Act Three, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
Let’s talk briefly about homoeroticism in Coriolanus.
It seems clear, I think that the inquires about each other by Martius and Aufidius and their speculative exchange of places certainly reveals, at a minimum, a mutual fascination bordering on…something very sexual, as is evident in some recent productions: Tyrone Guthrie’s 1963 production at the Nottingham Playhouse focused on a sexual attraction between Martius (John Neville) and Aufidius (a young Ian McKellen). In 1981, Brian Bedford’s “rough trade” production pushed the tension between Aufidius and Coriolanus to the limits at the expense, some critics felt, of Volumnia and Virgilia. Keep this in mind when you read Act Four where, I think, the “thing” between the two men becomes quite evident.
“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 judgement (or steely, intransigent resolve) to go right against the rigid martial inclinations and instincts which she herself nurtured in him. it is she who launches the idea that he should stand for consulship – ‘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 tries, 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). 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. Coriolanus lets the tribunes know what he thinks of ‘the mutable, rank-scented meiny [crowd]’ (III.i.66), and as his anger mounts his words concerning the people (Hydra-headed mob etc.) become more bilious and choleric, until the tribunes can say he has ‘spoken like a traitor’ (III.i.162), and urge his execution. Coriolanus draws his sword – knowing himself again – and the people are beaten back. He intends to be uncompromisingly defiant, uncompromisingly himself, come what may – ‘yet will I still/Be thus to them’ (III.ii.5-6). But he has reckoned without his mother – and her maternal desires and ambitions. She wants to be able to say ‘my son the consul’ as well as ‘my son the soldier.’ Coriolanus is confused. His mother had taught him always to despise the people:
I muse my mother
Does not approve me further, who was wont
To call them woolen vassals, things created
To buy and sell with groats…
I talk of you:
Why did you wish me milder – Would you have me
False to my nature? Rather say I play
The man I am.
But she, with some clever if partly specious arguments, urges him to play the man he is not:
You are too absolute;
Though therein you can never be too noble
But when extremities speak. I have heard you say,
Honor and policy, like unsevered friends,
I’ th’ war do grow together. Grant that, and tell me
In peace what each of them by th’ other lose
That they combine not there.
Coriolanus’s response is a rather helpless ‘Tush, tush!’ as well it might be, since the point is a tricky one, though one that touches on the problem at the center of the play. All’s fair, certainly in war, and there it is not incompatible with ‘honour’ to outwit your enemy with ‘politic’ stratagems. So why not in peacetime? Why not trick the plebeians, for the honor of a consulship? Coriolanus knows, or rather feels, that there is an important difference, but he is quite unable to argue it through. No man is less a sophist than Coriolanus. Just what his ‘nature’ is, and what being true or false to it might entail, we must consider later. Here, his mother – ‘I would dissemble with my nature…I should do so in honor’ – asserts herself as his instructor-director:
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 and syllables
Of no allowance to your bosom’s truth.
We have only recently heard Coriolanus’s old friend Menenius say of him – ‘His heart’s his mouth: /What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent’ (III.i.256-7), and we should recognize that, with their theatrical instructions – ‘perform a part,’ ‘come, we’ll prompt you’ (Cominius) – his mother and the supporting Roman nobles are making an impossible demand of Coriolanus. Cornered, the intellectually unresourceful Coriolanus can only capitulate, though not without a good deal of foot-dragging and something like a tantrum of protest at the self-division, self-dispersal, indeed self-dissolution, which is being asked of him:
We., I will do’t…
You have put me now to such a part which never
I shall discharge to th’ life.
Be like a harlot, eunuch, virgin, knave, schoolboy, beggar? – why can’t I just be a soldier? Why should I make my mind and body play false to each other? No, damn it, I won’t go through with it! At which, his mother turns from him, as if giving up on a child in a particular fretful and tiresome mood. ‘At thy choice then.’ As much as to say – well, if you are going to be that difficult! And Coriolanus wilts back into her scolded, remorseful little boy.
Pray, be content:
Mother, I am going to the marketplace;
Chide me no more…
And, though we do not know it yet, there will indeed be some ‘boy’s tears’ to follow. This mother will be the death of him.
Coriolanus leaves for the market-place, attended by the hopeless injunction – ‘mildly’ (repeated three times), ‘Well, mildly be it then – mildly’ (III.ii.145). ‘Mildness’ is certainly not in his nature, whatever that nature might be; and, as the tribunes well know it, it will take little to make him ‘play the man I am’:
Being once chafed, he cannot
Be reined again to temperance; then he speaks
What’s in his heart, and that is there which looks
With us to break his neck.
Coriolanus is nothing if not honest, and once the tribunes have ‘chafed’ him by calling him ‘traitor’ (the word is not in Plutarch), he let’s fly at the people with such vitriolic fury that by communal (or rather, mob) agreement, he is banished. His response is, we may say, predictable:
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.
For you the city, thus I turn my back.
There is a world elsewhere.
Brave and powerful talk; and we can surely still respond to a something heroic in Coriolanus’s ‘absolute’ and unyielding refusal of compromise, his furious and contemptuous rejection of the mass, the masses, the world here. The question the remainder of the play will explore is whether it is finally possible for Coriolanus to ‘banish’ Rome – his city, his class, his friends, his family, his mother. Or – put it another way – can there finally be, for a Roman, ‘a world elsewhere?’”
“Coriolanus will not play the part assigned him. Since he can only ‘play/The man I am’ (III.ii.15-16), he is plainly not a politician. The opening of Act III repeats the litany of tongues, mouths, teeth, and voices, taste and palate. The plebs are to him merely a disease, physically repellent, and their voices, which sum them up, equally so. It is his failure to see that nevertheless they are the city (III.i.198) that changes the perspective and shows him to be the diseased part of the body politic. (‘He’s a disease that must be cut away’ .) The first two scenes of this act insist on this theme of disease: sores, gangrene, infection, and iteration consonant with the theme of the body politic as outlined by Menenius. Coriolanus is undone by choler (anger, one of the humours of the body, and when out of control the cause of illness and disease), and he ignores Menenius’s counsel: ‘Put not your worthy rage into your tongue’ (240). Doing exactly that, he narrowly avoids execution and is banished from the city. His responses to the sentence are celebrated. ‘I banish you!’ (III.iii.123) and ‘There is a world elsewhere’ (135). Under the sway of the tribunes, scorned by Coriolanus (‘You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth?’ (III.i.36), the people turn into a mob, as Coriolanus turns into a mechanism of violence.”
And from Van Doren:
“The movement of ‘Coriolanus’ is rhetorical. As in ‘Julius Caesar,’ but more bleakly than there, the streets of Rome are conceived as rostrums where men meet for the sole purpose of discussing something – the character of the hero and its effect upon a certain political situation. Shakespeare is interested in the character and the situation, but he is conscious of being interested; he is addressing himself with all the sobriety of his intelligence to a subject which has not been created by the play itself or even by its respected godfather, Plutarch. It is a subject whose existence does not depend upon dramatic art, nor is the artist in this case wholly absorbed in it as he was in the subject of ‘Hamlet,’ whatever that is. We do not know what the subject of ‘Hamlet’ is; we only know that the play is of inexhaustible interest. The interest of ‘Coriolanus is not easily exhausted; many things in it are meritorious, and the writing has a steady, dogged strength which the judicial critic may admire; but it has its limits, and these are clearly defined by a list of the things Shakespeare has taken out in talk.
Coriolanus is a tragic hero whom we listen to and learn about entirely in his public aspect. His heroic fault, which is pride, is announced in the first scene as a theme for discussion; and the play is that discussion. He is almost never alone with himself, and when he is, in the soliloquy at Antium (IV.iv.12-26), he has nothing to say to himself that we do not already know. Passionate as he is, and eccentric too, he is somehow not personal. His character is of that clear kind which calls for statement; but in poetry and drama statement is one of the obscurer mediums. Groups of people – tribunes, citizens, servants, officers laying cushions in the Capitol, travelers on the highway, the ladies of his household – are forever exchanging opinions on the subject of Coriolanus. And the individuals who share with him the bulk of our attention are here for no other purpose than to make leading remarks about him. Competent as the scene is (I.iii) which introduces the ladies to us, and adroitly as they are distinguished from one another throughout the play, the ‘faint puling and lament’ of the wife Virgilia always contrasting with the antique Roman rage of the mother Volumnia, the lady who emerges farthest from the group, Volumnia herself, exists first and last as a setting for her son. The pleasure she would have taken in sacrificing a dozen such sons for Rome (I.iii.23-7), the fact that she can exclaim:
Now the red pestilence strikes all trades in Rome,
And occupations perish,
and the very brevity with which she can sum herself up in ‘Anger’s my meat’ (IV.ii.50) – these things show where Coriolanus came from, just as her strictures upon his extreme behavior show that he has come too far. And his old friend Menenius, who speaks exceedingly well in garrulous prose, speaks nevertheless to the end that we shall understand Coriolanus as well as speeches from any external source could persuade us to. ‘What I think, U utter’ (II.i.58), says Menenius, who is willing to be known as a ‘humorous patrician,’ one that ‘converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning,’ so long as he can have his say. He is accused by the tribune Brutus of being ‘a perfecter giber for the table than a necessary bencher in the Capitol’ (II.i.90-2), and his old man’s mind does run by preference on food. This bestows upon him a particularity which is welcome in so generalized a play, and his tongue has oftentimes clean skill, as when he says of Coriolanus: ‘There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger’ (V.iv.30-1). Yet we have only to perceive the parallel between him and Polonius to know how far he comes from existing in his own right as Ophelia’s father did. He as much as anyone in ‘Coriolanus’ keeps it wordy – witness the way he rubs irony in with six repetitions of ‘You have made good work’ (IV.vi) – though it would be wordy enough without him. Blood in the play is once again what it was in ‘Julius Caesar,’ verbal. We hear that Coriolanus has lost more blood than he had in him by many an ounce, that he is ‘smear’d with it as if it were paint, that he looks like one flayed, that at Corioli he was ‘a thing of blood’ from face to foot. But this is political blood laid on in metaphor, just as the death of the hero is a catastrophe cut into the fable from a point without. The death of Coriolanus is inevitable not because of his character or because of his career as we have followed it, but because Aufidius hates him. This hatred, engraved on the surface of the tragedy as many as seven times, is a sign that cannot be missed, but it has nothing to do with the essential theme. Its origin is earlier than the play and has nothing to do with a rivalry between two leaders. The central conflict is between the leader and the led.
The political ‘meaning’ of the play is considerably less simple than it may seem. If it has to do with the difference between the many and the one that difference is viewed from both directions. The many, the Roman mob, are criticized without mercy, but so is Coriolanus as the one. The tribunes of the people are convicted of his pride (II.i.41), and there is something in Volumnia’s charge that it is they rather than he by whom the rabble becomes incensed (IV.ii.33). Certainly they are represented as dishonest demagogues (II.iii), and their complete wrongness with respect to the possibility of an attack from Aufidius (IV.vi) renders them as statesmen contemptible. The mob, as usual in Shakespeare, behaves badly, and even permits one of its members to castigate its many-headedness. (II.iii.19-26). But Coriolanus in turn as relentlessly dissected. His impossible pride is the subject of the play, which makes no attempt to ennoble this pride as a tendentious toryism might like to do – merely, that is, by elevating it above the animal authority of the mob.
His pride is animal too. The vigor of speech which scalds citizens with epithets – ‘rogues,’ ‘scabs,’ ‘slaves,’ ‘minnows,’ ‘measles,’ ‘mutable rank-scented many’ – is the vigor of a man whose voice can sound exactly like Caliban’s:
All the contagion of the south light on you,
You shames of Rome! you heard of – Boils and plague
Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorr’d
Further than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile!
And the price with which he ‘pays himself’ (I.i.33-4) is sometimes of that subhuman sort which consists of insulting those who would offer praise. Menenius urges Coriolanus to take his honor with his form, but Coriolanus is deficient in form. It is not merely that he cannot take compliments and gifts with grace; he cannot take them at all, and this is true whether they come from his inferiors or from his equals. The fastidiousness of the duke in ‘Measure for Measure’ which robbed him of any relish in the ‘aves vehement’ of his people is reproduced in Coriolanus’s scorn of all ‘acclamations hyperbolical’ (I.ix.51), but he goes much farther than that. ‘Sir, praise me not,’ he cuts in curtly when Titus Lartius, a fellow-general, has noted his worthy wounds (I.v.17); and when the entire Roman camp shouts his new name he mutters: ‘I will go wash’ (I.ix.68). He cannot prevent his mother’s praises, for she is a better orator than he, but he can and does insist upon silence from Rome, by whose dignitaries he will not have his ‘nothings monster’d’ (II.ii.81). This is not the modesty of nature or the magnanimity of a man who knows himself. It is bad manners, and it is disruptive of that very social order which Coriolanus claims to consider more important than himself. Modesty in a great man permits him to accept the praise that is due him. Coriolanus’s rejection of praise leaves him still great but leaves him less a man – leaves him, in fact, the ‘lonely dragon’ he says he is (IV.i.30). Honor and responsibility must pay for themselves by being seen. Coriolanus would like to do famous deeds and remain unknown. It is a contradiction in terms, but so is his pride a monster that confounds itself with many contradictions.
‘His nature,’ says Menenius, ‘is too noble for the world’ (III.i.255), but the fault is his as well as the world’s. He can be the world’s servant in only one way, his own (II.i.219), for he is utterly rigid. ‘You are too absolute,’ Volumnia tells him,
Though therein you can never be too noble,
But when extremities speak.
The extremity she has in mind is none other than the fate of Rome, and still Coriolanus cannot bring himself to ‘trouble the poor with begging’ (II.iii.76) or to behave as though he were ‘common in my love’ (II.iii.101). He goes to the Forum a second time promising to answer the people mildly; but he mumbles the word ‘mildly’ like a mastiff (III.ii.142-5), and once he is among the ‘common cry of curs’ he bares his teeth and invites the exile which will conduct him to his death. The art of calling names finds him too easily his master; he cannot hold his tongue any more than he can keep his mind from working, and his intelligence tells him many true things.
What custom wills, in all things should we do ‘t,
The dust on antique time would like unswept,
And mountainous error be too highly heapt
For truth to o’er-peer.
His intellect, indeed, almost makes him magnificent in his pride. The reasons it cannot do so finally are left for bystanders to state. A shrewd citizen makes one point:
Now, to seem to affect the malice and displeasure of the people is as bad as that which he dislikes, to flatter them for their love.
Volumnia makes another,
You might have been enough the man you are,
With striving less to be so.
And Aufidius presents the summary:
Whether ‘t was pride,
Which out of daily fortune ever taints
The happy man; whether defect of judgment,
To fail in the disposing of those chances
Which he was lord of; or whether nature,
Not to be other than one thing, not moving
From the casque to the cushion, but commanding peace
Even with the same austerity and garb
As he controll’d the war; but one of these, —
As he hath spices of them all – not all, —
For I dare so far free him, — made him fear’d;
So, hated; and so, banish’d: but he has a merit
To choke it in the utterance.
This is noble analysis, but the fact that is not especially characteristic of the speaker reminds u s that Shakespeare has been writing the kind of play which needs such anomalies. The kind of play which calls on its characters to say what it means – to do in other words the author’s work – may be admirable, as ‘Coriolanus’ is, but it cannot be attractive. ‘Coriolanus’ remains – a strange thing for Shakespeare – cold, and its hero continues until his death to be a public man whom we are not permitted to know closely enough either for understanding or for love.”
And finally, from Nuttall:
“In A New Nemesis I suggested that Coriolanus’ ‘I banish you!’ (III.iii.123), hurled back at the citizens as they eject him from the city, is simultaneously an echo of Senecan advice to the stateless (‘Reflect that you are a citizen of the world and cannot be banished from that’) and the angry cry of a stamping four-year old. When Coriolanus’s seeming mastery of himself finally cracks, it is the word ‘boy’ that undoes him (V.vi.103). Aufidius, the half-barbaric Volscian warrior, tells him that he has nothing to do with Mars, the god of war, but is ‘a boy of tears’ (V.vi.100). The words detonate in what is left of Coriolanus’s mind. It is another proto-Freudian moment. Aufidius’s words have their extraordinary effect because they are, at a certain level, true.
Coriolanus belongs with the figures of lesser intelligence that we found in the middle and later tragedies. But, again, this does not mean that the dramatist himself has stopped thinking. I raise, in connection with The Merchant of Venice, the notion that economics or ‘social being’ may determine consciousness. Coriolanus certainly engages, achronically, with Marxian thought, and it is no accident that Bertolt Brecht felt the need to rewrite this play. When the people are starving and ready to revolt, the smooth-talking Menenius silences them with the celebrated ‘fable of the belly’ (I.i.96-160). He explains how there was once a time when the limbs rebelled, claiming that they did all the work and gave the product to the belly, after which the belly unjustly kept everything to itself, but the belly answered the foolish limbs by explaining that it was the storehouse and that all the good things the limbs received came in due course from the belly. The story seems expressly designed to form the target of a Marxian attack. The fundamental question for the Marxist is, ‘Who creates the wealth?’ The usual answer is ‘the Proletariat.’ Here in the play Menenius begins by conceding that the limbs win the bread for the body at the beginning of the process. This can seem to have made nonsense in advance of his later assertion (I.i.152-53) that all the benefits the people receive come to them from the Senators (who correspond to the belly in the fable). His words are doubly offensive when we realize that in any case the Senators are not in fact redistributing the wealth to the starving people. That was what the civil unrest was about in the first place. Obviously Menenius is fobbing them off with an empty tale.
It may be said that to read the scene with this degree of skepticism is not just ‘achronic,’ it is anachronistic and plan wrong; the audience of Shakespeare’s time would have been guided by an instinctive respect for social superiors to accept that Menenius had both refuted and made a fool of the rebellious Plebeian and that the whole notion of ‘fobbing off’ is an exclusively twenty-first-century response. But Shakespeare uses exactly the same phrase at the beginning of the episode: ‘You must not think to fob off our disgrace with a tale’ (I.il.93-94). There is nothing arcane or ‘unavailable-in-1606’ about the idea that the Senators were behaving unjustly. Plutarch himself says that sedition arose because ‘the Senate did favour the riche against the people.’
So far, so Marxist. But what the playwright does next throws the Marxist into confusion. Shakespeare makes a fundamental move on the question, ‘Who creates the wealth?’ Menenius, as we saw, casually conceded at the beginning that the people were the true creators of Rome’s wealth. This notion, however, is gradually destroyed as the play unfolds. Coriolanus, though set at an early period in Roman history, shows us not a primitive agrarian economy but an economy distorted by military success. The wealth is made not by honest ploughmen and reapers but by military campaigns that result in the exaction of tribute from the subjected peoples. Gaius Marcius Coriolanus is clearly upper-class, but he is no parasite on the labor of those socially below him. As a spectacular killer he is himself a primary wealth-creator. The people of Rome, meanwhile, increasingly take on the aspect of an idle mob, as if they were parasitical on the courage of such as Coriolanus. We are told that in battle they proved to be of no use (III.i.122-50). It may be said that we should not believe this, because it is said by Coriolanus, who, though he may indeed be proud, is nowhere given to lying. The ‘bite’ of this Shakespearean character comes from a disturbing coincidence of pride with truth in much of what he says. Plutarch says, apropos of the insurgency, that many of the people exhibited terrible wounds to show what they had done for Rome, but Shakespeare suppresses this. His populace is hungry but without honorable scars.
If the people are in truth parasitic, does this make Menenius’s fable, after all, cogent? Is the complacent conservative who rejoices in his victory over the poor citizen proved essentially right by what follows? The answer, surely, is no. To read in this way is to flatten the play with its lurching momentum into a flat monotone. Shakespeare first creates a skeptical space around the seemingly duplicitous Menenius and then has fun working against the grain of the skepticism he created. That is Shakespeare’s way.
Volumnia stands behind all. If we think of her as a woman interested only in the exercise of power, she is a sad failure. She has failed to understand how Rome is ceasing to be a place of simple bellicose values and is becoming a complex society, with an interest in the new ‘cooperative values.’ Having constructed a warrior, she finds that she needs a politician. Coriolanus, we can see at once, was not built for electioneering. But the speech on the breasts of Hecuba with which we began suggests a darker, more primary drive in Volumnia, a lusting for death. And in this she succeeds, for Coriolanus is a tragedy, and the tragedy is largely of her making, just as the tragedy of Othello was largely of Iago’s making. Iago is the ‘male best friend’ who desires your destruction. Volumnia is the mother who at a certain level is working to a like end. Of course she does not contrive the catastrophe of the play, but we have learned by now to ask Marxian questions about deep causes – not, this time, ‘Who creates the wealth?’ but ‘Who creates death?’ the answer is, the mother.”
Our next reading: Coriolanus, Act Four
My next post: Sunday evening/Monday morning
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.