The Tragedy of Inhumanity
His bloody brow
With his mailed hand then wiping, forth he goes,
Like to a harvest-man that’s tasked to mow
Or all or lose his hire. (1.3. 36-40)
This is how Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, describes Coriolanus to Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife, as Coriolanus goes to war. Virgilia responds with fear, saying, “His bloody brow? O Jupiter, no blood! (1.3. 41)” To which Volumnia responds:
Away, you fool! It more becomes a man
Than gilt his trophy. The breasts of Hecuba,
When she did suckle Hector, looked not lovelier
Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning. (1.3. 42-6)
This scene captures many key elements of Shakespeare’s problematic tragedy, Coriolanus: It captures the Roman deification of bloody warriors who are inhuman to the enemy, mowing them like grass; it shows us that this image is “lovelier” to Romans than the image of a mother nurturing her child; it establishes Volumnia as the ideal Roman mother – a breeder of killers, Virgilia as the ideal Roman wife – a silent supporter of her husband, and Coriolanus as the ideal Roman – an unswerving warrior; and it captures the tragedy of Coriolanus – that in becoming the ideal Roman, he becomes inhuman.
It is important that this scene captures all these crucial elements of the play through the imagination of Volumnia. As she speaks, Coriolanus simply marches to war in the distance, as if her words are drumbeats, timing his steps. Throughout the play, it becomes increasingly important that Coriolanus has become the ideal Roman warrior, but only as a child would – to fulfill his mother’s ideal of the perfect child – never imagining the role himself, making him incapable of becoming more than a warrior – a man.
As this scene between Virgilia and Volumnia continues, and Virgilia’s friend Valeria joins them, we see that Shakespeare’s Romans consider inhumane destruction “noble,” even in children. The first thing Valeria asks Volumnia and Virgilia about is Virgilia and Coriolanus’ child. Volumnia proudly responds that, “He had rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his schoolmaster.” To which Valeria says, “O’ my word, the father’s son!” and recounts a story from the last time she saw him:
I saw him run after a gilded butterfly; and when he caught it, he let it go again; and after it again; and over and over he comes, and up again; catched it again; or whether his fall enraged him, or how ‘twas, he did so set his teeth, and tear it. O, I warrant, how he mammocked it! (1.3 63-69)
To which she adds, “Indeed, la, ‘tis a noble child.”
From the author who wrote Falstaff’s candid speeches about “honor,” one cannot help but sense a hint of irony in the response of “noble” to a young child biting, tearing, and mammocking a gilded butterfly. Surely, Shakespeare did not consider this child’s violent behavior “noble,” but he slyly makes us believe that Romans did. He makes us believe that Roman women internalize the ideal of a Roman as a brutal warrior, and have pass it on to their children. Showing us three ladies laughing at the child’s destruction of a butterfly – even as they speak of him pining to go to war – helps us accept the joyous response that the Roman’s have to Coriolanus’ inhuman destruction of the Volscians; and Shakespeare sweeps us away in their praise of him.
When the patricians are relating his “noble” deeds to the Roman people, their speeches are simultaneously describe him as heroic and inhuman, comparing him to inanimate objects in beautiful Roman verse:
His pupil age
Man-entere’d thus, he waxed like a sea;
And, in the brunt of seventeen battles since,
He lurch’d all swords of the garland as weeds before
A vessel under sail, so men obey’d,
And fell below his stern: his sword, death’s stamp,
Where it did mark, it took; from face to foot
He was a thing of blood, whose every motion
Was timed with dying cries: alone he entered
The mortal gate of the city, which he painted
With shunless destiny; aidless came off,
And with a sudden reinforcement struck
Corioli like a planet: now all’s his:
When, by and by, the din of war ‘gan pierce
His ready sense; then straight his doubled spirit
Requickene’d what in flesh was fatigue,
And to the battle cam he; where he did
Run reeking o’er the lives of men, as if
‘Twere a perpetual spoil; and till we call’d
Both field and city ours, he never stood
To ease his breast with panting. (2.2 110-124)
In this one speech, Cominius goes from describing Coriolanus as a pupil, reminding us of his butterfly-mammocking son, to characterizing him as the ocean, a ship, “a thing of blood,” and a planet. The poetic verse never relents with its powerful non-human images, often flowing from one metaphor to another without stop-lines. At the end of the speech, Shakespeare rests on an image of Coriolanus snarling and panting on the ruins of a city like a beast to whom “lives of men” are “perpetual spoil,” – a grotesque extreme of the ideal Roman warrior. The speech impresses us with Coriolanus’ hugeness, concealing the inhumanity of his actions with inhuman images.
Just as the Romans bred him to be, Coriolanus is a Roman god of war, and while the Roman gods were often heroic, it is also no secret that they were short of temper and prone to rash fits. Coriolanus resembles them in both these ways. In this vain, Shakespeare allows Coriolanus’ enemy, Aufidius to critique him:
First Soldier: He’s the Devil.
Aufidius: Bolder, though not so subtle. (1.10. 17-8)
We see just how true this critique is in the next act, when Coriolanus returns to Rome and the senators try to make him consul.
One of the first things established in the play, is Coriolanus and the Roman peoples’ mutual loathing for one another. The play opens with a scene of Roman citizens complaining about how they do not have enough grain to eat because their patricians, particularly Coriolanus, are taking it. They call Coriolanus the, “Chief enemy to the people,” (1.1.8) and resolve to kill him. Then, Menenius enters the scene. The citizens say that Menenius is, “One that hath always loved the people…One honest enough; would all the rest were so,” (1.1.52-5) and discuss the lack of food with him. Menenius responds with a beautiful, though somewhat hollow, metaphor about how the patricians are like the belly of the people, and while they get the food first, this is best for the whole body (all of Rome) because they distribute it to the blood, which flows to all “small, inferior veins.”(1.1.139) While being subtly insulted in the midst of this explanation, the citizens are content with it, responding, “Ay, sir; well, well.” (1.1.142) Then Coriolanus enters the scene. Since Menenius has already calmed the people before Coriolanus’ arrival, the only thing the people ask of Coriolanus is to, “Have ever your good word.” (1.1.167) But even this request from the people sends Coriolanus into a war-like rage:
He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese. You are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offense subdues him
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favors swims with fins of lead
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye?
With every minute you do change a mind,
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland. What’s the matter
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble Senate, who
(Under the gods) keep you in awe, which else
Would feed on one another?
In this speech, we see that Coriolanus’ lack of humanity in war carries over to his relations with the Roman people; he says nothing imaginative in the speech, but says it all with the devilish boldness and lack of subtlety with which Aufidius describes his war ethics. Menenius manages to say much more in his much shorter speech about the belly, and he gets across Coriolanus’ insults about the lower class without offending them. Coriolanus has no need to insult the lower class in his speech – all he needs to do is defend the patricians distribution of grain – but Coriolanus is so unimaginative in his role as the Roman warrior that when he hears the people talking ill of the Roman Senate, he becomes enraged instead of imagining a better way of dealing with them.
When Coriolanus returns to Rome after defeating the Volsces, the senators want to make him consul, but, in order to get the position, he must first receive the approval of the Roman people. Menenius understands that public figures must subtly pander to the people. “You are ambitious for poor knaves caps and legs,” he says to Brutus and Sicinius, the two tribunes of the people. He also understands that this pandering is necessary for any politician to be successful in Rome, “Our very priests must become mockers if they shall encounter such ridiculous subjects.”
When Brutus and Sicinius tell Coriolanus that he must get the acceptance of the Roman people to become consul, Menenius tries to pass on his political cunning to Coriolanus, encouraging him to put aside his honor and lie to the people in order to progress himself, “Take your honor with your form.” Menenius’ political lessons for Coriolanus are reminiscent of Falstaff’s lessons for Hal in Henry 4. Both Menenius and Falstaff assert that acting nobly can be useful, but is not always necessary. Hal is imaginative enough to learn more from Falstaff’s than even Falstaff could imagine, rising to the height of his political sphere; Coriolanus is not. Instead, Coriolanus stays true to his simple image of “noble” – unswerving in ones values – and goes into a fit of rage, scorning Brutus and Sicinius for their pandering, and scorning the people for their shiftiness.
There is something noble in Coriolanus’ unswerving loyalty to Roman values, but he is so unswerving in this loyalty that he again seems inhuman in his lack of imagination. This becomes extremely evident when Rome – the object of his loyalty – almost breaks into a civil war because of his constancy. He neglects what he is loyal to for the sake of loyalty! Because of this, we are forced to look for a different object to attach his loyalty to. In the next scene, we find that that object is his mother.
All of the patricians try to calm Coriolanus’ rage against the people, and all of them fail: the senators try to get him to be more human to the people, and fail; his wife tries to calm him, but can only be the ideal Roman wife, his, “gracious silent;” Menenius tries to teach him political maneuvering, but he does not get through to him because he does not realize where Coriolanus’ deepest loyalties lie. And up until this point, neither do we. Shakespeare reserves this knowledge for Coriolanus’ enemies, Brutus and Sicinius, who say that his actions are to, “Please his mother, and be partly proud.” We find that this is truth in a speech this speech that Coriolanus gives to the rest of the patricians about pandering to the people before Volumnia confronts him:
I muse my mother
Does not approve me further, who was wont
To call them woolen vassals, things created
To buy and sell with groats; to show bear heads
In congregations, to yawn, be still and wonder,
When one but of my ordinance stood up
To speak of peace or war.
Then his mother enters the scene. His attack on the people just before his arrival is more eloquent than his previous speeches because he is repeating his mother’s words, showing us that he loathes the Roman people because his mother does, not because he imagined this hatred himself. Volumnia imagined Coriolanus’ entire conception of himself and the world for him, and thus when his mother tells him to concede to pander to the Roman people, he cannot refuse.
Coriolanus has no individual imagination of his positions in life, only interpretations of his mother’s. Thus, when she tells him he has misinterpreted her, he cannot consciously disagree with her. However, when he actually tries to pander to the people, he unconsciously disagrees with her, sticking to her less imaginative views – that of the constant Roman warrior – and goes into another fit of rage against the people. This time, with our new knowledge of him, we see that this rage is a childish temper-tantrum. We see that Coriolanus lacks the human imagination to envision the subtleties or nuances of the ideal Roman warrior that are necessary for a real Roman warrior.
It is precisely because of this – because Coriolanus represents (actually, is) something deeply Roman that is paradoxically unworkable in Roman society (indeed, any society), that he must leave Rome. The public existence of such a paradoxical figure, and his inability to change, splits Rome in half and almost starts a civil war. To avoid this, the Senate – though they consider Coriolanus a great Roman – decide to exile him.
In scene 4.5, when Coriolanus leaves Rome, we see that he takes all of his admirable and less admirable traits with him. He remains a heroic warrior who is true to his values; but because of this, he remains inhuman in his lack of imagination to the point that he cannot conceive of himself as anything but a warrior. Because of this, he goes to the city against which he has warred his entire life, and offers them his service.
Scene 4.5 opens with Coriolanus walking into Aufidius’ house and being confronted by two serving men. He treats them with his usual hostility toward the lower classes, telling them to, “Follow your function, go and batten on cold bits,” then pushes them. When they try to ask the simplest things of him, such as where he is from, he refuses to tell them, speaking to them in a lazy prose. Then, when Aufidius enters the scene, Coriolanus immediately returns to his noble Roman verse, and shows us that he thinks he can right all the wrongs he has done against the Volsces by nobly serving them in battle:
But if so be
Thou dar’st not this and that to prove more fortunes
Thou’rt tired, then, in a word, I also am
Longer to live most weary, and present
My throat to thee and to thy ancient malice;
Which not to cut would show thee but a fool,
Since I have ever followed thee with hate,
Drawn tuns of blood out of thy country’s breast,
And cannot live but to thy shame, unless
It be to do thee service.
His ability to reconcile with his enemy again draws our sympathy, but the root of it is his unimaginative conception of himself as a warrior. To him, if he is not a warrior, he is nothing.
Aufidius accepts Coriolanus with equally beautiful rhetoric, seemingly ending their warring, and sanctifying a love between them:
Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, where against
My grained ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarred the moon with splinters. Here I clip
The anvil of my sword, and do contest
As hotly and as nobly with thy love
As ever in ambitious strength I did
Contend against thy valor. Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
But this speech seems dubious when one recalls Aufidius’ earlier words, spoken after his loss to Coriolanus in battle:
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.
When this earlier speech is recalled, we see that Aufidius is plotting against Coriolanus as he takes him in; that Aufidius has the same political cunning as Menenius, Falstaff, and Hal; and that Coriolanus has so little imagination that he cannot even conceive of this sort of deception.
Coriolanus fights for the Volsces as passionately as he did for the Romans, showing the Romans the inhuman killing machine their ideals created from the perspective of their opponents:
He is their god; he leads them like a thing
Made by some other deity than Nature,
That shapes man better; and they follow him
Against us brats with no less confidence
Than boys pursuing summer butterflies,
Or butchers killing flies.
He continues to be the rash, Roman god of war, killing humans as inhumanly as his son kills butterflies. Even apart from Rome, Coriolanus remains the ideal Roman warrior, but now we see how consumed this destruction this ideal is:
I tell you he does sit in gold, his eye
Red as ‘twould burn Rome.
we see just how inhuman he has become in this role:
He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
Till he had forged himself a name o’ th’ fire
Of burning Rome.
It seems like he will go on as the inhuman Roman warrior until he has destroyed everything, including Rome, the city that created him. He will burn it, even as his wife, mother, and son are in it – his connection to warring stronger than that to any human.
Again, like when they tried to make him consul, the patricians do all they can to stop his fury. Again, the senators try to evoke some humanity in him, and fail; again, Menenius tries to guide him in the subtleties of politics, and fails; again, Virgilia approaches him and remains his, “gracious silence” – that inhuman, ideal, Roman wife; and again, his mother confronts him and convinces him of a different interpretation of the Roman ideal of the war hero:
If it were so that our request did tend
To save the Romans, thereby to destroy
The Volsces whom you serve, you might condemn us,
As poisonous of your honor. No, our suit
Is that you reconcile them; while the Volsces
May say “This mercy we have showed,” the Romans,
“This we received”; and each in either side
Give the all-hail to thee, and cry “Be blest
For making up this peace.”…
I am hushed until our city be a-fire,
And then I’ll speak a little.
Again, this proves that the only thing that can stop the god of war is his mother’s tears. After this speech, Coriolanus realizes this: “All the swords/In Italy, and her confederate arms,/Could not have made this peace,” – he realizes that he cannot consciously oppose her, and thus must leave his inhuman warring ways, and ask Aufidius to make peace with Rome.
The seeming growth that Coriolanus goes through here makes us sympathize with him again. But when we look deeper into this “growth,” we realize that it is just another manifestation of his lack of imagination. It is because of Coriolanus’ lack of imagination that he became the ideal Roman warrior, doing so only through his mother’s nurturing. Coriolanus gives into his mother here because of an equally unimaginative, but more deeply-rooted tendency than that of being the Roman warrior of the Roman imagination – that of being the Roman warrior of his mother’s imagination. He cannot consciously oppose her because she made him. Of course, even she is just a product of Rome’s inhuman ideals for people.
Aufidius concedes to the peace he proposes, but only to further his own revenge on Coriolanus. Again, Coriolanus’ enemy – this time Aufidius instead of Brutus and Sicinius – realizes that Coriolanus cannot imagine greatness for himself, but only through his mother, and uses this knowledge against him. When Aufidius gives his speech to the senators against Coriolanus, he stresses that Coriolanus’ mother owned Rome, not Coriolanus himself:
You lords and heads o’ th’ state, perfidiously
He has betrayed your business and given up,
For certain drops of salt, your city Rome,
I say “your city,” to his wife and mother;
Breaking his oath and resolution, like
A twist of rotten silk; never admitting
Counsel o’ th’ war; but at his nurse’s tears
He whined and roared away your victory;
That pages blushed at him, and men of heart
Looked wound’ring each at other.
This speech picks up on Coriolanus’ similar sentiments from the beginning of the play, “When steel grows soft as the parasite’s silk,/Let him be made a coverture for th’ wars,” (1.9.45-6) and sends Coriolanus into one of his childish rages, defending his unimagined, warring version of himself, “Hear’st though, Mars?” To which Aufidius responds, “Name not the god, thou boy of tears!”
With the word “boy,” Coriolanus reverts entirely to his childish sense of the ideal Roman warrior, again unconsciously disagreeing with his mother, reverting to his tendency to justify himself through inhuman slaughtering:
Cut me to pieces, Volsces, men and lads,
Stain all your edges on me. “Boy”! False hound!
If you have writ your annals true, ‘tis there,
That, like an eagle in a dovecote, I
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles.
Alone I did it. “Boy”?
He believes that being the ideal Roman warrior made him a man, but he cannot imagine anything more complex than this, even when it is desperately necessary.
In the course of the play, civil war in Rome, the total destruction of Rome, the death of his family, and finally, even his own death, can be stopped if Coriolanus can imagine himself as something more than a warrior – a man – but he cannot.
With truly powerful speeches about combat, such as:
They fear us not, but issue forth their city.
Now put your shields before you hearts, and fight
With hearts more proof than shields.
Coriolanus undoubtedly seems great. But he cannot imagine himself as anything more complex than this warrior, and this warrior childishly marches to the beat of his mother’s drum, the beat of a drum that reflects the most inhuman values of his society. This lack of imagination results in his death at the word that describes him best – “Boy.”
This is the tragedy of a man who becomes an inhuman warrior while remaining an emotional and imaginative child – emotionally childish in his shallow relationship with his wife and child, and imaginatively childish in his inability be anything more than a warrior. This is also the tragedy of a society that breeds such people because of its unimaginative ideal of what a man is – a tragedy that deeply resonates today. It resonates today, in our society, because we still view death in combat as honorable, we still demonizes an imagination that can conceive of killing at war as inhuman, and we still encourage putting loyalty to the state over deep human connection. Just as Coriolanus internalizes the murderous ideals that become central to his self-image through of his mother’s “nurturing,” our mothers, families, and society progress similarly chilling, murderous ideals, which our youth continue to internalize. After all, it is no secret that children still torture butterflies as young Coriolanus does, and parents continue to fawn over them.