Act Two, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: At the Senate, the tribunes are thoroughly dissecting Martius’s many personal flaws, when Virgilia announces his triumphant return from war. Coriolanus enters the city to an enormous hero’s welcome, horrifying both Brutus and Sicinius with the thought that he would be promoted. And of course, their fears are quickly confirmed when the Senate moves to make him a consul. Coriolanus remains aloof, but is eventually encouraged (or pressured) to address the commoners directly and beg for their votes – a process he finds as distasteful as it is democratic. And, though he eventually does win their support, the tribunes soon convince the citizens to reconsider their decision.
Caius Martius, it seems, is in many ways the ultimate that Rome (at least during the days of the Republic) can offer. Plutarch describes how ‘valiantness was honoured in Rome above all virtues,” and in the person of Martius we see the final result of that philosophy. Combining lofty aristocratic values with seemingly effortless machismo with near-suicidal valor on the battlefield, Martius acquires his well-known title while performing a particularly spectacular piece of military daring outside the city of Corioles – hence “Coriolanus.’ Reborn in the fire and smoke and blood of battle, he “cannot in the world,” the smooth-tongued politician Cominius suggests, “be singly counterpoised.” In war, Cominius continues, Coriolanus has no peer:
His sword, death’s stamp,
Where it did mark, it took. From face to foot
He was a thing of blood, whose every motion
Was timed with dying cries. Alone he entered
The mortal gate of th’ city, which he, painted
With shunless destiny, aidless came off,
And with a sudden reinforcement struck
Corioles like a planet.
Coriolanus is not human (Bloom has pointed this out as well), but a killing machine “timed with dying cries”; nourished by battle, he is prepared to go on forever as if he were “a perpetual spoil,” not even pausing to catch his breath.
The admiring portrait that Cominius draws is, of course, horrendous: a portrait of an unstoppable blood soaked beast of a warrior. “There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in the male tiger,” (5.4.28-9) Menenius will say later. Still more shocking, though, is the attitude of his mother, the more than slightly fearsome Volumnia. As the women of Rome wait nervously for news of the battle at Corioles, Virgilia plaintively hopes that her husband has not been injured. But it is all that Volumnia can do to hold back her contempt: blood “more becomes a man,” she scornfully replies, “than gilt his trophy.”
The breasts of Hecuba
When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier
Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning.
The warrior who becomes on the battlefield “a thing of blood” is eerily predicted in these grim words. Volumnia and her son are really a kind of nightmare perversion of Roman “values” – the city’s obsession with military prowess approves Coriolanus’s brutality in war just as it encourages the kind of sadistic outlook voiced by his mother. Blood (literally and figuratively) is what binds them, yet Volumnia describes not nurturing motherhood but graphic violence. A few moments later she describes all-too-approvingly how Coriolanus’s little son shows every sign of following his father’s bloody footprints – by tormenting a butterfly, then ripping it apart with his teeth.
Coriolanus depicts, again and again, the madness of life in Rome: though the people have genuine complaints with the way they are ruled, they allow themselves to be bought off with words. (Shakespeare confuses (intentionally?) his source, which clearly explains that as a result of the grain riots the people won political representation.) And though Roman ideas about “valiantness” seem comprehensible enough, in Coriolanus and his mother, they reach a pinnacle of inhumanity. And though the crowd detests (for good reason) the man who calls them “curs,” they find themselves persuaded that he deserves to wield power over them.
At the urging of politicians eager to capitalize on his military victories, Coriolanus agrees to stand for the Senate – the one catch being, that in order to be elected by the “people,” he must first beg for their “voices”, aka votes. A curious dilemma arises: though the commoners can decide whether or not to elect him, most seem to believe that it would be embarrassing to show “ingratitude” to a man who has done so much for their city. And in doing so, they reveal that they, too have bought into the ideology worshipped by Volumnia and Coriolanus: although Coriolanus clearly despises the citizens, they are prepared to vote for him on condition that he shows them his battle scars. But Coriolanus is sure if he is prepared to go even that far. The irony, of course, is that he has become the very man he despises, the man who must “depend” on the crowd’s “favours” is not all together lost on Coriolanus as he stands in front of the crowd begging for votes. “Better it is to die, better to starve,” he bitterly exclaims, “than crave the hire which first we do deserve.” (2.3.113-7). Longing for the solitary simplicities of the battlefield, Coriolanus simply cannot see the value in democracy.
“The opening act as a whole is long and military. It begins with a prose scene in which the plebeians rehearse an uprising, but their complaints are interrupted by the arrival of Menenius, who makes his celebrated comments about the interrelation of the parts of the body politic, allegorized as parts of the single human body. This speech has its origin in Plutarch but is also indebted to a contemporary publication, Camden’s Remains (1605). It is, like many Shakespearian overtures, a carefully composed thematic statement. The mutinous talk of the people is what the plot requires us to attend to, but without Menenius’s speech we should not have borne in mind the larger ideological context. More important, we should not have been ready for the extraordinary network of allusions to part of the body in later scenes.
Once upon a time the limbs revolted against the belly because it seemed to do no work. Menenius, a jovial character, very loveable in his dealings with his peers, is trying to act as a go-between, though privately he detests the plebs. He explains the essential service done by the belly for the mutinous members (he calls the leading citizen ‘the great toe of this assembly’). At the simplest level of plot this scene, despite its ostensible good humor, alerts us to the state of affairs between patricians and plebs; until the entrance of Coriolanus the tone is almost bantering. Menenius’s leisurely lines – one of the few seemingly leisurely passages in the play – quietly establish a kind of lexical grid. ‘The great toe of this assembly’ is a joke, but it introduces language that is later no joke at all, when anger commands the scene and we are bombarded with body parts: breasts, hearts, palates, teeth, belly, and bosom, above all mouths and tongues and what issue from them, voices.
Voice, in the English of the time, was the word for ‘vote.’ Shakespeare never uses the word ‘vote,’ and it would have suited his purposes less well, for ‘voice’ relates the suffrage of the people to their disgusting bodies. When Coriolanus is forced to solicit the voices of the people by showing them his wounds he is reluctantly electioneering, and the bribe he offers is the most precious commodity of his case, wounds sustained in battle. ‘I have wounds to show you…Your good voice, sir…if it may stand with the tune of your voices…’ (II.iii.76-86). He must offer these in return for the voices of the people who, in his strong opinion, should not have voices or votes anyway. But the ‘voice of occupation,’ that is, of the proletariat (IV.vi.97), has to be heard. It is Menenius, appalled at the news of Coriolanus’s approach, who uses that expression, and he associates their voice with their garlic breath so that their votes stink of their wretched diet. Soon their voices represent their whole bodies and certainly their power. Their voices exiled Coriolanus, they ‘hooted’ him out of the city; Cominius adds that he’s afraid they will ‘roar him in again.’ They will be paid for their ‘voices’; ‘Y’ are goodly things, you voices!’
All these illustrations, coming from a single scene and all depending on a bold use of synecdoche as well as on the insistent repetition of ‘voice’ and ‘voices,’ are very deliberate. Coriolanus is a play about anger, but it is calmly plotted. To Coriolanus the crowd is an anonymous, diseased body made up of individual vile bodies that unfortunately can be transformed into potent voices that are capable of making intolerable demands on his honor. From his first lines he despises their vileness, while Menenius greets him as ‘noble,’ an appellation very frequently bestowed on Coriolanus; it soon becomes tinged with irony. The epithet applies only to patricians; the opposite of ‘noble’ is ‘vile.’ ‘What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,/that rubbing the poor itch of your opinion/Make yourself scabs?’ (I.i.164-66). Here at the outset a plebeian political protest is represented as a bodily disease. The itch, a disease of poverty, along with stinking breath and sweat, stands for opinion, ever fallible and ever the word for ignorant popular thought. Later the people are ‘measles’ and ‘tetters.’ ‘The wiser sort’ of listener would recognize this opening as a kind of thesaurus with meanings to be fully realized only later. Such auditors, borne on by the stream of language, would remember this beginning in order to take their bearings.
The third scene, a conversation between upper-class ladies, is there solely to shed light on the causes of Coriolanus’s extraordinary, unbiddable intransigence. It has no source in Plutarch. His mother’s attitude to warlike achievement, besides which, in her view, nothing else counts, is expressed in her loving talk of reputation, blood, and wounds. Her language is violent because her love for her son is so involved in his heroically violent feats of arms that only thus can it be expressed. And he is as he is to please his mother. The boy, the son of the hero, also under the rule of his grandmother, is commended for violently tearing a butterfly to pieces: ‘One on’s father’s moods,’ says Volumnia contentedly: ‘Indeed la, ‘tis a noble child,’ says her friend Valeria (II.iii.66-67). They speak a familial and a class dialect. In this society loss of blood in war is ‘physical’ (curative) (I.v.18), and so to look as if one had been flayed is a mark of honour. (I.v.22-29, 57). The hero’s wife, Virgilia, feebly opposes her pacifism to this upper-class military boasting.
In the campaign of Corioli, Coriolanus, as usual, treats the common soldiery as a diseased body and himself behaves less like a man than a war machine. As a result of this action he acquires the name ‘Coriolanus’ – an ‘addition’ that will have a part to play in his death. Names, always important, are now even more so. When Coriolanus asks as a favor that a poor prisoner from Corioli who had done him some service should be freed, the request is at once granted, but Coriolanus cannot remember his name. In North’s Plutarch the plea is on behalf of ‘an old friend and host of mine, an honest wealthy man’ whom Coriolanus wishes to rescue from the fate of being sold as a slave. There is no mention in Plutarch – where this incident happens immediately before Cominius awards Titus Martius his new name – of Coriolanus forgetting the man’s name. Here is a small piece of evidence as to the way in which Shakespeare, working closely to a source, might find interesting interconnections where there are none in the original; Plutarch is not interested in the Volscians name or whether Coriolanus remembers or forgets it. In Shakespeare the ‘addition’ of a name to Caius Martius involves the subtraction of a name from ‘a poor man.’ When Menenius is turned away from the Volscian camp (V.ii) the guards jeer at this confidence in the power of his name, and ‘name,’ as we shall see, becomes a central issue in the last scenes.
The tribunes are dismayed at the triumph of their enemy; Brutus (II.i.205-21) gives a wonderfully sour and animated account of Coriolanus’s reception in Rome; but they know his weakness and will politically exploit it. The language of the following scene is full of the energy this play derives from its ‘little language,’ as in the speech of an ‘officer’ whose role is simply to carry in cushions: ‘he hath so planted his honors in their eyes and his actions in their hearts that for their tongues to be silent and not confess so much were a kind of ingrateful injury,’ plucking ‘reproof and rebuke from every ear that heard it’ (II.ii.28-34). The speech of Menenius that follows has all the metrical roughness appropriate to a commendation of Coriolanus, and it suits the language of Cominius’s eulogy: ‘He was a thing of blood, whose every motion/Was tim’d with dying cries’ (109-10). Menenius can only exclaim ‘worthy man!’ (122).
Here begins the matter of soliciting ‘voices,’ a part that Coriolanus says he will ‘blush on acting.’ He must now wear the ‘gown of humility’ and act the supplicant. Were his scars received only to ‘hire’ the ‘breath’ of plebeians? The scenes that follow are extraordinary in their use of ‘voice’ and related words such as ‘tongue’ and ‘breath.’ Should the citizens, they grotesquely but appositely ask themselves, put their ‘tongue into those wounds and speak for them/ (II.iii.7)? Will they give their voices (36), their ‘own voices with [their] tongues’ (45)? Coriolanus hates their breath, and wishes they would clean their teeth, but arrogantly ‘begs’ their ‘worthy voices’ (79-80) and says he will show his wounds ‘in private’ (77).
The weight of the dialogue is always against this hero. All he needs to do to have the consulship, as a citizen temperately points out, is ‘to ask it kindly’ (75). He need not even ‘counterfeit the bewitchment of some popular man’ (101), for the voices are his for the asking. But they are dependent on stinking breath and stand for plebeian bodies. The words ‘voice’ and ‘voices’ occur forty-eight times in the play, thirty-two times in this scene; such battering of the audience is unparalleled in the canon. ‘Voices’ remains a synecdoche for citizens, for ‘poor people.’:
Here come moe voices. –
Your voices? For your voices I have fought;
Watch’d for your voices; for your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd; battles thrice six
I have seen, and heard of; for your voices have
Done many things, some less, some more. Your voices?
The Third Citizen in his comment (166-73) uses ‘voices’ five times Brutus the tribune takes up the cry, adding ‘bodies,’ ‘hearts,’ and ‘tongues’:
Why, had your bodies
No heart among you? Or had you tongues to cry
Against the rectorship of judgment?
Coriolanus will not play the part assigned him.”
(In a footnote, Kermode notes, “’Rectorship,’ otherwise not used by Shakespeare, is an out-of-the-way synonym for ‘rule’ or ‘discipline.’ The use of nonce-words to disturb such a context – all familiar body parts, and all resounding constantly in the text – seems typical of the craft of Shakespeare’s later plays.)
And from Tanner:
“The god invoked by Coriolanus himself is, understandably enough, Mars – ‘Now, Mars, I prithee, make us quick in work’ (I.iv.10). Then, effectively, he becomes Mars – ‘thou Mars’ (IV.v.122) – thus Aufidius addresses him when he goes over to the Volscians. Indeed, as Cominius says, ‘He is their god’ (IV.vi.91). But this is not a god of mercy (‘there is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger’ – V.iv.28-30), but an angry god:
You speak o’th’ people,
As if you were a god, to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.
By the end, his harsh and uncompromising demeanour moves Menenius to declare: ‘He wants nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to thrown in’ (V.iv.24-5). (A Volscian soldier gives the not very different opinion that ‘He’s the devil’ – I.x.17.) But, if he’s a god, also a beast, and a very particular beast. He is once an eagle, once a tiger, once a horse, but three times a ‘dragon.’ First, by his own designation, after being banished – ‘I go alone,/Like to a lonely dragon, that his fen/Makes feared and talked of more than seen’ (IV.i.29-31). For the Volscians, he fights “dragon-like’ (IV.vii.23). After he has switched his allegiance, his old Roman friend Menenius comments:
There is a differency between a grub and a butterfly; yet your butterfly was a grub. This Marcius is grown from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a creeping thing.(V.iv.11-14)
In post St-George times, knights are obliged to kill dragons; this ancient pre-Christian, and decidedly unchristian, proto-knight is metamorphosing into a dragon. (This late reference to butterflies of course echoes the early account of Coriolanus’s son’s characteristic conduct: ‘I saw him run after a gilded butterfly; and when he caught it, he let it go again…catched it again; or whether his fall enraged him, or how ‘twas, he did so set his teeth, and tear it. O, I warrant, how he mammocked it!’ Volumnia’s comment ‘One on’s father’s moods’ – I.iii.63-70 – might well prepare us for Coriolanus’ subsequent behavior. Butterflies for boys: dragons, or dragonish behavior, for men.)
God, and beast, he is also described as a ‘planet’ and an ‘engine.’ Always more or less than human. And perhaps the most decisive pointer to his inhumanity, non-humanity, is the number of times he is referred to simply as a ‘thing’:
from face to foot
He was a thing of blood, whose every motion
Was timed with dying cries.
He sits in his state as a thing made for Alexander.
He also becomes ‘a kind of nothing’ (V.i.13: my italics). Talk of reification, or self-reification, is perhaps superegoratory; we all know, more or less, what it implies to call a person a ‘thing.’ Whether, and how, we can witness the ‘tragedy’ of a ‘thing’ – or a ‘no-thing’ – is a matter to which we will have to return.
More specifically, Coriolanus is closely identified with his sword. It is often referred to, usually ‘smoking’ with slaughter. One comes to feel that he is seldom happy, or quite at ease with himself, when it is out of his hand. Like his little son, he ‘had rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his schoolmaster’ (I.iii.58-9). His ambitions are entirely military and not, indeed, remotely ‘scholastic,’ nor even – in truth – political. He is happy with, and perhaps only with, the casque. And the sword. One of his earliest interventions in the row precipitated by the ‘mutinous citizens’ is:
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quartered slaves…
His very last words are ‘To use my lawful sword’ (V.vi.129) – his sword is full of law, is the law as far as he is concerned. But civic society depends on having laws instead of swords. In his younger days he ‘lurched all swords of the garland’ (II.ii.102), and at Corioles ‘His sword, death’s stamp,/Where it did mark, it took’ (II.ii.108-9). Lartius pays him a rather curious compliment:
O noble fellow!
Who sensibly outdares his senseless sword,
And when it bows stand’st up!
This seems to suggest that Coriolanus himself remains erect, even when his sword droops. I think there is an entirely appropriate phallic hint there. Effectively all his energy and appetite and drive – in sum, a colossal force – have been directed (displaced, if you will) into his fearful, ‘smoking’ instrument of death – Eros ‘bowing’ to the stand-up work of Thanatos. When his soldiers lift him up in their arms (presumably carrying him on their shoulders), after his exploits at Corioles, Coriolanus cries out, not unhappily one feels – ‘Make you a sword of me?’ He is, indeed, to all intents and purposes, the sword of the city. The deeper truth is that he has made a sword out of himself.
This engine, this thing, this sword, this man of steel (let us say) – it is hard to see what could break or bend, deflect or deter, him. Yet that, of course, is just what happens at the climax of the play. After his victory at Corioles, Marcius (soon to be named ‘Coriolanus’) in a speech refusing praise and flattery, says:
When steel grows soft as the parasite’s silk,
Let him be made a coverture for th’ wars!
This is a much disputed and debated passage (MY NOTE: As we saw from Kermode), marked by that harsh, over-compacted meaning so characteristic of the play. Take one possible meaning as – when the army turns soft, use silk for armour. The power of the image lies, of course, in the idea of steel growing soft as silk. Impossible. Yet steel Coriolanus does turn, briefly, fatally, as soft as silk, when he capitulates to the intercessionary pleas to spare Rome Aufidius picks up the image for us, after the capitulation:
Breaking his oath, and resolution, like
A twist of rotten silk; never admitting
Counsel o’th’ war; but at his nurse’s tears
He whined and roared away your victory…
Man of steel to man of silk (rotten silk to the critical) – part of the tragic power of the play surely lies in this sudden transformation, and we must inquire a little as to how it comes about.
The crucial factor, or influence, is of course his mother, Volumnia. Plutarch-North has this to say concerning the relationship between Marcius (later Coriolanus) and his mother:
‘the only thing that made him to love honor was the joy he saw his mother did take of him. For he thought nothing made him so happy and honorable, as that his mother might hear everybody praise and commend him, that she might always see him return with a crown upon his head…thinking all due to his mother…at her desire [he] took a wife also, by whom he had two young children, and yet never left his mother’s house therefore.
There is not much more concerning Volumnia in Plutarch, apart from the crucial intercessionary scene when she dissuades her son from sacking his native city, Rome. All the other scenes involving Volumnia in the play are Shakespeare’s invention, and, with powerful dramatic economy, they serve to reveal how – psychologically and emotionally – Coriolanus, indeed, never leaves ‘his mother’s house.’ Whatever else he is or becomes – sword, engine, dragon, planet, god – he remains, ineradicably, a mother’s-boy. These two words are central and crucial to the play.
Volumnia embodies, and articulates, the martial values of Rome. In her first speech, she celebrates that shift of affect, and affection, from the cushion to the casque – or rather, from the bed to the battlefield – we have already noted as a ‘Roman’ predisposition:
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.
Better an absent honor than a present embrace – that’s Rome. Or, at least, Volumnia’s Rome. Virgilia, the wife of Coriolanus, is given no words by Plutarch, though he makes nothing of the fact. Shakespeare’s Virgilia is, as it were, audibly silent. ‘My gracious silence, hail!’ (II.i.181) is about as amorous as Coriolanus gets in exchanges with his wife – but though she is almost entirely effaced and displaced by the extremely vociferous Volumnia, there is grace in Virgilia’s silence. Ruskin found her ‘perhaps the loveliest of Shakespeare’s female characters,’ and, while that doubtless tells us something about Ruskin, as always he has a point. Most of the speech in this play is, one way or another, pretty unpleasant. In the circumstances, there is, as it were, much to be said for not speaking. Such very few words as she does speak (Desdemona and Cordelia are loquacious by comparison), are either modestly decorous, or right against the Roman grain. For example, when Volumnia voluptuously wallows in the thought of her son’s ‘bloody brow’ in battle, Virgilia’s involuntary interjection is ‘O Jupiter, no blood!’ (I.iii.41). Virgilia is, in Volumnia’s terms, very distinctly not a ‘Roman’ woman – and more power to her!
Having made him what he is – ‘Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck’st it from me’ (III.ii.129), Volumnia, on two crucial occasions, uses her influence to persuade him, against his better judgment (or steely, intransigent resolve) to go right against the rigid martial inclinations and instincts which she herself nutured in him. It is she who launches the idea that he should stand for counsulship – ‘There’s one thing wanting, which I doubt not but/Our Rome will cast upon thee.’ Knowing that that will involve having to ingratiate himself with the common people, whom he quite intemperately and viscerally loathes, Coriolanus, rightly, senses immediately that such a role is not for him – ‘Know, good mother,/I had rather be their servant in my way/than sway with them in theirs’ (II.i.207-10). In particular, he shrinks in aversion from the prospect of having to put off his armour and don the ‘vesture of humility’ and then going to stand in the market-place, showing his wounds and begging for votes. Such a parade of pseudo-humility ill becomes a man who is uncorruptibly a total soldier – a butcher-soldier perhaps, but with his martial integrity intact. Quite simply, he won’t do it:
I do beseech you
Let me o’erleap that custom, for I cannot
Put on the gown, stand naked, and entreat them,
For my wounds’ sake, to give their suffrage. Please you
That I may pass this doing.
More pertinently – ‘It is a part/That I shall blush in acting’ (II.ii.145-6). Coriolanus is a soldier who can, emphatically, do deeds (there is much stress on this), but who cannot act parts. But Volumnia is a mother who always gets her way. So he tried, though not without some heavy irony concerning the self-falsification it involves. ‘I will practice the insinuating nod, and be off to them most counterfeitly: that is, sir, I will counterfeit the bewitchment of some popular man’ (II.iii.103-6). [MY NOTE: Why does Mitt Romney leap to mind when I read that line?] Though his instinct is all the other way. ‘Rather than fool it so,/Let the high office and the honor go’ (II.iii.126-7). After his session in the market-place, he cannot wait to ‘change these garments’ – thereby ‘knowing myself again’ (II.iii.153). He seems to have the people’s ‘voice,’ but then the tribunes agitate the crowd and it turns against Coriolanus.”
And finally, from A.D. Nuttall, who opens by mentioning both “Lear” and Antony” and the role of the “prompter.”
“This time it is a lady, and she does an even more fundamental job than Iago – but she had more time in which to do her work. The lady is the Roman matron Volumnia, and the person she remakes is her own son. Having first produced him biologically, she embarks up on a process that we would call conditioning. The play does not show the childhood of Coriolanus, but the playwright wants us to know what this woman has done to him. It is made clear in a single brilliant scene, Act I, Scene iii.
The atmosphere of this scene is from the beginning ‘womanly.’ Volumnia and her daughter-in-law, Virgilia, are at first the only persons present (later they are joined by Valeria, a gentlewoman). There are no men. The stage directions reads, ‘They set them down on two low stools and sew.’ The sole textual authority for this play is the Folio of 1623. Its stage directions are famously more richly descriptive than those in other plays. They are likely to be authorial. We seem to be looking at a genre painting, a ‘Dutch interior,’ half a century before Vermeer. Sewing is a stereotypical feminine activity. Those men in the audience who are curious about the way women talk when there are no men present become especially alert. Of course, Shakespeare was a man, and had to guess. [MY NOTE: Did Shakespeare really have to “guess?”] He has the woman talk about family, about Coriolanus, who is Volumnia’s son and Virgilia’s husband. When Valeria arrives, she asks after Virgilia’s son, little Marcius. Virgilia says he is well. Volumnia cuts in warmly with ‘He had rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his schoolmaster.’ (I.iii.55-56). It is clear that she speaks with benevolent approval. Valeria then recounts how she saw the little fellow chase a pretty butterfly, catch it, tear it, and, in his rage, chew it to pieces (I.iii.60-65). This ghastly behavior obtains immediate loving admiration from the ladies, most markedly from an entranced Volumnia: ‘Tis a noble child.’ Virgilia, perhaps wishing to lighten the atmosphere, says ‘a crack’ (in modern English, ‘a lively lad’). The playwright has only to show that we are watching a replication of what must have happened when Coriolanus was a small child for the idea of conditioning to enter. This he does with Valeria’s ‘A’ my word, the father’s son’ at line 57 and Volumnia’s ‘One on’s father’s moods’ immediately after the narrative of the torn butterfly. Aggression, then as now, was rewarded with love. This is how you make a Roman military killer. The women do it – or rather, one woman has done it.
I have said that the initial setting is stereotypically female; the end of the scene, where the gossips depart to visit a pregnant lady who lives nearby is, again, conventionally ‘what women do.’ We need to stay with the stereotype a little longer. What, for example, is the stereotypical mother supposed to be like? I would guess that the answer is ‘tender, nurturing, life-giving, protective.’ Now listen to the way Volumnia imagines her son, at the time when she is speaking:
His bloody brow
With his mail’d hand then wiping, forth he goes,
Like to a harvest man that’s task’d to mow
Or all or lose his hire.
This is too much for her daughter-in-law. Virgilia cries out, ‘O Jupiter, No blood!’ Volumnia brushes this pusillanimity aside; it is interfering with her vision:
Away, you fool! it more becomes a man
Than gilt his trophy. The breasts of Hecuba,
When she did suckle Hector, look’d not lovelier
Than Hector’s forehead when it spat forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning.
There is a professional gentleman in Dickens who momentarily frightens the reader by saying that he is firmly of his wife’s opinion that ‘Other things are very well in their way, but give me blood!’ The wife eagerly chimes in, ‘We meet it in a chin and we say, ‘There it is, That’s blood!’ These blameless persons are in fact talking about pedigree. But Volumnia really does like blood. The mature ladies who used to hand out white feathers (symbols of cowardice) to young men not in uniform in the First World War were as nothing to this Roman lady.
This maturing mother desires above all to see her child shedding the blood of others, but also as bleeding himself. She has carefully fashioned him to this end. The remarkable thing about Volumnia’s reply to Virgilia is the way it entwines the maternal with the erotic. When she speaks of the beauty of Hecuba’s breasts the first impression made by the words is sexual – male sexuality at that. But these are the breasts of a suckling mother, and so we are returned to Volumnia herself, the mother in play. What is even more beautiful than these perfect, milky breasts, however, is the blood that sprang afterwards from the forehead of the son. Note that I have had to put in the word ‘afterwards’ to make sense of the speech. Volumnia telescopes the sucking child and the bleeding warrior. For her they are one.
There is a yet more violent juxtaposition of suckling and blood-letting earlier, in Macbeth. Lady Macbeth says,
I have given suck, and know
How tender ‘tis to love the babe that milks me;
I would, while it was smiling in my face,
Have pluck’d my nipple from his boneless gums,
And dash’d the brains out.
Lady Macbeth is here trying to turn her husband into a killer. She sees this task as directly antithetical to her own female-ness: ‘Unsex me here’ Lady Macbeth’s words are horrifying, but Volumnia is finally the more disturbing of the two. Lady Macbeth knows that her own thoughts are dreadful and is, so far, still a moral being. Volumnia perceives no conflict between the maternal and the murderous. Elsewhere Shakespeare reverts repeatedly to the idea of sucking not milk but blood. ‘Drones suck not eagles’ blood,’ says Suffolk, scornfully, at 2 Henry VI, IV.i.109. In Henry V, Pistol, in a kind of drunken hysteria, eager to show his willingness to fight, shouts, ‘To suck, to suck, the very blood to suck!’ (II.iii.56), and later maintains his virile status even in an act of leniency when he says, “As I suck blood, I will some mercy show’ (IV.iv.64). Most powerful of all is Caesar’s dream, in which he saw his own statue spouting blood and the people of Rome bathing their hands in it. Decius interprets the dream: the vision ‘Signifies that from you great Rome shall suck/Reviving blood’ (Julius Caesar, II.ii.87-88). We half expect to be told that the Roman mother gives blood, not milk to her baby, by the breast. That after all is a fair figurative description of what Volumnia has done. The thing she actually says, that the child’s bleeding forehead is fairer than the mother’s breasts, may seem a less violent thought than that of sucking blood. Once more, however, Volumnia’s words are more shocking than the other passages precisely because she is not thinking figuratively. The ‘bloody child’ of the ‘second apparition’ at Macbeth, IV.i.73, becomes a literal bleeding child, Hecuba’s Hector, Volumnia’s Coriolanus. Volumnia is thinking of real blood in a real battle and gives her pleasure in the thought an erotic charge completely absent from the other examples.
Shakespeare clearly saw Rome as a place where blood-letting is fetishized and, at the same time, deemed heroic. Brutus, when his desperate wife resorted to self-harm, was enchanted: ‘O ye gods!/Render me worthy of this noble wife!’ (Julius Caesar, II.i.302-3). After the assassination of Caesar the high-minded Brutus wished not to wash away the blood but to steep his arms in is so that they could afterwards stalk through the streets ‘waving our red weapons o’er our heads’ (III.i.109). ‘Blood’ and ‘wound’ are heavily recurrent words in Titus Andronicus and Julius Caesar, but ‘wound’ especially dominates Coriolanus. Readers of the source, Plutarch, may find this odd, since there is far less emphasis on wounds in the real ancient author than there is in the Renaissance play, though Plutarch does refer to the ancient practice of exhibiting wounds to solicit political support (Coriolanus xiv.i). As for the protracted play-business in which Coriolanus is pressed to show his wounds to the electorate and refuses (not because he thinks them unimportant but rather because he thinks them too sacred for political use) – this is thoroughly grounded in Roman practice. Scholars working on Shakespeare’s classical sources tend to confine themselves to the obviously relevant places in Plutarch and the rest. But Shakespeare himself evidently read more widely. It is in Plutarch’s Life of Aemilius Paulus that we find the closest analogue to Coriolanus as he appears in Shakespeare’s play. Aemilus Paulus treats the crowd with Coriolanian scorn and uncovers his breast to reveal an unbelievable number of wounds. Shakespeare may well have found his way to the place in Seneca where the philosopher says that virtue is like the good soldier, who will submit to wounds and will count his scars. Nevertheless, even in this environment Volumnia is uniquely bloodthirsty.
The scene in which we are told about little Marcius and the butterfly shows, then, how Coriolanus was conditioned in his childhood to become the controlled killer we see triumphing in the first part of the play. Near the end, where Volumnia tries to persuade her son to spare Rome, her arguments make no impression on him, but as soon as she simply reminds him that his mother is speaking, he is hers to command (V.iii.161-88). The telescoping of the infant with the warrior that we saw in Volumnia’s speech on the breasts of Hecuba is replicated at leisure by Shakespeare in the drama taken as a whole. Coriolanus is an awe-inspiring soldier, and he is also, at a certain level, Volumnia’s baby still. Coriolanus is not, like Brutus, a reflective Stoic. That is to say, he is not conscious of himself and his high principles. Therefore when Volumnia seeks to manipulate him, she need not bring a mirror to the task as Cassius did (figuratively) when she sought to manipulate Brutus:
I, your glass,
Will modestly discover to yourself
That of yourself which yet you know not of.
(Julius Caesar, I.ii.68-70)
Nevertheless, Coriolanus does unthinkingly exemplify certain Stoic ideals: integrity, self-sufficiency, self-rule, contempt for popular caprice. Or he can seem to. The proud phrase ‘author himself’ is employed by Coriolanus to express his own rational independence of local loyalties and of biological kindred. The phrase in isolation blazes with Stoic confidence, but the circumambient grammar of the sentence in which it occurs has a different effect: Coriolanus says he will stand (future tense, not present) ‘As if a man were author of himself,/And knew no other kin’ (V.iii.37-37). ‘As if’ implies reference to a state of affairs that does not exist, implicitly confesses the artificiality of the Stoic stance. Then the word ‘kin’ reminds us of Volumnia. His assumption of a power to make himself, as a moral being, is comprehensively undermined by the fact that all this courage, all this aggression, was formed and moulded by the mother. His sturdy independence is itself an artifact. Stoicism is all about self-control. But when self-control is created artificially by an external agent is it any longer self-control?”
And that’s it for today. I’m going to take a couple of days off – my next post will be Sunday evening/Monday morning – more thoughts on Act Two of Coriolanus. What do you all think so far?