Act Three, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Three: Coriolanus is about to be invested when the tribunes gleefully and triumphantly inform him that his popularity has evaporated. Furious, he declares that the people don’t deserve him, at which point the tribunes attempt to arrest him. They fail, but Coriolanus is still forced to appear in the marketplace and answer the people’s objections. Despite Volumnia’s please to stay calm, Coriolanus, not surprisingly, loses his temper yet again, railing at citizens and tribunes alike. He is banished for good.
Coriolanus nearly gets into office, until, of course, the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus succeed in turning the crowd against him and have him declared a traitor. Like Plutarch, they make much of his supposed “pride,” but Shakespeare, as is his want, makes that view seems way too simplistic. Coriolanus’s reluctance to hear his “nothings monstered” by Cominius after Corioles seems to demonstrate his personal humility; his refusal to wear the gown of humility demonstrates his moral probity; his determination to avoid (at all costs) flattering the citizens by showing them his scares underlines his loathing of hypocrisy (as well as his loathing of the citizens). Yet somehow, his ability to transform these seeming virtues into fatal weaknesses, and to be undone by his inability to swerve from his own view of the world, that fascinates us as readers. Under attack from the Volscians, he, as a man of war, is completely unflappable; underfire from his own people, he is unredeemable. Though he is accused of treachery and banished from the city, he reaches the decision that it is he that is banishing Rome, not the other way around:
You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air: I banish you.
With those three magisterial words, Coriolanus goes out into the wilderness. Aristotle once observed that a man who cannot live in the polis is either a beast or a god, and we know enough about Martius to sense that the “city of kites and crows” (4.5.42) outside Rome’s walls is where he and the play have inevitably been heading. The soldier who carried “O’ me alone! At the gates of Corioles has, it seems, really nowhere else to go; and although he is not alone for long – he joins forces with his enemy Aufidius in order to get hold of his army – Coriolanus’s horrible vengeance on Rome is very much a solitary obsession.
“Extras have already filled the stage. They will represent the people. On the inner stage or in the gallery resplendent senators are seated. On the apron stage, close to the audience, Coriolanus, Menenius and two tribunes stand. The latter are not ridiculous any more.
We charge you that you have contriv’d to take
From Rome all season’d office and to wind
Yourself into a power tyrannical,
For which you are a traitor to the people.
A seventeenth-century London street has suddenly in our eyes been transformed into a great scene of popular revolution. There is no such scene in Plutarch. Shakespeare was the first to throw the Roman toga of defenders of liberty and republic over the shoulders of two stinking and noisy London artisans. The Jacobins would recognize themselves better in Shakespeare’s tribunes of the people than on David’s huge canvases:
There’s no more to be said, but he is banish’d.
As enemy to the people and his country.
It shall be so.
It shall be so! It shall be so!
In scenes of battles and looting Shakespeare shows the eternal face of war and occupation. The most striking characteristics of Shakespearean tragedies is their historical universality. Shakespeare does not have to be modernized or brought up to date. History fills his plays with ever new contents and finds its reflection in them, in
every age. In the first scene of Coriolanus the plebeian theory of class division has been noisily stated. Now they stand opposite each other: the cold and elegant senators, and the plebeians, who shake their fists and raise their clubs. This is just the scenery, as unimportant as Plutarch’s anecdote. At the Capitol and at the Forum, laws of revolution, attitudes and conflicts, are all exposed sharply like formulas, condensed in bits of dialogue. Opposite each other stand: ‘top” and ‘bottom.’ Jacobins and Girondists, revolutionary democrats and liberals. The trial of Coriolanus is on.
Says Brutus, or the Jacobins:
…those cold ways,
That seem like prudent helps are very poisonous
Where the disease is violent – Lay hands upon him
And bear him to the Rock.
Says Menenius, or the liberals:
Do not cry havoc where you should but hunt
With modest warrant.
Killing our enemies, the blood he hath lost…
And what is left, to lose it by his country
Where to us all that do’t and suffer it,
A brand to th’ end o’ the’ world.
The service of the foot,
Being once gangren’d, is not then respected
For what before it was.
Proceed by process.
Says the Senator, or the aristocrats:
Be you then as the people’s officer.
Masters, lay down your weapons.
Says Brutus, or the Jacobins:
Go not home.
The people in Coriolanus are stupid and ignorant; they stink and collect stinking rags in battlefields. The tribunes are little, deformed, and deceitful. Coriolanus is brave, great and noble. But the people are Rome, and Coriolanus is a traitor to his country.
What is the city but the people?
The people are the city.
By the consent of all we were establish’d
The people’s magistrates.
You so remain.
It is only now that the second, forceful part of the drama opens. The Plebeians have exiled Coriolanus from Rome. The cowardly patricians have deserted him. Rome has not appreciated his bravery and nobility. Rome has proved itself base.
For you the city, thus I turn my back.
There is a world elsewhere.
But Shakespeare’s world is crowded, and there are no empty spaces in it. There are just patricians, plebeians, and enemies of Rome. Coriolanus can only choose his place in the world that has been set on fire. He does not, and cannot, go away into nowhere, as romantic heroes do. Situations are historically determined, are above and independent of him. Coriolanus will go to the Volscians. History has proved the plebeians right: the enemy of the people has become the enemy of Rome. In the first three acts of Coriolanus a bare drama of class attitudes has been played out. One could call it also a drama of historical inevitability. There is no discrepancy in it between social situation and action, or psychology. Coriolanus could be nameless, just as the First, Second, and Third Citizens are nameless. He is just an ambitious general, who hates the people and went over to the enemy camp when he was unable to achieve dictatorial power. It is only from the moment of Coriolanus’s treason that the world ceases to be clear-cut and arranged according to one principle. History is not a teacher of lay morality any more. The world’s contradictions become the next theme of the tragedy.”
And from Garber:
“In this play the citizens are described as dogs, rabbits, curs, geese, crows pecking at eagles, and a common herd. Aufidius, by contrast, is for Coriolanus a noble quarry, ‘a lion/that I am proud to hunt.’ These animal similes will persist throughout the play, making a kind of subliminal beast fable. Coriolanus himself is at times described as a lamb, hunted and destroyed by the wolf (the emblem of Rome, who suckled Romulus and Remus – a she-wolf personified in this play this play by the dominating and patriotic Volumnia). Coriolanus resents appearing before the people in his ‘womanish toge’ (2.3.105) a complex phrase alluding to the white (candida) toga worn by political aspirants – the source of the word ‘candidate.’ The Bible warned against false prophets who came like wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15). Coriolanus, as we will see, regards such politicking among the commons as an unworthy lie. So he is lamb and wolf at once, the play’s animal subtexts binding together without strain the layered codes of ancient fable, Roman mythological history, and Christian allegory. He is also, by inference, a ‘butterfly,’ like the one we are told his son tears to pieces – ‘whether his fall enraged him, or how ‘twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it!’ Virgilia’s praise of her passionately destructive son invokes the signword for his father: ‘Indeed, la, ‘tis a noble child’ (1.3.59-60, 63). Like father, like son – nobility is closely allied to love and destruction.
But of all the animals in this animal-filled play to which Coriolanus is compared and compares himself, the most striking of all is the dragon. In act 5 Menenius says of him, ‘There is differency between a grub and a butterfly, yet your butterfly was a grub. This Martius is grown from man to dragon’ (5.4.9-11). But the ‘dragon’ term has been chosen by Coriolanus long before, as he is banished from Rome:
I go alone,
Like to a lonely dragon that his fen
Makes feared and talked of more than seen…
A lonely dragon – a heroic, belated, socially isolated survival of another world.
Coriolanus is neither commoner nor political senator. He is often spoken about, seldom speaking. Lartius says of him early in the play that he has been a soldier ‘[e]ven to Cato’s wish’ (1.5.28), that he adheres to the old Roman virtues. Like Antony (and Hector, and Hotspur, and Tybalt), he chooses to fight by single combat, alone. ‘O’ me alone,’ he cries to the people, ‘make you a sword of me?’ (1.7.76). And at the close of the play, so poignantly and pitifully, we hear of his final suicidal boast to the Volscians that he alone conquered their city, the city of Corioles, the city whose name he now bears as a trophy attached to his own: ‘Alone I did it.’ (5.6.117). Like the innocent he is, he does not realize, in the heat of his anger and despair, that to brag of having taken their city is the surest way to bring on his own death. In this moment he is indeed a lamb going to the slaughter, and his innocence of the world has structural affinities with other doomed Shakespearean ‘innocents,’ like Desdemona and Duncan, whose trust in other people led to their downfall. Coriolanus trusts a code, not an individual, but his trust is similarly misplaced and outdated. He is purer than the world that contains him, a lonely dragon, the repository – for all his faults and flaws – of a lost set of Roman virtues.
We learn from Aufidius that he and Martius have sworn that if they meet in single combat they will fight until ‘one can do no more’ (1.2.36). But Aufidius is at heart a politician, and he ultimately backs away from single combat in a way that emphasizes, by contrast, Martius’s own uncompromising valor. In act 1, scene 9, the two men fight on the field of battle, but at the last minute other Volscians come to Aufidius’s aid. Initially Aufidius condemns their ‘[o]fficious’ interference, but by the end of the first act he has abandoned the idea of fighting ‘[t]rue sword to sword’: ‘I’ll potch [thrust] at him some way/Or wrath or craft may beg him’ (1.11.15-16). The vernacular word ‘potch’ is a good emblem of the lowering of ideals and expectations. In the second half of the play we see Aufidius openly scheming to take advantage of Coriolanus’s pride and weakness. Like Hotspur, who called out ‘die all, die merrily’ as he went into battle, Coriolanus prefers a noble life before a long. Yet Hotspur’s heroics were coupled with an articulate and witty passion for his wife. Coriolanus, though married and a father, regards himself, with wounded and defensive pride, as alone. More than almost any other Shakespearean hero, he aims at a status that is less like that of a man and more like that of a dragon, a god, or a machine – someone, or something, in other words, that does not feel.
In this play that is so directly about language and the ability to speak (or not to speak), the audience fittingly hears of Coriolanus’s transformation into a god, and into a force of nature, in the speech by the general Cominius before the Senate, a speech that begins with the rhetorical gesture of incapacity ‘I shall lack voice’:
I shall lack voice; the deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be uttered feebly…
The man I speak of cannot in the world
Be singly counterpoised. At sixteen years,
When Tarquin made a head for Rome, he fought
Beyond the mark of others. Our then dictator,
Whom with all praise I point at, saw him fight
When with his Amazonian chin he drove
The bristled lips before him…
In that day’s feats,
When he might act the woman in the scene,
He proves best man i’th’ field, and for his meed
Was brow-bound with the oak. His pupil age
Man-centered thus, he waxed like a sea,
And in the brunt of seventeen battles since
He lurched all swords of the garland…
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…
And with a sudden reinforcement struck
Corioles like a planet…
Coriolanus is a master orator, as effective in his resounding public style as Menenius was in the more folksy prose narrative of the belly fable. His ‘I shall lack voice’ recalls Mark Antony’s ‘I am no orator as Brutus is’ and offers a similarly deceptive platform of low expectations. The ‘profession of incapacity’ is of course a familiar rhetoric trope, used by politicians, as well as poets, from ancient times. Under Coriolanus’s skilled manipulation Coriolanus turns, before our eyes – or ears – from a boy so young he is almost a woman, with a beardless ‘Amazonian’ chin, fighting men with ‘bristled lips,’ to a hero whose brows are bound with garlands of oak, the traditional emblem of military honor (compare today’s ‘oak-leaf clusters’ in bronze or silver, awarded to U.S. soldiers for extraordinary heroism and gallantry in battle). The next permutation transforms Coriolanus into a sea, a natural and irresistible force, and by the end of the speech he will have become an entire planet, invading and destroying the city of Corioles.
But in the midst of these rhetorical descriptions of powerful nature is one comparison of the hero that is at once more ambiguous and more disturbing: ‘He was a thing of blood, whose every motion/Was timed with dying cries.’ The Roman hero becomes a thing, one mechanically motivated, like a ticking clock or a bomb. This is a movement away from human ties, a movement that is at the root of Coriolanus’s political troubles, making him, like Othello, both a superb soldier and a particularly innocent and naïve man. A thing. When, banished from the Rome and the mother that have given him his identity, Coriolanus goes in noble pique to join forces with the enemy, the Volscian troops under Aufidius, this language of things, of gods and machines, increases ominously:
He is their god. He leads them like a thing
Made by some other deity than nature.
When he walks, he moves like an engine, and the ground shrinks before his treading…He sits in his state as a thing made for Alexander…He wants nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to throne in.
He would not answer to, forbade all names,
He was a kind of nothing, titleless.
‘[A] kind of nothing.’ For Coriolanus, this transformation to a god or a thing is something his banishment has forced upon him, and something that, like a hurt child, rejected by Mother Rome, he welcomes as protective coloration, a benign numbness. He speaks with ironic and juvenile pleasure a bout getting back at the Romans, and, in the last act, about his own rejection of Menenius – a man who ‘[l]oved me about the measure of a father,/Nay, godded me indeed’ (5.3.10-11). And he boasts with equal spite, and equally transparent pain, that he has no social or genealogical connection to the world. ‘Wife, mother, child, I know not’ (5.2.78). He says he will henceforth decline to yield to filial instinct, ‘but stand/As if a man were author of himself/And knew no other kin’ (5.3.35-37). As if a man were his own maker: a god, a thing, an automaton – anything but a man.
This propensity to reject or displace family and personal ties, in favor of the presumed larger purposes and less fraught emotional commitments to warfare and heroism, produces in Coriolanus the play a striking and persistent line of imagery that allies its martial heroes with what has been called ‘male bonding’ or ‘homosocial’ behavior – in this case the identification of the love object with the military commander or military rival. Thus Martius on the battlefield, early in the play, exclaims his pleasure at reunion with his general, Cominius:
O, let me clip ye
In arms as sound as when I wooed, in heart
As merry as when our nuptial day was done,
And tapers burned to bedward!
[MY NOTE: I’ll have more to say about the play’s homoeroticism – Aufidius and Coriolanus in particular – in my next post.]
We seldom hear him speak with similar intimacy to his temperate and loyal Roman wife, who bears the patriotic name of Virgilia. To a certain extent this erotic language for war is conventional as well as powerfully evocative: in Antony and Cleopatra the soldier Antony, a formidable lover, pledges that he will go to death as eagerly as a bridegroom to his bed. But in Coriolanus it is something more, since it is precisely the erotic tug-of-war, between private love and public fame, that is missing, replaced by a double cod of honor. The use of the word ‘arms’ here is particularly striking, since it is only in English, not in Latin, that this pun on the martial and the martial is feasible. The Latin arma means ‘battle gear,’ as in the opening of Virgil’s Aeneid, ‘Arma virumque cano’ (Of arms and the man I sing). The Teutonic ‘arm,’ or earm, denotes the body part, and traces to the Latin word for ‘shoulder,’ but the sublime cleverness of ‘let me clip [clasp] ye/In arms as sound as when I wooed’ is distinctively Shakespearean, and it offers a superb example of the playwright’s accomplishment in combining – at a crucial moment in the history of the language – the strands of native and classical inheritance.
In the early battle, Coriolanus embraces a fellow warrior as soundly and as merrily as his wedded wife. By the fourth act, now estranged from Rome and his family, he finds himself addressed by Aufidius in similar, yet more expansive, terms:
Let me twine
Mine arms about that body whereagainst
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke,
And scarred the moon with splinters.
[He embraces Coriolanus]
Here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valour. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold…
Aufidius feels more passion for this ‘noble thing’ than he did for his bride on their wedding night. Once more, this is rhetoric, not sexual invitation. [MY NOTE: Really?] Yet the line between them is a thin one, as Aufidius’s servants note, perceiving the way their master flirts with his guest at the dinner table. ‘Our general himself makes a mistress of him…and turns up the white o’th’ eye to his discourse’ (4.5.193-195). The deepest passions of generals are for their colleagues, and perhaps even for their enemies. To see this performed and articulated in Coriolanus is to have further light shed on the complex erotics of Othello.
Coriolanus is a complicated dramatic character, the more so because he seems to have uncanny ahistorical similarities with embedded social types of a much later era, like the products of late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century British public schools: he is repressed; devoted to authority; committed to male bonding, fellowship, risk, and danger; slightly overpunctilious; impatient or condescending toward perceived social inferiors; awkward and even unhappy in situations that require small talk, gracious manners, accommodation, compromise, and a show of feeling. Brought up by that remarkable woman Volumnia, who is a cross between political matriarch and stage mother (Rose Kennedy and Mama Rose in the musical Gypsy), Coriolanus has also been effectively analyzed through the lines of Freudian theory; as Volumnia herself will say, ‘There’s no man in the world/More bound to’s mother’ (5.3.159-160).
We have the mother’s word, early in the play, concerning her ambitions for her son: ‘To a cruel war I sent him, from where he returned his brows bound with oak’ (1.3.12-13). It is her hope that he will come back with bloody wounds, visible signs of prowess: ‘His bloody brow/With his mailed hand then wiping, forth he goes,/Like to a harvest-man that’s tasked to mow/Or all or lose his hire’ (31-34). At the articulation of this unusual maternal fantasy, the wife, Virgilia, blenches: ‘His bloody brow! O Jupiter, no blood!’ (35) but who, after all, is listening to Virgilia!
Volumnia, who is the terror of the tribunes, terrorizes Coriolanus’s wife, too. Like her son, she is a surprisingly ‘modern’ type as well as a recognizable classic and classical figure: the ambitious mother behind a successful son (who may wind up consulting an even more successful analyst). At the same time, as we have already noted, Volumnia has been praised as a grand and noble figure who shaped one of the ‘men who conquered the known world.’ Certainly her press has been more favorable in some eras than in others. What is indisputable is that she is a fabulous dramatic character, a part to die for. Her Shakespearean sisters are Lady Macbeth and Goneril, her pallid descendant the wicked queen (and wicked stepmother) in Cymbeline. Lady Macbeth’s children, missing from the plot, mentioned only in passing (‘I have given suck…’), are rhetorically sacrificed in favor of her husband-child’s ambition: Goneril’s womb is cursed by her angry father, who wishes for her nothing but sterility; and Cymbeline’s nameless queen has a clownish and loutish son for whom she, too, is overwhelmingly ambitious. Volumnia has the right son, and the right opportunity, to make him great, and to destroy him.
It is also worth noticing that once again in a Shakespearean play we have an absent parent, in this the father, his place ineffectually filled by Menenius, himself largely under Volumnia’s sway. ‘Is he not wounded? He was wont to come home wounded,’ he asks after the battle of Corioles. Again the wife, Virgilia, is appalled – ‘O, no, no, no!’ – and again she is overridden by Volumnia: ‘O, he is wounded, I think the gods for’t!…there will be large cicatrices [scars] to show the people’ Menenius and Volumnia tabulate that Coriolanus has twenty-seven wounds, a hero’s collection, and on parts of the body – the shoulder and the left arm – readily visible for a candidate dressed in a toga.
In plays from Romeo and Juliet to Othello and King Lear we have traced the fortunes lf self-confident young women who rebelled against their fathers, and sometimes paid a price for doing so. In Coriolanus the dyad is not father-daughter but mother-son, and the consequences of obedience, rebellion, and reunion in this case are equally significant. Volumnia urges her son to display his wounds to the people in the marketplace, and he retorts stubbornly: ‘I will not do’t’ (3.2.120). Eleven lines later he yields to her will: ‘Mother, I am going to the marketplace’ (3.2.131). Mother, I am going. In the play’s last act we will hear a tragic echo of this scene, when Coriolanus vows again ‘I will not’ (5.3.21) – and does. In a very serious sense his banishment from Rome is a rite of passage, and opportunity to leave the stifling home city, and his mother, and Menenius, an opportunity he finally does not take. Instead he reinstates the filial bond, reconciling himself to his mother in one of those striking scenes of child-parent reunion, like that of Lear and Cordelia, that seems so close to the center of the Jacobean Shakespeare.
In this single act, act 5, as we will see, Coriolanus simultaneously gains and loses. He gains humanity, and he loses life. He ceases to be the automaton, the soulless engine, the little god, and he becomes at once a fuller human being and a doomed one. His own words are full of self-knowledge and self-exposure as he consents to Volumnia’s request:
O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold the heavens do ope,
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But for your son, believe it, O believe it,
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him…
The word ‘mortal’ here carries, very strongly, both of its core meanings: Volumnia’s victory is most human, and most deadly, for her son. This is the paradox of tragedy, that to be human is to suffer, and that to be aloof from suffering is to turn one’s back on humanity, and to be merely a thing, a tin god. For Coriolanus this is an acknowledgment of the doom he knows will come. It is the tragic choice, the choice of tragedy, of pity rather than glory, in Octavius’s terms. Or as Aufidius the politician puts it, congratulating himself on Coriolanus’s impolitic act of principle, ‘I am glad thou hast set thy mercy and thy honour/At difference in thee. Out of that I’ll work/Myself a former fortune’ (5.3.201-203). ‘[M]ercy’ and ‘honour’ are other words for pity and glory. Coriolanus’s choice will make him a tragic figure, and not merely a Roma hero – a man, and not merely a god.
Whatever else it may be said to be ‘about’ – whether history, politics, heroism, or manhood – Coriolanus is also, very centrally, a play about language. Again and again in Coriolanus the hero is urged to use his eloquence to win over the common people to his cause – and again and again his language fails. His first entry onto the stage is marked in just this way by a failure of language, a curse on those ‘dissentious rogues’ those ‘scats,’ the people.’ His plea for their ‘voices’ in act 2 likewise fails:
Your voices! For your voices I have fought,
Watched for your voices, for your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd…
for your voices, have
Done many things, some less, some more. Your voices!
Menenius, the old counselor, prides himself not only on his suasive narrative skills but also on his use of language as a safety valve: ‘What I think, I utter, and spend my malice in my breath’ (2.1.48-49). In fact, for this old man, who lacks physical strength, personal magnetism, and sexual vitality, language is power. And when Coriolanus fails in his dramatized confrontation with the people, Menenius in irritation asks, ‘[C]ould he not speak ‘em fair? Could he not tell the people what they wanted and expected to hear, play his part? Language for Menenius is manipulation, obfuscation, compromise, and politics. Language is also politics for Cominius, Coriolanus’s fellow general, elder, and sponsor (‘the deeds of Coriolanus/Should not be uttered feebly/). But no sooner does the audience hear the eloquent Menenius, the eloquent Cominius, than their politic language is interrupted by the plain speech, and often the insolent boorishness, of Coriolanus. ‘I cannot,’ he says, ‘bring/My tongue to such a pace.’ He cannot beg, he cannot ask, for favor.
Volumnia urges him to take part in what is essentially a stage play before the people, and Coriolanus argues that acting is dishonest. He distrusts fiction and playing, and he finds the role of actor both dishonorable and difficult. ‘I had rather have my wounds to heal again/Than hear say how I got them.’ (2.2.65-66). He prefers wounds to words: ‘When blows have made me stay I fled from words.’ He has not yet made his peace with language, and as always in Shakespeare language is the index of humanity. When Volumnia comes to her son with what she regards as a harmless little scenario, her proposal that he display his worthiness and manliness to the people, she conveys to him a violation of every rule and law of honesty to which he has heretofore been trained:
If it be honour in your wars to seem
The same you are not, which for your best ends
You adopt your policy, how is it less or worse
That it shall hold companionship in peace
With honour, as in war…?
Since you are so ready to deceive in war, why not in peace? If in action, why not in language? But the apparently innocuous suggestion here is deeply shocking to the innocent and unworldly Coriolanus.
From this point in the play, from the third act onward, Coriolanus behaves almost as if he were a man in a dream – or a nightmare – walking through a scenario he can hardly understand, and certainly cannot justify. Look at the elaborate stage directions he gets from Volumnia as she presses him to display himself in the marketplace:
I prithee now, my son,
(She takes his bonnet)
Go to them with this bonnet in thy hand,
And thus far having stretched it – here be with them –
Thy knee bussing the stones – for in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant
More learned than the ears – waving they head,
Say to them
Thou art their soldier…
Go and be rule, although I know thou hadst rather
Follow thine enemy in a fiery gulf
Than flatter him in a bower.
In short, he is to kneel to them, bare and bow his head, and apologize because he lacks the language to speak to them glozingly and seductively, like a politician. ‘Might I with my base tongue give to my noble heart/A lie that it must bear?’ he asks (3.2.100-101). Must he perform a part/ The simple answer of the politicians, Volumnia, Menenius, and Cominius, foster parents and campaign managers is yes. ‘Come, come, we’ll prompt you,’ says Cominius, and Volumnia teases him with the promise of the most elusive reward of all, a mother’s approval: ‘To have my praise for this, perform a part/Thou hast not done before’ (3.2.106, 109-110). Nothing could be further from his nature, or from his capability. Furthermore, since the tribunes, predictably, are also in rehearsal (3.3) preparing to goad Coriolanus into self-betraying speech, it is no surprise to find that all the prompting in the world cannot prevent him from exploding the moment they provoke him with a carefully chosen epithet, the word ‘traitor.’ ‘How, traitor?…The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!’ (3.2.69, 71). Menenius sees the disaster but is helpless to stop it – ‘Is this the promise you made your mother?’ – and Coriolanus replied by rejecting the entire concept of language as power: ‘I would not buy/Their mercy at the price of one fair word.’ (3.3.90, 94-95)
When Coriolanus rejects politics-as-usual, the commoners reject him, and banish him from the city. His response is characteristic…’I banish you…There is a world elsewhere…’ Banishment in Shakespeare is always highly fraught, whether it is Romeo’s banishment from Verona or Bolingbroke’s banishment from England, but for Coriolanus the experience is especially destabilizing. (Unlike those other cases, where the banished character temporarily departs from the play, here the play’s action follows the banished hero.) His ‘I banish you’ is a gesture of alienation, not only from Rome but also from the world of human interaction and language.”
Thoughts so far?
My next post: Thursday evening/Friday morning, more on Act Three of Coriolanus.