(Shakespearean Criticism)


Generally considered the last of Shakespeare's tragedies, dating in composition to the period 1605-1609, Coriolanus has received mixed critical reception, with debate centering on its view of history, politics, and power, the development of its characters, and its concept of tragedy. Eighteenth-century readers were often critical of the play's uncomplimentary depiction of the Roman plebeians and its transgression of Neoclassical dramatic rules, considering it particularly egregious that Aufidius and the tribunes go unpunished. Samuel Johnson, however, thought highly of the play, praising in particular its characterization and its depiction of the protagonist's declining fortunes. Nineteenth-century critics, including such luminaries as August Wilhelm Schlegel and William Hazlitt, also took a generally favorable view of the play, praising both its characterization and its unified structure.

The nineteenth century saw the beginning of a discussion of the play's politics that has continued to the present day, with critics debating the attitudes it manifests towards both patricians and plebes as well as its possible relationships to Jacobean political concerns. Among recent twentieth-century critics, A. P. Rossiter (1952) considered Coriolanus to be "the greatest of the Histories" for its realistic depiction of the ironies of political interaction. Norman Rabkin (1966) interpreted Coriolanus as an indictment of both of the extreme political convictions illustrated in the play: anarchy and absolutism. Lisa Lowe (1986) examined ways in which issues of gender and sexuality raised in the play relate to its treatment of political conflicts. Others, such as David George Hale (1971) and Stanley Cavell (1984), have examined various key political metaphors in the play.

Another consistent critical concern has been the character of the protagonist, with critics often focusing on Coriolanus's pride, his contempt for the Roman masses, or his lack of self-perception as the reasons for his downfall. For H. J. Oliver (1959), John Bayley (1981), and Nicholas Grene (1992), the protagonist's tragedy lies in unresolvable contradictions between his sense of self and the political and social demands of his culture. Recent analyses of Coriolanus' character often focus on his relationship with his mother, Volumnia. In a psychoanalytic perspective of the central character, Madelon Sprengnether (1986) placed the play in the context of the general patterns of gender relationships in Shakespearean tragedy. Sprengnether argued that in Coriolanus, as well as in other Shakespearean tragedies, the protagonist's ambivalence towards qualities considered "feminine" and his anxieties about his masculinity have tragic consequences. Bruce King (1989) suggested that Coriolanus' "strong ties to his family, especially to his mother, … undermine his claim to selfhood," while Coppélia Kahn (1992) examined the interrelationship between the roles of motherhood and war-making in the play.


(Shakespearean Criticism)

D. J. Gordon (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Name and Fame: Shakespeare's Coriolanus," in Papers Mainly Shakespearean, Oliver and Boyd, 1964, pp. 40-57.

[In the following essay, Gordon examines the acts of naming in Coriolanus as a means to exploring the play's social commentary and its approach to the concept of honor.]

Name is Fame, is Honour, and is won by deeds; in Rome, by deeds in war.

Now in those days, valliantnes [so North renders Plutarch (in Plutarch's Lives, 1895)] was honoured in Rome above all other vertues: which they called Virtus, by the name of vertue selfe, as including in that generali name all other speciali vertues besides.

So Cominius the General in his formal encomium, his laus of Caius Marcius, begins:

It is held
That valour is the chiefest virtue and
Most dignifies the haver.

We are shown the deeds of Coriolanus, and their rewarding in the field: the garland, the horse, the name with the consenting acclamations. Cominius proclaims:

Therefore be it known,
… that Caius Marcius

Wears this war's garland; in token of the
My noble steed, known to the camp, I give
With all his trim belongings; and from this
For what he did before Corioli call him
With all th' applause and clamour of the host,
Caius Marcius Coriolanus.
Bear th' addition nobly ever!

Drums and trumpets sound and the gatheed army shouts, in formal acclamation:

Caius Marcius Coriolanus!

Coriolanus enters Rome wearing the wreath, and a Herald proclaims:

Know, Rome, that all alone Marcius did fight
Within Corioli gates, where he hath won,
With fame, a name to Caius Marcius; these
In honour follows Coriolanus.
Welcome to Rome, renowned Coriolanus!

And again there is formal acclamation by the city, people and patricians:

Welcome to Rome, renowned Coriolanus.

And Volumnia says:

My gentle Marcius, worthy Caius, and
By deed achieving honour newly nam'd
What is it, Coriolanus must I call thee?

Those speeches Shakespeare did not find in North's Plutarch (in general it may be taken that what I am pointing to in Shakespeare is not in North: significant coincidences I shall indicate).

Honour as reward for virtue, as a motive for action, is taken for granted. So is our concern for self-perpetuation in futurity: it is to this that our procreation of children, our anxiety to continue our names, our practice of adoption, inscriptions on monuments, panegyrics, all testify—so Cicero says. It is the name that endures. All this is so quietly assumed—Plutarch does so throughout—that it requires only formal statement: as by the women in their last appeal to Coriolanus to spare the City—and here Shakespeare has expanded and heightened his source—when his wife Virgilia speaks as one

That brought you forth this boy to keep your
Living to time.

and Volumnia recalls the existence and function of the historian:

if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name
Whose repetition shall be dogg'd with curses;
Whose chronicle thus writ: "The man was
But with his last attempt he wip'd it out,
Destroy'd his country, and his name remains
To th' ensuing age abhorr'd.…"

Banished from Rome, Coriolanus makes his way to his and Rome's chief enemy, Aufidius the Volscian, enters his house in disguise, and with his head "muffled". This is from the source. But new is Coriolanus' dialogue with the servants, and with Aufidius when he is sent for:

Aufidius. … Thy name?
Why speak'st not? Speak, man. What's thy
Coriolanus [unmuffling]. If, Tullus,
Not yet thou know'st me, and seeing me, dost
Think me for the man I am, necessity
Commands me name myself.
Aufidius. What is thy name?
Coriolanus. A name unmusical to the
Volscians' ears,
And harsh in sound to thine.
Aufidius. Say, what's thy name?
Thou hast a grim appearance, and thy face
Bears a command in't; though thy tackle's
Thou show'st a noble vessel. What's thy
Coriolanus. Prepare thy brow to frown—
know'st thou me yet?
Aufidius. I know thee not. Thy name?

This leads up to the disclosure of the name, in a speech that follows North closely:

Coriolanus. My name is Caius Marcius, who
hath done
To thee particularly, and to all the Volsces,
Great hurt and mischief; there to witness may My
surname, Coriolanus. The painful service,
The extreme dangers, and the drops of blood
Shed for my thankless country, are required
But with that surname—a good memory
And witness of the malice and displeasure
Which thou shouldst bear me. Only that name
The cruelty and envy of the people,
Permitted by our dastard nobles, who
Have all forsook me, hath devour'd the rest;
And suffered me by th' voice of slaves to be
Whoop'd out of Rome.

In Coriolanus, as in the other two plays in which he is substantially concerned with the critique of Honour, Henry the Fourth, Part I and Troilus and Cressida, Shakespeare takes Honour won in war and sets it in relation to the civil life, seen as "the specialty of rule", which in all three plays is offered as "policy". Here its scope is within the city, Rome.

… by the voice of slaves to be
Whoop'd out of Rome.

In a passage where Shakespeare has wished to assimilate and preserve the recorded words of history so faithfully, the smallest departure from his text marks an act of significant choice. His transformation of North's "let me be banished by the people" is radical. Whooped is a trivial word: a whoop is a phatic gesture expressing what its context requires. It is rare in Shakespeare, and only here does he use it as part of a transitive verb. This weight augments the sense of its triviality; it cheapens those who use it and him it is used against. Itself meaningless, it is uttered by the voice of the people (that Shakespeare should make Coriolanus call them, here, slaves belongs to a story other than that I am telling now). What has made Shakespeare's play possible is the meanings of the word 'voice'.

Voice, vox, is what utters, and what is uttered, and also what is uttered in a special restricted and technical sense. This technical sense we translate as vote. It is what Hamlet means when he says of Fortinbras

… I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras, he has my dying voice.

In the procedure of election to the Elizabethan House of Commons the first and often the only method was that by voice; this means in the first instance literally what it says, by utterance. The election was held at the County Court, presided over by the Sheriff. If there were more nominations than seats, then the electors shouted for their man, and the Sheriff had to decide who had more voices. Coriolanus is elected Consul by the voices of the people: the voices that whoop him have the technical meaning.

It is the word Shakespeare found in North; and North had it from Amyot's French [translation of Plutarch, 1572], which he was following. … Amyot was accommodating the Roman to the French usage; and North could take his word over because French voix and English voice coincided in their applications. Yet for the Englishman the meaning was more urgent: its immediate association with the turbulence of Elizabethan elections guaranteed that; and a curious point verifies the supposition. When it came to Coriolanus' final formal trial before the people, Plutarch describes how the Tribunes rigged the voting by arranging that it should be done not by centuries but by tribes, to guarantee a majority for the people. Amyot, thinking it necessary to explain how this worked, inserted a parenthesis in the text:

á cause que les voix se comptaient par tête.

North retained this and translated tête by poll:

bicause their voyces were numbred by the

This is a highly technical phrase and brings Coriolanus right into the thick of a disputed English election. Numbering by the poll was the last resort—heads were counted as the qualified voters passed before the Sheriff or his officer. At this point, says Sir John Neale [in The Elizabethan House of Commons, 1949]—whose account of procedure I have been following—"The lists compiled during the canvassing seem to have come in useful both for marshalling the voters and recording their names and their votes." And it is this procedure that Shakespeare envisages when, before Coriolanus comes to face the people, he makes one of the Tribunes say to an Aedile—Sheriffs Officers, obviously—

Have you a catalogue
Of all the voices that we have procur'd,
Set down by the poll?

The word voice, then, in a flash, holds a past world and a present world together. Further, it is an active word, containing act, situation, what utters, the uttering as well as the significance of what is uttered. The degree of abstraction required to make it synonymous with vote, to separate that out from the act is high and could, I believe, only be achieved in a strictly controlled context. What is likely to happen is shown in a sentence Neale quotes from a letter written in 1614 by an anxious parent to a son about to stand for Parliament: "Your friends must not be spare-voiced, but with their voices pronounce it (i.e. his name) roundly and fully." The tribune's meaning, controlled as it is by "catalogue", "procur'd" and "set down", is clearly closer to the neutral sense given in, say, an election writ. But Hamlet's lines have in them as well as the formal vote the physical act we watch, a man speaking in anguish in a death agony. Coriolanus' "by the voice of slaves" contains act and significance.

In Act II scene iii Coriolanus, back from the wars in triumph, his surname formally pronounced, standing for the Consulship, the final honour that the city can bestow, must, as the custom is, stand in the Forum, wearing the napless vesture of humility, display his wounds, and ask the people for their voices. This word echoes through the scene. Formally, at the beginning: "if he do require our voices, we ought not to deny him", "Are you all resolv'd to give your voices?" With a sense of the act: "everyone of us has a single honour in giving him our own voices with our own tongues."

On Coriolanus' lips, humiliated, frustrated, furious that he should come to this, the word is qualified mockingly: good voice, sweet voice, the tune of your voice, worthy voices—resentment at the power of what they say, of the uttering, and his need of it, expressed by the ironical assumption that it is the uttering itself that he is wooing and the people are their voices, personified voices. Here is the bitter climax of this episode:

Here come moe voices.
Your voices. For your voices I have fought;
Watch'd for your voices; for your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd; battles thrice six
I have seen and heard of; for your voices
Done many things, some less, some more.
Your voices?

When the tribune speaks of "all the voices that we have procur'd", the use is quite technical and the abstraction is so complete that the sense of the act has quite gone; when Coriolanus says "Here come moe voices" we see the men; his synecdoche reduces their whole reality to this one function or attribute. This is supported by the assimilation of the people to the organs of speech. They are mouths, or tongues, in the heads that contain them, with a reference to the polls that are counted, and there are two inclusive references, to Hydra the monster with many heads, and to the anthropomorphic image of the body politic established by Shakespeare—however equivocal his purposes may be—in the first scene of the play when he makes Menenius retail, from Plutarch, the famous apologue of the belly and the other members of the body. From voice there are further stages. When the Tribunes pronounce the formal sentence of banishment Coriolanus turns on the people—the last time he speaks to them:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o' the rotten fens. …

From the human voice to the cry of animals. Not the cry of hounds, those noble and disciplined beasts, but of base-born and ill-conditioned curs. With those lines compare Cominius and Menenius to the crowd when the news of Coriolanus' approach on the city has come:

Com. Y'are goodly things, you voices!
Men. You have made
Good work, you and your cry!

and, in the same scene, Menenius to the Tribunes:

… you that stood so much
Upon the voice of occupation and
The breath of garlic-eaters!

Voice and breath need not be paralleled; voice is subsumed in breath.

Not all the water in the rough rude sea
Can wash the balm off from an anointed king;
The breath of worldly men cannot depose
The deputy elected by the Lord.

In those famous lines from Richard II the passage voice/breath is clear; and so is the significance of reducing voice/vote to what it uses or is made of. Coriolanus pleads that he be not forced to expose his wounds

As if I had received them for the hire
Of their breath only.

And the power, existence, of the mob is located in its stinking breath:

Nor showing, as the manner is, his wounds
To th' people, beg their stinking breaths.

These are prologues to the banishment and election scenes; and it is to this that Coriolanus and Menenius return. And further, voice like vox has a technical sense in grammar: a voice means word, what is uttered, and the voice, utterance, that Coriolanus is asking for, is his name.

Let us start again, this time from a passage in one of Seneca's letters. He is trying to convince Lucilius that to argue for the worth of posthumous renown (claritas) does not contradict the view that there is no such thing as an extrinsic good. It is the opposition's arguments, as Seneca presents them, that concern us:

"Dicitis", inquit, "nullum bonum ex distantibus esse? Garitas autem ista honorum virorum secunda opinio est. Nam quomodo fama non est unius sermo nec infamia unius mala existimatio, sic nec claritas uni bono placuisse. Consentire in hoc plures insignes et spectabiles viri debent, ut claritas sit". … "Claritas", inquit, "laus est a bonis bono reddita; laus oratio, vox est aliquid significans; vox est autem, licet virorum sit honorum, non bonum."

And, a moment later, he reiterates such objections:

"Quid ergo", inquit, "et fama erit unius hominis existimatio et infamia unius malignus sermo?" "Gloriam quoque", inquit, "latius fusam intellego, consensum enim multorum exigit."

And, again:

"Ad gloriam aut famam non est satis unius opinio."


"Sed laus", inquit, "nihil aliud quam vox est, vox autem bonum non est."

All this Shakespeare's contemporary, Thomas Lodge, in [The Workes of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, 1614] rendered:

Thou wiltsay, You other Stoicks maintaine that no good is composed of things distant. But this glorie whereof we entreat, is a fauourable opinion of good men. For as a good fame is not one man's words, neither infamy one mans misreport: so is it not praise to please one good man, many famous and worthy men must consent herein to make it glorie. … glorie (saith he) is a commendation given by good men to a good man: commendation is a speech, a speech is a voice that signifieth something. But the voice, although it be a good mans voice, is not goodnesse. …


What then (saith he) shal fame depend vpon the estimate of one man, and infamie be tied to the misreport of another man? Glory also (saith he) as I understand, is spread more largely. For it requireth the consent of many men.


"The opinion of one man (saith he) sufficeth not to give glory and renowne vnto another."

and—the Latin being simply "laus nihil aliud quam vox est, vox autem bonum non est":

But praise (saith he) is but a voice spread in the ayre, and that a word meriteth not the name of good.

Claritas, for which Lodge takes gloria as synonym (justifiably, I think, at this point in that word's long eventful history); fama; laus; existimatio; opinio; vox; glory; fame; report; praise; opinion; voice. Let us add honor and nomen, honour and name. These are the words Shakespeare inherited.

It is a set of words describing certain relationships between a man and other men, all seen as together forming a group or community; relationships that will or may survive the death of that individual man, on the unvoiced assumption that the community will have a continuing existence.

Gloria is an intensification of honour; it is the relationships described by honour that come first. The most famous definition of honor is certainly Cicero's: "cum honos sit præmium virtutis iudicio studioque civium delatum ad aliquem, qui eum sententiis, qui suffragiis adeptus est, is mihi et honestus et honoratus videtur." Here, in the opening clause, Cicero is, in fact, translating a phrase from Aristotle, in the Nicomachean Ethics. And these passages of Aristotle, with Cicero himself, and some passages from Stoic writers were to be be the main sources for sixteenth-century discussion. Aristotle is concerned to show that τιμή—honour—is not the "good". It is the end of the political or public life, but it cannot be the final good because it is extrinsic to the subject: it is thought to depend on those who confer honour rather than on him who receives it.

Later, we have honour—"the due of the gods and what is desired by the eminent and awarded as the meed of victory in the most glorious contests"—as "the greatest of external goods". And in the Rhetoric he lists the marks of honour—a list that was to be repeated, brought up to date, commented on—in many a sixteenth-century discourse:

sacrifices; commemoration, in verse or prose; privileges; grants of land; precedence; sepulchres; statues; pensions; among foreigners, obeisances and giving place; and such gifts as are among various bodies of men regarded as marks of honour.

The marks of honour demonstrate the relationship an individual has with his community, and with the continuing city; but they follow a judgment made on him, a judgment of value. Honouring is an act of which he is the subject, proceeding from existimatio, estimation, issuing in laus.

Who judges and who praises? Ideally the whole community. This, we are told, was fundamental to the prime meaning of the Roman gloria. Even to ask the question was to question and modify the whole concept of gloria as stimulus and reward of action; and this happened, we are told, in the last century of the Republic, under the pressure of social and political changes, and found its formulations in the disquiet of Greek philosophers. The disquiet was about the basis of the judgment that issues in the marks of honour; and is focused on the word δόξα with its double sense of my opinion, opinio, and the opinion others have of me. What certainty does opinio hold? If it holds none, what then is the basis of fame, reputation, renown, which is opinion?—a question Cicero and Seneca received from the Stoics. A temporary way of answering it is to restrict the judgment and the verdict to those competent to make it: honorum virorum secunda opinio. With gloria or honor goes fama:

Gloria est frequens de aliquo fama cum laude.

Gloria and honor depend on fama, and fama comes from opinio. Fama, my fame, is what people say about me: it is the utterance of the judgment or opinion. One citizen says to another in the first scene of Coriolanus:

Consider you what services he has done for
his country

and gets the answer

Very well, and could be content to give him good report for't but that he pays himself with being proud.

This good report is quite strictly the fama which is praemium for Coriolanus' services. But from the beginning Fama's words are dangerously ambiguous; for Fama contains Rumor.

famam atque rumores pars altera consensum civitatis et velut publicum testimonium vocat: altera sermonem sine ullo certo auctore dispersum, cui malignitas initium dederit, incrementum credulitas.

And it is of Fama-Rumor that Virgil and Ovid made their powerful and fortunate images. Ovid's House of Fame, you remember, is made of sounding brass:

tota fremit vocesque refert iteratque quod
nulla quies intus nullaque silentia parte …
atria turba tenet: veniunt, leve vulgus, euntque
mixtaque cum veris passim commenta
milia rumorum confusaque verba volutant;
e quibus hi vacuas inplent sermonibus aures. …

Fame's connections with words, breath, air, wind, are established in the classical images. Her trumpet figures this connection. The first instance I have found of the metaphor is in Juvenal, and the full development seems to be certainly post-classical, but Fama was nuntia veri in Virgil, and very often indeed, in other writers, nuntia. And there are the potent Virgilian phrases: the ventosa gloria of which the unlucky warrior speaks to Camilla, and the splendid line in his own prayer to the Muses:

et meministis enim, divae, et memorare
ad nos vix tenuis famae perlabitur aura.

Shakespeare knows the tradition. We hear in Romeo and Juliet of "Three civil brawls bred of an airy word"; in Troilus and Cressida of "that breath fame blows" and of fame's trump and "Having his ear full of his airy fame". But the whole image had been shown in Henry IV, Part II, where, as Induction, Rumour enters "painted full of tongues", making the wind her post-horse. The trumpet is no longer an attribute of Fama-Rumor: it is Fama-Rumor, and included in the metaphor is the mob:

Rumour is a pipe
Blown by surmises, jealousies, conjectures,
And of so easy and so plain a stop
That the blunt monster with uncounted heads,
The still discordant wav'ring multitude,
Can play upon it. …

This is Ovid's mob. Or Cicero's, when in his Stoic vein, he rejects popular judgment: fame, he says—famam popularem—cannot be counted a good when it is called into being by the united judgment of fools and knaves (stultorum inproborumque) and if things like fine eyes or a good colour are to be so considered then the philosopher's seriousness is no better than the vulgi opinione stultorumque turba. Or Montaigne's in his essay on Glory, when he rejects "honor and glory, which is nought but a favourable judgement that is made of us". "And the judgement of our inclinations and actions (the waightiest and hardest matter that is) we referre it to the idle breath of the vaine voice of the common sort and base raskalitie. … In this breathie confusion of bruites, and frothy Chaos of reports and of vulgar opinions, which still push us on, no good course can be established." For honour, glory, and fame are not to be dissociated. They are all favourable judgments, and the expression of the judgment is in speech, words, voices, which are breath and air, or wind, because the voice that utters does so through the vehicles of breath and air. It is because of this complex that I have tried to describe that Falstaff can be made to say

"What is honour? A word. What is in that word?
Honour. What is that honour? Air."

Honour, Name and Fame are words, voces. They are voices because voice is both uttering and what is uttered; they are acts of judgment or opinion issuing in words. Their relationship to their subject is that of word to things. A word has two relationships: to him who utters it, and to its subject. Further, uttering happens in a community and establishes a relationship between the subject and that community; words are what the community says about him. They must be right, and the Tightness of the relationship lies in its truth. It must be true between speaker and word, and true between word and thing. Language, what people say to each other about things, is constitutive of society, of the civil life. Working within the scheme I have outlined, exploiting and realizing its semantic possibilities as only Shakespeare in his full greatness could, Shakespeare offers a show of the civil life in terms of empty, perverted, destructive relationships between speaker and utterance, word and subject, which is between man and man and man and himself. In this play no one is innocent, except Virgilia who is silent: "My gracious silence."

Honour and fame are words that go with the deed. The formal position—shown in the honouring of Coriolanus in the field—is simple. It posits a simple direct act, involving recognition, between word and deed. Honour is naming the deed. They cannot be separated. In the city honour is not given, the deed is not named without request—"policy", which expresses the way of keeping society together, imposes this. The act of naming is expressed by voices.

Of all formulas connected with the word none is more ancient than that which, in various versions, states an opposition between word and deed. This formula is basic for the play. Deeds, blows, acts are consistently opposed to words—in simple ways like this:

Has struck more blows for Rome
Than thou hast spoken words


When blows have made me stay, I fled from

But the formula mutates into an opposition between deed, and word as vox; voice. It is the implied ground of that speech I have already quoted:

Here come moe voices.
Your voices. For your voices I have fought;
Watch'd for your voices; for your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd. …

Voices, voces are the opposite of deeds or acts. They are devalued further through their definition as breath, light and empty; and stinking breath, offensive. Yet the mob's voices are intolerable because they are voices that are acts: acts of uttering that are acts of decision. Voice is deed and not deed in the same moment. Coriolanus' deeds, which must be named, fall into this nexus, the relationship between name and thing is disrupted: deed must be honour, its name, its voice. Deed, being named, passes into its opposite: voice.

In seeking the voices Coriolanus is a subject looking for his name: it is his name that will be uttered. But the search leads him into the gravest danger. He must ask.

"The price is to ask it kindly", says a citizen. In Coriolanus' mind to ask is to beg. He sees himself as a beggar troubling the poor with begging, the napless vesture of humility as a disguise. When he takes it off, he says, he will know himself again.

… It is a part
That I shall blush in acting.

The beggar is like the actor: he mimics what he is not and utters words that are not his. The danger for Coriolanus is that to get his voice he must seem what he is not and utter words that are false and have no right relationship to the speaker: analogous relationships of falsity. Still more is required of him: the trap springs a second time. Acting and speech again go together. Brought in to persuade her son that he must formally appear before the Tribunes and the people, answer the charges brought against him and accept their verdict, their voice, for otherwise the city will be destroyed, Volumnia instructs Coriolanus that he must act a part and speak the words appropriate to his role of suppliant for mercy, and she seeks to convince him that to do so is consistent with his "honour". Coriolanus opposes to all this the idea of nature, disposition, truth, himself. Words and action must correspond directly to the nature which is a man's truth. This idea of his about words is reiterated through the play. It is recognized by friends and enemies alike:

His heart's his mouth;
What his breast forges, that his tongue must

Volumnia allows for it; he must speak to the people not

… by th' matter which your heart prompts
But with such words that are but roted in
Your tongue, though but bastards and
Of no allowance to your bosom's truth.

Coriolanus is persuaded. Then he is permitted a moment of illumination—he cannot stand by it because his mother, not arguing, but taunting, dominates him—when he knows that to accept the role will be to destroy himself:

… I will not do't.
Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth
And by my body's action teach my mind
A most inherent baseness.

There is, he says, a truth; it must be named in honour by himself and no other. Honour is the name for it and he must give it. To do otherwise, to utter words that do not correspond or perform actions that contradict, is to alter his very being.

The relationship is between "I" and "myself". To trace the history that made possible this great leap, through Stoic and Christian—Montaigne in such a context quotes St. Paul: Gloria nostra est testimonium conscientice nostrœ, and Montaigne in his quotation is following Augustine, and through the critique of chivalry with which Shakespeare is explicitly and persistently concerned: the history of the interiorizing of honour, which is never quite complete—all this would be beyond my power. Shakespeare is using at this moment the language of the Schools. It is the only time in his whole oeuvre that he uses the word inherent; and I cannot believe that he did not fully know its technical use in connection with substance. What Coriolanus is being asked to do is to transform disgracefully his being.

In Troilus and Cressida, where honour and love are treated, conceptually, as cases of "estimation", and the question is specifically asked whether value is intrinsic or extrinsic, the doubleness of Cressida—Troilus's Cressida, Diomede's Cressida, every man's Cressida—becomes, with painful irony—for it was Troilus who had insisted that value lies only in estimation—proof that a thing can be itself and other than itself in the same moment; and this denies the principle of oneness, which guarantees being, which rests on the sacred and indivisible unitas:

If there be rule in Unitie itself
This is not she—

he cries. Being is disrupted and the fabric of the Universe torn.

In Coriolanus we are concerned only with the community or city, civitas, localized as Rome, the urbs, in danger of destruction. Questions of the self, its maintenance or destruction, rise within the social context and are limited to that. A name stands at the centre of the play; and it is in the name that these questions are focused.

The name is a voice, a word, one of the two fundamental parts of language, which the ancients distinguished, names or nouns and verbs. It is the vocable that belongs to a man:

Nomen est quod uni cuique personae datur, quo suo quaeque proprio et certo vocabulo appellator.

It can go with Fame, in the Name and Fame formula, because a name is the word people use about me. It states both individuality and membership of family and group. It is the third name, the cognomen, Coriolanus, that most strictly marks the individual: no-one else has this:

The third, was some addition geven, either for some acte or notable service, or for some marke on their face, or of some shape of their bodie, or els for some speciali vertue they had.

Giving the name "Coriolanus" to him is to give him fame, a name that will last, honour, a new individuality, like a baptism:

By deed-achieving honour newly nam'd.

It asserts his uniqueness, but a uniqueness that is an assertion, a uniqueness given in relationship to those who gave it. When he comes to Aufidius, muffled, disguised, and the question "What is your name" echoes, he answers, as we saw: "Only that name remains." All else is devoured. Cominius, on a fruitless embassy from Rome, later, reports

… 'Coriolanus'
He would not answer to; forbad all names;
He was a kind of nothing, titleless
Till he had forg'd himself a name i' th' fire
Of burning Rome.

In the scene that immediately follows, when Menenius goes to see Coriolanus, the theme is pointed, serio-comically, in his dialogue with the guards. He appears as Coriolanus' reporter: he is in estimation with him: he is Coriolanus' liar—so the forthright soldiers turn the phrase:

The virtue of your name
Is not here passable

they greet him with; and mockingly when he goes,

1 Watch. Now, sir, is your name Menenius?
2 Watch. 'Tis a spell, you see, of much

What is the relationship that word or name holds with the thing named? Here we come to the old story of whether words or names relate to their objects by nature or convention. Shakespeare knew both accounts. His statement of one has become proverbial:

'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
Thou art thyself, though not a Montague.
What's Montague? It is nor hand, nor foot.
Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
Belonging to a man. O be some other name!
What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet;
So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call'd,
Retain that dear perfection which he owes
Without that title. Romeo, doff thy name,
And for thy name, which is no part of thee,
Take all myself.

It is a virtuoso handling of the argument. Put it beside the paragraph which introduces Montaigne's essay on Glory (he is working from Sebond):

There is both name, and the thing: the name, is a voice which noteth, and signifieth the thing: the name is neither part of thing nor of substance: it is a stranger-piece joyned to the thing, and from it.

But when Adam named the beasts he named them according to their natures: the connection was real not conventional. Further, as Dr. Walker has said, in his discussion of this view in the sixteenth-century Neo-Platonic texts: [Spiritual and Demonic Magic from Ficino to Campanella, 1958]: "the word is not merely like a quality of the thing it designates … it is, or exactly represents, its essence or substance." So it came about that the name has power, is magical; and so it can be said that the name Menenius carried to Coriolanus has virtue, is a spell of power. And on this view Juliet is wrong—and the play shows it—when she argues that Romeo's self can be dissevered from his name, which is indeed a part of him. Shakespeare does not always laugh, like the sceptical soldiers. It seems to me that the name, in his usages, hovers in an ambiguous zone, its status not quite determined, and the possibilities capable of powerful exploitation. Take that sinister little scene in Julius Cæsar when the mob, loosed by Antony, blind and frantic, encounters the poet Cinna. The answer to his scream

I am not Cinna the conspirator.


It is no matter, his name's Cinna; pluck but
his name out of his heart …

It is precisely the ambiguity that makes that so resonant. And it is, for instance, in such ambiguity, such doubt, that lie the tragedy and destruction of Richard II, who has to learn to ask what is the connection between his name and him.

Is not the king's name twenty thousand
Arm, arm my name! a puny subject strikes
At thy great glory.

In the abdication scene meditations on crown and self—"I must nothing be"—are followed by refusal of forms of address:

… I have no name, no title—
No, not that name was given me at the font—
But 'tis usurped. …

and the call for a mirror. Name and mirror: guarantees of a continuing self. Meditations on either are dangerous, and subversive. And, at the end, in prison, Richard's recreation of himself through a sequence of images comes back to this:

… Then am I king'd again; and by and by Think that I am unking'd by Bolingbroke, And straight am nothing. …

Montaigne, whose essay so clearly demonstrates that the argument about Fame is an argument about Name, when he rejects honour, glory, fame, rejects his name. His surname is common to all his race; his Christian name belongs to anyone that wants it: "I have no name that is sufficiently mine." "As for me", he says, "I hold that I am but in my selfe; and of this other life of mine, which consisteth in the knowledge of my friends, being simply and barely considered in my selfe, well I wot, I neither feel fruite or jovissance of it, but by the vanity of fantasticali opinion."

This way is not permitted to Coriolanus, for he is involved in the active life. He has a name that is sufficiently his, unique. Banished from Rome, it is all that remains to him. And this he rejects, as he has rejected the city:

"I banish you." Properly—the City gave it. He must forge a new name in the fires of Rome, as Herostratus—it is the example always used—perpetuated his name by burning down the great temple of Diana at Ephesus. Without "Coriolanus" he is "a kind of nothing, titleless". What is nameless is monstrous, "a deed without a name". It belongs to the realm that is not subjugated. "When he shall be able to call the creatures by their true names he shall again command them", wrote Bacon from his dream of knowledge that is power. Naming gives identity to nothings. It is also the poet's function: his pen gives shapes to the forms of things unknown, products of the imagination,

"to airy nothing a local habitation and a
name …"

Shakespeare is here using as a frame of reference a great argument of which he shows elsewhere—as in The Tempest—full knowledge.

The monstrous, the unsubjugated, the unknown, the nothing, are what is outside the frontier of language, or the frontier of the human. For language is vehicle and expression of ratio, of reason, of what makes man man. A Macbeth denies his humanity, and an idiot's gabble is the metaphor for the final nonsense to which he has reduced his world. The origins of language, if we follow those ancient writers who denied that it was given by a God or some nameless lawmaker, are inextricably connected with the joining together of men in groups—"in conversation with each other", with the origins of building and law. Naming is within the family and the community: it asserts individuality through relationships. The community, the rational, human life, is defined by the walls of the city: it is the life of conversazione civile, civil intercourse, civil conversation—and our meaning for that word was separated out of the first. The bond is language. The city of Coriolanus is certainly London, but first it is Rome, Urbs, the city: consciousness of the city is sustained throughout the play, in awe, question or doubt: often from the lips of the unimportant, the bystanders. Banished from the city, banishing the city, Coriolanus leaves the pale of humanity: he sees himself and is seen as a lonely dragon, one of those fabled or perhaps real monsters from which men, in story, sheltered themselves behind the city walls. When Aufidius' servant says:

"Where dwell'st thou?"

he answers

"I' the city of kites and crows":

a total reversal of meaning—scavenger birds that feed on carcases.

And finally, he is titleless, a kind of nothing. To lose the name is to lose the self, and at that moment when the women come to intercede he asserts his singleness, his refusal of relationships: he will

As if a man were author of himself
And knew no other kin.

He cannot sustain this, and breaks himself; and indeed in the Shakespearian world it is blasphemy. From the beginning Coriolanus had been accused of denying relationships in the city: of pride, of speaking of the people as though he were a God to punish "not a man of their infirmity". The basis is in North where Shakespeare read that Coriolanus was "churlishe, uncivill and altogether unfit for any mans conversation". Consistently he equates "good words" to the people as false words: "flattery".

Finally he accepts again his relationships, with mother, wife and child; with the city in which his son will perpetuate his name, of whose history his name will be part. This identification brings accusation in Corioli: his last outbursts are reassertions of his name, his Romanness, of himself, his Fame—they go together:

If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there,
That, like an eagle in a dove-cote I
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioli.
Alone I did it.

This great play, relentless, unremitting, misunderstood, offers us no easy comfort of confirmed anticipation or imagined identification. And not the liberating ritual comfort of tragedy. It is a show of the civil life. The city must stand and must continue, for outside it there is the monstrous, or the nothing. But within the walls absolutes turn out to be instrumental; the words that identify and bind become words that debase and destroy: whoops, or hoots, curses, lies, flatteries, voices, stinking breath. Words are torn from what they signify. They pass into their antonyms. Deeds are not—deeds. Names are not—names. The absoluteness of the self, the I, cannot be maintained; but the necessary relationship of the I with name or fame destroys. In this city to speak is to be guilty.

Kenneth Burke (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Coriolanus— and the Delights of Faction," in Language as Symbolic Action, University of California Press, 1966, pp. 81-97.

[In the following excerpt, Burke explores Coriolanus in terms of the aesthetic and ethical assumptions audiences bring to tragedy, concluding that Shakespeare's portrayal of strained class relations serves as a cathartic "invective" against the state.]

This [essay] is to involve one of my experiments with the safest and surest kind of prophecy; namely: prophecy after the event. Our job will be to ask how Shakespeare's grotesque tragedy, Coriolanus, "ought to be." And we can check on the correctness of our prophecies by consulting the text.

We begin with these assumptions: Since the work is a tragedy, it will require some kind of symbolic action in which some notable form of victimage is imitated, for the purgation, or edification of an audience. The character that is to be sacrificed must be fit for his role as victim; and everything must so fit together that the audience will find the sacrifice plausible and acceptable (thereby furtively participating in the judgment against the victim, and thus even willing the victimage). The expectations and desires of the audience will be shaped by conditions within the play. But the topics exploited for persuasive purposes within the play will also have strategic relevance to kinds of "values" and "tensions" that prevail outside the play.

There is a benign perversity operating here. In one sense, the aesthetic and the ethical coincide, since a way of life gives rise to a moral code, and the dramatist can exploit this moral code for poetic effects by building up characters that variously exemplify the system of vices and virtues to which the code explicitly or implicitly subscribes. But in another sense the aesthetic and the ethical are at odds, since the dramatist can transform our moral problems into sources of poetic entertainment. Any ethical "thou shalt not" sets up the conditions for an author to engage an audience by depicting characters that variously violate or threaten to violate the "thou shalt not." And many motivational conflicts that might distress us in real life can be transformed into kinds of poetic imitation that engross us. Thus in the realm of the aesthetic we may be delighted by accounts of distress and corruption that would make the moralist quite miserable.

The moral problem, or social tension, that is here to be exploited for the production of the "tragic pleasure" is purely and simply a kind of discord intrinsic to the distinction between upper classes and lower classes. However, a certain "distance" could be got in Shakespeare's day by treating the problem in terms not of contemporary London but of ancient Rome. A somewhat analogous situation is to be seen in Euripides' tragedy of The Trojan Women, which appeared some months after the Athenians had destroyed the little island of Melos, though on its face the play was concerned with the Trojan war, the theme of The Iliad. When Coriolanus appeared there had been considerable rioting due to the Enclosure Acts by which many tenants had been dispossessed of their traditional rights to the land, and were suffering great hardships. Both of these plays may, in their way, have gained strictly contemporary relevance from the allusive exploiting of a "timely topic." But in any case, each was dealing with a distress of much longer duration, in Euripides' case the horrors of war, and in Shakespeare's case the malaise of the conflict between the privileged and the underprivileged, as stated in terms of a struggle between the patricians and plebeians of old Rome.

If we are going to "dramatize" such a tension, we shall want first of all a kind of character who in some way helps intensify the tension. Where there are any marked differences in social status, in the situation itself there is a kind of "built-in pride," no matter how carefully one might try to mitigate such contrasts. And despite polite attempts to gloss things over, the unresolved situation is intrinsically there. By the nature of the case, it involves exclusions.

But for our purposes the main consideration is this: Whereas a hostess, or a diplomat, or an ingratiating politician, or a public relations counsel might go as far as possible towards toning down such situations, the dramatist must work his cures by a quite different method. He must find ways to play them up. In some respects, therefore, this play will require a kind of character who is designed to help aggravate the uneasiness of the relationship between nobles and commoners.

For this aspect of his role, our chosen victim is obviously a perfect fit. In contrast with the suave Menenius, who has been addressing the mutinous citizens with such a cautious mixture of gravity and humor, our chosen victim's first words to the people are: "What's the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, / Make yourselves scabs?" Thereafter, again and again, his gruff (or if you will, arrogant) manner of speaking is designed to point up (for the audience) the conflict intrinsic to the class distinctions with which the play is "drastically" concerned. (It's well to recall here that, in earlier medical usage, a "drastic" was the name for the strongest kind of "cathartic." Also, the word derives etymologically from the same root as "drama.")

The Greek word hubris sometimes translates best as "pride," sometimes as "excess." And in Athenian law hubris was also used to designate a civil offense, an insulting air of superiority, deemed punishable by death. When you note how neatly all three meanings come together in the role of Coriolanus, I think you will realize at least one reason why I find the play so fascinating. The grotesque hero is excessively downright, forthright, outright (and even, after his fashion upright), in his unquestioned assumption that the common people are intrinsically inferior to the nobility. Indeed, though the word "noble" suggests to most of us either moral or social connotations, Coriolanus takes it for granted that only the socially noble can have nobility of any sort. (The word appears about 76 times in the play. In half of these contexts it is applied to Coriolanus himself. And, to my knowledge, it is never used ironically, as with Mark Antony's transformations of the word "honourable.") Coriolanus is excessive in ways that prepare the audience to relinquish him for his role as scapegoat, in accentuating a trait that the audience also shares with him, though seldom so avowedly.

More "prophesying after the event" is still to be done. But first, perhaps we should pause to give a generalized outline of the plot, having in mind the kind of tension (or factional malaise) that the drama would transform into terms of purgative appeal:

After having gained popular acclaim through prowess in war, a courageous but arrogant patrician, who had been left fatherless when young and was raised by his mother, is persuaded by his mother to sue for high political office. In campaigning, he alienates the plebeians who, goaded by his political rivals, condemn him to exile. When in exile, making an alliance with the commander of the armies he had conquered, he leads a force against his own country. But before the decisive battle, during a visit by his closest relatives, his mother persuades him not to attack. In so doing, she unintentionally sets in motion the conditions whereby the allied commander, whom he had formerly vanquished and who envies his fame, successfully plots his assassination.

It is impressive how perfectly the chosen victim's virtues and vices work together, in fitting him for his sacrificial function. The several scenes in the first act that build up his prowess as a solider not only endow him with a sufficient measure of the heroics necessary for tragic dignification. They also serve to make it clear why, when he returns to Rome and, against his will, consents to seek the office of consul, he is bound to be a misfit. Shakespeare himself usually gives us the formula for such matters. It is stated by the Tribune, Brutus, in Act III, scene iii: Get him angry, for

… He hath been us'd
Ever to conquer, and to have his worth
Of contradiction. Being once chaf d, he cannot
Be rein'd again to temperance; then he speaks
What's in his heart, and that is there which
With us to break his neck.

He is not the "war games" kind of military man, not the "computer mentality"; thus we spontaneously accept it that his valiant though somewhat swashbuckling ways as a warrior will make him incompetent in the wiles of peaceful persuasion, which the wily Shakespeare so persuasively puts in a bad light, within the conditions of the play, by his treatment of the Tribunes. Though Shakespeare's theater is, from start to finish, a masterful enterprise in the arts of persuasion, high among his resources is the building of characters who are weak in such devices. Indeed, considered from this point of view, Coriolanus' bluntness is in the same class with Cordelia's fatal inability to flatter Lear. Later we shall find other reasons to think of Lear in connection with Coriolanus' railings. Meanwhile, note how the Tribunes' skill at petition is portrayed as not much better than mere cunning, even though somewhat justified by our highborn goat's arrogance in his dealings with the commoners. He finds it impossible even to simulate an attitude of deference. And once we have his number, when he sets out to supplicate, armed with the slogan "The word is 'mildly,'" the resources of dramatic irony have already prepared us for the furious outbursts that will get the impetuous war-hero banished from Rome, a climax capped perfectly by his quick rejoinder, "I banish you!" As a fearless fighter, he is trained to give commands and to risk his life, not to supplicate. And the better to build him up, in the role of the Tribunes Shakespeare makes the art of political supplication seem quite unsavory.

All told, Coriolanus' courage and outspokenness make him a sufficiently "noble" character to dignify a play by the sacrificing of him. And excessive ways of constantly reaffirming his assumption that only the social nobility can be morally noble indicts him for sacrifice. But more than this is needed to make him effectively yieldable.

For one thing, always in drama we encounter a variation on the theme of what I would call the "paradox of substance." A character cannot "be himself unless many others among the dramatis personae contribute to this end, so that the very essence of a character's nature is in a large measure defined, or determined, by the other characters who variously assist or oppose him. The most obvious instance of what I mean is the role of Aufidius. If it is an integral part of Coriolanus' role to be slain, there must be a slayer. And in this sense Aufidius is "derived from" the character of Coriolanus. The conditions of the play set up Coriolanus as a gerundive, a "to be killed," and Aufidius is to be the primary instrument in the killing. As is typical of a Shakespearean play, just before the close of the first act Aufidius points the arrows of the audience's expectations by announcing to a soldier (and thus to the audience) that he will destroy Coriolanus in whatever way possible. Even so, it's always good if a man speaks with high respect of a slain rival; accordingly, though Aufidius must be plotter enough to fulfill his role in Coriolanus' death, he must be of sufficient dignity so that his final tribute to the "noble memory" of Coriolanus will serve to give the audience a parting reassurance that they have participated in the symbolic sacrifice of a victim worth the killing. The assurance was made doubly necessary by the fact that, just before the slaying, there had been a kind of last-moment revelation, when Aufidius called the bold warrior a "boy of tears," thus propounding a final formula for Coriolanus' relationship to his mother. Aufidius' claims as a worthy opponent (despite his unsavory traits) are established in Coriolanus' first references to him, such as, "I sin in envying his nobility," and "He is a lion / That I am proud to hunt."

This relationship we should dwell on. For it best illustrates just what we mean by "prophesying after the event" in order to "derive" the play in terms of poetics. If the characters are viewed simply as "people," we should treat the relationship between Coriolanus and Volumnia much as Plutarch did, in the "Life" from which Shakespeare borrowed so much of his plot. Coriolanus would thus be interpreted as the offspring of a bellicose, overbearing mother, who sought to compensate for the death of his father by being both mother and father to him. There is one change worth noting. Whereas Plutarch attributes Coriolanus' resultant irritability to womanishness, Shakespeare seems to have settled for a mere failure to outgrow boyishness. But our main point is this: Along the lines of poetic principles, the derivation should be reversed; and instead of viewing Coriolanus as an offspring of his mother, we view her role as a function contributory to his.

Thus, in an early scene, she is portrayed as a pugnacious virago of whom the son became a responsive masculine copy. This portrait of her prepares us to accept it as "natural" that, when he returns from the battlefields, she can persuade him, against his wishes, to stand for consul. And thus, later in the play, we will accept it that she can persuade him not to attack Rome—and (quite unintentionally on her part) this decision sets up the conditions responsible for his death. In brief, when using her to account for Coriolanus' character in the first place, Shakespeare is preparing her to serve as plausible explanation for two crucial moments in the plot: a nonpolitical man's ventures into politics, and a fighting man's failure to join in battle when success was certain. In brief, her relation to Coriolanus motivates for us two decisions of his that are basically necessary, to make the turns in the tragedy seem plausible.

I say "turns," having in mind the Aristotelian word, "peripety," to name the striking moment, near the center of a complex plot, when some significant reversal takes place. But I might here pause to note that this is a play of many such reversals. In Act I, there are the many scenes that might in general be entitled the "Tides of Battle," including the one where Coriolanus—or at that time, Caius Marcius, since he has not yet received his new name from the city he conquered—is thought to be lost, through having single-handedly pursued the enemy within the gate of Corioli, fighting alone where Plutarch less theatrically had reported him as but leader of a small band. At the end of Act II, the commoners are persuaded by the Tribunes to retract their intention of voting for Coriolanus as consul. The big peripety is, as one might expect, in Act III, the hero's fatal bursts of rage having been prepared for ironically by his decision to be mild. In this act, there is a kind of peripety-atop-peripety, when Coriolanus retorts to his banishers, "I banish you!"

In Act IV, scene v, there is a neat turn when Aufidius' servingmen, who would treat Coriolanus shabbily when he first appears, abruptly change their tune after he has talked with Aufidius, and the compact against Rome has been agreed on. Besides being one of the few comic spots in the play, this scene is also useful in preparing for the last fatal reversal, since it brings out the fact that, even if Coriolanus and Aufidius are to become allies, Coriolanus' reputation is a threat to Aufidius. Another reversal, in scene vi, occurs when, just after the Tribunes and citizens have been congratulating themselves on the conditions of peace resulting from Coriolanus' banishment, they are startled by the news that Coriolanus is marching on Rome.

In Act V, there is a fatal peripety, when Coriolanus is persuaded by his mother to give up his intention of attacking Rome. This leads to another peripety, the ironic twist whereby, soon after Menenius has explained to one of the Tribunes that Coriolanus will never yield ("There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger"), they learn that Coriolanus has begun to withdraw. And even though the arrows of our expectations were clearly pointing in this direction, there is a final peripety in the hero's slaying.

Coriolanus' wife, Virgilia, is quickly "derivable." In contrast with his continual bluster, she is his "gracious silence." Contrasting with his bloodthirsty mother, she faints at the very mention of blood. In her sensitiveness and devotion, she is by implication a vote for Coriolanus. There's a skillful touch, in Act IV, scene ii, where she flares up for a moment against the Tribunes, and boasts of her husband as a fighter: "He'Id make an end of thy posterity." There's a different twist, but surely conceived in the spirit of the same theater, when the young son (who is a chip off the old block, and loved to rip apart a butterfly) flares up at his father. The most...

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Politics And Power

(Shakespearean Criticism)

A. P. Rossiter (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: "Coriolanus," in Angels with Horns and Other Shakespeare Lectures, edited by Graham Storey, Longmans, 1961, pp. 235-252.

[In the following essay, which was originally delivered as a lecture in 1952, Rossiter praises Coriolanus as the "greatest of the Histories," contending that the play realistically depicts the ironies of politics.]

Shakespeare may have felt some disappointment with Coriolanus. He would not be the last; for I think that few see or read it without feeling that they 'don't get as much out of it as they hoped to' or that it 'somehow doesn't seem to pay' or is...

(The entire section is 35668 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

H. J. Oliver (essay date 1959)

SOURCE: "Coriolanus As Tragic Hero," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. X, No. 1, Winter, 1959, pp. 53-60.

[In the following essay, Oliver considers Coriolanus a tragic play because Coriolanus' character precludes participation in a democracy.]

Coriolanus has not, on the whole, been a popular play, either on the stage or with the literary critics. Some of the later twentieth-century commentators have been more appreciative (notably D. A. Traversi, Hardin Craig, Peter Alexander, and H. C. Goddard) but nobody has accorded the play the place of honor that one might expect for Shakespeare's last tragedy; and...

(The entire section is 12048 words.)

Women In Coriolanus

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Madelon Sprengnether (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Annihilating Intimacy in Coriolanus," in Women in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: Literary and Historical Perspectives, edited by Mary Beth Rose, Syracuse University Press, 1986, pp. 89-111.

[In the following essay, Sprengnether uses a psychoanalytical approach in exploring the relationship between Coriolanus and Volumnia.]

Whatever else they are about, Shakespeare's tragedies demonstrate, with a terrible consistency, the ways in which love kills. My argument here concerns the structures of homoerotic and heteroerotic bonding that constitute the primary forms of relationship in the...

(The entire section is 12295 words.)

Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Alvis, John. "Coriolanus and Aristotle's Magnanimous Man Reconsidered." Interpretation 7, No. 3 (September 1978): 4-28.

Claims that Coriolanus typifies the classical ideal of the honorable man as characterized in Aristotle's Nichomachean Ethics.

Coote, Stephen. Coriolanus. London: Penguin Books, 1992, 98 p.

Interprets Coriolanus as demonstrating Shakespeare's concern with man as a political animal and with the confrontational nature of language.

Huffman, Clifford Chalmers. Coriolanus in Context. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1971, 260 p.

Investigates the English and Italian sources that...

(The entire section is 507 words.)