confident that when the people voice their intention to rescind their approval, Marcius will erupt in a fit of temper, which the tribunes will be able to use to their own advantage against him.
Act 3, Scene 1
In the Capitol, Coriolanus has begun conducting state business as head of state, discussing the Volsces. Lartius has returned from Corioles, reporting that Aufidius has raised a new army and, consequently, the previous Roman victory has not really made Rome safe from the Voscians. Cominius demurs, arguing that the Volsces are, all the same, worn out, that Rome will not have to confront them in their lifetimes. Coriolanus asks Lartius if he saw Aufidius personally. Under safe conduct, Lartius reports, Aufidius visited him; Aufidius was angered by the poor way the Volsces conducted the war and spoke of his profound hatred for Coriolanus and that he wishes nothing more than to confront him once again in combat. Coriolanus echoes his wish so that he might "oppose his [Aufidius's] hatred fully." As he sees the tribunes approaching, Coriolanus confides to his colleagues that he does "despise" Brutus and Sicinius because they give themselves airs of authority and provoke the patricians. (It is important to notice that he does not despise Aufidius. He hates him. To despise is to hold in contempt. Hate indicates a passion which is not tainted with disrespect. Coriolanus values Aufidius and counts him a worthy adversary. That is not his attitude towards the tribunes.)
As Coriolanus and his party are advancing toward the marketplace, the tribunes stop them, forbidding them to go further. Cominius protests, asking if Coriolanus has not been chosen by the nobles and the commons as consul. Brutus answers that he has not been. Astonished, Coriolanus compares the people to irresponsible children. The supercilious prodding by the tribunes as they assert their authority inflames Coriolanus to a fit of temper which causes him to voice his contempt for them, and for the people they represent, even to the point of expressing his opinion that the plebeians must be treated mercilessly, that any concessions to them or their welfare only increases their tendency to assert themselves and flaunt the authority of the nobles. Menenius repeatedly attempts to calm Coriolanus and prevent him from worsening the conflict. The tribunes, of course, do just the opposite and goad him on to greater anger. And when Coriolanus is swirling in the whirlwind of rage and declaring that the people be forcibly suppressed and the tribunes stripped of power, the tribunes summon the aediles, officers with police power, to summon the people. Sicinius declares Coriolanus a traitor. Sicinius and Coriolanus scuffle. Menenius tries to keep peace. The people enter. There is a general melee with shouting and grabbing. The plebeians surround Coriolanus. Menenius continues to try to subdue passions, while the tribunes condemn Coriolanus in their attempt to inflame passions, and quickly call for Coriolanus's death. When the tribunes order the aediles to seize Coriolanus and bear him to the Tarpeian rock from which they wish to cast him to his death, Coriolanus draws his sword and drives the people and their tribunes to flight.
Menenius advises Coriolanus to go to his home and to wait there, as he and other patricians attempt to mend the situation. Coriolanus answers that there are enough of them to take on and defeat the plebeians. But Menenius and Cominius, despite feeling as he does, urge him to go home rather than make matters even worse. Coriolanus, at last, heeds them. Alone, one of the patricians notes that Coriolanus has "marred his fortune." Menenius answers that, "his nature is too noble for the world." The tribunes return with the plebeians, armed, searching for Coriolanus, and calling him, "this viper." Menenius and the tribunes argue about Coriolanus's merits and his service to Rome. They want to fetch him in order to throw him from the rock. Menenius emphasizes that Coriolanus is a warrior who lacks social grace and a moderate temperament. After much wrangling, the tribunes order the people to lay down their weapons and agree that Menenius will bring Coriolanus to the marketplace, where Coriolanus will face a peaceful trial and answer his accusers rather than endure mob frenzy.
Act 3, Scene 2
Speaking with a member of his own class, Coriolanus insists that no matter with what the plebeians threaten him, he will remain as he is. He wonders, however, why his mother does not support him, she who had always spoken with such contempt for the plebeians. Just as he is speaking of her, she enters and he asks her why "did you wish me milder," rather than being glad he acted like the man he is. She explains to him that it is better to have the power to use before you wear it out. He does not want to hear her. She tells him he would have been more of a man if he had made less of an effort to appear to be one, that he ought to have concealed his views until his adversaries no longer had the power to hinder him from acting on them. "Let them hang," he responds regarding the people. His mother tartly retorts, "Ay, and burn too," meaning the city of Rome, and implicitly reproaching him for a dangerously cavalier attitude. Menenius and a number of senators enter, and everyone advises Coriolanus that he has been too rough in his behavior and that he must, for the common good, apologize for the harsh things he has said. Coriolanus says that he cannot do that. His mother speaks at length to him, cajoling and reprimanding, calling him too stubborn, telling him that it does not dishonor him to say something in order to achieve a desired end, even if he does not mean it. She and all the patricians urge him, then, to dissemble and humble himself before the plebeians for the sake of achieving power over them. Coriolanus struggles against them, arguing that he cannot do it: the dishonor is too great. Volumnia trumps him by pointing out how great the dishonor is to her to have to beg this of him. Coriolanus gives in to her, but she behaves coldly to him. He sets off for the marketplace, repeating to himself that he will answer all accusations with mildness.
Act 3, Scene 3
The tribunes Brutus and Sicinius are discussing the charges they are going to bring against Coriolanus, the strategies they will use to have the crowds affirm with their shouts whatever sentence they (the tribunes) impose upon Coriolanus, and how they can best get Coriolanus into a rage so that he will speak intemperately and they can impose the most severe punishment. As they speak, Coriolanus enters with Menenius, Cominius, and other patricians. With the encouragement of his friends, Coriolanus is rehearsing the appeasing things he will say. Then the trial begins with Menenius acting as an advocate for Coriolanus, recounting to the crowd the service to the state Coriolanus has done. Coriolanus then asks why, after being granted the honor of being consul, it was rescinded. Sicinius retorts that Coriolanus is not to ask questions but to answer theirs. He accuses Coriolanus of plotting to obtain tyrannical power and states that he is therefore a traitor.
Being called a traitor, despite his attempt at bearing himself mildly, inflames Coriolanus. Menenius's reminder does not keep him calm. Instead Coriolanus lets loose a volley of anger directed at the tribunes. Sicinius takes advantage of his outburst, and inflames the crowd with his condemnation of Coriolanus's wrath. In response, they shout that he should be thrown from the Tarpeian rock. Calm is destroyed. Angry shouting prevails. Coriolanus cannot calm himself and the tribunes sentence him to banishment from Rome, with the addition that should he ever return, he will be cast to his death from the Tarpeian rock. Coriolanus accepts his sentence with rage-filled curses against the tribunes and the people, calling them a "common cry of curs, whose breath / I hate." He ends by saying he turns his back on Rome. "There is a world elsewhere." The people rejoice that their enemy is gone and they follow Coriolanus to the gates of the city.
Act 4, Scene 1
At the gates of Rome, Coriolanus takes his leave of family and friends. While they are angry and mournful at his departure, he is spirited in his courage and optimistic about making a life for himself, telling them that as long as he lives they will always hear from him and that they will never hear anything about him but what is like himself. Refusing to have anyone accompany him in his wanderings, he departs.
Act 4, Scene 2
Once Coriolanus is gone, the tribunes decide it is time to mollify the patricians, who have sided with Coriolanus. They send the people home, saying "their great enemy is gone." As they speak, they see Volumnia, Virgilia, and Menenius approaching and try to avoid them, but Volumnia sees them and curses them. They call her crazy and leave. She tells her companions that her anger is boundless and self-consuming.
Act 4, Scene 3
A Roman spying for the Volscians and a Volscian spy meet as the Roman is going to Antium to give the Volscians news from Rome. The Roman tells the Volscian that Coriolanus has been banished, and the Volscian lets him know what good news that is: Aufidius and the Voslcians are preparing another attack on Rome.
Act 4, Scene 4
Coriolanus arrives in Antium, poorly dressed and muffled in a cloak. He finds Aufidius's house and determines to present himself to Aufidius, thinking that friends can turn foes and foes can turn friends. He will offer his services to the Volscians, if they will have him, and if they choose instead to kill him, that's only fair, he thinks, considering the number of deaths he has brought to them.
Act 4, Scene 5
Inside Aufidius's house, the serving men are going back and forth bringing wine to guests. Coriolanus enters and is taken for a beggar. He refuses to leave when asked, and when the servants try to remove him bodily he resists. Aufidius is summoned and comes to see what the matter is. Coriolanus opens his cloak to reveal himself but Aufidius does not recognize him. Only when Marcius names himself does Aufidius know him. Rather then calling himself Coriolanus, he says my name is Caius Marcius. Then he narrates the wrongs he has suffered at the hands of the Roman plebeians, explains that he has been banished, and that, for revenge, he wishes to make war against Rome with the Volscians if they will have him. If not, he offers himself to Aufidius, saying he has no desire to live. Aufidius clasps him to his bosom and vows friendship and comradeship with him. He tells him the Volscians are preparing a military campaign against Roman territories, although not the capitol city itself. He offers Coriolanus co-command of his forces and the power to decide if they will assault the city of Rome itself as well as the territories.
When Aufidius takes Coriolanus inside to join the diners, the servants, once so contemptuous of the beggar they had thought he was, now confess to each other how they each sensed there was something special about him. Another servant enters and informs them excitedly that the man they saw is Caius Marcius and that the Volscians are setting off immediately to make new wars against Rome.
Act 4, Scene 6
In Rome, the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, are congratulating themselves on how well everything has gone since the departure of Coriolanus. When they meet Menenius they mention that Coriolanus is not missed. Menenius says wistfully he wishes Coriolanus had been more prudent in his speech. None of them has heard any news of Coriolanus. As Roman citizens pass them on the street and offer them their blessings and their thanks, the tribunes become swollen with pride and opine that "Caius Marcius," as they call him, eschewing the honorary "Coriolanus," was a good soldier but had become too proud. As they continue in this vein, an aedile meets them with the news that Rome has captured a Volscian and learned that the Volsces have two armies in the field marching against them. Although Menenius offers the reasonable analysis that when he learned of Coriolanus's banishment, Aufidius undoubtedly had taken to the field against a substantially weakened Rome, the tribunes refuse to believe it and order the man who reported the approach of the Volscian armies whipped for spreading rumors. Menenius advises they question the man before they whip him, lest they fail to get important information about the coming attack. The tribunes dismiss Menenius with haughty contempt.
Another messenger arrives and announces that the senate is convening and that there is bad news. The tribunes in response order the Volscian captive to be publicly whipped to put an end to the panic. But the messenger adds that the report has been confirmed and, even worse news, that Marcius leads one of the Volscian armies against Rome and vows revenge. The tribunes do not believe it, and Menenius himself doubts this part of the news, recalling the fierce enmity between Marcius and Aufidius. But as he is expressing this doubt, another messenger arrives to summon him to the senate with reports that Marcius is indeed leading an army against Rome. Menenius enters, and berates the tribunes for bringing on such a calamity. Menenius says Rome must ask for mercy. Cominius retorts with the question, Who shall ask for it? and answers, not the tribunes, nor the people, who wronged him, not even his friends, who did not help him but acceded to the tribunes and the people. A group of the people enter, fearful of the punishment they expect Marcius is bringing. They say now that they never really approved of banishing him. The tribunes tell them to go home. They say the reports are patrician propaganda. Alone, the tribunes leave for the capitol to learn more news, still refusing to believe that reports of the attack are true.
Act 4, Scene 7
In a camp outside Rome, Aufidius is talking to his lieutenant about how the soldiers idolize Marcius. Aufidius says he cannot do anything about it before the attack on Rome because it would weaken the army. But after the Volscian victory, Aufidius says, he plans to take his revenge on Marcius and bring him down.
Act 5, Scene 1
Cominius has been to see Marcius, who has arrived at the gates of Rome with his army. Cominius begs Marcius to relent and spare the city, but to no avail. The tribunes plead with Menenius to go to him and see if he can exert his influence more successfully on Marcius. Menenius is reluctant. He declines, arguing that it will be useless, it will only depress him, Menenius, to see himself scorned by the man who had once called him father; finally Menenius agrees to go. Perhaps Marcius will be more tractable after he has eaten, he says. Once he has gone, Cominius assures the tribunes that Menenius will fail, that only if Marcius's mother and wife go to him may he possibly show mercy.
Act 5, Scene 2
Menenius, at the Volscian camp, is stopped by the guards from going further. They say Coriolanus, as they call him, will not see him. Menenius assures them he will, but they mock him. When Coriolanus appears with Aufidius he sees Menenius and spurns his petition, only giving him a letter he had prepared to send him. Coriolanus exits with Aufidius, and the guards further scorn Menenius. Menenius leaves them, broken but stoic, saying he cares not if he dies; his curse to the guards is that they have a long life.
Act 5, Scene 3
Coriolanus is telling Aufidius how dear Menenius has been to him and how, nevertheless, Menenius could not shake him from his purpose, when Volumnia, Virgilia, Valeria (a renowned matron of Rome) and his little son approach. He sees them and confesses that he is moved, but vows to retain the firmness of his objective. He kneels to his mother after embracing his wife, but tells them he will not be swayed. Volumnia then kneels to him and in a long speech expresses the special grief she feels of having to be grieved at seeing him, which is the thing that ought to bring her joy. She assures him that if he marches on Rome he will also tread on his mother's womb, for she will die by her own hand if she fails to persuade him to offer Rome mercy. She argues that he can broker a peace between Rome and the Volscians that will be beneficial to both sides and cause both sides to honor him. When he seems unmoved, she calls him proud and taunts him saying she is not his mother; some woman in Corioles is. At this he takes her hand and surrenders to her. He asks Aufidius if he, too, would not be moved to mercy by such supplication. Aufidius says, indeed, he would. But in an aside, Aufidius notes that he will use Coriolanus's mercifulness to regain his position of dominance over him.
Act 5, Scene 4
Menenius advises the tribune, Sicinius, that there is hardly any hope of Volumnia's succeeding with Coriolanus where he had failed. A messenger enters with news that the people are enraged and have seized the other tribune, Brutus, and threaten to kill him by slow torture if Volumnia and Virgilia do not return with good news. But at his heels, another messenger rushes in with that very unanticipated good news. In the distance, trumpets and other instruments of joy begin to sound as Menenius and Sicinius leave the stage to join the rest of Rome in celebration.
Act 5, Scene 5
This is a scene of only six lines in which the citizens of Rome welcome Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria back with shouts of gratitude.
Act 5, Scene 6
Aufidius orders his attendants to summon the people of Corioles to the marketplace, where he will bring accusations of betrayal against Coriolanus, whom he knows intends also to speak there in defense of his capitulation. From his conversation with his henchman, it is clear that Aufidius is plotting to have Coriolanus killed. Their rehearsal of the case they will make against him is interrupted by the shouts of welcome they hear in the distance as the Volscian people welcome Coriolanus with an enthusiasm that Aufidius did not receive. In his jealousy, he is sure that he can rise only if Coriolanus falls.
The lords of the city, unlike the cheering commons who greet Coriolanus, greet only Aufidius warmly, and together they berate Coriolanus for his betrayal of the Volscians. Coriolanus enters and presents the nobles with a report of the spoils of war he has brought back and with the terms of the peace he concluded with Rome, which he characterizes as reflecting "no less honor to the Antiates [the Volscians] / Than shame to th' Romans." Aufidius interrupts and tells the Volscian lords not to read the peace accords; he accuses Coriolanus of treachery and abuse of power. Coriolanus recoils, challenges the accusation, and Aufidius repeats it, addressing Coriolanus only as Marcius. Aufidius condemns Coriolanus's behavior and demeans his manhood, saying he "whined … away … victory" at the sight of "his nurse's tears," and calls him "boy of tears." Enraged, Coriolanus in a temper of wrath confutes the accusation by reminding his auditors how he brought destruction to Corioles in his battles in the past as a Roman fighter against them and cries out how he would kill Aufidius even now were he six times the man he is. Aufidius's henchmen raise a cry against him and rushing at him, stab Coriolanus, who falls dead.
The Volscian senators are horrified by Aufidius's deed, but Aufidius assures them that he can justify the assassination of Coriolanus when he tells them of the dangers Coriolanus posed to Corioles. The lords agree that Coriolanus's wrath, mitigates Aufidius's act. Aufidius says that now his own rage at Coriolanus is past and he is "struck with sorrow." He orders a ceremonious funeral for Coriolanus, not omitting to add, "though in this city he [Coriolanus] / Hath widowed and unchilded many a one, / Which to this hour bewail the injury."
Menenius is an aged patrician. He opposes the demands of the people for grain or political power. Nevertheless, he attempts to remain a gentleman in his confrontations with them. He is a friend of Coriolanus, but is rebuffed by him when he pleads with him to spare Rome.
Aufidius is the general of the Volscian army. The Volsces are the enemies of Rome. Aufidius and Coriolanus are personal enemies who have often fought against each other in battles; each longs for the opportunity to kill the other. While Coriolanus admires Aufidius as a rival, Aufidius is jealous of Coriolanus and contrives to destroy him even if he cannot defeat him in combat.
Junius Brutus is one of the tribunes of the people. Along with Sicinius, the other tribune, he directs the people's wrath against the patricians and is particularly influential in shaping the defeat of Coriolanus in his bid to obtain the office of consul and in banishing him from Rome. Those opposed to Brutus may see him as a manipulator rather than as a leader.
Cominius is the Roman general under whom Coriolanus serves. He has tremendous regard for Coriolanus. It is Cominius who confers upon Marcius the name Coriolanus after his victory at Corioles.
- In 1807, Heinrich Joseph von Collin launched a drama called "Coriolan," based loosely on the story of Coriolanus. Ludwig van Beethoven's "Coriolan Overture opus 62" was written to accompany this play. It is a short piece mixing sharp, staccato heroic chords with the sort of sweet, middle-period melody characteristic of the Eroica Symphony, Opus 55, and the Violin Concerto, Opus 61.
- In 1940, August L. Baeyens (1895–1966) wrote a version of Coriolanus as an opera for radio. His version was later made into a stage play which was performed at the Royal Flemish Opera.
- In 1958, Croatian composer Stjepan Sulek adapted Shakespeare's play Coriolanus into an opera in Croatian. The world premiere in that same year received significant critical and popular attention.
- Coriolanus also ran from 1970–1972 in an opera version written in Czech by the Czechoslovakian composer Jan Cikker.
- A New York Shakespeare Festival production of Coriolanus was filmed in 1979. The production starred Morgan Freeman in the title role, with Castulo Guerra, Earle Hyman, CCH Pounder, and Denzel Washington in supporting roles. The production was directed by Wilford Leach and produced by Joseph Papp.
- In 1984, a film version of Coriolanus was made as part of The Complete Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare series. The film was directed by Elija Moshinsky and starred Alan Howard. It is available on DVD and video as part of the BBC Shakespeare Collection.
Caius Marcius Coriolanus
Coriolanus is a soldier of the patrician class who is dearly attached to his class and to his mother, who has formed his character. He is proud, stubborn, prone to anger, and detests the people. He sees them as irresponsible and idle. He earns the honorary name Coriolanus by reversing the tide of battle at Corioles and single-handedly leading the Romans to victory after their near defeat. His pride leads him to greatly alienate the Roman plebeians when he seeks the office of consul that they threaten to kill him and in fact banish him. After banishment, he joins forces with Aufidius to avenge himself on Rome, but at the last minute accedes to his mother's pleas for mercy, spares Rome, and is assassinated by Aufidius's henchmen in Antium.
Titus Lartius is a Roman general.
Young Marcius is Coriolanus's son. He has the same fierce temper and warlike inclination as his father; he appears to Coriolanus and others as the mirror of Coriolanus as a boy.
Nicanor is a Roman spying for the Volscians.
Sicinius, along with Brutus, is a tribune of the people. He feeds the people's indignation against Coriolanus, engineers his defeat in becoming consul, and is instrumental in banishing him. Brutus is portrayed as manipulative and concerned more with his own power than the people's good.
Valeria is a matron of Rome, and a friend of Volumnia, who shares her enthusiasm for war.
Virgilia is Coriolanus's wife. Unlike his mother, she does not celebrate his military prowess but is fearful for his safety. When he is at war, she refuses to leave the house or amuse herself with the other women.
Volumnia is Coriolanus's mother. She has raised him to be a soldier and, in his soldiership, to reflect her glory. She is proud of his heroism, takes pride in his wounds, revels in the sight of him bloodied and values his honor over his life. She is cold and stern. She prods him to seek the consulship when he would rather not, and she persuades him to spare Rome, at the expense of his very life, when no one else could.
The Conflict between Honor and Loyalty
The concepts of honor and loyalty usually seem to be interconnected. Loyalty to one's family, to one's country, to one's core values seems to be the mark of honor. It is a mark of dishonor to betray family, country, and core values. In Coriolanus, however, rather than being interconnected, loyalty and honor are put at odds with each other. Patriotism, duty to his country, devotion to his mother, and adherence to his code of values, all are fundamental attributes of Coriolanus's character. Yet, Coriolanus endures dishonor in Rome because he remains loyal to his sense of what is honorable. He will not boast about his feats of heroism, nor submit to the values of the tribunes and the plebeians. He steadfastly maintains his integrity. When he joins with the Volscians in their campaign against Rome, he is confronted with the choice of betraying his commitment to the Volscians, by being loyal to his mother and his motherland, and thus dishonoring himself, or dishonoring his mother by being disloyal to her and ignoring her entreaties.
The tribunes, too, are shown to be dishonorable in their loyalty to what they see to be the cause of the people. They are shown manipulating the plebeians, especially when they advise them to rescind their approval of Coriolanus as consul, advising them to say that the tribunes duped them into supporting him by telling them of his virtues. They had not done that before the election. Only afterwards, in order to have the people use that positive information in a negative way do the tribunes recount Coriola-nus's worthy deeds.
The Conflict between Nurture and Hunger
Coriolanus begins with the question the plebeians put to each other, "You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?" as they rise up against the patricians in order to have "corn at our own price." Contrasting themselves to the patricians, they point out that just the excess that the patricians eat could feed them. In order to counter their complaints, Menenius tells them the parable of the belly. When Marcius enters, his disdain for the plebeians is marked by expressions of contempt for their hunger. But Marcius himself has been raised by a mother who nurtured him with a steely passion for warfare rather than milk. In her first appearance in the play, Volumnia says, "The breasts of Hecuba, / When she did suckle Hector, looked not lovlier / Then [sic] Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood." The tribunes tell Menenius that Coriolanus loves the people the way the wolf loves the lamb, in order to eat them. And Coriolanus says, condemning the people's votes, "Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which first we do deserve." Only in Antium, when Coriolanus allies himself with Aufidius, does he go into dinner with him. And Menenius, worrying that Coriolanus will reject his petition to spare Rome, thinks that he will go to him after Coriolanus has eaten. Thus, throughout Coriolanus, there is a constant reference to images of hunger and nurturing as being in conflict with each other and as determining people's actions and attitudes.
The insult which overwhelms Coriolanus is being called "boy" by Aufidius at the end of the play after he returns from Rome having yielded to his mother's entreaties to spare the city. He rages in response, and boasts of his power as the soldier who has repeatedly defeated the Volscians in battle. But this outward show of force never achieves for him an inward condition of self-sufficient strength. He is defined by those who oppose him rather than by something in himself. All Coriolanus's acts are designed to assert his manhood, whether through bravery in war or asserting himself against the plebeians. But his very assertion of manhood is dedicated to pleasing his mother. When he asks his mother, after his confrontation with the Roman people and their tribunes, why she would have had him conform himself to the wishes of the plebeians and humiliate himself, he defends himself saying, "I play / The man I am." Her retort contradicts him and suggests that his behavior shows he is not a man. She says, "You might have been enough the man you are, / With striving less to be so."
Running through Coriolanus are images of animals. When Aufidius calls him "boy," Coriolanus responds that he, Aufidius, is a false hound and that he, Coriolanus, has been like an eagle who has attacked the Volscians as if they were doves in a dovecote. The Roman tribunes compare Coriolanus to a wolf and the people to the lambs the wolf loves to devour. The rage that drives Coriolanus is shown in his son as aggression against butterflies. Tigers, wolves, lambs, osprey, fish, horses, dogs, sheep, geese, butterflies, lions, hares, curs, foxes all appear as metaphors for human attributes in the play. The people are called hares rather than lions, geese rather than foxes. Animal imagery suggests an undercurrent of brutality and the dominant pattern of prey and predator subverts the apparent humanity of the characters. In the midst of humanity, the play suggests, bestiality is still at work.
In a play in which the opposition of brutality and vulnerability is so strong a theme, the recurrent use of body imagery keeps that theme in the forefront of the reader's awareness. References to belly, lungs, arms, tongue, eyes, legs, heart, head, chin, forehead, anus, bloody gashes and blood-covered men, maternal breasts, wounds suffered and wounds healing, teeth set in rage or teeth that want cleaning, big toes, a mother's womb, a fair or blushing face, a soldier's beard, the buttocks, the bowels, the loins, and the knees are all woven into the text. Besides suggesting the material reality and vulnerability, the nobility and filthiness of the individual, body references suggest another thematic element in Coriolanus. The political question regarding how closely related the body politic is to the human body is of chief concern in the play and, with it, the problem of where the highest authority in the government of a state ought to reside. The tribunes' model of a state separates the plebeians from the patricians, giving them independent governing rights. Menenius sees the classes as diverse organs united in one body and suggests the patricians must therefore rule over the plebeians.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read "The Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus" in Plutarch's The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (available in the Signet edition of Coriolanus). Then, write an essay of at least five hundred words comparing Plutarch's account and Shakespeare's play, paying particular attention to how Shakespeare used, and altered, Plutarch's account.
- Research a particular historical event that interests you, perhaps an event from the American civil rights movement, like the Montgomery bus boycott or the bombing of the Birmingham Church, or the integration of Little Rock's Central High School. Use the characters, the information and the narratives you find as the basis for a play. This ought to be considered a term-long project.
- In an essay of a least five hundred words, compare and contrast Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.
- Narrate an incident in your life or, from the life of someone you know, where you or your subject faced a conflict between two forces that exerted equal but opposite pressure and where there was, or seemed to be, no solution that did not involve some unwanted consequence. Describe the problem, its circumstances, and how it was finally resolved.
Crowd Scenes and Military Spectacle
In a play concerned with the conflict between a single figure and great masses of the population, it is appropriate that there be crowd scenes. Most of the pivotal scenes in Coriolanus, save for the climactic encounter between Coriolanus and his mother, are crowd scenes pitting Coriolanus against either the Roman plebeians or the Volscian army. Thus the stage is often filled with crowds in domestic or martial conflict with Coriolanus, and the domestic crowd scenes at times take on similarities to battle when scuffles break out between the plebeians and the patricians. Even the scenes of combat or verbal encounter between Coriolanus and his nemesis, Aufidius, which ought to be scenes between two individuals, become crowd scenes, whether in the first battle against the Volscians when Marcius wins the addition Coriolanus or in the last scene, when Aufidius indicts him for treason. In the first instance, Aufidius does not fight alone but with a group of soldiers backing him up. Even so supported, he cannot defeat Marcius. In the second, it is a group of Aufidius's conspirators who rush at Coriolanus and kill him.
King James's Attempts to Assert Absolute and Unitary Power
In Shakespeare's time, some members of the nobility believed that King James was attempting to assert his absolute power as governing monarch and was determined to undermine their rights, such as had been won in 1215 through the Magna Carta, in which King John surrendered some of his power to the Barons. They asserted that England was made up of three forces, king, nobles, and commons, and that each had rights, and that Parliament functioned as a defense against tyranny. James was aware of this opposition to his ambition, and believed that it was grounded in admiration for republican Rome. In 1606, he condemned, according to Anne Barton, in "Livy, Machiavelli, and Coriolanus, the "tribunes of the people whose mouths could not be stopped." He meant those in parliament who opposed him.
The Midland Riots of 1607 in England
During the famine of 1607, poor peasants, farmers, and laborers in England protested their condition by rioting for food and against the enclosure of common lands by aristocrats, the practice of which removed farm land from the poor. Significantly, the cause of the plebeian revolt in Coriolanus is lack of food. In Plutarch, Shakespeare's source, the actual historical cause was the high rate of interest charged the plebeians for their debts.
Until the fifth century before the birth of Christ, Rome was ruled by kings. The last of the kings, Tarquin Superbus, was overthrown and a republic established around 500 b.c.e. The king was replaced by two praetors or, as they are called in Coriolanus, consuls. The consuls had the same power as the kings except that they did not rule for life but were elected for a term of one year.
Under the old kings, an aristocracy of old families grew up. They were called "patricians," and the elders of the patricians formed an advisory body to the king, with no governing or legislative power, called a senate. (The word for an elder, in Latin is "senex.") A socially and economically inferior group of people, immigrants and people captured in wars grew up in the kingdom, too. They were called "plebeians." After the defeat of the kings, which was accomplished by an alliance between patricians and plebeians, and the establishment of the republic, the patricians assumed governing power and the plebeians were granted some of the rights of citizens, with voting power and representatives. Yet they were denied the power and authority that the patricians exercised. Rome was an aristocratic republic, not a democratic republic.
Roman Plebeian Uprising
The patricians were landed, wealthy, and lived within the gates of Rome. The plebeians were poor, lived outside the gates, and eked out a poor living as farmers on land that lay unprotected, especially in times of war when they were off fighting and their farms lay neglected or were ravaged by enemies. Public lands, which in theory belonged to the entire Roman people, in fact were occupied by the patricians. The consequence of economic inequality was that the plebeians were often forced to borrow money, fell into debt, and were subject to usurious interest rates.
Having no legal recourse, in 494 b.c.e., the plebeians refused to fight in the army in the defense of a Rome which exploited rather than supported them; they attempted to secede from Rome and form their own state. Fearing the loss of the army, the patricians capitulated, canceled debts, released prisoners jailed for debt, and created, in 474 b.c.e. a plebeian assembly and the office of tribune of the people. In addition, the patricians granted the plebeians the right to elect two tribunes with veto powers from among
COMPARE & CONTRAST
- Fifth-century b.c.e. Rome: There is domestic strife. Plebeians revolt against patrician rule. At issue are the availability of grain, which the plebeians assert the patricians are hoarding, and the degree to which the plebeians can participate in government. At issue, too, is the attitude of disdain or contempt, best embodied in Coriolanus, which the plebeians feel in the way the patricians treat them.
Seventeenth-century England: King James I is intent on consolidating monarchical power and uniting the kingdoms of England and Scotland under his sole rule. He wishes to restrict the power of Parliament and is wary of echoes of the republicanism of ancient Rome, which it seems to him, are guiding those who are trying to limit his power through a stronger Parliament. At the same time, the people, farmers and laborers are revolting against the nobles because of the practice of enclosure. The aristocracy is taking away common land that the people might farm by enclosing, and thus privatizing it. The enclosures combined with the famine of 1607 lead the people to riot in protest.
Today: In countries like England, the United States, and France, all of which are influenced in their governing structures by republican Rome, various critical conflicts reflecting social division and what some see as unjust division of wealth, social privilege, and responsibility, are causing internal strife. Many members of immigrant populations from eastern cultures in western democracies perceive that they are being ill-treated because of cultural differences. In the suburbs of Paris, immigrant youth find themselves with no employment and face police harassment; in response, they riot sporadically. In the United States, immigrant populations from Latin America, whose members provide a source of cheap labor, stage large demonstrations petitioning for the civil and economic rights of citizenship. In Great Britain, immigrant populations from Islamic cultures are torn between integrating into English culture and maintaining their own cultural identities.
- Fifth-century b.c.e. Rome: Rome is locked in a hostile competition with the Volscians which often breaks out into actual war. The plebeians make up the bulk of the Roman armed forces, and their farms and families are put at risk during wartime by the men's absence and by enemy raids. As a result of their straightened circumstances, plebeians are forced to borrow money and are required to repay it at very high interest rates.
Seventeenth-century England: After sixteen years of intermittent war with Spain, dating from the English defeat of a Spanish naval armada in 1588, in 1604, the government of King James I signed the Treaty of London with Spain. The strain on wealth caused by the cost of war affects the people.
Today: Great Britain, closely allied with the United States, is engaged in a war in Iraq and a war in Afghanistan. Most of the people affected by these wars, those who fight in them and those who are injured and killed in them, are of a class that could be termed plebeian. They come from the middle to lower classes, rather than from the wealthy, governing sectors of society. The cost of the wars drives the countries into unmanageable debt and causes internal domestic needs and programs to be neglected.
- Fifth-century b.c.e. Rome: The exigencies of war and domestic strife cause a constitutional crisis. The patricians attempt to consolidate their power by making the senate stronger and focusing authority in a consul. Menenius compares the state to a body, with the patricians serving as the belly, which works in the interest of the entire state, as it controls the distribution of wealth. The plebeians attempt to democratize authority not only by participating in the election of the consul but by electing tribunes, officers of the senate representing them, rather than the interests of the patrician senators.
Seventeenth-century England: King James is intent on showing that the nation of England is like a body of which he is the head, while Parliament is intent on curbing his power. Their conflict continues until parliamentary forces prevail, in the 1640s, when Charles is king. In 1660, the monarchy defeats those parliamentary forces and is restored to power.
Today: In Britain, the conflict between the government and the people over the war in Iraq and the British alliance with the United States causes the Prime Minister to step down and call for early elections. In the United States, many see a constitutional crisis looming because of the increased power of the executive branch, which they see as determined to govern without congressional consent or popular support, violating long-established practices derived from English common law and enshrined in the Constitution. At issue are established rights such as habeas corpus (which is a legal protection against unlawful restraint or imprisonment), individuals citizens' right to privacy, and the use of torture during the interrogation of prisoners.
themselves to protect their rights. In Coriolanus, these tribunes are Brutus and Sicinius.
Volscians, Antium, and Corioles
At the same time as the domestic strife between the Roman patricians and plebeians was occurring, Rome was under attack by a neighboring people called the Volscians. The Volscians lived in Antium, now called Anzio, a seaport city to the southeast of Rome. In 338 b.c.e., it was conquered by Rome. It became a resort spot for wealthy Romans. The Roman emperors Nero and Caligula were born there. In 1944, it was the scene of an amphibious Allied landing. Corioles was the capitol city of Antium.
T. S. Eliot, in his famous contrarian essay "Hamlet and His Problems," argues that Hamlet is not the splendid artistic achievement it usually is considered to be. Eliot asserts that while "Coriolanus may be not as 'interesting' as Hamlet but it is, with Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare's most assured artistic success." It is the kind of praise that more likely keeps readers away from a work than draws them to it. Harold Bloom, taking another tack, in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, nevertheless similarly suggests a certain wariness regarding Coriolanus when he describes the character, Coriolanus, as lacking the inwardness with which Shakespeare endowed the heroes of the great tragedies like Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, which immediately preceded it. Derek Traversi's assessment of the play in Shakespeare: The Roman Plays, follows Eliot's essay and precedes Bloom's, but expresses, more expansively, a synthesis of both:
That Coriolanus is conceived with admirable dramatic logic is generally recognized; doubt as to the value of the play by the highest standard only seems to arise when we ask ourselves whether it touches the deeper sources of emotion, whether the hero's disaster, so ironic and detached in its presentation, so clearly the result of inadequacies in his own moral makeup, can effect us as truly and universally tragic in its significance.
A. C. Bradley, in his 1912 lecture on Coriolanus, had already stated similar doubts about the universality of Coriolanus as a tragic figure. "Coriolanus is angular, granitic, and hence unlovable," Eugene M. Waith wrote in The Herculean Hero. Critic after critic, while respecting the craftsmanship Coriolanus obviously reflects, seems to be taken up short by the character of the hero himself, while still intrigued by his problem. Rather like the people of Rome, critics have been put off by the man himself.
Perhaps Frank Kermode provides the simplest reason: "Coriolanus," he writes in Shakespeare's Language, "is his most political play…. It is a study in the relationships between citizens within a body politic; the relationship of crowds to leaders and leaders to led, of rich to poor." Its concerns are "dearth, external enemies, enmity between classes." It is, in fact, just the dynamics that Kermode outlines which might tend to be off-putting to most people, who come to Shakespeare's theater for a penetrating, intellectually arousing experience of emotional depth and complexity. Bertolt Brecht, the communist playwright who invented the alienation effect, deliberately constructed his plays to prevent spectators in the theater from identifying with individual characters so that they might consider the politics of the characters' situations. In his "Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare's Coriolanus," framed as a multi-person conversation between Brecht and members of his East Berlin theater, The Berliner Ensemble, the focus is precisely on problems of class consciousness, class struggle, and class solidarity. Ann Barton, writing in her essay, "Livy, Machiavelli, and Coriolanus," sees the play's strength as a political meditation on the politics of the conflict between King James I and parliament, and considers the play from the perspective of Machiavelli's analysis of governments and leaders. One of the most persuasive readings of Coriolanus, however, leaps over the political controversies regarding the play and seems to pierce its "granitic" exterior. Janet Adelman begins her penetrating study "Escaping the Matrix: The Construction of Masculinity in Coriolanus" by saying, "Coriolanus begins in the landscape of maternal deprivation." After summarizing the political situation in Shakespeare's England and ancient Rome, Adelman discusses the role that lack of maternal nurturing played in forming and undermining Coriolanus's character, thus revealing some of the inwardness that can give the character of Coriolanus life without denying the historical, economic, and social contexts in which that life confronted itself.
In the following essay, Heims argues that all the conflicts Coriolanus faces with others stem from a fundamental conflict with his mother that has become internalized as a conflict between parts of himself.
After his candidacy has been approved by the plebeians and he is about to assume the office of Roman consul, when the two tribunes of the people challenge him and rescind the people's vote, Coriolanus, furious that he is being made to bow to what he believes is an illegitimate authority says,
[M]y soul aches
To know, when two authorities are up,
Neither supreme, how soon confusion
May enter 'twixt the gap of both and take
The one by th' other.
In this phrase, Coriolanus expresses the theme of the play, the underlying conflict which has shaped his own personality, and the force which will prove his undoing: the conflict between irreconcilable authorities and the clash of irreconcilable values.
The two authorities that are set against each other in Coriolanus are first presented and formulated in the context of political or class antagonism. As the play begins, the people of Rome have taken to the streets and are on the verge of rioting for bread, which they say they are being deprived of by the patricians. Their anger has Caius Marcius (who will later acquire the name Coriolanus) as its particular object, for he is vocal in his contempt for the plebeians. The first representative of the patricians whom the audience encounters, however, is not Marcius but Menenius, an older man, a patrician with a refined disposition, but no less bound to the point of view of his class than Marcius.
In his attempt to pacify the plebeians, Menenius tells them the fable of the belly in which he postulates a conflict between all the other parts of the body and the belly. The belly is accused of hoarding all the food the body has taken in through its labor without having earned that nurturance through contributory labor. The belly retorts, correcting the rebellious organs, that it gathers, processes, and distributes the food to all those complaining organs leaving for itself nothing but offal. Menenius proceeds with his tale by declaring it an analogy. The belly is the senate of Rome and the rebelling parts are the plebeians. Fundamental to Menenius's biological model is his formulation of a conflict between parts that actually form an organic unity. So the State is defined in Coriolanus as an amalgam of conflicting parts rather than an organic community in which all the parts, that is all its people, are joined together in an interdependent unity.
When Marcius arrives and confronts the rebellious Roman plebeians, he does not act like the belly of Menenius's parable. Rather he expresses disdain and contempt for them, which must insure division and conflict. His argument is simple. They have not earned the bread they demand; they are a lazy, irresponsible rabble without virtue. The virtue that Marcius represents is military prowess. He is a magnificent soldier whose performance in the wars Rome has fought is unequalled in heroism and prowess. The conflict between the plebeians and the patricians, then, is sharpened into a conflict between the plebeians and Marcius. That conflict is set within the framework of the conflict between Rome and its foreign enemy, the Volscians. The conflict between Rome and the Volscians is sharpened in Coriolanus into a conflict between Marcius and Aufidius, the general of the Volsces.
The conflict between Marcius and Aufidius is an external conflict, a foreign conflict. The internal, domestic conflict between Marcius and the people of Rome takes focus as an antagonism between Marcius and the two leaders of the people, their tribunes, Junius Brutus and Velutus Sicinius. When Marcius returns to Rome after defeating the Volscians in a series of particularly fierce encounters, his conflict, not with the plebeians, but with their tribunes, is greatly intensified when he seeks to become consul, an office in republican Rome with the power of a king, although not accompanied by a king's life-long tenure. His attaining that office, the tribunes, no doubt properly believe, would constitute a serious threat to the scope of their power and authority.
There is an important difference that marks the conflicts between Marcius and his external foe, Aufidius, and his domestic opponents, the two tribunes. Marcius hates Aufidius. He despises the tribunes. The difference is a difference between respect and contempt. Marcius is eager to confront Aufidius. He measures himself against Aufidius. He esteems and values this enemy highly. He even identifies himself with him; they are both martial men. Marcius is disdainful in his encounters with the tribunes. Contact with them diminishes him. He considers them unworthy opponents with whom contact is debasing. They deny the measure of his prowess.
But all the conflicts which involve Marcius and of which he is aware, whether with the people of Rome, with their tribunes, or with his great foe, Aufidius, seem to be emanations energized by a particular conflict of which he is not aware but which reveals itself as the play proceeds: the conflict within himself with his mother. It is a conflict determined by opposing notions of honor and valor. That conflict with his mother first appears as a relatively insignificant disagreement. It is revealed in passing. After Marcius returns in triumph to Rome, the hero of Corioles, now with the additional, honorary name of Coriolanus, Volumnia, his mother, tells him,
I have lived
To see inherited my very wishes,
And the buildings of my fancy. Only
There's one thing wanting, which I doubt not but
Our Rome will cast upon thee.
He knows what she is talking about, and so does the audience, for some fifty lines before, as she, Virgilia, Coriolanus's wife, and Menenius await his entrance, Volumnia speaks of the wounds she hopes to see him bearing home on his body, wounds he will have to bare to the people of Rome when he stands for the office of consul. "There will be large cicatrices to show the people, when he stands for his place," she says, overflowing with proud ambition. Is it for him? Or is it for herself, through him? That is the conflict.
His response when she speaks of being on the verge of attaining the "one thing wanting," which she is confident "Rome will cast upon thee," is that he "had rather be their servant in my way / Than sway with them in theirs." "Sway," as Coriolanus uses the word here, means hold power. He wants to be a combat soldier serving the people of Rome, which to him means the patricians, rather than doing the things necessary to obtain governing power, which first means humbling himself to the populace. Volumnia does not respond to his demurral, essentially because it is as if he had not spoken. What he says does not matter to her. It has become so much the case that she wills what he will be and fashions what he does and he only enacts it.
During her first appearance in the play, Volumnia describes how she fashioned him and, in graphic (and psychologically devastating) terms, conveys how she values him.
If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love. When yet he was but tender-bodied, and the only son of my womb; when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way; when, for a day of kings' entreaties, a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding; I, considering how honor would become such a person—that it was no better than picture-like to hang by th' wall, if renown made it not stir—was pleased to let him seek danger where he was to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.
If this is not enough to show that she values the light he casts upon her over the life that might have burned in him, she concludes by saying that, "had I a dozen sons," she would prefer that they all "die nobly for their country," than that one live at ease.
Thus Marcius is defined by an awful contradiction. He belongs most to himself when he belongs most to his mother. When she wishes him to run for consul, he is put into conflict, not really with himself, since he has no authentic self-driven self, but with the self that she has constructed within him, for him, which she now would see deconstructed and refashioned. No longer is he to be the proud soldier who needs no maternal nurture, who can release his fury at its absence in warfare, feed on the blood of others, and bring back his own spilled blood to feed his mother's pride. He must become a supplicant, humble himself to those whom he abhors and show the wounds to them which properly belong to his mother.
When he is unable to do that, Marcius comes in conflict with the populace and the tribunes of Rome. That encounter enrages him, but it does not undermine him or shake his core identity the way his mother's response threatens to do. When his failure to satisfy the plebeians becomes a failure to satisfy her, and the cause for a second instance of conflict with her, stronger than the first, that is when his world begins to totter. "I muse my mother / Does not approve me further," he says, in act 3, scene 2, after a tempestuous encounter in which he alienates the people with his scornful wrath. His mother, he protests, "was wont / To call them woolen vassals, things created / To buy and sell with groats." He was merely displaying towards the plebeians the very contempt his mother had taught him and approved in him. When Coriolanus asks her, "Why did you wish me milder—Would you have me / False to my nature," he defends himself saying, "I play / The man I am." I am being true to myself, he says, true to the man you have always had me be. This time she does not remain silent as she did when he expressed his reluctance to seek the office of consul but contradicts him with a reproach: "You might have been enough the man you are, / With striving less to be so."
Volumnia is counseling craft, but craft has never been his way. Marcius is open, forthright, and aggressive. It is the mark of his honor not to dissemble. It is the root of his identity to be what he seems and to seem what he is, to play the man and not the politician. She is teaching him a new lesson:
Lesser had been
The thwartings of your dispositions, if
You had not showed them how ye were disposed,
Ere they lacked power to cross you.
It makes him angry. "Let them hang," he says directing his wrath where it is permissible, not against his mother, where it is truly directed, but against the people. And she returns his anger, with irony. "Ay," she says, "and burn too," warning him of the likely consequences of his forthrightness. But he has never before had to concern himself with the fear of violence directed against himself or Rome. As a soldier, he has confronted and defeated it. As a mother, she had sent "him [to] seek danger where he was like to find fame." Now she reverses herself and tells him that in order to enjoy fame, he must temporize it with danger.
Marcius tries, but he is ill-disposed to remodel himself in the new image his mother presents him with., Fortified by his devotion to his honor and to his integrity, qualities which his mother first shaped in him, he is defeated in his attempt to abruptly change in order to expose himself to the people that he scorns, in order to seek their approval. And so, Coriolanus is banished from Rome, betrayed by motherland and mother. In his loss of self he seeks the only other fitting image of himself that he has ever regarded—Aufidius, whom he has made the mirror of himself—and presents himself to his rival for either extermination at his hand or assimilation into his identity. By this move, without even anticipating the consequences, Coriolanus puts his fundamental conflict, the one that must destroy him, out in the open. He becomes an open enemy of Rome and, just as surely, an enemy of his mother. When Coriolanus goes to battle against his motherland, heart hardened against his adversary as always, his mother's coup de grâce is to manage to transfer the conflict between rivals from the outer realm, where it is a matter of self against other, to the inner, where it is the self against the self. His mother turns his conflict with Rome and with her back into the conflict it has always been, a conflict of her making, a conflict with himself, a conflict in which, no matter which side wins, Coriolanus dies.
Source: Neil Heims, Critical Essay on Coriolanus, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007.
Jerald W. Spotswood
In the following excerpt, Spotswood examines Shakespeare's portrayal of mobs and social politics in Coriolanus. Whereas in earlier plays such as Julius Caesar, Shakespeare portrayed crowds as unruly mobs, in Coriolanus he depicts the crowd as a potentially legitimate political body in its own right. However, Spotswood argues that in the end, despite the evolution in his portrayal of crowds, Shakespeare "allows no authoritative voice to emerge from the masses."
For several recent critics, Shakespeare's shift from portraying the crowd as mob in early plays, like 2 Henry VI and Julius Caesar, to portraying the crowd as "political entity" in Coriolanus marks his "most radical position." Shakespeare's presentation of "different political structures" generates tremendous "political risks," according to Thomas Sorge. [in The Failure of Orthodoxy in Coriolanus]. For by offering the audience a choice of models—"the rule of one, the rule of the few, the rule of the many"—Coriolanus "potentially challenges authority's representation of monarchy as the only form of rule beneficial for England." While Sorge is correct in asserting that alternative models question the role of the monarch in society, the "rule of the many" (a model of "democracy," as Sorge calls it at one point) is not presented as a viable alternative. Too often in both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, the rule of the many is characterized as "Dissentious numbers pest'ring streets" (Cor. 4.6.7).
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- "John Brown" is a lesser-known 1963 ballad by Bob Dylan about a mother's pride in her soldier son and the terrible wreck of his life made by war.
- Julius Caesar (1599) is an earlier play written by Shakespeare using Roman subject matter and set in ancient Rome. This play has characters that are more accessible than Coriolanus, lacks a pivotal female character like Volumnia, and presents the plebeians more as a rabble than the sometimes thoughtful collection of citizens that Shakespeare shows them to be in Coriolanus.
- "Coriolan" (1932), a fragmentary post-World War I work by T. S. Eliot, is a modernist poem combining Roman and early twentieth century elements focusing first on the triumphal march home from war and then on the breakdown of the warrior leader as a civil servant.
- Germinal is an epic novel published by Emile Zola in 1885. Zola tells the story of exploited coal miners in mid-nineteenth century France, who rise up against the wealthy families who own the coal mines in an attempt to secure a decent livelihood; ultimately, the mine workers are defeated. The ambivalent relationship of the miners to Jacques Lantier, one of the leaders of the strike who is idealistic and also hot-headed, is woven into the story.
- Hard Times is Charles Dickens's 1854 novel. At the center of Dickens's novel about the struggle of exploited nineteenth-century English factory workers to live decently are Mr. Bounderby, the proud factory owner who has broken off his relationship to his mother, and Steven Blackpool, a poor worker who struggles to maintain his honor and integrity despite a corrupt union organizer.
- Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, written in 428 b.c.e., is one of the core works of western literature. It tells the story of a proud king who is humbled by a reversal of fortune. When he learns that he has inadvertently killed his father and married his mother, he puts out his eyes and is exiled from Thebes, his homeland.
- Johnny Tremain published in 1943 by Esther Forbes, is a historical novel for young adults depicting the social, economic, and political situation in Boston on the eve of the Revolutionary War. Its focus on the young silversmith, Johnny Tremain, engages the reader in problems of pride, responsibility, humbling experiences, and the role of social as well as individual duties in the development of a person's character.
- In The Weavers (1892), German playwright Gerhard Hauptman tells the story of an uprising of Silesian weavers in the 1840s.
Contrary to the assertion that Shakespeare endorses majoritarian rule in Coriolanus, I argue that Shakespeare symbolically disarms plebeians by depicting them as a socially indistinct mass: a "beast / With many heads" (Cor. 4.1.1-2) representing "such as cannot rule / Nor ever will be ruled." Shakespeare, of course, does not always fashion commoners quite so monstrously. Bottom, Dogberry, and the first gravedigger in Hamlet are all dignified with either names, occupations, or social histories. Bottom, a weaver, is "simply the best wit of any handicraftman in Athens" (MND 4.2.9-10). Dogberry is a "Constable in charge of the Watch" (Ado 1.1), and the first gravedigger has been "sexton here, man and boy, [for] thirty years" (Ham. 5.1.157-58). In placing these characters in positions of authority and in granting them the respect of their peers, Shakespeare sets them apart from the multitude and lends credence to their social commentary. Yet in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus—two plays concerned with the form and structure of body politic—Shakespeare allows no authoritative voice to emerge from the masses. In these two "political" plays, Shakespeare persistently marks off distinctions between elite and common culture by invoking a past in which military prowess determines social merit, thus leaving plebeians to appear as "fragments" to the singularity of patricians (Cor. 1.1.221). Like women portrayed in literature, who according to Virginia Woolf [in A Room of One's Own] "have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size," commoners in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus serve to reflect and enlarge the figure of the elite.
In denying commoners any level of status or any measure of individuality, which of course historically they did hold, Shakespeare rewrites individuality as a characteristic of the elite and denigrates collective action by associating it with a rabble that by definition holds no interest in the social order. For in contrast in the self-control and individual accomplishments displayed by aristocrats, collective action carries a taint or dishonor. As Claus Offe and Helmut Wiesenthal observe, [in their essay "Two Logics of Collective Action: Theoretical Notes on Social Class and Organizational Form"] "it is only the relatively powerless who will have reason to act non-individualistically on the basis of a notion of a collective identity that is both generated and presupposed by their association." To speak collectively implies that one lacks voice—and importance—as an individual. Clearly, collective action is something that a "rabble" does, not individuals … (Cor. 3.1.262).
The actions of plebeians are more restrained in Coriolanus as their overwhelming numbers are enough to convince patricians to give them "corn at their own rates" from the "the store-houses crammed with grain" (1.1.187, 78, 79) Although a "company of mutinous Citizens" armed with "staves, clubs, and other weapons" opens the play, they do not "Revenge! About! Seek! Burn! Fire! Kill! Slay!" (JC 3.2.200); instead they remain "prating" (1.1.466) Citing the verbal proficiency of plebeians in Coriolanus (always an attribute prized by literary critics), Annabel Patterson suggests [in Shakespeare and the Popular Voice] that Shakespeare has acquired an ear for the "popular voice." In Coriolanus the people "are allowed to speak for themselves; and in so doing present a critique of precisely those assumptions … that, in Julius Caesar permitted that easy, contemptuous dismissal." "Clearly," adds Sorge, "this is not a mindless, demoralized rabble." Shakespeare's "partial solution" to the problem of the "general will" is to counter "the negative implications of 'multitude'" with "intimations of majoritarianism" and "individualism." Shakespeare speaks the "popular voice," Annabel Patterson claims, when he represents plebeians as individuals rather than members of a collectivity.
Perhaps. But it seems to me that plebeians are powerful in Coriolanus when they act collectively, as demonstrated both in the grain uprising opening the play and, later, in banishing Coriolanus from Rome. When they are granted individual voices, as plebeians are in ceremoniously affirming Coriolanus's consulship, their power dissolves. Although every citizen is accorded a "single honour" (2.3.45) allowing them to give their "own voices" with their "own tongues" (2.3.46), the "divide and conquer" strategy of the ceremony ensures that the socially powerful Coriolanus meets the plebeians individually, rather than meeting them "in their ancient strength" as a collective force (4.2.7): they "are not to stay all together, but to come by him where he stands by ones, by twos, and by threes" (2.3.42-44). "[M]ocked," "flouted … downright," and "used … scornfully" by Coriolanus, the majority still "admit" him consul (2.3.159-). Although plebeians later "revoke" their "judgement" (2.3.218), they do so in their strength as a multitude, not in their weakness as powerless individuals. Shakespeare's plebeians are keenly aware of the limitation of their power as individuals, perhaps more keenly aware than a critic like Annabel Patterson who argues that in Coriolanus plebeian voices equal "votes." Indeed though plebeians "have power" in themselves to "deny" Coriolanus their "voices" for consul (2.3.1-4), "it is a power" that they "have no power to do" (2.3.5), for their role in the "ceremony" (2.2.142), as the third citizen points out, is not to question or even affirm the validity of Coriolanus's accomplishments, but to show that they are worthy of recognizing his nobility. To dispute the claim that Coriolanus is worth a "thousand to one good one" is to risk being called ungrateful and monstrous (2.2.79):
For if he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them; so if he tell us his noble deeds we must also tell him our noble acceptance of them. Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude, of the which we, being members, should bring ourselves to be monstrous members. (2.3.5-13)
Audible only en masse—not as individuals—plebeians must band together to claim voice, a voice that must only consent to the demands of political ritual.
Plebeians in Coriolanus can speak through their "Noble tribunes" (3.1.328), who are granted individuality by Shakespeare. As "Masters o'th' people" (2.2.51), Brutus and Sicinius are set apart from those they represent by their names and official titles. Yet their status are compromised by their association with the masses. Sicinius is mocked by Coriolanus for being no better than a "Triton of the minnows" (3.1.92) "[B]eing the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians" (2.1.93), both Brutus and Sicinius are taunted by Menenius for their inability to act as individuals: "I know you can do very little alone, for your helps are many, or else your actions would grow wondrous single. Your abilities are too infant-like for doing much alone" (2.1.34-37). Yet despite their own compromised status, the tribunes are slow to comprehend the powerlessness of their constituents when acting as individuals. "[L]essoned" and "fore-advised" by the tribunes to pass Coriolanus "unelected" (2.3.177, 191, 199), plebeians still "yield" him their voices (2.3.176). Their "ignorant election" (2.1.175), as Brutus and Sicinius later realize, can be blamed on the plebeians' "childish friendliness" (2.1.175)—their display of deference toward Coriolanus. Thus despite gaining "five tribunes … Of their own choice" (1.1.213-4), the plebeians' only real claim to political power is the limited power of speaking with "many mouths" as a "din confused" … (4.6.66, 3.3.20)
Despite the fact that early modern England was pervasively hierarchical—Shakespeare's own acting company included—Shakespeare persistently ignores distinctions below the level of gentleman in both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus. In doing so, Shakespeare both denigrates traditional modes of collective power and eliminates plebeians from individual rule and responsibility modeled after aristocratic behavior. Portrayed en masse, lacking any individuality, plebeians appear indistinguishable from one another. While plebeians are sometimes identified by their occupations, as the cobbler and the carpenter are in Julius Caesar and the host is in Coriolanus, Shakespeare gives his audience no sense about where these characters stand in relation to other plebeians. Like the grain hoarded by patricians in Coriolanus, individuality and placement within the social hierarchy are "goods" that Shakespeare excludes from plebeians …
In contrast to the outlines he sketches of the multitude, Shakespeare depicts patricians in vivid detail, granting them both individuality and a specific place within the social order. Invoking a past in which military prowess determines social merit, Shakespeare draws clear distinctions between elites and commoners. Being "Most like a soldier," Brutus is remembered as "the noblest Roman of them all." Coriolanus "is simply the rarest man i'th' world," for he "does exceed … all" plebeians "As far as doth the Capitol exceed / The meanest house in Rome." For Shakespeare's audience, the figure of the warrior would have remained a strong testament of an aristocrat's status and his right to rule in early modern England …
Military confrontation and its guarantee of winners and losers, of conqueror and conquered, displaces this image of communal tranquillity. Unlike the great warrior Aufidius, who clearly occupies a place in Coriolanus's memory, the poor man represents a function for Coriolanus, not a named and distinct individual. His body, neither notched in scars nor covered in blood, is remembered for the "kindly" service it has performed. Unlike the services of Coriolanus, those of the poor man do not distinguish him or grant him individuality. Not having performed military service, or at least not having been successful at it, the poor man becomes lost in the shuffle of common faces and common deeds, and Coriolanus falters in his attempts to repay his debt of gratitude, remembering not his name but only that a poor man has used him kindly.
In contrast to the poor man's lack of individuality, Coriolanus's name and reputation earn him status and respect even in Antium. "[D]isguised and muffled" in "mean apparel," Coriolanus enters the stage in act 4, scene 4, looking much like a poor commoner, and his "grim appearance" and "torn" clothing momentarily dissolve his "all-noble" status. Three of Aufidius's servingmen attempt to show Coriolanus "to the door," asking him "What have you to do here, fellow?" When Coriolanus identifies himself as a "gentleman," the third servingman replies mockingly, "Pray you, poor gentleman, take up some other station. Here's no place for you. Pray you, avoid. Come." Even Aufidius, who Coriolanus has "ever followed … with hate," cannot recognize this disguised warrior. Although Aufidius admits that this stranger "show'st a noble vessel" that "Bears a command in't," he cannot identify him, ordering Coriolanus to name himself six times in eleven lines. When Coriolanus finally complies—"My name is Caius Martius, who hath done / To thee particularly, and to all the Volsces, / Great hurt and mischief"—a "strange alteration" occurs. No longer ushered to the door by common servingmen, Coriolanus is "set at [the] upper end o'th' table" where "the senators … stand bald before him." Even Aufidius, general of the Volscian army, shows Coriolanus respect, turning "up the white o'th' eye to his discourse." As the second servingman reports, Coriolanus's "clothes made a false report of him," for "there was something in him."
Concerned primarily with intra-elite conflict and power struggle—not with the struggle of plebeians—Shakespeare focuses on the turbulent shift from a warrior to a "civilized" society …
In Coriolanus the integrity of patricians is threatened by Caius Martius's inability to "temporize" his actions. "[B]red i'th' wars / Since a could draw a sword," and "ill-schooled / In bolted language," Coriolanus cannot accommodate himself to "civilized" society. Coriolanus's actions, as Menenius chides him, "have been too rough, something too rough." Unlike Menenius, whose practiced paternalism earns him the title of "one that hath always loved the people," Coriolanus is tagged as "chief enemy to the people." For despite the twenty-seven "wounds upon him," which elevate Coriolanus to the status of not only the greatest soldier in Rome but also the patricians' prime candidate for council, Coriolanus's inability to mix "Honour and policy" makes him a "disease" within the aristocracy. Refusing to "perform a part," Coriolanus is "banished, / As enemy to the people and his country."
Focusing on intra-elite conflict, Shakespeare largely neglects the concerns of plebeians in both Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, in part, because he is bound by literary conventions that align tragedy with the most "high and excellent" and that which "is most worthy to be learned." In placing the "individual for the species, the one above the infinite many," tragedy sets our attitudes against the collective actions of commoners, as William Hazlitt argues [in The Complete Works]. Even if we do not identify with Coriolanus, the genre demands that we respect his individual accomplishments. Tragedy, [George Wilhelm Friedrich] Hegel insists [in Hegel on Tragedy], elicits "fear and pity" only when such emotions are embodied in a "man of nobility and greatness." In the estimation of both patricians and plebeians, Coriolanus is "a worthy man," for the "services he has done for his country" are achieved "all alone." Plebeians, who according to Menenius "can do very little alone," stand in sharp opposition to the individuality and tragic heroism displayed by Coriolanus. Shakespeare's juxtaposition of the collective suffering of plebeians embellishes Coriolanus's individual accomplishments …
In short, Shakespeare does not "conceive of 'everyman' as tragic." In portraying the elite tragically, that is seriously, Shakespeare isolates the few from the many and, in turn, validates military prowess and "civility" as attributes that privilege the select …
Source: Jerald W. Spotswood, "We Are Undone Already': Disarming the Multitude in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus," in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring 2000, pp. 61-79.
In the following essay (originally published in 1968), Wilson offers a psychoanalytic approach to Coriolanus, evaluating language and imagery that suggests Freudian conflicts within the play. The critic begins by analyzing the unique bodily imagery of Coriolanus, through which sexuality and war are thematically linked. Wilson also notes the psychological resonance of aggression in the play's family relationships. Oedipal, or incestuous, motifs appear as do Coriolanus's anxieties concerning his symbolic castration by his domineering and masculine—or "phallic"—mother, Volumnia. Wilson further explores Coriolanus's hostility toward his mother and his rebellion against her. This revolt, in turn, is characterized by the homoerotic overtones of Coriolanus's relationship with Aufidius—who also becomes a surrogate for Coriolanus's absent father—as the two men join forces to attack Rome, i.e. Volumnia.
In Coriolanus, Shakespeare adapted a plot from North's translation of Plutarch's Lives into an intensive exploration of a pathological mother-son relationship. It is the story of a son who attempts to rebel against his mother, to whom he has been inordinately attached. The son is ultimately destroyed when he renounces his rebellion and submits to his mother. In this paper, I wish to examine certain aspects of the play for the unconscious fantasies which may have determined the handling of the narrative material from which Shakespeare worked. In particular, I suggest that an examination of the wedding night references in the play is essential for an understanding of the work on a psychoanalytical level.
The play has sometimes been cited as peculiar among Shakespeare's works. Critics discern a "slackness" in Shakespeare's dramatic power. This slackness is supposed to be reflected in the way in which Shakespeare handled his source material. If we compare Shakespeare's adaptation with the original in North's translation, we find at several points an almost slavish closeness to the source. This dependence on North is so extensive that at first reading, the play seems little more than a simple dramatization of the plot from North. Editors have been able to make emendations and fill textual lacunae in the play by referring to North, so faithfully has Shakespeare followed his source. The later acts of the play, especially, show a marked increase in borrowing, and tend to rely almost exclusively on North. Shakespeare might, of course, have been under some merely temporal pressure to complete the play, but this marked change in the processing of the material could also have been due to the conflictual nature of the subject matter. At any rate, Shakespeare seems to have adhered doggedly to his source in order to finish his task.
Yet, the earlier acts and the characters introduced there involve a good deal of revision and reworking of the material. Shakespeare has developed certain characters and added others, and has elaborated on the relationship of Coriolanus to the various individuals who are significant to him. Further, Shakespeare's particular choices of expression in the play are striking. The language has been called harsh. The poetry seems at times to disguise only slightly some rather grotesque ideas. As an example of the grossness of thought, consider Coriolanus' rebuke to the tribunes for their failure to control the mob: "You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth?" These additions by Shakespeare to his source material are important for a psychological understanding of the play.
The peculiar imagery Shakespeare has chosen tends to support the view that the theme of the play was one to which the playwright was psychologically sensitive. The images tend to fall within a narrow range. Caroline Spurgeon found these to be concerned largely with bodily functions, sickness, and loss of diseased bodily parts. Blood, and things made bloody, are constantly mentioned. Stoller calls attention to the numerous staves, pikes, rakes, swords, and other phallic equivalents. There are many references to wounds and to parts of the body, or simply to parts. Coriolanus shouts angrily to the mob, "Go get you home, you fragments!" (1.1.211).
Combat and sexuality are often linked. Battles are described in sexual images, or talk of battle provides the opportunity for a reference to sexual activity. Cominius, the Roman commander-in-chief, proudly describes some teenage battle exploit of Coriolanus as occurring at an age when he might have acted "the woman in the scene" (2.2.92). Peace is a "great maker of cuckolds" (4.5.225). Coriolanus threatens to beat the Volscians "to their wives" (1.4.41). Volumnia, his mother, says of Coriolanus' impetuous attitude toward the mob,
… I know thou hadst rather
Follow thine enemy in a fiery gulf
Than flatter him in a bower.
Curiously, while Coriolanus is in battle in Act I, Volumnia and her friend go to visit a lady lying in (1.3.72).
Another significant group of images is oral. In this play of a mother-child relationship, there are frequent allusions to food, nourishment, ingestion, hunger, biting, or devouring. To note one important instance: Some servingmen are speaking of the personal rivalry between Coriolanus and his Volscian opponent, Aufidius. They recall the battle of Corioli:
First Serv. Before Corioli he [Coriolanus] scotched him and notched him like a carbonado [meat cut up for cooking].
Second Serv. And he had been cannibally given, he might have boiled and eaten him too. (4.5.186-89)
In some images, aggressive impulses are characteristically directed towards the interior of the body. Coriolanus' attacks on Rome are said to be "pouring war / Into the bowels of ungrateful Rome" (4.5.129). When Volumnia entreats Coriolanus to cease warring on Rome, he is said to want to tread upon his mother's womb (5.3.124). He is charged with
Making the mother, wife and child, to see
The son, the husband and the father, tearing
His country's bowels out.
This juxtaposition of aggression with the family relationships is striking, and provides unambiguous evidence of the symbolic character of the attack on Rome as an attack on those objects whom previously Coriolanus had loved. The repetition of this sort of imagery is impressive, and indicates the extent and strength of certain unconscious fantasies: the fear of being eaten, and the rage against the mother's engulfing body.
The Wedding Night
In the midst of these grotesque images of blood, aggression, and bodily destruction, there is a scene in which Coriolanus rises to intense lyric expression. In the battle at Corioli, he expresses the joy of victory, and greets his general, Cominius with
O, let me clip ye
In arms as sound as when I wooed; in heart
As merry as when our nuptial day was done,
And tapers burned to bedward!
Here, we find an obvious reference to a specific sexual event, and an unconscious reference in the phallic burning tapers. The significance of the image is further heightened by one other reference to a wedding night. When Coriolanus joins Aufidius as an ally against Rome, Aufidius expresses his joy by referring to his bride on her first crossing the threshold, and he declares that he is even more rapt by Coriolanus than he was by his bride:
Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married: never man
Sighed truer breath; but that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
Commentators have noted these two references to the wedding night. Perhaps the most insightful is Rank's brief discussion. However, the meaning of these two passages in Coriolanus has not been sufficiently explored. Further examination of these passages is important, for the wedding night images condense several major themes of the play.
To understand Coriolanus' reference to his wedding night, we need to examine the scene in which the reference occurs. Preceding Coriolanus' lyric recall of this event, there is a series of scenes of the battle before Corioli, in which Coriolanus is especially in danger of being deserted by his men and closed up within the gates of the enemy town. Coriolanus exhorts his soldiers to charge the Volscians when the battle first begins at the gates of Corioli. In particular, he threatens any stragglers with his "edge" (1.4.29). This threat proves insufficient. As Coriolanus follows the Volscians to the gates of their city, he still needs to urge the Roman soldiers to enter the gates with him:
So, now the gates are ope. Now prove good seconds.
'Tis for the followers fortune widens them,
Not for the fliers. Mark me, and do the like.
Yet precisely before the open gates, he is deserted. The Roman response to his exhortation is:
First Sol.: Foolhardiness. Not I.
Second Sol.: Nor I.
First Sol.: See, they have shut him in.
In Plutarch, when Coriolanus stormed the gates, others were with him. The complete abandonment is stressed by the soldiers: "He is himself alone, / To answer all the city" (1.4.52-53). They immediately suppose that he is dead, that he is gone "to th' pot" (1.4.48). In view of the recurrent theme of being eaten, it is very likely that those commentators are correct who suppose that the pot here is a cooking pot, and that the line means that Coriolanus has been cut to pieces.
The battle is carried by the Romans as their commander, Cominius, arrives. Coriolanus reappears, covered with blood. He sees Cominius and asks, "Come I too late?" Cominius replies, "Ay, if you come not in the blood of others, / But mantled in your own" (1.6.27-29). Coriolanus responds to the question whether he is wounded by saying that his arms are as sound as before he married, and then refers to his wedding night in an effusion of joy and enthusiasm. Curiously, Coriolanus does not give a direct answer to Cominius' question until he boasts later to Aufidius: "'Tis not my blood / Wherein thou seest me masked" (1.8.9-10).
In these scenes at Corioli, we have a battle in which the important elements are the opening and penetration of the enemy's defenses with the resulting danger of destruction to the attacker. Following the battle, there is a specific reference to the first sexual union between Coriolanus and his bride. As if to underscore the allusion to defloration, Cominius immediately after the wedding night memory, addresses Coriolanus as "Flower of warriors" (1.6.32). There is, I suggest, a symbolic parallel between the battle at Corioli and unconscious fantasies concerning the experience of the wedding night. The battle is, as it were, a symbolic re-enactment of the anxiety provoking sexual event, defloration. The battle scene at Corioli expresses the unconscious equation of coitus with a violent, damaging assault, an equation which we noted earlier in the imagery of the play. Castration anxieties aroused by coitus are heightened by the actual accompaniment of the sexual act by bleeding and a change in the female's bodily status. In the unconscious, defloration is equated with the castration of the sexual partner, and there is an associated dread of a mutilating retaliation. The feared punishment, castration, is symbolized in the battle by the danger of becoming entrapped within the gates, to be cut up and devoured. In the memory of defloration which follows the battle scenes, Coriolanus may well be attempting to deal with his terrifying discovery that he had created a sexual difference in his bride, by making her into a woman, i.e., a person who had been deprived of the phallus. Ultimately, the punishment that is dreaded for this act is a revenge by his mother on her son for having entertained these notions of assault against her body and, of course, on a deeper level, the woman who is castrated in the sexual act would be the phallic mother, Volumnia.
If I am correct in this analysis of the battle at Corioli, then the award of the name, "Coriolanus," for exploits in that battle may also be of psychological importance. For this, however, we must turn to a passage in North which has not been transferred to the play, but which may very well have influenced Shakespeare in his conception of the battle scenes. In the play, the hero receives his agnomen, "Coriolanus," as an honorary "trophy" for the events of the battle. The unconscious meaning of such a trophy is familiar to us as signifying the castration of the enemy and the sadistic wish to rob him of his penis. But from North's translation of Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus, we learn that the name could also have been given to signify, and to compensate for, an injury which the bearer of the name had received. In North, a lengthy discussion occurs on the Roman habit of according such names. In this passage North states:
Sometimes also [the Romans] give surnames derived of some mark of misfortune of the body. As Sylla, to say, "crooked-nose"; Niger, "black"; Rufus, "red"; Caecus, "blind"; Claudus, "lame." They did wisely in this thing to accustom men to think that neither the loss of sight nor other such misfortunes as may chance to men are any shame or disgrace unto them; but the manner was to answer boldly to such names, as if they were called by their proper names.
In view of this comment from North on the secondary meaning of an agnomen as commemorative of mutilation, there is a significant parallel to be noted between the attempt to master the psychological sequellae of mutilation by the award of a compensatory agnomen, and the use Shakespeare makes of the scene before Corioli as a repetition in symbolic form of an experience involving an intense fear of bodily mutilation in retaliation for forbidden sexual wishes. The same psychological mechanism would seem to be operative in the agnomen and in the repetition of the traumatic scene—the attempt to master a traumatic event by some compensatory maneuver after the fact. Coriolanus was wounded at Corioli, and when he stands for the consulship, Coriolanus must display the scars from the battle at Corioli, scars which mark him as having distinguished himself in the service of Rome just as much as his agnomen and other honors do. When Coriolanus rejects the subservient position which he had maintained to Volumnia in the first half of the play, he vehemently rejects his agnomen at the same time, and wants to forge another in the "fire of burning Rome" (5.1.14). There are thus some indications of a reversal of the significance of the name received at Corioli to represent Coriolanus' continued subservience to Volumnia, and his acquiescence in the role that she demanded of him.
The wound motif continues and further develops the fantasy which appears in the battle scenes at Corioli. The question of these wounds comes to dominate the scenes subsequent to the battle, and provides us with important information on the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother. The phallic castrating mother rejoices in his wounds for the purpose of going before the people: "O, he is wounded: I thank the gods for't" (2.1.107) because "there will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place" (2.1.132). It was a traditional requirement that all aspirants to the consulship stand before the populace and display battle wounds. Coriolanus, however, finds this custom ignominious and objectionable. The mob has from the first been presented as a cannibalistic threat to Coriolanus (1.1), and it has been suggested that the mob stands for the aggressive and dangerous aspects of the mother. Coriolanus' reluctance to display his wounds to the mob is Shakespeare's modification of his source, for in Plutarch the problem does not arise at all. Moreover, standing for the consulship is Volumnia's idea, and Coriolanus can be prevailed upon to go to the people with his wounds only at his mother's insistent cajoling and threats. Volumnia's wish to see her son as a consul, and her role in forcing him to submit to the people, give evidence of the way in which Shakespeare has adapted the plot to strengthen the dominating influence which Volumnia has over her son. Just as she had rejoiced in his wounds, the mob is to see in these same wounds evidence that Coriolanus loves and will faithfully serve Rome. Volumnia thus forces Coriolanus into a position of pleasing and placating the aggressive aspects of herself which the mob symbolizes. Coriolanus can flatter the mob only if he shows his wounds, i.e., if he shows those symbols of castration which were needed to continue in his mother's favor. The sexual nature of the display of his body to the populace is suggested when Volumnia says that it is to "flatter [his enemy] in a bower" (3.2.92). Menenius excuses Coriolanus' insolence by "He loves your people, / But tie him not to be their bedfellow" (2.2.60-61). But it is clear that this is a sexual submission, not a conquest. At the moment of capitulation to Volumnia's urgings, Coriolanus launches a torrent of petulant language showing that his position is not only ignominious but also a threat to his masculinity. To submit will make his voice "Small as an eunuch …" (3.2.114). Finally he begins to speak as a little boy:
Mother, I am going to the market place:
Chide me no more … Look, I am going.
Rebellion against the Phallic Mother
I have so far explored Coriolanus in those sections which express the fantasies associated with the active phase of the Oedipus complex and the expected castration by the phallic mother for entertaining aggressive impulses toward her. I now turn to the episodes in which Coriolanus rebels against the phallic mother and seeks an alternative expression of his oedipal striving. Coriolanus abandons Rome and his mother, and turns traitor to the Romans, joining with their traditional enemies, the Volscians.
Rebellion is introduced in the opening scene, in which the Roman mob is about to turn against established authority. The mob is quieted, by means of a tale of another rebellion, that of the body's members against the belly (1.1). This theme of betrayal is sustained throughout the play. In certain passages, a sexual betrayal is clearly suggested. In the scene immediately preceding Coriolanus' suit to join Aufidius and betray the Romans, a Roman traitor and a Volscian spy meet to exchange information and the following comment is made:
I have heard it said the fittest time to corrupt a man's wife is when she's fallen out with her husband (4.3.26-28)
These frequent allusions to treachery and betrayal provide a background for the behavior of Coriolanus, who is at first falsely, and later with some justification, labelled a traitor. It is the false charge of treason that provokes Coriolanus and provides him with the excuse to become a traitor in fact by leading an attack on Rome at the head of the Volscian forces. When Coriolanus capitulates to his mother's entreaties in Act V and leaves off his attack on Rome, he is in the awkward position of betraying the Volscian cause which he had joined. Aufidius can justifiably charge him with treason and demand his death.
There are, in addition, some clear indications of Coriolanus' extreme ambivalence toward his libidinal objects. This ambivalence is expressed in a total repudiation and withdrawal when negative feelings have been aroused. In changing allegiance from Rome to the Volscians, Coriolanus plots the total destruction of Rome. When Coriolanus left Rome in Act IV, he was still friendly with his party in Rome, and was ready to acknowledge and express his affection for his mother and his family. In Act V, he rejects all overtures from these friends. In Plutarch, Coriolanus is milder and shrewder. He spares the goods and estates of the nobles in his war on Rome, thereby spreading party dissension in Rome. Revenge on Rome in the form of a humiliating surrender would have been satisfactory for Plutarch's Coriolanus. In Shakespeare, nothing short of the destruction and burning of Rome itself will do. Coriolanus rejects Menenius, his mother Volumnia, and his wife. At the moment that Volumnia's embassy arrives at the Volscian camp, Coriolanus resolves to "stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin" (5.3.35-37). He had made the same resolve to Menenius earlier: "Wife, mother, child, I know not. My affairs / Are servanted to others" (5.2.75-76). This insistence on a complete rejection is characteristic of Shakespeare's Coriolanus, who seems unable to tolerate any ambiguity in situations which involve his emotional commitment.
In addition, Coriolanus views any struggle for power with extreme anxiety. He resents the newly established office of tribune. Where, in North's version, Coriolanus' objection is restrained, in Shakespeare, Coriolanus objects to the Tribuneship because
It makes the consuls base! and my soul aches
To know, when two authorities are up,
Neither supreme, how soon confusion
May enter 'twixt the gap of both and take
The one by th'other.
It is reasonable to suppose that the prototypes in the unconscious of these two warring authorities are to be found in the original family situation, with parental roles presumably confused and conflicting, providing the opportunity to exploit and intensify the difficulties between the parents, and to play one off against the other.
In his soliloquy just before he goes over to the Volscians as an enemy of Rome, Coriolanus also expresses the theme of ambivalence and his concern with the struggle for supremacy:
O world, thy slippery turns! Friends now fast sworn,
Whose double bosoms seems to wear one heart,
Whose hours, whose bed, whose meal and exercise
Are still together, who twin, as 'twere, in love
Unseparable, shall within this hour,
On a dissension of a doit, break out
To bitterest enmity. So, fellest foes,
Whose passions and whose plots have broke their sleep
To take the one the other, by some chance,
Some trick not worth an egg, shall grow dear friends
And interjoin their issues. So with me:
My birthplace hate I, and my love's upon
This enemy town.
Here, Coriolanus anticipates the intensely homoerotic relationship into which he is about to move, when Aufidius will want to "twine" his arms around him (4.5.105). Yet he also anticipates the outcome of the trust he is about to place in Aufidius, for a moment after this extended comment on the transiency of human relationships, we see Coriolanus embraced as a bosom friend, and welcomed with greater joy than the welcome accorded a new bride, by the man who will shortly bring about his death.
Quest for a Surrogate Father
I will now examine the aspects of the play which indicate Coriolanus' attempt to institute a satisfactory expression of the passive phase of the Oedipus complex, in which he aspires to be loved by a powerful father, displacing his mother as his father's primary object.
Coriolanus' biological father remains vague in both North and Shakespeare. Yet two figures in the play serve as psychological representatives of a father to Coriolanus. One of these is the old family friend, Menenius. The other is Aufidius, who becomes an idealized father after the rejection of Volumnia. Menenius is an apt psychological symbol for the weak and conquered father appropriate to Coriolanus' wishes in the active phase of the Oedipus complex in which Volumnia is in the ascendancy as Coriolanus' object. Shakespeare developed the charming and complex character of Menenius almost independently of North, who gives only a few hints concerning a gentle old man who was loved by the people, and was a good choice to carry the Senate's message to a rebellious populace. But Menenius remains a weak person, especially in comparison with the stalwart Volumnia. He fawns over a letter which Coriolanus had written him, in a fashion virtually indistinguishable from the responses of the women who have also received letters (2.1). Perhaps the most masterly touch in the contrast of Volumnia and Menenius is in their parting exchange after Coriolanus has been accompanied to the gates of Rome as he goes into exile. Menenius' response to this day of emotional trials is to note that he is hungry and to arrange for dinner. Not so for Volumnia:
Men: You'll sup with me?
Vol: Anger's my meat: I sup upon myself
And so shall starve with feeding.
Many passages explicitly refer to Menenius as Coriolanus' father. In his embassy to save Rome, Menenius declares confidently to a guard who is preventing him from seeing Coriolanus, "You shall perceive that a Jack guardant cannot office me from my son Coriolanus" (5.2.59). It is also apparent that the relationship is erotically tinged. Menenius in his frustration shouts at the guard, "I tell thee, fellow, / Thy general is my lover" (5.2.13-14), and Coriolanus, after sending the disappointed old man away, says: "This man, Aufidius, / Was my beloved in Rome" (5.2.85-86). It would seem that Menenius adulated Coriolanus too much to be an ideal substitute for the missing father. Menenius boasts, for example, "I have been / The book of his good acts" (5.2.13-14). Also, Menenius often acts as Volumnia's agent, i.e., as a person who can appeal to Coriolanus and affect his behavior only through Coriolanus' respect and awe for his mother. As Coriolanus' anger against the mob is beginning to get out of control, Menenius attempts to restrain Coriolanus with: "Is this the promise that you made to your mother?" (3.3.87).
In opposition to the quasi-familial situation of the earlier scenes of the play in which a strong mother dominates both Coriolanus and his weak, defeated, and castrated father, there is later the alternative oedipal solution in which Coriolanus repudiates his mother, and all her symbolic representatives, to seek out the strong, masculine father. The awesome figure of Aufidius, a marked contrast to Menenius, provides the second father symbol in the play.
The turn to Aufidius involves an intense and passive homoerotic relationship, for which we have been prepared. Even while Coriolanus and Aufidius are still enemies, Aufidius was admired. Coriolanus tells us in Act I:
I sin in envying his nobility;
And were I anything but what I am,
I would wish me only he.
Passive homosexual yearnings which Coriolanus had felt for a strong father now find expression in the renunciation of Volumnia in favor of a loving relationship with the virile Aufidius. The second allusion to a wedding night occurs in Act IV, when Aufidius welcomes Coriolanus as an ally. This time, however, it is Aufidius who thinks of his wedding night. Coriolanus is clearly supplanting Aufidius' previous erotic attachment to a woman. This new and strong father is eager to accept Coriolanus, and he looks on Coriolanus as on a bride crossing the threshold, even preferring his present happiness with Coriolanus to his wedding night.
The sexual character of this turning from Volumnia to Aufidius is also shown in the banter with the servingmen in this scene:
Serv: How, Sir! Do you meddle with my master?
Cor: Ay, 'tis an honester service than to meddle with thy mistress.
A servingman later says that Aufidius now loves Coriolanus as a woman: "Our general himself makes a mistress of him …" (4.5.194).
Earlier, Coriolanus was able to express his memory of defloration anxieties as he embraced Cominius, that is, when he is protected in a homoerotic embrace he can recall the threatening heterosexual experience. Another such embrace occurs between Aufidius and Coriolanus. In both scenes containing the wedding night allusions, the same word is used for this embrace, viz., "clip." Coriolanus had turned to Cominius with the words: "O, let me clip ye / In arms as sound as when I wooed …" (1.6.29-30). In his welcome to Coriolanus, Aufidius uses this word also:
Auf: Here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valor. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married….
In Elizabethan English, "clip" would have meant both "to embrace" and "to cut off." In this repeated word, we thus have an unconscious continuation of the theme of castration which links the two wedding night allusions.
The embrace with Aufidius involves, on the unconscious level, the necessity for undergoing castration as a precondition of the father's love. To gain the love of Aufidius, Coriolanus must reject his city, his family, his mother, he must hate his birthplace, and turn his love onto the man who had previously been his rival. It is precisely the question of what further price must be paid to be loved by Aufidius that leads to difficulties in the new role as Aufidius' minion. Earlier, we saw that Coriolanus had feared castration as a retaliation for what he had wished to do to his mother. Now he expects that he must give up his masculinity in order to be loved by the strong and virile father.
Coriolanus attempts to meet this condition, on a symbolic level. In his soliloquy he had anticipated an eventual rivalry and falling out with Aufidius (4.4.12). Passages in the play indicate Coriolanus' self-destructive tendencies which will cause his own downfall. The tribunes had recognized this self-destructive trait and used it to their advantage. Brutus hoped to make Coriolanus angry because
then he speaks
What's in his heart; and that is there which looks
With us to break his neck.
Aufidius' jealousy is aroused when Coriolanus becomes haughty by the honors bestowed on him by the Volscians. When Volumnia's pleas prevail and the attack against Rome is called off, Coriolanus has in effect given Aufidius sufficient reason for anger. Coriolanus sees his own downfall, although he feels helpless to control or modify the events:
O my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But, for your son, believe it, O, believe it,
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come.
He has betrayed the Volscians, and it is with this that Aufidius charges him, and justifies killing him.
The relationship with Aufidius is incomplete until he has made an attack on Coriolanus' body. On a deeper level, Coriolanus' death at the hands of Aufidius is also a love-union with Aufidius, which has been achieved by giving up his masculinity. By the equation of death and castration, Coriolanus has obtained the longed-for union with his father. At the moment of this attack, Coriolanus is denied his agnomen and condescendingly called "boy" instead. Almost the last breath Coriolanus takes is expended in his anger at this name of "boy." He boasts of his exploits at Corioli:
That, like an eagle in a dovecote, I
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioli
Alone I did it. "Boy!"
In his anger, Coriolanus recalls his role at Corioli, an episode which symbolized a mutilating attack on the mother's body. This memory occurs precisely at the moment when he is to succumb to a mutilating attack by the strong father to whom he had offered himself as a love object. His identification with his mother is now complete, for he is about to be attacked and loved by his father in her stead, just as he had once desired to love her.
In summary: We may regard the earlier portions of Coriolanus as an articulation of the conflict found in those family constellations in which the father abdicates his function as a masculine figure for the son to identify with and to form an ego ideal. Menenius fulfilled this role symbolically in the initial situation. There is a splitting of the unconscious elements, with the defeat and castration of the father pushed into the past as an historical death, while certain aspects of the father are displaced on to Menenius in the present. In the place of a strong father, there is the ineffectual Menenius, whom Coriolanus may disregard as a feared rival for his mother.
However, Coriolanus' incestuous strivings are constantly stimulated and intensified by Volumnia in her erotization of the relationship. Coriolanus fears being engulfed by Volumnia in her ambitious designs to use him for her own goals. He is to function as her penile projection, by winning victories which will make her proud and give her opportunity to extol her blood. She would prefer military exploits to any show of tenderness:
If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love. (1.3.2-4)
The ego boundaries between mother and son are vague and indistinct. Coriolanus feels undifferentiated from his mother who is inimical to his development as an individual distinct from her. Coriolanus' view of his male role is thus markedly disturbed.
The sexualized attachment to Volumnia is uncomfortable because of the awareness of his hostility toward her, and of his aggressive impulses directed toward her body. Coriolanus has to deal not only with his own aggression and hatred, but also with the tendency to project this aggression on to its object in the form of anticipated retaliation for these angry and hostile feelings. Coriolanus is operating on the phallic dichotomy of "having a penis" vs. "being castrated." These were precisely the themes involved in the wedding night reference in Act I, viz., the belief that in intercourse violence is done to the woman's body, and the expectation of castrating punishment for this violence. The symbolic representation of this engulfment and destruction takes place in the battle when Coriolanus is closed off within the enemy gates and supposed dead.
Along with the fears of being castrated by the phallic mother, Coriolanus has feminine, passive wishes to submit to a strong father, even if the price is castration as a precondition for the father's love. The later portions of the play articulate this intense wish for a virile, loving father. Coriolanus joins with Aufidius to war against the mother's body, pouring war into her bowels, and treading upon her womb. Aggression towards Volumnia, which had in the earlier sections of the play been symbolically channeled on to the mob as representative of the mother, is now expressed by the massive rejection of Rome, birthplace, and mother. Aufidius and Coriolanus unite in love for one another and in mutual hatred for Rome and mother. Yet this solution is not completely successful until Aufidius is provoked to attack Coriolanus' own body, and Coriolanus achieves a love-death at the hands of the father for whom he had so ardently yearned.
Source: Emmet Wilson Jr., "Coriolanus: The Anxious Bridegroom," originally published in American Imago, Vol. 25, 1968. Reprinted in 'Coriolanus': Critical Essays, edited by David Wheeler, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995, pp. 93-110.
In his critical introduction to Coriolanus, Kermode surveys the principal areas of interest in the play. He examines Shakespeare's departure from the primary historical source of the drama, the writings of Plutarch. He comments on the deeply flawed character of Coriolanus, whose "aristocratic loutishness," ferocity, and overdeveloped sense of virtus—the duty of a man—culminate in tragedy. Kermode mentions the relevance of Aristotle's dictum, "a man incapable of living in society is either a god or a beast," as it applies to the figure of Coriolanus. Kermode likewise envisions the theme of the work as the Roman warrior's inability to curb the source of his strength—his brutality on the battlefield—when dealing in the political arena, an area that requires cunning and tact rather than the raw might Coriolanus possesses in abundance. Finally, Kermode considers the subject of language in the play, including the overarching metaphor of the diseased body politic, and describes the "decorous power" of Shakespeare's verse.
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Source: Frank Kermode, "Coriolanus," in The Riverside Shakespeare, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974, pp. 1392-95.
Adelman, Janet, "Escaping the Matrix: The Construction of Masculinity in Coriolanus," in New Casebooks: Shakespeare's Tragedies, edited by Susan Zimmerman, St. Martin's Press, 1998, p. 23.
Barton, Anne, "Livy, Machiavelli and Coriolanus," in Essays, Mainly Shakespearean, Cambridge University Press, 1994, pp. 152, 159.
Bloom, Harold, "Coriolanus," in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Riverhead Books, 1998.
Bradley, A. C., "Coriolanus," in Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, edited by Reuben Brower, Signet/New American Library, 1966, pp. 250-51.
Eliot T. S., "Hamlet and His Problems" in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, 1922.
Kermode, Frank, "Coriolanus," in Shakespeare's Language, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000, p. 243.
Shakespeare, William, The Tragedy of Coriolanus, edited by Reuben Brower, Signet/New American Library, 1966.
Traversi, Derek, "Coriolanus," in Shakespeare: The Roman Plays, Hollis & Carter, 1963 p. 207.
Waith, Eugene M., "Coriolanus," in The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden, Columbia University Press, 1962, p. 143.
Willet, John, ed., "Study of the First Scene of Shakespeare's Coriolanus," in Brecht on Theater, Hill and Wang, 1957, pp. 252-65.
Cantor, Paul A, Shakespeare's Rome: Republic and Empire, Cornell University Press, 1976.
In a study of Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra, Cantor contrasts the roles of republican and imperial Rome with regard to government, liberty, tyranny, and erotic love.
Garganigo, Alex, "Coriolanus, the Union Controversy, and Access to the Royal Person," in Studies in English Literature, 1500–1900, Spring 2002, Vol. 42, No. 2, pp. 335-60.
Garganigo argues that the concentration on the body, particularly as it is expressed in the fable of the body, which is prevalent in Coriolanus implicitly alludes to King James's desire to use the wholeness of the king's body, his own physical body, as an emblem of the body politic in his effort to unite the kingdoms of England and Scotland into one political body.
Pettet, E. C., "Coriolanus and the Midlands Insurrection of 1607," in Shakespeare Survey 3, 1950, pp. 34-42.
Pettet discusses the relation of the Midland riots of 1607 to Coriolanus and suggests that Shakespeare sided with the patricians against the plebeians in the play.
Spotswood, Jerald W., "'We are undone already': Disarming the Multitude in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, in Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Spring 2000, Vol. 42, No. 1, pp. 61-79.
Spotswood argues that, in his Roman plays, Shakespeare presents the members of the mobs without granting them individual identities or distinguishing them from each other, consequently denigrating collective action and, at the same time, portraying members of the aristocracy as individuals capable of being tragic.
Coriolanus (Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus) (kôr´ēəlā´nəs), Roman patrician. He is said to have derived his name from the capture of the Volscian city Corioli. According to legend he was expelled from Rome because he demanded the abolition of the people's tribunate in return for distributing state grain to the starving plebeians. He joined the Volscians and led (491? BC) them in an attack on Rome. Only the tears of his wife and his mother caused him to spare the city. The angry and frustrated Volscians put him to death. Plutarch tells the story, and Shakespeare's Coriolanus is based on Plutarch.