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.
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