Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Menenius refuses to try to reason with Coriolanus after Cominius, Coriolanus’ own general, has already failed: “He call’d me father, / But what o’ that?” (V.i.3-4). Cominius asserts:
He would not answer to; forbade all names;
He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
Till he had forg’d himself a name a’ th’ fire
Of burning Rome.
What kind of name would the-soldier-formerly-known-as-Coriolanus earn for himself if he destroyed Rome, his own home? There’s an identity paradox! or “a political oxymoron, a pointed self-contradiction” (Garber 797). “We may take it that Cecil besought Oxford to plead with Southampton, as Sicinius and Brutus besought Menenius” (Ogburn and Ogburn 967).
Cominius also reports, “I minded him how royal ’twas to pardon / When it was less expected” (V.i.18-19) — a vague echo of The Merchant of Venice, Act IV. Coriolanus will not spare Rome even for the sake of a few friends. Sicinius begs Menenius to try: “your good tongue, / More than the instant army we can make, / Might stop our countryman” (V.i.36-38). After further wheedling from the tribunes, Menenius agrees to try, and elaborates on his notion that he should make an appeal after Coriolanus has eaten (V.i.50-58). But Cominius thinks Volumnia and Virgilia would be better emissaries and are the only real hope.
At the Volscian camp, Menenius is subjected to mockery and repeated dismissal by the guards: “The virtue of your name / Is not here passable” (V.ii.12-13). But he persists in assuring them that Coriolanus will see him. Here’s a claim riddled with Vere puns and drawing attention to literature:
I tell thee, fellow,
The general is my lover. I have been
The book of his good acts, whence men have read
His fame unparallel’d, happily amplified;
For I have ever verified my friends
(Of whom he’s chief) with all the size that verity
Would without lapsing suffer.
(Many have been Vere-ified by the plays.)
Menenius thinks his name and loyalty to Coriolanus should matter (V.ii.28f), but “‘Menenius’ is not a password” (Garber 797), and Coriolanus is beyond names and individuals at this point. Coriolanus himself eventually does come by with Aufidius, and although, because of Menenius’ repeated attempts to capitalize on his fatherly role (V.ii.63, 70-71) — “for once, Lord Oxford allows himself to use the forbidden word,” “son” (Ogburn and Ogburn 967) — we may expect a scene parallel to the rejection of Falstaff in Henry IV, Part 1, Coriolanus does have a brief word with him and gives him a prepared letter with his formal statement. We also get Oxford clues in the water image — here tears — but the symbol of Oxford’s hereditary office (Ogburn and Ogburn 967).
Coriolanus does not allow for an audience with Menenius and he refuses to abandon his revenge plan. It seems as if some of this is designed to prove his new loyalty in front of Aufidius (V.ii.92-93). Menenius leaves with the guards, now vindicated, continuing their mockery of him.
On the eve of attack, Coriolanus receives praise from Aufidius, though he seems to be trying too hard to prove his value to the Volsces: “You must report to th’ Volscian lords, how plainly / I have borne this business” (V.iii.3-4). So he’s still beholden to general opinion and now even solicitous of it.
Virgilia, Volumnia, Valeria, Coriolanus’ son, and other attendants pop in for a visit, and Coriolanus braces himself: “But out, affection, / All bond and privilege of nature, break!” (V.iii.24-25). Volumnia bows before him, but Coriolanus declares,
My mother bows,
As if Olympus to a molehill should
In supplication nod….
. . . 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.
So cool! He is moved by his wife’s sorrow and says, “Like a dull actor now / I have forgot my part, and I am out, / Even to a full disgrace” (V.iii.40-42). He begs Virgilia not to ask him to forgive Rome. He is moved by her kiss though. He kneels before Volumnia, but she tells him to rise and she kneels before him: dueling kneels. Valeria is presented, and, puzzlingly, Shakespeare gives Coriolanus a concentration of Queen Elizabeth associations: “The moon of Rome, chaste as the icicle / … from purest snow / And hangs on Dian’s temple” (V.iii.65-67).
[“Willedever” on the Shakespeare Fellowship forum says that the sudden application of Elizabeth symbolism to Valeria is designed to sabotage a clearer Volumnia/Elizabeth connection.
Go back a little to the ‘kneeling’ and it says this: “As if Olympus to a molehill should / In supplication nod.” Like Olympus compared to a molehill. That could easily be seen as a “fat” joke, especially because of the character’s name, Volumnia.
Coriolanus was a court play. I don’t know what records exist about it, but it’s very clear it was a court play. If you have a line that looks like a fat joke, about a woman, in an Elizabethan court play, you’ve got a problem…. People might suspect the playwright is calling the Queen fat. And even if it weren’t a court play the same problem could arise.
So, just a short time later, we get a lot of Elizabeth symbolism pointing to a different character. This is the author making clear that even if you take the Olympus line as a fat joke, it can’t mean Elizabeth, because Elizabeth is represented by a different character: Valeria, not Volumnia. The Elizabeth symbolism pointing to Valeria, not Volumnia is how Vere avoided being accused of telling fat jokes about Elizabeth in a court play. (E-mail corresp. 8/05)]
“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” (Asimov 249). Volumnia, after much speechifying, has Virgilia present his son to him. Virgilia notes that the boy will “keep your name / Living to time” (V.iii.126-127). The kid is a chip off the old block, declaring that his own father “shall not tread on me; / I’ll run away till I am bigger, but then I’ll fight” (V.iii.127-128) — something Coriolanus has recently done. He may have mixed emotions about such a proclamation — it’s difficult to say, although he does act literally moved in that he awkwardly justifies simply standing up at this point. Volumnia, at great length, says that he will be considered a traitor if he persists, whereas peace benefits all. She goes into the unappreciated-sacrifices-of-a-mother routine and accuses him of excessive pride. She uses “only kinship terms and not names” (Garber 798): son (V.iii.148), daughter (V.iii.155), boy (V.iii.156). All kneel, at Volumnia’s command, and eventually, somehow, Coriolanus gives in to their pleading. Although most think that Volumnia is ultimately responsible for Coriolanus’ change of heart, Shakespeare “is not in the habit of giving the deciding voice to the utterer of the longest speech” (Goddard, II 219), and so a few critics suggest other possibilities; in any case, though no guarantee Shakespeare intended this to be the answer, Coriolanus himself seems to think it was Volumnia primarily in his histrionic but emotionally charged lament:
O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. 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 prevail’d,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come.
He figures that although Rome is safe, his own life is now in danger. He appeals to Aufidius — what would he have done? Aufidius admits that he too was “mov’d” (V.iii.194). Aufidius goes along with the plan for a beneficial peace treaty, but notes that he’s looking for an opportunity to benefit at Coriolanus’ expense. Coriolanus praises the accomplishment of the women:
Ladies, you deserve
To have a temple built you. All the swords
In Italy, and her confederate arms,
Could not have made this peace.
Menenius tells Sicilius that the women’s delegation won’t work, which we already know is wrong. Sicinius wonders, “Is ‘t possible that so short a time can alter the condition of a man?” (V.iv.9-10). Menenius says,
There is differency between a grub and a butterfly, yet your butterfly was a grub. This Martius is grown from man to dragon: he has wings, he’s more than a creeping thing.
Coriolanus has grown even more impressively mighty, like an “engine” (V.iv.19) — or “war machine” (Asimov 250) — and glorious, and “There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger” (V.iv.27-28). News is that the mob will kill Brutus if the women fail, but their success is reported and all are relieved and joyous.
Senators escort the three women on a triumphal parade through Rome: “Behold our patroness” (V.v.1); “Unshout the noise that banish’d Martius! / Repeal him with the welcome of his mother” (V.v.4-5).
Aufidius in Corioli plots with some conspirators against Coriolanus for selling them out, but primarily for eclipsing Aufidius himself. The conspirators encourage him to give them the order. Aufidius blends treason with Christology:
he sold the blood and labor
Of our great action therefore shall he die,
And I’ll renew me in his fall.
Coriolanus arrives triumphantly with a lucrative deal hammered out with Rome, saying that he is still loyal to Aufidius and the Volscians, and he actually seems to have no problem with the Volscian commoners marching with him.
Aufidius immediately and openly calls him a “traitor” and uses the name “Martius.” Coriolanus is taken aback, but Aufidius notes that he is refusing to honor the title, “that robbery, thy stol’n name / Coriolanus,” (V.vi.88-89). “It is probably safe to say that this is a nicety that has escaped Coriolanus, the idea that his nickname might give offense to those whose city he had conquered” (Garber 799). Coriolanus in disbelief calls on Mars, but Aufidius says, “Name not the god, thou boy of tears!” (V.vi.100). “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” (Asimov 251). Coriolanus flies into his predictable rage at Aufidius, dwelling on being called “boy,” and boasts of his invincibility as proven by the bloodbath at Corioles: “Alone I did it” (V.vi.116). Aufidius points out his arrogance and the Volscians begin to clamor for his death — “He kill’d my cousin Marcus!” (V.vi.121-122) — but a lord proposes a more formal hearing. Coriolanus threatens Aufidius but the conspirators assassinate him, yelling “kill, kill, kill” (V.vi.130). His death “resembles the sparagmos of ancient Greek tragedy, the ritual tearing to pieces of the tragic hero, the sacrificial victim” (Garber 799).
Some object to Aufidius — “Thou hast done a deed whereat valor will weep” (V.vi.132) — but he asks to be heard in the Senate: “I’ll deliver / Myself your loyal servant, or endure / Your heaviest censure” (V.vi.139-141) — something Coriolanus never would have said in Rome.
Coriolanus is honored but ambivalently, as one lord claims that Aufidius is partly justified by Coriolanus’ own “impatience” (V.vi.144). Aufidius claims, “My rage is gone, / And I am struck with sorrow” (V.vi.146-147), and he helps carry out the corpse of Coriolanus:
Though in this city he
Hath widowed and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.
“Coriolanus is a good example of how a supposedly minor work that has befuddled critics and audiences can shine with clarity once viewed through the Oxfordian lens” (Farina 164). “Plutarch begins his life of Caius Martius (surnamed Coriolanus) by noting that violent men who lose their fathers at an early age often use this as an excuse for their own bad behavior” (Farina 165), so de Vere would have been autobiographically intrigued. “Plutarch expressly notes that the true source of these failings was lack of education, and that the proper role of the humanities is to soften and curb such emotional extremes” (Farina 167), but both Coriolanus and his father preferred swords and drums to school (I.iii.56f).
With Essex as the inspiration for the play, perhaps it can be read as a “darkly comic critique” or “a devilish satire of the entire genre of tragedy” with Essex “as a man incapable of rising to tragic grandeur” (Anderson 312-313). “Yet de Vere had experienced the same arcing trajectory from promising star to powerful young elite to dejected exile” (Anderson 323).
“Roman writers referred to the mobile vulgus (“fickle multitude”) and about half a century after Shakespeare’s death this was abbreviated to ‘mob'” (Asimov 220).
Under Volumnia’s influence, “Coriolanus developed a sense of honor based more on egoism and social station than on patriotism. Consequently, … he see[s] no treason in joining Aufidius because righting a personal wrong will mean more to him than abstract loyalty to a country from which he is estranged” (Carey 508). “He cares about only two things, his fame and his honor. These words overlap in meaning: both mean reputation” (French 269).
In a way, all of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes are in search of names — in search of their own hidden names, which will also be their deaths. They seek reputation, public name, but ultimately they all seek private names as well…. At the close of each of these plays, the audience is left with the political men, the Octaviuses and Aufidiuses, the Horatios and Lodovicos and Malcolms, in a shrunken and impoverished world, a world from which a great name, a great power, is gone. (Garber 800)
The play is “austere, knotty, and forbidding…. [N]o other play unleashes such energy of abuse” (Wells 312). “Shake-speare had found his late voice, that complex and contradictory amalgam of misanthrope and humanist” (Anderson 313). Nevertheless, Coriolanus ought to be more famous than it is. It addresses the issue of the power of the populace, and more, the manipulation of that force in the realm of politics, dynamics that work for advertising, celebrity, and other similar issues. Of course, it’s a bitter pill to swallow, and not one Western culture likes to entertain, much less American society.