Sunday, June 28, 2009

Politics & The Noble Hero: Coriolanus

The three plays, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and

Coriolanus, bracket the Roman Republic from its origins in the

early fifth century BC to the second half of the first century BC, when

Julius Caesar and his adopted son, Octavius, later the Emperor

Augustus, effectively ended it. It is easy to see why Shakespeare

should have been interested in the end of the Republic. Julius Caesar

was one of those unique individuals who seem in themselves to be

agents of historical change, and his assassination set off a struggle for

power that totally transformed the Mediterranian world. And what

could be more glamorous than the story of Antony and Cleopatra and

their doomed struggle against the cold efficiency, and luck, of Octavius

Caesar? It is not so easy to see what might have drawn Shakespeare

to Plutarch’s story of an obscure Roman hero from a time when Rome

was just another aggressive little city-state.

Fifth century Rome had, however, as Shakespeare knew from reading

Livy’s history, an active political culture which was beginning to

invent the institutions that would turn Rome into a republic. That’s

a problem for both Plutarch’s and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: neither is

equipped by temperament and education to understand, much less

operate within, the politics of a Republic. The action of Coriolanus

turns on this fact.

Shakespeare’s Caius Martius (later, Caius Martius Coriolanus) has

been trained from birth to be a professional soldier and patrician

zealot, for both of which he seems to have a natural aptitude. His

mother, Volumnia, whom he worships, has been largely responsible

for his education. His father, for all we know, died before he was born.

He despises the plebians because they are plebians, and because they,

like most people, have neither his aptitude nor his love for war. They

are easily terrified on the field of battle and given an opportunity to

loot, they loot. Besides, they don’t wash their faces or brush their

teeth. They are, however, an important force in Rome, and in recognition

of this fact have acquired a pair of Tribunes to speak for them as

their representatives in the Senate. Caius Martius is implacably hostile

to this political innovation; he is our first reactionary. The other members

of his patrician class are not any happier about it, but they, unlike

Caius Martius, know enough to keep their mouths shut.

In recognition of his prowess in taking the town of Corioles, singlehandedly,

from their neighbors and enemies, the Volscians, he is

granted the surname Coriolanus; other rewards he disdainfully rejects.

He is politically ambitious, however, and when, as the Tribunes glumly

foresee, the patricians put him forward as their candidate for

Consul, he is more than willing. The Tribunes are glum because

Coriolanus’s political views are well known and they are pretty sure

that, when elected, he will try to abolish the Tribunate; as a war hero,

Coriolanus looks like a shoo-in. So it is a surprise to everyone when

he blows the election by failing to win acceptance of his candidacy by

the plebians.

All he has to do is go into the market place, dressed in a simple

gown, show the people the scars he has acquired fighting for Rome,

and ask for their votes. This he finds impossible. The gown of humility,

so called, feels worse than a hair shirt when he puts it on and goes

into the market place. What he cannot do is speak simply and directly

to the people he meets there, nor frankly ask for their support; the only

rhetorical mode at his command is irony. As for showing his scars in

public...! Such vulgarity is out of the question. He suggests that if

anyone really wants to see them, he might be able to arrange for a private

showing. All of this is conducted in a tone of subtle arrogance and

contempt—directed perhaps as much at himself for jumping through

these hoops, as at the people for expecting these things of him. Though

the plebians are aware that something’s not quite right about the way

their votes are being solicited, they are too simple and too easygoing

to make an issue of it.

[Had Shakespeare ever seen an election or a politician working a crowd?

 Probably not. We are watching a representation on the stage of 

something that no one at that time had, in all liklihood, ever seen before.]

When the Tribunes hear about Coriolanus’ behavior, they tell the

people they’ve been duped. They ask: Why didn’t you do as you were

told? This was your chance to get something in return for your votes;

you ought to have made him promise to “translate his malice towards

you into love,/Standing your friendly lord.” (II.3.190) Well, actually

the plebians had tried to educate him a little. When he had arrogantly

claimed that he deserved to be Consul and shouldn’t have to be

begging their votes at all, they had politely informed him that politics

is a two-way street: “You must think, if we give you anything, we hope

to gain by you.” And when he had cynically asked them their “price,”

one of them had gently reminded him of his manners: “The price is, to

ask it kindly.” (II.3.71-5)

The trouble with people like Coriolanus (and Bertram, in All’s Well

That Ends Well), is that they are uneducable. What had been nurtured

by their privileged, aristocratic upbringing, has become their nature.

(As Huck Finn says, such people are just naturally ornery—they can’t

help it.) Trouble starts when, coached by the Tribunes, the people

revoke their approval of Coriolanus’s candidacy. As the Tribunes had

foreseen, for they know him better than he knows himself, Coriolanus

is enraged. Soon he is saying what he really thinks, which is that the

people are cowardly, stupid, and undependable and shouldn’t have

any voice at all in the government of Rome. Either “pluck out the 

multitudinous tongue”(the Tribunes), he declaims, or witness the decline

and fall of Rome. (III.1.141-161) Treason! cry the Tribunes and call for

the summary execution of Coriolanus who, spoiling for a fight, thereupon

draws his sword. And that might have been the end of Rome,

right then and there, had cooler heads among the patricians not prevailed.

Civil war is avoided and Coriolanus is given a chance to appear

in the market place and apologize.

In the following scene his friends and his mother try—belatedly—

to get him to understand the necessary expedients and hypocrisies of

politics; they try to teach him how to be a politician—and they fail.

Like Hamlet, he will be true to himself at whatever cost. Honor, for him

as for Hotspur, is an absolute good. Unlike Hamlet, whose self is layered

in irony, and a mystery to all including himself, everyone knows

where to find Coriolanus—and get at him, if need be. For he is a simple

soul, and perfectly authentic—the sort of man who, as Iago

remarks with contempt, wears his heart on his sleeve for daws to peck

at. And that, it seems to me, accounts in part for the incessantly iterated

word “noble” in this play which is almost part of his—Coriolanus’— name.

His is the nobility of a man who, in the words of Yeats’ sonnet, No 

Second Troy, is “as simple as a fire”— and as destructive. Shakespeare 

shows us, in Coriolanus, what it means to be absolutely true to oneself.

When his family and friends try to persuade Coriolanus to keep his real

thoughts and feelings to himself and pretend to eat humble pie, simply

as a matter of political expediency, he is indignant. Never, he says;

I can’t do that and I won’t. Why make such a fuss? his mother asks.

“You are too absolute; though therein you can never be too noble/ But

when extremities speak.” (III.2.39-41) No wonder her son is confused,

having been taught all his life that nobility is absolute; either you have

it or you don’t. Now, suddenly, he is being told that nobility admits

of gradations and modifications. To paraphrase Volumnia’s admonition:

Though you can never be too noble, for nobility consists in being

absolutely true to oneself and one’s principles, and such integrity is an

absolute good, yet extreme necessity justifies ignoble acts. Besides,

she continues, if deception is justified in war, as you will readily admit

for you have often said so, why not in politics? All of this being heartily

seconded by his fellow patricians, he has no immediate reply, and a

little later he reluctantly gives in: 

                                               Must I

With my base tongue give to my noble heart 

A lie that it must bear? Well, I will do’t..... 

You have put me now to such a part which never

I shall discharge to th’life. (III.2.99-106)

And that, as it turns out when he tries to play his part in the crucial scene,

is the simple truth: put to it, he is unable to pretend to be what he is not, 

i.e. play the hypocrite. The Tribunes have only to call him a traitor

to put him out of his part altogether. For if he cannot give his noble heart

the lie, how can he endure it from another? Once more civil war is barely

averted, this time by the Tribunes who have moderated their demand from 

death to exile, and this solution to the intractable problem posed by the 

incorrigible nobility of Coriolanus is acceptable to all—all but Coriolanus, 

who feels betrayed by his own class and exits, saying, magnificently if not 

accurately, you can’t banish me, I banish you.

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate

As reek a’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize

As the dead carcasses of unburied men

That do corrupt my air—I banish you! III.3.123

He can no more banish Rome than he can step outside himself or

change his own nature. Nor is there “a world elsewhere”—his parting

shot—where he might have an easier time of it: the character traits

that get him into trouble in Rome would do so in any civil society. Even

a military camp, the only society he is fit for, would probably have to

reject him, eventually, as an impossible person.

He has to go somewhere, and the only place he can go, if he is not

to live as a hermit in a cave, is to Antium, the chief city of Rome’s enemies, the

Volscians. And since he is a soldier who understands war but nothing

else, there is only one thing for him to do when they agree to take him

in: join them in their war with Rome. The Tribunes had called him a

traitor, knowing it would enrage him; it does not occur to him, as he

goes over to the Volscians, that that is what he has just become.

Led by Coriolanus, the Volscian army is invincible, and soon it is in

a position to sack and destroy Rome. Emissaries from Rome, seeking

peace, are summarily rejected, but he can’t refuse to see his mother,

wife and child. For the first time in his life, he faces a tragic dilemma:

either he must break his promises to his new friends and allies, the

Volscians, who will certainly punish this betrayal with death, or he

must destroy his family by destroying Rome. Either way he loses, but

he sees at last that he can't take revenge on Rome for the dishonor it has

done him, without also destroying his family, and that this would be the

most ignoble and dishonorable thing he could possibly do. That should have

been obvious all along. Why does it take him so long to understand this basic

truth? Because he has always assumed that he is an absolute individual—

or as he puts it, the "the author of himself"—and therefore responsible to 

no one but himself. He thereupon makes peace with Rome, withdraws

the Volscian army and, as he expects, is killed as a traitor upon his return

to Antium.

[Notice that Shakespeare is quite content to ignore the religious point that 

the phrase "author of myself" raises for pious audiences. Jesus had yet

to be born; the Roman  republic was happily pagan and would remain 

so for almost 800 years; and Shakespeare was not the man to distract 

his audiences with anachronisms.]


Coriolanus is usually thought of as a tragedy, though it is quite unlike 

Shakespeare’s other tragedies—of all Shakespeare’s tragic heroes and 

heroines, Caius Martius Coriolanus, is the least reflective, least 

self-conscious, least attractive; it is also, in some sense, Shakespeare’s 

most overtly political play though it is not clear what the point is or why

such a politically innocent hero should have been chosen to make it.

 It is immediately obvious that Caius Martius is not a politician at all.

As the pure embodiment of the aristocratic principle, according to

which heroic greatness, manly worth, and moral power are looked 

upon as gifts of nature, and consequently dependent on noble birth, 

he is totally unfit for the complicated give-and-take of public affairs

in any large human community, especially a republic.  

The play is set in early fifth-century BC Rome because that’s when

the rights of the plebs as citizens of the republic were being recognized,

and a radically new institution was being created, the tribunate,

through whom they would henceforth have the power to state their

grievances and have them addressed. All the people have rights in a

republic, not just those of a particular class, which is why a man like

Coriolanus, who can’t accept this new political reality, has to be ejected.

He thinks the nobility alone should have rights. He despises and

hates the people’s tribunes, not for intellectual reasons—his opposition

to this new and vitally important institution is not theoretical—but

because they are the people’s tribunes and his contempt for the people

is visceral, beyond reason. By virtue of his passionate loyalty to his

prejudices and principles, he becomes the catalyst that very nearly

turns normal class conflict into class war, and forces the people of

Rome, including the nobility, to banish him.

The absence of inward or reflective intelligence is what makes him

so pure an embodiment of the aristocratic principle. A more rational,

thoughtful man, able to examine and control his feelings and motives,

having recognized that they are a barrier to his political career, would

not have served Shakespeare’s purposes in this play, which is a critique

of the aristocratic principle at a moment when the English polity,

like that of Rome in the early years of the republic, was becoming

more inclusive and the power of the Commons in Parliament was on

the rise.

While Caius Martius is not only the perfect warrior but the perfect snob, 

we fail to do him or the play justice if we leave it at that: as the

repetition of ‘noble’ keeps reminding us, Caius Martius has a moral quality,

which we rightly call noble, that lifts him above ordinary social distinctions

and above the opportunistic calculations and compromises

that characterize normal political life. Virtue, for him, truly is its own

reward, and the virtue that he prizes above all is what we would call

integrity—or authenticity, perhaps, which is not quite the same thing.

Unfortunately, the demands he makes of himself and others are inflexible:

come what may, he will be absolutely true to his idea of what or

who he is, as a man of honor for whom courage and honesty are

absolute goods. Nothing else matters, or so he thinks, until he is

brought face to face with his wife, child and mother outside the gates

of Rome.

Shakespeare in this play seems to been asking himself some such question 

as the following: if the aristocratic code of honor cannot provide a morally

sufficient or even coherent ethics, what is the future, if any, of the aristocratic 

principle in modern republics or commonwealths?

Caius Marius Coriolanus is a difficult person but Coriolanus is not a

difficult play. He would have been hard to like at any time, especially

now that the aristocratic principles he so intransigently stands for are

long defunct, but his thinking and his motives, like those of the

 plebians, patricians and tribunes are not hard to understand. The

plebians want to be treated as citizens, with rights, which Coriolanus

and the other members of his class would like to deny; the tribunes are

doing their job, which is to protect the newly acquired rights of the

people against the obvious desire of the nobility to take them away.

Why otherwise would the nobility be so eager to have Caius Martius

chosen Consul? Since the tribunes themselves embody those rights,

they are necessarily protecting their own jobs (it could hardly be otherwise

since the one entails the other) when they are coaching the

plebians on how to deal with their enemy when he solicits their votes

in the market-place and, later, when the tribunes outmaneuver

Coriolanus and force him into exile. So the tribunes are schemers, so

what? Everyone in this play is looking out for his or her own interests,

or those of his or her class, with the possible exceptions of Virgilia,

Caius Martius’s wife, and he himself, whose patriotism is not hypocritical,

just confused. He truly believes that the nobility is Rome and

that the plebians are useless appendages to the body politic. To the

extent that they play a part in the politics of Rome, Rome will be weakened

and eventually destroyed. That is what he says at the beginning

and he never changes his mind.

As a man who is absolutely incapable of being false to himself,

Caius Martius Coriolanus shows us what it means to be unambiguously

noble: a person who can’t pretend to be what he or she is not,

and cannot therefore go back on his or her beliefs, values, principles.

Such a person—or idealized person—presents an insoluble problem for

the politics of a commonwealth, which is what England thought of

itself as, and was in fact in the process of (slowly) becoming, i.e. a

society in which everyone has rights and everyone has a stake in its

economic prosperity. The commonwealth or common good requires

that all classes, all stakeholders, make compromises. But when compromise

becomes the golden rule of politics, and the art of hypocrisy

becomes necessary for political survival and social stability, what happens

to the virtues of an aristocratic society: honor, integrity, courage,


Coriolanus is a critique of aristocratic values but also something

more. What should we make, it seems to ask, of a polity and a political

language that no longer has any use for the word ‘noble’ except as

a metaphor? What will become of us when authenticity has become a

virtue that can only be excercised in private life? The play is ambivalent

about its hero because, I suppose, Shakespeare was ambivalent

about what these changes would mean. And so, I think, are we all,

even now as the politics of the modern, liberal republic hinted at in this

play—the politics of more or less democratic, utilitarian, free-market

states—is being established as the only game in the world.


  1. Brilliant analysis. I have never read Coriolanus, but intend to begin doing so tonight. Thank you very much for posting this.

  2. Hi, I just wanted to say thanks. I'm reading Coriolanus for school and I've been having the most difficult of times. I think my troubles have to do with the fact that I don't really enjoy "reading" drama--I love watching it on stage though.

    Reading your post turned the play into prose I found insightful, enjoyable, and easy to understand. I'm still having issues stating the Action and supporting my statement, but your contribution definitely put me on the right track.

    You rock!