He holds her by the hand, silent.

Coriolanus

Act Five, Part One

By Dennis Abrams

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coriolanus photo act fiveAct Five:  Meanwhile, Rome is desperate to win back its savior, so first Cominius, then Menenius, are sent out to persuade Coriolanus to return. Both fail, but Virgilia, Volumnia, Valeria and Young Martius make a final plea, to which Coriolanus at least gives in, fully aware of the danger it puts him in. While Rome celebrates the news, Aufidius accuses Coriolanus of treachery (understandably so) and the Volscians demand his head. The end has indeed come. Coriolanus is at first stabbed to death, then trampled by the Volscian crowd. Aufidius, weeping at what he has done, orders him to be buried with full military honors.

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Let’s look at this again:  Coriolanus and Aufidius’s forces are sitting outside Rome, ready to destroy it, while the tribunes send out envoys desperately pleading with Coriolanus to spare the city.  Coriolanus though remains unmoved. “He does sit in gold,” Cominius stammers, “his eye/Red as ‘twould burn Rome” (5.1.63-4), and the only way the city’s elders can see to save themselves it to send out the women closes to Coriolanus: Valeria, Virgilia, and of course his beloved Volumnia (along with his son Young Martius). Despite Coriolanus’s insistence that they should not try “t’allay/My rages and revenges with your colder reasons” (5.3.85-6), over the course of an extraordinarily long (and moving) scene of pleading – in every way the probable climax of the play – he is eventually persuaded to back down. Though earlier he tried to claim that he stood isolated, “As if a man were author of himself/And knew no other kin” (5.3.36-7), the hero is forced to recognize that his family cannot so easily be disowned. But his acceptance comes with dark foreboding. “O mother, mother!” he cries, holding her hand in a striking symbol of empathy,

What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,

The gods look down, and this unnatural scene

They laugh at. O my mother, mother, O!

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.

(5.3.163-90)

(Of course, keep in mind Volumnia’s avowal back in Act One, that “I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action.”)

“But let it come,” he bravely concludes, and with that he knows (and we know) that his fate is sealed. Although he give in to Volumnia’s pleas (did he really have any choice?), her earlier lesson that “Thy valiantness was mine, thou sucked’st it from me” (3.2.128) proves more enduring.

By this time we know Aufidius jealously believes that Coriolanus is, as his own servants, snigger, “The greater soldier” (4.5.170), and is busy plotting his rival’s downfall. Characteristically though, Coriolanus beats him to the punch. Angrily denying that the tears of his family – what Aufidius sneeringly calls “certain drops of salt” (5.6.95) have weakened his resolve, Coriolanus angrily turns upon the Volscians once again. Aufidius’s taunt that he is nothing but a “boy of tears” proves the end. “Cut me to pieces, Volsces,” Coriolanus cries, commanding even his own death:

Stain all your edges on me. ‘Boy’! False hound,

If you have writ your annals true, ‘tis there

That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I

Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles.

Alone I did it.

(5.6.112-6)

And the crowd, clutching knives, surges forward. Coriolanus is “alone” for the last time.

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From Garber:

Coriolanus_Act_V,_Scene_III_edit2“Thus, by the time Cominius comes to plead with him, and is turned away, Coriolanus has been established as a man explicitly without a name, without a human identity, rejecting, by this time, even the surname. ‘Yet one time did he call me by my name,’ Cominius reports,

I urged our old acquaintance and the drops

That we have bled together. ‘Coriolanus’

He would not answer to, forbade all names.

He was a kind of nothing, titleless,

Till he had forged himself a name o’th’ fire

Of burning Rome.

(5.1.9-15)

The log here is unassailable, and devastating. What kind of cognomen could be given to the Roman conqueror of Rome? It would be a political oxymoron, a pointed self-contradiction.

Characteristically, with his usual charming obtuseness, Menenius pleads from the other extreme, claiming exactly the kind of name that Coriolanus has forbidden – ‘thy old father, Menenius’ – and referring to him as ‘my son Coriolanus’ (5.2.67,, 62). These are names that have been long rejected, long abandoned as too painful and too vulnerable. As if to underscore the point, Shakespeare provides a comic tableau in which Menenius boasts to the Volscian watchmen about the power of his own name: ‘My name hath touched, your ears; it is Menenius.’ ‘Be it so,’ replies the First Watchman, ‘go back. The virtue of your name/Is not here pass able.’ (5.2.13-15). ‘Menenius’ is not a password or watchword. After his embassy is rejected, the Watch has its revenge; addressing him with elephantine irony: ‘Now, sir, is your name Menenius?’ and ‘’Tis a spell, you see, of much power.’

Yet when the plea comes from his mother, Coriolanus will reverse himself. Her argument, significantly, is not based initially on kinship, but explicitly – like son, like mother – on name and reputation. She picks up the conundrum introduced by Coriolanus – What kind of name could be awarded to the Roman who defeats his home city? – and offers an answer from history:

[I]f thou conquer Rome, the benefit

Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name

Whose chronicle thus writ: ‘The man was noble,

But with his last attempt he wiped it out,

Destroyed his country, and his name remains

To th’ ensuing age abhorred…

(5.3.143-149)

His new addition as conqueror of Rome will be one that makes his name abhorred, hated in later times. Artfully she leads her son from this vision of the future to the true name she wishes instead to provide for him, the name that will be the hallmark and password of his destruction. ‘Speak to me, son./…Why dost not speak?/…Daughter speak you,/…Speak thou, boy./…There’s no man in the world/More bound to’s mother.’ (5.3, 149, 154, 156, 157, 159-160). She, using only kinship terms and not names, urges speech, and then, encountering only stubborn (and defensive) silence, she chooses gesture:

Down, ladies. Let us shame him with our knees.

…………………………………………

This fellow had a Volscian to his mother.

His wife is in Corioles, and his child

Like him by chance. – Yet give us our dispatch.

I am hushed until our city be afire,

And then I’ll speak a little.

(5.3.170, 179-183)

It is this rebuke, and this invitation, that leads him to hold her ‘by the hand, silent,’ and seal his own doom. His name has been Caius Martius, and Coriolanus. He has been a man of no name, a figure out of romance, wandering in ragged clothes, incognito, seeking to find himself. But the self he finally finds, the name he finally accepts, is not the surname Coriolanus, but the name of a man bound to his mother. The name of a tragic hero whose time has come.

Aufidius, envious and politic, presides over this final stripping, which will leave the hero nameless in yet another sense, taking away from him all the additions, the names and titles and roles, that have cushioned and protected him from the world:

Aufidius:

[T]ell the traitor in the highest degree

He hath abused your powers.

Coriolanus:

Traitor? How now?

Aufidius:

Ay, traitor, Martius.

Coriolanus:

Martius?

Aufidius:

Ay, Martius, Caius Martius, Dost thou think

I’ll grace thee with that robbery, thy stol’n name,

‘Coriolanus’ in Corioles?

It is probably safe to say that this is a nicety that has escaped Coriolanus, the idea that his nickname might give offense to those whose city he had conquered. But far worse – the worst – is yet to come:

Aufidius:

[A]t his nurse’s tears [he tells the

Roman commoners]

He whined and roared away your victory.

………………………

Coriolanus:

Hear’st thou, Mars?

Aufidius:

Name not the god, thou boy of tears.

(5.6.99-100, 102-103)

Not Mar’s man, Martius, but ‘boy’ – his first name and his final name, a name so truly given and so wounding in spirit that Coriolanus can do nothing but repeat it in disbelief: ‘Boy’? O slave!’

Coriolanus:

‘Boy’! False hound,

If you have write your annals true, ‘tis there,

That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I

Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles.

Alone I did it. ‘Boy’!

The traditional belief in many cultures, that when you know someone’s real name you have power over them, is enacted here in this drama, this tragedy of the name. In reaffirming the filial bond, in giving in to his mother’s plea, and to the voice(s) of Rome in her voice, Caius Martius Coriolanus find his fate, his name, and his death. For the death that overtakes him resembles the sparagmos of ancient Greek tragedy, the ritual tearing to pieces of the tragic hero, the sacrificial victim. ‘Tear him to pieces! Do it presently!’ (that is, right away) cry the people, and the conspirators set upon him and kill him. The literal dismemberment of his body fulfills and completes the verbal imagery of fragmented body parts that began with the fable of the belly and has continues throughout the play. Around him men now begin to speak of his tale, his annals, his chronicle, his fame, and his noble memory – the record of his public achievements that is equivalent in Shakespeare to the action and events of the play itself. It is arguable that his most signal achievement is that he has marched in with the people, recognizing, for a brief moment, his identity with collective humanity. But, with the death of Coriolanus, the ‘boy of tears,’ something else dies as well, for in bringing together the two key concepts of name and silence, Coriolanus – both the man and the play – has knotted together two central strands of Shakespearean tragedy.

Over and over again in these plays we have seen one common gesture, the gesture of reaching, as if across an abyss, from one world to another, in affirmation – against all costs – of a human bond of pain and love. Desdemona, murdered by Othello and hidden behind the bed curtains, speaks out of the silence of death, and speaks in words of love: ‘Commend me to my kind lord.’ Antony, fooled and betrayed into taking his own life, is hauled up to the monument of Cleopatra, and he dies with words to his lover: ‘I am dying, Egypt, dying.’ Cordelia, expelled from her father’s kingdom because of her own loving silence, hears him reach out to her from something very like death – ‘You do me wrong to take me out o’th’ grave’ – and Cordelia, too, rejects the idea of guilt, blame, or recrimination: ‘No cause, no cause.’ In Coriolanus we are offered that magical and tragic and transcendent emotion between mother and son, in which he ‘holds her by the hand, silent,’ and once again the silence tells all.

In a way, all of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are in search of names – in search of their own hidden names, which will also be their deaths. They seek reputation, public name, but ultimately they all seek private names as well. ‘This is I,/Hamlet the Dane,’ cries Hamlet as he leaps into the grave. ‘What is thy name?’ Macbeth is asked on the battlefield at Dunsinane, and he replies, ‘Thou’lt be afraid to hear it./…My name’s Macbeth.’ ‘Only we shall retain/The name and all th’addition to a king,’ says Lear, and then: ‘This is not Lear./…Who is it that can tell me who I am?’ Othello laments that ‘Othello’s occupation’s gone,’ speaking of himself in the third person, as a public man, and then, at the end of his play: ‘Speak of me as I am./…then must you speak/Of one that loved not wisely but too well.’ Speak of me as I am; pronounce my name. The rest, as Hamlet says, is silence.

At the close of each of these plays, the audience is left with the political men, the Octaviuses and Aufidiuses, the Horatios and Lodovicos and Malcolms, in a shrunken and impoverished world, a world from which a great name, a great power, has gone. ‘The death of Antony,’ says Octavius Caesar, ‘[i]s not a single doom; in that name lay/A moiety of the world’ (5.1.17-19). We are left, that is, in the world we have always lived in, a world in which, oddly, tragedy is a kind of luxury, an indulgence and a catharsis or purgation – something that happens for us so that it does not have to happen to us. That Shakespeare as playwright understood that function of tragedy is very clear from the ‘Pyramus and Thisbe’ play he provides for the amusement of the Theseus court in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This is what they accomplish for us, all these tragic figures with their titanic strengths and their titanic weaknesses – pride, stubbornness, vanity, and ambition on the one side, and on the other side radical insecurity, self-doubt, lack of self-knowledge, a fear of being merely human, of the bare, forked animal, of the boy of tears. It is through these figures, and these passages, that we discover that which above all Shakespearean tragedy has to offer us, for the radical question that was posed by tragedy is always the riddle of the Sphinx, the riddle that was posed to Oedipus, and that, by his answering it, sealed both his doom and his greatness: ‘What goes on four legs in the morning, on two at noon, on three in the evening?’ The answer to the riddle, and the name behind all these names, is the name of mankind, the name, as Coriolanus says, ‘most mortal’ to us. What Shakespeare accomplishes so brilliantly in Coriolanus is to make his bluntest, least-reflective, and most heedless tragic hero live the riddle – and then solve it.”

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From Tanner:

Coriolanus Redgrave Act Five“The tragedy which Coriolanus experience and enacts is the discovered impossibility for a man ‘not to be other than one thing.’ He tries, more ferociously than any other of Shakespeare’s heroes. He can certainly dispense with the ‘cushion’ [MY NOTE:  ‘From the casque to th’ cushion’] – never wanted it, anyway. But he cannot defy or deny his mother. It is not, finally, in his ‘nature.’ Whatever that nature is. We hear and see quite a lot of his unnature, too, best summed up in Cominius’ description of him as he marches on Rome with the Volscians:

…he leads them like a thing

Made by some other deity than Nature,

That shapes men better…

(IV.vi.91-3)

To his mother, in the final scene, still trying to stave off her influence, he cries out:

     Tell me not

Wherein I seem unnatural. Desire not

T’ allay my rages and revenges with

Your colder reasons.

(V.iii.83-6)

It is perhaps his truest nature to be unnatural? In which case, when he capitulates and obeys ‘Great Nature,’ is he finally maturing into a new, recognized, and accepted humanity (as some have thought)? Or is he succumbing to an internal splitting which will destroy whatever integrity of identity he may have – helplessly regressing to the enfeebled status of ‘mother’s boy’? You can see it in either way; though I think it is better, somehow, to see it as both.

As he feels his resolve slipping in front of his family, he says:

     Like a dull actor now,

I have forgot my part and I am out,

Even to a full disgrace.

(V.iii.40-43)

When he was asked to stop being a soldier and at least pretend he was a politician, he discovered it just wasn’t in him to act a part. But this speech seems to imply that he is being discomfited out of his ‘part’ of the adamantine warrior. Or does he just mean that being confronted with his mother again gives him the equivalent of stage-fright? Is he losing his grip on what, exactly, he is as a man? The arguments and appeals with which his mother works on him need not be summarized here. He is effectively lost when she kneels to him – ‘What’s this?/Your knees to me? To your corrected son?’ (V.iii.55-6); it horrifies him as if it were some chaotic inversion in nature. She inevitably has her way with her ‘corrected son.’ But there is a barb in the words that recognize her triumph:

   O mother, mother!

What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,

The gods look down, and this unnatural scene

They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!

You have won a happy victor to Rome;

But, for your son – believe it, O, believe it! –

Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,

If not most mortal to him. But let it come.

(V.vi.25-6)

For Plutarch, the moment when Coriolanus gives in is all ‘nature.’ ‘And nature so wrought with him that the tears fell from his eyes and…[he] yielded to the affection of his blood.’ It is Shakespeare who makes Coriolanus deem it an ‘unnatural scene.’ At the very least, we can say that one ‘nature’ has been undermined by another, and while that is undoubtedly good for Rome (and perhaps humanity), Coriolanus is clearly right in sensing that it will prove disastrous for him. Much of the rest of his speech is in Plutarch – but not those last four words. ‘But let it come.’ This, as Brockbank remarked, is directly reminiscent of Hamlet’s ‘Let be.’ [MY NOTE:  I thought so as well.] It is as if he recognized that, by what had just happened, an inexorable process has been set in train, the outcome of which is at once unforeseeable and ineluctable. It amounts to a recognition and acceptance of the tragic workings of nature.

After this, it is easy for Aufidius to goad Coriolanus to a self-destructive fury. He calls him ‘traitor’ – as Rome did; denies him his ‘stol’n’ name; and, when Coriolanus invokes Mars, delivers the final taunt which he knows will drive him completely out of control: ‘Name not the god, thou boy of tears!’ (V.vi.101). This makes Coriolanus explode:

Measureless liar, thou hast made my heart

Too great for what contains it.

(V.vi.103-4)

and he calls down the knives:

Cut me to pieces, Volsces, men and lads,

Stain all your edges on me. ‘Boy’! False hound!

If you have writ your annals true, ‘tis there,

That, like an eagle in a dovecote, I

Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles.

Alone I did it. ‘Boy’?

In a sense, Aufidius is absolutely correct (sometimes, nothing wounds like the truth) – Coriolanus did regress to being a ‘boy of tears’ in front of his mother. (Though, of course, there could be a less denigrating, more generous way of describing his transformation.) But if he goes down as ‘Boy,’ he wants once more to assert his old martial-eagle identity of the matchless warrior who could take a city ‘alone.’ And he wants to think of this identity and exploit asset down and preserved in the immutability of writing (not trusting to the vagaries of voice). ‘Annals’ are the distinctively Roman form of history, primarily associated with Tacitus (it is the only time Shakespeare used the word). Having employed the heroized Coriolanus, banished and then besought him, Rome will continue without him, finding other soldiers for other wars. That is why Coriolanus wants what he has been and done to be written ‘true’ and written ‘there.’ So ends the last great tragedy written for the English stage.”

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From Kermode:

STORIES-WE-TELL---SP-with-Super8cam-flatsc.JPG“In the last two acts ‘voice’ yields precedence to ‘name,’ though one must remember that names are uttered by voices. With great deliberation Shakespeare states (or restates) the theme of names when Coriolanus meets Aufidius in his house at Antium:

Auf:  Whence com’st thou? Why wouldst thou? Thy name?

Why speak’st not? Speak man: what’s thy name?

Cor:             If, Tullus,

Not yet thou know’st me, and, seeing me, dost not

Think me for the man I am, necessity

Commands me name myself.

Auf:            What is thy name?

Cor:  A name unmusical to the Volscians’ ears,

And harsh in sound to thine.

Auf:            Say, what’s thy name?

Thou hast a grim appearance, and thy face

Bears a command in’t; though thy tackle’s torn,

Thou show’st a noble vessel. What’s thy name?

Cor:  Prepare thy brow to frown. Know’st thou me yet?

Auf:  I know thee not. Thy name?

Cor:  My name is Caius Martius, who hath done

To thee particularly, and all the Volsces,

Great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may

My surname, Coriolanus.

(IV.ii.52-68)

His friends have forsaken him and suffered him ‘by th’ voice of slaves to be/Hoop’d out of Rome,’ with no possession other than that name (77-78). ‘Only that names remains’ (73). This extraordinary passage serves, with great economy, to remind us that the entire play is named after an ‘addition’ to the name Caius Martius, and that the loss of that name will cause his death. It is impossible to imagine more deliberate writing; the confrontation of the generals is a pivotal moment in the play, certainly, but so to draw out the moment of mutual recognition beyond the necessity of the action is to compel attention to the matter of naming. The ‘little language’ and the necessities of plot here coincide to wonderful effect.

The generals address each other in the second person singular, suitable for conversation with inferiors and children but also between lovers, and their language hereafter stresses the quasi-amorous nature of a relationship based on heroic fights, on envy. The life of such men is so simplified by their passion for fighting, for name and fame, that joy and pride in these qualities cannot be distinguished from emotions relative to love and sex. ‘Our general…makes a mistress of him’ (194-95). But Aufidius also wavers between love and treachery.

The Roman exile has brought his name to the very city where his claim to it will be most resented. Meanwhile, Rome and the tribunes celebrate a phony peace. Threatened by Coriolanus, they might like to ‘Unshout the noise that banish’d Martius!’ (V.ii.4). ‘Unshout’ is a monstrous, spectacular nonce-word, absolutely proper in this context, given that it has the support of all those shouts, roars, and hoots, as perhaps to no other. Meeting Cominius, the exile will not answer to the name ‘Coriolanus,’ indeed he ‘forbade all names;/He was a kind of nothing, titleless,/Till he had forg’d himself a name a’th’fire/Of burning Rome’ (V.i.12-15). His identity can be retrieved only by the fame of victory, but this time the city to be destroyed is Rome, not Corioli. He has mistaken their names as well as losing his own. He can hardly aspire to be called ‘Romanus.’

He resolves to face his mother without proper filial respect, to behave ‘As if a man were author of himself,/And knew no other kin’ (V.iii.36-37). But this desolation (to be titleless, nameless, kinless) is not sustainable. He gives in to ‘the most noble mother of the world’ (V.iii.49) and to the presence of his son, who, as he is reminded, is destined ‘to keep your name/Living to time’ (126-37). Not to yield, Volumnia tells him, would be to acquire a name ‘dogg’d with curses’ (144), a name ‘To th’ ensuing age abhorr’d’ (148). Moreover, he would lose the important epithet ‘noble’ (145), preferring his surname ‘Coriolanus’ to the prayers of his mother and wife (169-71).

The hero yields to his mother and Rome is saved, but he must now deal with Aufidius, whose lethal plot is consummated simply enough by a taunt concerning names – by his calling Coriolanus merely ‘Martius’ and saying the Roman had ‘whin’d and roar’d away’ (V.vi.97) a Volscian victory.

Cor:  Hear’st thou, Mars?

Auf:  Name not the god, thou boy of tears!

Martius got his original name from Mars. The insult to his name, and the insult of ‘boy’ – a man at the beck and call of his mother – together with the sneer about whining and roaring like a plebeian, are intolerable:

    ‘Boy,’ false hound!

If you have write your annals true, ‘tis there

That, like an eagle in a dove-cote, I

Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioles.

Alone I did it. ‘Boy!’

The terminally stressed ‘I’ at the end of line 114, and the ‘Alone I did it’ of the last line emphasize the self-regard of his claim to fame and to his surname. His enemies end the play with concessive talk of his ‘noble’ nature,’ for they, too, are in this respect like him, soldiers and destroyers; the word ‘noble’ tolls ironically through the last lines of this savage play, probably the most fiercely and ingeniously planned and expressed of all the tragedies.

The planning, like the ferocity of manner, has largely to do with words. They are so used as to ensure that in this bleak landscape no one is accorded true respect, not the generals, not the populace, not the tribunes, not the mother, not Menenius, and not Coriolanus himself, unless we mishear the undertones of such words as ‘noble,’ ‘fame,’ and ‘report.’ Like his son, who ‘mammocked’ the butterfly, he has been reared to follow a way of live that despises mere civility. He complains that the Romans once ‘godded’ him, but there is no middle way, and when not a god he is a beast, a fitting inhabitant of ‘th’ city of kites and crows’ (IV.v.42), until he takes a treacherous refuge with another treacherous hero, in a country which has good cause to hate him, no less for his name than for his fame.

Aufidius, in the last lines of the play, gives his murdered rival a military funeral and promises him ‘a noble memory’ (V.vi.147-53). But the word ‘noble,’ and the words ‘name’ and ‘fame,’ have acquired dark and changing colors from their disposition in the language of this lay; and we are left to consider the mental puzzles so deliberately made to involve us in daunting ambiguities.”

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And since not everyone thinks the world of the play, from Harold Bloom:

coriolanus_big“The pathos of the formidable Coriolanus augments whenever we, or Shakespeare, consider the hero in conjunction with his ferocious mother, Volumnia, who must be the most unpleasant woman in all of Shakespeare, not excluding Goneril and Regan. Since Volumnia, like everyone else in the play, has only an outward self, we have few clues as to how an early Roman matron became Strindbergian (a nice comparison by Russell Fraser). In Shakespeare’s strangest play, Volumnia remains the most surprising character, not at all readily assimilable to your average devouring mother. She boasts of having sent Caius Martius off to battle when he was still very young (one remembers Othello as a child warrior) and she delights in blood, though it be her son’s:

     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 spit forth blood

At Grecian sword contemning.

(I.iii.39-44)

This pathological grotesquerie cannot be far away from satire, like so much else in Coriolanus. With such a mother, Coriolanus, nasty as he can be, must be forgiven by the audience. I have never seen this tragedy played for laughs, like Titus Andronicus, but one has to wonder just what Shakespeare is at, as when the next hero-to-be, Coriolanus’s son is described at play:

Val:  How does your little son?

Vir:  I thank your ladyship, well, good madam.

Vol: He had rather see the swords and hear a drum, than look upon his schoolmaster.

Val:  O’my word, the father’s son! I’ll swear ‘tis a very pretty boy. O’ my troth, I looked upon him o’Wednesday half an hour together. ‘has such a confirmed 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, catched it again, or whether his fall enraged him, or how ‘twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it. Oh, I warrant how he mammocked it!

Vol: One on’s father’s moods.

Val:  Indeed, la, ‘tis a noble child.

(I.iii.53-67)

Tearing butterflies to shreds with your teeth (‘mammocked it’) may well be a good training for getting into your father’s battle mood, but it will not recommend you to civil society. Possibly that is Shakespeare’s point; the Roman rabble, in a dozen years or so, will have to contend with another Caius Martius. In the meantime, as the current hero marches home, his mother and his friend greedily count up his wounds, to be shown to the people when he stands for the office of consul:

Men:  True? I’ll be sworn they are true. Where is he wounded? [To the Tribunes] God save your good worships! Martius is coming home: he has more cause to be proud. Where is he wounded?

Vol:  I’th’shoulder, and i’th’left arm: there will be large cicatrices to show the people, when he shall stand for his place. He received in the repulse of Tarquin seven hurts i’th’ body.

Men:  One i’th’neck, and two i’th’thigh – there’s nine that I know.

Vol:  He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him.

Men: Now it’s twenty-seven, every gash was an enemy’s grave.

A Shout and flourish

Hark, the trumpets!

(II.i.140-56)

Can this be performed, except as comedy? [MY NOTE:  Probably not, but I don’t think that applies to the play as a whole.] Shakespeare modulates quickly into the scene in which Coriolanus and the plebes banish one another, confrontations, just over the border from comedy. It is difficult to judge precisely how to take Volumnia, who owes a grim debt to Virgil’s frightening Juno. Shakespeare makes this lineage explicit when Volumnia declines a supper invitation:

Anger’s my meat. I sup on myself

And so shall starve with feeding. [To Virgilia] Come, let’s go.

Leave this faint pulling, and lament as I do,

In anger, Juno-like. Come, come, come!

(IV.ii.50-53)

Like mother, like son, he too sups upon himself and so shall stave with feeding. This is not funny only because, like Juno in the Aeneid, it is so scary. What is not all comic, but at last truly tragic, is the confrontation between Coriolanus and Volumnia when she exhorts him to turn back as he leads his Volscians against Rome:

Vol:

There’s no man in the world

More bound to’s mother, yet here he lets me prate

Like on i’th’stocks.

(V.iii.158-60)

Volumnia’s most unpleasant moment, this transcends nastiness because pragmatically it murders Coriolanus, as he informs his mother:

O mother, mother!

What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,

The gods look down, and this unnatural scene

They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!

You have won a happy victor to Rome;

But, for your son – believe it, O, believe it! –

Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,

If not most mortal to him. But let it come.

As tragedy, this seems to me more than grotesque, and perhaps its uncanniness places it upon the other side of tragedy. Janet Adelman, in a brilliant reading of this scene, concludes that ‘dependency here brings no rewards, no love, no sharing with the audience, it brings only the total collapse of the self, the awful triumph of Volumnia.’ Where there is no consolation, even if it is only the sharing of grief, can we still have the aesthetic experience of tragedy? In Coriolanus and in Timon of Athens, Shakespeare gives us the twilight of tragedy. Nothing is got for nothing, and the five great tragedies can be surmised to have cost Shakespeare a great deal. Reading King Lear or Macbeth attentively, or seeing them well performed (very rare), are shattering experiences, unless you are too cold or closed-off to care anymore. Writing King Lear and Macbeth is at the last a demonstration that you are neither chilled nor solipsistic. In the transition to Coriolanus and Timon of Athens, Shakespeare acknowledged that he had transcended a limit, and discovered he was as done with tragedy as with unmixed comedy.”

—————————-

So…whose side are you on?  How highly do you rate Coriolanus?  Does it work for you, or is it too cold, too odd, too formal, too much an experiment that didn’t quite work?  Share your thoughts/feelings/questions with the group!

My next post:  Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning…final thoughts on Coriolanus, including views from Brecht, Bradley, and a look at the spectacular death scene from Olivier’s legendary 1959 production.

And a reminder…our next play…Cymbeline!

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One Response to He holds her by the hand, silent.

  1. John O'Rourke says:

    Time for another modern version using an American four star general

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