Monday, November 17, 2014

"As If a Man Were Author of Himself"

A couple of years ago, I saw a performance of Coriolanus on the Boston Common. It was that rare experience of seeing a great Shakespeare play with no prior knowledge. I had only the vaguest idea of what the play was about, and didn’t know a single line from it. This is, to say the least, not the way we usually encounter Shakespeare.

You don't appreciate this play until you see it performed. It is fast-paced, genuinely exciting, and often funny -- qualities that do not come out on page. Some forgotten Shakespeare plays are forgotten for a reason. But this one, you have to wonder why it isn't up there in the canon with Macbeth and Othello and Lear. Maybe because it lacks show-stopping monologues (something you miss less on the stage.) More likely because the central character is such a cipher.

So who is Coriolanus? He turns out to be, essentially, John Galt — or Mitt Romney, or Leung Chun-Ying. Which means that this is a play that speaks to our current condition. The connection was obvious when I saw the play, less than a year after the end of Occupy (which this staging clearly referenced) and a few months before the 2012 elections. I meant to write something about it then. But I got distracted with other things, and after Mitt Romney left the big stage it seemed less relevant. But as Paul Krugman reminds us,  Coriolanuses still walk among us. So I’ll belatedly set down my thoughts now.

* * *

The play opens with a riot, by the plebians of Rome against the patricians. The rioters are surprisingly articulate. Far more so than urban rioters in similar contemporary stories (like the plain people of Gotham in the Dark Knight Rises.)
FIRST CITIZEN. We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good. What authority surfeits on would relieve us; if they would yield us but the superfluity… the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory of their abundance; our suffering is gain to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes … the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.
Note that their demand — repeated a couple times over the play — is to have wheat from the storehouses sold at a fair price. This demand that "engrossers" be required to disgorge their stores was, I beleive, a common demand in urban riots — indeed, traditional English law required it. The patricians in Coriolanus often speak as though giving in to the rioters would imply a complete social breakdown -- but when Shakespeare has the plebians themselves speak, this is what they call for, not  aimless destruction.

To mollify the mob, the patrician Menenius explains to them that if they are the arms and legs of Rome, the nobility is the stomach. This metaphor might read differently then (like a fire that gives light vs. heat, a line that is always quoted backwards today) but it's hard not see it as a sly acknowledgement that the mob is right.
MENENIUS. There was a time when all the body's members
Rebell'd against the belly; thus accus'd it:--
That only like a gulf it did remain
In the midst o' the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing'
Like labour with the rest … it tauntingly replied
... I am the storehouse and the shop
Of the whole body...
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live …
Menenius is a bit of a clown, a kind of Polonius figure. It’s Coriolanus himself who gets the best songs from the conservative hymnal — that the common people are under the control of their appetites, they are capricious, that they can't govern themselves, they are liable to turn on each other without an authority over them.
CORIOLANUS: ... your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye!
With every minute you do change a mind
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?
This is a central theme of conservative and reactionary politics -- that ordinary people, left to ourselves, would be unable to solve our coordination problems, would fall into a war of all against all. This is always the story we're told about urban riots, it's the story that the purpose of Occupy was, in a sense,  to challenge. We heard  Coriolanus's voice most clearly after Hurricane Katrina, when the reality of violence by the authorities and of mutual aid in New Orleans were transformed in the popular imagination (with help of some vile propaganda) into fantasies of anarchic violence by the people trapped in the city. Rebecca Solnit's A Paradise Built in Hell is a good corrective to this myth.

To be fair, some of the common people in the play seem to accept this account of themselves:
FIRST CITIZEN. ...  once we stood up about the corn, he himself stuck not to call us the many-headed multitude. 
THIRD CITIZEN. We have been called so of many; not that our heads are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald, but that our wits are so diversely coloured; and truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south; and their consent of one direct way should be at once to all the points o' the compass.
But then that is how ideology works -- to foreclose the possibility of alternative forms of coordination.

Meanwhile the patricians are discussing the situation. Coriolanus asks Menenius  what it is, exactly, that the common people want.
MENENIUS. For corn at their own rates; whereof they say
The city is well stor'd. 
They say! They'll sit by th' fire and presume to know
What's done i' the Capitol; who's like to rise,
Who thrives and who declines; side factions, and give out
Conjectural marriages; making parties strong,
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there's grain enough!
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I'd make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter'd slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance. …
They said they were an-hungry; sigh'd 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:--with these shreds
They vented their complainings…
Even in Coriolanus' hostile summary, the mob sounds kind of reasonable, no? Note that he doesn’t deny that the city’s storehouses have enough grain to feed the populace. (And it soon becomes clear they do.) Rather, he is outraged by the idea that ordinary people have any opinion on these questions at all. The violence of his response is remarkable — he’d like to slaughter thousands of Roman citizens — especially considering he is the notional hero of the play. But then indiscriminate violence is often the response when the social hierarchy is seriously threatened -- consider the 20-30,000 Parisians killed in the ten days following the fall of the Paris Commune.

The concilatory faction among the nobility wins out, and tribunes are appointed to represent the plebians in government. In the production I saw, the tribunes really stole the show. Even if the text itself presents the tribunes mostly as half clowns, half villains, you have to love a play with a couple of communist agitators as central characters. Their costumes brought this out in the Boston Commons production, but it's right there in the text.

Before the social conflict can continue, however, it’s cut short by war on Rome’s borders. Coriolanus is given command of some of the Roman troops fighting against the Volscian invaders. Not surprisingly, he regards his rank and file soldiers about as favorably as he does ordinary Roman citizens.
You shames of Rome! … You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
… by the fires of heaven, I'll leave the foe
And make my wars on you
Nonetheless, the Volscians are defeated; and after his wartime success, Coriolanus is a natural choice for consul. His fellow patricians urge him to accept the office. The catch is that Roman law requires the populace to approve new consuls. It's just a formality, but one that — with the recent unrest — can't be safely dispensed with.  Coriolanus wants the job but refuses to ask for it. His pride is expressed in a refusal to do anything that would seem to be asking for acknowledgement or reward.  This comes out specifically in the question of whether he will display his battle wounds to the public, apparently a relaible way of winning their admiration. He expresses unwillingness:
CORIOLANUS: I have some wounds upon me, and they smart
To hear themselves remember'd.
The funny thing is, no one has mentioned his wounds until now! Throughout the play, Coriolanus is a master of this sort of humblebragging.

Don’t worry, the other patricians tell Coriolanus, just show up and talk about your victories, and the people will approve you. They are weak-willed and easily swayed. But Coriolanus refuses. He hates more than anything else having to ask the masses for approval. Even if they'd give it, no problem, it infuriates him that they even get a say over their natural superiors like him. On behalf of the patrician class, Menenius begs him to suck up his pride and pretend, just for a moment, to want the people’s approval.
CORIOLANUS. Are these your herd?
Must these have voices, that can yield them now,
And straight disclaim their tongues?
What are your offices?
You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth?
Have you not set them on? 
MENENIUS. Be calm, be calm. 
CORIOLANUS. It is a purpos'd thing, and grows by plot,
To curb the will of the nobility: Suffer't, and live with such as cannot rule,
Nor ever will be rul'd. …
In soothing them we nourish 'gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough'd for, sow'd, and scatter'd,
By mingling them with us, the honour'd number
Of course, he isn't wrong. Granting even symbolic authority to the plebs calls into question the inevitbility of the authority of their superiors. The greatest strength of the rule of a small elite is that no other possibility is even thinkable. So any symbol that renders it thinkable, is threatening.

Recall the judgement of Charles LeClerc, the general sent to reconquer Haiti for Napoleon: "We must exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men... wipe out half the population of the lowlands, and not leave in the entire colony a single black who has ever warn an epaulette." If it is possible for blacks to be officers, LeClerc reasoned, it is impossible for blacks to be slaves. There were similar reactions in the Confederacy to proposals to use blacks as soldiers.

Coriolanus thinks like LeClerc. And anyway, he personally is unwilling to acknowledge any dependence, even symbolic, on his  inferiors. He will be consul only thanks to his own natural superiority, not thanks to any kind of public approval.

Menenius begs him to reconsider:
MENENIUS. You'll mar all: I'll leave you.
Pray you speak to 'em, I pray you,
In wholesome manner. 
CORIOLANUS. Bid them wash their faces
And keep their teeth clean.
So, here comes a brace:
[Re-enter two citizens.]
You know the cause, sirs, of my standing here. 
FIRST CITIZEN. We do, sir; tell us what hath brought you to't. 
CORIOLANUS. Mine own desert. 
SECOND CITIZEN. Your own desert? 
CORIOLANUS. Ay, not mine own desire. 
FIRST CITIZEN. How! not your own desire!
CORIOLANUS. No, sir, 'twas never my desire yet to trouble the poor with begging. 
CORIOLANUS. Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
 Why in this wolvish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick that do appear,
Their needless vouches?
When I saw the play in the fall of 2012, the parallel with the “you didn’t build it” pseudo-controversy was glaring. (It's interesting also that Coriolanus refers to common people as “trades.”) The idea that the occupants of high positions might owe any of their success to those beneath them, is anathema. As Coriolianus warns his fellow patricians, hierarchy and democracy are an unstable mix:
You are plebeians,
If they be senators: and they are no less
When .. they choose their magistrates
How shall this multitude digest
The senate's courtesy? Let deeds express
What's like to be their words:--'We did request it;
We are the greater poll, and in true fear
They gave us our demands:'-- Thus we debase
The nature of our seats, and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o' the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles. 
The tribunes, though they often come across as clownish, clearly understand what’s at stake as well as Corolianus does. Here's one of the tribunes:
BRUTUS: So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to's power he would
Have made them mules, silenc'd their pleaders, and
Dispropertied their freedoms; holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in their war; who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.
In general, the tribunes' line against Coriolanus is that he is proud, that he is using his (unquestionably genuine) accomplishments and virtues to set himself up above the people. This kind of jealousy and suspicion of successful war leaders seems to be a central theme of human egalitarianism, going back to the paleolithic.

It's striking what tribune Brutus says to Coriolanus when he confronts him directly:
BRUTUS. You speak o' the people
As if you were a god, to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.
Here is the central theme of the play: the idea of “superior” people that they are somehow outside of society, outside the common condition of humanity, versus the reality that they are as dependent, as infirm, as the rest of us.

Coriolanus also hates his opposite number, the Volscian general Aufidius. (I have no idea who if anyone this represents historically.) But there’s a difference in the  quality of hatred for an equal as against a social inferior. Here, Coriolanus asks a Roman diplomat about Aufidius.
CORIOLANUS. Spoke he of me?

LARTIUS. He did, my lord.


LARTIUS. How often he had met you, sword to sword;
That of all things upon the earth he hated
Your person most; that he would pawn his fortunes
To hopeless restitution, so he might
Be call'd your vanquisher.

CORIOLANUS. At Antium lives he?

LARTIUS. At Antium.

CORIOLANUS. I wish I had a cause to seek him there,
To oppose his hatred fully.
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people;
The tongues o' the common mouth. I do despise them,
For they do prank them in authority,
Against all noble sufferance.
The one hatred involves a kind of admiration and attraction ("I wish I had cause to seek him there"); the other only contempt. Even opposing elites are closer to each other than to the people they rule.

The combination of his visible contempt and the tribunes' urging the people not to acclaim him unless he shows some respect, result in Coriolanus being denied the consulship, and then accused of treason and exiled from the city.  As he puts it, "the beast with many heads butts me away." It's interesting how often the play uses this kind of language for the common people; it brings to mind Linebaugh's Many-Headed Hydra. Linebaugh himself suggests that Shakespeare wrote the play in response to the Midlands revolt of 1607, a mass uprising against enclosures that, apparently, was the first appearance of "Levellers" in England. What's interesting about the play as a whole is that it faces forward to this kind of class politics, rather than backward, like the history plays, to the older world of dynastic, feudal politics. It might be the only Shakespeare play that George Scialabba would approve. (It was also the only Shakespeare play that interested Brecht.)

After leaving Rome, Coriolanus seeks out his old enemy Aufidius and pledges his service to him and the Volscians if they will make a new war on Rome. Like Rand's D'Anconia, he imagines he'll leave Rome as he found it. (So maybe the tribunes' accusations of treason were on the mark?) Aufidius, an aristocrat himself, is buying what Coriolanus is selling:
AUFIDIUS. ... the nobility of Rome are his;
The senators and patricians love him too:
The tribunes are no soldiers; and their people
Will be as rash in the repeal as hasty
To expel him thence. I think he'll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.
With Coriolanus and Aufidius sharing command, the Volscian army reverses its defeats and advances to the gates of Rome. The tribunes want to raise a new army (this is only mentioned in passing, but I thought it was an interesting detail). Meanwhile, the patricians send emissaries out, who know Coriolanus and perhaps can convince him to spare the city.  But Coriolanus turns them all away, even Menenius who, he says, was like a father to him:
CORIOLANUS. This last old man,
Whom with crack'd heart I have sent to Rome,
Lov'd me above the measure of a father;
Nay, godded me indeed. Their latest refuge
Was to send him...
As these lines suggest, the specific challenge Coriolanus faces here is denying the social ties that connect him to Rome -- denying that he owes anything to anyone, that he is in any way dependent, enmeshed in a web of social obligations. Or as he puts it:
... I'll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct; but stand,
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.
Coriolanus imagines himself as, precisely, a self-made man. But as Professor T. says, nobody is: The thing that libertarians always forget or ignore is the biological dependence everyone experiences, not least as children. It's only possible to imagine yourself as an autonomous monad, author to yourself, if family life is rigidly walled off from civil society and, in general, if women are kept out of sight.

You think I'm reading that into the play? No no, Coriolanus says it himself:
Not of a woman's tenderness to be,
Requires nor child nor woman's face to see.
And that's his downfall. Once Menenius returns in defeat, the Romans have one more trump to play. They send Coriolanus' mother, wife and son to plead with him. (It's a funny, proto-feminist touch that Menenius himself scoffs at this last attempt. If he, Coriolanus' mentor, failed, how could these women and children have a chance?) Coriolanus tries to convince himself to ignore even these most primal ties:
the honour'd mould
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood. But, out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.
But he can't do it. The bond and privilege of nature wins out, and he refuses to continue with the attack. Alas for all our would-be Coriolanuses, everyone has a mother. Or as the defrocked priest warns Captain Bednar in the climactic scene of The Man with the Golden Arm, "we are all members of one another." (I only discovered writing this post that it's a bible quote, from Romans.)

And that's it. Coriolanus returns in disgrace to the Volscian capital, where his former allies murder him, and then -- guiltily and a bit incongruously -- offer him a stately funeral, declaring that his is
...the most noble corpse that ever herald
Did follow to his urn.
(I read somewhere that the reason so many Shakespeare plays end with these funeral marches is that, since theaters of the time did not have curtains, some device was needed to get the "dead" actors off the stage.)

So what are we supposed to think about this person? The play is a bit ambiguous. Structurally, Coriolanus is the hero. But he hardly comes across as admirable. On the other hand, he is the object of various "most noble Roman" orations, right up to Aufidius' closing lines. So maybe he is intended as a tragic hero? You might think so ... except for one remarkable scene in the middle of the play (cut unfortunately from the movie version), where Shakespeare tips his hand.

Here, Coriolanus has just won a major battle against the Volscians, and captured one of their cities, which is being sacked by the Roman troops. Cominius, the overall Roman commander, offers Coriolanus his share of the loot:
COMINIUS: ... Of all the horses,
Whereof we have ta'en good and good store, of all
The treasure in this field achieved and city,
We render you the tenth, to be ta'en forth,
Before the common distribution, at
Your only choice. 
CORIOLANUS: I thank you, general;
But cannot make my heart consent to take
A bribe to pay my sword: I do refuse it;
And stand upon my common part with those
That have beheld the doing.
That's our boy, no loot for him. He's too good for all that. But it turns out, he does have one favor to ask from the commander:
CORIOLANUS: The gods begin to mock me. I, that now
Refused most princely gifts, am bound to beg
Of my lord general.

COMINIUS: Take't; 'tis yours. What is't?

CORIOLANUS: I sometime lay here in Corioli
At a poor man's house; he used me kindly:
He cried to me; I saw him prisoner;
But then Aufidius was with in my view,
And wrath o'erwhelm'd my pity: I request you
To give my poor host freedom.

COMINIUS: O, well begg'd!
Were he the butcher of my son, he should
Be free as is the wind. Deliver him, Titus.

LARTIUS: Marcius, his name?

CORIOLANUS: By Jupiter! forgot.
I am weary; yea, my memory is tired.
Have we no wine here?

COMINIUS: Go we to our tent:
The blood upon your visage dries; 'tis time
It should be look'd to: come.

And, scene! Nothing more is heard of the old man.

It's an amazing scene. I couldn't believe it when I saw it. This is black humor worthy of Joseph Heller. Here's the noble Roman, making a noble request after his great victory: He doesn't want gold or women, only mercy for an old man who treated him kindly when he was in need. Oh how noble! Except ... he can't remember the fellow's name. Oh well. He was just a nobody anyway. Let's go have some wine.

It's tempting to call the play surprisingly modern. But the truth is, even in the 21st century it's hard to find such an unflinching portrait of an overdog. Here is someone whose only idea of morality is an image of himself. He's not interested in the effects of his actions on other people; the common people only matter to him as a backdrop for the stage on which he plays the hero. It must have been a type that Shakespeare knew well.

UPDATE: In comments, MisterMR supplies the historical context, from Livy.


  1. As the story comes from Livy, here is the link to the livian text (in english translation, from 2-32 to 2-40):

    Some spoilers:
    - Menenius died the year after is famous oration, so he couldn't plead to Corolanus when C. attacked Rome. Menenius died very poor so that the plebeians, who apparently liked him, paid by themselves for his funeral.
    - Presumably "Aufidius" is Attius Tullius??
    - The plebs didn't just ask for a lower price of wheat, they asked for Rome to import wheat from abroad (as there was a famine going on). Side note: I think that most of the plebeians were actually farmers, and that they made up most of the roman army at the time.
    - Livy is uncertain on the end of Coriolanus, as some of his sources say he was killed by the Volsci for his betrayal, other say that he lived in exile thereafter.
    - When Coriolanus attacked Rome, he burned the fields of the plebeians, but not those of the senators, in hope to cause a new plebeian revolt - playng on class struggle at its best!

    1. Sorry but, rading Livy, the whole story starts before and is IMHO very interesting:

      Starting from 2-23:

      The Romans (who apparently had a war every few months at the time) just won a war, when many plebeians lamented that while they were at war (the roman republic had a draft system for the army), at home they were driven in debt slavery (literal, that is they were actually enslaved) by "money lenders", and that war was less bad for plebeians than peace.
      [NOTE: war veterans - isn't it a very american thing? This was also an issue after ww1 in Italy and arguably caused the rise os fascism.]

      There is a lot of unrest but in the meanwhile the Volsci attack, and the senate is forced to promise some sort of debt forgiveness or the plebeians will not fight.
      The romans then win something like three campaings in a few days.
      When the enemy menace disappears, the senate basically reneges its promises of debt forgiveness, which pisses of the plebeians a lot.
      The plebeians then start a sort of non violent resistance (really! Occupy Aventinus) against both creditors and the draft. The senate then is forced to chose between:

      a) debt forgiveness for everyone (as most of the pleb is heavily indebted)
      b) debt forgiveness, but only for war veterans
      c) no debt forgiveness but the use of force, appointing a "dictator" (and thus martial law).

      They choose (c) but appoint a plebs-friendly dictator, who actually forgives some debt, so that they can finally draft an army and fight yet another war, that they win.
      But after the war the senate again reneges the promises of debt relief, so that the dictator resigns from his office (as he simpathizes with the plebeians).
      Then the whole army (composed mostly by plebeians) refuses to disband and sits menaceously near rome. Here Menenius makes his famous oration, and brokers a compromise where the plebs gets to appoint his magistrates (the Tribuns, more like union leaders than communist agitators). From there on the story of Coriolanus starts (as during a famine the tribuns force the senate to buy wheat from abroad).

  2. MisterMr - Thanks, this is extremely interesting. I knew literally none of this history.

    Presumably, Shakespeare modified the story to make it fit the political context of his own time. So there's no mention of debt forgiveness in the play (which is too bad), and no suggestion that the rioting plebians are soldiers or veterans. It's clearly an urban mob, composed of laborers, artisans, perhaps small shopkeepers. Despite these differences, it's interesting how closely the play fits with the history you describe.

    This is not my area of expertise, obviously -- I was just reacting to the play as I saw it. (I wrote some notes afterward.) There must be scholarship on the political content and context of the play, but I don't know it.

  3. Nice job JW. Coriolanus is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays.

    I think the tribunes are presented in Shakepeare's text as much more interesting, serious and multifaceted than contemporary productions tend to portray them. The tribunes are scheming and realistic street politicians. But they have a job to do: to protect the tenuous and hard-won political power of the plebians from political assault and subversion from above. And they are very serious about that job. Right from the beginning, they clear-sightedly recognize Coriolanus is a threat to the newly democratized republican system, and their anxieties are proven entirely correct by events. As soon as Coriolanus ascends to the consulship, he begins plotting with the other nobles to subvert the constitution and restore unchecked oligarchic command.

    The tribunes are in a bind, because political power is new to the plebians. (Although Shakespeare compresses events, the career of Coriolanus did indeed come at the time of the creation of the tribunate, and was bound up with those events.) The plebians are a bit too courteous and deferential toward their military heroes, and while they go into the vetting process with some notion of expecting commitments of political benefits from Coriolanus, they are a bit dazzled by the whole thing and end up courteously giving Coriolanus their “voices” despite the fact that they can register that he is mocking them and pissing all over them. Only after the fact do they compare their impressions and realize their mistake, with some help from the more clear-eyed tribunes, and fixing the mistake requires the tribunes to cook up a conflict that will cause Coriolanus to reveal his true colors so they can undo the damage.

    The Romans, Shakespeare’s play suggests, have a deeply flawed system of awarding their military commanders and heroes with consulships - i.e. positions of important political power in the state - as though political position in a republic is just one more victory laurel or honor. In some cases, they got talented consuls as a result. But as Shakespeare shows in the case of Coriolanus, sometimes you get people who are utterly unsuited by temperament and talent for governance in a republic. It really is politically crazy to make a person like Coriolanus consul. The string of political disasters in the play all spring from following this flawed tradition. Menenius, who is politically shrewd in many ways about the realities of political stability, is nothing but a star-struck hero-worshipper around Coriolanus. When the Senate is met to consider Coriolanus for the consulship, we get this exchange before Cominius's speech:

    We are convented
    Upon a pleasing treaty, and have hearts
    Inclinable to honour and advance
    The theme of our assembly.

    Which the rather
    We shall be blest to do, if he remember
    A kinder value of the people than
    He hath hereto prized them at.

    That's off, that's off;
    I would you rather had been silent. Please you
    To hear Cominius speak?

    Most willingly;
    But yet my caution was more pertinent
    Than the rebuke you give it.

    Pertinent indeed. Menenius doesn't want Brutus to rain on the Coriolanus feel-good victory pageant and post-war afterglow by inserting any unpleasant questions about Coriolanus’s actual political past, dispositions and future intentions. But Brutus is entirely right.

  4. Shakespeare puts a lot into showing that the ancient “noble” qualities that make a man an outstanding military leader – violent ruthlessness, a deep inner sense of personal superiority that expresses itself by a desire to confront and defeat the most potent rivals in battle, a world-disdaining contempt for ease and the good opinions of others, a willingness to endure single combat, and valor bordering on a death wish that is capable of inspiring courage in others – have relatively little in common with the qualities needed to govern a republican political state.

    Modern productions of Coriolanous – like the recent Donmar theater production - tend to be done by bourgeois liberals who find the rugged and bare knuckled politics of ward bosses, labor leaders and the like repellent, and often represent the tribunes as utterly disgusting machiavels or clownish demagogues. The recent production also presented an extremely sympathetic Menenius as the sane center of the play. But I think Shakespeare is much more skeptical about Menenius.

  5. Thanks, Dan. Once again, I have to say how thrilled I am at the quality of comments on this blog. Very sharp observations and in particular, I think you're right that I was too quick to accept the idea of the tribunes as Caliban-like clownish villains.

    The one point I might push back against you a bit is on the idea that the problem of Coriolanuses is specific to Rome. I think the phenomenon of heroic war leaders being given political power is a very general one, and one that democratic societies always have to be on guard against. I don't know if you noticed the link to Hierarchy in the Forest (or if you know the book), but the argument there is that hunter-gatherer societies tend to be highly egalitarian (at least with respect to adult men) and that one of the ways this is maintained is by an intense suspicion toward war leaders, successful hunters, etc. Jealousy and resentment are functional and maybe necessary to a democratic society.

    1. Just as with the pitfalls of EvPsych explanations of gender dynamics, the little I know about hunter-gatherer societies is that they are extremely diverse, some highly hierarchical, some less so. I also think that there's a bit of a selection problem with a lot of cultural anthropology, in which the hunter-gatherer societies that survived into the 20th century to be studied were specifically those in difficult and inhospitable environments in which resource accumulation was particularly difficult and the pressures for egalitarianism were probably higher. I do think the conventional story of the "surplus" created by agriculture being connected to an intensification and dynastic reification of hierarchy must be by-and-large true, though.

  6. Coriolanus is the type of the archaic aristocrat, who derives his ruling authority from honoring the gods (from whom aristocrats are mythically or ostensibly descended), which assures the integrity of the state. (When I read the play long ago, I happened also about the same time to read a piece in NYRB about the odes of Pindar, which evoke exactly that ethos of archaic aristocracy). Hence his inwardness, his refusal to express himself and play a role, his insistence on his unblemished and unquestionable integrity or honor, which is an intrinsic matter, not something derived from anything external or dependent. But he is put in a position where he muct become politic, to secure his position, which he is utterly incapable of doing, and thus he ends up a traitor to the very city-state that he serves: he becomes self-divided by the very "logic" of his sense of integrity and wholeness, which he can't under the newly emerging conditions, sustain. Therein lies his tragedy, his downfall, his status as a "hero".

    Tragedies are about the transitions between ages, the birth of new worlds, which exact a sacrificial "price". And Shakespeare, (who was after all an actor as well as playwright), is all about role-playing and the coming of a newer, more "politic" order, to which rulers must adapt. But it is often those who silently refuse to "play their role" who set the wreck in motion. In that respect, Coriolanus is analogous to Cordelia.

    The play is, indeed, one of the bard's best tragedies, although disparaged traditionally. It's no accident that T.S. Eliot was one of its main promoters.

  7. JCH-

    Mostly agree. But I think you're too generous to Coriolanus. Your reading is hard to square with the scene I quote at the end of the post, where Coriolanus fails to redeem the old man who'd sheltered him because, fundamentally, he doesn't give a fuck. Not how a proper aristocratic hero would behave.

  8. Good post.

    But I’m not sure that the archetype Shakespeare and Livy are critiquing (or elegizing) is aristocratic.

    Today’s Coriolanuses tend to be egotistical industrialists, whether populists like Henry Ford or elitists like the Koch Brothers. That personality type is rare in politics, even aristocratic politics. Mitt Romney is an aristocrat and an elitist, but not a Coriolanus. Mitt’s a student of Meninius: he disdains plebeians in private, but he knows he has to concede them some rights—like Romney-care—and he bows and scrapes before their tribunes. Mitt would not have forgotten the old man’s name, because his aides would have briefed him on it in preparation for a photo op that would play well with the plebeians.

    Aristocratic politics (especially Rome’s) is not so much about Coriolanus’s strident class chauvinism as a belief in class structure—the notion that there should be a hierarchy of classes, each with its responsibilities and privileges, with patricians on top but with plebeians having some rights too, although sharply circumscribed ones. It’s the class structure, the system of assigning caste rights by convention, that Coriolanus is really attacking—which puts him at odds with the aristocratic consensus.

    Coriolanus doesn’t believe in class structures, in social hierarchies that grant caste rights by convention. He believes in natural hierarchies—in the hierarchy of personal nobility, in rights that adhere to a man by virtue of his innate character and deeds. In that hierarchy he recognizes Aufidius and the old man as his natural equals. The subtler point of the old man scene is the political absurdity of that notion of natural hierarchy, of imagining that a polity can mete out just consideration according to personal nobility. Coriolanus himself can’t do it, less because he’s a hypocrite than because he’s an exhausted, forgetful human who can’t remenber the name of the old man he’s indebted to. A polity must be impersonal: it has to accord rights on a corporatist rather than personalist basis.

    Coriolanus imagines a natural hierarchy of nobility, but Aufidius interprets that as the natural hierarchy of osprey over fish, predator over prey. That’s canny, and it points to the play’s tragic irony. By attacking hierarchies of conventional status in the name of natural hierarchies of personal nobility, Coriolanus ends up attacking Rome itself and endangering his own (noble by convention) family—essentially preying on his own flesh and blood, the ultimate perversion of natural bonds. His egotism makes him not only a scourge of plebeians but a traitor to his own family and class.

    Shakespeare closely follows Livy’s political take here, while superbly psychologizing Coriolanus. Livy’s account of Coriolanus is part of his brief for the aristocratic republicanism of the Roman constitution, which he had seen undone by Augustus. That constitution safeguarded elite privilege within a hierarchical order that put patricians on top while placating plebeians with narrowly circumscribed rights. Livy sees the republican constitution as the bulwark of the upper classes against the threats of tyranny from above and democracy from below—especially the Caesarian menace of a populist strongman who opportunistically harnesses plebeian enthusiasm to cement his power in an overmighty state that rides roughshod over senators as well as commoners.

    Livy is a shrewd propagandist, so he makes Coriolanus, a proto-Caesar, into a vehement hater of plebeians, thus disputing the association of Caesarism with populist reform. But he also attacks Coriolanus’s pose as a champion of patrician interests; his overweening elitism almost destroys Rome and his aristocratic family. The lesson Livy suggests in the Coriolanus episode, pitched at both sides in the Roman class war, is that patrician security and plebeian rights alike are best served by the republican constitution, not by strongmen—by a stable hierarchy of corporatist rights, not by forceful personalities, however noble. That’s the essence of his aristocratic politics.

  9. Livy was writing at the beginning of the Imperial era. It is not even known whether Coriolanus actually existed, but the events depicted would be dated 4-5 centuries earlier, at the beginning of the Republican era.

    The general lit-crit point is that moral-political tendentiousness in interpretation is a bit beside the point and tends toward sentimental distortions. Coriolanus might be "unsympathetic" or even odious, but the issue is rather what does he consist in and where lies the tragic crux: it's consistency in the face of conflicting, incommensurable, but potentially equally valid, values or "principles" that makes for the "hero" and his downfall. (The tragedy I don't get is "Antony and Cleopatra", which has a peculiarly bright tone: the implication is that the pair have forsaken public obligation for private passion, which may be "sinful", but doesn't seem "principled").

    Any production/performance of a classic play is a re-interpretation and it's perfectly legitimate to dress it up in contemporary garb and relevance rather than sticking to dreary and outmoded conventions. But I don't think that Randroids and vulture capitalists like Romney are apt references. (It's only because C. has been dislocated from his ultra-traditionalist assumptions that he becomes "as if... author of himself" and only his momma can tell him otherwise. He does not initially desire an unfettered "autonomy" without obligation. Rather the problem is that role-playing carries with it the implications of falsity and inauthenticity. On the other hand, I have no idea what to make of conservatives nowadays who conserve nothing, who have no sense of either history or tradition). Other productions I've read reviews of,- (I've never seen the play and read it 25 years or so ago),- make C. out to be the type of a fascist leader, which is closer to the mark, but still misses C.'s refusal of the very sort of "populism" that fascists thrive on. The "moral" of the story might be the transition from mythos to ethos, except that every ethos tends to carry its own mythos with it.

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    Haven't read all the comments closely, but seeing JW Mason's remark above re not being familiar w the scholarship on the play (which I'm not either), I remembered that Allan Bloom's first book was on Shakespeare's politics. I wonder what he said about this play -- not that I'm actually going to make a big point of finding out.

    My sense is that many of S's plays, despite their ostensible period settings, are colored by his own contemporary personal/political preoccupations. That's certainly true of some of the history plays. As I recall, Greenblatt in Will in the World, which I read several years ago, gives a striking example or two of this -- unfortunately, like Coriolanus forgetting the name of the old man who was kind to him, I've forgotten the details. And it's too late rt now to look them up.

    1. Yes, I think that's right -- despite the Roman setting this is probably best thought of in terms of politics in Shakespeare's own time. One reason the Leveler connection made by Linebaugh is so interesting.

    2. Could be, but it also might be the other way around—Shakespeare might have viewed the politics of his own day through the lens of Livy’s history.

      All Western political thinkers of the 17th and 18th century read and were influenced by Roman historians. It’s not far-fetched to think that Shakespeare’s understanding of politics would consciously follow Livyan lines (just like his plot and his stomach speech, lifted straight from Livy). Ideology shapes perceptions as often as vice versa. Assuming Shakespeare knew about the proto-Levelers in 1607, he might have said, “Hmm. What would Livy make of that?” In the plays his attitude towards the lower classes was, in a very Livyan way, ambivalent—somewhat sympathetic in Coriolanus, very negative in Julius Caesar, where the plebeians are just the playthings of demagogues.

      Shakespeare might have been drawn to Livy because his stories resonated with developing 17th-century English political currents, especially as they would erupt in the 1640s. Then you had a revolution against a Stuart king asserting absolutist royal powers, reminiscent of the Tarquinian king overthrown by the Roman Republic in 509 BC. You had a Parliament of lesser gentry and wealthy commoners rebelling against the king for the sake of their prerogatives and pocketbooks, roughly the same social class and motives that sparked Rome’s republican revolution. Like the Roman Senate of Livy’s Late Republic, Parliament recruited support from a New Model Army of the lower classes. (Reforms in the First Century B. C. also instituted a new model Roman legion, changing the army from one manned by temporary draftees from the propertied classes to a long-service professional force recruited from Rome’s underclass.) The New Model Army became an institution through which the lower classes asserted democratic demands that threatened elite power, just as the new model legion did. And rising to command the New Model Army was the unsettling figure of Cromwell, the English Caesar—a dictator, stronger than Parliament, who posed a threat of populist reform but ended up tamping down democratic pressures and stabilizing the hierarchy.

      Livy would have felt right at home in Shakespeare’s world.

    3. As someone who does not know much about Roman history or Livy, I've learned something from your comments. I think, as Halasz suggests below, it's hard to know exactly where Shakespeare stood on things or whether he used his sources for matters beyond plot and language, whether they influenced his political views, or whether he even had developed, coherent political views. Unlike Machiavelli, after all, S. did not write a set of discourses on Livy.

    4. You and John C. Halasz are surely right that Shakespeare was not writing a political treatise or trying to send a policy message. Maybe I am overstating the extent to which there is a coherent political philosophy here.

      On the other hand, there's no denying that Coriolanus and Julius Caesar have political content. They are plays about political conflicts. In them, Shakespeare treats at some length questions of how different groups behave politically and conceive their political interests, how leaders consolidate political power, and what the implications are for the stability of the state.

      So it's appropriate to ask what ideas Shakespeare had about these political questions, and where he got them. I think it's naive to imagine that Shakespeare's politics came solely, or even largely, from his direct perception of and rumination on political events in his own day. He lived at a time when Livy was considered an authority on politics and was read by every educated man (including Shakespeare, since Livy is the source of his plot.) So it's plausible to conjecture that Livy had an overt influence on how Shakespeare thought about and handled the political themes in these very political plays.

  11. You might want to take another look at that "body politick" speech, in which the polity is reified as a literal body. It doesn't come from Coriolanus, but from Mencius, who you rightly detect something of Polonius, (i.e. pedantic and silly). Mightn't it be ironical, in the light of Coriolanus' harsh vehemence, (as the expression of not his being a "cypher", but as having been startled into reflection from his accustomed inwardness)? Isn't there something inept and inapt about it, even though the analogy has a long tradition? (Why are the rulers the stomach, i.e. simply the seat of appetite, rather than the head or the heart, the classical site of the rational soul?)

    It's something of a fool's errand to try and figure where Shakespeare,- (speaking of cyphers),- stands on things. (That was geo's complaint via Shaw. They want there to be a "message" in literature). Rather he seems to be just interested in how it plays.

    1. Here I agree with you. The speech seems deliberately inept. I take this as another sign of Shakespeare as crypto-Leveller, but I freely admit that's more wish than informed reading.

  12. I think Shakespeare was endlessly fascinated by power - most of his major plays revolve around how people regard/treat/lose/win power. And he was a very sharp thinker about it. But, as noted, he was the complete humanist, always seeing all sides of the issue and rarely casting his characters as black or white. There's a desperate nobility even in Macbeth's last defiance of his just end, for instance, and Polonius has his flashes of insight. Coriolanus as Macarthur? Perfectly plausible.

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