Oe of the most popular of the ancient historians was Plutarch, a Greek who was born in Chaeronea, a town about sixty miles northwest of Athens, in a.d. 46. In his time, Greece had long passed the days of its military splendor and was utterly dominated by Rome, then at the very height of its empire.
Anxious to remind the Romans (and Greeks too) of what the Greeks had once been, Plutarch wrote a series of short biographies about a.d. 100 in which he dealt with men in pairs, one Greek and one Roman, the two being compared and contrasted. Thus, Theseus (see page I-18), the legendary unifier of the Attic peninsula under Athens, was paired with Romulus, the legendary founder of Rome. For this reason, the book is commonly called The Parallel Lives. Plutarch's style is so pleasing that his book, with its gossipy stories about great historical figures, has remained popular ever since.
It was put into English in 1579 (from a French version) by Sir Thomas North, who did it so well that his book turned out to be one of the prose masterpieces of the Elizabethan Age. Shakespeare read it and used it as the basis for three of his plays. He paid the translation the ultimate compliment of scarcely changing its words in some cases. They made almost perfect blank verse as they stood.
Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus about 1608 and it was the last of his three Plutarchian plays. Its subject matter was, however, the earliest in time, so I am placing it first.
The action opens in 494 b.c. (according to legend), only fifteen years after the rape of Lucrece, the expulsion of the Tarquins, and the establishment of the Republic by Brutus (see page I-211). The events described in the play are therefore of extremely dubious value historically, for they take place a century before the destruction of the Roman annals by the Gallic invaders (see page I-204).
Nevertheless, with Plutarch's guidance, Shakespeare can draw upon a complete and interesting story, though perhaps one that is too romantic to sound completely true.
… to die than to famish
Coriolanus opens in the streets of Rome, with citizens hurrying onstage in a fever of agitation, carrying weapons. Some crisis is taking place and the men are desperate. Their leader is called "First Citizen" in the play and he calls out to them:
You are all resolved
rather to die than to famish?
– Act I, scene i, lines 4-5
Only fifteen years before, King Tarquin had been driven out of Rome and the institution of the monarchy had been destroyed. The Roman Republic was set up and was to last for five centuries. Control was placed in the hands of the aristocracy (the "patricians"), with numerous checks and balances, to make sure that no one of the aristocrats could gain so much power as to make himself a king and start the round of tyranny and revolt over again.
That did not mean, however, that Rome had become a little corner of heaven. The patricians, now that they had power in their hands, intended to keep it there. They reserved to themselves virtually all the rights, both political and economic, and yielded very little to the common people ("plebeians").
The plebeians in those days were small farmers who were expected to leave their farms and fight the city's battles whenever duty called. In the years after the first founding of the Republic, duty called frequently, for the exiled king tried to regain his position and made use of neighboring tribes as allies. Rome had to fight for its life.
As a result of those wars, though, the plebeian soldier might return from battle to find his farm neglected, or even ravaged, and would be in need of capital to begin again. The city did not consider itself economically responsible for its farmers and the loans a plebeian could get from the patricians were on harsh terms; and if they were not repaid, he and his family could be sold into slavery.
Furthermore, when food was scarce there was nothing to prevent the patricians (who had the capital for it) from buying up the supplies and then reselling it to the plebeians at a profit, thus capitalizing on the general misfortune.
It would be utterly inhuman to expect that the plebeians would sit still for all this. Undoubtedly, their lot had worsened under the Republic and they found it intolerable that they were expected to give their lives for the patricians while getting nothing in return.
The riotous citizens onstage are rebelling plebeians, then, and the First Citizen reminds them whom they are chiefly to blame for their misfortunes. He cries out:
First you know, Caius Marcius
is chief enemy to the people.
– Act I, scene i, lines 7-8
Caius Marcius is the proper name of the hero of the play. He is to gain the surname of Coriolanus under circumstances to be described later.
Caius Marcius came from an old patrician family. According to Plutarch (in a passage Shakespeare quotes later in the play) he was a descendant of Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome. This did not mean that Caius Marcius, as the descendant of a king, was necessarily a royalist.
Rome's seven kings could be divided into two groups, in fact, with Ancus Marcius belonging to the older. When he became king, he established an advisory body consisting of a hundred of the older representatives of the various clans that made up the city's people. This group of older men was the "Senate," so called from the Latin word for "old men." These senators were called "patricians" from the Latin word for "father," because they were, in theory, the fathers of the people. The word was then extended to all the old families from whom senators might be drawn.
According to tradition, Ancus Marcius brought in new colonists from among conquered tribes outside Rome, since the growing city could use the extra hands. These, however, were not granted the political powers of the old Romans. It was their descendants who became plebeians.
Ancus Marcius was not succeeded by his sons, but by a king called Tarquinius Priscus ("Tarquin the Elder"), who was an Etruscan from the north. (The Etruscans to the north of Rome were at that time the dominant people in Italy, and the succession of Tarquinius Priscus may be actually a sign of Etruscan overlordship of Rome-a situation softened in the Roman legends out of Roman pride.)
Under Tarquinius Priscus, Rome prospered materially, but the power of the king increased at the expense of the patricians. He was finally assassinated by those on the side of the old kings, but eventually the son of Tarquinius Priscus gained the throne. This was the Tarquinius Superbus who was expelled from Rome after the events outlined in The Rape of Lucrece (see page I-211).
Caius Marcius, by family tradition, then, would be against the Tarquinian notion of monarchy. And he would be strongly pro-patrician and anti-plebeian.
… dog to the commonalty
When the Second Citizen, a less extreme leader of the plebeian mob, expresses reservations against aiming at Marcius particularly, the First Citizen replies firmly:
Against him first:
he's a very dog to the commonalty.
– Act I, scene i, lines 28-29
This is the key to Marcius' character. He is a "dog" to his enemies. He snarls and bites. Plutarch says of him: "he was so choleric and impatient, that he would yield to no living creature, which made him churlish, uncivil, and altogether unfit for any man's conversation."
That is his tragedy: the tragedy of his personality. What he might have gained, and ought to have gamed for the better qualities within himself, he threw away by his perpetual anger and willfulness.
It may have been just this which was the challenge that interested Shakespeare and made him decide to write the play. In Antony and Cleopatra (see page I-317), which he had written a year or so earlier, Shakespeare shows us a flawed hero, Mark Antony, who sacrificed honor and worldly ambition to love and to sexual passion. In Coriolanus he shows us the reverse, a hero who served only military honor and who allowed nothing to stand in his way (with one exception).
Yet although Antony is loaded to the breaking point with weaknesses, while Marcius is stuffed to the bursting point with virtues, we end by loving Antony and feeling a cold dislike for Coriolanus. Surely Shakespeare is far too good a playwright to have done this by accident. Might not Coriolanus be viewed as a frigid satire of the military virtues; as an example of Shakespeare's distaste for war, a distaste that shows through even the official idolatry of the English hero-king in Henry V (see page II-481)?
… to please his mother.. .
When the Second Citizen urges in Marcius' defense that he has served his country well, the First Citizen admits that much but insists it was not done for Rome. He says:
… though soft-conscienced men can be content
to say it was for his country,
he did it to please his mother…
– Act I, scene i, lines 37-39
There is Marcius' one weakness. He loves his mother. And even that weakness is, looked at superficially, another piece of nobility. Why should not a man love his mother? Certainly the United States of today, with its Mother's Day and its semiofficial matriolatry, is no society in which to argue that to love one's mother is wrong, or even a weakness.
Yet it is made plain as the play progresses that the love-of-mother in Coriolanus' case is extreme. It is the clearest case of an Oedipal fixation in Shakespeare, far clearer than in the dubious case of Hamlet.
According to the legend, Marcius' father died while he was very young and the boy was then brought up by his mother. The rearing was successful in establishing a close relationship between them. Here are Plutarch's words: "… touching Marcius, the only thing that made him to love honor was the joy he saw his mother did take of him. For he thought nothing made him so happy and honorable, as that his mother might hear everybody praise and commend him, that she might always see him return with a crown upon his head, and that she might still embrace him with tears running down her cheeks for joy."
This sort of thing, we can see, is not calculated to endear him to Rome generally. Those plebeians who got only the rough side of Marcius' tongue and the harsh side of his advice on policy might not feel any necessity to be grateful for something he did only to please his mother. Let his mother reward him, not the people, and this is what the First Citizen seems to be implying.
Furthermore, Marcius' attitude as described by Plutarch and as adopted by Shakespeare is that of a boy, not a man. Marcius is a boy who never grew up, except physically. Emotionally he remains a boy, not only with respect to his mother but with respect to everything else. If we are to understand the play, this point must not be forgotten.
… To th'Capitol
While the citizens talk, there are shouts from offstage which seem to signify the revolt is spreading. The First Citizen cries out impatiently:
Why slay we prating here?
– Act I, scene i, lines 48-49
The city of Rome eventually spread out over seven hills. One of the earliest to be occupied was the Capitoline Hill. This had steep sides in some directions, which made it suitable for defense. A large temple to Jupiter was built upon it which could also serve as a last-ditch fortress.
The name of the hill is from a Latin word meaning "head," and the legend arose that a head or skull was uncovered when the foundations of the temple were being dug. The Senate met in the Capitol fortress and so it was the center of the city's politics; in that sense the hill was the head (or most important part) of the city, and perhaps that is how the name really arose.
Naturally, the plebeians would want to storm the Capitol and seize control of it.
Worthy Menenius Agrippa.. .
But now a patrician steps on the scene who is not assaulted. He is a very unusual patrician; one who can speak to the people bluffly and pleasantly and make himself liked by them-the antithesis of Marcius. The newcomer is Menenius Agrippa, and the Second Citizen identifies him at once as:
Worthy Menenius Agrippa,
one that hath always loved the people.
– Act I, scene i, lines 52-53
Even the extremist First Citizen says, rather churlishly:
He's one honest enough;
would all the rest were so!
– Act I, scene i, lines 54-55
Menenius Agrippa's role in history (even the legendary history of the times before 390 b.c., as purveyed by Livy and Plutarch) is confined to the one incident that is about to be related. Nothing else is known of him either before or after. Everything else about him in this play is Shakespeare's own invention.
In the actual tale told by Livy and Plutarch, the occasion is not a brawl in the street but, in a way, something more serious. The plebeians have decided to secede altogether. If Rome takes all and gives nothing, she is not a true mother and the plebeians will make one for themselves. They withdraw to a neighboring hill and prepare to found a city of their own.
This is a deadly danger for the patricians, for they need plebeian hands on the farms and in the army. What's more, Rome cannot endure the founding of a neighboring city that is bound to become and remain a deadly enemy. The plebeians must be brought back and, for a wonder, the Senate tried persuasion and gentleness. They sent Menenius Agrippa, a patrician with a reputation for good humor and with no record of animosity toward the plebeians.
A pretty tale…
Menenius urges the citizens to desist, saying the shortage of food is the fault of the gods, not of the patricians. The First Citizen answers bitterly that the patricians have cornered the food market and now grind the faces of the poor for their own profit. We are strongly tempted to believe the First Citizen, for all he speaks in prose where Menenius orates La gentle pentameters, especially since Menenius drops the subject and decides to be more indirect. He says:
/ shall tell you A pretty tale;
it may be you have heard it;
– Act I, scene i, lines 90-91
The tale he tells is the fable of the organs of the body rebelling against the belly. The organs complain that they do all the work while the belly gets all the food. The belly answers that it is his function to digest the food and send it out to all the body. Without the belly, all the rest of the organs would weaken and die. The Senate and the patricians are then compared to the belly by Menenius. Through their careful management of the commonwealth, the patricians distribute benefits to all.
The fable may sound well, but surely to the plebeians of the time it must have been unconvincing, since it was precisely their complaint that the patricians were not distributing benefits to all the commonwealth but were reserving them for themselves.
Plutarch says of the tale, "These persuasions pacified the people conditionally." Note the word "conditionally." Words alone were not enough. The people demanded a reform of the government and got it.
… let me use my sword.. .
Before Shakespeare gets to these reforms, however, he wants to bring on Marcius and display him as he is. Marcius comes whirling in, acknowledges Menenius' greetings in the briefest possible way, and grates out harshly to the citizens:
What's the matter, you dissentious rogues
That, nibbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourself scabs?
– Act I, scene i, lines 165-67
Menenius is attended because he speaks gently. Does Marcius think he can get anywhere by scolding? It doesn't matter whether he does or not, for there is no other way he can act, and the First Citizen indicates that by his dryly ironic rejoinder:
We have ever your good word.
– Act I, scene i, line 167b
Marcius continues to rail, denouncing them as utterly untrustworthy. He says:
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland.
– Act I, scene i, lines 182-85
This is, of course, a standard complaint against the common people; that they are fickle and unreasoning. This dates back to the Greek historians, who showed that the Athenian democracy was subject to radical changes in its policies and that Athenian politicians suffered drastic changes in fortune at the hand of the fickle public-in contrast to the steady policies of Sparta, which was certainly no democracy. (And yet who would prefer the death-in-life of Sparta to the brilliance of Athens?)
Roman writers referred to the mobile vulgus ("fickle multitude") and about half a century after Shakespeare's death this was abbreviated to "mob," a word now used for any dangerous and disorderly crowd of people. Had Shakespeare had the use of the word it would undoubtedly have appeared somewhere in this speech.
In Elizabethan England, with its strong oligarchy, the view of the public by "gentlemen" was very much like the view of the Roman patricians. Shakespeare himself was born of a prosperous middle-class family and certainly held himself superior to those he considered plebeian. Furthermore, he was patronized by the aristocracy and liked to identify himself with them.
When, therefore, he had occasion to speak of the common people, he was rarely kind or sympathetic. He makes much of their dirtiness, greasi-ness, and bad breath. And he is never quite as unkind to them as in this play. This is one reason why Coriolanus is not one of Shakespeare's more popular plays in modern times. His social views embarrass mid-twentieth-century America.
It may be that Shakespeare is antiplebeian in this play partly because of the conditions in England at the time the play was written. The unpopular Scottish king, James VI, was on the English throne now as James I and there was a rising clamor against him. Voices from below were beginning to be heard against James's theory of absolute monarchy and against his contention that decisions in religion were entirely in the hand of the King. Those voices were to grow louder until (a generation after Shakespeare's death) they led England into revolution and James's son to the headsman's ax.
If Shakespeare was writing with at least part of his attention fixed on securing the approval of the aristocratic portion of his audience, on whose approval so much depended from an economic standpoint, this was the time for harsh words against the commons. The application would be seen.
The amazing thing, though, is that with all the animus against the commons which Shakespeare possesses, for both personal and economic reasons, he does not therefore make Marcius sympathetic. His integrity as a writer and his hatred of war forces Shakespeare to display Marcius' reaction to the commons as an overreaction, and the patrician champion loses us at the very start.
His response to the cry of the people for food, to their protest that they are starving, is:
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth,
And let me use my sword, I'd make a quarry
With thousands of these quartered slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance.
– Act I, scene i, lines 198-201
We are acquainted, of course, with people who think the proper answer to the protesting poor is the policeman's club, the cattle prod, and the gun. Such people are difficult to like, and Marcius is one of them.
Five tribunes. ..
But then Marcius must grumble forth the news that the patricians have not done as he would have liked them to do. They have compromised instead and granted the plebeians a new kind of officer. Marcius describes them as:
Five tribunes to defend their vulgar wisdoms,
Of their own choice. One's Junius Brutus-
Sicinius Velutus, and-I know not.
'Sdeath! The rabble should have first unroofed the city,
Ere so prevailed with me…
– Act I, scene i, lines 216-20
It was the grant of the tribunes, rather than Menenius' fable, that brought the plebeians back to Rome. The tribunes were officials drawn from the plebeian ranks and elected by the plebeians only. Their purpose was to safeguard the interests of the plebeians and to keep the patricians from passing laws they felt would be unfair to the common people. Eventually, indeed, the tribunes gained the power of stopping laws they disapproved of by merely crying out "Veto!" ("I forbid!"). Not all the power of the government could pass a law against a tribune's veto.
Actually, the institutions of the Republic developed only gradually and received their familiar form only by 367 b.c. However, later Roman historians tended to push back several of the features into the undocumented period before 390 b.c. to give them the added sanctity of extra ancient-ness. The history of the tribunate during the fifth century b.c. is quite obscure and the supposed first tribunes listed by Plutarch (he names only two out of the five and Shakespeare follows him in this) make no mark in actual history.
Is Junius Brutus a descendant or relative of the Lucius Junius Brutus who helped found the Republic (see page I-210)? From the name one would suppose so, yet if he were, he would be a patrician and it is of the essence that the tribunes are plebeians. Or was there some dim feeling on the part of the legendmakers that since a Junius Brutus was one of the first two consuls of the Republic, a Junius Brutus ought also to be one of the first two tribunes?
From the standpoint of the play, of course, it doesn't matter.
… the Volsces ."..
In any case, civil broils must now be buried in the face of a foreign menace. A messenger hurries on the scene asking for Marcius. He says:
The news is, sir, the Volsces are in arms.
– Act I, scene i, line 225
At this early stage in their history, the Romans were still fighting for the control of Latium, that section of west-central Italy that occupies a hundred miles of the coast southeast of Rome. It is the home of the Latin language.
The Volscians were the tribes occupying the southeastern half of Latium. Under the last kings of Rome, they along with the other Latin tribes had been part of a loose confederacy headed by Rome, and it may be that all were more or less under Etruscan control. With the expulsion of the Roman kings and the weakening of the Etruscan hold, the Latin tribes squabbled among themselves. The Volscians fought with the Romans throughout the fifth century b.c. and were in the end defeated. In Marcius' time, however, the long duel was only beginning,
A deputation of senators comes to see Marcius now. He is their best warrior and they need his help. Marcius has no illusions that the fight will be an easy one, for the Volscians have a gallant leader, Tullus Aufidius. A senator says:
Then, worthy Marcius,
Attend upon Cominius to these wars.
– Act I, scene i, lines 238-39
Cominius is one of the two consuls of Rome at this time. They were the chief executives of the city, having replaced the office of the ousted king. The consuls were elected for a one-year term, since the Romans felt that one year was insufficient for any consul to build up a large enough personal following to serve in making himself a king.
Two consuls were chosen, rather than one, since the rule was that no action could be taken without agreement between them. It seemed reasonable to suppose that neither consul could take any real steps toward tyranny without the other jealously stepping in to stop him.
The chief duties of the consuls were to be in charge of the armed forces of Rome and to lead the Roman armies in warfare. Cominius, as consul, was to be the army leader, and Marcius, who was not a consul, would have to be a subordinate officer.
The senators are clearly not at all certain that Marcius will agree to this; a commentary on his sullen spirit of self-absorption. Cominius says hastily:
It is your former promise.
– Act I, scene i, line 239
This time, at least, Marcius gives in at once and all sweep off the stage, leaving behind only the two newly appointed tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus. They had come in with the senators but had remained silent. Left alone, they make it clear that they resent Marcius' pride and his harsh taunts.
Sicinius wonders that Marcius can bear to serve as an underling with Cominius commanding, and Brutus suggests a cynical interpretation, saying that Marcius shrewdly schemes to avoid responsibility in case of disaster:
For what miscarries
Shall be the general's fault, though he perform
To th'utmost of a man; and giddy censure
Will then cry out of Marcius "O, if he
Had borne the business!"
– Act I, scene i, lines 267-71
Nowhere in the play, however, is Marcius given credit for so devious a nature. Brutus is simply putting his own style of shrewdness into Marcius' mind. What is much more likely is that Marcius doesn't care who commands and who does not, whom Rome praises and whom she does not. All he wants is a chance to fight so that, in any office, he can win his mother's praise.
… to guard Corioles
The fast Roman response to the Volscian threat forces the Volscians to hasten their own plans. Tullus Aufidius is consulting with the Volscian council and one of the Volscian senators says:
Take your commission; hie you to your bands:
Let us alone to guard Corioles.
– Act I, scene ii, lines 25-27
This council of war is taking place in Corioli (or Corioles), a town whose location is now uncertain, and this, in itself, is one of the signs that the story of Coriolanus is legendary. At the time of the traditional date of this war, 493 b.c. (a year after the plebeian uprising, although Shakespeare, in the interest of speeding the action, makes it take place immediately afterward), what records we have indicate that Corioli was not a Volscian city but was in alliance with that portion of Latium which was under Roman leadership.
It is very likely that the tales of Coriolanus that were dimly remembered had to be adjusted to account for the name. Why should Marcius be remembered as Coriolanus unless he had played a key role in the conquest of that city? So the conquest was assumed.
And why was Marcius eventually given the name of Coriolanus if it was not because of the conquest of the city? No one will ever know. For that matter, can we be certain that such a man as Coriolanus ever existed at all?
… Hector's forehead…
Now, at last, Marcius' mother, Volumnia, is introduced. So is his wife, Virgilia. Virgilia is, however, a shrinking girl, much dominated by her mother-in-law, who is pictured as the ideal Roman matron. She is a most formidable creature and we cannot help but wonder if Marcius' little-boy love for her is not intermingled with more than some little-boy fear.
Shakespeare makes it plain that Marcius has become something that is his mother's deliberate creation. Even when he was young, she tells her daughter-in-law proudly, all she could think of was how honor (that is, military glory) would become him. She says:
To a cruel war I sent him,
from whence he returned,
his brows bound with oak
– Act I, scene iii, lines 14-16
(An oak wreath was the reward granted a soldier who had saved the life of a fellow soldier.)
Virgilia timidly points out that Marcius might have been killed, but Volumnia says, grimly:
I had rather had eleven die nobly
for their country than one voluptuously
surfeit out of action.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 25-27
And when Virgilia gets a little queasy over Volumnia's later reference to possible blood on Marcius' brow, Volumnia then says, in scorn at the other's weakness:
Away, you fool! It [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
– Act I, scene iii, lines 42-46
In later centuries the Romans invented a legend to the effect that they were descended from the Trojan hero Aeneas (see page I-20), and it is natural to read this back into early Roman history and to imagine that the early Romans identified strongly with the Trojans. Hector (page I-81) was Troy's greatest fighter.
… a gilded butterfly.. .
Volumnia's bloodthirsty and single-minded approach to the notion of military honor makes it plain why Marcius, trained by her, is what he is. But can it be that Shakespeare approves of this sort of mother and finds the product of her training to be admirable? Let's see what follows immediately!
Valeria, a friend of the family, comes to visit, and describes something she has observed that involves Marcius' young son. She says:
1 saw him run after a gilded butterfly;
and when he caught it, he let it go again;
and after it again; and over and over he comes,
and up again; catched it again;
or whether his fall enraged him, or how 'twas,
he did so set his teeth, and tear it.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 63-68
The promising child, in other words, plays cat-and-mouse with a butterfly and ends by killing it in a rage. But why a butterfly? Surely nothing can be as pretty, harmless, and helpless as a butterfly. It isn't possible that we can feel sympathetic for a child that would deliberately and sadistically kill one. And this is clearly the product of Volumnia's bringing up.
But can we really apply the unreasoning action of a young child to the behavior of the adult Marcius? Surely we can, for Shakespeare makes certain that we do. What does he have Volumnia say to Valeria's tale? She says, calmly:
One on's father's moods.
– Act I, scene iii, line 70
It seems reasonable to suppose that Shakespeare admires neither Volumnia's philosophy nor the individuals it produces.
… another Penelope…
Valeria wants Virgilia to come out on the town with her but Virgilia will not. Like a loyal wife, she will stay at home till her husband is back from the wars. Valeria says, cynically:
You would be another Penelope;
yet, they say, all the yarn she spun in
Ulysses' absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths.
– Act I, scene iii, lines 86-88
Penelope is the very byword of the faithful wife. Married to Ulysses (see page I-90) but a couple of years when he went forth to Troy, she remained faithful for twenty years in his home island of Ithaca, till he returned. In the last several years, he was rumored dead and many suitors clamored for her hand. She put them off with one ruse or another, the most famous being that she wanted first to finish a shroud she was weaving for Ulysses' aged father, Laertes. Every day she wove and every night she ripped out what she had woven, keeping it up a long time before she was caught. The story of Penelope and the suitors makes up a major portion of Homer's Odyssey.
… to Cato's wish …
The Roman forces under Marcius and Titus Lartius (another valiant Roman) are meanwhile laying siege to Corioli. They are met with Volscian resolution and are beaten back at the first assault. Marcius, yelling curses at his soldiers in his usual manner, rushes forward and manages to get inside the city gates, which close behind him. He is alone in an enemy city.
Titus Lartius, coming up now, hears the news, and speaks of him as already dead. He says, apostrophizing the as-good-as-dead Marcius:
Thou wast a soldier
Even to Cato's wish, not fierce and terrible
Only in strokes; but with thy grim looks and
The thunder-like percussion of thy sounds
Thou mad'st thine enemies shake …
– Act I, scene iv, lines 57-61
This is taken almost verbatim from Plutarch, where that biographer describes Marcius as a soldier after Cato's heart. The Cato referred to is Marcus Porcius Cato, often called Cato the Censor (an office which he held with vigor), for he was a model of old-fashioned Roman virtue. He was completely honest and completely bound to duty, but he was cold, cruel, sour, miserly, and narrow-minded. He was heartless to his slaves and lacked any tender feelings for his wife and children. As censor, he was perfectly capable of fining a Roman patrician for kissing his own wife in the presence of their children.
It was perfectly proper for Plutarch to quote Cato in this connection, for he lived over three centuries after Cato. Shakespeare, however, is guilty of negligence in placing the remark in Lartius' mouth without making the necessary modification, for it now becomes an amusing anachronism. The siege of Corioli took place, according to legend, in 493 b.c., and Cato wasn't born till 243 b.c., two and a half centuries later (and didn't become censor till 184 b.c.).
Caius Marcius Coriolanus
But Marcius is not dead. If the tale were not a legend, magnified in the telling, even if we allow a kernel of truth, he would undoubtedly be dead. Perhaps this part of the tale of Marcius was inspired by a similar incident in the life of Alexander the Great.
In 326 b.c. Alexander was conducting his last major campaign in what was then called India, but in a region which is now part of Pakistan. They laid siege to a town called Multan, which is located about 175 miles southwest of Lahore, on one of the chief tributaries of the Indus. In a fever of excitement, Alexander pressed forward to the walls and managed to climb them and leap into the city without looking to see whether the army was following or not.
For a while, he was alone in the midst of enemies. One or two men managed to join him and when Alexander was struck down and seriously wounded they protected him until the army made its way into the city. Alexander survived, but it was a very near thing.
Marcius does better than that, however. No one joins him and he appears on the battlements, bleeding, but not seriously wounded. Only now does the rest of the army, in a fever of enthusiasm, storm the city and take it.
Marcius then leads part of the army to join Cominius and together they defeat the Volscians under Tullus Aufidius.
Now the army rings with praises for Marcius, but when Titus Lartius tries to put those praises into words, Marcius says, gruffly:
Pray now, no more. My mother,
Who has a charter to extol her blood,
When she does praise me grieves me.
– Act I, scene ix, lines 13-15
This sounds like modesty, like superhuman modesty, but is it? Marcius is a loner. His universe consists of himself alone, plus his mother. He is willing to enter Corioli alone, to fight alone against an army; the soldiers under his command are but a source of annoyance to him.
Why, then, should he want their praise? Who are they to praise him? Far from this being a true mark of modesty, it might rather be interpreted as the sign of a most confounded arrogance. Only his mother has a right to praise him and even that is not entirely acceptable to him. In the remark, further, he naively reveals the fact that he places his mother (as far as the right of praise is concerned) above Rome.
Nevertheless, he is not to get away without some mark of favor. Cominius, the consul, gives him an added name, saying:
… from this time,
For what he did before Corioles, call him,
With all th'applause and clamor of the host,
Caius Marcius Coriolanus.
– Act I, scene ix, lines 62-65
It was a Roman custom, when one of their generals won a signal victory over some particular foreign enemy, to give him an additional name taken from the conquered place or people. Sometimes the individual was thereafter known by his new title almost exclusively.
The most renowned case of this in Roman history is that of Publius Cornelius Scipio. Scipio was the final conqueror of Hannibal, the Carthaginian general, the greatest and most feared enemy Rome ever had in the days of its greatness, and certainly one of the most remarkable captains in the lamentable history of warfare. The battle in which Scipio finally overcame Hannibal was fought at Zama in 202 b.c., a city in northern Africa. As a consequence, the title "Africanus" was added to Scipio's name.
"Coriolanus" is formed in the same fashion. From this point on in the play, his speeches are marked "Coriolanus" rather than "Marcius" and it is the former name that is given to the tragedy itself.
… Lycurguses. ..
Back at Rome, the citizens are still waiting for news from the army. The two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, cannot help but hope for a little bad news, since that would weaken the position of Marcius (they don't yet know his new title).
Menenius, the friend of Marcius and one who, because of his age, considers himself practically a foster father of the younger man, is also onstage and rails wittily at the uncomfortable tribunes, who lack the verbal agility to stand up to him. Menenius is particularly annoyed because the tribunes call Marcius proud, and at one point he says to them:
Meeting such wealsmen as you are-
I cannot call you Lycurguses.. .
– Act II, scene i, lines 54-56
"Wealsmen" are statesmen, a term Menenius uses ironically, since he considers them anything but that. And lest their denseness allow them to mistake his remark for a compliment, he specifically denies that they can be compared to Lycurgus.
Lycurgus, according to tradition, was a Spartan leader of the ninth century b.c. who devised the social, economic, and political system under which the Spartans lived in ancient times. The Spartan aristocracy devoted themselves to a military regime that made even the Roman system look pallid. (Actually it was developed in the seventh century b.c. and may have been attributed to the legendary Lycurgus to give it greater authority.)
It was a narrow, constricted, miserable way of life that won the Spartans many victories and therefore gained them much praise by those who valued victories for themselves and who did not have to live in Sparta at the time. It cost Sparta everything else but military victory, and in the end the narrow and inflexible outlook it gave them cost them victory as well.
Nevertheless, Lycurgus remained as the byword for the statesman and lawgiver.
Menenius grows wordier and more articulate with each speech as the tribunes become more and more beaten down. Finally, he makes the direct comparison:
Yet you must be saying Marcius is proud;
who, in a cheap estimation,
is worth all your predecessors since Deucalion.
– Act II, scene i, lines 92-94
Deucalion was the sole male survivor of a great flood in the Greek legends (see page I-164) and from him all later men were considered to be descended.
… in Galen. ..
But now the three women enter-Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria-with news that Marcius is returning in victory. They have letters and there is one for Menenius.
The voluble old man is so elated at the news, and especially at the grand tale that there is a letter for him, that he throws his cap in the air and declares it is the best medicine he could have. He says:
The most sovereign prescription
in Galen is but empiricutic [quackish],
and, to this preservative,
of no better report than a horse-drench.
– Act II, scene i, lines 119-21
This is an even more amusing anachronism than the reference to Cato. Galen was a Greek physician who practiced in Rome and whose books, throughout the Middle Ages and into early modern times, were considered the last word in medical theory and practice. The only trouble is that he was at the height of his career about a.d. 180, nearly seven centuries after the time of Menenius.
… the repulse of Tarquin.. .
Menenius and Volumnia now engage in a grisly counting of wounds and scars on Marcius' body. Volumnia says:
He received in the repulse
of Tarquin seven hurts i'th'body.
– Act II, scene i, lines 154-55
After the eviction of Tarquin (see page I-211), the ex-King made several attempts to regain power, first with the aid of the Etruscans and then with the aid of other Latin cities. He was defeated at each attempt, the final battle coming at Lake Regillus in 496 b.c., only two years before the date of the opening scene of Coriolanus.
I warrant him consul
Coriolanus himself comes now, and his new title is announced to the entire city. He kneels first of all to his mother, and only after her reminder does he address his wife. The city is wild over him and it is clear he can receive whatever honor or office it can bestow on him. Volumnia states, with satisfaction, what is in many minds:
There's one thing wanting, which I doubt not but
Our Rome will cast upon thee.
– Act II, scene i, lines 206-8
It is the consulship itself obviously, and Volumnia, as usual, continues to guide her son toward the heights.
The two tribunes are also aware of the waiting consulship, and they are worried. Sicinius says:
On the sudden,
I warrant him consul.
– Act II, scene i, lines 227-28
From their standpoint, nothing could be worse. Coriolanus' reactionary beliefs are well known. He would have killed the plebeians rather than compromise with them in the matter of tribunes. As a willful and determined consul, he might cancel that compromise. As Brutus says:
Then our office may,
During his power, go sleep.
– Act II, scene i, lines 228-29
Their only hope is that Coriolanus, through his own pride, will ruin his own chances.
At sixteen years
We move swiftly to the Capitol, the seat of the government, where the people are gathered to elect the new consuls, of whom Coriolanus is odds-on favorite to be one.
However, to achieve the goal, Coriolanus must get the vote of the people, and the way in which this was done was to flatter and cajole them, very much as in our own time. In early Roman times, it was customary for a candidate for the consulate to dress humbly, speak softly, and show the scars won in battle. He did so in an unadorned white toga (hence our word "candidate," from the Latin word for "dressed in white").
The routine begins with the equivalent of a nominating speech from Cominius, the then-consul, and it sounds very much (allowing for changes in times and manners) like a nominating speech one might make today. Cominius begins:
At sixteen years,
When Tarquin made a head for Rome,
he fought Beyond the mark of others.
– Act II, scene ii, lines 88-90
If we allow Tarquin's earliest battle to regain Rome to have been in 509 b.c. and if Coriolanus was sixteen then, we can say he was born in 525 b.c. and was thirty-two years old at the taking of Corioli. If the reference is to one of Tarquin's later attempts, then Coriolanus was younger than thirty-two.
Be taken from the people
The eloquent summary by Cominius of a career of heroic battling wins over the patricians and Menenius says it remains only to speak to the people. Coriolanus demurs rather churlishly, and the tribunes, seeing their chance, at once demand that the candidate live up to the letter of the custom.
Coriolanus has this to say of the custom:
It is a part
That 1 shall blush in acting, and might well
Be taken from the people.
– Act II, scene ii, lines 145-47
The tribunes could ask no better attitude than that. To say baldly that he wishes to take privileges from the people is absolutely no way to get their vote, and the tribunes rush away to see to it that the plebeians are made aware of Coriolanus' attitude.
… ask it kindly
Coriolanus does put on the uniform of humility, grumbling fiercely at every stage of the game and keeping poor Menenius in a sweat, for the old man is working overtime to keep him quiet and respectful just long enough.
Coriolanus cannot be so. Try as he might, he ends by being contemptuous as the voting citizens approach. He asks one of them:
Well then, I pray,
your price o'th'consulship?
– Act II, scene iii, lines 77-78
To which the citizen makes a most reasonable reply, giving the price of anything requested, however deserving it may be:
The price is, to ask it kindly.
– Act II, scene iii, line 79
And that is precisely what Coriolanus, thanks to his mother's teachings, cannot do.
… in free contempt
Almost creaking in the attempt, Coriolanus manages to bend an absolute minimum so that he might make it seem, to inquiring citizens, that he does indeed "ask it kindly." That, combined with his great reputation of the moment, lures the people into promising to vote for him.
It is only afterward, by comparing notes, that they realize his bending was more seeming than actual and that he did not, for instance, actually show his scars to anyone. (This too sounds like modesty, but it can be interpreted as the result of arrogance. He will not stoop to win the approval of anyone. He wants it as his right and without question.)
The tribunes are disgusted that the plebeians have been so easily fooled, and Brutus demands impatiently:
Did you perceive
He did solicit you in free contempt
When he did need your loves; and do you think
That his contempt shall not be bruising to you
When he hath power to crush?
– Act II, scene iii, lines 205-9
The plebeians, seeing the good sense in this, veer about and decide to withdraw their approval while there is still time and the official vote has not yet been taken.
(Plutarch says that Coriolanus actually showed his scars and won their favor more fairly. It was only when, on the actual voting day, he showed up with an escort of patricians, in all his pomp and pride, that the plebeians turned from him. Shakespeare's modification fits better the personality the dramatist has decided to portray.)
… Numa's daughter's son
The plebeians are rather embarrassed at having to reverse their votes and the tribunes offer to take the blame. They say the plebeians might claim to have been against Coriolanus all along but that the tribunes had talked them into favoring him. Now, in turning against him, they had merely shaken off the tribunes' propaganda.
This seems awfully poor. The tribunes were the very spearhead of the antipaitrician and, in particular, anti-Coriolanus, movement. Could the patricians for a moment believe that they had spoken in favor of Coriolanus? Or was Shakespeare merely seizing the opportunity to insert a passage from Plutarch that would lend another bit of historical authenticity to the play?
He has Brutus tell them all the wonderful things the tribunes would have said about Coriolanus in persuading the plebeians to vote for him:
The noble house o'th'Marcians, from whence came
That Ancus Marcius, Numa's daughter's son,
Who after great Hostilius here was king;
Of the same house Publius and Quintus were
That our best water brought by conduits hither;
– Act II, scene iii, lines 244-48
This is straight out of North's translation of Plutarch, almost word for word.
The Numa referred to is Numa Pompilius, who reigned as second king of Rome, coming to the throne, according to legend, in 716 b.c., after the death of Romulus, Rome's founder. He was a mild and exemplary king, upon whom Roman legend fixed the founding of Roman religion. There was peace in his reign and he was always looked back to as an ideal ruler.
He reigned till 673 b.c. and was followed by Tullus Hostilius, who ruled till 641 b.c. and who is also mentioned in this passage.
Following Hostilius, the throne was voted to Ancus Marcius, who, as the passage states, was a grandson of Numa on his mother's side. Thus, Coriolanus was descended from two of Rome's seven kings.
So much is legendary. The next is probably anachronistic. The city of Rome, in its great days, had its water supplied through aqueducts. No other city of ancient or medieval times had such an elaborate water system. In fact, Rome had a better water system than Shakespeare's London did. Naturally, writers of both ancient and later times tended to be awed by Rome's aqueducts and, if anything, to overemphasize them.
The Rome of Coriolanus' day was still a small town, quite rude and uncivilized. It certainly had no elaborate aqueducts, but relied on wells and on the Tiber River. The first important aqueducts to be built were constructed in 312 b.c., nearly two centuries after Coriolanus' time.
Brutus continues listing Coriolanus' ancestors:
And Censorinus that was so surnamed
And nobly named so, twice being censor,
Was his great ancestor.
– Act II, scene iii, lines 244-51
It is very unlikely that Censorinus could have existed. He too must be an anachronism born of the deliberate putting back of Roman customs into the legendary days before the Gallic sack. In Coriolanus' time, there had scarcely been time for one man to serve as censor twice, especially since the office was not founded till 443 b.c., half a century after the events in this play.
… to Antium
While waiting for the vote, Coriolanus discusses foreign affairs with the other soldiers, Cominius and Titus Lartius. The Volscians, while defeated, have not been crushed, and Tullus Aufidius, their great champion, still lives. Titus Lartius had seen him under a safe-conduct and says:
On safeguard he came to me; and did curse
Against the Volsces, for they had so vilely
Yielded the town. He is retired to Antium.
– Act III, scene i, lines 9-11
Antium is a coastal Latin town, thirty-three miles south of Rome. (That is the measure of Rome's as yet infant state, that its chief enemies, even after a retreat, were yet little more than thirty miles away.)
Antium's original fame was as a Volscian stronghold, as it is in this play, and it was not made fully subject to Rome till 341 b.c., a century and a half after Coriolanus' time. In the days of Rome's greatness, it was a favorite seaside resort of wealthy Romans. The Emperor Nero was born there and built a magnificent villa there.
The modern Italian version of its name is Anzio and under that name it gained a grisly, if fleeting, notoriety during World War II. An Allied amphibious force landed there on January 22, 1944, forming the Anzio bridgehead. It was hoped that this would link up quickly with other forces advancing up the Italian peninsula, but strong German resistance kept the bridgehead bloodily in being for four months, the linkage with the main Allied forces not taking place till May 25.
… this Triton …
As Coriolanus and his friends move on to the Senate, they are stopped by the tribunes and get the astonishing news that Coriolanus, who thought he had clinched the vote, is in disfavor with the plebeians after all and is to be denied the consulship. The tribunes make no effort to soften the blow and present the matter arrogantly in the hope that Coriolanus will burst into a rage and harm his own cause further.
He does. Rather than attempt to placate the tribunes, he plainly states his extreme rightist position concerning the plebeians.
Then, when the tribune Sicinius orders the raging Coriolanus to remain where he is and peremptorily forbids him to advance toward the Capitol, Coriolanus repeats Sicinius' words with the utter scorn of the born patrician for someone he views as a lowborn rascal. He says:
Hear you this Triton of the minnows?
Mark you His absolute "shall"?
– Act HI, scene i, lines 88-90
Triton was a son of Neptune (Poseidon) in the Greek myths and was pictured as a merman-fish from the waist down. He was usually depicted as blowing a blast on a large sea shell, a blast that might either rouse the winds or calm the sea. In either case, he controlled the waves. Thus, the tribune was being mocked as one who controlled a herd of insignificant rabble and thought he was powerful in consequence. He was a Triton, but of nothing but minnows.
… Hydra here…
Coriolanus turns on the patricians as well, for he maintains that they have given rise to this trouble by foolishly appeasing the plebeians and granting them rights instead of beating them down by force. He says:
You grave but reckless senators, have you thus
Given Hydra here to choose an officer,
– Act III, scene i, lines 92-93
The Hydra was a monster that was killed by Hercules as his second labor (see page I-24). It was pictured as a huge sea creature with a dog-like body and eight or nine heads, one of which was immortal. (The picture may have arisen as an improvement on the eight-tentacled octopus.)
Later mythmakers improved matters by giving the Hydra fifty heads, or one hundred, or even ten thousand. Furthermore, as each head was cut off, two new ones grew into place instantly. Again, the creature was pictured as so poisonous its very odor could kill, and so on.
Hercules managed anyway. Each tune he cut off a head, he had an assistant sear the stump with fire to prevent new growths. The immortal head he buried under a huge rock and thus, finally, the monster was killed.
But this made the Hydra a byword for anything with many heads, or anything which reappeared when dispatched. An intricate social difficulty, which bobs up again after each effort made to cure matters, is "Hydra-headed," and in our own times it would seem that all social problems are of this nature.
Again, the word may well be applied to a mob and it is this metaphor that is being used by Coriolanus. The decision as to the choice of consul has been handed over to the many-headed multitude.
The aediles. ..
Coriolanus continues in this way, in overwhelming rage, despite all attempts by Menenius and other patricians with common sense to stop him.
Finally, he threatens to take away the plebeians' political gains by force. Now the tribunes have all they want. Not only has Coriolanus lost any possible chance of gaining the plebeian vote; he has committed actual treason by advocating unconstitutional methods of procedure. Brutus cries out:
The aediles, ho!
Let him be apprehended.
– Act III, scene i, lines 171-72
The aediles were plebeian officials who had come into existence at the same time the tribunes had. They had a number of responsibilities in their time. They were in charge of the streets, of the distribution of grain, of the public celebrations. Here they appear in their role as protectors of the tribunes; officers empowered to arrest those who threatened the tribunal safety.
… to th'rock Tarpeian…
Naturally, Coriolanus is not going to submit tamely to arrest; nor, for that matter, are the patricians ready to see him arrested. The aediles can do nothing by themselves, but in a moment the stage swarms with plebeians coming to the aid of their tribunes. A full-fledged riot is in progress, despite everything Menenius can do to try to calm matters.
The tribune Sicinius manages to seize the floor and denounces Coriolanus, demanding not only his arrest, but his instant conviction of treason and his execution.
Therefore lay hold of him;
Bear him to th'rock Tarpeian,
and from thence Into destruction cast him.
– Act III, scene i, lines 211-13
The Tarpeian Rock is a cliff that formed part of the Capitoline Hill (see page I-217). To explain its name a legend arose in later times that went as follows:
In the first decades of Rome's existence, when it was under its founder and first king, Romulus, there was war with the Sabines, a tribe of the vicinity. The Sabines laid siege to the Capitoline Hill and their chance at victory came through Tarpeia, the daughter of the Roman commander who held sway over the defending forces.
The Sabines managed to persuade Tarpeia to open the gates for them in return for what they wore on their left arms. (Tarpeia set that condition with reference to the gold bracelets they wore there.) That night she secretly opened the gates, and the first few Sabines, as they entered, threw their shields at her, for they wore their shields on their left arms too. The Sabines, who (like most people) were willing to make use of traitors, but didn't like them, in this way kept their bargain.
The first criminal to be executed on the Capitoline Hill gave her name, therefore, to the later place of execution. (The story was undoubtedly made up to account for the name and is very unlikely to have even the slightest foundation in historical fact.)
… his trident
Coriolanus draws his sword. He is certainly not going to be led tamely to execution, and the riot sharpens. When the plebeians are temporarily driven off, Menenius and the other patricians manage, just barely, to persuade Coriolanus to leave. He is forced away for his own safety and because there can be no peacemaking as long as he is there to fire up popular resentment with his own strident tongue.
Menenius says of him when he is gone:
His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for's power to thunder. His heart's his mouth:
– Act III, scene i, lines 254-56
Jupiter (Jove) has the lightning bolt as his chief weapon. Neptune's trident ("three teeth") is the three-pointed spear with which he (like Triton and his shell) calmed the waves or drove them to fury. Both lightning bolt and trident were unique attributes, and if Coriolanus would not stoop to beg for them, how much less would he stoop for a mere consulship.
And yet does Menenius really believe that this is a sign of nobility-or of stupidity? In his very next speech, he bursts out:
What the vengeance!
Could he not speak 'em fair?
– Act III, scene i, lines 261-62
When the plebeians return, Menenius just barely manages to talk them out of their determination for instant execution and gains Coriolanus the chance of a trial.
/ muse my mother
Coriolanus is at home, utterly unrepentant. He feels he has done completely right and would do it again at whatever risk. Only one thing bothers him. His mother, somehow, is not happy. Coriolanus says:
/ muse my mother
Does not approve me further, who was wont
To call them [the plebeians] woolen vassals…
– Act III, scene ii, lines 7-9
And when his mother conies in, he says to her in a child's aggrieved tone:
I talk of you:
Why did you wish me milder?
Would you have me False to my nature?
Rather say I play The man I am.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 13-16
But she does wish him milder. It is not because she (or Menenius for that matter) are more liberal than Coriolanus or less likely to use harsh measures. It is a matter of being more politic. First get the consulship, by any means, and then, with power, crush the plebeians. She says:
I have a heart as little apt as yours,
But yet a brain that leads my use of anger
To better vantage.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 29-31
Menenius and the rest are urging him now to stand trial voluntarily, to repent his words and, in effect, crawl a little. Coriolanus is horrified at the very thought, but his mother adds her pleas, saying in one phrase exactly what is wrong with him:
You are too absolute;
– Act III, scene ii, line 39
But that, of course, is her own fault, since she taught him to treat the world as though it consisted of nothing but gilded butterflies which he might tear apart at a mindless whim.
She tells him now flatly that he must treat this as a stratagem of war. He would play a part to deceive an enemy in arms and cajole a town to surrender. Let him now play a part to deceive the plebeians. (There is no thought in the mind of Volumnia or the other patricians-or probably in those of Shakespeare's audience-that such a course of action is dishonorable.)
To force Coriolanus to do this, Volumnia does not scruple to pull hard at the Oedipal ties that bind him to her:
/ prithee now, sweet son, as thou hast said
My praises made thee first a soldier, so,
To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 107-110
That is it. Coriolanus would not be swayed by thoughts of his own safety, by the city's danger, by his friend's reasoning, but once his mother has pled, he says:
Well, I must do't.
– Act III, scene ii, line 110b
For a moment, though, his resolution wavers even now. He can't go through with it. Thereupon Volumnia throws up her hands and tells him angrily to do as he pleases. At that, Coriolanus promptly gives in, out of the absolute terror of being in the position of disobeying his mother's wishes. He says, in little-boy terms:
Pray, be content:
Mother, I am going to the marketplace;
Chide me no more.
– Act III, scene ii, lines 130-32
And yet, after all that, when he comes to trial, he can no more hold his tongue than he can jump to the moon. It is an easy task for the tribunes to irritate him into madness again. He is convicted of treason and condemned, not to death at the Tarpeian Rock, but to lifelong exile. (This is actually supposed to have taken place in 491 b.c.)
It is a politic commutation of sentence, for the tribunes could now say that Coriolanus had deserved death, but that they had shown mercy out of consideration for his services in war.
… to pluck from them their tribunes.. .
Coriolanus leaves the city, after showing himself surprisingly cheerful, firm, resolute, and in good heart, cheering up his mother and his friends. (Plutarch describes the leave-taking similarly.)
Shakespeare has him make a significant comment, however. Coriolanus says:
I shall be loved when I am lacked.
– Act IV, scene i, line 15
This is a strange optimism on his part. He does not show elsewhere in this play any such general confidence in his fellowmen. It almost sounds as though he has something specific in mind; that he has firm information that his friends intend to take action to bring him back; even unconstitutional action.
That this may be so is strengthened by an odd scene that follows hard thereafter and which seems somewhat irrelevant to the action. A Roman named Nicanor and a Volscian named Adrian meet somewhere between Rome and Antium. Their speeches are ascribed merely to "Roman" and "Volsce." They appear nowhere else in the play and the only purpose of the scene is to highlight gathering treason in Rome on the part of the patricians.
The Roman says:
… the nobles receive so to heart
the banishment of that worthy Coriolanus,
that they are in a ripe aptness to take all power
from the people and to pluck from them their tribunes forever.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 21-25
To attain this end, it may be that the patricians are even considering allying themselves with the common enemy. The Volscian had said of his own people:
… they are in a most warlike preparation,
and hope to come upon them [the Romans]
in the heat of their division.
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 17-19
The Roman's response to this news of the Volscian activity is:
/ am joyful to hear
of their readiness…
– Act IV, scene iii, lines 48-50
My birthplace hate I …
Yet the next scene does not follow this up. There is a sudden break. Coriolanus has made his way to Antium. It is his intention to seek out Tullus Aufidius himself and throw himself upon his mercy. He says:
My birthplace hate I, and my love's upon
This enemy town. I'll enter. If he slay me,
He does fair justice; if he give me way,
I'll do his country service.
– Act IV, scene iv, lines 23-26
What happened? According to the previous scene, it looked as though there were a conspiracy to bring Coriolanus back, even with Volscian help. Nothing further of that is mentioned in the play. Plutarch, to be sure, says that the nobles turned against Coriolanus, but only after the exiled man had joined the Volscians. As for his motive in joining the enemy, Plutarch cites merely rage and desire for revenge.
Yet it almost seems as though Shakespeare had something better in mind…
It often happened in the history of the Greek cities that there were internal disturbances between the social classes and that the leaders of one side or the other would be exiled. In such cases, it was common for the exiles to join a foreign enemy and fight their own city with the aid of their sympathizers within, as was the case of Alcibiades, for instance (see page I-142), some eighty years after the time of Coriolanus. (Indeed, Plutarch gives his biographies of Coriolanus and Alcibiades as a pair, showing himself aware of the similarities in their histories.)
It was this constant civil war and almost constant treason that helped bring down the Greeks and place them at last at the mercy of first the Macedonians and then the Romans.
It never happened in Rome. There were internecine struggles within the city in plenty throughout the history of the Republic, but never in the face of an outside enemy. When the foreign armies invaded, all Romans locked arms and this was never so remarkable or admirable as when Hannibal nearly ruined the realm two and a half centuries after the time of Coriolanus. It was this which saved Rome and brought her to world empire at last.
It would almost seem, then, as though there were a missing scene here. Perhaps there should be a scene in Rome after the meeting of the Roman and Volsce, one in which the patricians are meditating treason. The news of the Volscian invasion comes, and after some soul searching, Cominius might rise and insist that the city must come before class and that even Coriolanus must be sacrificed in the greater need of the defense of Rome. And with that the conspiracy would collapse.
… our dastard nobles.. .
Coriolanus, hearing of this, is more than disappointed. It is the last straw. Everyone has deserted him. Surely it must be this which makes him turn to the Volscians. Plutarch doesn't have it this way, but Plutarch is only repeating a legend and in my opinion he could have worked it out better at this point. Shakespeare seems to have started in this direction and then never wrote or dropped out the crucial scene.
It is only that missing scene that can explain what happens next. Coriolanus makes his way, in disguise, to the house of Tullus Aufidius, who is there presiding over a feast to the Volscian nobles, and reveals himself as a suppliant. He tells Aufidius he has nothing left but his name:
The cruelty and envy of the people,
Permitted by our dastard nobles, who
Have all forsook me, hath devoured the rest.
– Act IV, scene v, lines 78-80
Why "dastard nobles?" How have they "forsook" him? Only that missing scene would make this plain and account for the colossal bitterness of Coriolanus during the remainder of the play, against not only the plebeians, but the entire city.
The Coriolanus legend up to this point, by the way, bears a suspicious resemblance to the tale of Themistocles, a famous Athenian who was actually a contemporary of Coriolanus (except that Themistocles is a historical character and Coriolanus is not).
Themistocles was the moving spirit behind the Athenian-led Greek victory over the Persians in 480 b.c. (thirteen years after the supposed capture of Corioli). After the defeat, however, when Athens was secure, Themistocles' growing pride offended the Athenians. About 472 b.c. he was exiled from the city. In exile, evidence of treason was found against him and he had to make his way to Persia itself as the only place he could be safe.
On his way there he passed through the city of a man who was his personal enemy-Admetus, King of the Molossians. (Molossia was later known as Epirus and is, in modern times, called Albania.)
Themistocles came to Admetus in disguise and appealed to him as a fugitive, just as Coriolanus appealed to Aufidius.
Here the stories part company, however. Themistocles was accepted by Admetus and finally made his way to Persia, where he lived out the remainder of his life. He never took any actual action against Athens.
Coriolanus did not wish escape. He wished revenge.
Joined with Aufidius…
Aufidius accepts Coriolanus' help joyfully. In fact, he offers him generalship over half the army, for what may seem to us perfectly valid reasons. It may seem odd to take the chance of turning over half his forces to someone who until recently had been the chief enemy of the Volscians, but by now Aufidius must know Coriolanus' character well. He must know that Coriolanus has in his mind room for nothing but rage. If the rage is now turned against Rome, the breach between man and city will be made permanent. Coriolanus will have to continue aiding the Volscians, placing his fighting ability and his inside knowledge of Rome at Volscian disposal. And then, when Rome is utterly defeated and wiped out, Coriolanus can be taken care of.
Rome, meanwhile, is in a temporary state of utter peace and the tribunes congratulate themselves at having brought things to such a happy conclusion. The bad news comes soon enough, however. A messenger dashes in saying:
It is spoke freely out of many mouths,
How probable I do not know, that Marcius,
Joined with Aufidius, leads a power 'gainst Rome,
– Act IV, scene vi, lines 65-67
Perhaps this is why the missing scene is missing (either taken out or never written). For the missing scene to have worked, there would have had to be news of a Volscian advance, followed by a patrician refusal to abandon the city, so that Coriolanus would have had to join the enemy in a rage. But then he would merely be joining a marching army as a hanger-on.
This way, the Volscians don't move until Coriolanus joins them, and the news arrives that not only is the enemy approaching but the exiled Coriolanus is at their head. So, for the sake of this added drama, the missing scene is removed. It means that the meeting between the Roman and the Volsce is made irrelevant and Coriolanus' desertion to the Volscians and his anger against the "dastard nobles" left inadequately motivated. In this case, apparently, Shakespeare had his choice of two lines of development and did not manage to make a clear decision.
… cowardly nobles.. .
The failure to make a clear decision between the two courses of development haunts this sixth scene of the fourth act. At first the patricians seem rather exultant about Coriolanus' assault. Cominius says of the Vol-scians:
they follow him
Against us brats with no less confidence
Than boys pursuing summer butterflies,
– Act IV, scene vi, lines 93-95
Cominius is actually proud of Coriolanus' ascendancy over the Vol-scians, but note the picture of butterfly killing again. It is as though Shakespeare were reminding us that a child who is brought up as a butterfly killer may end as a city destroyer.
In the absence of the missing scene, it is perhaps here that the patricians ought to overcome their sympathy and admiration for Coriolanus and decide that patriotism takes priority. The necessary speech does not occur (perhaps because it was originally in the lost scene and was not shifted when the scene was lost). That it may have at one time been present might be indicated by a bitter remark of Menenius to the tribunes:
We loved him, but, like beasts
And cowardly nobles, gave way unto your clusters.
– Act IV, scene vi, lines 122-23
Of course, it might refer to the patricians acceding to the sentence of exile.
… more proudlier
Yet all is not well with Coriolanus, either. He is still Coriolanus and can no more bend to the Volscians, now that he is leading them, than he could ever bend to the Romans. The Volscian officers are uneasy and even Tullus Aufidius is unhappy, saying:
He bears himself more proudlier,
Even to my person, than I thought he would
When first I did embrace him; yet his nature
In that's no changeling. ..
– Act IV, scene vii, lines 8-11
And yet he must be used, for he is conquering Rome without even having to fight. Aufidius says:
All places yield to him ere he sits down,
And the nobility of Rome are his;
The senators and patricians love him too.
– Act IV, scene vii, lines 28-30
Apparently, even though the patricians of Rome have agreed to resist, there remain some who cling more tightly to party than to country. And even those who are intending to resist can do so with only half a heart.
And yet can the patricians honestly think that the Volscians are willing to serve as nothing more than a bunch of errand boys for them, to help them back to power out of love and kindness? The outside power, brought in to help in an internal fight, stays (all history shows) to help itself at the expense of all. And Aufidius says, at the end of the scene, apostrophizing the absent Coriolanus (to whom he refers by the familiar first name as though the man is someone he can now consider a tool or servant):
When, Caius, Rome is thine,
Thou art poor'st of all; then shortly art thou mine
– Act IV, scene vii, lines 56-57
The patricians who decide to resist Coriolanus may be moved by abstract love of country, but they may also be moved by a realization of the danger of accepting foreign help under any circumstances. This is something the Greeks never learned (and few nations since).
… one poor grain or two …
Soon Rome knows the worst. It is Coriolanus' vengeful desire to burn it to the ground. Surrender will not satisfy him; only destruction will. (This is purely psychotic unless the patricians had specifically deserted Coriolanus in the scene I postulate to be missing.)
Cominius, the ex-consul, and Coriolanus' old general, had gone to plead and had been met coldly. Cominius had reminded Coriolanus of his friends in the city and reports that:
His answer to me was,
He could not stay to pick them in a pile
Of noisome musty chaff. He said 'twas folly,
For one poor grain or two, to leave unburnt
And still to nose th'offense.
– Act V, scene i, lines 24-28
Even at best, with all possible motive, Coriolanus seems to have skirted the edge of madness here, for as Menenius points out:
For one poor grain or two!
I am one of those; his mother, wife, his child,
– Act V, scene i, lines 28-29
There seems little hope for penetrating the red veil of madness that has closed over Coriolanus' vengeful mind. Cominius says:
… all hope is vain
Unless his noble mother and his wife,
Who (as I hear) mean to solicit him
For mercy to his country.
– Act V, scene i, lines 70-74
Wife, mother, child…
Even this faint possibility seems to wither. Menenius is urged to try his luck with Coriolanus, but he is thrust scornfully away and Coriolanus denies that anyone, even his dearest, can sway him. He says to Menenius:
Wife, mother, child, I know not.
My affairs Are servanted to others.
– Act V, scene ii, lines 83-84
Has Coriolanus the strength to turn against his own mother? Perhaps, but only because he has a substitute. He remains the little boy who must have parental approval. Having brutally turned away Menenius, he turns to Aufidius and seeks approval with what might almost be a simper:
This man, Aufidius,
Was my beloved in Rome; yet thou behold'st.
– Act V, scene ii, lines 93-94
Aufidius knows his man. Gravely, he gives him what he wants and tells him he is a good boy:
You keep a constant temper.
– Act V, scene ii, line 95
… I'll speak a little
But now the women come: his wife, his mother, the fair Valeria. His young son is also there.
Coriolanus kneels to his mother, but holds firm, saying:
Do not bid me
Dismiss my soldiers, or capitulate
Again with Rome's mechanics.
Tell me not Wherein I seem unnatural.
Desire not T'allay my rages and revenges with
Your colder reasons.
– Act V, scene iii, lines 81-86
He is determined to place his own grievances above Rome and wishes to cancel his mother's arguments even before she makes them.
But now Volumnia, in a speech of noble eloquence, shows that she places Rome before him and herself. Too late she tries to teach him that life is not a matter of blows and rages alone; that there are softer and nobler virtues:
Think'st thou it honorable for a noble man
Still [always] to remember wrongs?
– Act V, scene iii, lines 154-55
And when Coriolanus remains obdurate, she rises to return to Rome to die and then uses the one remaining weapon at her disposal, and the most terrible of all:
Come, let us go.
This fellow had a Volscian to his mother;
His wife is in Corioles, and his child
Like him by chance. Yet give us our dispatch.
I am hushed until our city be a-fire,
And then I'll speak a little.
– Act V, scene iii, lines 177-82
With a terrible understatement, she makes it clear that when the city is burning, she will call down a dying mother's curse upon her son.
O my mother, mother…
And before this Coriolanus cannot stand. He collapses utterly and cries out:
O my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But, for your son-believe it, O, believe it!-
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him.
– Act V, scene iii, lines 185-89
He turns away; he will not fight further against Rome; and he asks Au-fidius to make peace. Aufidius is willing to do so. With Coriolanus not in the fight, Rome will be difficult to take. It would be better to make the peace, use the results against Coriolanus, and perhaps fight Rome another time when Coriolanus is not present either to help or to hinder. So much we can assume. Aufidius actually says, in an aside, that he is glad at this development since it will help him ruin Coriolanus.
… made for Alexander
In Rome Menenius is gloomy. He tells an anxious Sicinius that he doesn't think Volumnia will prevail; after all, he himself did not. He describes Coriolanus in the most forbidding terms as nothing but a war machine:
He sits in his state
as a thing made for Alexander.
– Act V, scene iv, lines 22-23
He is, in other words, as immobile, as aloof, as untouched by humanity as a statue of Alexander the Great. This is an anachronism, for Alexander lived nearly a century and a half after Coriolanus and died in 323 b.c.
But almost at that moment comes the news that Coriolanus has given in and that the army is gone. Rome goes mad with joy and flocks to the gates to greet Volumnia.
… thou boy of tears
The Volscian army is back in Corioles now and Aufidius is ready to strike and rid himself of the incubus he had earlier accepted; an incubus that would have been worth its cost if it had brought them the destruction of Rome. But it had not, for, as Aufidius says bitterly:
… at his nurse's tears
He whined and roared away your victory;
– Act V, scene vi, lines 97-98
Coriolanus, stupefied, calk on Mars, the god of war, and Aufidius says, with contempt:
Name not the god, thou boy of tears!
– Act V, scene vi, line 101
For the first time, Coriolanus has been openly called what he is. He is a boy; a tearful, butterfly-killing mamma's boy who never grew up except in muscles; who did all his warlike deeds so that his mother might clap her hands over him; and who broke up at last when his mother said "Bad boy!"
Coriolanus cannot accept Aufidius' sneer because in his heart he knows it is true, and he dare not let himself know it consciously. He keeps repeating that word, shouting:
"Boy!" False hound!
If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there,
That, like an eagle in a dovecote,
I Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles.
Alone I did it. "Boy"?
– Act V, scene vi, lines 113-17
His last boast is of his feat at Corioli in entering the city and fighting alone. At the end as at the beginning he is alone in the universe, he with his mother. Is that being a boy, he asks? Of course it is. A foolish act of boyish braggadocio is no less foolish because it succeeds.
And once again, Coriolanus' rage and tactlessness draws down anger upon himself. He is killed by numerous swords that have been prepared for the purpose by Aufidius himself.
The Volscian nobles are taken aback. They regret the sudden killing without trial, but one says of Coriolanus:
His own impatience
Takes from Aufidius a great part of blame.
Let's make the best of it.
– Act V, scene vi, lines 145-47
It is at this point of the climax of self-ruin that Shakespeare ends the tale.
Plutarch tells a little more. Coriolanus is honorably buried and the city of Rome pays homage to the mother, if not the son, by allowing her to mourn for him the full period of ten months that was then customary.
And at some time, in a future battle, Tullus Aufidius died in arms against Rome. Roman power grew steadily and Volscian power declined, and in the end it was Rome, Rome, Rome, over all Latium, all Italy, all the Mediterranean world.