Coriolanus: Punishment of the Civil Body - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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.

I. Civil vs. Martial Law

(Shakespearean Criticism)

A complicated division of civil and military codes gives their respective adherents—Coriolanus, the tribunes, the plebes—absolute confidence in the validity of their positions. The intensity of rage expressed derives from each party's belief in its political rectitude. In typical Shakespearean fashion, the plebes buffoonishly alter their opinions as the winds blow. The tribunes press for expansive, self-serving civil powers, which does not inherently invalidate them or their political ideas. Coriolanus aligns himself with the patricians to the extent that they share his sense of military discipline.

Martial law is a blanket set of regulations applicable to the civilian and military population in zones of active conflict. By contrast, military law is a code of conduct limited to military personnel. Coriolanus thrives in arenas of active warfare when pitted against a worthy opponent. He relishes the imposition of martial law in Corioles:

Condemning some to death, and some to exile;
Ransoming him, or pitying, threat'ning th' other;
Holding Corioles in the name of Rome,
Even like a fawning greyhound in the leash,
To let him slip at will.


He creates a military order outside the city that the Romans have themselves repudiated in favor of a republican state, yet whose existence serves their imperial aspirations.

Under martial law, Coriolanus can exercise autocratic power to enlarge the empire. He invokes the quintessential rule of battlefield discipline during the assault on Corioles: "He that retires, I'll take him for a Volsce, / And he shall feel mine edge" (1.4.28-29). Roman troops reject his orders, allowing him to be trapped alone within the besieged city. Under the Roman military law of Ruffus, their conduct would be actionable: "If any person, in war . . . fails to execute a command, he shall be punished with death" (Brand 159). Roman military law uses legal overkill to ensure that orders from above are obeyed and that individual soldiers are made responsible for the actions of their legion. Units that retreated unlawfully were "decimated," meaning that one-tenth of a legion would be randomly "run through with spears by the other legions for breaking the line of battle and causing the flight of others" (Brand 157).3 The Corpus Juris Civilis echoes this command: "All disobedience of a general or the Governor of a province should be punished with death" (Corpus 11: 193). With a few minor variations, this theme of military discipline remained in force during the Renaissance and beyond, as for example in the British navy's 1661 Articles of War: "Every Person . . . who through Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdraw, or keep back, or not come into the fight or engagement. . . shall suffer death" (Rodger 24). Partly because the heroic gesture is his métier, Coriolanus does not exact due punishment against his men, but their conduct explains his fury over corruption in Rome paralleling the breakdown of military discipline before Corioles. The play's first capital crime under military and civil law is committed by the plebes, not by Coriolanus.

The tribunes are newly privileged, mid-level politicians apt at manipulating public opinion to increase their influence. They represent plebeian rights in public trials and enforce their juridical power with ædiles. Sicinius seeks to thwart Coriolanus to the extent of denying that a valid consulship election ever occurred. Coriolanus's patrician backers are willing to "surety him," (3.1.177), or make his bail, as the banishment proceedings unfold. Older, consensus-seeking patricians like Cominius and Menenius appease the tribunes to retain their own authority. Thus, class relationships go far beyond the simple issue of plebeian versus patrician rights, as Kenneth Burke puts it in his elegant analysis of the play. True, Sicinius urges the crowd to cast Coriolanus from the Tarpeian rock, but Aufidius plots Coriolanus's death in Antium without the assistance of plebes. Burke thereby overstates the importance of plebeian class hatred in his formula whereby Coriolanus becomes a fit sacrifice for the tragedy. Burke's critique is influenced by cold war politics, evident when he remarks that pseudo-socialist dictators loot their impoverished nations' coffers while planning lavish retirements on the Riviera. Had he written the piece today, he might have added pseudo-democratic dictators to the list of rulers seeking golden parachutes. Burke's wit leads him to round off some legal and political edges that deserve closer scrutiny. Cominius's reference to Rome as a "falling fabric" legitimates martial law as one means to preserve the state from ruin through the misdeeds of various citizens (3.1.246).


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II. Slander Law

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Punishment for slander has softened considerably over time, while the definition of the act itself has broadened in scope. Blackstone refers to the tyrant Dionysus ordering a subject executed for slander merely because he recounted a dream in which the ruler was slain. The Corpus Juris Civilis is almost as harsh: "When any one publicly abuses another in a loud voice, or writes a poem for the purpose of insulting him, or rendering him infamous, he shall be beaten with a rod until he dies" (1: 70). We define slander today as a personal tort based on false and defamatory declarations which may or may not have caused demonstrable harm. Slander is the oral version of libel, which is actionable language appearing in...

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III. The Spectacle of Tragic Punishment

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Coriolanus's body is used as a metaphor for political life and its diseases, with his immune system breaking down entirely at the end in a violent spectacle of capital punishment. He demonstrates a special reluctance for political acting, which is theatrical acting writ small. Politics requires displays that strike Coriolanus as unbearable flattery. If Hamlet delays, Coriolanus refuses to act at all, which creates a tension endangering the forward action of the tragedy. Coriolanus despises ham acting much as Hamlet does dishonest shows, but he thinks his way through his dilemma as a military tactician. He leavens his flattery with contempt of those who desire it: "I will counterfeit the bewitchment of some popular...

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IV. The Ends of Civility

(Shakespearean Criticism)

The body is killed by slander in civil law and by death in criminal law, both punishments being combined to form the basis of this tragedy. Coriolanus's demeanor ranges from tender to severe, like Othello's, but his actual theatrical role is put to the test far more than that of the Venetian general. Othello commits murder out of simple jealousy under English Renaissance law.6 The slander suffered by Coriolanus under the body of Roman and Renaissance law is as plain as the criminality involved in his banishment and murder.

For a Shakespearean tragic protagonist to propose peace in his final moments is quite unusual. Generally, such heroes succumb after a prolonged state of excitement....

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Works Cited

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Adelman, Janet. "'Anger's my Meat': Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus." Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays. Ed. Murray M. Schwartz and Coppèlia Kahn. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1980. 129-49.

Blackstone, Sir William. Commentaries on the Laws of England. Ed. Edward Christian. 4 vols. London: A. Strahan, 1803.

Bracton on the Laws and Customs of England. Ed. George W. Woodbine. Trans. Samuel E. Thorne. Vol. 2. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1968. 2 vols.

Bradley, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy. London: Macmillan, 1937.

Bradwell, Stephen. Mary Glovers Late Woeful Case. Witchcraft and Hysteria in...

(The entire section is 371 words.)