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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: May ::
Coriolanus 4.5
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1007  Tuesday, 4 May 2004

From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Monday, 3 May 2004 14:19:10 +0100
Subject: Coriolanus 4.5
Comment:        SHK 15.0994 Coriolanus 4.5

Martius's inability to adapt his martial skills to the political role he
must assume for the good of Rome is a central theme of the play. His
boast that "I am constant" (I.i.239) is hardly meant to be taken
uncritically. "The question of the hero's nobility is not simple", as
Clifford Chalmers Huffman writes: "strength, fortitude, constancy, and
self-assurance he has, but self-centeredness can only with difficulty be
called acceptable 'devotion to his integrity,' noble in a character who
is so clearly involved in the life of his country... The play itself
prevents the critic from seeing in Coriolanus an ideal representation of
the patrician class or of the noble Roman or English soldier: qualities
which in other contexts (or, more accurately, in the absence of them)
might be extolled must here be condemned. The unswerving personal
pursuit of honor and valor is dangerous to society... the presence of a
powerful social context indicates that the value of constancy, in its
private and public aspects, is to be tested: in this way Shakespeare
makes a Renaissance commonplace take on intensely dramatic life":
Coriolanus in Context, pp.177-179. Cominius recognizes this character
trait - "The shepherd knows not thunder from a tabor / More than I know
the sound of Martius' tongue / From every meaner man" ( - and
can see its potential to whip up class-conflict. The extent to which
Martius's bellicosity imbues his entire moral being (as his name
implies) is revealed in an exchange they have concerning a "poor man"
who gave Martius his hospitality at Corioles, and whom he now wishes to
save from imprisonment: "I saw him prisoner", he explains, "But then
Aufidius was within my view, / And wrath o'erwhelm'd my pity". The
momentary appreciation of the kindness and generosity of his "poor host"
is overwhelmed by a petty vendetta pursued even after the battle itself
had been won; and when he is asked for a name, he cannot remember it,
and immediately turns his attention to the more pressing issue of
whether there is any wine to be had (I.ix.79-92). When he loses his
temper with the Citizens, he instinctively upbraids them in terms of
their supposed cowardice on the battlefield, and Menenius warns him that
"You'll mar all" - in other words, that he will ruin his chances to earn
their voices if he reduces every issue to its significance for "Mars":
"speak to 'em, I pray you, / In wholesome manner", he urges
(II.iii.49-54, 58-60), using an adjective that partakes of the play's
pervasive concern with eating while also suggesting "in a comprehensive
way" - Martius must address the concerns of every type of citizen, not
just those in the service of Mars. "This man has marr'd his fortune", as
one of the other Patricians remarks to Menenius, who agrees, adding that
his "nature is too noble for the world" (III.i.253) - that is, the world
of politics and compromise. Political office involves the supreme
compromise which Martius cannot contemplate: "the compromising of his
own identity" is required by the ruler who must act according to custom,
"to surrender the individual to the office, the man to the role":
Alexander Leggatt, Shakespeare's Political Drama: The History Plays and
The Roman Plays, pp.192-193. He is no actor, and therefore he is no
politician; indeed, we have seen his contempt for the windiness of
peacetime politics, and sometimes it is as if he is afraid that
prolonged peace might make his martial character seem like an act, a
role assumed without reference to reality. When he admits his gladness
that the Volscians are arming for war, which will provide a "means to
vent / Our musty superfluity" (I.i.224-226), he appears to be echoing
the first Citizen's contention that a "superfluity" of grain is being
withheld by the patricians, made at the opening of the play (I.i.15-22):
not only does this once again signal the antipathetic distance between
his class and the starving plebeians, it also reductively categorizes
even the most pressing political argument as a superfluous luxury.

This is an indication that the paternalistic ideal might be seen as the
political (in the sense of role-playing or ingenuous pretense) part of
patriarchal essentialism, and that, as in Macbeth, the perversion of the
masculine ideal represents the political degeneracy of the aristocracy.
Recalling Lady Macbeth, Volumnia seems anxious to eradicate the
"feminine", in the sense of the sexual and regenerative, from her son's
marriage; and she responds to Volumnia's anxiety that Martius might die
"in the business" of war in the same way that Seward met his own son's
death: "Then his good report should have been my son; I therein would
have found issue. Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in
my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had
rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously
surfeit out of action" (I.iii.2-5, 18-25; Macbeth, V.ix.14-15).
Martius's son, whose torturing of butterflies is thought by Volumnia to
mark him out as his father's child and by Valeria as a "noble" trait,
would "rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his
schoolmaster". That James I was so renowned a scholar and so phobic
towards naked blades suggests a negative comparison; certainly the
bellicosity would agree with an allegorical representation of Prince
Henry (although not really the neglect of learning). Once again, I think
it is best to see the filial dynamics of Coriolanus as a more
generalized criticism of James's failure to deal with political issues
because of his overriding concern with his male favourites: his
paternalist ideals were undermined by his "masculinist" behaviour -
while he lavished sexual attention on other men, his wife and his son
enjoyed far greater influence to disseminate their rather hawkish views
on domestic and foreign policy. Virgilia, representative of the
"feminine", nurturing qualities, is frustrated by the influence of the
"masculinist" ideals of Martius and Volumnia over her son's development
into what she calls a "crack", a rascal, a tearaway (I.iii.55-58,
60-68). Again, as in Macbeth, this perversion of masculinity is linked
to the aristocracy's sense of "superfluity" in any other sphere than
that of war, so that their political failure is figured as an
incestuous, onanistic or homosexual reluctance to generate understanding
and progress by engagement with other social classes - "war and sex have
melded in a certain type of military aristocratic character": Alvin
Kernan, Shakespeare, The King's Playwright: Theater in the Stuart Court
1603-1613, p.146. Martius's prowess on the battlefield dates back to his
adolescence, and the defeat of Tarquin, "When with his Amazonian [chin]
he drove / The bristled lips before him", as Cominius describes the
scene; his womanliness seems to imply the sexual self-sufficiency of
battle, as a perverse femininity copulates with a perverse masculinity,
shutting out normative and generative sexual relations: "When he might
act the woman in the scene / He prov'd best man i' th' field"
(II.ii.87-98). The theatrical image further suggests a self-contained
alternative to the theatricality of political engagement, perhaps
another brushstroke in Cominius's careful, ironic portrait of the
perfectly unsuitable candidate for consul. The danger that Cominius
senses in Martius's masculinism is justified when his misdirected sexual
energy threatens to engulf him: "O! let me clip ye / In arms as sound as
when I woo'd," he gushes, "in heart / As merry as when our nuptial day
was done / As tapers burnt to bedward!" ( The political
error committed by Cominius and the tribunes in imaginging that they
could exclude Martius's type of essentialism from a new kind of
materialist polity is paralleled by their assumption that spurning his
homosexual advances would put an end to his homosexuality itself. In the
event, he finds a like-minded partner in Aufidius, who greets him in his
exile with the desire to "twine / Mine arms about that body", and a
confession that recalls Martius's own words to Cominius:

Know thou first,

I lov'd the maid I married; never man

Sigh'd 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...

We have been down together in my sleep,

Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat,

And wak'd half dead with nothing.

(The Tragedy of Coriolanus, IV.v.106-107, 113-118, 124-126)

The sexual imagery becomes steadily more violent and destructive in his
welcoming speech, reinforcing the nexus it has formed with battle, but
also finally revealing how far divorced it is from any sense of
patriotism or public service. Had he no other quarrel with Martius's
ungrateful compatriots except this great man's banishment, Aufidius
declares, the Volseans would have justification enough for "pouring war
/ Into the bowels of ungrateful Rome, / Like a bold flood o'er-beat"
(IV.v.129-131); it is an image of anal rape, representing unnatural
treachery and violence against the self, that will be echoed in
Volumnia's plea that Martius should not make "the mother, wife, and
child to see / The son, the husband, and the father tearing / His
country's bowels out" (V.iii.101-103).

The situation in Antium gestures towards that in the Jacobean court as
well: as one of the Servingmen complains, Aufidius "makes a mistress of"
Martius, "But the bottom of the news is, our general is cut i' th'
middle, and but one half of what he was yesterday; for the other has
half by the entreaty and grant of the whole table" (IV.v.191-200).
Aufidius is "cut i' th' middle" not only politically, in terms of
divided loyalties and the challenge to his leadership, but also
essentially, in that he has abjured femiminity (his wife and the ideal
of sexual regeneration as a political principle) in favour of a perverse
masculinity (Martius and all-out war as anal rape). James's homosexual
dalliances and negelect of his family similarly cut him in half, because
his wife and son were not properly under his control and mounted an
"unnatural" assault upon his government's policies. The aptness of the
Servingman's "bottom" image should perhaps pass without further comment.


The Volsceans are perfectly aware that Martius's defection has tipped
the balance of power their way, but their awareness stems, not from some
vague acknowledgement of his utter invincibility, but from observation
of the disarray into which the Romans have fallen because of their idea
of his invincibility (IV.iii.13-24). Volscean Machiavellianism - their
astute political assessment of the situation - is clearly pitched
against the Romans' peculilarly defeatist essentialism. This has been
the pattern since the first Act, in which Aufidius, though indeed as
noble a warrior as Martius and as apt to berate his less noble comrades,
shows that he does not have a similar aversion to politics: "where / I
thought to crush him in an equal force, / True sword to sword," he
declares after his defeat, "I'll potch at him some way, / Or with wrath
or craft may get him" (I.x.13-16). This, of course, is the perfect
strategy to employ against Martius, because he is such a poor
politician, and his idea of himself is so self-contained that he appears
not to recognize the importance of what other people really think of him
- he could never be aware that he was being used. Although we, the
audience, have been shown how fluid his identity becomes as he is
banished, Martius never comes to this realization himself. The
Servingman at Antium tells him, "Here's no place for you; pray go to the
door" because he looks like a peripatetic beggar in his "mean apparel";
Martius chooses to gloss the situation by conceding that "I have
deserv'd no better entertainment / In being Coriolanus" (IV.v.7-10),
refiguring his lowest ignominy in terms of his greatest, defining moment
of triumph. He insists that he is "A gentleman", even though, as another
Servingman observes, "A marv'llous poor one" (IV.v.25-28).

His ridiculous self-assurance comes to a head in his attempts to
engineer a dramatic introduction to his old enemy, Aufidius: his very
appearance, as he unmuffles, should strike fear into the hearts of every
Volscean, but Aufidius is having none of it, and demands, "What is thy
name?" Martius has to compromise a little, but does not want to ruin the
effect: "A name unmusical to the Volscians' ears, / And harsh in sound
to thine". Again, Aufidius simply asks his name, but then hints that
Martius's "face / Bears a command in't; though thy tackle's torn, / Thou
show'st a noble vessel", as if to play upon his slightly ludicrous
theatricality. Martius makes one last deperate, rather pathetic
declamation, "Prepare thy brow to frown. Know'st thou me yet?", and of
course, Aufidius resumes his knowing bafflement: "I know thee not. Thy
name?" Forced to spell it out, Martius finds himself havning sheepishly
to remind the Volsceans just how much "hurt and mischief" he caused
them, "thereto witness may / My surname, Coriolanus" (IV.v.54-68). He is
way out of his depth in these situations; from the expectation of
awe-inspiring presence he has come to an almost complete emasculation in
just fourteen lines, simply because Aufidius knows that the most potent
weapon against him is a refusal to recognize the ideal Martius, the
invincible "Coriolanus". The superiority of Aufidius's more rounded
personality is suggested by the conversation that the Servingmen have
following Martius's introduction: both insist that they "knew by his
face that there was something in him", and are clearly in awe of his
nobility and reputation (now that they know who he is); but though they
toy with the suggestion that he is a greater warrior than their own
leader, they eventually come down in favour of Aufidius, agreeing that
"For the defence of a town, our general is excellent", "Ay, and for an
assault too" (IV.v.154-171). It is Aufidius's superiority in defence
that impresses them; and no doubt they equate his expert defensive
strategies on the battlefield with those they have just witnessed in the
court - because Aufidius knows when to pull back and draw his enemy on
(as Martius criticized Cominius for doing), he is able to expose out
outflank him.

Once this emasculation is accomplished, Aufidius is able to invest
Martius with the power requisite for his use against Rome. This does not
result in his being "cut i' th' middle, and but one half of what he was
yesterday", as one of the Servingmen contends (IV.v.191-200), even
though Aufidius himself notices that "He bears himself more proudlier, /
Even to my person, than I thought he would"; after all, the fact that
"his nature / In that's no changeling" has been and will be used against

Although it seems,

And so he thinks, and is no less apparent

To th' vulgar eye, that he bears all things fairly,

And shows good husbandry to the Volscian state,

Fights dragon-like, and does achieve as soon

As draws his sword; yet he hath left undone

That which shall break his neck, or hazard mine,

When e'er we come to our account.

(The Tragedy of Coriolanus, IV.vii.8-12, 18-26)

What has Martius left undone? First of all, his profound identity as a
Roman, which is linked with what Aufidius recognizes as his unchanging
nature - "You keep a constant temper" he says as Martius rejects Roman
pleas for clemency (V.ii.94), perhaps anticipating the point at which
his constancy towards family and fatherland will undermine his position.
But he has also chosen to subject himself to Aufidius in order to
realize what he feels to be his true role - the apolitical soldier -
thus leaving the sovereignty over his own definition and action in the
hands of an enemy who is intent on his destruction. Thus Aufidius
accepts his services:

Therefore, most absolute sir, if thou wilt have

The leading of thine own revenges, take

Th' one half of my commission, and set down -

As best thou art experienc'd, since thou know'st

Thy country's strength and weakness - thine own ways...

(The Tragedy of Coriolanus, IV.v.136-140)

Martius is "most absolute" here only in the most ironic sense, for the
"leading" of his own revenge is a "commission" given him by his new
leader, Aufidius, against his own country - and his intimacy with Rome
is implied by the strategic knowledge he possesses of its "strengths and
weaknesses". His status as a Roman, despite his vaunted repudiation of
Rome, makes him the best weapon against that which defines him
politically, filially, and personally. "I think he'll be to Rome / As is
the aspray to the fish," Aufidius muses, "who takes it / By sovereignty
of nature" (IV.vii.33-35): his "nature" as an inhumanly successful
soldier will ensure Rome's defeat, and yet Rome nourishes him just as
surely as the fish nourishes the osprey, and though there are plenty
more fish in the lake, there can only be one Rome. Martius's
"absoluteness", the complexity of which Aufidius seems to understand far
more thoroughly than Martius himself, is a useful tool, whose utility,
far from being essential, evolves with the political situation - and
Aufidius can read the political situation with the acuteness necessary
to ensure that Martius's personality always plays into his hands. "So
our [virtues] / Lie in th' interpretation of the time", as he puts it;
Martius's "absoluteness" can be used to strike against Rome at one
moment, and against itself the next:

One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail;

Rights by rights fouler, strengths by strengths do fail.

Come, let's away. When, Caius, Rome is thine,

Thou art poor'st of all; then shortly art thou mine.

(The Tragedy of Coriolanus, IV.vii.49-57)

These gnomic statements encompass all the final Act's possibilities.
Rome will be Martius's if he crushes it in battle; but then he will have
crushed the root of his identity, and Aufidius knows that he will never
be able to bring himself to swear allegiance as a Volscean - Rome
defeated, Aufidius need only inflame Volscean suspicion against Martius
in the same way as the Roman tribunes did to reassert his unchallenged
sovereignty. On the other hand, if Martius acknowledges that Rome is his
and he is Rome's, and he refuses to destroy it at the head of the
Volscean army, it will be even easier for Aufidius to discredit him as a
traitor; Rome will survive, but in a form unthreatening to the
Volsceans, and perhaps even descending into bourgeois complacency and
military weakness.


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