“Shakespeare has no illusions. To have judged the world will not result in the world being changed.”


Act Two, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


To continue with the great Jan Kott, whose very political/class driven take on the play I find most interesting:

coriolanus plebeians“The first confrontation is provided by war. The Volscians have attacked Rome. The plebeians are helpless. The situation changes in a flash. Generals assume power, and the rebels withdraw. Agrippa’s arguments and his fable seem to prove right. Caius Marcius triumphs:

The Volsces have much corn. Take those rats thither

To gnaw their garners.


The Romans have reached Corioli. The first attack on the town has been repelled, the soldiers flee. Marcius throws insults on deserters, calls the brave ones to himself, and attacks again. He pursues the Volscians to the gates and enters the enemy town single-handed.

First Soldier:

Fool-hardiness! Not I.

Second Soldier:

Not I.

First Soldier:

See, they have shut him in.


To th’ pot, I warrant him.


Shakespeare’s battle scenes are accompanied by drum beats and the sound of trumpets. But there is little noise in them. They take place on an empty stage. Great battles are fought by a handful of soldiers. Of course, at the Globe, red paint was not spared, and swords clattered against each other for long stretches of time. But Shakespeare’s battle scenes are neither descriptive nor intended to create a make-believe. Theirs is a dramatic quality of a different, inner kind. Mortal duels are punctuated by bitter philosophic reflection, or by irony. Young Henry is a hero and defeats Percy. But Falstaff would rather pretend to be a corpse; he knows that the main thing is to remain alive. The war is a kings’ and generals’ war; not a soldiers’ war. This is also true of the war in Coriolanus.

Corioli has been captured. Marcius has gone through it like a hurricane. Only the carcass of a town remains, off which the soldiers snatch miserable slices.

First Roman:

This will I carry to Rome

Second Roman:

And I this.

Third Roman:

A murrain on’t! I took this for silver.


Such are the scenes of perennial history, as Shakespeare sees them; scenes written once and for all. They are wide generalizations and most concrete at the same time. It is sufficient to imagine this scene, or to re-read it the way it has been written, to realize the deeper causes of Brecht’s enthusiasm for Coriolanus. Coriolanus is a far more emphatic, direct and modern model of the theatre Brecht called epic, than Shakespeare’s Histories. Mother Courage feeds on war, unaware to the end that it is the war that feeds on her and will take from her everything she has got. Mother Courage is like those soldiers wresting from each other’s hands a leaden cup, mistaking it for silver. In his last period Brecht often called his epic theatre ‘dialectic.’ He looked to Shakespeare for his model. Let us go on. Victorious Roman generals, among them Marcius, enter the streets of the dead town, empty like the Shakespearean stage:

See here these movers that do prize their honours

At a crack’s drachma! Cushions, leaden spoons,

Irons of a doit, doublets that hangmen would

Bury with those that wore them, these base slaves,

Ere yet the fight be done, pack up. Down with them!

And hark, what noise the general makes!


Marcius is clearly and consciously made by Shakespeare to appear heroic. He has Achilles’s strength, and a voice more powerful than any man’s. The Volscian general calls him Hector among bragging Romans. Even the style, the similes used to describe Marcius’s warlike deeds, are Homeric. His mother speaks of Coriolanus:

     …His bloody brow

With his mail’d hand then wiping, forth he goes,

Like to a harvestman that’s task’d to mow

Or all or lose his hire.


And this is what the commander in chief says of him:

A carbuncle entire, as big as thou art,

Were not so rich a jewel. Thou wast a soldier

Even to Cato’s wish, not fierce and terrible

Only in strokes, but with thy grim looks and

The thunder-like percussion of thy sounds

Thou mad’st thine enemies shake, as if the world

Were feverous and did tremble.


The Volscian general refers to Marcius thus:

I do not know what witchcraft’s in him, but

Your soldiers use him as the grace fore meat,

Their talk at table, and their thanks at end;…


Marcius is brave. During his first campaign he shielded a wounded soldier with his body and carried him away from the battlefield; he has been wounded twenty-seven times in the service of Rome; he captured Corioli single-handed. Marcius is selfless. He refuses to accept the tenth part of the booty he is entitled to, and demands that it should be equally distributed among everybody. He does not want to talk about his heroic deeds and does not want others to talk about them.

The war confirms the class hierarchy which Marcius already perceived in peace time. Patricians and plebeians behave differently in war. Compared to Marcius how miserable must seem the plebeians, who tremble before the battle, and when the victory is won, snatch from one another cups, spoons and soiled rags.

    …But for our gentlemen,

The common file (a plague! Tribunes for them!),

The mouse ne’er shunn’d the cat as they did budge

From rascals worse than they.


Marcius is right. Plebeians behave in a war like rats. This is the first mirror: the war as the patricians see it. But even in this reflection the picture of war is suddenly objectivized, as in Mutter Courage. Shakespeare always carries his confrontations to their limits. In a war there are not only victors, but also losers. In the captured town Titus Larcius has assumed military power:

Condemning some to death, and some to exile;

Ransoming him or pitying, threat’ning th’ other;

Holding Corioles in the name of Rome

Even like a fawning greyhound in the leash,

To let him slip at will.


This is something more than Homeric similes. Nor do we find such a scene in Plutarch. This is a universal representation of any occupation. Again this scene must be re-read and imagined as Shakespeare has written it. It questions the whole system of values defended by Marcius. It represents Brehctian ‘objective dialectic.’ It refers to the audience’s judgment, Shakespeare’s sense of dramatic irony shows itself in the fact that these words are spoken by Marcius himself.

Coriolanus contains another amazing speech by Marcius. He returns in triumph to Rome, is welcomed by his mother and wife. The wife does not speak one word; she just weeps. Says Coriolanus:

     …Ah, my dear,

Such eyes the widows in Corioles wear

And mothers that lack sons.


These words hardly agree with Coriolanus’s character. They are too soft, too sensitive. They sound a jarring note at this joyous moment. They perform the function of songs in Brecht’s dramatic pieces. Again, they suddenly objectivize, recalling those who have been defeated. The other mirror is not really needed any more. But Shakespeare never renounces anything. He will show the other reflection: war in the eyes of a defeated general.


The town is ta’en!

First Soldier:

‘Twill be deliver’d back on good condition.



I would I were a Roman; for I cannot,

Being a Volsce, be that I am. Condition?

What good condition can a treaty find

I’ th’ part that is at mercy?


Coriolanus’s mother and wife sit on low stools, sew, embroider, and wait for news of the war. These low stools on which women used to chatter in the evening can be seen in Stratford even now. In Shakespeare’s Rome there is the Forum, the Capitol, the Tarpeian Rock, there are consuls, tribunes, lictors, senate; all names are taken from Plutarch. Anachronisms – which already Ben Jonson used to note with satisfaction – are few in Coriolanus. The most delightful of these is the picture of a Roman hero in the Forum contemptuously waving his bag hat is funny to us, but did not seem funny to an Elizabethan audience. Shakespeare wrote for the stage of his time. Only in the middle of the nineteenth century came the first Shakespearean productions in antiquarian fashion. Shakespeare was concerned with historical truth of a quite different sort.

He did not find scenes from everyday life in Plutarch, but took them from his own experience in London and Stratford. He made them contemporary. He deliberately mixed high and low style. He showed the kind of Rome that could not be shown by Corneille or Racine:

All tongues speak of him, and the bleared sights

Are spectacled to see him, Your prattling nurse

Into a rapture lets her baby cry

While she chats him. The kitchen Malkin pins

Her richest lockram ‘bout her reechy neck,

Clamb’ring the walls to eye him. Stalls, bulks, windows

Are smother’d up, leads fill’d, and ridges hors’d…


Coriolanus’s mother and wife are visited by their neighbor, good mistress Valeria, who wants to take them out for gossip. Virgilia does not want to leave the house until her husband returns from the war. She weaves on a loom. Mistress Valeria cracks a joke: ‘You would be another Penelope. Yet, they say, all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths.’ (I.3). As in Troilus and Cressida, the Greek myth has been ironically treated, shown in its everyday aspect. The joke might almost be taken from La belle Helene. No heroics here, no pathetic expectation of a brave general’s return. In this idyllic and ordinary atmosphere of a fine Stratford evening, Volumnia is suddenly and unexpectedly styled a Roman mother, or rather, a Spartan mother. She has an only son, but she would rather see him dead than prove a coward. If she had twelve sons, she would rather lose all twelve: ‘I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.’ (I.3)

The first mirror again. And – as is Shakespeare’s custom – a confrontation will follow at once. In this scene, apart from the three women – the Spartan mother, the loving wife and the chattering neighbor – there is also Coriolanus’s little son. He does not speak a word. He does not have to. He is being talked about.


O’ my word, the father’s son! I’ll swear ‘tis a very pretty boy. O’ my troth, I look’d upon him a Wednesday half an hour together. Has such a confirm’d countenance! I saw him run after a gilded butterfly; and when he caught it, he let it go again, and after it again, and over and over he comes, and up again; catch’d it again; or whether his fall enrag’d him or how ‘twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it! O, I warrant, how he mammock’d it!


One on ‘s father’s moods.


Indeed, la, ‘tis a noble child.

‘’Tis a noble child.’ Shakespeare’s irony limits itself to just these words. There is no such scene in Plutarch. Shakespeare has given the Spartan mother a grandson who squashes a ‘gilded butterfly’ just to amuse himself. This is all. In Titus Andronicus – regarded as Shakespeare’s most cruel play – young Marcus kills a fly on a plate. Titus, who in the last scene will treat queen Tamora to a pie baked of her own sons’ hearts, cannot look at an innocent fly’s death:

…How if that fly had a father and mother?

How would he hang his slender gilded wings

And buzz lamenting doings in the air!

(Titus Andronicus, III.2)

King Lear invoked gods to alleviate the world’s cruelty. The gods were silent. They turned out to be just as cruel as nature and history. In Coriolanus nature and history are rid of all metaphysics. Cruelty is part of the leader’s schooling. Coriolanus’s son is the grandson of the Spartan mother.

Coriolanus has returned. The patricians want to make him consul. All he must do, according to law and custom, is to appear at the Forum, expose his scars and ask the citizens for approval Coriolanus refuses. His contempt for the people is too great. He is a soldier and will not lie. He wants to remain true to himself, that is to say – true to nature. Eagles do not lower themselves to the level of rats and crows. Coriolanus wants the world to recognize his greatness. But the world is divided into plebeians and patricians. Coriolanus’s hierarchy of nature does not agree with the real world. Rats have no wish to consider themselves worse than eagles.

The Spartan mother demands that her son humble himself and go to the Forum to ask for votes A stratagem is not inconsistent with honour; it is not shameful to use it in war. The war is not yet over The enemy is within the city walls. The plebs are the enemy:

…now it lies you on to speak

To th’ people, not by your own instruction,

Nor by th’ matter which your heart prompts you,

But with such words that are but roted in

Your tongue, though but bastards…


Now, this no more dishonours you at all

Than to take in a town with gentle words

Which else would put you to your fortune and

The hazard of much blood.


To the Spartan mother there is no difference between war and peace, between the external and internal enemy. Coriolanus’s mother, like the plebeians, sees two classes hating each other, the war between them never ending. Except that to her Rome means the patricians.

Rome and her rats are at the point of battle;

The one side must have bale.


These words are spoken by the same Agrippa who has told rebellious plebeians the fable of the stomach and the disobedient parts of the body. He, too, calls on Coriolanus, asking him to go to the Forum. Coriolanus will go there, though in spite of himself. In this drama of class hatred Coriolanus is as the plebeians see him, but the plebeians also conform to Coriolanus’s view of them. Shakespeare has no illusions. To have judged the world will not result in the world being changed. A conflagration may cause rapture or terror; but it does not cease to be a fire.

For the mutable, rank-scented meiny, let them

Regard me as I do not flatter, and

Therein behold themselves.


In Juliusz Slowacki’s play, Kordian, the Grand Duke Constantine says: ‘The people stand there, still, black and muddy. I do not like this people.’ The people in Coriolanus are black and muddy, but they are not still. They bark like a pack of mongrels deprived of their bone. In the first scene the people want to kill Coriolanus. They later disperse at the first news of war.

coriolanus_1192The people crowd the streets and throw their caps high in the air to welcome the very same Coriolanus after his victory. They forget everything and agree to make him consul; all they beg of him is a good word. An hour later, incited by the tribunes, they demand Coriolanus’s head and drive him out of the city. Again caps are thrown high in the air. When Coriolanus, at the head of the Volscians, appears at the gates of Rome, the plebeians turn against their own leaders and want to tear them to pieces; they fawn on the patricians and beg for mercy. They are ready to agree to anything to save their stinking rags and their lives.

It hath been taught us from the primal state

That he which is was wish’d until he were;

And the ebb’d man, ne’er lov’d till ne’er worth love,

Comes dear’d by being lack’d. This common body,

Like to a vagabond flag upon the stream,

Goes to and back, lackeying the varying tide,

To rot itself with motion.

(Antony and Cleopatra, I.4)

This is a quotation from Antony and Cleopatra. It could just as well come from Coriolanus, Henry VI, or Julius Caesar. In the great assassination scene in Julius Caesar the crowd applauds Brutus. But as soon as Mark Antony has finished speaking, plebeians deplore Caesar’s death and turn against his assassins. Shakespeare had seen how London’s populace crowded the streets to welcome Essex with torches, and later thronged to watch his execution. To Shakespeare the people are only an object of history, not its actors. They can evoke disgust, pity, or terror; but they are powerless, they are the sport of those who hold power in their hands. But the people in Plutarch have their tribunes. Who are these tribunes? Two London magistrates, elected by artisans, appear at the Forum:


You are ambitious for poor knaves’ caps and legs. You wear out a good wholesome forenoon in hearing a cause between an orange-wife and a forest-seller, and then rejourn the controversy of threepence to a second day of audience. When you are hearing a matter between party and party, if you chance to be pinch’d with the colic, you make faces like mummers, set up the bloody flag against all patience, and, in roaring for a chamber pot, dismiss the controversy bleeding, the more entangled by your hearing.

It is these two indolent half-wits, proud, violent and petulant, who represent the people in Coriolanus. They are ‘the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians’ and stink just as the populace does. They suffer from scabies and have to scratch themselves all over their bodies. They are like mongrels. But these mongrels know how to defend their herd. These two ridiculous tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, short and misshapen, envious and suspicious though they are, possess a class instinct. They ask for news of the war:


Good or bad?


Not according to the prayer of the people, for they love not Marcius.


Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.


Shakespeare is fascinated not only by the transformation of a good ruler into a tyrant. He is also fascinated by history. Where and when is it decided, and who decides it? Does it have a human face, the name and passions of a price, or is it just a sum total of chance, or a mechanism put into motion? In Coriolanus history is being played out on a public square. It is these two ridiculous little tribunes who help to boost it.

     To th’ Capitol, come.

We will be there before the stream o’ th’ people;

And this shall seem, as partly ‘tis, their own,

Which we have goaded onward.


In battle scenes soldiers rush across the stage, sword in hand. Princes place themselves with large banners on opposite sides of the platform. Generals observe the field of battle from the upper gallery. Shakespeare appreciates the value of spectacle, but for him spectacle is never an end in itself. He condemns war by showing up the feudal butchery.”


William Hazlitt

“Shakespear has in this play shewn himself well versed in history and state-affairs. Coriolanus is a store-house of political common-places. Any one who studies it may save himself the trouble of reading Burke’s Reflections, or Paine’s Rights of Man, or the Debates in both Houses of Parliament since the French Revolution or our own. The arguments for and against aristocracy or democracy, on the privileges of the few and the claims of the many, on liberty and slavery, power and the abuse of it, peace and war, are here very ably handled with the spirit of a poet and the acuteness of a philosopher. Shakespear himself seems to have had a leaning to the arbitrary side of the question, perhaps from some feeling of contempt for his own origin; and to have spared no occasion of bating the rabble. What he says of them is very true: what he says of their betters is also very true, though he dwells less upon it. The cause of the people is indeed but little calculated as a subject for poetry: it admits of rhetoric, which goes into argument and explanation, but it presents no immediate or distinct images to the mind, ‘no jutting frieze, buttress, or coigne of vantage’ for poetry ‘to make its pendant bed and procreant cradle in.’ The language of poetry naturally falls in with the language of power. The imagination is an exaggerating and exclusive faculty: it takes from one thing to add to another: it accumulates circumstances together to give the greatest possible effect to a favourite object. . . . Poetry is right-royal. It puts the individual for the species, the one above the infinite many, might before right. A lion hunting a flock of sheep or a herd of wild asses is a more poetical object than they; and we even take part with the lordly beast, because our vanity or some other feeling makes us disposed to place ourselves in the situation of the strongest party. So we feel some concern for the poor citizens of Rome when they meet together to compare their wants and grievances, till Coriolanus comes in and with blows and big words drives this set of ‘poor rats,’ this rascal scum, to their homes and beg- gary before him. There is nothing heroical in a multitude of miserable rogues not wishing to be starved, or complaining that they are like to be so: but when a single man comes forward to brave their cries and to make them submit to the last indignities, from mere pride and self-will, our admiration of his prowess is immediately converted into contempt for their pusillanimity. The insolence of power is stronger than the plea of necessity. The tame submission to usurped authority or even the natural resistance to it has nothing to excite or flatter the imagination: it is the assumption of a right to insult or oppress others that carries an imposing air of superiority with it. We had rather be the oppressor than the oppressed. The love of power in ourselves and the admiration of it in others are both natural to man: the one makes him a tryant, the other a slave. Wrong dressed out in pride, pomp, and circumstance has more attraction than abstract right. Coriolanus complains of the fickleness of the people: yet the instant he cannot gratify his pride and obstinacy at their expense, he turns his arms against his country. If his country was not worth defending, why did he build his pride on its defence? He is a conqueror and a hero; he conquers other countries, and makes this a plea for enslaving his own; and when he is prevented from doing so, he leagues with its enemies to destroy his country. He rates the people ‘as if he were a God to punish, and not a man of their infirmity.’ He scoffs at one of their tribunes for maintaining their rights and franchises: ‘Mark you his absolute shall?’ not marking his own absolute will to take every thing from them, his impatience of the slightest opposition to his own pretensions being in proportion to their arrogance and absurdity. If the great and powerful had the beneficence and wisdom of Gods, then all this would have been well: if with a greater knowl- edge of what is good for the people, they had as great a care for their interest as they have themselves, if they were seated above the world, sympathising with the welfare, but not feeling the passions of men, receiving neither good nor hurt from them, but bestowing their benefits as free gifts on them, they might then rule over them like another Providence. But this is not the case. Coriolanus is unwilling that the senate should shew their ‘cares’ for the people, lest their ‘cares’ should be constructed into ‘fears,’ to the subversion of all due authority; and he is no sooner disappointed in his schemes to deprive the people not only of the cares of the state, but of all power to redress themselves, than Volumnia is made madly to exclaim,

‘Now the red pestilence strike all trades in Rome,
And occupations perish.’

shak. cor 4.1.13

This is but natural: it is but natural for a mother to have more regard for her son than for a whole city; but then the city should be left to take some care of itself. The care of the state cannot, we here see, be safely entrusted to maternal affection or to the domestic charities of high life. The great have private feelings of their own, to which the interests of humanity and justice must courtesy. Their interests are so far from being the same as those of the community that they are in direct and necessary opposition to them; their power is at the expense of our weak- ness; their riches, of our poverty; their pride, of our degradation; their splendour, of our wretchedness; their tyranny, of our servitude. If they had the superior knowledge ascribed to them (which they have not) it would only render them so much more formidable; and from Gods would convert them into Devils. The whole dramatic moral of Coriolanus is that those who have little shall have less, and that those who have much shall take all that others have left. The people are poor; therefore they ought to be starved. They are slaves; therefore they ought to be treated like beasts of burden. They are ignorant; therefore they ought not to be allowed to feel that they want food, or clothing, or rest, that they are enslaved, oppressed, and miserable. This is the logic of the imagination and the passions, which seek to aggrandise what excites admiration and to heap contempt on misery, to raise power into tyranny, and to make tyranny absolute; to thrust down that which is low still lower, and to make wretches desperate; to exalt magistrates into kings, kings into gods; to degrade subjects to the rank of slaves, and slaves to the condition of brutes. The history of mankind is a romance, a mask, a tragedy, constructed upon the principles of poetical justice; it is a noble or royal hunt, in which what is sport to the few is death to the many, and in which the spectators halloo and encourage the strong to set upon the weak, and cry havoc in the chase, though they do not share in the spoil. We may depend upon it that what men delight to read in books they will put in practice in reality.

One of the most natural traits in this play is the difference of the interest taken in the success of Coriolanus by his wife and mother. The one is only anxious for his honour; the other is fearful for his life.

Coriolanus himself is a complete character; his love of reputation, his con- tempt of popular opinion, his pride and modesty are consequences of each other. His pride consists in the inflexible sternness of his will; his love of glory is a deter- mined desire to bear down all opposition, and to extort the admiration both of friends and foes. His contempt for popular favour, his unwillingness to hear his own praises, spring from the same source. He cannot contradict the praises that are bestowed upon him; therefore he is impatient at hearing them. He would enforce the good opinion of others by his actions, but does not want their acknowl- edgments in words.

‘Pray now, no more: my mother,
Who has a charter to extol her blood,
When she does praise me, grieves me.’

shak. cor 1.9.13

His magnanimity is of the same kind. He admires in an enemy that courage which he honours in himself; he places himself on the hearth of Aufidius with the same confidence that he would have met him in the field, and feels that by putting himself in his power he takes from him all temptation for using it against him.


My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning, Act Three of Coriolanus

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2 Responses to “Shakespeare has no illusions. To have judged the world will not result in the world being changed.”

  1. Steve Cole says:

    Fascinating. Not a play I’m very familiar with, so to be led through it with so many insights from different times and viewpoints is illuminating and… well, very cool.

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