When in Rome, Do as Coriolanus Doesn’t
Particularly interesting in a genre that by its definition is meant to be a crowd-pleaser, Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus provides a protagonist who is not particularly likeable. Constantly insulting in his speech, prideful and short-tempered, Coriolanus, unlike his mother Volumnia, is neither able nor willing to accommodate political necessities in Rome. His shortcoming may be viewed as a character fault, or simply a product of his culture.
There is evidence that Coriolanus is not able to compromise, equivocate, or be diplomatic simply by his very nature. He would have us believe that it is his unfailing love of the truth that prevents him from any sort of political accommodation. To pander to the plebeians, show off his scars, or even withhold his tongue would be somehow dishonorable. This may be an element in his reticence, but it cannot be everything, for as Volumnia points out, he is completely willing to use less-than-honest strategy in warfare, such as by saying false niceties to win over a town that otherwise would be a tough battle and cost many lives. Coriolanus knows how to be diplomatic; he simply refuses to be so in the political sphere.
Nonetheless, there are other factors that may explain his shortcoming. For better or for worse, we are given the indication that Coriolanus has always been controlled by his mother, Volumnia. She is a strong, downright overbearing presence in his life. From the very beginning, it is observed that as for all of his military achievements, he “did it to please his mother” (I.1.36-37). She has crafted him and manipulated him to be the perfect warrior, vicariously living through him to achieve glories that she cannot. This being so, a few possibilities present themselves. Firstly, we may imagine that Volumnia, who for whatever reason is and always has been quite crafty, has purposely reared her son to be headstrong and dislikeable, because were he to be good at the same sorts of verbal games that she is good at, it would be a threat to her control of him. It is much easier to manipulate someone defenseless then someone who understands the “game” equally well.
A second possibility is that Coriolanus willfully rejects his mother in the only way permitted him, passive-aggressively. He says of himself that, although he thinks he deserves it, he does not actually want the consulship. It would be socially unacceptable for him not to pursue it, and regardless, he cannot tell his mother no. However, saying yes and then doing a poor job in pursuing it will work just as well. In this way, he may be purposefully inciting the plebeians so as to ensure that he will not be consul, and therefore escape that which, for whatever reason, he did not desire. Self-destruction may be the only escape he can allow himself. The toll it takes on him personally makes this possibility less likely, but at the very least he may be rebelling against his mother by rebelling against her techniques, which have always ruled his life, in refusing to use the dramatic skills she coaches on him.
A third possibility is that Volumnia purposely destroys her son. She says that she wishes he were killed on the battlefield – that is, his glory is more important than his life. Perhaps she, knowing her son’s disposition, maneuvered him into a position in which she knew he would incite the plebeians, so that she could gain either personal or secondary glory. The personal cost to her makes this idea somewhat far-fetched, but it is interesting nonetheless, especially as it is her own wiles that do eventually bring about his destruction, just as before they had always motivated him to achievement.
There are also reasons irrespective of his mother that might explain his tragedy. He may simply have a short temper. He is constantly baited by the Tribunes, and even when he agrees to ask for the people’s vote, he does so insultingly. His pride may also prevent him from what seems like debasement. Although he makes affectations of humility, readers are left with the feeling that his dislike of hearing compliments is due to excessive pride; the compliments of people so far below him mean nothing to him. He sees himself as someone who is by necessity alone, because he has no peers. Conflict is the only state of affairs that he understands, and so even when it does not exist, he creates it. Combined with his extreme prejudice against the lower classes, he decides not to deal with them politically and deliberately baits them.
In this way, he is at least somewhat a product of the Roman military culture. He compromises on the battlefield because he is generally dealing with equals; in the domestic arena, though, the plebeians are so far below him that they do not merit any respect whatsoever. In his opinion, they are non-entities. This attitude may be a product of his privileged status, his experience on the battlefield, or the example he was reared with in the model of the despotic kings before him. Volumnia, though, is good at the compromise necessary in politics, because the city is her “domain.” While the men traditionally fight the wars, women guard the household, and so are more used to the necessities of civic life. Simply having to deal with men also would train them in round-about means of enforcing their will, where a man would simply fight to get his way. As a woman and a second-class citizen herself, she may also be more sensitive to the winds of political change that demand plebeians have equal rights to patricians, or may simply have confidence in her abilities to control the people either directly or through her son, once the consulship is secured. Coriolanus may also think that this sort of versatility in politics is associated with women, and to use it would be contrary to his own manliness.
Conceivably, Coriolanus may attempt to defend his intransigence as being true to “Romanness,” the military ideal. But irrespective, he certainly takes it too far, when he is more willing to sack his own town, killing his family and friends, then compromise at all. Either due to his relationship with his mother or something else, his short-temper and hubris leave him unable and unwilling to make the necessary overtures to the public. Rome is only narrowly saved from his stubbornness, and he assures his own self-destruction.
Name Brand – The Use of Names as Metonymy for Actions in Coriolanus
Mention Tonya Harding, Timothy McVeigh or Monica Lewinsky, and immediately the infamous deeds of each individual come to mind. Each of these names meant nothing until actions such as sex and violence became associated with them. Monica Lewinsky’s name became so recognizable that she used her name alone to try to sell a line of handbags. This concept of a name embodying of particular set of actions is significant in understanding Coriolanus. Shakespeare uses names as metonymy for only the actions of a person, illustrating both advantageous and disastrous consequences of this simplistic association.
Despite the fact that the man’s name is never revealed, the poor host who lodges Coriolanus is a principal example of the importance of linking a name and actions. Coriolanus, in trying to graciously repay people that helped him conquer Aufidius and the Volsces, speaks glowingly of a man who gave him accommodations while he was in the field. He us’d me kindly, he cried to me (I:ix 83), Coriolanus praises, establishing that the men were close enough to cry together. Coriolanus saw the man taken as a prisoner just as he spotted Aufidius, and requests of Cominius that he, give [his] poor host freedom (I:ix 87). Cominius is more than willing to accommodate this request, and his fellow general Lartius simply asks, Martius, his name (I:ix 89). Despite crying with this man and the extraordinary kindness the man showed him, Coriolanus responds, By Jupiter, I forgot! (I:ix 90) Not only has his name been forgotten, but within two lines Coriolanus is discussing more important matters, such as where the wine is located. In this case, having his name firmly established with his kind deed would have freed the man from being a prisoner of war, illustrating the importance of having one’s name represent their deeds.
Shakespeare less subtly illustrates the beneficial metonymy of names for actions with the surname Coriolanus being given to Caius Martius. Cominius, after listing many of the brave military deeds the still-bloody Caius Martius did for Rome, proclaims, For what he did before Corioles, call him Coriolanus (I:ix 63-65). Shakespeare makes a name literally a representation of actions by having it bestowed because of his heroic leadership. The name Coriolanus would not exist in the play without the valiant deeds that won the name for Caius Martius, and it is from the name Coriolanus that the people of Rome decide to elect him consul. Instead of showing the people his wounds, another signifier of his service to Rome, he is elected on the basis of winning his new surname, strengthening the link between a name and actions.
However, Shakespeare refuses to be satisfied with portraying only a heroic connection between name and actions, and explores a different perspective during Coriolanus’s exile. Coriolanus goes to the house of his mortal enemy Aufidius in disguise, and Aufidius is suspicious of the vagabond in his house. He asks for Coriolanus’s name, which Coriolanus is reluctant to give because of what it signifies. ‘A name unmusical to the Volscians’ ears, And harsh in sound to thine (IV:v 58), Coriolanus responds, choosing to postpone giving his name. Coriolanus finally relents, confessing his name and that Aufidius should, witness my surname, Coriolanus (IV:v 67-68), was won from committing great hurt and mischief (IV:v 67), against the Volsces. He continues on that, despite his name symbolizing atrocities against the Volsces, only that name remains (IV:v73). Coriolanus does not want his name is be a metonymy for his military exploits, and endeavors to break this connection by suggesting that he carries only the name now, not the malice that it represents.
While it seems that Coriolanus succeeds in this goal and wins over Aufidius, ultimately it is revealed that Aufidius merely pretended to disassociate Coriolanus from the violence perpetrated against his countrymen. In the final scene, Aufidius declares Coriolanus a traitor, adding insult to injury by addressing him as Martius. Coriolanus is insulted at being referenced as just Martius, and Aufidius exposes his scorn of the name by responding, Ay, Martius, Caius Martius! Dost thou think I’ll grace thee with that robbery, they stol’n name Coriolanus, in Corioles (V:vi 87-89) Aufidius never forgot what the name Coriolanus represented, and uses it as justification to brand him a traitor and kill him. Despite his best efforts to disengage his name from his actions, the bond is so strong that Coriolanus fails.
Coriolanus does not come to a final conclusion about the value of a name representing only the actions of a person. This connection could have saved Coriolanus’s host from imprisonment, but also leads to Coriolanus’s death, illustrating the ambiguous nature of such an association. Is it fair to say that the host did not deserve to be imprisoned just because he was kind to Coriolanus? Perhaps he was a person of appalling moral character, but the reader is not allowed to explore that hypothesis because the host’s name has such an unwavering connection with his kind deeds only. By representing a person’s actions only through their name, instead of allowing it to stand for the many facets of a person, only a limited judgment can be drawn about a person. Coriolanus reinforces that just as you should never judge a book by its cover, you should not judge it by its title either.
False to my Nature?: Coriolanus and the Art of Supposition
In a play largely about politics, class struggles, and the right of rhetoric versus the will to action, what remains most interesting about Coriolanus is its titular character: a relatively laconic soldier thrust into an unchosen world. Whereas the plebeians in the play long only for a democratic voice, Coriolanus, the chief guardian of the people, remains hesitant to herald such liberty, for to him, sovereignty in mind and body must be earned. His rigid moral code not only ostracizes others from his world, but also showcases his narcissism; additionally, his discourteous way of living allows the narcissism of the plebeians to flourish. The characters’ shallow accusations and descriptions of Coriolanus serve little purpose in understanding the titular character; rather, these suppositions showcase the extent to which they, the other characters in the play, are willing to go to fill in the blanks of an imagined Coriolanus.
Before the character of Coriolanus is shown on-stage, the audience is given extreme suppositions about his character. The Tragedy of Coriolanus opens in the streets of Rome, where “mutinous citizens with staves, clubs, and other weapons” (stage directions; 1.1) are accusing Caius Martius, later to become Coriolanus, as the “chief enemy to the people” (1.1.5-6). The “mutinous citizens” later call him “a very dog to the commonality” (1.1.24) and someone who “cannot help [what is] in his nature” (1.1.35). Their systemic gossip continues upon arrival of “worthy Menenius Agrippa” (1.1.43), where the citizens are quick to characterize this new presence, discussing at lengths his honesty and altruism toward the people, even though Menenius compares the commoners to lesser members in the body of Rome (1.1.85-94) and even goes so far as to call the first citizen “the great toe” (1.1.137). This brawling exposition serves two primary purposes: it shows us that 1.) Coriolanus is full of political intrigue, a notion that promotes idle rhetoric and 2.) The rhetoric used by the citizens is highly presumptuous and shallow, encouraging each character to imaginatively and destructively fill in other characterizations.
The citizens of Rome are continually aware of Coriolanus. They feel his presence and discuss his triumphs; however, they are not capable of viewing any of his actions. Coriolanus lives and thrives in the harshness of the battlefield, an environment shielded from the commonality, forcing the citizens to rely on hearsay to know Coriolanus. This intrigue, in essence, promotes a gossiping mentality among the commoners and forces them to continually theorize upon the nature of Coriolanus. This “nature,” however, is never solidified by the characters. Brutus claims Coriolanus has a “gracious nature” (2.3.176), Sicinius claims he has a “surly nature” (2.3.184), and Menenius says that “his nature is too noble for the world” (3.1.255). Though it is true that Coriolanus “has no equal” (1.1.244), nothing is said about Coriolanus’s actual nature apart from claiming that he has “such a nature” (1.1.250). No one in the play is able to agree on Coriolanus’s characteristics, for they are each filling Coriolanus’s voids with their own suppositions, something mimicked and mocked in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
Whereas in many of Shakespeare’s other political dramas (Antony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus), idle words showcase a difference in the standards of empires, the rhetorical discrepancies in Coriolanus display the universal desire to share in power struggles. By defining Coriolanus, the characters, particularly the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus, are able to associate themselves with notions of respect, honor, and integrity. Lacking tangible political power, the tribunes depend upon rhetoric—quite literally, the voice of the people—to advance their own careers. They are not “chiefly” concerned by Coriolanus’s insouciance toward the citizens of Rome; rather, they are using Coriolanus as a scapegoat—one that they have picked and artificially defined—to roil up the masses. Even Menenius, who is popular among the plebeians and holds a discernible level of power, showcases his narcissism by using deliberation as a way to strengthen his own political ambitions. It is evident that Coriolanus has no desire to become consul, but through the rhetoric of Volumnia and Menenius, Coriolanus agrees to run for political office, which, in turn strengthens the “nobility” of both Volumnia and Menenius.
Coriolanus, however, is not blameless in this system of supposition-driven narcissism. Unable to regain approval from the plebeians at the marketplace, he is banished from Rome, to which he derisively shouts back at the Plebeians,
“You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air: I banish you” (3.3.124-127).
Preceding this tirade, Coriolanus, attempting to appease the plebeians, says,
“Let me speak.
I have been consul, and can show for Rome
Her enemies’ marks upon me. I do love
My country’s good with a respect more tender,
More holy and profound, than mine own life” (3.3.113-117).
It is unquestionable that Coriolanus loves and respects Rome. He can show the extent to which he has fought for Rome and the extent to which he would again fight, when necessary; however, Coriolanus is unable to define Rome. A dichotomy is here introduced, separating Rome and Coriolanus from its citizens. Although he can love Rome, he hates the people who inhabit it, insulting them simply for “corrupt[ing his] air.” Such rampant egotism becomes narcissistic in that Coriolanus ignores the cries of the commoners, living in his own “sovereignty of nature” (4.7.35), as Aufidius says in Act IV; however, his true narcissistic qualities come not in his rampant ego, but simply through his imagination of Rome. When Coriolanus leaves Rome, the commoners are the ones who are actually banished. This reversal suggests that the absence of Coriolanus is equivalent to a forced exile, but also that Coriolanus, himself, is Rome.
Throughout the play, Coriolanus discusses at length the honor and integrity of Rome; however, he is unable to pinpoint what those honorable traits might entail—with the sole exception of the valor of battle. Instead of using the city’s people to incite a realization of Rome with depth and character, he fills in the idea of Rome with his own moral axioms, displacing the views of the commonality with a singular view. This assertion mimics the tale of Narcissus in that Coriolanus is not merely looking at himself when he looks at Rome, but that he is filling in the absence of Rome’s moral truth with himself (Harris). He is projecting his own systems of thought into the central philosophy of thousands of people, and from this projection, Coriolanus is able to gain a psychological sense of power and integrity, suggesting that he is only disinterested in becoming consul because he feels as though he is Rome and therefore already in command.
Exile, depending on popular opinion, is also a form of self-righteousness that Coriolanus displays. Before leaving Rome, he discusses the events that precipitate his departure with his family. Showing little emotion, he says “I shall be loved when I am lacked” (4.1.16), once again suggesting that Coriolanus’s central focus is on the saturation of descriptions that compose an opinion. His absence might encourage disdain, or it might encourage “love;” the only certainty is that, once again, the citizens of Rome will be forced to fill in the descriptions and opinions of the Coriolanus’s character. Even when forced, exile is also equivalent with self-dependency, indicating that Coriolanus’s willful acceptance of his newfound banishment exemplifies both his prideful nature and his narcissistic willingness to project himself into the world. Seeing exile as an honorable task, something equivalent to Hercules’s twelve “labors” (4.1.19), Coriolanus romanticizes his own ability to exist in a world that does not appreciate him.
Coriolanus seems to understand the plebeians more than the plebeians understand him. He acknowledges their concerns, knows their social and political limitations, and even understands the ways in which he could win their approval; however, Coriolanus still attempts to derisively define the plebeians, continually doling out insults and monikers. This type of narcissism, evident with the plebeians, is trivial compared to Coriolanus’s own attempts to assign definition to Tullus Aufidius, his noblest of enemies. Coriolanus, in his exile, seeks out Aufidius to ally forces against Rome. Not only is Coriolanus’s behavior indicative of his contempt for the average citizen—anyone who is not Coriolanus—but it also suggests an explicit cognizance of Aufidius’s nature, a cognizance impossible for Coriolanus to have, in spite of their many feuds. By asking to join forces with Aufidius, Coriolanus is essentially defining Aufidius, indicating, once again, Coriolanus’s pretentiousness, presumptuousness, and inherent narcissism.
From the instigative plebeians campaigning for food rations to their elected representative tribunes, from the popular Menenius to the shrill strategist Volumnia, each character is familiar with Coriolanus, but few, if any, can give depth or lucidity to their assumptions. They fill in his character with their own suppositions, and Coriolanus, in turn, fills in the world with visions of himself, creating a cyclical system of narcissism in which rhetoric corrupts the characterizations of all.
Harris, Jonathan Gil. “”Narcissus in thy Face”: Roman Desire and the Difference it Fakes in Antony and Cleopatra.” Shakespeare Quarterly 45.4 (1994): 408-425. Web.
Shakespeare, William. “Coriolanus.” Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Shakespeare: Based on the Oxford Edition . New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997. 2802-2880. Print.
Volumnia’s Dog: The Roman Classical Conditioning of Coriolanus
In William Shakespeare’s final tragedy Coriolanus, plebeians, senators, soldiers, enemies, and even some immediate family struggle in their attempts to indentify and characterize the essence of Caius Marcius Coriolanus. Coriolanus himself struggles for much of the final two acts of the play, trying out an identity that he ultimately realizes to be a contrived farce which contradicts his very nature. As much as Coriolanus would like to believe that he is author of himself, the evidence provided in Shakespeare’s text suggests otherwise. Despite the often fickle views of the plebeians and the subversive, dishonest attitudes held by Brutus and Sicinius, William Shakespeare’s text paints Coriolanus as a highly conditioned tool of the Roman state—an instrument of his mother Volumnia’s desires to purposefully breed a pure warrior, public servant, and the ultimate and ideal Roman citizen.Volumnia first conditions her son Caius Marcius as a young boy to be the ideal Roman warrior. She begins her training process by sending Marcius off “To a / cruel war” as a child (1.3.13-14), so that he may ‘prove himself to be a man’ (1.3.17). When hearing of this story, Virgilia, the wife of Coriolanus, expresses her displeasure and concern by asking Volumnia, “But had he died in the business, madam, / how then?” (1.3.18-19). Volumnia responds by saying that she had rather have eleven sons “die nobly for their country / than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” (1.3.24-25). Volumnia makes her distinction between duty and love very clear: It is more important for her that Marcius give his service, even if it means his life, to the state of the Rome. She thus subjects him at an early age to either prove himself an honorable man and warrior for Rome, or that he should die for choosing to live a life dedicated to the perusal of his own pleasures. Volumnia again reiterates her ideology when Virgilia expresses her anxiety and concerns for her husband being away at war. She tells Virgilia to express herself “in a more comfortable sort. If my son were / my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence / wherin he won honor than in the embracements of / his bed where he would show most love” (1.3.1-5). For Volumnia, to be Rome’s honorable warrior is even more important than one’s commitment to their family and children—one should not fret because their husband and child’s father may be gruesomely slain in battle, but that honor should outweigh all other virtues.Coriolanus directly reflects his mother’s conditioning through his actions and attitudes in being committed to the state. When speaking to his men, he scorns them for stealing spoils and being dishonorable to Rome, saying: “See here these movers that do prize their hours / At a cracked drachma!” (1.5.4-5). Coriolanus sees the spoils of monetary value as being morally and fundamentally worthless—he tells his men that honor, the only true value, can be achieved by having spirit for the state of Rome, and in fighting on their behalf.Coriolanus again displays Volumnia’s training as he wears the gown of humility and undergoes the ritual of humiliation to become consul for the betterment of Rome, despite having personal objections to the process. Though he does not wish to be publicly commended for his heroic service as a warrior, he undergoes the ritual on the grounds that it is tradition—as he says: “Custom calls me to’t…Rather than fool it so, / Let the high office and the honor go / To one that would do thus” (1.5.4-5). So despite his personal objections to the process, Coriolanus knows that it is a process of social custom and high importance to the Roman citizens. Instead of abstaining from the ancient custom, he partakes (to the best of his abilities) to do what is best for Rome and its citizens. Volumnia’s breeding has caused Coriolanus to forfeit any original, self-prescribed definitions of personal integrity; her conditioning has instead replaced self-examination and commitment to family with an ideal value system which places Roman honor and public service to the state above all other principles. Coriolanus only briefly loses his identity as a Roman warrior and public servant when Brutus and Sicinius falsely accuse him of being a traitor. As the Volumnia-formed foundation of his identity is pulled out from beneath him, he searches for a new role out of desperation. Being trained as a warrior, he naturally gravitates towards battle, and he attempts to be a mercenary-for-hire. The charade momentarily half-satisfies his quest—that is, until Volumnia reminds Coriolanus who he is and what he was raised to do. Volumnia teases out her son’s true identity when she says, “This fellow had a Volscian to his mother; / His wife is in Corioles, and his child / Like him by chance” (5.5.178-180). After Volumnia calls his bluff, Coriolanus can no longer stand to pretend anymore. He realizes that he is not simply a warrior, but a Roman warrior—he is not just any state’s citizen, but a committed Roman citizen whose very essence and duty is to the people of Rome and doing whatever is best for the state as a whole. Volumnia’s speech reminds Coriolanus where his commitments lay, and that he cannot escape his true Roman identity.Volumnia said in the very first act that she would rather have a son die nobly for the state than to seek-out his own pleasures, and she instills this in Coriolanus (1.3.24-25). He knows that he will die for brokering peace for Rome, yet he is still willing to do what is best for the state. It is precisely because of Volumnia’s conditioning and intentions to breed the ideal Roman citizen that Coriolanus’ life plays out as it does. Volumnia’s ideology is implanted into Marcius at a young age as she sends him off to battle to either prove an honorable man, or to die. Her teachings and ideals of what it means to be Rome’s warrior and servant directly cause Marcius to become Coriolanus, and pursue the life which we see before us. Volumnia single-handedly influences Marcius to value the state before family, honor before love, and public service before self-fleeting pleasures.Works CitedShakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Bevington, David. Sixth Edition. The University of Chicago: Pearson Education, Inc, 2009.
The Gendering of Tragedy: Honor in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus
Vengeance, chaos, uncertain honor and untimely death-whether describing the fall from grace of a noble king, impassioned General, or valiant warrior, each arises in the historically based tragedies of William Shakespeare. Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s account of the societal and self destruction of a Roman warrior paragon, proves no exception, depicting the demise that results from any character trait excess, even honor. This particular play introduces a further element of gender to fatal excess, providing, through the characters of Coriolanus and Volumnia, a theory on the relationship between masculine and feminine honor in Roman society, a relationship which, semantically intertwined and yet independent in actualization, leads to a conflict that necessitates the play’s tragic outcome in order to restore this chief virtue to both characters.
In Coriolanus both sexes value honor above limb, life, and love. Volumnia, a Roman matriarch and the primary female character in the play, establishes this value immediately upon her entrance into the plot, stating, “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” (1.3.2-5). This son, Coriolanus, echoes his mother’s verbal esteem for the virtue in action by leaving his wife and child whenever his station as honorable warrior demands, by welcoming the wounds consequent of those demands. Even the nobler of the minor characters reaffirm this value system. For example, Cominius, a Roman general and Coriolanus’ father figure, states with regard to his honorable service, “I do love / My country’s good with a respect more tender, / More holy and profound, than mine own life, / My dear wife’s estimate, her womb’s increase” (3.3.111-14).
Cominius, in this statement, declares not only honor’s significance to Shakespeare’s Romans but also the word’s signification within their society-sacrifice for patriotic defense, the product and producer of the “country’s good.” Both sexes share this definition, Coriolanus in particular expanding on it during the first act. When given his choice of Cominius’ best men to fight alongside, Coriolanus proclaims:
…if any fear
Lesser his person than an ill report,
If any think brave death outweighs bad life,
And that his country’s dearer than himself;
Let him alone, or so many so minded,
Wave thus, to express his disposition,
And follow Martius. (1.6.70-6)
This “ill report” to be feared represents the loss of one’s honor in the sight of his peers, an honor that Coriolanus links the high estimation of, in this statement, to an equal regard for one’s country. Tufts University professor Linda Bamber in her book Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare supports a semantic fusion between the genders’ perceptions of honor, noting the preference of not only the male but also the female, who represents a “fanaticism according to the dogma of ‘manhonor-fight,’” for a “bloody ambitious sort of honor” (91). Indeed, Volumnia demonstrates this very fanaticism in stating, “. . . had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and / none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had / rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one / voluptuously surfeit out of action” (1.3.22-5).
While the definitions of honor held by the two main characters coincide, their socially prescribed methods for obtaining this honor differ considerably. The male in Roman society, represented by Coriolanus, gains honor principally through physical participation in battle, a method inscribed upon the male in early childhood. Coriolanus’ son, for example, who in sharing his name represents an extension of the father to the audience, receives praise in the play’s text for the emergence of his warlike qualities when he tears apart a butterfly that had angered him in his pursuit of it (1.3.54-67). War, as the sole means of achieving masculine honor, further marks a patrician boy’s entrance into manhood, a ritual recounted by Volumnia when she notes “. . . To a cruel war I sent / [Coriolanus], from whence he returned, his brows bound with / oak . . . 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” (1.3.13-17). Through battle in their country’s defense, men symbolically achieve true masculinity and the honor it entails, something Will Fisher shows by noting that, while Coriolanus lacks signifiers such as a beard, “he performs martial feats which quite literally confer masculinity” (155).
Despite its realization independent of the physical signs of puberty, this masculine honor, bestowed as a result of the sacrifice of the self, requires symbols upon the self, specifically Coriolanus’ scars and cognomen, for Roman recognition. Cominius bestows the latter of these two symbols shortly after witnessing Coriolanus face and subdue an entire city alone, proclaiming, “For what he did before Corioles, call him, / With all th’ applause and clamor of the host, / Caius Martius Coriolanus. Bear / th’ addition nobly ever!” (1.9.62-5). Immediately upon his return to Rome with the noble addition, Coriolanus receives recognition of his honor’s extent from the general populace, who, despite their hatred of his supposed pride and unkind tongue, find themselves unable to rightfully deny the services he has shown his country. Beyond his name, Coriolanus’ scars, each a visual proclamation of flesh sacrificed, provide a further, perhaps more widely available, means for the soldier to prove his honor. Copp?©lia Kahn in her feminist analysis of Shakespeare’s works supports this symbolism, noting that “[w]ounds signify martial prowess . . . The warrior who survives his wounds asserts the impregnability of the male body . . .” (153).
The Roman female, by contrast, must obtain honor through the gendered Other rather than the Self, through maternal and, indirectly, martial sacrifice as the physical and pedological mold of Rome’s mortal weapons. Kahn demonstrates this feminine role, arguing the existence of two “constructions of the maternal,” the second of which is that “a mother produces sons for the state, to which she owes them” (146). Women, to whom social scripts make participation in battle unavailable, realize their honor through association with and support of those without this restriction. While these men-as-honor-sources need not necessarily be sons, as in the case of Virgilia whose husband fulfills the role, for the widowed Volumnia the filial source remains the sole source from which to enact her patriotism. This role as mother sacrificing son to state manifested itself prior to Coriolanus’ birth when Volumnia “. . . help to frame [him],” continued during his infancy when she recalls to Coriolanus, “thou suck’st [thy valiantness] from me,” and remains for the adult Coriolanus around whom the plays centers. In the final stage of his life, Coriolanus, able now to earn the battle honor for which his mother shaped him, achieves such that may reflect back upon its source, his outward recognition becoming the symbol of his mothers’ dues paid to her country and, consequently, her honor.
For Volumnia and the other honorable Roman women whom she represents, this leads to an inability to distinguish between honor and honors, as she receives a quantity of the former equal in proportion to the amount of the latter bestowed upon her son. Volumnia demonstrates her connection of the two early in the play, stating, “I, considering how / honor would become [Coriolanus]-that it was no better / than picturelike to hang by th’ wall, if renown / made it not stir . . .” (1.3.9-12). Renown, often the product of publicly granted honors such as the consulship Volumnia will later plead with her son to do all necessary to attain, receives the status among Roman women, in this statement, of that alone which confers worth upon honor. The desire for Coriolanus’ renown serves as the prompt of Volumnia’s later statement, “O, he is wounded: I thank the gods for’t” (2.1.118), a statement the matriarch qualifies with “There will / be large cicatrices to show the people, when he shall / stand for his place” (2.1.143-5).
Conversely, the difference in masculine and feminine honor actualization makes the distinction between honor and honors clear for Coriolanus, who will not sacrifice the former by begging for the latter. While he wears his wounds proudly and thanks Cominius for the “good addition” of his surname (1.9.71), Coriolanus consistently rejects verbal, material, and societal rewards as a means of external compensation for internal sacrifice. For example, when offered his choice of the defeated Corioles’ spoils, the warrior remarks, “I thank you, general, / But cannot make my heart consent to take / A bribe to pay my sword” (1.9.37-9). Menenius recognizes this rejection by Coriolanus noting, “He’d rather venture all his limbs for honor / Than one on’s ears to hear it . . .” (2.2.74-6). This dismissal of outward praise by Coriolanus is something Lynn Enterline interprets as a socially acceptable means for the hero to obtain more of that which he denies himself (25), and Kahn echoes this belief, observing that even when Coriolanus “rejects the praises wounds elicit, he does so in a way that recalls them” (153). While each denial by Coriolanus does in fact reference the scars upon his frame, his motivation for this repetition stems more likely from the fact that the praise, not his wounds, bears a connotation of shame. Earned solely for his country, the depiction of Coriolanus’ wounds as a means for gaining self tribute marks a form of sacrilege for the noble warrior. Coriolanus’ own words regarding his unwillingness to praise himself lend support to this interpretation: “To brag unto them ‘Thus I did, and thus!’ / Show them th’ unaching scars which I should hide, / As if I had received them for the hire / Of their breath only!” (2.2.146-9).
This absolute adherence to honor on the part of Coriolanus confirms his role as the ne plus ultra of Roman warrior virtue, a character excess which disrupts the socially perceived harmony between the bestowing of honors and the recognition of honor, creating the conflict that leads to Coriolanus’ expulsion. Standing for consulship, Coriolanus cannot, as noted, subdue his honor, specifically by exchanging the mannerisms prescribed for the protection of his country for those best suited to further himself, “doff[ing] his hat, kneeling, bowing his head in humility” (Kahn 155). In addition, neither the plebeian nor the patrician classes of Rome measure up to Coriolanus’ ideal of honor. Presenting their country with demands for comestibles rather than sacrifices for its safety, the commoners are, according to him, “curs, / That like nor peace nor war . . . Where he should find [them] lions, finds [them] hares” (1.1.166-7, 169). His fellow soldiers fare no better in his estimation, accepting retreat to their trenches rather than accompanying him within the enemy’s walls and thereby incurring description as “. . . a plague . . . / The mouse ne’er shunned the cat as they did budge / From rascals worse than they” (1.6.42-5). This combination of an excess of honor in Coriolanus and a lack of absolute honor in Roman society leads the tragic hero to hold no value for societal opinions, refusing to yield to the will of either class when standing for consulship. As a result Coriolanus’ political enemies, Sicinius and Brutus, seize upon both his forsaken humility and righteous hatred of the plebeians in order to play on public fears that the commoners will suffer under his government.
This results in a treason trial, during which both Rome’s patricians and plebeians refer to Coriolanus as “Martius” while requesting or allowing his exile, stripping him of both the lexical emblem and patriotic root of his honor. This revocation of Coriolanus’ honored cognomen initiates in the accusations of Sicinius, “Martius would have all from you, Martius, / Whom late you have named for consul,” is echoed by all the commoners present in their proclamation of, “Yield, Martius, yield!,” and even extends to those held highest in his affection with Menenius declaring, “Help Martius” (1.3.196-7, 217, 228). Sicinius and Brutus meanwhile succeed in their demands and, with little protest from Coriolanus’ own class; the people pronounce a verdict of banishment. Although the later lines of Coriolanus’ fellow nobles restore to him his title, the link between the moment of declared exile and the stripping of his name signifies the connection between loss of statehood and loss of honor.
Despite this loss of statehood, Coriolanus refuses to change the composition of his character, declaring upon his exit from society, “While I remain above ground, you shall / Hear from me still, and never of me aught / But what is like me formerly” (4.2.51-3). However, he now lacks a higher power to surrender himself to in the pursuit of honor, and therefore, must, in order to restore this honor, displace it onto the land of equally honorable enemy, the Volsces. Upon learning of this enemy’s approach in the first scene, Coriolanus states, “They have a leader, Tullus, Aufidius that will put you to’t. / I sin in envying his nobility, / And were I any thing but what I am, I would wish me only he” (1.1.226-9). Coriolanus further refers to this adversary as “. . . a lion / that I am proud to hunt” (1.1.223-4), evoking the same bestial metaphor he used to deny honor to the plebeians in order to demonstrate the great measure of this quality in Aufidius. This honor possessed by Aufidius and acknowledged by Coriolanus confers honor upon the land Aufidius serves in its gain, a fact which enables the hero to enact his patriotic redirection there. Upon approaching the place, Coriolanus states, “My birthplace hate I, and my love’s upon / This enemy town. I’ll enter. If he slay me, / He does fair justice; if he give me way, / I’ll do his country service” (4.5.23-6). The service to which Coriolanus vows must take the form of an attack upon his own country, not only to meet the requirements of vengeance through retribution equivalent to Rome’s crime, but also to truly avail a land whose worth hinges upon the conquering of that state.
Ultimately this attack brings Coriolanus, described as the “the oak not to be wind-shaken” (5.2.106), into conflict with both the seed “[w]herein this trunk was framed” (5.3.23) of his honor, his mother, and its original root, his country. Cominius demonstrates this conflict within Coriolanus by stating, “Coriolanus’ / He would not answer to, forbade all names. / He was a kind of nothing, titleless . . .” (5.1.10-12). Having shed the emblem of honor bestowed upon him by Rome but having not yet forged an equivalent in service to the Volsces, Coriolanus’ honor has failed to fully reinstate itself through displacement. It thus occupies a precarious position, particularly within the hero who still thinks of his homeland in terms of possessive modifiers even while his allegiance is sworn to another: “. . . for I will fight / Against my cankered country . . .” (4.5.95-6, Italics mine). His wife and mother, sent as petitioners to his mercy, mirror this patriotic conflict, posing the following question:
Alas, how can we for our country pray
Whereto we are bound, together with thy victory,
Whereto we are bound? Alack, or we must lose
The country, our dear nurse, or else they person,
Our comfort in the country. (5.3.107-11)
The conflict for the women, however, rests not between two countries but rather between their fatherland and their patriarch, and this conflict, according to Bamber, results in the separation of Coriolanus from his mother, the two now “mortal antagonists” (92). Volumnia seeks a compromise that in sparing herself and her country, would prove “poisonous” to Coriolanus’ honor by forcing his betrayal of the Volsces to whom his mother holds no allegiance (5.3.135).
Unable to reconcile this familial and patriotic conflict with his newly sworn loyalty, Coriolanus willingly concedes to death, an outcome that allows for the recovery of both masculine and feminine honor. Raised in a militaristic society, Coriolanus knows that a much lesser offense than that his dedition would pay Aufidius warrants death, and yet he ceases his siege of Rome in spite of this knowledge. Analyzing the final scene of Macbeth, Curtis Brown Watson presents the following argument: “By an honorable and fearless death men could redeem, in large measure, the misdeeds of a lifetime. Even criminals [in Elizabethan times] went to the scaffold with a display of iron nerves which drew the admiration of the spectators” (340). Coriolanus, fulfilling his role as tragic protagonist, nobly welcomes his end in a manner that would have been familiar to and cathartic for an Elizabethan audience, proclaiming, “Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads, / Stain all your edges on me” (5.6.110-11). In this action he redeems both his attack on Rome and betrayal of the Volsces, providing a full restoration of his honor. A Lord of the Volsces declares this restoration moments after Coriolanus’ death, stating, “Let him be regarded / As the most noble corse that ever herald / Did follow to his urn” (5.6.141-3). Even his chief enemy, Aufidius, at whose command he dies, concedes, concluding the play with:
…Take him up.
Help, three o’ th’ chiefest soldiers; I’ll be one.
Beat thou the drum, that it speak mournfully.
Trail you spikes. Though in this city he
Hath widowed and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory. (5.6.146-52).
In a parallel procession, Volumnia receives honor from the Romans, having exchanged her prescribed role for an inward honor independent of Coriolanus by verbally defending the state. Menenius notes upon the matriarch’s return with tidings of peace, “This Volumnia / Is worthy of consuls, senators, patricians, / A city full; of tribunes, such as you, / A sea and land full” (5.4.52-5). Consuls, senators, and patricians describe social scripts for male citizens, and Volumnia’s martial feat allows her to both enter this domain and assume a masculine method of honor actualization. Julian Charles Young provides the following description of Sarah Siddons acting the part of Volumnia in a 1789 performance of Coriolanus at the Theatre Royal:
…[I]nstead of dropping each foot at equi-distance in its place, with mechanical exactitude, and in cadence subservient to the orchestra; deaf to the guidance of her woman’s ear, but sensitive to the throbbings of her haughty mother’s heart, with flashing eye and proudest smile, and head erect, and hands pressed firmly on her bosom, as if to repress by manual force its triumphant swellings, she towered above all around, and rolled, and almost reeled across the stage; her very soul, as it were, dilating, and rioting in its exultation; until her action lost all grace, and, yet, became so true to nature, so picturesque, and so descriptive, that pit and gallery sprang to their feet electrified by the transcendent execution of an original conception. (38)
Young here depicts how Siddons portrayed Volumnia’s sense of honor through body language, an element outside of Shakespeare’s text to which his intended audience would have had access. The combination of this image with the Romans’ speeches upon her return demonstrate a restoration of honor, both internally felt and externally recognized, to Volumnia, equal to that her son had held in the play’s opening scenes.
While the outcome of the play is decidedly tragic for both its male and female protagonists, one having lost his life and the other her only child, out of this tragedy both characters arise, whether in casket or in body, with honor restored to them both in the eyes of their society and the Elizabethan audience. More importantly, the characters nobly accept the consequences of this restoration, rectifying both Coriolanus’ fatal excess and Volumnia’s deficiency, creating a balance which allows for the fulfillment of the Aristotelian tragedy convention of catharsis for readers and play goers alike.
Bamber, Linda. “Macbeth and Coriolanus.” Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1982. 91-108.
Enterline, Lynn. “What ‘Womanhood Denies’ the Power of ‘Tongues to Tell’.” Shakespeare Studies (1999): 25.
Fisher, Will. “The Renaissance Beard: Masculinity in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Quarterly 54.1 (2001): 155.
Kahn, Copp?©lia. “Mother of Battles: Volumnia and her son in Coriolanus.” Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women. London: Routledge, 1997. 144-159.
Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus. Ed. Jonathan Crewe. New York: Penguin Group Inc, 1999.
Watson, Curtis Brown. Shakespeare and the Renaissance Concept of Honor. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1960
Young, Julian Charles. “Julian Charles Young on J. R. Kemble as Coriolanus and Sarah Siddons as Volumnia in Coriolanus.” Shakespeare in the Theatre: An Anthology of Criticism. Ed. Stanley Wells. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. 37-38.
Humanity Versus Heroism in Shakespeare’s Richard III and Coriolanus
Shakespeare’s Richard III and Coriolanus are both characters who possess all the qualities of potentially invincible, fearless, and heroic warriors. They fail to emerge as heroes because neither of them are able to live beyond their idealistic motives as warriors, and incorporate humanity into their characters. Richard is consumed by his God-like complex, unexpectedly finding that his conscience is plagued by his acts of murder and perjury. For Coriolanus, it is his uncompromising sense of a hero’s honesty and honor that ultimately leads to his downfall. Whether their intentions are virtuous or treacherous, both Richard and Coriolanus come to ruinous ends because they refuse to group themselves with the rest of mankind that is compromising and essentially human. However, even with this duality of humanity and heroism, Shakespeare complicates his stance by questioning whether such a thing as a true hero can exist. This complexity is answered in part by the emergence of Volumnia as a potential heroine.For both characters, this lack of humanity can be traced back to their mothers, developing the theme of a child’s debt to his mother. Richard’s character is shaped by his mother, the Duchess of York, since she says to him: “Thou cam’st on earth to make the earth my hell/A grievous burden was thy birth to me” (140, l.168). While cursing Richard, she even condemns herself for not “strangling thee in her accursed womb” (139, l.137). This illustrates the hostility and hatred with which she raised Richard, forming the basis of his later rejection of love. Richard rejects love, but for him it is a defense mechanism to counter others’ disgust and contempt for his deformity: “I, that am curtailed by this fair proportion…/Deformed, unfinished/And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover…/I am determined to prove a villain” (34, 1.24).Richard is just as preoccupied with warfare as Coriolanus is, although he is driven by his obsession for power. While Coriolanus is moved by his deeply rooted integrity and truth, Richard is moved by a malicious desire to achieve an all-encompassing power. Although Richard’s deformity may have been at the root of his resentment as a child, his ugliness actually enhances his power in manhood, since it makes his feats appear even more outrageous and accomplished. His victory over Lady Anne is not a success which brings him closer to the throne, but a triumph which makes him feel even more invincible: “Was ever a woman in this humor wooed?/…And yet to win her, all the world to nothing!” (48, l.228). The vengeful invincibility that the Duchess of York instilled in her son leads him towards power and heroism, but ultimately destroys him.Coriolanus is raised by Volumnia to be stoically mechanical and military-minded, as well as painfully conscious of his nobility, pride, and class superiority. This is apparent when Volumnia says to Virgilia: “I, considering how honour would become such a person…/was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame…/I had rather eleven [sons] die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” (14, l.26). Her guiding force is not filial love, but patriotism. Because she withholds love and acceptance from Coriolanus except for his aggressive achievements, Coriolanus learns to be completely self-sufficient. For this reason, he finds himself unable to love, since he was not taught to love. Because he lacks “nourishment” from Volumnia, just as the plebeians lack and demand nourishment in the form of food from him, he resents the plebeians for not achieving his same level of self-sufficiency. It is because of Volumnia’s up-bringing Coriolanus becomes inflexible and severe with his ideals, placing honor above everything else.Ironically, part of Richard and Coriolanus’ ability to be heroic warriors rests in this learned ability to be human and to display feelings, placing them in a hopeless situation. Much of their initial power and success is founded on their unbending obstinacy and fearlessness. It is Richard’s dogged and spiteful indifference that enable him to make his way up. He murders people uniformly one after another, regardless of their relation to him. To protect his crown, Richard orders Buckingham to murder the innocent princess: “Shall I be plain? I wish the bastards dead/And I would have it suddenly performed” (127, l.18). Even Buckingham balks at such a heartless decision. This does not stop Richard, the cunning Machiavellian villain who allows nothing to stand in his way of the precious throne.Similarly it is this trait of heroic courage which makes Coriolanus the victor at Corioli when his men falter in battle: “You shames of Rome!/…You souls of geese,/That bear the shapes of men…/Mend and charge home,/Or, by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe/And make my wars on you…” (20, l.33). With these charged, insulting words, Coriolanus ignites his men into action and triumph.Shakespeare employs a further irony to illustrate Richard and Coriolanus’ failed, or even unattainable heroism. While Richard is the most realistic character in Richard III, and Coriolanus is the most consistent character in the play, both are surprisingly doomed for failure. Shakespeare portrays Richard very realistically as a dynamic and multi-faceted character. Richard is a villain, but an honest villain. Just as Coriolanus’ honesty prevents him from pretending to love the plebeians, Richard makes no attempt to hide his treachery as he reveals his innermost feelings through his heartfelt soliloquies. While Richard’s next move remains an enigma to everyone else in the play, he is faithfully and consistently honest to his readers. From the start, he admits his plot to murder his brother Clarence, gleefully proclaiming that his plan will succeed if “King Edward be as true and just/As I am subtle, false, and treacherous” (34, l.36). Richard’s driving force for power is as strong as Coriolanus’ will to retain his pride and honor.Shakespeare is able to emphasize Coriolanus’ consistency by dramatizing he inconsistency of the plebeians and of Volumnia. Initially, the plebeians, roused by the tribunes, condemn Coriolanus for his arrogance and contempt for the lower classes, eventually banishing him from Rome. However, when the plebeians find themselves in danger of being attacked by the Volscians led by Coriolanus, they blame the tribunes for driving Coriolanus to the enemy’s side: “When I said banish him, I said twas pity.” Another citizen answers with “And so did I; and, to say the truth, so did many of us/…and though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will” (113, l.141). Likewise Volumnia is fickle in nature. She has spent her life teaching Coriolanus to live strictly by the code of honor. Now she encourages him to kneel before the plebeians and feign humility in order to keep his position as consul.In contrast, Coriolanus is consistent in that he never once backs down from his principles of integrity and honor. He displays consistency of character when he refuses to accept any spoils of war from the victory of Corioli, since that would equate his victory with a mere financial gain. By joining the Volscians against the Romans, Coriolanus remains true to his military and patrician codes. To back down before the plebeians in humility would be to go against the strict code of class superiority that his mother instilled in him. Instead of wounding his pride, Coriolanus would rather be banished from Rome. In this sense, his banishment is still another reflection of his consistency. However, by ending the play with Coriolanus’ death, Shakespeare seems to be saying that a character cannot be both consistent and heroic, just as in Richard’s case, a character cannot be both realistic and heroic.Through these uses of irony in Richard III and Coriolanus, it would appear that the very definition of humanity makes heroism unattainable. Before the final battle which culminates in Richard’s death, there is already the foreshadowing of his downfall. After being plagued by dreams of ghosts and dark predictions, Richard’s iron-hearted demeanor begins to crumble. He is visited in succession by each of the people he ruthlessly murdered, finally experiencing guilt and despair for his sins: “I shall despair. There is no creature loves me;/And if I die, no soul will pity me” (167, l.201). For the first time, Richard is admitting his humanity by admitting his guilt. However, this only pushes him further towards his downfall.Coriolanus experiences a similar epiphany, but his final acceptance and acknowledgment of love is realized too late to save him from death. Ironically, Volumnia is the one who initially denies Coriolanus of love, but also the one who gives him this opportunity to accept love. Opposing Coriolanus’ stubborn pride by appealing to his filial pride, she is able to save Rome, and save her son: “Think with thyself/How more unfortunate than all living women/Are we come hither: since thy sight, which should/Make our eyes flow with joy, hearts dance with comforts,/Constrains them weep and shake with fear and sorrow;/Making the mother, wife, and child to see/The son, the husband, and the father tearing/His country’s bowels out” (128, l.96). At the same time, by prodding him towards this decision, Volumnia is leading Coriolanus to his death by making him vulnerable to Aufidius.In this sense, Volumnia emerges as Shakespeare’s only potential, considerable hero/heroine. She outlives the supposed hero of the play, whose death is only another act of submission to her. In the prime of his glory, Coriolanus is nothing more than a manifestation of Volumnia’s own masculine strivings. Even she realizes this: “Thou art my warrior;/I holp to fame thee” (63, l.16). She is able to even out-master Richard in manipulation by molding Coriolanus into a puppet who will take the consequences of her mistakes.Ultimately, the key to Volumnia’s heroism lies in her ability to be cunning and manipulative, while still displaying the qualities of emotion and compromise which characterize humanity when it proves to her advantage. In persuading Coriolanus to feign love for the plebeians, she argues: “Now it lies on you to speak/To the people; not by your own instruction,/…But with such words that are but rooted in/Your tongue, though but bastards and syllables/Of no allowance to your bosom’s truth” (79, l.52). Because Coriolanus is unable to refuse his mother anything, he backs down. This is what essentially pushes Volumnia to the forefront of the heroine: unlike Coriolanus who fights for her sake, Volumnia will do anything for the good of Rome, even if it means sacrificing her own son. In the end, she saves Rome from the Volscians, emerging as a divine savior to the plebeians and nobility alike: “This Volumnia/Is worth of consuls, senators, patricians,/A city full; of tribunes, such as you,/A sea and land full” (135, l.56).By examining this complex duality within a hero, Shakespeare does not present humanity and heroism as opposing forces, but in fact, neatly manifests both concepts in the character of Volumnia. It is because both Coriolanus and Richard initially fail to acknowledge that part of themselves which makes them human and mortal, that they are unable to escape their doom. It is in this subtle and intricate fashion that Shakespeare’s “hero” turns out to be a female character, defying the stereo-typically masculine hero-warrior, and making femininity both primary and subversive.
Re-Creation and Immortal Fame: The Search for Eternal Life in Macbeth and Coriolanus
In Shakespeare’s time, having children was, arguably, even more important than it is today. In a society dominated by rules of inheritance and birthright, children were important, not only as the means of carrying on a name and genetic material, but also title and property. Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Coriolanus take up this issue but seem to draw different conclusions. Although the perception of children in these plays differs, both plays use children to accentuate the tragic flaws of the hero. Macbeth is a play obsessed with time, inheritance and progeny. Childless Macbeth slays men, women and children, hopelessly trying to maintain his unnatural hold of the throne that is prophesized to ultimately belong to generations of Banquo’s sons. Because of Macbeth’s futile obsession with everlasting rule, the interplay between fathers, sons and succession becomes important. The familial relationships in Macbeth all suggest the naturalness and necessity of close relationships between fathers and sons. Father and son pairs work together in this play, thereby creating companionship and ensuring the future of the son and family upon the father’s death. Surrounded by these relationships, yet himself childless, Macbeth fails in his endeavors and dies forever cursed and alone. Coriolanus, however, is much unlike the men and fathers in Macbeth. Having an heir seems not as important in this play. Coriolanus refuses dependence on everyone, including an heir to carry on his name. He is ready to “tread over” Rome and his family to achieve his own personal revenge (5.3.123). Although children and inheritance are deathly important in Macbeth, the play Coriolanus represents another culture with a fiercely independent tragic hero more concerned with personal legacy than progeny. While the close father and son relationships of Macbeth accentuate Macbeth’s anxious childlessness, Coriolanus’ comparative carelessness for his son accentuates his refusal of dependence.Macbeth is a play that seems to float functional father and son pairs. All of the important men in the play have sons to succeed them except Macbeth. King Duncan has two sons, one of whom is destined to eventually proceed him on the throne. Macduff, Siward and Banquo also have sons that function as their potential heirs. Macbeth is the only childless man and it seems no accident that he shares the play with so many fathers. Macbeth is the only man who has failed to reproduce a legitimate son and his successes are therefore in danger. Even though Macbeth eventually succeeds the throne, he seems to realize that even if he is to maintain it until death he has no one to pass it on to. By the end of the play, Macbeth’s life is joyless, because he realizes he has no one to share it with. In his last soliloquy he laments, “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow / creeps in this petty pace from day to day. Out, out brief candle. / Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, / And then is heard no more” (5.5.18-25). Macbeth’s reference to life as a “brief candle” is interesting in that a candle can spread its flame to other candles and thereby let its flame live on; however, failing to do this, it dies. Like Macbeth’s failure to reproduce, the eventual extinction of the flame symbolizes death and loss of power. Without children, Macbeth lacks all potentiality after death. Without a son, Macbeth’s death can not be avenged and neither, had he maintained the throne, could he be succeeded by his own progeny. Macbeth can possess no hope for the future and his present is bereft of the companionship he sees offered to his enemies with sons.The father and son relationships in this play, indeed, serve both to mock Macbeth and float the importance of having a son to raise for companionship and heir potential. The latter is evidenced by the fact that all the sons seem to function for these means only. Fleance, Malcolm and Young Siwald all fail to have their own agendas when their fathers are alive. Their purpose seems only to follow and inform their fathers of current events while maintaining their function as heirs. Malcolm apprises his father of war events in 1.4, addressing him as “my liege” (1.4.3). Fleance too acts as an aid to his father throughout the play. As Banquo enters in 2.1 with the question “How goes the night, boy?”, Fleance faithfully relays to him the situation and offers his opinion on the time, “I take’t ’tis later, sir” (2.1.1-4). Both Malcolm and Fleance seem to be in training for the role that they must fill upon their fathers’ deaths. Many scenes before his death, Banquo symbolically offers his son his sword as he fights sleep, “Hold, take my sword / A heavy summons lies like lead upon me/” (2.1.3-6). This scene foreshadows the later scene in which Banquo, struck by his murderers, metaphorically passes on his sword to his son saying, “Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly! / Thou mayst revenge” (3.3.17-18). Raising a son capable and willing to carry out any necessary revenge and carry on the family name requires this close training and companionship with the father. Macbeth seems to place a great importance on the interplay between father and son for this reason.Nowhere is the importance placed on father/son interaction more apparent than in Lady Macduff’s conversation with her son in 4.2. Her young boy is the only child in the play and is not given a name, he is simply called Macduff’s Son. Macduff’s Son is both his name and his function. As a child heir to Macduff, the boy in 4.2 is significant only by virtue of the fact that he is a male heir. The use of the boy in this scene gives Shakespeare the means by which to show two tragedies of detriment to their family system. The first tragedy occurs when Lady Macduff receives information about her husband, leading her to believe that he became a traitor who is now dead. Her worry seems to be for her son, whom she believes must face a life without a father. “Fathered he is, and yet he’s fatherless”, cries Lady Macduff when she hears the news (4.2.27). She goes on to ask “And what will you do now? How will you live?” and twice she asks the question “How wilt thou do for a father?”(4.2.31-38). Although it seems as if the scene should be consumed by her grief at the loss of a husband, she claims that she can “buy twenty at any market” and seems to suggest that the real loss is the loss of a father to her son (4.2.40). A young child growing up without a father seems to be the real tragedy in this scene. As young Macduff expresses views suggestive of ignorance and lack of fatherly instruction, namely the idea that “liars and swearers are fools, for there / are liars and swearers enough to beat the honest men and hang / up them,” Lady Macduff responds by saying “Now God help thee, poor monkey!” (4.2.56-59). The tragedy of a father’s early death is significant in that the son may not be properly trained. A young son left fatherless seems tragic in that his training for manhood is taken away leaving his future and the future of the family in doubt. However, this problem is replaced by an even bigger tragedy for the Macduffs when they find that they are to be murdered and Macduff finds he is to be left with no family and no heirs.There is, perhaps, no better play by which to compare this function of children and inheritance than Coriolanus, a play in which the fiercely independent tragic hero who grows up fatherless refuses dependence on everything, including the potential of his son as heir. Contrary to the importance placed on growing up with a father in Macbeth, the tragic hero of this play, a successful warrior of Rome, has grown up under only his mother’s influence. If Coriolanus were a character in Macbeth, we could understand this situation as tragic, much like that of Young Macduff, the “poor monkey” (4.2.59). However, Coriolanus is in his own play in a different time and culture. In this play, tragedy has little to do with children, heirs and inheritance. Coriolanus spends his time at war away from his son and for most of the play, doesn’t seem as concerned about him as his own warrior life. However, both Coriolaunus and his son, despite what we would expect based on Macbeth, are extremely tough and resilient. Far from the “worthless bird” Young Macduff thinks he will be, Coriolanus has demonstrated himself as a fearless warrior and there is evidence that Young Martius will do the same. “He had rather see the swords and hear a drum / than look upon his schoolmaster” says Volumnia of her grandson (1.3.52-3). Valeria too talks of his hunting and shredding a small butterfly, “O, I warrant, how / he mammocked it!” (1.3.601).However, although Young Martius’ warrior instincts are conspicuous, Coriolanus fails to notice his son’s behavior as a source of potential and dependence. When his family comes forward to plead on behalf of Rome and themselves, they accuse Coriolanus of preparing to “tread over” his mother’s womb, his wife’s womb and his son (5.3.124-8). Coriolanus is prepared to sacrifice his family and progeny for his own glory. Unlike the fathers of Macbeth, Coriolanus realizes his future in the annals, or stories that will be told, and not in his son. It is for these reasons that we question Coriolanus’ motivation for deciding not to attack Rome. We wonder if Coriolanus really wants to spare Rome and his family as he says he does, or if he is simply scared that his name will “be dogged with curses / Whose chronicle thus writ: The man was noble, / but with his last attempt he wiped it out, / Destroyed his country” as Volumnia suggests to him (5.3.145-8). Coriolanus’ actions before and after his decision suggest the latter to be true. His decision must be legitimate to Aufidius and therefore he feigns his decision as a concession to the emotional pleas of his family rather than express his fear of eternal defamation. Coriolanus’ fierce independence prevents him from having loyalties, even to his family. This independence also prevents him from receiving the aid of others which could potentially help him.His son, Young Martius, seems to be maturing the same way. Unlike the sons of Macbeth who obstinately respect and support their fathers, Young Martius fails to address his father with the reverent “sir” and “my liege” used by the sons in Macbeth. The one instance where Young Martius talks of his father he uses “A”, to mean “he” and fails to even use his name. In the same sentence he refuses allegiance to him and suggests that he will fight him when he is bigger, “A shall not tread on me. / I’ll run away till I am bigger, but then I’ll fight” (5.3.128-9). It is essentially because of this statement that we know Coriolanus will not be avenged by his son like other Shakespearian characters. Coriolanus’ fear of dependence coupled with Young Martius’ independence and disloyalty prevent both Coriolanus from relying on him and Young Martius from eventually defending and avenging his father. Contrary to Banquo’s death in Macbeth, Coriolanus, instead of leaving behind a duty of revenge, cries out “Boy! False hound, / If you have writ your annals true, ’tis there / That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I / Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles. / Alone I did it. Boy!” (5.6.13-7). Coriolanus doesn’t use his last words to delegate the duty of revenge to his son, nor does he use them to wish his family well. Both these ways are common in Shakespeare, as they are ways of acknowledging the power to live on through family. However, fittingly to his character, Coriolanus wishes to continue living through his written story. His last plea is that his story be written correctly with him portrayed as a most heroic warrior.It is suggested that there are two ways to be successful and achieve solace in the short and grueling life that characterized the Renaissance. The first is to gain immortal fame and the second is to reproduce (Maus, 1/19/03). Shakespeare explores both of these in his plays Macbeth and Coriolanus. While the men of Macbeth are obsessed with royal succession and heirs, Coriolanus is concerned only with immortal fame. However, it is this quest for generations of power and immortal fame that leads to the detriment in these characters. Searching for eternal life through power and progeny is ill-fated for both as they learn their actions will necessitate an untimely death.
When in Rome, Do as Coriolanus Doesn’t
Particularly interesting in a genre that by its definition is meant to be a crowd-pleaser, Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus provides a protagonist who is not particularly likeable. Constantly insulting in his speech, prideful and short-tempered, Coriolanus, unlike his mother Volumnia, is neither able nor willing to accommodate political necessities in Rome. His shortcoming may be viewed as a character fault, or simply a product of his culture.There is evidence that Coriolanus is not able to compromise, equivocate, or be diplomatic simply by his very nature. He would have us believe that it is his unfailing love of the truth that prevents him from any sort of political accommodation. To pander to the plebeians, show off his scars, or even withhold his tongue would be somehow dishonorable. This may be an element in his reticence, but it cannot be everything, for as Volumnia points out, he is completely willing to use less-than-honest strategy in warfare, such as by saying false niceties to win over a town that otherwise would be a tough battle and cost many lives. Coriolanus knows how to be diplomatic; he simply refuses to be so in the political sphere.Nonetheless, there are other factors that may explain his shortcoming. For better or for worse, we are given the indication that Coriolanus has always been controlled by his mother, Volumnia. She is a strong, downright overbearing presence in his life. From the very beginning, it is observed that as for all of his military achievements, he “did it to please his mother” (I.1.36-37). She has crafted him and manipulated him to be the perfect warrior, vicariously living through him to achieve glories that she cannot. This being so, a few possibilities present themselves. Firstly, we may imagine that Volumnia, who for whatever reason is and always has been quite crafty, has purposely reared her son to be headstrong and dislikeable, because were he to be good at the same sorts of verbal games that she is good at, it would be a threat to her control of him. It is much easier to manipulate someone defenseless then someone who understands the “game” equally well.A second possibility is that Coriolanus willfully rejects his mother in the only way permitted him, passive-aggressively. He says of himself that, although he thinks he deserves it, he does not actually want the consulship. It would be socially unacceptable for him not to pursue it, and regardless, he cannot tell his mother no. However, saying yes and then doing a poor job in pursuing it will work just as well. In this way, he may be purposefully inciting the plebeians so as to ensure that he will not be consul, and therefore escape that which, for whatever reason, he did not desire. Self-destruction may be the only escape he can allow himself. The toll it takes on him personally makes this possibility less likely, but at the very least he may be rebelling against his mother by rebelling against her techniques, which have always ruled his life, in refusing to use the dramatic skills she coaches on him.A third possibility is that Volumnia purposely destroys her son. She says that she wishes he were killed on the battlefield – that is, his glory is more important than his life. Perhaps she, knowing her son’s disposition, maneuvered him into a position in which she knew he would incite the plebeians, so that she could gain either personal or secondary glory. The personal cost to her makes this idea somewhat far-fetched, but it is interesting nonetheless, especially as it is her own wiles that do eventually bring about his destruction, just as before they had always motivated him to achievement.There are also reasons irrespective of his mother that might explain his tragedy. He may simply have a short temper. He is constantly baited by the Tribunes, and even when he agrees to ask for the people’s vote, he does so insultingly. His pride may also prevent him from what seems like debasement. Although he makes affectations of humility, readers are left with the feeling that his dislike of hearing compliments is due to excessive pride; the compliments of people so far below him mean nothing to him. He sees himself as someone who is by necessity alone, because he has no peers. Conflict is the only state of affairs that he understands, and so even when it does not exist, he creates it. Combined with his extreme prejudice against the lower classes, he decides not to deal with them politically and deliberately baits them.In this way, he is at least somewhat a product of the Roman military culture. He compromises on the battlefield because he is generally dealing with equals; in the domestic arena, though, the plebeians are so far below him that they do not merit any respect whatsoever. In his opinion, they are non-entities. This attitude may be a product of his privileged status, his experience on the battlefield, or the example he was reared with in the model of the despotic kings before him. Volumnia, though, is good at the compromise necessary in politics, because the city is her “domain.” While the men traditionally fight the wars, women guard the household, and so are more used to the necessities of civic life. Simply having to deal with men also would train them in round-about means of enforcing their will, where a man would simply fight to get his way. As a woman and a second-class citizen herself, she may also be more sensitive to the winds of political change that demand plebeians have equal rights to patricians, or may simply have confidence in her abilities to control the people either directly or through her son, once the consulship is secured. Coriolanus may also think that this sort of versatility in politics is associated with women, and to use it would be contrary to his own manliness.Conceivably, Coriolanus may attempt to defend his intransigence as being true to “Romanness,” the military ideal. But irrespective, he certainly takes it too far, when he is more willing to sack his own town, killing his family and friends, then compromise at all. Either due to his relationship with his mother or something else, his short-temper and hubris leave him unable and unwilling to make the necessary overtures to the public. Rome is only narrowly saved from his stubbornness, and he assures his own self-destruction.
Sympathizing With Coriolanus
“What he cannot help in his Nature, you/account a Vice in him.” 1. This is the reason it is so difficult, and yet so necessary, to sympathise with Coriolanus. His virtues work in conjunction with his vices and for a modern reader, with little empathy for the autocratic, warlike states of the Romans or Jacobeans, Coriolanus appears scant more than a bloodthirsty tyrant with none of the poetical and emotional depth afforded to Shakespeare’s more canonical tragic heroes. However, a consideration of the values portrayed in the text – those of the nobility of war, the dangers of democracy and the deceptive power of words – and how the character of Coriolanus epitomises these values, allows one to recognise his emotional development and his worth to the state and thus truly sympathise with him.Coriolanus is perhaps one of Shakespeare’s most misunderstood characters, the primary reason being that he is also one of Shakespeare’s least poetic characters. Unlike Hamlet or Lear, Coriolanus is given little opportunity to wax philosophical, and therefore has none of the profound and emotive eloquence of his tragic predecessors with which to captivate the reader. 2. Furthermore, in Coriolanus’ few lengthy speeches, the images he draws upon are violent and unsightly. Consider the metaphors he employs when he addresses the soldiers at the gates of Corioles, in a speech that is a far cry from Henry V’s call to arms, 3. “All the Contagion of the South, light on you,/You Shames of Rome; you Heard of Byles and Plagues,/Plaister you o’er, that you may be abhorr’d/Farther than seen, and one infect another/Against the Wind a Mile.” (I, v, 1-5) The contemptuous nature and lack of pleasing aesthetics in such language can be seen as alienating the reader from Coriolanus, and as he cannot win us with his eloquence as even a Shakespearian villain like Richard III or Iago can, it is difficult to understand him.However, if we take into consideration one of the most important messages of the play – that mere words can be deceptive – we see that what Coriolanus cannot articulate he proves in the nobility of his actions, “His Nature is too Noble for the World;/He would not flatter Neptune for his Trident,/Or Jove for’s power to Thunder; his Heart’s his/Mouth.” (III, i, 249-252) This is a virtue that sets him apart from the loquacious tribunes and therefore our sympathy is evoked when he is undone by their use of deceptive words to undermine his achievements in battle. This is recognised by Harley Granville-Barker who states:Throughout the play action and words are expressively keyed together…The actual spectacle of Marcius fighting singlehanded ‘within Corioles gates’ is better witness to this prowess than any of the ‘acclamations hyperbolical’ which he somewhat self consciously decries. 4.Whether it be the gentle manipulation of Menenius’ ‘body’ metaphor or the overt subversion of the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius, Shakespeare makes it clear that shrewd language has undone the Roman State, and is a fickle basis of judgment. Hence it is because Coriolanus cannot speak falsely that he must be seen as exemplary and it is this integrity that wins our compassion.It is imperative therefore to judge Coriolanus by his actions, and decide whether, as a soldier, he can be sympathetic. This is where problems of context arise, as in modern times when war is neither romantic nor ennobling. Coriolanus’ sacking of Corioles and his desire to sack Rome makes him seem excessively violent, rash and single-minded. Indeed Coriolanus is given little scope beyond the battlefield – he is a soldier in all facets of his life as “He has been bred I’th’ Wars since ‘a could draw/A Sword.”(III, i, 313-314)Despite this claim, there is much evidence to suggest that Coriolanus exhibits the potential to go beyond his warrior nature. War may not be romanticised in Coriolanus, but it is seen as necessary to the Roman state, and Coriolanus, as the arm of the state, is equally indispensable. That he is such a brave, albeit bloodthirsty, warrior in protecting Rome from the Volscians in Act 1 is where the tragedy lies – the Roman citizens’ ungratefully dismiss his courage because he is impolitic. It is clear therefore that one of Shakespeare’s messages in the play is that military heroism is a virtue, and thus “if Rome’s conception of virtue is correct, then Coriolanus is the perfect man.” 5. Despite the many differing views of Coriolanus’ character offered to us throughout the play, what is conceded by his friends and foes alike is that in battle he is courageous, almost transcendent, “a Soldier/Even to Calve’s Wish, not fierce and terrible/Onely in Strokes, but with thy grim Looks, and/The Thunder-like Percussion of thy Sounds.” (I, v, 26-30)By taking into consideration the esteem attributed to war and warriors in both Coriolanus’ and Shakespeare’s time, it becomes apparent that Coriolanus’ role in the play is that of a military hero, and his decision to relinquish this status in return for Rome’s safety makes his downfall truly pitiable.That Coriolanus is foremost a soldier has led to the suggestion that he is emotionally undeveloped, and therefore it is difficult to feel any great empathy with someone whose personality beyond the battlefield is given so little insight. Coriolanus is “Not to be other than one thing, not moving/From th’ Cask to th’ Cushion, but commanding Peace/Even with the same Austerity and Garb/As he controlled the War” (IV, viii, 42-45) and it is therefore doubtful whether he matures throughout the play. At each crucial stage of the play – when he enters “What’s the matter, you/dissentious Rogues” (I, i, 169-170), when he is banished “I banish you” (III, iii, 120) and when he dies “That like an Eagle in a Dove-cote, I/Flatter’d your Volcians in Corioles./Alone I did it, Boy” (V, vi, 113-115) – he displays the same unremitting volatility and pride, suggesting Coriolanus makes no attempt to redress his character flaws, and thus we may feel his death is justly deserved.However, in the context of the world Shakespeare creates for Coriolanus where opinions and loyalties are easily swayed (epitomised by the fickle mob), Coriolanus’ refusal to change his character and beliefs should be seen as a virtue of constancy rather than a sign of emotional immaturity. This is recognised by Geoffrey Miles who writes that “in a paradox characteristic of this intensely paradoxical play, the passionate traitor Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s most self-consciously ‘constant’ character”. 6.Coriolanus’ refusal to betray his ideals in order to gain fame and popularity with the Roman mob is not a repudiation of self-development, but a single act of honesty in a world dominated by politics. Coriolanus therefore sacrifices not only the consulship but his life in his desperation to “play/The Man I am” (III, ii, 15-16) and thus becomes a martyr to his simple cause – to be acknowledged for all that he is, a brave and noble soldier. In one of his most impassioned speeches Coriolanus cries, “Let them/Pull all about mine ears, present me Death/On the Wheel, or at wild Horses’ heels, or pile/Ten Hills on the Tarpeian Rock, that the/Precipitation might down stretch below/The Beam of Sight; yet will I still be thus/To them.”(III, ii, 1-7) That he is indeed able to undergo so many ordeals while still keeping his pride, courage and honesty intact shows a far greater strength of character than many of Shakespeare’s other tragic heroes.The argument that Coriolanus is unsympathetic because he is emotionally stunted can be extended to incorporate the criticism that Coriolanus doesn’t acknowledge his humanity and therefore we, as the audience, cannot identify as human beings with him. What has been described as constancy of character could alternatively be seen as a blatant disrespect for anyone or anything that is outside his own interests. Coriolanus himself declares “I’ll never/Be such a gosling to obey instinct: but stand/As if a man were author of himself,/And knew no other kin.” (V, iii, 34-37). He thus proves this with his disregard for Menenius’ and Cominius’ appeals to their long-standing friendship. It can be argued that Coriolanus is willing to destroy his former compatriots and friends to satisfy his revenge but for the persuasions of his mother.His submission to his mother’s pleas however is evidence enough that Coriolanus’ compassion and mercy has greater depth than this limited argument will allow.G. Wilson Knight finds the ending of the play triumphant, as by allowing himself to be conquered by love Coriolanus has been purified. 7. Indeed, Coriolanus shows greater humanity than anyone else in the play as his desire for revenge is quashed by his reverence for his loved ones, as he commits the ultimate act of sacrifice – he dies so that his city and his family may live: “Oh my Mother, Mother: oh!/You have won a happy Victory to Rome./But for your Son, believe it: oh believe it,/Most dangerously you have with him prevail’d,/If not most mortal to him.” (V, iii, 185-189)Perhaps the most common indictment of Coriolanus in modern times is his disregard for democracy and the common people; “where is this Viper,/That would depopulate the City, and/Be every Man himself?” (III, I, 257-259) Coriolanus is unashamedly “a very Dog to the/ Commonality” (I, i, 29-30) and his contemptuous words and his actions of withholding corn from the people alienates an audience imbued with the values of democracy and egalitarianism. Yet Coriolanus and his ideas of absolutism must not be judged against such modern political ideals, but against the kind of democracy Coriolanus himself was faced with – that of the demagogues, Sicinius and Brutus. The perception of democracy in the Roman state is that it is erratic, ignorant and dangerous, as it would have been by Shakespeare’s own audience. Thus it must be acknowledged that “the representation of the people is part of ‘a dramatic design'” 8. in that Coriolanus may be seen as a necessary tyrant when the alternative is “the mutable/Rank-scented Meiny” (III, i, 63-64). In this way Coriolanus’ contempt for the mob and desire to revenge himself upon them is justified for “in attacking them as the embodiment of inconstant opinion, he defines himself as consistent in standing by his fixed beliefs.” 9.In using satire to undermine Coriolanus’ enemies Shakespeare ensures that, although he may be difficult to like, he is superior to the other characters in the play. As Menenius remarks to the tribunes “in what Enormity is Martius poor in,/that you two have not in abundance?” (II, i, 17-18)The nature of Coriolanus’ character is neatly described by Kenneth Burke, who writes “it is impressive how perfectly the chosen victim’s virtues and vices work together, in fitting him for his sacrificial function.” 10. Thus the very complexity of Coriolanus’ character makes it difficult to sympathise with him, as the virtues that he embodies are of a different time, those of frankness, war, constancy and absolutism. However, it is for this very reason that we do sympathise with Coriolanus, as he alone personifies these virtues, but is defeated by the world around him, a world of guile, capriciousness and betrayal. In the same way, we, as readers, should not let the constraints of our time bias our ability to recognise Coriolanus’ bravery, but also his personal growth and compassion. If we are able to look at the play contextually then the true tragedy in the betrayal and untimely death of Coriolanus is apparent and he is indeed a sympathetic character.References1. W. Shakespeare, Coriolanus, (ed.) Andrews, J. F., London, J. M. Dent, 1998, I, i, 43-44All subsequent references from this play are to this edition.2. A. Poole, Harvester New Critical Introductions to Shakespeare: Coriolanus, Hertfordshire, Harvester, 1988, p.513. W. Shakespeare, “Henry V” in The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Vol. 2, Hertfordshire, Wordsworth Editions, 1999, IV, iii, 60-67″We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;/For he to-day that sheds his blood with me/Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,/This day shall gentle his condition:/And gentlemen in England now a-bed/Shall think themselves accurst they were not here; And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks/That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s Day.”4. W. Shakespeare, “Perspectives on Coriolanus in Coriolanus, (ed.) Andrews, J. F., London, J. M. Dent, 1998, p.3155. G. Miles, Shakespeare and the Constant Romans, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1996, p.1566. Miles, p.1497. Knight in B. King, An Introduction to the Variety of Criticism: Coriolanus, London, Macmillan, 1989, p.298. King, p.189. Miles, p.15110. Burke in W. Shakespeare, “Perspectives on Coriolanus in Coriolanus, (ed.) Andrews, J. F., London, J. M. Dent, 1998, p.333
Name Brand – The Use of Names as Metonymy for Actions in Coriolanus
Mention Tonya Harding, Timothy McVeigh or Monica Lewinsky, and immediately the infamous deeds of each individual come to mind. Each of these names meant nothing until actions such as sex and violence became associated with them. Monica Lewinskyâs name became so recognizable that she used her name alone to try to sell a line of handbags. This concept of a name embodying of particular set of actions is significant in understanding Coriolanus. Shakespeare uses names as metonymy for only the actions of a person, illustrating both advantageous and disastrous consequences of this simplistic association.Despite the fact that the manâs name is never revealed, the poor host who lodges Coriolanus is a principal example of the importance of linking a name and actions. Coriolanus, in trying to graciously repay people that helped him conquer Aufidius and the Volsces, speaks glowingly of a man who gave him accommodations while he was in the field. âHe usâd me kindly, he cried to meâ? (I:ix 83), Coriolanus praises, establishing that the men were close enough to cry together. Coriolanus saw the man taken as a prisoner just as he spotted Aufidius, and requests of Cominius that he, âgive [his] poor host freedomâ? (I:ix 87). Cominius is more than willing to accommodate this request, and his fellow general Lartius simply asks, âMartius, his name?â? (I:ix 89). Despite crying with this man and the extraordinary kindness the man showed him, Coriolanus responds, âBy Jupiter, I forgot!â? (I:ix 90) Not only has his name been forgotten, but within two lines Coriolanus is discussing more important matters, such as where the wine is located. In this case, having his name firmly established with his kind deed would have freed the man from being a prisoner of war, illustrating the importance of having oneâs name represent their deeds.Shakespeare less subtly illustrates the beneficial metonymy of names for actions with the surname âCoriolanusâ? being given to Caius Martius. Cominius, after listing many of the brave military deeds the still-bloody Caius Martius did for Rome, proclaims, âFor what he did before Corioles, call himâ¦Coriolanusâ? (I:ix 63-65). Shakespeare makes a name literally a representation of actions by having it bestowed because of his heroic leadership. The name âCoriolanusâ? would not exist in the play without the valiant deeds that won the name for Caius Martius, and it is from the name âCoriolanusâ? that the people of Rome decide to elect him consul. Instead of showing the people his wounds, another signifier of his service to Rome, he is elected on the basis of winning his new surname, strengthening the link between a name and actions.However, Shakespeare refuses to be satisfied with portraying only a heroic connection between name and actions, and explores a different perspective during Coriolanusâs exile. Coriolanus goes to the house of his mortal enemy Aufidius in disguise, and Aufidius is suspicious of the vagabond in his house. He asks for Coriolanusâs name, which Coriolanus is reluctant to give because of what it signifies. âA name unmusical to the Volsciansâ ears, And harsh in sound to thineâ? (IV:v 58), Coriolanus responds, choosing to postpone giving his name. Coriolanus finally relents, confessing his name and that Aufidius should, âwitnessâ¦my surname, Coriolanusâ? (IV:v 67-68), was won from committing âgreat hurt and mischiefâ? (IV:v 67), against the Volsces. He continues on that, despite his name symbolizing atrocities against the Volsces, âonly that name remainsâ? (IV:v73). Coriolanus does not want his name is be a metonymy for his military exploits, and endeavors to break this connection by suggesting that he carries only the name now, not the malice that it represents.While it seems that Coriolanus succeeds in this goal and wins over Aufidius, ultimately it is revealed that Aufidius merely pretended to disassociate âCoriolanusâ? from the violence perpetrated against his countrymen. In the final scene, Aufidius declares Coriolanus a traitor, adding insult to injury by addressing him as âMartius.â? Coriolanus is insulted at being referenced as just âMartius,â? and Aufidius exposes his scorn of the name by responding, âAy, Martius, Caius Martius! Dost thou think Iâll grace thee with that robbery, they stolân name Coriolanus, in Corioles?â? (V:vi 87-89) Aufidius never forgot what the name âCoriolanusâ? represented, and uses it as justification to brand him a traitor and kill him. Despite his best efforts to disengage his name from his actions, the bond is so strong that Coriolanus fails.Coriolanus does not come to a final conclusion about the value of a name representing only the actions of a person. This connection could have saved Coriolanusâs host from imprisonment, but also leads to Coriolanusâs death, illustrating the ambiguous nature of such an association. Is it fair to say that the host did not deserve to be imprisoned just because he was kind to Coriolanus? Perhaps he was a person of appalling moral character, but the reader is not allowed to explore that hypothesis because the hostâs name has such an unwavering connection with his kind deeds only. By representing a personâs actions only through their name, instead of allowing it to stand for the many facets of a person, only a limited judgment can be drawn about a person. Coriolanus reinforces that just as you should never judge a book by its cover, you should not judge it by its title either.