Caesar Anti-Trump / Shakespeare’s THE TRAGEDY OF JULIUS CAESAR / JULIUS CAESAR and Donald Trump

 

Caesar Anti-Trump

by Joseph Suglia

 

“Nackt kann die Wahrheit vor dem Volke nicht erscheinen.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, Zweiter Band, Kapitel 17

 

The election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America gives further evidence, if needed, that Americans wish to be led by cartoon characters.  It was not Trump the human being who acceded to the presidency.  It was his screen double, which is all the American electorate has ever known of him.  It was Trump the Rich Man of Home Alone 2: Lost in New York (1992).  It was Trump the Boss of The Apprentice (2004-2015).  It was Trump the Billionaire of Wrestlemania 23 (2007).  Donald Trump is every bit as unreal as Flo the Progressive Insurance Girl or Colonel Sanders—all three of these characters are strategic unrealities.  All are holograms, shadows of living beings rather than living beings themselves.  They are not human beings; they are human seemings.

Since the accession of Trump to the presidency, there have been multiple stagings, visualizations, stylings, dramatizations of the decapitation and even of the assassination of the forty-fifth President of the United States.  Such simulated deaths must be understood not as calls to actually decapitate or to assassinate the living human leader–indeed, the leader of the world’s sole superpower–but rather as simulations of the death of a holographic projection, stylizations of the death of a clownish figure no more real than Donald Duck.  Trump belongs to Nineteen Eighties trash culture alongside other two-dimensional caricatures of human beings such as Rowdy Roddy Piper, Joe Piscopo, and Morton Downey, Jr.  If any of these characters had been assassinated, their deaths would seem as unreal as these figures themselves are.  One thinks of Hegel’s meditation on the derealization of death in the time of the French Revolution and wonders if Hegel’s remarks aren’t still as fresh as the paint on our computer screens: Death in the time of the French Revolution, Hegel writes, was the “coldest, shallowest of deaths, with no more significance than cleaving a cabbage head or swallowing a gulp of water.”

In J.G. Ballard’s great novel The Atrocity Exhibition, public figures such as Ronald Reagan and Jacqueline Onassis Kennedy are subjected to the morbid and sordid fantasies of the main character.  Since human beings are often dark creatures, their fantasies are often dark fantasies.  Why should Trump be immune from the processes of dark-fantasization and fetishization?  The imaginary assassinations of Donald Trump are simulated assassinations of a character who is already a simulation.  The simulated deaths of Donald Trump are nothing more than the deaths of a simulation.  Donald Trump does not exist.  You cannot kill something that does not exist.  Just as money is the abstract representation of desire, Donald Trump is the abstract representation of a gatherer of abstract representations.  To become sentient of this simulation is to become something else: to become aware that what we are witnessing is a holographic image.

I will now turn to discuss the simulated assassinations of Donald Trump.  I am excluding from this discussion the real attempt on Trump’s life on 18 June 2016 by a young Briton, as well as the subornation of Trump’s murder by celebrities such as Johnny Depp (a Kentucky-born actor with an affected European accent) and Madonna, who are themselves also unrealities.

In a 2016 promotional video for his tenth studio album Heaven Upside Down (a much better title than Say10, the original name of the album), Marilyn Manson chimerized the decapitation of Donald Trump.  This is the first and most artful chimerical execution of the president.  The other representations of the assassination of Trump could safely be classified as agitprop or as artless publicity stunts.

In a video for the song “Lavender” by the Toronto-based electronic jazz band BadBadNotGood, Snoop Dogg (also known as “Snoop Lion” and “Snoopzilla”) can be seen mock-executing a clown who resembles Donald Trump.  Incredibly, Snoop once had a congenial relationship with Trump, who sang dithyrambs in his honor: “You know Snoop Dogg?  He’s the greatest.  One of the nation’s best-selling hip-hop artists.  And I’ll tell you what: He’s a great guy.  And he’s a lot different than you think.  You know, you think he’s a wild man?  He’s a very, very smart, tough businessman, in addition to being a great musician.”  The director of the video, professional YouTube videographer Jesse Wellens, was wise not to directly represent the execution of the president.

The most sanguinary simulation of the assassination of Donald Trump was performed by comedienne Kathy Griffin, who arranged a photograph of herself in which she raised a severed wax head that resembled the head of the Commander-in-Chief.  Her hair the same shade of red as the hair on the blood-bespattered head she holds aloft, her facial expression joyless, and her skin alabaster, she seems like a French revolutionary a few moments after the guillotine chops off the head of the monarch.  At the press conference which she must have anticipated, Griffin said tristfully, as if in explanation, “I’ve dealt with older white guys trying to keep me down my whole life, my whole career.”  One cannot suppress the question: Was she thinking of her father when she said this?  Did the disembodied wax head perhaps summon memories of her father?  Does she have a conscious or unconscious hatred for her father?  Her real father, John Patrick Griffin, died in 2007 of a heart failure at the age of ninety-one.  In any event, the performance piece was condemned by almost everyone on the Right and on the Left.  CNN announced that Griffin would not be invited back to host its annual New Year’s Eve program.  She was unwise to do worse what Marilyn Manson and Snoop Dogg did better.

Right-wing activists pretended to be scandalized by the 2017 open-air dramatization of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar by New York’s Public Theater.  During the performances, which took place in Central Park, Julius Caesar is dressed up as Donald Trump.  The fictionalized murder of this Caesar-Trump is nowhere near as bloody as it is alleged to have been by Plutarch in his Lives, where, it is written, the body of Caesar was mutilated, mangled, and hacked to pieces.  Plutarch even records that Caesar’s genitalia were stabbed.  On 17 June 2017, Laura Loomer—one of the video personalities of Rebel Media, the Canadian rightist video company—jumped on stage during a performance of the play while live-recording herself.  She screeched: “Stop the normalization of political violence against the Right!  This is unacceptable.  You cannot promote this kind of violence against Donald Trump.”  She was joined by Jack Posobiec, former Washington correspondent for Rebel Media, who bellowed: “You are all Goebbels!  You are all Nazis like Joseph Goebbels!  You are inciting terrorists!”  Goebbels, then, is equated to each spectator in the audience, in the same way that Trump is equated to Caesar.  One imagines a grid of 1,000 cultural references: An invisible line connects one point on the grid to another point on the grid.  The historical context of each point of reference is ignored.  History is neutralized, reduced to space.

By disturbing the performance of the play, both of these people resembled those whom the Right hates—those who commove performances and presentations.  How are they any different?  Even worse, they shattered the dramaturgical illusion that the architects and the performers of the play were struggling to create.  Loomer twittered about the incident breathlessly: “The moment I rushed the stage of Julius Caesar.  Listen to the violence and stabbing of ‘Trump’ that occurred right before.  It is revolting.”

Before I consider the question as to whether Shakespeare’s Caesar has anything in common with Donald Trump, I will turn my attention to the text of the play itself.

 

* * * * *

 

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (1599) is Shakespeare’s attempt to explain the motives behind the assassination of Caesar on the Ides of March in 44 B.C.E. and to show the baleful consequences that emerged from this assassination.  (The Ides of March: the fifteenth of March on the Roman calendar, the day of settling debts.  The day on which Caesar is forced to pay his debt to the conspirators.)  The play also passes judgment, I believe, on the conspiracy to assassinate the Roman leader.  In doing so, it passes judgment on all such plots to overthrow monarchies, dictatorships, and tyrannies.  It is the antithesis of Measure for Measure (circa 1603), Shakespeare’s most politically liberal play, and one almost as politically conservative as The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1605-1608), one of T.S. Eliot’s favorite works of literature.

When we hear of him in the first scene of the play, Caesar is fresh from destroying the sons of the previous emperor, Pompey, in the Battle of Munda, the last battle against the optimates of the old Roman Republic.  Caesar has been anointed the “perpetual dictator” of Rome, a dictator with no term limit.  He is slated to become king.  But there have been no kings in Rome, not since Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, and that was in 495 B.C.E., over four centuries ago, and most of the Roman senators and tribunes worry that Caesar will become overweeningly arrogant and sodden with his own godlike authority.  Above all, most of them envy Caesar.

The assassination of Caesar leads to self-assassinations, lynchings, pogroms, purges, and civil war.  The play culminates in a Jonestown-like mass suicide.  The same blade that Cassius stuck into the emperor is plunged into Cassius’s own torso.  He does so on his birthday.  The anniversary of the day of his nativity coincides with the day of his self-imposed death.  I cannot think of a clearer example of cosmic irony in Western literature than that of Cassius’s suicide—the fact that Cassius murders himself with the same blade that he sunk into the body of the Dear Leader.  Titinius follows him.  Brutus expires while exhaling Caesar’s name: “Caesar, now be still” [V:v].  Portia “swallows fire” [IV:iii], literally—a ghastly death that mirrors her husband’s inward bursting, his imploding.  She is burning up on the inside literally; her husband is disintegrating on the inside metaphorically.

The crowd turns mobbish, and mobbishness takes over Rome.  The mob tears an innocent man to pieces in the street (the Poet Cinna).  This scene (Act Three, Scene Three), which quickly moves from the comic to the hideous, recalls the opening moment of the play, in which a crowd of plebeians jeers at Flavius and Murellus, sneering tribunes of the people.  The point seems to be that democracy, when it uses antimonarchical means, is indistinguishable from ochlocracy.  The city descends into mob violence as the result of the antimonarchical violence of the conspirators.

Until tyranny takes hold once more.  Octavius, the new tyrant, and Antony are motivated not so much by revanchism, by the desire for righteous vengeance and for the restoration of the ancient regime, as by political ambition, or, what amounts to the same thing, the hatred of subjection.  Their “love of Caesar” is really a lust for power or is coterminous with the lust for power.  The senators fail at establishing a constitutional monarchy (assuming that this is what they desired to begin with).  Such the cosmic irony of the play: One tyrant replaces the other.

The reconstitution of tyranny is brought about by rhetoric—by swaying the crowd with words.  Rhetoric is the art of persuading people to do what you want them to do—not to do what you would do yourself.  Rhetoric is the art is the art of persuading people to believe what you want them to believe—not to believe what you believe yourself.

When Antony says that his heart is in the coffin with Caesar, this triggers an emotional response in the audience.  Brutus’s introductory speech is weak (it is logocentric).  Shakespeare intentionally writes it weakly.  Antony’s speech soars on the wings of pathopoeia (it is pathocentric) and thus throws the crowd into a frenzy.  A classic exercise in rhetoric, pathopoeia is an emotionally provocative speech or piece of writing, the content of which is insignificant.  It is not a speech in which the speaker cries, but a speech that makes the audience cry.  As such, it is pure manipulation: Notice that Brutus says things that he could not possibly know—for instance, where on the body each conspirator stabbed Julius.

The point seems to be that democracy fails.  Human beings are political animals, and the lust for power supersedes the humanistic and demotic impulses.  Only Brutus has a genuine love of humanity, and his role in the assassination of Caesar was motivated by a sincere desire to better the lives of the Roman people.  But he is presented as politically naïve.  The naïve, incautious idealist, he naïvely allows Mark Antony to speak to the crowd, which ends in Brutus, Cassius, and company being driven out of Rome.  Cassius, who is much shrewder politically (he is a Realpolitiker) and politically more mature, cautions Brutus against doing so.  Indeed, Cassius recommends that Antony be slaughtered along with Caesar, and Cassius knows well that slicing Antony’s throat open would have saved him and his brother-in-law from their fates.  “This tongue had not offended so today,” Cassius says sneeringly to Antony, “[i]f Cassius might have ruled” [V:i].  And yet Cassius is willing to give Antony political power after the assassination is done: “Your voice shall be as strong as any man’s / In the disposing of new dignities” [III:i].

Misinterpretations surround the execution of Caesar: Not only does Brutus catastrophically underestimate Antony; Antony underestimates Cassius [I:ii].  Cassius, in turn, misapprehends Titinius, which leads to Cassius’s self-murder, and Caesar, of course, underestimates those he calls his friends.  He ignores the warnings of Calphurnia, the Soothsayer, and Artemidorus.

This leads one to wonder if Brutus did not overestimate the tyrannical nature of Caesar.  The entire argument for Caesar’s assassination is based on a surmise, a conjecture, a speculation: “So Caesar may. / Then lest he may, prevent” [II:i].  Epexegesis: In other words, Caesar might become an unbearable tyrant; therefore, he will become an unbearable tyrant.  The justification after the deed: Caesar would have become an intolerable tyrant, if he were allowed to live.  One is reminded of the question asked in Stephen King’s The Dead Zone: “If you could go back in time to Germany, before Hitler came to power, knowing what you know now, would you kill him?”  Many would answer, “Yes.”  Yet the argument that Caesar would have become a brutal tyrant and the Romans would have become slaves is a specious one.

It is the Iago-like Cassius who seduces Brutus into murdering Caesar in a way that is similar to the way in which Iago inveigled Othello into committing uxoricide.  Cassius presents himself as Brutus’s own “glass” [I:ii], as both the mirror and the image that appears within the mirror, as the speculum and his specular image, as his replica, as his double, as his simulation, as the reflective surface by which Brutus is able to see himself—as the only means by which Brutus is able to see himself—and as his own reflection.  Cassius imposes upon Brutus’s mind the plan to commit tyrannicide.  He insinuates his own thoughts into the mind of Brutus.

(Let me remark parenthetically that Cassius even sounds like Iago.  His “If I were Brutus now, and he were Cassius, / He should not humour me” [I:ii] proleptically anticipates Iago’s “Were I the Moor, I would not be Iago.”  The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice will be written five years later.)

Brutus has a divided self.  A fractured self.  On the one hand, he has genuine affection for Caesar; on the other, a ghostly, anonymous, impersonal voice has colonized his mind and is commanding him to kill a man toward whom he bears no ill will: “[F]or my part, / I know no personal cause to spurn at him / But for the general” [II:i].  From an external perspective, he is a freedom fighter who believes that a constitutional monarchy would be better for the Roman people than a tyranny—but this idea is not his own and does not correspond to his feelings.  This self-division would explain why Brutus, with a guilty conscience, proposes to carve up Caesar’s body as if it were a feast for the gods rather than hew his body as if it were a meal for the hounds [II:i].  But what is the difference, ultimately?  Killing is killing, knifing is knifing, hacking is hacking, shanking is shanking.

Shakespeare teaches us, around the same time that he begins work on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that there is no such thing as a unified personality—that every subjectivity is fractured and complexly self-contradictory and self-contradictorily complex.  Indeed, Brutus’s soliloquy is the precursor to Hamlet’s more famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy.  Whether or not to kill himself is not yet the question; the question is whether or not to kill Caesar.  Rather than ask “To be or not to be,” Brutus asks, in effect, “Should Caesar be, or should Caesar no longer be?”  Brutus’s “[T]here’s the question” [II:i] forecasts Hamlet’s “That is the question.”  Brutus, as the proto-Hamlet, is speaker and listener at the same time.  He affects himself.

No wonder that Portia, Brutus’s wife, gives herself a “voluntary wound” in the thigh [II:i].  She is mutilating herself literally, whereas Brutus is mutilating himself metaphorically.  She is a cutter, but so is Brutus.  Her self-cutting mirrors his self-cutting.  It is disappointing that this scene was cut from the 1953 and 1970 film versions of the play.

No wonder that Brutus will suppress his feelings for his wife after she kills herself: “Speak no more of her” [IV:iii], he says with mock coldness to Cassius.  He suppresses his feelings for the emperor, after all.  But this does not mean that Brutus is cold-blooded; far from it.  I believe Brutus when he says to Portia that she is as “dear to [him] as are the ruddy drops / [t]hat visit [his] sad heart” [II:i].  He is a Roman Stoic (with Platonist leanings), and Stoics do not betray their feelings—another sign that Brutus is divided against himself.

Not merely is Brutus divided into warring factions; Rome is divided into warring factions.  When Brutus says in Act Two, Scene One that “the state of man” is suffering “the nature of an insurrection,” he is referring both to himself and to Rome.  Two acts later: As the conspirators run for their lives and fight from the outside, Octavius, the adopted son of Caesar, comes to Rome, and Mark Antony, Octavius, and Lepidus form an unholy triumvirate and will divide the spoils among them after the defeat of their enemies.  “Happy day,” indeed [V:v]!  It is clear that Antony is planning to kill Lepidus once Lepidus has stopped being useful to him.  He expends more words on his horse and on asinine and equine similes than he does on the serviceable Lepidus himself:

Octavius, I have seen more days than you; / And though we lay these honours on this man / To ease ourselves of diverse slanderous loads, / He shall but bear them as the ass bears gold, / To groan and sweat under the business, / Either led or driven, as we point the way: / And having brought our treasure where we will, / Then take we down his load and turn him off, / Like to the empty ass, to shake his ears / And graze in commons…  Do not talk of him / But as a property [IV:i].

Not only that: Antony threatens to curtail the benefits to the Roman people that were promised in Caesar’s will (a stimulus package for every Roman, access to Caesar’s once-private gardens and orchards)—the promise of these benefits ferments and foments the crowd, turning the crowd into a mob.  (The word mob comes from the Latin mobilis, which means “movable,” and is etymologically connected to the words mobile and mobilize.  A mob is a crowd in action.)  Antony says to Octavius and Lepidus: “[W]e shall determine / How to cut off some charge in legacies” [IV:i].  In other words, we will reduce the number of drachmas that every Roman was promised and perhaps repossess the gardens and orchards that we promised them, as well.

Within the factions, there are factions: Cassius and Brutus squabble as if they were fractious luchadores in the third scene of the fourth act.  Mark Antony and Octavius disagree on who should move to the left in the first scene of the fifth act:

ANTONY: Octavius, lead your battle softly on, / Upon the left hand of the even field.

OCTAVIUS: Upon the right hand I.  Keep thou the left.

ANTONY: Why do you cross me in this exigent?

OCTAVIUS: I do not cross you: but I will do so.

Let us not forget the intrusions of the supernatural / the intimations of the supernatural: The lioness that whelps in the street [II:ii].  The graves that yawn and yield up their dead [II:ii].  The nightbird that hoots and shrieks at noon in the marketplace [I:iii].  (Why no filmmaker, as far as I know, has represented these oneiric images is a mystery to me.)  The lightning storms that frame the conspiracy to dispatch Caesar—in the third scene of the first act and in the second scene of the second act.  Calphurnia listens to the thunder and studies the lightning and interprets these as fatidic signs, as if she were a ceraunomancer (someone who divines supernatural or transcendent meaning from the heavens) [II:ii].  Cassius is a ceraunologist (someone who poetically or pseudoscientifically compares the movements of the heavens with worldly events): He sees the “dreadful night / [t]hat thunders, lightens, opens graves and roars” [I:iii] as the celestial complement to Caesar’s unnamed worldly violence.  The ghosts, the supernaturalized beasts, the signs of the heavens that are interpreted as wonders or metaphors: The point of the supernatural is to call into question the tyrannicide.

The self-murder, the military violence, the mobbishness, the madness, the pandemonium, the infantile squabbling, the familial betrayals, the portents, the interference of the supernatural—all of this issues from the killing of Caesar or from the conspiracy to kill Caesar.  All of these are symptoms of a disease brought on by the pathogenic act of violence against the emperor.  Shakespeare would seem to agree with Goethe, who claimed that the murder of Caesar is “the most absurd act that ever was committed”; for Goethe, this act proved that even the best of the Romans did not understand what government is for (Nachgelassene Werke, xiii, p. 68).  Seen from this perspective, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is a politically reactionary play, one that justifies authoritarian dictatorship, if not outright tyranny.  Again, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is one of Shakespeare’s most politically conservative plays, second only to The Tragedy of Coriolanus, one of the most reactionary plays ever written.

If the play is politically ambiguous (neither endorsing statism nor rejecting it), then why do we see so little evidence of Caesar’s unbearable tyranny?  The play shows us more instances of Caesar’s feebleness than of his tyrannousness (all in the second scene of the first act): Caesar’s epileptic fit in the marketplace, his poor hearing, his feverishness in Spain, his near-drowning in the Tiber.  Save for the sole instance of the banishment of Publius Cimber, there is no evidence that Caesar is oppressive.  There is much more evidence that the play condemns the assassination of Caesar than there is evidence that the play takes a neutral stance on the assassination.  Indeed, one could write, without fear of repudiation, that the play takes a stand against the assassination of Julius Caesar—and thus, a stand against the overthrow of authoritarian dictatorships.

Despite its title, The Tragedy of Julius Caesar is not the tragedy of Julius Caesar.  (Nietzsche knew well that the play was given the wrong title.  See The Gay Science, Paragraph 98.)  Caesar only has 130 lines and, in spite of what Whoopi Goldberg claims, does not die at the end of the play, but in the middle.  The execution of Caesar divides the text into two parts: the first deals with the motives behind the deed; the second deals with its consequences.  It is the tragedy not of Caesar, but of Brutus, whose desires are not his own and who is not his own.

 

* * * * *

 

The Tragedy of Julius Caesar anticipates its reception by future audiences.  Like the atrociously underrated Troilus and Cressida (1602), characters are conscious that they are the unreal representations of real historical human beings.  In Troilus and Cressida, Achilles spreads the fake news that “Achilles hath the mighty Hector slain,” and the reader / the spectator gets the impression that Achilles is aware that the legend will be printed and become historical.  In Julius Caesar, characters (Cassius and Brutus) are conscious that the play will be performed for centuries after the death of their author in countless different languages.  Cassius: “How many ages hence / Shall this our lofty scene be acted over / In states unborn and accents yet unknown?” [III:i].  And why else would Julius’s final words be retained, untranslated, in the original Latin?  The characters look backward into the dizzying abyss of history.

Did Shakespeare ever anticipate that Caesar would be costumed as a buffoon?

To return to the Central Park staging of Julius Caesar: There are at least three reasons why Caesar has nothing in common with Trump.

 

Reason One: Trump panders, but does not debase himself

Caesar debases himself at Lupercalia, the Festival of the Wolf, by refusing a crown that is offered to him three times and—after swooning, foaming at the mouth, and falling in the public square—by begging “wenches” in the street for forgiveness [I:ii].  (Lupercalia took place on 15 February on the Roman calendar and celebrated Lupa, the lactating Wolf Goddess who suckled Romulus and Remus in the cave of Lupercal, and the Goat God Lupercus, the God of Shepherds.)  But his self-debasement is staged.  It is the staged inversion of relations between the powerful and the powerless.  It is not genuine, sincere self-mortification.  His repeated refusal of the crown, in particular, is what rhetoricians call accismus: the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired.

Caesar is beloved of the people (we see this in the first scene of the play).  There is no question that Caesar was friendlier to the people than his predecessor, Pompey.  According to Suetonius, Caesar supported the plebeians and the tribunes, who represented the interests of the people.  Caesar endorsed the redistribution of land and opposed the optimates, who wanted to limit the power of the plebeians.  He was called a popularis for a reason.  Pompey, on the other hand, favored a much stricter authoritarian rule.

Trump styled himself as a populist political candidate, and this no doubt contributed to his triumph over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the establishment Democratic candidate, in November 2016.  Is Trump, then, a man of the people in the way that Caesar was a man of the people?

Trump’s language is the language of the people—of inarticulate, slow-witted people.  His grammatical skills are those of an unremarkable eleven-year-old boy, according to a 2016 study conducted by Carnegie Mellon University.  He used a relatively sophisticated language in the 1980s and 1990s, however.  Many of his sentences had an admirable rotundity—for instance, “It could have been a contentious route” and “These are the only casinos in the United States that are so rated” (qtd. in Sharon Begley, “Trump wasn’t always so linguistically challenged. What could explain the change?” STAT, 23 May 2017).  While campaigning for the presidency, his verbal skills appeared to decompose.  On 30 December 2015, Trump peacocked to a South Carolinian crowd: “I’m very highly educated.  I know words.  I know the best words.”  He might have dumbed down his language for purely political reasons, for purely demotic purposes.  This has the effect of flattering those with low linguistic skills.

Dumbing down, however, is not self-abasement.  Trump never speaks in a self-deprecating manner.  He never displays the false humility of Caesar.  Trump reflects the vulgarity, the vaingloriousness, the cupidity, and the rapacity of the crowd.  He is endlessly trumpeting his own excellence.  He does not debase himself.  He represents himself as someone who demands that his glistening manliness be acknowledged and respected.

 

Reason Two: Trump is not constant

Caesar is nothing if not pertinacious.  Trump is nothing if not inconstant.

Caesar holds on to his decision to banish Publius Cimber, despite the senators’ entreaties to rescind his banishment.  He is as “constant as the northern star” [III:i].  Suetonius praised Caesar for his steadfastness.

Trump, on the other hand, is a syrupy waffle.  He has waffled on the travel ban and on the unbuilt Mexico-American Wall.  Incidentally, Trump loves waffles “when they’re done properly with butter and syrup.”  He rhapsodized: “There’s nothing better than properly done waffles with butter and syrup all over them.”

 

Reason Three: Trump is the betrayer, not the betrayed

Julius Caesar was betrayed by his intimates, even by his favorite, Brutus.  Though I cannot find the source of this citation, I remember reading a saying attributed to Caesar: “Against my enemies my guards can protect me; against my friends, they can do nothing.”  This saying has been repeated, without acknowledgement, by Voltaire (“Let God defend me from my friends; I can defend myself from my enemies”) and Charlotte Brontë: “I can be on guard against my enemies, but God deliver me from my friends!”

Trump, on the other hand, has betrayed members of his inner circle—Sean Spicer, Anthony Scaramucci, James Comey, Sally Yates, Paul Manafort, Steve Bannon—in a series of Night of the Long Knives-style purges.  One thinks of The Apprentice’s slogan and mantra: “You’re fired.”  I am revising this essay on 12 May 2019.  Who else in his administration will Trump have fired, what other faux-resignations will be announced, by the time you read my words?

Trump shares nothing with the Julius Caesar of Shakespeare.  There is nothing wrong with contemporizing art—I myself have done this with Hedda Gabler—but there must be reasons for specific contemporizations.  Those who believe that Julius Caesar can be reasonably dressed up as Donald Trump are the same people who think that a text-message Hamlet or a dubstep Macbeth is a good idea.  I have descanted at length on the play’s political stance: If the staging equates Trump to Caesar, then Trump is exonerated by the production.  The Central Park performance of the play unintentionally defends Trump.

Consumer culture idolizes the ordinary.  To use Adorno and Horkheimer’s language in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, the trumpery of the culture industry “heroizes the average.”  In this culture, which is gradually becoming the only culture on the Planet Earth, untalented filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino are hailed as geniuses, whereas visionaries such as Michelangelo Antonioni are written off as boring.  Incompetent writers such as David Foster Wallace are lionized, while truly great writers such as James Joyce are blithely dismissed as “pretentious.”  Along the same lines: Trump is screened through Shakespeare not because Shakespeare represents the highest values and Trump represents the lowest values, but because the highest values have no meaning in a culture in which the low trumps the high.  In the Central Park staging of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, Trump is vaunted to the heights of Shakespeare; Shakespeare is dumbed down to the status of Trump.  Why is this?  In consumer culture, what is low is elevated and what is high is degraded.

Joseph Suglia

 

 

 

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Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS / An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS by Shakespeare / Shakespeare’s THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS: An Interpretation / Commentary on CORIOLANUS (Shakespeare) / Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS: An Analysis

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.

 

DISMEMBERMENT

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.

Joseph Suglia