An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS (William Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Poverty and underdevelopment are not God-given but are man-made, and can be unmade by man.”
—“The Move Forward,” Christopher Hitchens, 21 June 1971
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATIVISM
If you would like to know where your friends stand politically, you could do no better than give them The Tragedy of Coriolanus (circa 1605-1608) to read, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy but also his most politically reactionary play. If your friends side with Caius Martius Coriolanus, they are likely more conservative. If your friends side with the Roman crowd, they are likely more liberal.
The play is perhaps the prototypical poem of conservativism and even more politically conservative than The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which explains why the work is T.S. Eliot’s favorite play, why Hazlitt dislikes it so much, and why Brecht, the radical Marxist dramatist, turned Coriolanus into a fascist dictator in his 1951 reinterpretation of the tragedy. It does not explain, however, why Beethoven (a republican in the old sense of the word, someone who we would today call a liberal) wrote an overture in the general’s honor.
The most intelligent architects of modern political conservativism (excepting Hegel) are Machiavelli and Hobbes. One of the premises of modern political conservatism is an intuition that can be found in the writings of both Machiavelli and Hobbes: Do not trust the crowd, for the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious. If you trust in the crowd, you are likely a liberal. If you think that the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious, you are likely a conservative.
The rightist politics of The Tragedy of Coriolanus are evident from the very first scene on.
STARVING THE POOR
When we first see him, Coriolanus is astride a horse, condemning the poor of Rome for demanding food to eat. He chastises the famishing wretches for having the temerity to beg for corn, for the criminal impertinence of demanding corn from the aristocracy. The crowd claims that the Roman nobility has more food than it could ever eat (“If they [the patricians] would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us [the poor] humanely” [I:i]); when he became consul, the real-world Coriolanus pledged to withhold food from the poor unless the rights of the poor were revoked. The most salient of these rights was the right to appeal to the tribunes, the representatives of the people—a right that was given to appease the people after the plebeian secession. The real-world Coriolanus loathed, more than anything, the system of tribunes, of the vocalizers (and influencers) of the popular will. Not only did the real-life Coriolanus deny the poor corn after he became consul, demanding the rescission of the rights of the poor—he demanded that their spokesmen be divested of power, as well.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus was composed at a time of grain-shortage, when hunger in England reached near-famine levels. The insurrection of the Roman people does not recall Ancient Roman history at all; it recalls the Midlands Revolt of 1607, as well as the insurgencies and rebellions in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire, which were fomented in response to insufficient harvests and the food-hoarding of the English aristocracy. There is even the appearance of English mills in the grain of the text (“’Tis south the city mills” [I:x])—as the 1878 Clarendon edition glosses, this refers to the mills of London, not those of Rome. As is always the case in Shakespeare, though the subject matter is historical, the play is presentist, not antiquarian: It is a work that concerns not Roman antiquity, properly, but the Elizabethan present in which Shakespeare is writing.
We are supposed to believe that the macerating poor have no right to ask for food, that they should starve to death rather than importune Coriolanus, who alone has the right to the things of necessity (food, shelter, clothing), to comfort, and to pleasure. He even makes fun of the words that they use (“an-hungry” is the demotic style, a low-class colloquialism): “[The poor] said they were an-hungry” [I:i]. The poor “sighed forth proverbs— / That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” [I:i]. These all might be platitudes, as Coriolanus points out (some of which were emblazoned on placards held aloft by the unruly crowd in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 cinematic interpretation), but who has the right to tell the hungry that they are not hungry? And what arrogance it is to mock the hungry for articulating their hunger and for clamoring to satisfy their hunger! Coriolanus repudiates the poor for the need to put food in their stomachs. The brutality and factuality of hunger are undeniable. Coriolanus is saying, in essence, “I don’t want to hear about your hunger” with the same incensed dismissiveness and lofty indifference with which Chris Christie said that he doesn’t want to hear the New Jersey poor talk about raising the minimum wage (it will be raised sixteen cents to a grudging $8.60 in the year in which I am composing this essay).
How dare the poor beg for bread! How dare they insist that their stomachs be filled! For their irreducibly human need to eat, the poor are called “dissentious rogues” [I:i]—rascally wretches and wretched beggars. The a priori assumption is as follows: The more the poor have, the less the nobility has. The less the poor have, the more the nobility has. The hungrier the poor are, the more prosperous the nobility. The humiliation and immiseration of the poor lead to the dignity and luxury of the rich: “The leanness that afflicts us [the poor, the miserable], the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them” [I:i]. The starvation of the poor equals the elevation of the nobility, and the fetid, contaminating sewer water of the poor should never flow into a conflux with the pure waters of the nobility. Thus, Martius espouses an Ancient-Roman precursor of trickle-down economics: Feed the rich, and perhaps, someday, scraps shall fall from their table, scraps on which the poor may snack.
Martius has a granular understanding of the poor. He sees the poor as if they were so many grains of corn, so many motes, so many “fragments” [I:i]; he sees them not as individual totalities, but as disjointed pieces broken from the whole of the Roman commonality. He even welcomes crushing them in the war against the Volscians: “Then we shall ha’ means to vent / Our musty superfluity” [I:i]. They are either grains of corn or vermin verminizing England. For the crime of hunger, Martius expresses the wish that the poor be mass-exterminated, as if they were rats: “The Volsces have much corn. Take these rats thither / To gnaw their garners” [I:i]. (Garners = granaries.) Send them to the wars! Coriolanus echoes exactly what the Roman poor say about him—they are either fodder for the war or starvelings: “If the wars eat us not up, they will” [I:i].
The play itself is on the side of Coriolanus, not on the side of the poor. Already, in the first scene, this is evident. To be clear to the point of bluntness: The play’s glorification of Coriolanus makes the tragedy a reactionary, rightist, ultraconservative work of dramatic literature. If I am wrong about this (and I am not), why are the poor not presented in a poetical manner? Only Coriolanus is enshrined with poetical loftiness and lyrical magnificence. The poor are not given a poetical voice. Only Coriolanus is given a poetical voice. The reason for this might be, as Hazlitt writes, that the principle of poetry is “everything by excess” and is therefore married with the language of power. Poetry is not about equality; it is about the contrast (the dissymmetry) between the low and the high. Poverty is not an easy subject for poetry, which is nothing without elevated moods and elevated language. It is, of course, possible to write a poem about food stamps, but it is not possible to write a good poem about food stamps without some poetical sublimation or fantastication. Hazlitt’s idea is that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is fascistic (though he does not use this word, writing, as he did, in 1816) because poetry is fascistic by its very essence. This would be to view the politics of the play through the speculum of poetry rather than to explain the poetry of the play through the speculum of politics.
THE INFANTICIDAL MOTHER
Coriolanus’s war-loving and war-mongering mother is living vicariously through her soldier-son. Volumnia, the bellicose mater, only becomes peace-loving when her son wages a war against her country, Rome [I will return to this point below].
The real mother of Coriolanus was named Veturia, and the real-world wife was named Volumnia. It is extraordinary to notice that Shakespeare gives the fictional mother the name of Coriolanus’s real-world wife.
Indeed, there is a disturbing sexuality between mother and son in the play. The mother says to Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, in prose, “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed, where he would show most love” [I:iii]. The mother is projecting herself, through the medium of the imagination, into the mind of Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife. But this is trifling chitchat when set against the epiphany: The mother is imagining what it would be like to have sex with her own son. Even more arrestingly shocking and shockingly arresting is the recognition: The mother would rather her son die in war than have sex with anyone, as her succeeding remark makes clear. Asked the sensible question of what she would think if her son died in combat, the mother responds that “his good report” (the report of his war death) should have been her son: “I therein would have found issue” [I:iii]. “Issue” here is meant in the original sense of “offspring,” and the flabbergasting implication is that her son will only fulfill his human promise when pierced by the sharp end of the enemy’s sword. She continues: “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]. Not only is the mother introjecting herself, imaginarily, into the role of her son’s wife; she is declaring to this same wife that the mother would rather her son put his life at stake on the slaughterfield than enjoy the pleasures of the bed (“voluptuously surfeit out of action”). This implies, again, that she has imagined having sexual intercourse with her own son and that she is gleefully anticipating her son’s lethal besmearing. She would have him become a “thing of blood” [II:ii].
The mother’s dark romance with her son takes the form of violence and death. Volumnia salivatingly counts the scars that had been inflicted and inscribed on her son’s body at the expulsion of the Tarquins, cataloguing his wounds with malicious lust (“malicious,” “maliciously,” or “malice,” used eleven times in the text, is one of the most signifying words in the play): “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” [II:i]. She proudly numbers the sum of her son’s wounds at twenty-five—“He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him” [II:i]—and is gushingly elated to learn that the number has increased to twenty-seven. Menenius, the substitute father, is overjoyed to learn that his substitute son Coriolanus has been wounded in the Battle of Corioli. He is delighted to report that the surrogate son has been wounded “[i]’th’ shoulder and i’th’ left arm” [II:i].
Lawrence Olivier would giggle uncontrollably as he read the line in which Volumnia declares her willingness to perform six of Hercules’ labors (“If you had been the wife of Hercules, / Six of his labours you’d have done and saved / Your husband so much sweat” [IV:i]), but is it so difficult to conceive the woman hacking away with a sword at the Hydra? She is a militaristic machine, and, as I have argued, one who would rather see her only son killed on the slaughterfield than catch him in bed with a woman. War, or the vicarious experience of war, is motherly pleasure for Volumnia.
Ralph Fiennes was very wise to put Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) in a military uniform that vaguely resembles a uniform of the Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army in his film interpretation of the play. Her role as military commandant (for what else is she?) supersedes her role as a mother. She cares more about Martius’s military victories than about his well-being. No, worse than that: She is seized with a kind of bloodlust, and this absolutely evident in the following lines: “[Blood] more becomes a man / Than gilt his trophy / The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier / Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword contemning” [I:iii].
Martius fights for the mother, in the name of the mother. No wonder he is psychologically stultified—never developing into an adult with the consciousness of an adult, never loosening or severing dependency on the mother. No wonder he doesn’t know how to talk to the common people, no wonder he cares only for himself and for his mother (for the mother is the origin of his selfhood), no wonder he hoards the grain for himself and for his peers. His loyalty to his motherland is loyalty to his mother Volumnius.
Consider that Coriolanus is a mother-obsessed fascist, and this consideration gives one insight into the psychology of fascist consciousness: Overmothered mammothrepts become fascists (Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), anyone?). Martius was a fascist long before the word existed. For the word fascism comes from the Latin fascis, which means “bundle,” and under fascism, an entire society is bundled around a single authoritarian leader. Martius is bundled by the mother.
War is an industry. Beyond the psychodynamics of her relation to her son, does Volumnia not also have a financial interest in her son’s military victories? When Martius defeats the Volscians, the defeat of the Volscians benefits Rome. If Martius, now “Coriolanus,” as the Volscian general, were to defeat Rome, this would obviously erode the mother’s position of authority. We see, in the play, that familial relationships are also financial relationships. Volumnia has a relation to her son that reminds one of the financial and erotic interest that Donald Trump takes in his daughter Ivanka Trump. What benefits Rome benefits Volumnia. His victories against Volsci are her political and financial victories. Though she says that she would rather have the entire city perish than lose her son, could this be because Volumnia believes that city will perish without her son?
KILLING MACHINE (NEARLY) BECOMES CONSUL
To say that Martius is a great soldier would be a gross understatement. He is an army-annihilating zombie, an anthropomorphic mega-drone, a super-tank in human form. He hospitalizes the best fighters and slaughters everyone else. His worthiest enemy, Aufidius, flees for his life, is driven away breathless by Martius five times [I:x]. Martius is pure lethality and neither Volsci nor Rome can win a war without him when he is on the other side.
Martius surges into Volsci and besieges the city of Corioli. The Roman senate and the Roman people are so impressed with the besiegement and with his military performance that they nominate Martius consul and rename him with the cognomen “Coriolanus,” named after the toponym “Corioli.” Thus begins the becoming-Volscian of Martius. The mother seems dismayed by the renaming of her Caius Martius: “‘Coriolanus’ must I call thee?” [II:i]. The re-nomination of Martius as “Coriolanus” marks the beginning of the veering-away from the mother, which will be short-lived.
The soldier soon proves to be an inept statesman—he shows such contempt for the plebeians that they reject him as consul, as his appointment is not confirmed, and expel him from the city of Rome.
The brutishness and arrogance of Coriolanus are fitting for a soldier, but less than fitting for a statesman. As I suggested above, he does not know how to speak to the commoners; he has no feeling for the commonal. He is the skillful military general who cannot function as a politician. He is reluctant to speak to the people after being nominated consul [II:ii], as he is reluctant to canvass them for votes [II:iii]; when he does address the people directly, it is almost always with disgust. Coriolanus’s language defeats him.
When Coriolanus declares, “I banish you” [III:iii] to the mob, it is as if he were a disgruntled ex-employee who, seconds after being fired, shouts at his employer: “You can’t fire me; I fire you!” A woman breaks up with her boyfriend. The erstwhile boyfriend shoots back: “You want to break up with me? I am breaking up with you!” Coriolanus is every bit as childish as the ex-employee and the rejectee—he is a child-adult or an adult-infant.
The Romans estrange Coriolanus, literally: They turn him into a stranger, a transformation which was presaged by his name change. When he is re-nominated “Coriolanus,” it is not long thereafter until the people of Rome see him as a foreigner, as though he were a resident of Corioli. The Romans see Coriolanus now as a foreigner, but are the Romans not foreigners to Coriolanus? Along the same lines: The Romans see the Volscians as foreigners, but are the Volscians not foreigners to the Romans? The Volscians have vanished into the abysses of history, but they were a formicine tribe that gathered south of Rome—“formicine” (ant-like) only because they dwelled upon the hills of what is now Southern Italy. When Coriolanus is repatriated to Volsci, why do we see this as a betrayal? Why are so many of us pious toward the country in which we were born? Why is Rome the home-space—especially considering that Coriolanus was a stranger in “his” own motherland? Why are the marshland people of Volsci the strangers? Why do the swamps and hills of Volsci form a shadowzone?
THE PRIVATE AND THE PUBLIC
Coriolanus is incapable of separating his public and private selves. (For a discussion of the separation of public and private selves in bourgeois society, see Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche.) He only gives one soliloquy, in the fourth scene of the first act (“You souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men…”)—this is the only time in the play when he is alone. Otherwise, he is forever enrounded by other people.
If Coriolanus does not understand the difference between the public and the private, this is likely because his mother never taught him the difference between the public and the private. Indeed, his mother nurtured him to become a soldier, thus confusing his familial and public roles. We see this confusion of roles clearly in the moving scene of reconciliation between mother and son. Martius’s tearful discourse with his own mother would have been more appropriate in private, not held before an audience of Volscian thugs. His exhibition gives Aufidius free hand to taunt him for being a mamma’s boy.
Coriolanus has the tendency to say whatever comes to his mind without filter. A particularly illustrative example of Coriolanus’s tendency to blurt things that should not be said in public: He asks the Roman senate to forgo the custom of requiring the nominee to the consulship to speak to the people. This is a custom, he says, that “might well / Be taken from the people” [II:ii]. Now, as the editors of the Arden edition point out, the outrageousness and inflammatoriness of this remark could be soothed somewhat if we imagine that he is addressing his remarks to Menenius. In Ralph Fiennes’ contemporization, a live microphone picks up Coriolanus’s careless remark—which should not have been heard by the people and certainly not by the tribunes. In the film, at least, he didn’t intend for anyone but Menenius to hear what he said.
The one exception to his ignorance of the distinction between the private and public spheres is when Coriolanus tells a citizen, from whom he would solicit votes, that he has “wounds to show [the citizen] which shall be [his] in private” [II:iii]. The crowd unjustly resents him for not displaying his stigmata in the agora (yes, I know this is a Greek and not a Latin term).
His public and private languages are mixed together, as Menenius acknowledges: Coriolanus is “ill-schooled / In bolted language. Meal and bran together / He knows without distinction” [III:i]. Coriolanus cannot disengage crass language (bran) from diplomatic language (meal); he cannot distinguish the crude from the pure. He speaks insultingly when the language of diplomacy would be more appropriate.
HIS LEAST FAVORITE WORDS
There are three words that “trigger” Coriolanus, and they are shall, traitor, and boy. When these words are said to him, in certain contexts, he loses his mind.
Lucius Sicinius Vellutus dispenses with personal pronouns when he gives Coriolanus a command: “It is a mind that shall remain a poison / Where it is, not poison any further” [III:i; emphasis mine].
Coriolanus’s response: “Mark you his absolute ‘shall’?” [III:i]. The shall is described by Coriolanus as coming from the “horn and noise o’th’ monster’s” [III:i], one of the vocalizers / influencers of the will-to-power of the people.
What incenses Coriolanus is the absolute, peremptory command of the people—the relativization of the desired absoluteness of his will-to-power. The nobility no longer has absolute authority if it shall submit to the will-to-power of the people. The shall announces the conflux of the plebeians and the patricians, or indeed the subordination of the patricians to the plebeians, which is exemplified by Coriolanus’s metaphor of the crows pecking the eagles: “Thus we debase / The nature of our seats… and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles” [III:i]. The crows raiding the eagles’ aeries are the poor and their tribunes; the eagles are the patricians.
When Sicinius calls Coriolanus a “traitor,” this incites from Coriolanus a torrent of insults, a full-throated denunciation of the people: “The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!” [III:iii]. One Word instigates the total denunciation of the people—and this means that One Word is what drives Coriolanus into / brings on the sentence of banishment, causes his expulsion from the city of Rome.
The third word, boy, spoken as a taunt by Aufidius, prompts a recognition of what Coriolanus is: an adult-infant. Insults only hurt us when we recognize them as truthful. Is it not thinkable, then, that Coriolanus is a boy?
HE LEAVES ROME
Coriolanus sallies forth from Rome and resituates himself in Antium, the capital of Volsci and home to Aufidius, leader of the Volscians. (Antium is present-day Anzio, a coastal city in the South of Italy.) He then does what anyone in his state would do: He joins the opposite side and fights against the civilization that nurtured him. Of course, this is a non sequitur: It doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to defection. It certainly doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to war against the country that banishes you.
I imagine that others might say that Coriolanus, chewing off the umbilicus, is developing into a full-blown individual. This, however, is doubtful, given that he becomes no one at all [I shall return to this point below].
Coriolanus seeks a “world elsewhere” [III:iii]: the other-world of Volsci, the very city against which he sallied as a general. In the introduction to the Arden edition of the play, Peter Holland makes the brilliant point that liminal spaces (such as the sea) are not enough for Coriolanus. The warrior must either have his way or defect to the other side—there is no medium, no middle ground for him. He wages a war against Rome after he doesn’t get what he wants, leading the Volscian army against Rome and its territories in a strike of vengeance. The Muttersohn becomes dragon: Initially, he goes alone to Antium, “[l]ike to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes feared and talked of more than seen” [IV:i]. He approaches the dragon (Aufidius) and then becomes the dragon of the Volscians, “fight[ing] dragon-like” [IV:vii] against the land of his birth. Notice the draconic metaphor used by Menenius: “This Marcius is grown / from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a / creeping thing” [V:iv].
THE RECONCILIATION WITH MOTHER ROME
Incubated by the mother, Caius Martius crawls out of the womb a super-soldier who single-handedly massacres entire populations, armies and civilians alike. Now, the mother-obsessed soldier turns against the motherland. This leads one to wonder: Is Coriolanus’s hatred for Rome not powered by an unconscious hatred for his mother? Is Coriolanus’s draconic attack on Rome not also a tacit attack on his mother? When disclaims Rome, is he not also disclaiming his mother?
Menenius, the substitute father, appeals to Coriolanus in vain. Only Coriolanus’s mother moves her son to give up his campaign of vengeance against Rome; he gives up his antipathy for Rome after the mother arrives and pleads with her son to stop fighting against the Roman people. She smothers the blaze of his hatred with her tears. Martius only knows two extremes, two antipodes: He is either mother’s infant, or he is a repatriated zombie who fights against his motherland.
Turning against the mother, Coriolanus was reduced to a “kind of nothing” [V:i], as Cominius identified him. When his mother (accompanied by his wife and his son) creeps into the enemy camp, there is an emotional spectacle in front of the dead-hearted army thugs; only then does he show human feeling. I consider this to be the most emotionally powerful scene in the whole of Shakespeare—someone who is a cipher, a zero, becomes human, even though he never becomes completely human. It is as if the mother is giving birth to him a second time—it is a palingenesis rather than a genesis.
In the real world, the mother’s intercession was an act for which the statue of Fortuna was established; the act was blessed by the memorial. The mother and the wife are memorialized for ending the siege on Rome: “The ladies have prevailed” [V:iv]; “Behold your patroness, the life of Rome!” [V:v]. And yet the reconciliation between Rome and Volsci was merely a surface reconciliation: The Volscians did later launch unsuccessful sallies against the Romans, all of which were squelched.
I hold that The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus are among Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishments as a playwright. While these plays are by no means unknown, they are certainly much less known and celebrated than the overrated The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Particularly, I second T.S. Eliot’s opinion that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is immeasurably superior to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Of course, Hamlet will kill Claudius, usurper and parricide; there is no surprise in that. His vacillations are a mere plot contrivance to temporize until the inescapable killing of the stepfather; as I will argue in my essay on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the play is about the problem of free will, but this is not the right place to pursue this argument. Whereas the conflict in Hamlet is simple, the conflict within Coriolanus is much more complex. Coriolanus’s decisions to finesse a conciliation of the Volscians and a reconciliation of Volsci and Rome must be understood in psychodynamic terms as reconciliation with the mother and as the return to the uterus.
All seems well until Aufidius defames Coriolanus to the Volscians and takes away his “stolen name” [V:vi], stripping him of his cognomen. He instead refers to him by his birth name—Martius—thus symbolically reverting his opponent to his infant status. Martius is then hacked to death by Aufidius’s conspirators, a move which is itself a form of infantile regression.
The terrifying mob assault at the end of the play recalls the dismemberment of Pentheus beneath the talons of the crazed Maenads at the end of Euripedes’ Bacchae. Coriolanus is torn to pieces, ripped to shreds, by the blades of Aufidius’s assassins, while they chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” [V:vi]. The mob cheers them on; the mob has not forgotten that Coriolanus has widowed and orphaned so many of them.
The climax is suggesting: If you try to eat the mob, then the mob will eat you. The mob wants to eat Coriolanus. And Coriolanus wants to eat the mob. That is to say: The rich are eating up the poor at the beginning of the play: “If the wars eat us [the poor] not up, they [the rich] will” [I:i]. Coriolanus is feasting upon the poor, consuming the poor, ingurgitating the poor, who will then be ejected from Coriolanus’s anus.
At the climax of the play, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich. Coriolanus is keeping pace with his promise. Knifed as the mob shouts for his blood, Coriolanus is realizing the supreme desires of his mother which have always been his own.