“Indeed, this is probably the most difficult play in the canon, and it prompts one to think again about the problems it must always have set audiences and readers.”


Act One, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


From Garber:

736px-Woodcut_illustration_of_Veturia_and_Volumnia_confronting_Coriolanus_-_Penn_Provenance_Project“Coriolanus’s powerful mother, Volumnia, clearly dominates her dutiful son, who is free and independent on the battlefield but subservient to Volumnia in all private and political concerns. In the Victorian era, itself governed by a powerful queen, Volumnia was praised by such a major Shakespearean critic as F.J. Furnivall, who wrote that ‘from mothers like Volumnia came the men who conquered the known world, and have left their mark for ever on the nations of Europe…no grander, nobler woman, was ever created by Shakespeare’s art.’ Late-twentieth-century productions of the play in Britain underscored, less flatteringly, the overbearing Volumnia’s similarity to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

In an analogous fashion the corn riots of Coriolanus’s own time 491 B.C.I., feeling described by Plutarch and cited within the play as a chief complaint of the people, were paralleled, during the reigns of Queen Elizabeth I and King James I, by corn riots in Oxfordshire (1557) and the Midlands (607). The displacement of tillage by pasture (the grazing of sheep and cows rather than the planting of crops) and the enclosure of common land (its acquisition or cooptation by aristocrats and landowners) created food shortages across the country. The tension between high and low was exacerbated by fashion, since the starched ruffs of the aristocrats were maintained by the use of cornstarch. Rather than feeing the people, the corn that was grown thus often contributed to the elegance of courtiers. In recent productions a contemporary dimension of the historical corn riots in Coriolanus has been evoked through topical allusions to contemporary food shortages, global famine, or Farm Aid concerts. Such tranhistorical topicalities are a mark of virtually all Shakespeare productions these days, but it is worth emphasizing the sense in which Coriolanus is repeatedly discovered as a trenchant and unexpected commentary on the modern political and social scenes, whether by poets like Eliot (in his ‘Coriolan’), playwrights like Brecht, journalists, political commentators, or directors.

It may be useful in approaching Coriolanus to recall the last words of Octavius in Antony and Cleopatra, in which the new Caesar spoke in his elegy for the larger-than-life mythic lovers, and pointed, in effect, toward two different kinds of drama, declaring that ‘their story is/No less in pity than his glory which/Brought them to be lamented.’ Pity is an essential Aristotelian element of tragedy, and glory is the fundamental attribute of the heroic history play. The play thus concludes by offering the audience a bifocal choice of sympathies, points of view, and genres. In Coriolanus, as in Julius Caesar, Shakespeare’s other well-known ‘Roman play,’ the audience is offered a similar, double-barreled choice, a choice, as Coriolanus himself observes in a flash of insight in the fifth act, between a ‘happy victory’ for Rome and a ‘mortal’ (human and tragic) outcome for its hero. The play ends in death and in victory, in the ambush and murder of a man whose final flaw was his first yielding to human feelings, who was safe so long as he regarded himself as a monster without kin or a lonely dragon in his fen. Shocking, yet somehow fittingly, it is only at the moment when Coriolanus acknowledges himself as a member of the human race, as a man with human ties – mother, wife, child, friends – that he becomes really vulnerable. For this act of simple human recognition he is murdered. It is as if he had to become human so that h e could die. At the same time the play ends in victory for the Roman cause, the Romans reconciled now with the Volscians so that the city is saved.

The play is, then, among other things, a tragedy of context – the story of a man whose nature, as Menenius says, ‘is too noble for the world’ (3.1.255). The last words we hear are Tullus Aufidius’s assurance that Coriolanus ‘shall have a noble memory’ (5.6.154), while a Volscian lord praises him as ‘the most noble corpse that ever herald/Did follow to his urn’ (143-144). This is a suitably honorific sentiment – but what good, in the jostling, pragmatic world of politicians and plebeians, is a ‘noble corpse?’ Would it not be better to be a less noble living man? In act 3 Coriolanus himself answers this hypothetical question with a resounding no. He exhorts the Roman senators, those who ‘prefer/A noble life before a long/ (3.1.155-156) to reject the tribunes of the people and their importunate demands for food and power – and he is expelled from the city as a traitor. His mother, the superb and overpowering Volumnia, the voice of Rome in this play, takes the opposite view, urging her son to mildness, suggesting that he use his brain and not his heart: ‘You might have been enough the man you are/With striving less to be so’ and ‘I would have had you put your power well on/Before you had worn it out’ (3.2.19-20, 16-17). The canny, political Aufidius, who is in some ways the Octavius to Coriolanus’s Antony, the realist to his idealist, the modern man to his epic hero, speculates about whether it is ‘pride,’ or ‘defect of judgement,’ or stubborn ‘nature’ that makes Coriolanus the way he is. Plainly all three elements characterize Coriolanus’s actions and decisions, and they are all, in the play, quintessential ‘Roman’ traits. But in order to come to some understanding of Coriolanus’s nature and the structure of his rise and fall we have first, I think, to look at his context and environment and see how he measure himself against it.

The Rome of Antony and Cleopatra was a busy and confident political metropolis, bustling with intrigue and calculation.  The time of Augustus Caesar, as we have noted, was also the time of the birth of Christ. By contrast, the Rome of Coriolanus, some five hundred years earlier, seems to be more like a small town in the midst of Italy (or England), populated by a wavering multitude of poor citizens on the one hand and a crew of old men and generals on the other. The opening stage direction is explicit and indicative: ‘Enter a Company of mutinous citizens with staves, clubs, and other weapons.’ This Rome is not the sophisticated home of the mature Antony and the cagy Octavius, not yet the city of Brutus’s ruminative honor and the younger Mark Antony’s funeral oration for Julius Caesar. This is instead a Rome that shows us a power vacuum and the manipulations of the up-and—coming new men, the two tribunes, rising agitators and politicos, trying to craft a power base out of citizens armed with crude weapons instead of thoughts.

Strikingly, the citizens in the play are described as ‘voices.’ This use of ‘voice,’ which in the period could mean ‘the right or privilege of speaking or voting’ and ‘that which is generally or commonly said,’ rumor or report, is a central trope for Coriolanus, both the play and the hero of its title. ‘I shall lack voice,’ says the eloquent Cominius, in self-deprecating formulaic language, as he launches into his compelling speech in praise of Coriolanus’s war deeds. The people’s ‘voices,’ meaning ‘votes,’ is what Coriolanus the candidate stands in the marketplace – awkwardly – and angrily – seeking. He himself does ‘lack voice,’ in the sense that he is completely devoid or artifice or social grace. ‘[C]ould he not speak ‘em fair?’ asks the old counselor Menenius in desperation once Coriolanus has boiled over into intemperate imprecation (3.1.261). Perhaps most centrally, ‘voices’ is a classic metonymy, the use of the part for the whole, an important figure of speech used over and over again in the play, as a rhetorical device but also unmetaphored or re-literalized – as in Menenius’s celebrated set piece, the fable of the belly.

coriolanus_2649577bThe fable of the belly belongs to a familiar genre in political rhetoric, the story of the ‘body politic.’  The king or ruler is the head; the other ranks of society and polity are represented, in this allegorical construction, by limbs and organs working in concert to create a healthy body. Such allegorical fables, images of the body politic used as guides for the proper relationship of governor and governed go back as far as Livy, the Roman historian, and not only were popular but were highly useful to theorists of Italian civic humanism in the sixteenth century. In Shakespeare’s time Edward Forset’s Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Natural and Politique (1606) is a leading example. Livy’s History of Rome is the direct source of Shakespeare’s account, and its version of Menenius’s belly fable is very similar – except that Shakespeare has added dramatic details (the interruption of the angry First Citizen, called by Menenius ‘the great toe of this assembly’) and, most tellingly humourous and animate characteristics (‘For look you, I may make the belly smile/As well as speak’)

A comparison between Livy’s version and Shakespeare’s will be instructive. Livy describes Menenius as ‘an eloquent individual, and one well liked by the plebs, as he had been born one of them,’ and reports:

‘On being admitted to the camp he is said merely to have related the following apologue, in the quaint and uncouth style of that age: In the days when man’s members did not all agree amongst themselves, as is now the case, but had each its own ideas and a voice of its own, the other parts thought it unfair that they should have the worry and the trouble and the labour of providing everything for the belly, while the belly remained quietly in their midst withy nothing to do but to enjoy the good things which they bestowed upon it; they therefore conspired together that the hands should carry no food to the mouth, nor the mouth accept anything that was given it, nor the teeth grind up what they received. While they sought in this angry spirit to starve the belly into submission, the members themselves and the whole body were reduced to the utmost weakness. Hence it had become clear that even the belly had no idle task to perform, and was no more nourished than it nourished the rest, by giving out to all parts of the body that by which we live and thrive, when it has been divided equally amongst the veins and is enriched with digest food – that is, the blood. Drawing a parallel from this to show how like was the eternal dissension of the bodily members to the anger of the plebs against the Fathers, he prevailed upon the minds of his hearers.’

Livy, History of Rome, 2.32

Here is Shakespeare’s dramatic rendering of the same passage, only slightly altered, but very different in effect and tone:


There was a time when all the body’s memb ers,

Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it:

That only a gulf it did remain

I’th’ midst o’th’ body, idle and unactive,

Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing

Like labour with the rest: where th’ other instruments

Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,

And, mutually participate, did minister

Unto the appetite and affection common

Of the whole body. The belly answered –

First Citizen:

Well, sir, what answer made the belly?


Sir, I shall tell you. With a kind of smile,

Which ne’er came from the lunge, but even thus –

For look you, I may make the belly smile

As well as speak – it tauntingly replied

To th’ discontented members, the mutinous parts

That envied his receipt; even so most fitly

As you malign our senators for that

They are not such as you.


First Citizen:

The former agents, if they did complain,

What could the belly answer?


     I will tell you,

If you’ll bestow a small of what you have little –

Patience – a while, you’st hear the belly’s answer

First Citizen:

You’re long about it.


     Note me this, good friend:

Your most grave belly was deliberate,

Not rash like his accusers, and thus answered:

‘True is it, my incorporate friends,’ quoth he,

‘That I receive the general food at first

Which you do live upon, and fit it is.

Because I am the storehouse and the shop

Of the whole body…


     And thou that all at once’ –

You, my good friends, this says the belly mark me –

First Citizen:

Ay, sir, well, well.


     ‘Though all at once cannot

See what I do deliver out to each,

Yet I can make my audit up that all

From me do back receive the flour of all

And leave me but the bran.’ What say you to’t?


The senators of Rome are this good belly,

And you the mutinous members…

Coriolanus 1.1.85-103, 112-123, 129-135, 137-138

Livy’s Menenius tells a good story – echoes of this same passage can be found in King Lear, another play written in the same period that is deeply concerned with mutinies in the body politic (‘Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand/For lifting food to’t?’ [Lear 3.4.16-17])

But Shakespeare’s masterful Menenius is at once funny, deft, and pointed. His artful use of colloquialisms (‘cupboarding the viand’), dialect (‘look you,’ a stereotypical Welsh usage), and direct address (‘You my good friends, this says the belly, mark me’) demonstrates in action what Livy asserts about Menenius’s affinity for speaking with the common people (here labeled English-sounding ‘citizens’ rather than Roman ‘plebs’). The fable of the belly unfolds as something like a cross between an animated cartoon and a stand-up comedy routine, ending in a sonorous blank verse utterance that is also a ‘gotcha’ punch line (‘The senators of Rome are this good belly,/And you the mutinous members.’)

In effect, Menenius is able to disarm his onstage hearers, gently drawing them into his tale, prodding them verbally (‘mark me’; ‘What say you to’t?’), soothing them with language, and amusing them with his apparently harmless story of the talking and smiling belly – until the noble soldier Caius Martius, who will later be surnamed Coriolanus, arrives and undoes all his patron’s work with a single ill-tempered curse. To the greeting, ‘Hail, noble Martius!’ he snaps back, ‘Thanks – what’s the matter you dissentious rogues,/That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,/Make yourself scabs?’ (1.1.152-154). The First Citizen’s replay make sit clear that is not an extraordinary but rather an ordinary exchange: ‘We have your good word.’ So much for Menenius’s attempt to soothe festering wounds and disagreements with words, with a pretty tale.

Yet Menenius’s fable is central to the play in many ways. It suggests and introduces the language of fragmentation, of dismembering and body parts, that will continue throughout as an emblem of the diseased condition of Rome. Not only are the senators a belly and the First Citizen a ‘great toe,’ but we also hear that the tribunes of the people are ‘[t]he tongues o’th’ common mouth’ (3.1.23), and Coriolanus will accuse them of failing to restrain their charges: ‘You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth?’ (38). ‘The noble tribunes are the people’s mouths,’ says one citizen ‘[a]nd we their hands’ (3.1.271-272). The tribunes for their part, return the compliment, describing Coriolanus as a diseased limb, a foot that once did noble service but is now gangrened and must be cut away for the health of the rest of the body. Menenius laments that in Coriolanus emblematic body parts are scrambled: ‘His heart’s his mouth./What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent’ (25258). Coriolanus will later address the citizens as ‘you fragments’ – and he himself will be summarily fragmented, banished from Rome.

The fable of the belly establishes the immediate source of the citizens’ dissatisfaction: corn, the demand for food so ridiculed by Coriolanus. Everywhere in the play this political and economic issue turns up as an image, a part of the play’s verbal texture. Grain and harvest are key images throughout Shakespeare. The England of his time was, after all, a largely agricultural nation, the same verbal patterns can be found in Renaissance translations of the Bible At the end of Macbeth, Malcolm speaks of ‘[w]hat’s more to do/Which would be planted newly with the time.’ Richmond (crowned King Henry VII) at the close of Richard III speaks of ‘smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days.’ The characters in King Lear talk continually of seeds, and ‘germens,’ and harvest. But in Coriolanus the patricians are the grain, the plebeians musty chaff, and Coriolanus himself is the harvester. His mother, Volumnia, calls him a ‘harvest-man,’ sent out ‘to mow/Or all or lose his hire (1.3.33-34), but the harvest of which she speaks is dead bodies. Coriolanus himself will lament that ‘we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed, and scattered’ (3.1.75) the seeds of sedition by permitting power to the common people. In fact, he is not only harvester but grim reaper, refusing to sort flour from bran, grain from chaff (5.1.24-32).

The play’s attitude toward various social stations and ranks – patricians, plebeians, tribunes, consuls, generals – is so deftly managed that, as we have noted, the play is capable of being produced successfully from both ‘the right’ and ‘the left,’ even though a partisan reading would necessarily be a reductive one. The citizens, whether Romans or Volscians, are portrayed as self-regarding, self-righteous, and vacillating, however just their claims. The moment war with the Volscians is announced, for example, the angry Roman mob steals away, ignoring Martius’s ironic suggestion that ‘[t]he Volscians have much corn’ and that war with them would solve the complaint of famine. Facing the city of Corioles, the common soldiers flee from the field of battle, leaving Martius to fight alone. They are interested only in looting and in spoils. Not only are they cowardly, they are also changeable. First they give Martius their voices, or votes, to be counsul, and then, guided by the canny tribunes, they withdraw their support. Again with the tribunes’ urging they succeed in banishing him from the city, and almost in throwing him from the Tarpeian rock to his death. But when the bad news comes that Martius, now surnamed Coriolanus, is arming against Rome, against them, the citizens change their tune: ‘When I said ‘banish him’ I said ‘twas pity.’ ‘And so did I.’ ‘And so did I, and to say the truth so did very many of us’ (4.6.149-151). Even in Antium, in the house of the general Aufidius, the mob is fickle and volatile. When Coriolanus arrives there in his mean disguise the servants shoo him out because he seems to be a poor man and no gentleman. But the moment Aufidius embraces and recognizes him, they take it all back: ‘I knew by his face that there was something in him,’ one serving man gushes. ‘He is simply the rarest man i’th world’ (4.5.159-160). At the end of the play, Coriolanus enters marching for the first time with the commoners, surrounded by his former enemies – and the people turn against him in the course of the scene and shout for his murder.”


And from Tanner:

coriolanus 1“Timon was first a god – or ‘godded’ by his sycophantic friends (to use an apt and striking non-verb from Coriolanus) – and then a beast. Coriolanus, in what appears to be the last of Shakespeare’s Roman plays (and thus, arguably, his last tragedy) seems to move inexorably towards becoming both at the same time. Both, and more besides. More and less. But here again, as once more and for the last time, Shakespeare turns to Plutarch for the main outlines of his hero and the events of his play, it signally helps to have some of North’s version of Plutarch before us:

‘Caius Martius, whose life we intend now to write…was brought up under his mother a widow…This man also is a good proof to confirm men’s opinions, that a rare and excellent wit, untaught, doth bring forth many good and evil things together…For this Martius’ natural wit and great heart did marvelously stir up his courage to do and attempt notable acts. But on the other side, for lack of education, he was so choleric and impatient, that he would yield to no living creature, which made him churlish, uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man’s conversation. Yet men marveling much at his constancy, that he was never overcome with pleasure nor money and how he would endure easily all manner of pains and travails, thereupon they well liked and commended his stoutness and temperancy. But for all that, they could not be acquainted with him, as one citizen useth to be with another in the city. His behaviour was so unpleasant to them by reason of a certain insolent and stern manner he had, which, because he was too lordly, was disliked. And to say truly, the greatest benefit that learning bringeth unto men is this: that it teachest men that be rude and rough of nature, by compass and rule of reason, to be civil and courteous, and to like better the mean state than the higher. Now in those days, valiantness was honored in Rome above all other virtues, which they call virtus, by the name of virtue itself, as including in that general name all other special virtues besides. So that virtus in the Latin was as much as valiantness. But Martius, being more inclined to the wars than any other gentleman of his time, began from his childhood to give himself to handle weapons…’

As we shall see, ‘handle weapons’ is what Shakespeare’s Coriolanus does from very first to very last. But first, one more amplification of his character from Plutarch:

‘For he was a man too full of passion and choler, and too much given over to self-will and opinion, as one of a high mind and great courage that lacked the gravity and affability that is gotten with judgment of learning and reason, which only is to be looked for in a governor of state: and that remembered not how willfulness is the thing of the world, which a governor of a commonwealth, for pleasing should shun, being that which Plato called ‘solitariness,’ as in the end, all men that are willfully given to a self-opinion and obstinate mind, and who will never yield to others’ reason but to their own, remain without company and forsaken of all men.’ (My italics)

During the Renaissance there was much discussion concerning the proper education and responsibilities of the good prince or governor – what qualified a person to exercise ‘the speciality of rule.’ As Plutarch stresses, it is precisely these qualifications which Coriolanus so signally lacks: he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule. Magnificent as a soldier, he is disastrous as a politician. Shakespeare takes the latent tensions between martial and civic (and domestic) values, between the battlefield and the city, between – in the play’s terms – the ‘casque’ (a helmet) and the ‘cushion’ (indicating a seat in the Senate), and screws these tensions up to breaking point, dramatically exposing, in the process, not just their perennially potential incompatibility, but – in extremis – their very actual and active explosive oppugnancy. The problem – a permanent one – baldy stated is as simple as this. You could certainly could not found, much less renew and prolong, any form of civil society on such figures as Coriolanus. But it is debatable whether you could defend and thus preserve any such society without such men. (Having banished Coriolanus, the tribunes complacently say ‘Rome/sits safe and still without him’ – IV, vi.37. They could not be more wrong, nor was Rome ever more vulnerable.) Society cannot do without the sort of ‘virtus-valiantness’ embodied in Coriolanus; but, given its uncontainable explosiveness, it cannot very well do with it either. Shakespeare never took hold of a more enduring and intractable social problem. This is one of the most violent of Shakespeare’s plays, with tremendous and terrible powers released to do their ‘mammocking’ and ‘mangling’ work (two apt words – from the play – for the wrecking forces let loose). And, when Coriolanus is savagely cut down, we feel awed at what Bradley eloquently called ‘the instantaneous cessation of enormous energy.’

The legendary history of Coriolanus dates from the 5th century BC, and refers to the creation of the tribunate of 494 BC and the corn riots three years later (Shakespeare, for more urgent impact, conflates these events). Phillips summarizes the importance of this period of Roman history for the Elizabethans. ‘The consular government which had supplanted the earlier monarchy underwent further modification in the direction of popular rule when economic unrest forced the Senate to grant political representation to citizens of Rome. One result of this concession was conflict between the democratic and aristocratic elements within the republic. In the turbulent history of Rome in this period Tudor theorists who argued in defence of monarchy and the hierarchy of degrees found a convincing demonstration of the dangers of democratic government (op. cit, p. 147). There was no previous play about Coriolanus, and his story was only occasionally referred to by political writers as illustrative of the dangers of popular riot, or of civic ingratitude. Shakespeare certainly uses Plutarch, but the play is all his own. He makes it a very ‘Roman’-feeling play. Four of the early Roman kings are referred to (Numa, Tullus, Ancus Martius, and Tarquin), and there are references to political and religious customs and the Roman mythology and pantheon. Dryden thought that there was something in the play ‘that is truly great and truly Roman’ – though, as always in Shakespeare, Rome and the Romans appear in a far from unequivocal light. But there are also Greek, Homeric echoes. Hector is twice named in connection with Coriolanus (and Virgilia is ‘another Penelope’). Plutarch mentions Homer as well, and he also names Achilles. Curiously, that name is absent from Shakespeare’s play, yet, given the well-known epic theme of the wrath of Achilles, this would seem a more appropriate name to invoke than that of the more moderate, temperate Hector – for Coriolanus is nothing of not ‘choleric.’ Perhaps, by withholding the obvious name, but reminding us of Greek heroes, Shakespeare is prompting us to see Coriolanus as an Achilles in a Roman context. (Achilles also had a mother, Thetis, who made him almost, but not quite, invulnerable – a point certainly not lost on Shakespeare.) Certainly, Coriolanus is another of Shakespeare’s great warriors, embodying an almost archaic heroic code, who gets hopelessly, disastrously confused when he is removed from the relative simplicities of the battlefield, and forced to negotiate the more complicated political world of the polis (I am thinking of, in particular, Titus Andronicus and Othello.) Coriolanus cannot, or will not, see that words and conduct which are most fitting and efficacious on the battlefield might be ruinously inappropriate in the city. The fearless and undefeatable soldier may, using the same code, sound politically like an intolerant and unacceptable tyrant. You can’t, in this case, make a cushion out of a casque.”


And finally, from Frank Kermode:

04_101bigCoriolanus; the last of Shakespeare’s tragedies, is his most political play – not in the sense that it alludes openly to the politics of 1607-8, its probable date, but more abstractly. It is a study in the relationships between citizens within a body politic; the relationship of crowds to leaders and leaders to led, of rich to poor. The polis has its trouble; dearth, external enemies, enmity between classes. The patricians have a ruthless but narrow and selfish code of honour. The people are represented by tribunes who are in their own way equally ruthless, scheming politicians. The monarchic stage of Roman history has recently ended, the kings replaced by an oligarchy tending to be oppressive, committed to warfare as the ultimate proof of valour and worth, and largely indifferent to social obligation.

Coriolanus is their great warrior, bred to believe that personal merit can be measured by the number of wounds sustained in battle, saviour of the city but inept with the commonality, an ugly political innocent. The early years of King James I had seen popular disturbances in England, and a royal proclamation of 1607 stated that ‘it is a thing notorious that many of the meanest sort of people have presumed lately to assemble themselves riotously in multitudes.’ The virtues and defects of aristocracy had been demonstrated, towards the end of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, by the career of the Earl of Essex, a bold commander but a threat, ending fatally for himself, to state security. A sermon that William Barlow preached in 1601 characterized Essex as an ungoverned governor: ‘great natures prove either excellently good or dangerously wicked: it is spoken

by Plato but applied by Plutarch unto Coriolanus, a gallant young, but a discontented Roman, who might make a fit parallel for the late Earl.’ But Coriolanus is not a veiled comment on contemporary politics. It’s application is far more general; it concerns the education of an elite, the relations of power and need in a state, the tragic end of a great but exorbitant hero. Shakespeare hardly looked further than his well-thumbed Plutarch for the story, but he imposed a scheme on the material (which he adopted pretty freely) and wrote the play in a harsh, rather cold style suited to its theme of glorious war and civic strife.

Indeed, this is probably the most difficult play in the canon, and it prompts one to think again about the problems it must always have set audiences and readers. It is true that the original audiences, many of their members oral rather than literate were, as I mentioned in the Introduction, trained to listen and must have been rather good at following. Still, one might well ask what ‘following’ entails. In Shakespeare’s plays, especially after 1600, say from Hamlet on, the life of the piece, the secret of personation, is in the detail, and we need to understand as much of that as we can.

Coriolanus amply illustrates these new conditions. It has passages that continue to defeat modern editors, for example I.i.257-58, 267-78, and I.ix.45-46: ‘When steel grows soft as the parasite’s silk,/Let him be made an overture for th’ wars!’ Philip Brockbank, a first-rate editor, needed a note of almost a thousand words to justify his reading of ‘ovator’ for ‘overture’; whichever is right, the sense remains much too obscure for an audience to pick up in the theater. There are many such passages in the late plays. Once in Stratford I asked a well-known actor how he could deliver some lines in The Tempest that still baffle commentators: ‘But these sweet thoughts do even refresh my labors,/Most buisl’est when I do it.’ (III.i.14-15). He said he would try to speak them as if he understood them perfectly. The idea was to prevent the audience from worrying about the meaning, the next best thing to making the meaning clear. Of course the actor mustn’t seem to be baffled, for that would be a false note in the characterization. The meaning is best left to editors and commentators. I myself, when editing The Tempest, wrote a note of about thousand words on the passage, to nobody’s great benefit.

However, there are times when obscurity is actually part of the personation, when a character is meant to be baffled and to show it. In Cymbeline, Jachimo makes a bewildering speech to Imogen, ranting on about Posthumus’s imaginery bad behavior in Italy, where, it is claimed, he was unfaithful to Imogen. Here is the latter part of Jachimo’s tirade:

It cannot be i’ th’ eye: for apes and monkeys

‘Twist two such shes would chatter this way, and

Contemn with mows the other; nor i’th’ judgement:

For idiots in this case of favor would

Be wisely definite: nor i’th’ appetite:

Sluttery, to such neat excellence oppos’d,

Should make desire vomit emptiness,

Not so allur’d to feed.


The expression is so tortuous (and his subject so improbable) that Imogen cannot follow him and asks, ‘What is the matter, trow?…What,d ear sir,/Thus raps you? Are you well? (47, 50-51). We must think of Jachimo’s speech as delivered at speed, an impression confirmed by the lines with weak endings (‘and,’ ‘would’), the strangeness of the language about apes and monkeys, and the complexity of the last two lines: confronted with such ‘Sluttery’ (meaning Posthumus’s Italian mistress) sexual desire would strive to evacuate itself like someone vomiting on an empty stomach. The huddle of figures (apkes, idiots, vomiting), the remoteness of the language from its theme, the mysterious air of disgusted excitement – considering these aspects, the response of Imogen and presumably of the audience is intelligible.

Such writing is very different from the tone of Richard II’s great soliloquy, and is most striking when it’s used to imitate the actual movement of thought in a character’s mind. He may be studying a situation and deciding how to deal with it. Consider Brutus in the orchard (Julius Caesar, II.i). Her is on the brink of a terrible decision, whether to spare Caesar or to kill him, but there is not much in the lines to suggest great perturbation:

It must be by his death; and for my part,

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general. He would be crown’d:

How that might change his nature,

Julius Caesar is dated 1599, just before what I take to be a sort of revolution in Shakespeare’s language. When we compare this with the speech from Coriolanus, written eight or nine years later, that I quoted in full in the Introduction:

(Let me backtrack here to the Introduction):

The exiled Coriolanus has formed a union with his former enemy Aufidius. They are marching triumphantly on Rome. Aufidius feels some anxiety, some mistrust of his Roman ally. He meditates:

All places yield to him ere he sits down,

And the nobility of Rome are his,

The senators and patricians love him too;

The tribunes are no soldiers, and their people

Will be as rash in the repeal, as hasty

To expel him thence. I think he’ll be to Rome

As in the aspray to the fish, who takes it

By sovereignty of nature. First he was

A noble servant to them, but he could not

Carry his honors even. Whether ‘twas pride,

Which out of daily fortune ever taints

The happy man; whether defect of judgment,

To fail in the disposing of those chances

Which he was lord of; or whether nature,

Not to be other than one thing, not moving

From th’ casque to th’ cushion, but commanding peace

Even with the same austerity and garb

As he controll’d the war; but one of these

(As he hath spices of them all, not all,

For I dare so far free him) made him fear’d,

So hated, and so banish’d; but he has a merit

To choke it in the utt’rance. So our virtues

Lie in th’ interpretation of the time,

And power, unto itself most commendable,

Hath not a tomb so evident as a chair

T’ extol what it hath done.


I shall discuss the language of Coriolanus in due course – its extraordinarily forced expressions, its obscurity of syntax and vocabulary, its contrasts of prose and harsh verse, its interweavings of the domestic and the military. For the moment we are concerned with this single example. Coleridge thought this speech “beautiful in itself’ but called it ‘the least explicable from the mood and full intention of the speaker of any in the whole works of Shakespeare’ – an obscure remark, but it’s a comfort to know that even Coleridge had trouble following it, and also that despite its obscurity he thought it beautiful. He seems to be measuring it against some privileged prior knowledge of Aufidius’s ‘mood and full intention,’ but we cannot tell how he came by this knowledge, whichi we lack. Aufidius is contemplating Coriolanus in a way that is remotely like that in which Marcus contemplates Lavinia. But he is deliberate, speculative, not painting a picture for the audience but trying to make clearer to himself just how mixed his feelings are, how difficult he finds it to take a determined position on the standing of his ally, who has been a bitter rival in the past and may be a rival again. Throughout the speech there is a blend of respect, even affection, and envy. He thinks Coriolanus will easily take Rome, and puzzles over the circumstances that led to the exiling of such a superman, asking why he could not ‘carry his honors even.’ He introduces some general considerations concerning the nature and risks of power. One knows roughly what he is brooding about, and in that sense we can, despite Coleridge’s opinion, follow him. But the speech is very inward…There is no rhetorical code that covers the brooding, the starts and stops of thought which are features of Aufidius’s meditation. And it is certainly, ominously, obscure.

The simile of the osprey and the fish, a conventional bestiary illustration, is tersely adequate in its assertion of natural superiority; the oxymoron ‘noble servant’ illustrates with precision the dilemma of Coriolanus. There follows a series of tentative explanations: ‘whether…whether…or whether’: pride attendant on continuous success; inability to act in peace with the same assurance as in war – but note the strange synecdoches of ‘casque’ and ‘cushion’ (battlefield and senate house, represented by the military helmet and the cushion used by senators); and the hendiadys of ‘austerity and garb.’ Hendiadys is a way of making a single idea strange by splitting an expression in two, so that it calls for explanation as a minute and often rather sinister metaphor – a trick of which Shakespeare was for a time exceptionally fond and which he played most often in Hamlet. Most remarkable, and even more remote from the rhetoric of his early plays, is the device here used to simulate the movement of thought, the worrying over a perhaps insoluble problem by a mind animated by love and envy, a working out that takes precedence over clarity of expression:

but one of these

(As he hath spices of them all, not all,

For I dare so far free him) made him fear’d,

So hated, and so banish’d; but he has a merit

To choke it in the utt’rance.

One or other explanation must be right; in fact, Coriolanus has a touch of all these defects – no, not all, that is going too far; yet only one is needed to explain his fate; and even so finds it hard to say so, his virtues being so great.

That is roughly what these lines mean, if one takes the antecedent of ‘it’ in the last line to be the chief of the faults mentioned; if the antecedent is ‘merit,’ then Dr. Johnson’s explanation that the merit is choked by his boasting about it is the right one. Philip Brockbank, the Arden editor, is hesitantly willing to admit that Johnson’s reading points to a valuable ambiguity. This seems to me unlikely, but the point is that given this new way of representing turbulent thinking, so different from plainly formulated thought, set out clearly and reinforced by elaborately illustrative and copious comparisons, obscurities will inevitably plague commentators as well as audiences. It is a new rhetoric, substantially established about the time of Hamlet and highly developed by the time of Coriolanus and the Romacnes. Sometimes it takes the poet beyond the limits of reason and intelligibility.

What should be said about this transformation? That it occurred, substantially, in the course of the greatest decade of English drama; that it happened in the writing of Shakespeare and in the ears of an audience he had, as it were, trained to receive it. We register the pace of the speech, its sudden turns, its backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can consider them. This is new: the representation of excited, anxious thought; the weighting of confused possibilities and dubious motives; the proposing of a theory or explanation followed at once by its abandonment or qualification, as in the meditation of a person under stress to whom all that he is considering can be a prelude to vital choices, emotional and political.

It may be said that the gradual toughening up of the language, accompanied by a new freedom of metaphor and allusion and a rougher handling of the pentameter, is a well-known feature of Shakespeare’s later work. That is so. But Coriolanus also illustrates another, subtler change, from the simpler expressiveness of the early plays to an almost self-indulgent, obsessive passion for particular words, their chimings and interchimings, their repetition. Of this, I shall have more to say later.

(Back to where we were)

…that I quoted in the Introduction, we can see clearly the change that had some over the language of the writer who dominated this great decade of English drama; we must infer that the change had affected the understanding of the ‘understanders’ who heard it in the theater. They had been trained to deal with such shifts. What we feel, even before we start to unpack the language, is its pace, its sudden turns and backtrackings, its metaphors flashing before us and disappearing before we can grasp them. We recognize the representation of anxious thought, a weighing of possibilities, a weighing of Coriolanus. Aufidius proposes a theory or explanation but abandons or qualifies it almost before he has uttered it, as a person might do under the pressure of similar considerations. This kind of thing was now being done in verse for the first time. If one had to say where it was first achieved, one might say in Claudius’s soliloquy in Hamlet, III.iii.

The gradual toughening and gnarling of language, accompanied by a new freedom and variety of metaphor and a more rugged pentameter, are well-recognized features of Shakespeare’s later work. But Coriolanus illustrates another and less obvious change. As I have tried to show, the earlier plays do on occasion indulge a passion for particular words, their chimings and repetitions and their semantic range; Love’s Labour’s Lost is an instance. In that play, and in other comedies, there is a good deal of play with what I have called, in Virginia Woolf’s expression, ‘little language.’ ‘The Phoenix and Turtle’ is in this sense an exercise in little language. Not much later comes the intricacy of the lexical chains in Troilus and Cressida, King Lear, Macbeth, and Timon of Athens. In Coriolanus, we have this lexical and syntactic habit in its full maturity: stubborn repetition, free association, violent ellipses; in short, a prevailing ruggedness of tone.”


I hope you all enjoyed this post despite it’s length – I thought the things that Kermode, in particular, brought up were fascinating.

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning

Our next reading:  Act Two of Coriolanus

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2 Responses to “Indeed, this is probably the most difficult play in the canon, and it prompts one to think again about the problems it must always have set audiences and readers.”

  1. Sandy Bucay says:

    I also found Kermode’s approach inspiring. Indeed, a very pertinent insertion!

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