Coriolanus: Punishment of the Civil Body
William M. Hawley
A skilled practitioner of martial law, Coriolanus ultimately favors the emancipation of peace over war. Convicted of treason in disparate jurisdictions, though, he dies for having twice outlived his usefulness as a warrior. He remains unreflective about death and never questions or alters the hypotheticals leading to his destruction, unlike Hamlet or Macbeth. His hatred of theatrical shows only makes his performance all the more arresting. Because Rome and Antium mete out excessive punishments against him for imperfectly conceived reasons of social hygiene, social cohesion is maintained in two civil arenas without its raison d'être of achieving permanent reform or emancipation.
The play's Roman quality appears in Coriolanus's embrace of reform through martial law as against tribunal power, not in its imitation of Roman tragedy as such. Deuteronomy provides very broad outlines for the conduct of war, but the Romans codified their own detailed regulations on tactics and discipline in the work of Ruffus, among others. Of course, given the imperatives of warfare, slash and burn tactics have been the general order of battle throughout history. As years of painful experience have shown, even unconditional surrender is no guarantee of favorable treatment. In this play, Rome remains incapable of dividing its political labor, to borrow Durkheim's terms. It refuses to accommodate the warrior's code, just as Coriolanus will stubbornly resist political socialization.
Coke refers to Roman law and its Twelve Tables in his Institutes, but apart from capturing deserters he treats military affairs as existing outside the purview of the common law: "There is a Law Marshal for wars" (1 Institutes 10a).1 The common law mixed ancient decrees, unwritten judicial decisions, and the Norman law brought to England after the Conquest. This intermingling resulted in legal statutes being written in French and Latin, though Coke used English whenever possible so that his countrymen might better understand the law.2 Still, Shakespeare's audiences would have been moved by the rationale guiding Coriolanus's martial conduct because of the universally understood traditions of military discipline.
In section I, I examine the conflict between martial and civil law provoking Coriolanus's defection to the Volscian side in 491 BC. Rome's transition to tribunal power commenced two years earlier, so Shakespeare chose a historical period embroiled in wide-ranging political controversy. The English were alert to the political diversity of states, including those governed by "a monarch, or . . . aristocraticall, where few be in authority, or democraticall, where the people have the chief government without any superior, saving such as they elect and choose" (3 Institutes 80a). Military tactics are not an issue here; indeed, the subject was ridiculed as arcane in Henry V through Fluellen's pedantry. Shakespeare's audience would have been aware of the harsh ad hoc regulations enforcing discipline in their own ranks as well as those of Rome. They would have had a strong sense of the patriarchal nature of Roman civil law under the patria potestas, the power of a father over his son. The play elevates the role of women far beyond normal Roman standards, particularly in Volumnia's characterization as a sagacious political maneuverer. Coriolanus's role in tacitly enfranchising women opens him to vicious ad hominem attacks throughout the play. The common law nevertheless deviated sharply from its Roman predecessor, the adversarial trial system being but one of the primary distinctions.
In part II, I examine slander as the tortious act enabling treason charges to be leveled so effectively against Coriolanus. Slander at common law corresponds closely to its Roman counterpart. Next, I examine Coriolanus's punishment as a tragic spectacle, his body ravaged by wars, slander, and murderous swords. The elemental display of punishment overshadows the psychological and political issues in the play, however appealing they might be. The play reduces the outward show of tragedy to its essentials: the banishment, supplication, and slaughter of a hero too psychologically shallow in a modern sense to have an Oedipus conflict and too much the peacemaker to be played as a stage Nazi.
The criminal and tort law tradition is grounded in the concept that reason and justice lead us toward emancipation. Coke confirms this when he states that "every man desireth to be at naturall liberty" (2 Institutes 589). Coke's understanding of liberty differs from ours today, especially in the U.S., where individual rights are respected far more than the law would have allowed in Renaissance England. For Coke, it was natural that the subject should serve his king and the common good, while in return the law would prevent the king from annoying his industrious subjects with unjust levies and punishment. Aside from the new rights granted the plebes through their tribunes, the play's vision of reform or emancipation appears only through the lens of tragic waste in the form of the denunciation and murder of the hero.