The Conflict between Honor and Loyalty
The concepts of honor and loyalty usually seem to be interconnected. Loyalty to one’s family, to one’s country, to one’s core values seems to be the mark of honor. It is a mark of dishonor to betray family, country, and core values. In Coriolanus, however, rather than being interconnected, loyalty and honor are put at odds with each other. Patriotism, duty to his country, devotion to his mother, and adherence to his code of values, all are fundamental attributes of Coriolanus’s character. Yet, Coriolanus endures dishonor in Rome because he remains loyal to his sense of what is honorable. He will not boast about his feats of heroism, nor submit to the values of the tribunes and the plebeians. He steadfastly maintains his integrity. When he joins with the Volscians in their campaign against Rome, he is confronted with the choice of betraying his commitment to the Volscians, by being loyal to his mother and his motherland, and thus dishonoring himself, or dishonoring his mother by being disloyal to her and ignoring her entreaties.
The tribunes, too, are shown to be dishonorable in their loyalty to what they see to be the cause of the people. They are shown manipulating the plebeians, especially when they advise them to rescind their approval of Coriolanus as consul, advising them to say that the tribunes duped them into supporting him by telling them of his virtues. They had not done that before the election. Only afterwards, in order to have the people use that positive information in a negative way do the tribunes recount Coriolanus’s worthy deeds.
The Conflict between Nurture and Hunger
Coriolanus begins with the question the plebeians put to each other, ‘‘You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?’’ as they rise up against the patricians in order to have ‘‘corn at our own price.’’ Contrasting themselves to the patricians, they point out that just the excess that the patricians eat could feed them. In order to counter their complaints, Menenius tells them the parable of the belly. When Marcius enters, his disdain for the plebeians is marked by expressions of contempt for their hunger. But Marcius himself has been raised by a mother who nurtured him with a steely passion for warfare rather than milk. In her first appearance in the play, Volumnia says, ‘‘The breasts of Hecuba, / When she did suckle Hector, looked not lovlier / Then [sic] Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood.’’ The tribunes tell Menenius that Coriolanus loves the people the way the wolf loves the lamb, in order to eat them. And Coriolanus says, condemning the people’s votes, ‘‘Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.’’ Only in Antium, when Coriolanus allies himself with Aufidius, does he go into dinner with him. And Menenius, worrying that Coriolanus will reject his petition to spare Rome, thinks that he will go to him after Coriolanus has eaten. Thus, throughout Coriolanus, there is a constant reference to images of hunger and nurturing as being in conflict with each other and as determining people’s actions and attitudes.
The insult which overwhelms Coriolanus is being called ‘‘boy’’ by Aufidius at the end of the play after he returns from Rome having yielded to his mother’s entreaties to spare the city. He rages in response, and boasts of his power as the soldier who has repeatedly defeated the Volscians in battle. But this outward show of force never achieves for him an inward condition of self-sufficient strength. He is defined by those who oppose him rather than by something in himself. All Coriolanus’s acts are designed to assert his manhood, whether through bravery in war or asserting himself against the plebeians. But his very assertion of manhood is dedicated to pleasing his mother. When he asks his mother, after his confrontation with the Roman people and their tribunes, why she would have had him conform himself to the wishes of the plebeians and humiliate himself, he defends himself saying, ‘‘I play / The man I am.’’ Her retort contradicts him and suggests that his behavior shows he is not a man. She says, ‘‘You might have been enough the man you are, / With striving less to be so.’’
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