Coriolanus Questions and Answers
by William Shakespeare

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In Shakespeare's Coriolanus, what are the primary reasons for Coriolanus' failing to become consul?

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Noelle Matteson eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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There are many factors that play into Coriolanus losing the consulship. For one, he treats the commoners with disdain. When they complain about starvation, he greets them by asking, “What's the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, / Make yourselves scabs?” Coriolanus threatens to slaughter them for their rebellious proposals, mocking and insulting them for the audacity to be hungry. He believes they deserve to be hungry because they are so cowardly and useless.

Coriolanus is reluctant to follow the tradition of asking for the people’s voices. He does not think they are important enough to have this right, and he appears to be bashful about showing them his scars (a part of the ritual). Whatever the case, he responds to them with sarcasm and scorn. Coriolanus says to himself, “Most sweet voices! / Better it is to die, better to starve, / Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.” While he finds the experience to be debasing, and he refuses to reveal his wounds, Coriolanus continues to ask for their votes.

Because of his attitude towards the plebeians, the sneaky senators Brutus and Sicinius easily convince the crowds to rescind their endorsement. Brutus and Sicinius worry about Coriolanus’s cruel attitude, but, more importantly, they are concerned about keeping their power. They remind the commoners that Coriolanus might be a hero, but he also despises them. They even instruct the crowd how to act when they confront Coriolanus, directing them to rail against Coriolanus and to paint the two of them in a positive light.

As you can see, Coriolanus loses the position of consul because of his proud personality and attitude, but he is also a victim of the swayable mob and the calculating senators.

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harvardsquare | Student

The primary reasons for Coriolanus failing to become consul lie in 1) his deference to his emotions over and against the dictates of practical wisdom; 2) his resultant failure to adhere in peacetime to the flexible ethical standards of "honour and policy" that he practiced while at war; 3) his mother Volumnia's destructive advice concerning the demands of political life relative to the demands of war, and 4) the inherently conflicting political demands of the principle of honor, which range from noble to not so noble.

Stanley Cavell observes that, “From a political perspective, the play directs us to an interest in… whether, granted that Coriolanus is unsuited for political leadership, it is his childishness or his very nobility that unsuits him.” Jan Blits argues that Coriolanus is unsuited for political leadership because he is at once too concerned with virtue (in the sense of the noble) and not virtuous enough (in his neglect of prudence and his base appetite for vengeance): “Coriolanus regards only the noble as good. In effect a moral idealist, he has no concern for prudence.” In other words, he is characterized by both a serious concern for noble virtue and a less than noble rage for punishing others for their failure to live up to his standard of virtue.

Arguably, the conflict between Coriolanus’s desires for virtue and vengeance is best understood as a comment on the two faces of honor, rather than a conflict between honor (which is bound to the city) and moral virtue (which attempts to transcend it). Honor aspires to virtue (and, as the commonplace would have it, can imitate virtue if necessary) but, once offended, it can just as easily attach itself to vengeance.

The suggestion of the potential alliance of honor with virtue is the exception in Coriolanus rather than the rule. More frequently, honor is associated with pride in ascribed identity and lineage (and hence, with membership by birth in the “honour’d number” [3.1.71]) or the achievement of glorious deeds in battle (“deed-achieving honour” [2.1.172]). In the former sense, honor binds Coriolanus to the past and to the fate of being authored by it. The insistence of honor upon vengeance is a means of honoring the demands of the past, and of binding oneself to execute its claims in the present. In the latter sense, “deed-achieving honour” seems to hold out the promise of forging a new name for oneself that reflects one’s accomplishments (2.1.172) and a resource in the defense of personal liberty. The lineaments of the first face of honor, however, are readily detectible in the second, because it is assumed that only those possessed of honor in the first sense are capable of “deed-achieving honour” and, more importantly, of recognizing it. To be honored by those not capable of deed-achieving honor is, in effect, no honor at all.

As long as only those who are themselves of “the honour’d number” are the ones who have a voice in elections, the economy of honor works. Those among the “honour’d number” honor the honorable by electing them to office, thereby confirming their own honor in the process, and policing the boundaries of membership that allow for the maintenance of their system of rank. The minimal role of the plebs in this process is to gratefully accept the honor that is symbolically conferred upon them by their ceremonial role in the election. When those who are not of the “honour’d number” are given a political (rather than a purely ceremonial) voice in this process, as they are in Act I, disorder sets in. Honor cannot be translated uncorrupted into political action if it must sully itself by deferring to the judgment of those who are presumed to be incapable of honor. To do so would be to overturn the principle of honor, which disdains craft and compromise, and depends for its existence upon the recognition of distinctions and rank.

As the plebs recognize, the election ritual at which Coriolanus balks implies that they, too, are among the honored number, if only for the moment in the electoral process that their voice is being solicited. Coriolanus’s haughty rage that these rats and slaves should be suffered not only to be fed but to be treated as if they, too, were citizens (which, of course, they are) and his inability to fake possession of the humility and humanity that he lacks, means that he is unable to use his honor in the service of the common good. He cannot “temp’rately transport his honours / From where he should begin and end but will / Lose those that he hath won” (2.1.222-224). By honoring its heroes with tributes and offices, the city effectively lays claim to the heroic actions that merited the honors it distributes. This system of exchange depends upon a relation of reciprocity. The hero wards off enemies, thereby sparing the city from destruction; the city offers him honors in recognition of and out of gratitude for services rendered. The hero’s pride is enhanced by his reception of honors from his city, but not so enhanced that he is inclined to stop serving the city altogether because he has reached a state of self-sufficiency. The city must satisfy the hero’s desire for honor, but that satisfaction cannot be so complete that it allows the hero to forget his dependency upon the city to feed his appetite. Ideally, the economy of honor (according to which the plebs share in the honor of the patricians through their “noble acceptance” of noble deeds) allows for the formal circulation of symbolic recognition throughout the body politic.