Act One, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Caius Martius, later known as Coriolanus, a Roman patrician
Menenius Agrippa, another patrician
Titus Lartius and Cominius, generals and patricians
Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother
Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife
Young Martius, Coriolanus’ son
Valeria, a Roman lady
Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus, tribunes (representatives) of the Roman people
Various Roman Citizens and Soldiers
Tullus Aufidius, a Volscian general
Volscian Lords, Citizens and Soldiers
Adrian, a Volscian
Nicanor, a Roman
Act One: Struck by famine, Rome is starving and its citizens are in revolt. A mob, on its way to lynch the city’s most hated patrician, Caius Martius, is halted along the way by Menenius, a fellow patrician. Taking advantage of his reputation for fair-dealing, Menenius holds the crowd back, but reckons without Martius’ appearance and announcement the mob should be hanged. Rome, though, has other worries besides famine: Aufidius’ Volscian army is marching towards the city, and Martius is appointed to join Cominius’ retaliatory force. As the city waits for news of the battle, Volumnia boats to Virgilia of her son’s military prowess, noting that her grandson is taking after his father. On the battlefield, meanwhile, the wounded Martius performs bravely, reversing a Roman retreat and masterminding the occupation of Corioles. Once Roman victory is confirmed, Cominius bestows the honorific “Coriolanus” on his brilliant deputy. Aufidius, defeated and humiliated, begins to plot his revenge.
The most powerful empire the world has ever known, Rome played a major role in Shakespeare’s career. Four of his plays (and one of his poems) have Roman settings, and a Roman army even enters into the early Britain of Cymbeline. In Shakespeare’s eyes, the Empire appears in the most unlikely and varied of places. Henry V’s triumphant return from Agincourt becomes in the Chorus’s words (as you might recall), the arrival of a “conqu’ring Caesar.” Macbeth, back in Scotland, refused to “play the Roman fool” and dies on his sword even as he knows Macduff’s army is about to defeat him. And even Falstaff manages to name-check the most famous Roman victory of all, when bagging a rebel prisoner he boasts, “He saw me and yielded, that I may justly say, with the hook-nosed fellow of Rome, ‘I came, I saw, and overcame.’”
Coriolanus, though takes us inside Rome itself, and what we find there is grim. Where Antony and Cleopatra counterpoises an oppressive Rome with the wide, luxurious, exotic (and erotic) expanses of Egypt, in this play we, along with the people of Rome, are trapped inside the city while the Volscian enemy circles outside. There has been famine and the people are out on the streets, inflamed by rumors that the city leaders have been (as Menenius so delicately puts it), “cupboarding the viand,” or storing food away for themselves while everyone else starves. Despite Menenius’ desperate attempts to make peace, insisting that the patricians have “most charitable care” for the people, the scandalized citizens are not buying it:
Care for us? True, indeed! They ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury to support usurers; repeal daily any unwholesome act established against the rich; and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.
These complaints about the abuse of political power have an eerily modern, even contemporary ring, but there are few among today’s audiences (in the industrialized West at least) who truly know what it’s really like to “famish.” But the same could not be said of Shakespeare’s first audiences. At the time Coriolanus was premiered, times had been hard, especially in the bard’s home county of Warwickshire. The so-called “Midlands Riots” during the early summer of 1607 had been touched off by a cycle of bad harvests and rampant inflation in food prices, made even worse by the illegal enclosure of common land. Peasants protested, but were (naturally) brutally suppressed by local gentry – events whose repercussions were witness by Shakespeare, who spent some of 1608 in Stratford attending to the arrangements for his mother’s funeral.
As a local landowner himself, a case has been made that Shakespeare must naturally have sided against the rioters. But, a reading of Coriolanus makes this seem difficult to believe. Trying to disperse the starving crowd (Shakespeare combines his sources’ two riots into one for dramatic purposes), Menenius insists that there is simply no point in complaining, “For your wants/Your suffering in this dearth,” he begins,
you may as well,
Strike at the heaven with your staves as lift them
Against the Roman state, whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs
Of more strong link asunder than can ever
Appear in your impediment
Protest is useless, he says, the state rolls on and continues. But, though Menenius’ words have sometimes been taken to imply that Coriolanus is a politically conservative play, what seems striking here (it seems to me) is the way in which the crowd, while desperately hungry, is being fobbed off with nothing but words — words that guarantee that, far from being at the heart of the city, they have no say whatsoever in how it is run.
But Menenius’ somewhat clumsy attempts to calm the crowd are upset by the sudden arrival of Caius Martius, the man whose downfall they are really after. His view of the plebs, while hardly designed to win them over, is at least honest. “What would you have, you curs?”, he demands to know,
He that trust to you,
Where he should find you lions finds you hares,
Where foxes, geese. You are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him,
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate, and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes.
We rely on Caius Martius’ words to enliven what is otherwise a linguistically austere play. The view of Shakespeare’s main source, the North translation of Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus, that Martius was “choleric and impatient” is made here to look like, at best, a dangerous understatement. Irascible and disdainful, Martius hates the crowd, but (in his terms at least) that makes him deserving of “greatness.” The Romantic critic William Hazlitt fought against his own passionate liberalism to admit that in Coriolanus, “the language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power,” and indeed, there is something bordering on the hypnotic in his unstoppable raging against the mob. Among all of Shakespeare’s heroes, Martius is the only one able to transform utter contempt into what seems, almost, like a virtue.
From Jan Kott:
First Citizen: You are all resolv’d rather to die than to famish?
Citizens: Resolv’d, Resolv’d!
First Citizen: First, you know Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.
This is practically the opening of the play. Shakespeare never wastes any time. The situation has been stated. There is famine in Rome; the plebeians demand reduction of the grain prices. Caius Martius does not agree to it. The plebeians resolve to kill Martius. Action begins in the very first minute. Very soon the theme of the play will be stated. Plebeians shout at each other in a rather confused manner, but in their speeches a detailed theory of class division is formulated. It is based on three elementary contrasts: some people work, others feed on their misery; some are poor, others are rich; some are placed low and have to obey, others are placed high and rule. All this is contained in the plebeian exclamations of the first scene:
The leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them.
They…suffer us to famish, and their storehouses cramm’d with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will;…
At this point, the patrician Menenius Agrippa enters. He has been sent by the Senate to calm the rebels. Agrippa admits that there is hunger, that there are the rich and the poor. But he takes a different view of causes and effects. The poor starve not because the rich have too much for themselves. The patricians care for the people. Poverty is the judgment of the gods. This is the way the world has been arranged, and no one can change the eternal order: (MY NOTE: Some things never change…)
…For your wants,
Your suffering in this death, you may as well
Strike at the heaven with your staves as lift them
Against the roman state:…
…For the dearth,
The gods, not the patricians, make it, and
Your knees to them (not arms) must help.
Agrippa speaks in verse; the plebeians in prose. Class distinctions have to be observed even by Shakespearean heroes. But it is something more than a mere distinction between verse and prose. Agrippa counters the simple spatial ‘top-bottom’ metaphor of the plebeians, based on consciousness of class oppression, with a metaphor of society as a great organism. He tells the plebeians the famous story about the revolt of parts of the body against stomach. Stomach stands for the Roman Senate, rebellious parts of the body, for the plebs. Agrippa’s fable has already been quoted by Livy and Plutarch. But Agrippa’s fable is also a theory of class division, as seen by the patricians. The brutal dichotomy of the plebeians is opposed by a functional and organic theory. Both theories are shown by Shakespeare in their class functions. They provide means of agitation, as well as justify action. This is just the way they have operated in history.
Agrippa’s arguments have had a great political and academic career. They were repeated by Theodoretus of Ciro in the first centuries of the Christian era (‘Masters participate in the cares of their servants, but servants do not participate in the cares of their masters.’), as well as by American planters in times of Franklin D. Roosevelt (‘We have to take care of the provision of grain, the financing of the lease and all such things, while the black farm laborers expects to be provided for by us, and has no cares whatsoever as long as he is maintained by us.’). Agrippa’s concept of class interdependence was proclaimed by the physiocrats (‘a perfect entity composed of various parts, necessary to each other’), and by the nineteenth-century papal encyclicals. It was developed by Spencer and Durkheim into a scientific system of sociology. Shakespeare needed just five minutes to state this theory.
The first scene of Coriolanus is not yet over. Agrippa has hardly finished telling history when Caius Martius appears. He begins to revile the plebeians in his very first sentence:
…..What’s the matter, your dissentious rogues
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?
Agrippa is the ideologue of the patricians, in the sense in which Marx contemptuously used the word ‘ideologue.’ Agrippa is a tactician and philosopher of opportunism. Martius is not an ideologist and rejects all tactics. Martius accepts the class distinction that is superficially in accord with the plebeian view: the antagonistic, vertical division between top and bottom where both sides feel deadly hate for each other. He tells the senators:
…..You are plebeians
If they be senators; and they are no less
When, both your voices blended, the great’st taste
Most palates theirs. They choose their magistrate;
And such as one as he, who puts his ‘shall,’
His popular ‘shall,’ against a graver bench
Then ever frown’d in Greece.
Martius accepts two of the classic opposites of the plebeian theory: the rich – the poor, the rulers – the governed. But in these two, he adds two more: the noble – the base, the wise – the fools. To him the people are like animals that bite each other, hate the stronger, and cannot remember today what they wanted yesterday:
…What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
The other makes you proud.
….Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate…
With every minute you do change a mind
And call him noble that was nor your hate,…
…in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble Senate, who
(Under the gods) keep you in awe, which else
Would fee on one another?
In Plutarch, Martius also hates the people mainly because he is consumed by pride, a recluse, who does not know how to deal with men. Plutarch really feels himself in sympathy with Agrippa’s practical reasoning, Shakespeare mocks Agrippa, at best giving him a part similar to that played in Hamlet by Polonius. From the first to the last scene of the tragedy the conflict is between Coriolanus and the people. As in all Shakespeare’s great dramas it is a conflict about the conscription and moral value of history; a difference of views on how the world is really arranged. Coriolanus, as Shakespeare see him, is proud and uncontrollable, too. But his actions do not result (or at any rate not wholly) from flaws in his character, or from ‘lack of learning’ as Plutarch would have it. The tragedy of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus cannot be defined, or contained in psychological terms. Nor is it a tragedy of a great personality in conflict with the masses, as most commentators maintain. There are no masses in Coriolanus. There are just the patricians and the plebeians.
Coriolanus accepts the class contrasts, as the plebeians see them, but it is easy to observe that he alters their character and transfers them into categories of values. Plebeians do not call themselves noble, or the patricians, wicked. They only know they are hungry because the others are full. Agrippa denies the existence of the hungry and the full, for one cannot say that the hands are hungry when the stomach is full. Coriolanus accepts the division into the hungry and the full, but does so not because it has been the will of the gods. Coriolanus does not believe in gods and has no need for them. He regards the people as animals who, when well fed, will only grow insolent and attack men. The city will be devoured by rats.
…Thus we debase
The nature of our seats and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time break ope
The locks o’ th’ Senate and bring in the crows
To peck the eagles.
Three theories of class division have been stated and thoroughly discussed, up to their final consequences. Each of them contains an exposition of social reality and a system of values; each means a different view of the world and gives a different evaluation, a different reply to two basic question: how is the world arranged, and how should it be arranged? It is easy to find general terms to define these systems, such as: egalitarianism, solidarity, hierarchic system. Coriolanus presents a most ruthless and antididactic confrontation of these three systems. As usual in Shakespeare, there is a great system of mirrors, reflecting the people in the eyes of Coriolanus, as well as Coriolanus and the patricians in the eyes of the people. The last mirror is provided by History. History in drama provides the course of action, interrelation and the final consequence of events. History can either confirm systems of values or ridicule and destroy them. If it ridicules and destroys, it is grotesque, or tragic; or even, perhaps, both.”
William Hazlitt, writing in The Examiner, December 15, 1816
“The whole dramatic moral of Coriolanus is, that those who have little shall have less, and those who have much shall take all that others have left.”
“T.S. Eliot famously preferred Coriolanus to Hamlet, weirdly insisting that Coriolanus was best tragedy. I assume that Eliot was being perverse, even if he sincerely believed that Hamlet was ‘an aesthetic failure.’ Shakespeare’s rhetorical art is deliberately subdued in Coriolanus; on the scale of King Lear or Macbeth or Antony and Cleopatra, this later tragedy scarcely exists at all. It fascinates because it is so large a departure from the creative ecstasy of the fourteen months of composition just preceding. In my many hears of incessantly teaching Shakespeare, I have encountered much initial resistance to Coriolanus, which for readers and playgoers is something of an acquired taste.
Read or seen in sequence with the high tragedies, Coriolanus may seem more problematical than it is. Shakespeare, here and in the evidently unfinished Timon of Athens, experimented with essentially unsympathetic protagonists, though his genius found ways of making them sympathetic despite themselves. Coriolanus is no Brutus, Roman patriotism counts for little to Martius, compared with a purely personal honor. Shakespeare had explored the uses of a protagonist’s sense of outrage with the hero-villain Macbeth. Coriolanus’s concept of his own honor has been outraged by his banishment, while Timon’s outrage stems from am all-but-universal ingratitude. Both Coriolanus and Timon are outrageous, but because of their conviction that they have been outraged, we join ourselves with them at crucial moments. This is another of Shakespeare’s originalities, another way of inventing the human.
Eugene Waith and A.D. Nuttall, in very different yet complimentary ways, have alerted other critics to the remarkable vision of Coriolanus leading the Volscians on, which is conveyed by the Roman general Cominius to the fearful tribunes who exiled the Herculean hero:
He is their god. He leads them like a thing
Made by some other deity than nature,
That shapes man better; and they follow him
Against us brats, with no less confidence
Than boys pursuing summer butterflies,
Or butchers killing flies.
Waith speaks of Coriolanus’s ‘superhuman bearing,’ thus returning us to the paradoxes of this strange figure: at once a god and a child, an infant Mars indeed! Nutall, in a suggestion I find extraordinarily useful for all of Shakespeare, points to the Hermetist myth of man as a mortal god in ‘like a thing/made by some other deity than nature.’ I have sketched this myth – of man as a mortal god – as Shakespeare’s likeliest cosmology in my introductory chapters, and follow Nuttall in citing it again here. Coriolanus, ‘a kind of nothing,’ hopes to ‘stand/As if a man were author of himself/And knew no other kind.’ Because of his mother, and her peculiar nurture of him, this ultimately will not be possible for him. And yet his authentic heroism is his hermetic endeavor to be the mortal god Coriolanus, and not the perpetually infantile Caius Martius. Barren inwardly, almost empty, he nevertheless possesses a desperately heroic will.
That last sentence almost could refer to Iago, but Coriolanus is anything but a villain, even a hero-villain. He is so oddly original a character that description of him is very difficult. Kenneth Burke suggested that we regard this play as a ‘grotesque tragedy.’ Timon of Athens certainly fits that phrase, but the enormous pathos that Coriolanus provokes in us seems other than grotesque. Shakespeare subtly does not offer us any acceptable alternatives to Coriolanus’s sense of honor, even as we are shown how limited and crippling that sense becomes when it is challenged. The hero’s mother, his friends, and his enemies, both Roman and Volscian, move us to no sympathy whatsoever. No one, except perhaps T.S. Eliot, has been able to identify with Coriolanus. Hazlitt – who remarked, ‘We are Hamlet’ – might also have insisted that only the Duke of Wellington could confuse himself with Coriolanus.
Coriolanus, I would venture, is Shakespeare’s reaction-formation, or belated defense, against his own Antony, a much more interesting Herculean hero. Since Coriolanus was composed after Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare would have been peculiarly aware of the discontinuity between the two Herculean protagonists. Antony, very much in decline, nevertheless retains all of the complexities, and some of the virtues, that made him a superb personality. Insofar as Coriolanus has any personality at all, it is quite painful, to himself as well as to others. Cleopatra, more even than Antony, touches and transcends the limits of personality. From Coriolanus on, Shakespeare retreats from personality. Timon is closer to Ben Jonson’s satiric ideograms than he is to Shakespearean representatives from Launce in The Two Gentlemen of Verona through Cleopatra. And the mode critics have named ‘Shakespeare’s late romances’ itself seems to take precedence over human mimesis; even Imogen, Leontes, and Prospero are on the border between realistic personality and symbolic being. Perhaps Caliban and Ariel are personalities, but then Caliban is only half-human, and Ariel is a sprite. Part of the immense fascination of Coriolanus, for me, is that in it Shakespeare experience a sea change, and abandoned what had been the center of his dramatic art. No one from Coriolanus on is a free artist of himself or herself. Cleopatra, an astonishing act of human invention, was Shakespeare’s farewell to his richest gift, and I wish we could surmise why this was, or perhaps had to be. Was Shakespeare weary of his own enormous success at inventing the human? Inwardness, Shakespeare’s largest legacy to the Western self, vanishes in Coriolanus, and never quite makes it back in later Shakespeare. Cleopatra’s vast inner self dies no ordinary death, she is transmogrified, and so we are left with no occasion for grief or regret. One way of seeing the change in Shakespeare is to contrast Cleopatra’s question regarding the fatal asp – ‘Will it eat me?’ with Coriolanus’ ‘Alone I did it,’ his final vaunt to the Volscians. Cleopatra’s whimsical, childlike question is endless to meditation, and charms us, and fills us with fresh wonder at her personality; Coriolanus’s boast is childish, and its poignance is infinitely more limited.
In all questions as to his development, we return to surmise about Shakespeare, the most enigmatic of all dramatists. The poetry of Coriolanus is properly harsh, even strident, since so much of the play is tirade. Shakespeare is in complete control of his form and his material, perhaps in too perfect a control. Not even Shakespeare can subdue King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra to ordinary designs: wildness keeps breaking out. Lear and Edmund, Macbeth and Cleopatra, all get away from their creator, just as Falstaff, Hamlet, and Iago are instances of Hobgoblin run off with the garland of Apollo. There are no transcendental energies whirling about in Coriolanus. Caius Martius himself has very little mind, and no imagination whatsoever. The play is the assertion of an immensely professional dramatist over his material poetica: we feel that Coriolanus does exactly what Shakespeare wants him to do. Shrewd and powerful as it is, Coriolanus is not one of the enlargements of life. It is almost as though Shakespeare had set out to defeat Ben Jonson upon his rival’s own chosen ground, since Coriolanus is in many ways the work that Jonson failed to write in Sejanus his Fall (1605), itself an inadequate attempt to correct and overgo Julius Caesar. Coriolanus continues to move scholars and critics, but not the generality of readers and playgoers, who are less impressed by its perfection as neo-classic tragedy. Yet Jonson was never a shadow for Shakespeare, as Marlow had been for so long, and more of a personal recoil from his own achievement has to be ascribed to the playwright of Coriolanus. Shakespeare had outdone himself in the five great tragedies; into that abyss of the self even he did not care to venture further. Starting back from inwardness gave him (and us) Coriolanus, which is surely the strangest of all Shakespeare’s thirty-nine plays. I mean strangeness in a double sense: uncanniness and also a new kind of aesthetic splendor, reduced yet unique. Given up a great deal, Shakespeare achieves formal perfection, of a sort he never repeated.”
My next post: More on Act One of Coriolanus, with excerpts of Tanner, Garber and more…
Enjoy your weekend.