After his candidacy has been approved by the plebeians and he is about to assume the office of Roman consul, when the two tribunes of the people challenge him and rescind the people’s vote, Coriolanus, furious that he is being made to bow to what he believes is an illegitimate authority says,
[M]y soul aches
To know, when two authorities are up,
Neither supreme, how soon confusion
May enter ’twixt the gap of both and take
The one by th‘ other.
In this phrase, Coriolanus expresses the theme of the play, the underlying conflict which has shaped his own personality, and the force which will prove his undoing: the conflict between irreconcilable authorities and the clash of irreconcilable values.
The two authorities that are set against each other in Coriolanus are first presented and formulated in the context of political or class antagonism. As the play begins, the people of Rome have taken to the streets and are on the verge of rioting for bread, which they say they are being deprived of by the patricians. Their anger has Caius Marcius (who will later acquire the name Coriolanus) as its particular object, for he is vocal in his contempt for the plebeians. The first representative of the patricians whom the audience encounters, however, is not Marcius but Menenius, an older man, a patrician with a refined disposition, but no less bound to the point of view of his class than Marcius.
In his attempt to pacify the plebeians, Menenius tells them the fable of the belly in which he postulates a conflict between all the other parts of the body and the belly. The belly is accused of hoarding all the food the body has taken in through its labor without having earned that nurturance through contributory labor. The belly retorts, correcting the rebellious organs, that it gathers, processes, and distributes the food to all those complaining organs leaving for itself nothing but offal. Menenius proceeds with his tale by declaring it an analogy. The belly is the senate of Rome and the rebelling parts are the plebeians. Fundamental to Menenius’s biological model is his formulation of a conflict between parts that actually form an organic unity. So the State is defined in Coriolanus as an amalgam of conflicting parts rather than an organic community in which all the parts, that is all its people, are joined together in an interdependent unity.
When Marcius arrives and confronts the rebellious Roman plebeians, he does not act like the belly of Menenius’s parable. Rather he expresses disdain and contempt for them, which must insure division and conflict. His argument is simple. They have not earned the bread they demand; they are a lazy, irresponsible rabble without virtue. The virtue that Marcius represents is military prowess. He is a magnificent soldier whose performance in the wars Rome has fought is unequalled in heroism and prowess. The conflict between the plebeians and the patricians, then, is sharpened into a conflict between the plebeians and Marcius. That conflict is set within the framework of the conflict between Rome and its foreign enemy, the Volscians. The conflict between Rome and the Volscians is sharpened in Coriolanus into a conflict between Marcius and Aufidius, the general of the Volsces.
The conflict between Marcius and Aufidius is an external conflict, a foreign conflict. The internal, domestic conflict between Marcius and the people of Rome takes focus as an antagonism between Marcius and the two leaders of the people, their tribunes, Junius Brutus and Velutus Sicinius. When Marcius returns to Rome after defeating the Volscians in a series of particularly fierce encounters, his conflict, not with the plebeians, but with their tribunes, is greatly intensified when he seeks to become consul, an office in republican Rome with the power of a king, although not accompanied by a king’s life-long tenure. His attaining that office, the tribunes, no doubt properly believe, would constitute a serious threat to the scope of their power and authority.
There is an important difference that marks the conflicts between Marcius and his external foe, Aufidius, and his domestic opponents, the two tribunes. Marcius hates Aufidius. He despises the tribunes. The difference is a difference between respect and contempt. Marcius is eager to confront Aufidius. He measures himself against Aufidius. He esteems and values this enemy highly. He even identifies himself with him; they are both martial men. Marcius is disdainful in his encounters with the tribunes. Contact with them diminishes him. He considers them unworthy opponents with whom contact is debasing. They deny the measure of his prowess.
But all the conflicts which involve Marcius and of which he is aware, whether with the people of Rome, with their tribunes, or with his great foe, Aufidius, seem to be emanations energized by a particular conflict of which he is not aware but which reveals itself as the play proceeds: the conflict within himself with his mother. It is a conflict determined by opposing notions of honor and valor. That conflict with his mother first appears as a relatively insignificant disagreement. It is revealed in passing. After Marcius returns in triumph to Rome, the hero of Corioles, now with the additional, honorary name of Coriolanus, Volumnia, his mother, tells him,
I have lived
To see inherited my very wishes,
And the buildings of my fancy. Only
There’s one thing wanting, which I doubt
Our Rome will cast upon thee.
He knows what she is talking about, and so does the audience, for some fifty lines before, as she, Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, and Menenius await his entrance, Volumnia speaks of the wounds she hopes to see him bearing home on his body, wounds he will have to bare to the people of Rome when he stands for the office of consul. ‘‘There will be large cicatrices to show the people, when he stands for his place,’’ she says, overflowing with proud ambition. Is it for him? Or is it for herself, through him? That is the conflict.
His response when she speaks of being on the verge of attaining the ‘‘one thing wanting,’’ which she is confident ‘‘Rome will cast upon thee,’’ is that he ‘‘had rather be their servant in my way / Than sway with them in theirs.’’ ‘‘Sway,’’ as Coriolanus uses the word here, means hold power. He wants to be a combat soldier serving the people of Rome, which to him means the patricians, rather than doing the things necessary to obtain governing power, which first means humbling himself to the populace. Volumnia does not respond to his demurral, essentially because it is as if he had not spoken. What he says does not matter to her. It has become so much the case that she wills what he will be and fashions what he does and he only enacts it.
During her first appearance in the play, Volumnia describes how she fashioned him and, in graphic (and psychologically devastating) terms, conveys how she values him.
“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. When yet he was but tender-bodied, and the only son of my womb; when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way; when, for a day of kings’ entreaties, a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding; I, considering how honor would become such a person—that it was no better than picture-like to hang by th’ wall, if renown made it not stir—was pleased to let him seek danger where he was to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.”
If this is not enough to show that she values the light he casts upon her over the life that might have burned in him, she concludes by saying that, ‘‘had I a dozen sons,’’ she would prefer that they all ‘‘die nobly for their country,’’ than that one live at ease.
Thus Marcius is defined by an awful contradiction. He belongs most to himself when he belongs most to his mother. When she wishes him to run for consul, he is put into conflict, not really with himself, since he has no authentic self-driven self, but with the self that she has constructed within him, for him, which she now would see deconstructed and refashioned. No longer is he to be the proud soldier who needs no maternal nurture, who can release his fury at its absence in warfare, feed on the blood of others, and bring back his own spilled blood to feed his mother’s pride. He must become a supplicant, humble himself to those whom he abhors and show the wounds to them which properly belong to his mother.
When he is unable to do that, Marcius comes in conflict with the populace and the tribunes of Rome. That encounter enrages him, but it does not undermine him or shake his core identity the way his mother’s response threatens to do. When his failure to satisfy the plebeians becomes a failure to satisfy her, and the cause for a second instance of conflict with her, stronger than the first, that is when his world begins to totter. ‘‘I muse my mother / Does not approve me further,’’ he says, in act 3, scene 2, after a tempestuous encounter in which he alienates the people with his scornful wrath. His mother, he protests, ‘‘was wont / To call them woolen vassals, things created / To buy and sell with groats.’’ He was merely displaying towards the plebeians the very contempt his mother had taught him and approved in him. When Coriolanus asks her, ‘‘Why did you wish me milder— Would you have me / False to my nature,’’ he defends himself saying, ‘‘I play / The man I am.’’ I am being true to myself, he says, true to the man you have always had me be. This time she does not remain silent as she did when he expressed his reluctance to seek the office of consul but contradicts him with a reproach: ‘‘You might have been enough the man you are, / With striving less to be so.’’
Volumnia is counseling craft, but craft has never been his way. Marcius is open, forthright, and aggressive. It is the mark of his honor not to dissemble. It is the root of his identity to be what he seems and to seem what he is, to play the man and not the politician. She is teaching him a new lesson:
Lesser had been
The thwartings of your dispositions, if
You had not showed them how ye were
Ere they lacked power to cross you.
It makes him angry. ‘‘Let them hang,’’ he says directing his wrath where it is permissible, not against his mother, where it is truly directed, but against the people. And she returns his anger, with irony. ‘‘Ay,’’ she says, ‘‘and burn too,’’ warning him of the likely consequences of his forthrightness. But he has never before had to concern himself with the fear of violence directed against himself or Rome. As a soldier, he has confronted and defeated it. As a mother, she had sent ‘‘him [to] seek danger where he was like to find fame.’’ Now she reverses herself and tells him that in order to enjoy fame, he must temporize it with danger.
Marcius tries, but he is ill-disposed to remodel himself in the new image his mother presents him with., Fortified by his devotion to his honor and to his integrity, qualities which his mother first shaped in him, he is defeated in his attempt to abruptly change in order to expose himself to the people that he scorns, in order to seek their approval. And so, Coriolanus is banished from Rome, betrayed by motherland and mother. In his loss of self he seeks the only other fitting image of himself that he has ever regarded—Aufidius, whom he has made the mirror of himself—and presents himself to his rival for either extermination at his hand or assimilation into his identity. By this move, without even anticipating the consequences, Coriolanus puts his fundamental conflict, the one that must destroy him, out in the open. He becomes an open enemy of Rome and, just as surely, an enemy of his mother. When Coriolanus goes to battle against his motherland, heart hardened against his adversary as always, his mother’s coup de grace ˆ is to manage to transfer the conflict between rivals from the outer realm, where it is a matter of self against other, to the inner, where it is the self against the self. His mother turns his conflict with Rome and with her back into the conflict it has always been, a conflict of her making, a conflict with himself, a conflict in which, no matter which side wins, Coriolanus dies.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007
Neil Heims, Critical Essay on Coriolanus, in Shakespeare For Students, Second Edition, Thomson Gale, 2007.