Coriolanus and the Failure of Performatives
John Plotz, Harvard University
Young people today can be said to be in a situation where ordinary common sense no longer suffices to meet the strange demands life makes. Everything has become so intricate that mastering it would require an exceptional intellect. Because skill at playing the game is no longer enough; the question that keeps coming up is: can the game be played at all now and what would be the right game to play? (welches ist das rechte Spiel?)
Neither the tragedy "of a people that has lost its hero" as Brecht argues, nor simply that of the lone figure of Coriolanus himself, Coriolanus is the tragedy of the gap that looms between the private "true" Self and a public realm of tacitly accepted opportunistic mendacity.2 The public world in Coriolanus is—very like that of Richard III—characterized by language deployed solely for future effect. When Coriolanus proposes that words and deeds ought to flow directly from the soul of the speaker, and be weighed by how well they correspond with that speaker's (true) inner being, his challenge only uncovers an unease already inherent in this linguistic model. The idea that truth can derive only from inwardness—that authentic interiority is a viable alternative to shallow public life—must already be present in a world view that imagines the public sphere to be inherently deceitful. The play's truth-free political realm contains the seeds of tragedy before Coriolanus has even earned his name.
Franco Moretti has pointed out that Shakespearean tragedy ultimately "disentitles the absolute monarch to all ethical and rational legislation," but Coriolanus suggests that the impetus to "absolute" monarchy is the need to counteract an equally abhorrent condition, the state of "absolute freedom" of language.3 The two states—"free politics" and "absolute monarchy"—are seen as mirrors to each other. And, as Moretti's observations on the banality of the endings of Shakespeare's tragedies suggest, no "third way" of finding authoritative, satisfying meaning in the world is capable of replacing this mutually abhorring, yet complementary dyad. Coriolanus's criticism uncovers a hamartia that society would just as soon ignore—but his criticism cannot work as a cure.
Yet the very fact of his rebellion launches a corrosive assault on a world that is not entirely alien to our own. All the characters in Coriolanus are aware, underneath, that the linguistic games they...
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Coriolanus tells the story of a world that, absent some sort of resistance, is filled with characters who deploy language for future gain. For these characters, all language is designed to persuade rather than to represent, so there is no notion of the truth-value of speech. All that is measured is its success. This theme emerges elsewhere in Shakespeare: the all-pervading verbal deceit of Richard III in Richard III would suit him to inhabit Coriolanus's universe. When he responds to Anne's "I fear me (thy tongue and heart) are false" with "then never man was true" he touches on what irks Coriolanus. Since everyone around him, including his mother, preaches and practices fraudulence, there may be no way to live truthfully.8 A more precise comparison might be to the complete fraudulence of Richard and his lackeys in More's History of Richard III, against which, as Greenblatt convincingly demonstrates, silence or sanctuary are the only viable responses, both of limited efficacy.9 The genius of Coriolanus is that it surpasses both More's and Shakespeare's Richard IIIs in its attempt to map the dual pathology of a world split between "spectacular" public deceit and alienated, (though not silent) private selfhood.
Just because the play reveals a different way to imagine these problems, however, does not mean it reveals that different way to us. Recent criticism of the play has overlooked so important a strand of Coriolanus's meaning so persistently that it...
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It is customary to start a discussion of Coriolanus with a list of his personal flaws. Let us instead map the world that Coriolanus feels betrayed by, its practices and its personae. Stephen Greenblatt's remarkable discussion of the universe of spectacle and dissimulation described in More's writing provides a helpful paradigm. More describes a universe in which, as Greenblatt writes, "everyone is profoundly committed to upholding conventions in which no one believes."11 Greenblatt expands that conception in his discussion of the way collaborative fictions such as coronation, public approbation, and bishopric inauguration are criticized in More's writing, even as More himself willingly participated in the fraudulent ceremonies his public persona demanded.12 More's writing thus applies a corrective to Machiavelli. The speech of public deceit preached, practiced, and derided in More is not entirely meant to deceive; rather, it is a sort of social glue that allows the transactions of (unequal) power to be transacted with a minimum of outright fuss and contradiction and the maximum of pleasant, mendacious, but common amelioration.
That seems to me a fair account of the lurid deceits preached and accepted in Coriolanus, deceits that may be de jure forbidden, but are the de facto norm: the promises of friendship broken, the pious justifications for lying to the plebeians or to the patricians, and Aufidius's banal final speech in which he really expects the Volscians to believe his humble contrition for a murder he has spent weeks planning and has just finished committing!
Whether or not one sees these as true parallels to More's universe, it is immediately apparent that the Rome in which Coriolanus finds himself is political in the worst sense of that word. Shakespeare envisions a continual war of each against each. There is in Coriolanus no shared public space to which Coriolanus can return, because all space is occupied by words used to spur others to actions, words to quiet others from dissent, words to perform public ceremonies in which no one really believes. It is for this reason that Cavell is wrong to say that "a political reading is apt to become fairly predictable once you know whose side the reader is taking, that of the patricians or that of the plebeians."13 An astute political reading (and this includes Brecht's) recognizes at once that there are at least seven sides at various points in the play, in battles that include: Aufidius vs. Coriolanus; Patricians vs. Plebeians; Tribunes vs. Patricians; Plebeians vs. Plebeians; Rome vs. Coriolanus; Coriolanus vs. himself; Volumnia vs. Coriolanus; and so on. All are battles over interest, and over what words mean—all are political confrontations. No one knows who is in charge, and hence words are artfully and disingenuously deployed to gain power.
That this world is "political" does not mean, as Cavell, Fish, and the more optimistic practitioners of discourse theory may be tempted to assume, that all conversation tends to create and then sustain a public sphere from which interests are removed.14 That sort of political world is imagined in Coriolanus in an aesthetic (theatrical) register, but only at one very strange and striking moment discussed below. In general, the play is filled with an exceptionally unscrupulous sort of politics-as-usual, where interest rules and deceit has the drop on sincerity any day.
In order to demonstrate the ordinary forms of deceit practiced in this public realm I will skip the obvious scoundrels: the tribunes (whose elaborate...
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Indeed, Coriolanus's reaction to his mother's speech can only strengthen the case for our seeing his selfconsuming tragedy as a reaction to a world full of "roted" and manipulative speech. Coriolanus cries out against the "harlotry" of unrooted language in some of the most moving passages in the play. Three times his mother tries to shame him into lying to the plebs so he can hold on to power. Two times he refuses, and finally, near heartbreak—those who have just discovered that they are bastards in the truth are always heartbroken—he replies:
Pray be content.
Mother, I am going to the market-place.
Chide me no more. I'll mountebank their loves,
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One of the great problems created by Coriolanus's resistance to the standard forms of meaning in his universe is that every speech-act becomes fraught with misunderstanding. Ultimately this is one of the greatest accomplishments of the play: the glowing impossibilities opened up by a line like "I banish you" (3.3.124), or "pray be content, Mother . . . I'll mountebank their loves" (3.2.132-3) are, to borrow Walter Benjamin's phrase, like the strait gate of redemption through which at any moment the messiah might enter.24 However, just because these woundings of language are so strange, so jarring, we need to be extremely careful about declaring them, as Fish does, either "valid" or "invalid." The...
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But what then are we to posit between the two ways of meaning? It is all very well to follow Adorno in denouncing the wrong life, but it does seem hard to make ethics, or indeed even aesthetics, out of a damaged world. This is a problem that Shakespeare had earlier, in writing Richard HI. Still earlier Thomas More reckoned with a similar set of concerns in his History of Richard III. All the solutions posited in those two works, however, are carefully foreclosed in Coriolanus.
As Stephen Greenblatt's Renaissance Self-Fashioning shows, one of More's central concerns was with the modicum of necessary deceit built into a courtly system based on elaborate rituals and...
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There is in Coriolanus, however, at least one palpable site of alternative resistance to both the Coriolanian and the opportunistic theories of language. Interestingly enough, it is contained in the first passage in Coriolanus that Fish chooses to discuss, though Fish misses the core of its meaning. It comes when the citizens (that is, the plebs) are debating whether or not they will, and whether or not they may, reject Coriolanus if he stands for consul:
First Citizen: Once, if he do require our
voices, we ought not to deny him.
Second Citizen: We may, sir, if we will.
Third Citizen: We have power in ourselves
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Coriolanus shifts the burden of redescribing the world onto the audience, since any meaningful escape from the world Shakespeare has created can arise only intellectually not theatrically: it can be inferred but it is not mimetically presented. But the interpretations of Cavell and Fish suggest that any such attempt at inducing salutary anxiety, if it is indeed contained within the play, has failed in our day. Far from using the play to see the world in some new light, Stanley Fish doesn't even seem particularly concerned with the play's salutary anxiety: if you believe his account, Coriolanus goes to show all's right with the world as long as lone cranks don't look too closely at its seams....
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