“As If a Man Were Author of Himself”

A couple of years ago, I saw a performance of Coriolanus on the Boston Common. It was that rare experience of seeing a great Shakespeare play with no prior knowledge. I had only the vaguest idea of what the play was about, and didn’t know a single line from it. This is, to say the least, not the way we usually encounter Shakespeare.

You don’t appreciate this play until you see it performed. It is fast-paced, genuinely exciting, and often funny — qualities that do not come out on page. Some forgotten Shakespeare plays are forgotten for a reason. But this one, you have to wonder why it isn’t up there in the canon with Macbeth and Othello and Lear. Maybe because it lacks show-stopping monologues (something you miss less on the stage.) More likely because the central character is such a cipher.

So who is Coriolanus? He turns out to be, essentially, John Galt — or Mitt Romney, or Leung Chun-Ying. Which means that this is a play that speaks to our current condition. The connection was obvious when I saw the play, less than a year after the end of Occupy (which this staging clearly referenced) and a few months before the 2012 elections. I meant to write something about it then. But I got distracted with other things, and after Mitt Romney left the big stage it seemed less relevant. But as Paul Krugman reminds us,  Coriolanuses still walk among us. So I’ll belatedly set down my thoughts now.

* * *

The play opens with a riot, by the plebians of Rome against the patricians. The rioters are surprisingly articulate. Far more so than urban rioters in similar contemporary stories (like the plain people of Gotham in the Dark Knight Rises.)

FIRST CITIZEN. We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good. What authority surfeits on would relieve us; if they would yield us but the superfluity… the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory of their abundance; our suffering is gain to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes … the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.

Note that their demand — repeated a couple times over the play — is to have wheat from the storehouses sold at a fair price. This demand that “engrossers” be required to disgorge their stores was, I beleive, a common demand in urban riots — indeed, traditional English law required it. The patricians in Coriolanus often speak as though giving in to the rioters would imply a complete social breakdown — but when Shakespeare has the plebians themselves speak, this is what they call for, not  aimless destruction.

To mollify the mob, the patrician Menenius explains to them that if they are the arms and legs of Rome, the nobility is the stomach. This metaphor might read differently then (like a fire that gives light vs. heat, a line that is always quoted backwards today) but it’s hard not see it as a sly acknowledgement that the mob is right.

MENENIUS. There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebell’d against the belly; thus accus’d it:–
That only like a gulf it did remain
In the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing’
Like labour with the rest … it tauntingly replied
… I am the storehouse and the shop
Of the whole body…
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live …

Menenius is a bit of a clown, a kind of Polonius figure. It’s Coriolanus himself who gets the best songs from the conservative hymnal — that the common people are under the control of their appetites, they are capricious, that they can’t govern themselves, they are liable to turn on each other without an authority over them.

CORIOLANUS: … your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours 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?

This is a central theme of conservative and reactionary politics — that ordinary people, left to ourselves, would be unable to solve our coordination problems, would fall into a war of all against all. This is always the story we’re told about urban riots, it’s the story that the purpose of Occupy was, in a sense,  to challenge. We heard  Coriolanus’s voice most clearly after Hurricane Katrina, when the reality of violence by the authorities and of mutual aid in New Orleans were transformed in the popular imagination (with help of some vile propaganda) into fantasies of anarchic violence by the people trapped in the city. Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell is a good corrective to this myth.

To be fair, some of the common people in the play seem to accept this account of themselves:

FIRST CITIZEN. …  once we stood up about the corn, he himself stuck not to call us the many-headed multitude. 

THIRD CITIZEN. We have been called so of many; not that our heads are some brown, some black, some auburn, some bald, but that our wits are so diversely coloured; and truly I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south; and their consent of one direct way should be at once to all the points o’ the compass.

But then that is how ideology works — to foreclose the possibility of alternative forms of coordination.

Meanwhile the patricians are discussing the situation. Coriolanus asks Menenius  what it is, exactly, that the common people want.

MENENIUS. For corn at their own rates; whereof they say
The city is well stor’d. 

They say! They’ll sit by th’ fire and presume to know
What’s done i’ the Capitol; who’s like to rise,
Who thrives and who declines; side factions, and give out
Conjectural marriages; making parties strong,
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there’s grain enough!
Would the nobility lay aside their ruth
And let me use my sword, I’d make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter’d slaves, as high
As I could pick my lance. …
They said they were an-hungry; sigh’d forth proverbs,–
That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,
That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only:–with these shreds
They vented their complainings…

Even in Coriolanus’ hostile summary, the mob sounds kind of reasonable, no? Note that he doesn’t deny that the city’s storehouses have enough grain to feed the populace. (And it soon becomes clear they do.) Rather, he is outraged by the idea that ordinary people have any opinion on these questions at all. The violence of his response is remarkable — he’d like to slaughter thousands of Roman citizens — especially considering he is the notional hero of the play. But then indiscriminate violence is often the response when the social hierarchy is seriously threatened — consider the 20-30,000 Parisians killed in the ten days following the fall of the Paris Commune.

The concilatory faction among the nobility wins out, and tribunes are appointed to represent the plebians in government. In the production I saw, the tribunes really stole the show. Even if the text itself presents the tribunes mostly as half clowns, half villains, you have to love a play with a couple of communist agitators as central characters. Their costumes brought this out in the Boston Commons production, but it’s right there in the text.

Before the social conflict can continue, however, it’s cut short by war on Rome’s borders. Coriolanus is given command of some of the Roman troops fighting against the Volscian invaders. Not surprisingly, he regards his rank and file soldiers about as favorably as he does ordinary Roman citizens.

You shames of Rome! … You souls of geese
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
… by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe
And make my wars on you

Nonetheless, the Volscians are defeated; and after his wartime success, Coriolanus is a natural choice for consul. His fellow patricians urge him to accept the office. The catch is that Roman law requires the populace to approve new consuls. It’s just a formality, but one that — with the recent unrest — can’t be safely dispensed with.  Coriolanus wants the job but refuses to ask for it. His pride is expressed in a refusal to do anything that would seem to be asking for acknowledgement or reward.  This comes out specifically in the question of whether he will display his battle wounds to the public, apparently a relaible way of winning their admiration. He expresses unwillingness:

CORIOLANUS: I have some wounds upon me, and they smart
To hear themselves remember’d.

The funny thing is, no one has mentioned his wounds until now! Throughout the play, Coriolanus is a master of this sort of humblebragging.

Don’t worry, the other patricians tell Coriolanus, just show up and talk about your victories, and the people will approve you. They are weak-willed and easily swayed. But Coriolanus refuses. He hates more than anything else having to ask the masses for approval. Even if they’d give it, no problem, it infuriates him that they even get a say over their natural superiors like him. On behalf of the patrician class, Menenius begs him to suck up his pride and pretend, just for a moment, to want the people’s approval.

CORIOLANUS. Are these your herd?
Must these have voices, that can yield them now,
And straight disclaim their tongues?
What are your offices?
You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth?
Have you not set them on? 

MENENIUS. Be calm, be calm. 

CORIOLANUS. It is a purpos’d thing, and grows by plot,
To curb the will of the nobility: Suffer’t, and live with such as cannot rule,
Nor ever will be rul’d. …
In soothing them we nourish ‘gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough’d for, sow’d, and scatter’d,
By mingling them with us, the honour’d number

Of course, he isn’t wrong. Granting even symbolic authority to the plebs calls into question the inevitbility of the authority of their superiors. The greatest strength of the rule of a small elite is that no other possibility is even thinkable. So any symbol that renders it thinkable, is threatening.

Recall the judgement of Charles LeClerc, the general sent to reconquer Haiti for Napoleon: “We must exterminate all the blacks in the mountains, women as well as men… wipe out half the population of the lowlands, and not leave in the entire colony a single black who has ever warn an epaulette.” If it is possible for blacks to be officers, LeClerc reasoned, it is impossible for blacks to be slaves. There were similar reactions in the Confederacy to proposals to use blacks as soldiers.

Coriolanus thinks like LeClerc. And anyway, he personally is unwilling to acknowledge any dependence, even symbolic, on his  inferiors. He will be consul only thanks to his own natural superiority, not thanks to any kind of public approval.

Menenius begs him to reconsider:

MENENIUS. You’ll mar all: I’ll leave you.
Pray you speak to ’em, I pray you,
In wholesome manner. 

CORIOLANUS. Bid them wash their faces
And keep their teeth clean.
So, here comes a brace:
[Re-enter two citizens.]
You know the cause, sirs, of my standing here. 

FIRST CITIZEN. We do, sir; tell us what hath brought you to’t. 

CORIOLANUS. Mine own desert. 

SECOND CITIZEN. Your own desert? 

CORIOLANUS. Ay, not mine own desire. 

FIRST CITIZEN. How! not your own desire!

CORIOLANUS. No, sir, ’twas never my desire yet to trouble the poor with begging. 


CORIOLANUS. Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
 Why in this wolvish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick that do appear,
Their needless vouches?

When I saw the play in the fall of 2012, the parallel with the “you didn’t build it” pseudo-controversy was glaring. (It’s interesting also that Coriolanus refers to common people as “trades.”) The idea that the occupants of high positions might owe any of their success to those beneath them, is anathema. As Coriolianus warns his fellow patricians, hierarchy and democracy are an unstable mix:

You are plebeians,
If they be senators: and they are no less
When .. they choose their magistrates


How shall this multitude digest
The senate’s courtesy? Let deeds express
What’s like to be their words:–‘We did request it;
We are the greater poll, and in true fear
They gave us our demands:’– Thus we debase
The nature of our seats, and make the rabble
Call our cares fears; which will in time
Break ope the locks o’ the senate and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles. 

The tribunes, though they often come across as clownish, clearly understand what’s at stake as well as Corolianus does. Here’s one of the tribunes:

BRUTUS: So it must fall out
To him or our authorities. For an end,
We must suggest the people in what hatred
He still hath held them; that to’s power he would
Have made them mules, silenc’d their pleaders, and
Dispropertied their freedoms; holding them,
In human action and capacity,
Of no more soul nor fitness for the world
Than camels in their war; who have their provand
Only for bearing burdens, and sore blows
For sinking under them.

In general, the tribunes’ line against Coriolanus is that he is proud, that he is using his (unquestionably genuine) accomplishments and virtues to set himself up above the people. This kind of jealousy and suspicion of successful war leaders seems to be a central theme of human egalitarianism, going back to the paleolithic.

It’s striking what tribune Brutus says to Coriolanus when he confronts him directly:

BRUTUS. You speak o’ the people
As if you were a god, to punish, not
A man of their infirmity.

Here is the central theme of the play: the idea of “superior” people that they are somehow outside of society, outside the common condition of humanity, versus the reality that they are as dependent, as infirm, as the rest of us.

Coriolanus also hates his opposite number, the Volscian general Aufidius. (I have no idea who if anyone this represents historically.) But there’s a difference in the  quality of hatred for an equal as against a social inferior. Here, Coriolanus asks a Roman diplomat about Aufidius.

CORIOLANUS. Spoke he of me?

LARTIUS. He did, my lord.


LARTIUS. How often he had met you, sword to sword;
That of all things upon the earth he hated
Your person most; that he would pawn his fortunes
To hopeless restitution, so he might
Be call’d your vanquisher.

CORIOLANUS. At Antium lives he?

LARTIUS. At Antium.

CORIOLANUS. I wish I had a cause to seek him there,
To oppose his hatred fully.
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people;
The tongues o’ the common mouth. I do despise them,
For they do prank them in authority,
Against all noble sufferance.

The one hatred involves a kind of admiration and attraction (“I wish I had cause to seek him there”); the other only contempt. Even opposing elites are closer to each other than to the people they rule.

The combination of his visible contempt and the tribunes’ urging the people not to acclaim him unless he shows some respect, result in Coriolanus being denied the consulship, and then accused of treason and exiled from the city.  As he puts it, “the beast with many heads butts me away.” It’s interesting how often the play uses this kind of language for the common people; it brings to mind Linebaugh’s Many-Headed Hydra. Linebaugh himself suggests that Shakespeare wrote the play in response to the Midlands revolt of 1607, a mass uprising against enclosures that, apparently, was the first appearance of “Levellers” in England. What’s interesting about the play as a whole is that it faces forward to this kind of class politics, rather than backward, like the history plays, to the older world of dynastic, feudal politics. It might be the only Shakespeare play that George Scialabba would approve. (It was also the only Shakespeare play that interested Brecht.)

After leaving Rome, Coriolanus seeks out his old enemy Aufidius and pledges his service to him and the Volscians if they will make a new war on Rome. Like Rand’s D’Anconia, he imagines he’ll leave Rome as he found it. (So maybe the tribunes’ accusations of treason were on the mark?) Aufidius, an aristocrat himself, is buying what Coriolanus is selling:

AUFIDIUS. … the nobility of Rome are his;
The senators and patricians love him too:
The tribunes are no soldiers; and their people
Will be as rash in the repeal as hasty
To expel him thence. I think he’ll be to Rome
As is the osprey to the fish, who takes it
By sovereignty of nature.

With Coriolanus and Aufidius sharing command, the Volscian army reverses its defeats and advances to the gates of Rome. The tribunes want to raise a new army (this is only mentioned in passing, but I thought it was an interesting detail). Meanwhile, the patricians send emissaries out, who know Coriolanus and perhaps can convince him to spare the city.  But Coriolanus turns them all away, even Menenius who, he says, was like a father to him:

CORIOLANUS. This last old man,
Whom with crack’d heart I have sent to Rome,
Lov’d me above the measure of a father;
Nay, godded me indeed. Their latest refuge
Was to send him…

As these lines suggest, the specific challenge Coriolanus faces here is denying the social ties that connect him to Rome — denying that he owes anything to anyone, that he is in any way dependent, enmeshed in a web of social obligations. Or as he puts it:

… 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.

Coriolanus imagines himself as, precisely, a self-made man. But as Professor T. says, nobody is: The thing that libertarians always forget or ignore is the biological dependence everyone experiences, not least as children. It’s only possible to imagine yourself as an autonomous monad, author to yourself, if family life is rigidly walled off from civil society and, in general, if women are kept out of sight.

You think I’m reading that into the play? No no, Coriolanus says it himself:

Not of a woman’s tenderness to be,
Requires nor child nor woman’s face to see.

And that’s his downfall. Once Menenius returns in defeat, the Romans have one more trump to play. They send Coriolanus’ mother, wife and son to plead with him. (It’s a funny, proto-feminist touch that Menenius himself scoffs at this last attempt. If he, Coriolanus’ mentor, failed, how could these women and children have a chance?) Coriolanus tries to convince himself to ignore even these most primal ties:

the honour’d mould
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood. But, out, affection!
All bond and privilege of nature, break!
Let it be virtuous to be obstinate.

But he can’t do it. The bond and privilege of nature wins out, and he refuses to continue with the attack. Alas for all our would-be Coriolanuses, everyone has a mother. Or as the defrocked priest warns Captain Bednar in the climactic scene of The Man with the Golden Arm, “we are all members of one another.” (I only discovered writing this post that it’s a bible quote, from Romans.)

And that’s it. Coriolanus returns in disgrace to the Volscian capital, where his former allies murder him, and then — guiltily and a bit incongruously — offer him a stately funeral, declaring that his is

…the most noble corpse that ever herald
Did follow to his urn.

(I read somewhere that the reason so many Shakespeare plays end with these funeral marches is that, since theaters of the time did not have curtains, some device was needed to get the “dead” actors off the stage.)

So what are we supposed to think about this person? The play is a bit ambiguous. Structurally, Coriolanus is the hero. But he hardly comes across as admirable. On the other hand, he is the object of various “most noble Roman” orations, right up to Aufidius’ closing lines. So maybe he is intended as a tragic hero? You might think so … except for one remarkable scene in the middle of the play (cut unfortunately from the movie version), where Shakespeare tips his hand.

Here, Coriolanus has just won a major battle against the Volscians, and captured one of their cities, which is being sacked by the Roman troops. Cominius, the overall Roman commander, offers Coriolanus his share of the loot:

COMINIUS: … Of all the horses,
Whereof we have ta’en good and good store, of all
The treasure in this field achieved and city,
We render you the tenth, to be ta’en forth,
Before the common distribution, at
Your only choice. 

CORIOLANUS: I thank you, general;
But cannot make my heart consent to take
A bribe to pay my sword: I do refuse it;
And stand upon my common part with those
That have beheld the doing.

That’s our boy, no loot for him. He’s too good for all that. But it turns out, he does have one favor to ask from the commander:

CORIOLANUS: The gods begin to mock me. I, that now
Refused most princely gifts, am bound to beg
Of my lord general.

COMINIUS: Take’t; ’tis yours. What is’t?

CORIOLANUS: I sometime lay here in Corioli
At a poor man’s house; he used me kindly:
He cried to me; I saw him prisoner;
But then Aufidius was with in my view,
And wrath o’erwhelm’d my pity: I request you
To give my poor host freedom.

COMINIUS: O, well begg’d!
Were he the butcher of my son, he should
Be free as is the wind. Deliver him, Titus.

LARTIUS: Marcius, his name?

CORIOLANUS: By Jupiter! forgot.
I am weary; yea, my memory is tired.
Have we no wine here?

COMINIUS: Go we to our tent:
The blood upon your visage dries; ’tis time
It should be look’d to: come.


And, scene! Nothing more is heard of the old man.

It’s an amazing scene. I couldn’t believe it when I saw it. This is black humor worthy of Joseph Heller. Here’s the noble Roman, making a noble request after his great victory: He doesn’t want gold or women, only mercy for an old man who treated him kindly when he was in need. Oh how noble! Except … he can’t remember the fellow’s name. Oh well. He was just a nobody anyway. Let’s go have some wine.

It’s tempting to call the play surprisingly modern. But the truth is, even in the 21st century it’s hard to find such an unflinching portrait of an overdog. Here is someone whose only idea of morality is an image of himself. He’s not interested in the effects of his actions on other people; the common people only matter to him as a backdrop for the stage on which he plays the hero. It must have been a type that Shakespeare knew well.

UPDATE: In comments, MisterMR supplies the historical context, from Livy.