An Analysis of THE COMEDY OF ERRORS (Shakespeare)
by Dr. Joseph Suglia
Shakespeare’s shortest and dumbest play, The Comedy of Errors (circa 1594) concerns identical-twin brothers who are separated in a shipwreck and their servants who, incredibly, are also identical twins. The shortest and the dumbest play, yes, and also the most infantile thing the Swan of Avon ever composed. Nauseatingly and horrifically infantile in three senses of the word “infantile”: 1.) It belongs to Shakespeare’s infancy as a dramatist. 2.) It contains scatological humor and slapstick violence. Only stupid people, infant infants and adult infants, find scatological humor and slapstick violence diverting. The comedy is designed for those who find something intrinsically funny about a harlequin being beaten by an unforgiving master. 3.) The play lacks eloquence in the same way that infants lack eloquence.
It is also Shakespeare’s most Aristotelian play, slavishly obeying, as it does, Aristotle’s unities of time and place. The entire comedy takes place uninterruptedly in the span of one day and unfolds at a frenetic velocity. Antipholus of Syracuse comes to Ephesus to find his brother and his mother. There, he is confused with Antipholus of Ephesus. Hilarity ensues.
The comedy has Plautine origins and perhaps owes some of its buffoonery to the Commedia dell’arte. The plot is largely derived from Plautus’s Amphitruo, where a master and his servant are locked out of the house while the wife entertains Jupiter and Mercury, disguised as her husband and his servant, respectively, and the Menaechmi, with its two sets of twins.
A second literary source is likely St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians. Ephesus was, at the time that St. Paul composed his epistle (circa 100 CE), in the thrall of Artemis (Diana, Goddess of the Hunt). Shakespeare’s audiences would not have been unaware of St. Paul’s condemnation of the witcheries of Ephesus. One can hear resonances of St. Paul’s apotropaisms in Antipholus of Syracuse’s words:
They say this town is full of cozenage; / As nimble jugglers that deceive the eye, / Dark-working sorcerers that change the mind, / Soul-killing witches that deform the body, / Disguised cheaters, prating mountebanks, / And many such-like liberties of sin [I:ii].
Shakespeare’s revision lent itself easily to stupid Broadway musicals and even sillier off-Broadway burlesques. The Digital Theatre recently performed a slaphappy version of the play for digital children, and that is the ideal public for this awful play. Add meows and barks and moos and other animal sounds and kitschy songs, and you have a farce.
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A question taxes first-time readers of the erroneous comedy: Why are both of the merchant’s sons given the same name, Antipholus? And why are their servants, who are also twins, given the same name, Dromio?
Aegeon, father to the Antipholuses, describes the event of his wife’s pregnancy and the double birth of his sons:
There had she not been long but she became / A joyful mother of two goodly sons; / And, which is strange, the one so like the other / As could not be distinguish’d but by names [I:i].
If the twins could only be distinguished by their names, why, then, are they both named Antipholus? One explanation is that they were given separate names, but were confused in the storm. Both parents took each twin for Antipholus and Dromio, respectively (what the “other” names are, we will never know).
However, this hypothesis falls to pieces when we consider Aemilia’s story in the one-scene fifth act. She claims that “rude fishermen” from Corinth took “Dromio” and her son from her. They were then brought to Ephesus by Duke Menaphon, uncle to Duke Solinus. “Antipholus of Ephesus” and “Dromio of Ephesus” were infants at the time of their separation from their mother. How, then, does Antipholus know that his name is “Antipholus”? And how does Dromio know that this name is “Dromio”?
There is an even more vexing improbability: Are we credulous enough to believe that both sets of twins would appear in the same town on the same day wearing exactly the same hairstyles and outfits?
Yet another taxing improbability: Antipholus of Syracuse has been searching the world for his brother and his mother. Surely Aegeon told Antipholus of Syracuse that his son is a twin. If the Ephesians greet Antipholus of Syracuse “as if [he] were their well-acquainted friend” [IV:iii], shouldn’t he have been able to figure out that his twin brother is in Ephesus?
The plot is so confusing that it might be helpful to list the confusions:
1.) In the marketplace, Antipholus of Syracuse mistakes Dromio of Ephesus for his own servant. The master asks the servant what the latter has done with his money. The Ephesian Dromio urges Antipholus of Syracuse to come home for dinner and is viciously beaten.
2.) Adriana, wife to Antipholus of Ephesus, accuses Antipholus of Syracuse of having “strumpeted” her. The Syracusan Antipholus is uncomprehending, having only been in Ephesus for two hours, and does not know who she is.
3.) Luciana, sister to Adriana, commands the Syracusan Dromio to bid the servants to set the table for dinner. Dromio of Syracuse, of course, has no idea what she means.
4.) Dromio of Syracuse locks out Antipholus of Ephesus (and his servant) from his own home.
5.) Luce (also known as “Nell”), wife to Dromio of Ephesus, mistakes Dromio of Syracuse for her husband.
6.) Luciana is courted by Antipholus of Syracuse. Luciana believes, mistakenly, that Adriana’s husband is flirting with her.
7.) Angelo, Ephesian merchant, gives a necklace to Antipholus of Syracuse, who accepts it with bemusement. Later, Angelo will demand payment for the necklace from Antipholus of Ephesus. Angelo, as it turns out, is in debt and in danger of being imprisoned for his debtorship. (Though “debtorship” does not appear in Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, it was used by George Meredith.)
8.) Aegeon mistakes his Ephesian son for the other, etc.
Ephesus is a town in which everyone is strange to Antipholus of Syracuse. Ephesus is a town in which Antipholus of Syracuse is a stranger to himself. Doubled, he does not know himself. The Comedy of Errors is a prototype to The Tempest: Both plays are about self-alienation and self-loss. Ephesus seems a magical land where no man is his own, where no woman is her own. The play hints at the impossibility of self-ownership and self-mastery:
He that commends me to mine own content / Commends me to the thing I cannot get. / I to the world am like a drop of water / That in the ocean seeks another drop, / Who, falling there to find his fellow forth, / Unseen, inquisitive, confounds himself. / So I, to find a mother and a brother, / In quest of them, unhappy, lose myself [I:ii].
One drop of water in the ocean in which he nearly drowned, Antipholus of Syracuse is neither unique nor the master of himself. This is why Adriana, the wife of his Ephesian double, asks him: “How comes it now, my husband, O, how comes it, / That thou art then estranged from thyself?” [II:ii].
The Comedy of Errors suggests that to be oneself is to be another person, that selfhood is not identity.
Is this why neither Antipholus of Ephesus nor Antipholus of Syracuse seem very happy to meet each other the end of play?
Dr. Joseph Suglia
On Nietzsche’s MORGENRÖTHE: GEDANKEN ÜBER DIE MORALISCHEN VORURTHEILE / DAYBREAK / DAYBREAK: THOUGHTS ON THE PREJUDICES OF MORALITY / DAWN OF THE DAY / THE DAWN / Friedrich Nietzsche DAYBREAK
by Joseph Suglia
“I advise you to cultivate that form of contempt which is called pity.”
—Joseph Conrad, Victory
M = Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; second edition: 1887). The numbers refer to the numbers of the paragraphs that are cited.
D = Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality, ed. Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter. Cambridge University Press, 1997. The numbers refer to the pages of the text.
Those who read Nietzsche in English translation have been lied to, deceived, seduced, hoodwinked by dishonest translators and commentators. My intention here will be twofold. First, to correct some of the horrifying misinterpretations in the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation of Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile (1881; 1887), entitled Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (first published in 1997). I will hose off the slime with which Nietzsche’s great book has been slathered and amplify what Nietzsche actually writes. This will not have been, then, an interpretation of Nietzsche’s Daybreak but an attempt to illuminate and magnify his writing so that it becomes more legible.
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Daybreak is Nietzsche’s inaugural attack on morality. The argument is not that human beings should be immoral but that they should be moral for different reasons than have been traditionally presented. His attack on morality is based on the critique of voluntarism (the theory of the free will) and the critique of altruism that was launched in Human, All-Too-Human (1878; 1880). The goal of Daybreak, as Nietzsche writes in the Preface to the 1887 edition, is to “undermine trust in morality” (Vetrauen zur Moral zu untergraben). Nietzsche does take pains to acknowledge that his own stance is self-contradictory, inasmuch as his critique of morality is itself “moral,” in a sense, coming, as it does, from an uncritical trust in rationality. The fact that Nietzsche cites Hegel approvingly in this regard shows us that Nietzsche exists in closer proximity to Hegel than is customarily acknowledged. Nietzsche uses the figure of the scorpion to describe this movement of turning-morality-against-itself ([der kritische Wille] gleich dem Skorpione, den Stachel in den eigenen Leib sticht [M Preface]), though I think a more felicitous figure would be that of the amphisbaena, a serpentine creature in Greek mythology that has two heads, one of which dangles at the tip of its tail and which can sometimes be seen biting the other head. Why? Free spirits are forever shedding their opinions, much in the way that the snake sloughs off its skin. All of Nietzsche’s writing is intentionally self-contradictory.
Morality is based on two false presuppositions: that human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them, and that human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.
The first false presupposition of morality: Human beings are self-conscious subjects who make their own choices, the sources of which are transparent to them.
We are not in control of what we think or what we feel. We are not in control of our minds because we are part of our minds. Our minds are more powerful than we are. Every conscious thought issues from the unconscious mind: “All of our so-called consciousness,” Nietzsche writes, is “a more or less fantastical commentary on an unknown, perhaps unknowable, yet felt text” (all unser sogenanntes Bewusstsein [ist] ein mehr oder weniger phantastischer Commentar über einen ungewussten, vielleicht unwissbaren, aber gefühlten Text) [M 119]. And all unconscious data is formed by our history, by our environment, by tradition, by mood, by our physiology, by our heredity (though Nietzsche did not live to see the discovery of genetics), not by some nonexistent “free will.” There can be no moral thinking or immoral thinking insofar as we are unconsciously compelled to think whatever we consciously think and are therefore not responsible for our thoughts. Morality implies responsibility—and if we are not responsible for what we think, consciously or unconsciously, how could we be held responsible for the alleged “morality” or the alleged “immorality” of our thoughts?
Consider the hypnagogic state—what the Italians call dormiveglia, that twilight between alertness and slumber. You are neither awake nor asleep. Your thoughts rush and gush. How could one be responsible for the rushing and gushing of thoughts when the mind is in this semi-conscious state? And if one is not responsible for such thoughts, for which thoughts is one responsible, and why?
If there is no freedom of thought (and there is none), there are no free actions, either. No actions are good or evil—for surely, goodness is voluntary goodness and evilness is voluntary evilness. People are neither voluntarily good nor voluntarily evil, which means that they are neither good nor evil. As a result, we should perhaps stop pouring people into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL and develop richer and more complex ways of evaluating human behavior.
If people are constrained to perform good deeds, then praise is never earned. The Australian taxi driver who returns $500,000 to the Japanese businessman who left the money in his cab does not deserve to be heroized. If people are constrained to perform bad deeds, then neither is punishment ever deserved. Criminals should be pathologized, for criminality is a pathology [M 202], not the result of sinfulness [M 208]. And why should anyone feel guilt or regret for something that one did? It makes as little sense to feel guilt or regret for something that you did not choose to do as it does for someone else to blame you or to praise you for what you did not choose to do.
The second false presupposition: Human beings are capable of selfless compassion for others, of other-directedness, of caring for other people without any reference to themselves.
Why does anyone behave morally to begin with? People are moral out of laziness, out of cowardice, out of convenience, out of submissiveness to tradition. Above all, they are moral out of the desire for self-satisfaction.
(Parenthetical remarks: All morality is arbitrary: Every age has a different sense of what is “good” or “evil,” what is blameworthy or praiseworthy [M 2]. The ancient Jews believed that wrath was a virtue (as evidenced by the Hebraic Bible); the ancient Greeks believed in the virtuousness of envy (as evidenced by Hellenic mythology) and of revenge (as evidenced by the Oresteia). Dissembling once counted as a virtue (as evidenced by Homer). The ancient Greeks despised pity (as evidenced by Aristotle) and hope (as evidenced by Hesiod) and praised shame (as evidenced by Plato). Our culture, by contrast, despises shame (consider the all-pervasive campaigns against shaming in our culture of timidity) and extols pity and hope (as evidenced by the 2008 presidential campaign) as virtues.)
Every human being is self-directed (though, as I have stated elsewhere, Nietzsche did not believe in a hypostatized or substantialized human self). Everything that you do, you do for your own benefit or pleasure, even if that pleasure is a dark pleasure or a negative pleasure or the pleasure that comes from denying oneself a pleasure. Compassion is selfish because life is selfish.
Despite what the editors of the Cambridge University Press translation write about him, Nietzsche never claims that there is such a thing as a “moral motive” or a “morally motivated action” (xxv).
The introduction to the Cambridge Daybreak is nameless. Who typed this text? It is impossible to say with conviction, though it was likely put together by Maudemarie Clark and Brian Leiter, the editors of the volume. If I had written such an atrocity, I would not have put my name on it, either.
The agenda of Clark and Leiter (I will assume that they are the writers of the introduction) is to turn Nietzsche into someone who believes that the human animal is a self-sacrificing animal that can be dedicated absolutely to “the Other.” As I will argue, Nietzsche is not suggesting that there are other-centered impulses, and he is hardly repudiating the necessary existence of egoistic instincts.
The passage that the editors make hash browns out of is Paragraph 103 (“Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit”; “There Are Two Kinds of People who Deny Morality”). The passage is worth citing in its entirety in German:
Es giebt zwei Arten von Leugnern der Sittlichkeit.—“Die Sittlichkeit leugnen”—das kann einmal heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Motive, welche die Menschen angeben, wirklich sie zu ihren Handlungen getrieben haben,—es ist also die Behauptung, dass die Sittlichkeit in Worten bestehe und zur groben und feinen Betrügerei (namentlich Selbstbetrügerei) der Menschen gehöre, und vielleicht gerade bei den durch Tugend Berühmtesten am meisten. Sodann kann es heissen: leugnen, dass die sittlichen Urtheile auf Wahrheiten beruhen. Hier wird zugegeben, dass sie Motive des Handelns wirklich sind, dass aber auf diese Weise Irrthümer, als Grund alles sittlichen Urtheilens, die Menschen zu ihren moralischen Handlungen treiben. Diess ist mein Gesichtspunct: doch möchte ich am wenigsten verkennen, dass in sehr vielen Fällen ein feines Misstrauen nach Art des ersten Gesichtspunctes, also im Geiste des La Rochefoucauld, auch im Rechte und jedenfalls vom höchsten allgemeinen Nutzen ist.—Ich leugne also die Sittlichkeit wie ich die Alchymie leugne, das heisst, ich leugne ihre Voraussetzungen: nicht aber, dass es Alchymisten gegeben hat, welche an diese Voraussetzungen glaubten und auf sie hin handelten.—Ich leugne auch die Unsittlichkeit: nicht, dass zahllose Menschen sich unsittlich fühlen, sondern dass es einen Grund in der Wahrheit giebt, sich so zu fühlen. Ich leugne nicht, wie sich von selber versteht—vorausgesetzt, dass ich kein Narr bin—, dass viele Handlungen, welche unsittlich heissen, zu vermeiden und zu bekämpfen sind; ebenfalls, dass viele, die sittlich heissen, zu thun und zu fördern sind, — aber ich meine: das Eine wie das Andere aus anderen Gründen, als bisher. Wir haben umzulernen, —um endlich, vielleicht sehr spät, noch mehr zu erreichen: umzufühlen.
There are those, Nietzsche tells us, who deny that anyone is capable of a moral motive. This first kind of philosopher (Lichtenberg, La Rochefoucauld, et al.) is opposed to those Pharisees whose morality lies in their words, not in their hands: the sanctimonious, the sophists, the takers, the verbalizers, the hypocrites. The second denier of morality denies that morality is based on objectively true presuppositions. This second category of philosopher understands that all morality is misbegotten. Nietzsche belongs to the second camp.
The editors are fond of the following sentence (rendered into English): “Here it will be conceded that the motives of action are real, but that it is errors which, as the basis of all moral judgment, drive them to their moral actions.” The editors assume that this sentence implies that Nietzsche believed that people can have good, moral intentions: In this passage, they write, Nietzsche “admits the existence of moral motivation” (xxvi). They think that Nietzsche is the precursor of Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas, that he is someone who has the greatest piety for the Thou or for the Other. When he wrote Human, All-Too-Human, then, Nietzsche was a sinner who thought that people were self-interested. Now, he undergoes an epiphany as he travels on the road to Damascus: “In Daybreak, by contrast, we can begin to see the shift in Nietzsche’s strategy: he explicitly raises the question about the value of unegoistic actions, at the same time that he begins to move away from the psychological egoism of Human All Too Human” [xxiv-xxv].
According to this (mis)interpretation, the Nietzsche of Daybreak has rejected Human, All-Too-Human, with its reduction of all altruism to human selfishness, in favor of an interpretation of morality that allows for moral impulsion. The editors call attention to “Daybreak’s [alleged] repudiation of the thoroughgoing psychological egoism of Human, All Too Human” [xxv]. In Daybreak, Nietzsche has seen the Light of Day: “The passage [cited above] thus functions to separate Nietzsche’s new position from his earlier one: he no longer denies the existence of morally motivated actions, but claims instead that these actions, when they occur, are based on erroneous presuppositions” (xxv).
This is nonsense. Even worse, it goes against the thrust and tenor of Nietzschean thought. It violates the grain of the text. Nietzsche wants us to undeceive ourselves of the false assumption of “moral motives.” He wants us to think in luculent manner. He wants a world that is unalloyed by the false presupposition that moral intentions are possible.
The correct interpretation of the passage cited above is as follows: Human beings might believe that they have moral impulses that entrain them to perform moral actions, but nowhere in Daybreak does Nietzsche write that their moral motives are anything other than modes of self-deception.
Nietzsche writes (to translate): “I also deny morality: [I do not deny] that innumerable human beings feel themselves to be immoral, but [I do deny] that there is any ground in truth for them to feel this way.”
The most important word in this regard is fühlen (“to feel”). Human beings feel themselves to be immoral or moral, but this does not mean that they are immoral or moral. To turn to the alchemy metaphor: There are those who identify themselves as alchemists, but this does not mean that alchemy is anything other than a quack pseudo-science or that alchemists are anything other than quackpots. Many human beings feel that they are performing moral actions, but do I really need to write that the feeling that one is performing a moral action is not the same thing as a genuinely moral intention? Human beings might feel that they are self-responsible moral agents who are morally impelled to perform moral actions, but they are being self-deceptive in having such feelings. They might explain to themselves that they are moral beings, but this does not mean that they are moral! The unconscious impulse behind their “moral intentions” is always, for Nietzsche, selfishness.
The writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do not separate consciousness from the unconscious mind, even though Nietzsche consistently does precisely this, especially in the passage in which he affirms the “non-knowledge of the self” (Das, was den Menchen so schwer zu begreifen fällt, ist ihre Unwissenheit über sich selbst) [M 116]. The idea of “moral intentions” becomes questionable when we consider the unreadability of the self to itself. Sadly, the editors seem to have forgotten the sentence of Nietzsche in which he declares that moral actions are never what they appear to be to the subject who performs them: Die Handlungen sind niemals Das, als was sie uns erscheinen! [Ibid.]. We are not what we appear to be to ourselves, never mind how we appear to other human beings. “We are strangers to ourselves”: This is the premise of Toward the Genealogy of Morals. The core of the human animal is unknown and unknowable to that same animal. What distinguishes us from all of the other animals is that our essence is unknown and unknowable to us—this insight made Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis possible. If one does not understand these points, one does not understand Nietzsche.
The other person is unknowable to us, moreover, except insofar as he or she leaves an impression on us: Wir begreifen Nichts von [dem Nächsten], als die Veränderungen an uns, deren Ursache er ist [M 118]. Other people will attempt to leave imprints upon you, as if you were a ball of wax—and yet you will know nothing of them other than the psychic impressions that they leave upon you. We can neither say that the other human being is “good” or “evil” in himself or in herself. “Good” or “evil” are names, labels, deictic markers that we attach to the other human being. A person is nominated as “good” inasmuch as s/he pleases us; a person is nominated as “evil” inasmuch as s/he displeases us. And yet this person is neither good nor evil in him- or herself. In this fashion, Nietzsche moves away from Stirner, who some think of as Nietzsche’s predecessor. The Stirnerian moral-ego system is one in which what pleases me is right and what displeases me is wrong. We know from Iva Overbeck that Nietzsche read Stirner (cf. Conversations with Nietzsche, ed. Sander L. Gilman, pages 113-114): Here he is moving beyond the naivety of Stirner and not defining “good” as that which is good to me, nor is he defining “evil” as that which is evil to me. Both “good” and “evil” are mystifications, abstractions, and misinterpretations of the human mind.
Clark and Leiter do not seem to be conscious of Paragraph 148, wherein Nietzsche asserts that there are no moral actions, if morality means “other-centeredness.” The moral intentions behind such actions would be other-centered, as well. We never do anything purely for the other person or without self-interest, and our will is constrained by mood, by the unconscious, by degrees of sickness, by degrees of health and the feeling of well-being, by our memory of the past, by hunger, and/or by the need to urinate.
In an unpublished fragment from the summer of 1880—which, as far as I know, has never before been rendered into English—Nietzsche writes:
“Will to urinate,” that means: There is, first of all, a pressure and a compulsion; secondly, a medium through which to release oneself; thirdly, a habit to be exercised, after it has been given from the intellect to the hand. In itself, the pressure or compulsion has nothing to do with the alleviation of the bladder: It does not say, “I want.” It says, rather, “I suffer” [translation mine].
Let me make a simple remark that every child could understand: Although one might choose when to urinate, no one chooses whether to urinate. And the discomfiting and discomforting need to urinate can shape one’s decision-making process, perturb one’s attention, and determine one’s words and actions. The insistent and persistent existence of the need to urinate in itself invalidates the hypothesis of the free will, for who has absolute power over urination? One has no more control over one’s thoughts as one has control over whether or not one has the need to urinate. If the need to urinate were subject to some “free will,” wouldn’t most people have willed away or scheduled their micturition sessions?
Furthermore: If he admits “the existence of moral motivation” [xxvi] in Daybreak, why are all of Nietzsche’s examples of moral actions examples of egoic, self-interested behavior, of extreme vaingloriousness, of vanity? There is the nun who flaunts her chastity in order to punish fleshlier women with the image of her stern and proud virginity, her freedom from the desire for a man’s touch, her austere holiness: Die Keuschheit der Nonne: mit welchen strafenden Augen sieht sie in das Gesicht anderslebender Frauen! wie viel Lust der Rache ist in diesen Augen! [M 30]. There is the artist who declares his greatness and champions his excellence in order to excite envy in his contemporaries: Dort steht ein grosser Künstler: die vorempfundene Wollust am Neide bezwungener Nebenbuhler hat seine Kraft nicht schlafen lassen, bis dass er gross geworden ist, —wie viele bittere Augenblicke anderer Seelen hat er sich für das Grosswerden zahlen lassen! [Ibid.]. If I may submit an example that Nietzsche does not give: The man who gives money to a beggar does so not out the desire to help the beggar, but out of the desire to feel superior to the beggar and out of the desire to advertise his superiority over the beggar—though, as Nietzsche points out in this very book, he will become irritated afterward for having done so, as he would have been irritated for not having done so. In each case, the striving for distinction (Streben nach Auszeichnung) [M 113] is at the same time the striving to dominate another person—it is not an isolating experience, though it ends in a self-relation. The moralist attempts to annihilate the other human being by the assertion one’s superiority and then attempts to recuperate oneself through this annihilation. One injures the other in order to injure oneself—and then triumphs over both pity for the person one injured and over self-pity in order to exuberate and luxuriate in the feeling of one’s own power. Such is the magnetic glory of the martyr.
Not only is absolute other-directed agape love for the other human being impossible; it would not even desirable if it were to be universalized [M 143]: It would create a nightmare world in which everyone fervently loved everyone else, a frenzy of mass-love that would inexorably lead the beloved to languish for lovelessness [M 147].
(Parenthetical remarks: What good is a virtue if it cannot be displayed? Why be virtuous at all if one cannot delight in dramatizing virtues in front of an audience for the sake of their approbation? Today, people call this (too often, for my taste) “virtue signaling”: Was nützte eine Tugend, die man nicht zeigen konnte oder die sich nicht zeigen verstand! [M 29]. And yet there is a darker side to the performance of one’s moral uprightness. Morality is cruelty. It is an attempt to inflict misery and the perception of one’s own superiority on another: Man will machen, dass unser Anblick dem Anderen wehe thun und seinen Neid, das Gefühl der Ohnmacht und seines Herabsinkens wecke [M 30]. Moralistic language is the perfect license for a mean-spirited person to release his or her pent-up aggressions upon another—consider the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Baader-Meinhof Group or the Antifa protesters for relatively recent and recent examples of this.)
The reflection on pity (Mitleid) is inarguably the center of Daybreak. If this is true (and it is), then how could one claim, as the writers of the introduction to the Cambridge University Press translation do, that Nietzsche believes in selfless motives?
Pity is the affect of morality, not respect (Achtung), as it is for Kant. This allows Nietzsche to show the sadism and the lust for power that lies at the foundation of all morality. Pity implies a relation to transcendence—not the transcendence of God or of a supersensible morality but the surpassing power and dominance of the one who pities. It is always possible to withhold pity. If it is always possible to withhold pity, then we are exercising power over the piteous. If we want to feel our power, we can either withhold our pity or threaten to withhold our pity. One pities dogs, one pities cats, one pities university professors—creatures to which one feels oneself superior. If we see someone drowning and have the power to save his life, we might save him out of pity—but this is selfishness and a counterstrike against one’s own feeling of fragility and powerlessness [M 133]. Pity potentiates the one who feels pity.
There can be no rivalry where there is pity—Nietzsche almost writes this. An enemy is an equal—one does not pity one’s enemies. If you want a rivalry to end, pity your enemy. This does not imply that pity equalizes or levels the distinction between the one who is piteous and the one who is pitiable but rather that it introduces an unsurpassable distance between the one who pities and the one who is pitied, between the one who has the power to dispense pity and the pitiable.
Nietzsche enjoins us to “Wake up!” (Wachen wir auf!) [M 464]. We should awaken from our intellectual benightedness into intellectual enlightenment—Daybreak is a text that belongs to the European Aufklärung. We should move from the dreamfulness of morality, religion, and metaphysics to the wakefulness, to the awakeness, of rationality.
The title, Daybreak, alludes to the dawning of a world in which humanity will be undarkened by morality, religion, and metaphysics. Nietzsche enjoins us to disencumber ourselves of all of these things, to pierce the encrustation of moral, religious, and metaphysical prejudices. It will be a world in which no one believes in any beyond, in any otherworldly transcendence. Human life will become at long last meaningful when our successors recognize that there is no reason for them to judge one another or themselves, that they are fundamentally innocent. (There is no reason to judge what is involuntary. The free spirit believes in the innocence of all opinions, as s/he believes in the innocence of all actions [M 56].) It will be a world in which polyamory will replace monogamy, a world in which suicide will not be criminalized or moralistically condemned, a world in which criminals will be permitted to choose their own forms of containment [M 187], a world in which the criminal-justice system will be founded on the idea of deterrence and rehabilitation, not punishment, a world in which no one will be considered guilty of anything, a world in which no one will be considered responsible for anything that one does, a world in which it will be generally recognized that all human thought and action is necessary and beyond one’s conscious control. It will also be a place of regular gymnastic exercise, if we believe the Nietzsche of Human, All-Too-Human. Much like the future that is evoked within the pages of the greatest of all Nietzschean novels, The Rainbow by D.H. Lawrence, the future in which all of this would take place is heralded yet never directly shown. Its promise is described purely negatively. What will this world look like? Nietzsche never tells us. Nietzsche (and Lawrence) criticizes the conditions of the modern world and opens the doors to an extra-moral, extra-religious, and extra-metaphysical future without ever being explicit in his vaticinations.
To return to the second paragraph of this commentary: Nietzsche does not advise us to be immoral; rather, he advises us to be moral out of different reasons than out of deference to a convention or belief in the supernatural. We should become the self-legislators of morality—and if this means endorsing polyamory, suicide, and revenge, so be it. Let us no longer be camels (moral agents), to forecast the language of Also Sprach Zarathustra. Let us become lions (critics of morality), and thereafter we shall transform into children (inventors of a morality of irresponsibility and a morality of innocence). It is time, and high time indeed, to rethink, to accept, to refuse to condemn impulses that are unavoidably human (envy, covetousness, disobedience). Then, perhaps we would do what comes naturally without a bad conscience, as Nietzsche writes: Wenn der Mensch hört auf, sich für böse zu halten, hört er auf, böse zu sein [M 148]. He exhorts us to praise egoic actions and to devalue the so-called “selfless actions” until things balance out.
Nietzsche replaces good and evil with gradations of power. All is power. (This is a flaw in Nietzschean thought: If everything is power, then nothing is power. Nietzsche’s power-absolutism leads him to tautologous formulations.) Everything can be understood in terms of relativities of power (this is a point that Nietzsche will enlarge upon in the Nachlass): Every human being has the desire for dominance over all other human beings. And what better way of dominating another human being than by flaunting one’s moral superiority? Every human being has the desire to become God.
“Love always occurs beyond good and evil,” Nietzsche will write in Beyond Good and Evil: He means self-love, which eradicates Christian guilt. Remember that pride is the deadliest sin. Self-love exists outside of the categories of sin and redemption. Another way of saying this: The one who loves himself or herself has no need of Christianity.
One of Nietzsche’s Mistakes
Nietzsche appears to believe that credo quia absurdum est (“I believe it because it is absurd”) is the motto of the Catholic Church. And yet this statement was never made by Tertullian or by any of the Church Fathers. Tertullian writes, rather, credibile est, quia ineptum est (“It is credible because it is inept”). As always, when Nietzsche makes an error, it is a productive error.
Aphorisms Inspired by Nietzsche’s Morgenröthe: Gedanken über die moralischen Vorurtheile
Prospective suicides will not commit the act, if they think that no one will care.
Words are not solutions; they are problems.
If you want your rivalry with someone else to end, pity your rival.
There can be no rivalry where there is pity for the rival.
Steve Harvey and Dennis Prager believe in the existence of objective morality because they have the emotional need to believe this—as if their self-preservation were something essential.
Saving a drowning man presents one with an advantageable situation: It allows the rescuer to be worshipped as a hero.
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATISM: 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 (including 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. It is a politics that is contemptuous of democracy.
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 has been raised twenty-five cents to a grudging $8.85 in the year in which I am revising this essay, 2019).
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 in the Roman-Volscian war, 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 the patricians—to the wealthy, the poor 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 (else?), 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 is 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 Volumnia.
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 psychodynamic dimensions 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 the 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.) As far as I can tell, 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 four words that “trigger” Coriolanus, and they are kindly, 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 Timon of Athens 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.
Two figures run throughout the play: the figure of eating-the-poor and the figure of being-eaten-by-the-poor. The second appears at the close of the play, wherein Martius is devoured by the mob. At the climax, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich. Both figures nourish my suspicion that politics is largely about food. Those who are more conservative want to hoard all the food for themselves; those who are more liberal want to distribute the food evenly. 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.