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?)
I. Introduction: Whose Tragedy?
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 are playing are fraudulent, that their talk is half to deceive others and half to keep themselves comfortably numb to their own motives: only Coriolanus says out loud what others keep under their hats. Admittedly, this turns out to be an irrational course of action in a world in which the dominant view of language is that it ought to be used to achieve one's interests, and that the nagging sense of an "integral" man beneath the words ought to be suppressed. But, as Adorno said, in an irrational world the irrational response may be the only rational one.4
It may seem absurd to argue that Coriolanus is no worse than the world around him, because he is certainly no saint. A prickly monster (that is, a marvel, as well as a horror) who won't hear himself flattered, who loathes the plebeians (as well as the patricians) of his own city, Coriolanus sees no need to concede, explain, or negotiate in any of his dealings. He famously cannot even hear himself banished, but must—taking the "true" Rome into himself—respond "I banish you" to the "real" Rome outside and around him.5 What could it mean to recuperate this man, to turn the blame for the tragedy back onto Coriolanus's polis, his family, finally onto the whole structure of the play? Coriolanus's fault is the most glaring in the play; surely that means the fault is all his?
So two important recent critics of the play argue, influentially and extremely revealingly.6 But I want to ask what happens if we take seriously the critique of Coriolanus's...
(The entire section is 10,367 words.)