Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
North’s 1579 English translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives served as primary source material for three of Shakespeare’s plays, including Coriolanus, though the “biography” is mostly dubious legend since the events here — in the 490s bce, about fifteen years after the rape of Lucrece — “take place a century before the destruction of the Roman annals by the Gallic invaders” (Asimov 213).
E.T. Clark detected numerous allusions to Sir Francis Drake in this play (Clark 432ff), including a lot of illogical references to the sea (Clark 441f) and a detail about a drum not from Shakespeare’s source, Plutarch, but an item beloved to Drake (Clark 440). Oxford was in the celebratory procession for Drake in 1581, an event recounted in the verse that tells us enigmatically that “all the people began to laugh” upon seeing the Earl of Oxford. The elder Ogburns, without much elaboration, thought that the play did indeed have Drake at its core (Ogburn and Ogburn 327, 964), but that it was revised later to apply to Sir Walter Raleigh (Ogburn and Ogburn 964) and his attitude towards the mob (a trait not in Plutarch), and then again later still to apply to the Earl of Essex — a connection which the orthodox critics are actually, if accidentally, willing to allow (Kermode 1441). In fact, a prelate in Shakespeare’s time, William Barlow, made the comparison between Essex and Coriolanus in his sermon at Paul’s Cross (Anderson 312); and perhaps Essex was referring to this play when he wrote to Elizabeth in 1600: “shortly they will play me on the stage” (qtd. in Anderson 312). Coriolanus, this “least sympathetic,” “snobbish and unappealing” character (Anderson 312; cf. xxxiii, 322), was well suited to represent Essex, both his Irish expedition and “Essex’s haughtiness and irksome sense of infinite entitlement” (Anderson 313). Even the banishment matches the story of Essex (Ogburn and Ogburn 964), “a megalomaniac who had taken the privileges of rank too far” (Anderson 322). In the final version of the play, then, Oxford is represented by Menenius (Ogburn and Ogburn 964). If Sicinius was originally Burghley, the final transfer is to Robert Cecil (Ogburn and Ogburn 965).
“Before we proceed any further, hear me speak,” shouts “First Citizen” to the crowd (I.i.1-2). An armed mob of Roman citizens has been driven to potentially violent revolt because of famine and corn (the early modern word for grain) being warehoused at unfair prices. The First Citizen’s call is illogical, since what he wants to “speak” is a call to action (a typical piece of self-contradictory political rhetoric, à la “The time to act is now!” or even “Just Do It”). The First Citizen in particular blames Caius Martius (or Marcius), the patrician later to be known as Coriolanus: “Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price” (I.i.10-11) — pretty absurd sounding. (Although Shakespeare is often thought to depict plebeians as mindless mobs, note here that it’s the one brazen First Citizen who serves as the voice of the “mob” — the people are individualized, but the loudest one comes to represent the masses in this insightful depiction of a social phenomenon.)
Although the mob calls for “No more talking on ‘t” (I.i.12), the First Citizen wants to rabble-rouse some more concerning the “superfluity” that “authority surfeits on” (I.i.16-17): “Let us revenge this with our pikes, ere we become [thin as] rakes; for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge” (I.i.22-24). “The end of his sentence has forgotten its beginning” (Goddard, II 227) — a rhetorical trick Shakespeare includes several times in this play. A Second Citizen questions the focus on Caius Martius, and the First declares the leader “proud” (I.i.34), his valor for his country accomplished for the sake of fame and “to please his mother” (I.i.38-39), and his faults countless. Martius is called a “dog” (I.i.28):
This is 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 gained for the better qualities within himself, he threw away by his perpetual anger and willfulness…. 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…? (Asimov 216)
And regarding the insistence that he seeks only “to please his mother” (I.i.38-39), “even that weakness is, looked at superficially, another piece of nobility” (Asimov 216). Noise from the other side of the city suggests a storming of the Capitol, but a patrician, Menenius Agrippa, comes along and both First and Second Citizens clearly respect his seeming honesty and concern for the people.
Menenius listens to the complaints against patrician and Senate self-interest and economic violence, but says that rebellion is futile and misguided if against “The helms o’ th’ state, who care for you like fathers” (I.i.77). The First Citizen doesn’t buy it: “If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us” (I.i.85-86). The food metaphor seems to prompt “A pretty tale” (I.i.90) from Menenius; he renders a conceit on the “belly” in which the Senate is the stomach of the organism and the mob rebellious members of the body. Note that the First Citizen speaks in prose while Menenius “orates in gentle pentameters” (Asimov 219). The parable works insofar as the First Citizen becomes childlike, asking for the story to continue. Menenius begins to feel confident, and, although he is generally regarded as a benevolent character in this play, we can sense an increase in arrogance. The belly in his story responds to the mutinous organs “With a kind of smile” (I.i.107) — we envision a smirk — and it replies “tauntingly” (I.i.110). Menenius also is outraged when the First Citizen begins applying the parable before he is finished (I.i.119-120). After the belly preaches about its value and necessity to the other parts, Menenius has it add, “‘And though that all at once’ — / You, my good friends, this says the belly, mark me” (I.i.140-141). After the self-interruption, he continues, “Though all at once cannot / See what I do deliver out to each …” (I.i.142-143). This continuation doesn’t seem smooth, even grammatically, so we wonder if he was heading elsewhere but thought better of it and caught himself. What was he worried about?
Menenius applies the conceit as expected, trying to solicit appreciation and gratitude for the patricians from the crowd. Confident with his success now enough to insult the First Citizen, he calls him a big toe, “For that, being one o’ th’ lowest, basest, poorest / Of this most wise rebellion, thou goest foremost” (I.i.157-158). We may realize that if this man is the big toe, then he leads the foot — not a superfluous appendage but rather the body part that takes steps, moves the body forward, and without which the whole thing falls over; of course, all this is unintended by Menenius. “Yet Menenius’s fable is central to the play in many ways. It suggests and introduces the language of fragmentation, of dismembering and body parts, that will continue throughout as an emblem of the diseased condition of Rome” (Garber 783). As for the character himself, “Menenius is what Coriolanus is generally held to be and isn’t — an inveterate tory and patrician” (Goddard, II 226). “Menenius is one of Shakespeare’s triumphs in leading readers by their noses to conclusions diametrically opposed to the evidence he places right under those noses” (Goddard, II 225).
Caius Martius arrives, immediately insulting the crowd: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion / Make yourself scabs?” (I.i.164-166). He continues railing against them, calling them “curs” (I.i.168), and citing their fickleness, cowardice, and stupidity. “Who deserves greatness / Deserves your hate” (I.i.176-177); “He that depends / Upon your favor swims with fins of lead” (I.i.179-180). He tells Menenius,
They’ll sit by th’ fire, and presume to know
What’s done i’ th’ 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?
Menenius openly claims that this batch are mollified. Regarding the crowd on the other side of town, Martius tells Menenius that against his own inclinations, which do not involve placating the masses, five tribunes have been appointed to make their case concerning fair corn prices.
News arrives that the Volsces are planning an attack on Rome. Martius is delighted by the prospect of military exploits: “I am glad on’t, then we shall ha’ the means to vent / Our musty superfluity” (I.i.225-226). He admires the Volscian leader, the leonine Tullus Aufidius. He agrees to aid the general, Cominius. The phrase “by th’ ears” (I.i.233) is a literal translation of an Italian colloquialism, encountered also in All’s Well That Ends Well (I.ii.1).
Sicinius and Brutus, two Roman tribunes, snipe privately about Martius’ arrogance and his “sullen spirit of self-absorption” (Asimov 223). “Such a nature, / Tickled with good success, disdains the shadow / Which he treads on at noon” (I.i.259-261). Only the crafty ability to place blame elsewhere if things go badly explains why he would accept command under Cominius, think these two.
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 Martius, “O, if he
Had bourne the business!”
But “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” (Asimov 224).
The Volscian general, Aufidius, speaks with Volscian senators about the Roman army’s march towards their capital, Corioles, despite the Roman citizens’ revolt. He is annoyed that the Romans cannot now be taken by surprise and mentions his longstanding enmity with Caius Martius.
No one knows where Corioles (or Corioli) was supposedly located, or if it’s any more than legendary (Asimov 224).
Volumnia, his mother, disapproves of his wife Virgilia’s depression over Martius being gone to the battle: “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love” (I.iii.2-5). Oedipal imaginings aside — and this “is the clearest case of an Oedipal fixation in Shakespeare, far clearer than the dubious case of Hamlet” (Asimov 217) — Volumnia brags about having been an unprotective mother to her “man-child” (I.iii.16), an interesting term to keep in mind through the play; she raised him to seek military glory and fame. “Volumnia is often spoken of as a woman of heroic mold calculated to give us an idea of the stern stuff of which the early Romans were made,” but one would do well to question traditional views such as this (Goddard, II 212).
Virgilia is not so much into war: glory is all very nice but what if he dies? Volumnia is heavily into glorious death. If she had twelve sons, she’d “rather have eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” (I.iii.24-25). Virgilia’s friend Valeria is announced, but Volumnia continues her military rallying of no one in particular. When Virgilia expresses a touch of squeamishness about blood, Volumnia offers up this lovely bit:
Away, you fool! it more becomes a man
Than gilt his trophy. The breasts of Hecuba,
When she did suckle Hector, look’d not lovelier
Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning.
Valeria enters and asks Virgilia about her son; Volumnia glowingly pipes in that “He had rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his schoolmaster” (I.iii.55-56). Valeria praises the kid’s persistence in catching and releasing a butterfly until, for no certain reason, his mood changed and he tore it apart (I.iii.60ff). Volumnia thinks it was a sign of his father’s character. “But a butterfly throughout myth and poetry is psyche, the soul, … and this little incident is a parable of the struggle going on inside the boy between his real self and the self his grandmother would impose upon him” (Goddard, II 214-215). So the kid is showing wanton cruelty that will undoubtedly be fostered. “It seems reasonable to suppose that Shakespeare admires neither Volumnia’s philosophy nor the individuals it produces” (Asimov 226). “We also know that de Vere’s enemies claimed that he had spoken of having nightmare visions of his mother after her death,” while Virgilia is “painfully meek and subservient to her husband, reminding Oxfordians of Anne Cecil (Farina 165).
Valeria wants Virgilia to accompany her in visiting a sick neighbor. She thinks Virgilia is a bit foolish to be so worried about her husband that she won’t be more sociable. Valeria tries to cajole Virgilia with a comparison between her and Penelope in the Odyssey. Valeria has even heard promising news about the wars, but Virgilia is adamant; and so, despite the relative quietness of Virgilia even in the face of the pressure and the iron will of her mother-in-law, she prevails, and the two other women depart without her.
Near Corioles, Martius bets the other general Titus Lartius a horse that a messenger is bringing news that Cominius is already fighting the Volscians. Martius loses the bet and tries to buy his horse back, but Titus Lartius says, “No, I’ll nor sell nor give him; lend you him I will / For half a hundred years” (I.iv.6-7). After a prayer to Mars, Martius asks a couple of senators on the city walls if Aufidius is inside the city, and they say no, haughtily. Confusing battle noise is followed by a Volscian attack. Martius barks insults and threats at his Roman soldiers, enters the city in what his soldiers call a foolhardy charge, and gets locked in. Titus Lartius begins eulogizing (I.iv.57ff), a passage “taken almost verbatim from Plutarch, where that biographer describes Marcius as a soldier after Cato’s heart” (Asimov 227). But Martius emerges, wounded but victorious, and ultimately responsible for the capture of Corioles.
Looting is enthusiastically carried out, but not by Martius who wants to press on despite his bleeding and help out Cominius, hoping also to slay Aufidius finally. Titus Lartius wishes him well: “Now the fair goddess Fortune / Fall deep in love with thee, and her great charms / Misguide thy opposers’ swords!” (I.v.20-22).
Cominius encourages his troops despite their necessary retreat. He promises reinforcements from Martius, but then receives obsolete word that the Volscians were holding off the Romans back at Corioles. To Cominius’ astonishment and admiration, a bloody Martius then enters, eager for more battle. Martius says to Cominius,
O! let me clip ye
In arms as sound as when I woo’d, in heart
As merry as when our nuptial day was done
And tapers burnt to bedward!
“We seldom hear him speak with similar intimacy to his temperate and loyal Roman wife” (Garber 788). The language of love and sex is grossly displaced in this play.
Martius asks to be sent against Aufidius, and with him he wants only men who are willing to die for Rome. His bravery inspires them to hoist him up on their shoulders.
Titus Lartius has secured the city and says that reinforcements are to be sent to him if necessary as he leaves Corioles to join Martius and Cominius.
Martius and Aufidius have a show-down, with battlefield taunts and vows to fight to the death. Martius exclaims, “I’ll fight with none but thee, for I do hate thee / Worse than a promise-breaker.” “We hate alike,” responds Aufidius (I.viii.1-2). Martius informs Aufidius that the blood with which he is covered is not his own but comes from Corioles. When some Volsces come to Aufidius’ aid, Martius drives them back and Aufidius berates them for causing him shame.
Martius receives praise from Cominius and Tutus Lartius, but he will not hear such praise: “My mother, / Who has a charter to extol her blood, / When she does praise me grieves me” (I.ix.13-15). Notwithstanding, Cominius insists on Martius getting credit:
You shall not be
The grave of your deserving; Rome must know
The value of her own. ‘Twere a concealment
Worse than a theft, no less than a traducement
To hide your doings, and to silence that
Which, to the spire and top of praises vouch’d,
Would seem but modest….
(Consider that statement in the Oxfordian context.) And he won’t take a share of the spoils either when they offer him a tenth. He is dubbed Coriolanus, a tribute to his capture of Corioles: “Bear / Th’addition nobly ever!” (I.ix.65-66). Though customary perhaps, there is much irony in Martius being given a name derived from a conquered enemy.
Coriolanus asks only the release of a prisoner in Corioles who helped him and whom he didn’t have a chance to help in return, zipping off to attack Aufidius as he did. [In the Plutarch source, this man is an old friend of Martius (Goddard, II 234), so Shakespeare’s drastic change here has to be significant.] Cominius promises that the man will be safe. But when asked, Coriolanus can’t remember the guy’s name: “By Jupiter, forgot! / I am weary, yea, my memory is tir’d” (I.ix.90). “Names have no significance for him…. Did the poor man of Corioles die because Martius had forgotten his name?” (Garber 796).
Aufidius mourns for the capital captured by Romans. Martius has beaten him several times already, but he vows again to fight him to the death, or to kill him somehow: there’s a slight scaling back of the valor:
Hath not that honor in ‘t it had; for where
I thought to crush him in an equal force,
True sword to sword, I’ll potch at him some way,
Or wrath or craft may get him.
“The vernacular word ‘potch’ is a good emblem of the lowering of ideals and expectations” (Garber 785). Aufidius sends a soldier to find out the terms of surrender.