The Noble Thing and the Boy of Tears: Coriolanus and the Embarrassments of Identity - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The "Noble Thing" and the "Boy of Tears": Coriolanus and the Embarrassments of Identity

Burton Hatlen, University of Maine at Orono

Tonally, Coriolanus is Shakespeare's coolest tragedy. The protagonist does not invite audience identification—if anything, he spurns our sympathy. But the play treats his antagonists no less coolly. As a consequence, audiences and critics have often seen the play as working not so much upon our passions as upon our analytic faculties.1 But what questions does the play address? In our century, many critics have seen the play as turning on political issues. For some of these critics, the key issue is the struggle, whether in ancient Rome or in Jacobean England, between opposing social classes, noble and plebeian, or the relationship of the "great man" to the people, while other critics have argued that the play problematizes the very concept of the "political." But a second tradition of interpretation has built on psychoanalytic theory to explore Coriolanus' problematic relationship with his mother. And yet a third school of critics has focused on the way the play selfreflexively examines issues of language, especially naming. In this paper, I want to build some bridges among these three schools of interpretation, by focusing on two interrelated issues that seem to me central to Coriolanus: the issues of identity and shame.2

Identity is born at the interface between the public and the private realms. But because it is ambiguously both personal and social, identity is inherently flawed, vulnerable, and shame represents the (always reluctant) acknowledgment of the problematic status of individual identity. Coriolanus, I will argue, demonstrates that identity is not only problematic but "impossible," simply because any form of selfhood is always already implicated in otherness. The play demonstrates the impossibility of identity in at least three ways. On the social level, Coriolanus attempts to define himself as an autonomous individual, only to discover that the self is always dependent upon the social ground on which it stands. Psychologically, Coriolanus struggles to separate himself from his mother, but finally fails. And on the linguistic level, he sets out to name himself, only to fail once again. On all three levels, furthermore, the concrete sign of Coriolanus' failure to become the "author of himself" (5.3.36)3 is a flood of shame, which thus serves to define the limit of personal identity, the moment when identity dissolves into contradiction. Around the issues of identity and shame, then, all the great themes of Coriolanus—political, psychological, linguistic—converge.4


(Shakespearean Criticism)

That Coriolanus is Shakespeare's most political play—perhaps his "only great political play"5—has become a commonplace of Shakespeare studies. For many commentators, a political play must necessarily be partisan. Thus our century has seen an extended critical debate over whether the patricians (and thus Coriolanus) are "right" and the plebeians "wrong," or vice versa. Eugene Waith, for example, sees Coriolanus and the class he represents as the embodiment of everything truly noble, and he argues that Shakespeare "makes it impossible to respect" the "many-voiced, ceaselessly shifting people."6 And C. C. Huffman argues that "of all the available possibilities of presenting [the] political situation [dramatized in Coriolanus], Shakespeare chooses one consonant with King James's royalist view of it as a rivalry between absolute monarchy and democracy, between rule and misrule, between order and chaos."7 In contrast, Kenneth Muir sees Shakespeare reworking his source materials to give us "a more favorable idea of the citizens" by emphasizing their "genuine grievances" and their willingness to "forgive Coriolanus' deplorable rudeness to them."8 This debate goes on—as recently as 1989, for example, Annabel Patterson offered an eloquent defense of the "populist" reading of the play.9

But another tradition of political interpretation has emphasized the ways in which Coriolanus, rather than choosing sides in the class struggle, dramatizes the very nature of the political itself. This tradition finds its first major spokesperson in A. P. Rossiter, who sees the play as concerned "with the workings of men's wills in the practical management of affairs; with the making (by some), the manipulation (by others) of 'scenes,' emotional eruptions of individual or group will; with all that unstable, shifting, trustless, feckless, foolish-shrewd, canny, short-sighted, self-seeking, high-minded, confused, confusing matter which makes up a State's state of mind."10 Robert S. Miola argues that in Coriolanus Shakespeare "exposes the paradoxes inherent in the civilized community, especially those deriving from the differences between private virtue and the public good, or as Aristotle put it, between the good man and the good citizen."11 And Stanley Cavell has proposed that Coriolanus "is not a play about politics, if this means about political authority and conflict, say about questions of legitimate succession or divided loyalties. It is about the formation of the political, the founding of the city, about what it is that makes a rational animal fit for conversation, for civility."12 Like some other recent commentators13 I will here attempt to follow up on Cavell's suggestion that Coriolanus is about the "creation of the political." But I want to go beyond Cavell and his heirs in one respect, by linking the "creation of the political" to my two key issues, identity and shame.

The political, I will argue, makes possible personal identity: for human beings there is no "self outside of or prior to the political order. Yet this order also necessarily denies the autonomy of that self to which it gives birth. There is here a fundamental and irreducible contradiction, so fundamental that the political represents not so much a stable "order" as an ongoing dialectical process.14 In Coriolanus the issue of identity is posed first of all as a debate over the question of what it means to be a Roman. Coriolanus, born in Rome of a Roman mother, a soldier in the service of the Roman state, finds himself defined by circumstances of birth and profession as a Roman. But what is a Roman? At the beginning of the play, we see signs of increasing conflict between the two principal social classes in the city, the patricians and the plebeians. Does "Rome" embody itself in one of these social classes or the other? Or is the social conflict itself in some sense constitutive of Rome? Is "Romanness" equally present in each Roman, regardless of social position? Or are some Romans more Roman than others? Conversely, is it possible for some "Romans" to be "un-Roman," as a certain Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives once defined some Americans, or the actions of certain Americans, as "Un-American"?15

At the beginning of the play Coriolanus sees himself and is seen by others not only as a Roman, but as the very embodiment of romanitas. Unflinching courage, absolute devotion to the state, and by implication disdain for a "Greek" predilection for reflection over action—these are the attributes that define the ideal Roman. And these are the values that Volumnia has instilled in her son, as she reveals in her opening exchange with Virgilia:

Vol. To a cruel war I sent him, from whence
he returned, his brows bound with oak. I
tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy
on first hearing he was a man-child than
now in first seeing he had proved himself a man.
Vir. But had he died in the business, madam, how then?
Vol Then his good report should have been
my son. . . . [H]ad I a dozen sons, each in
my love alike and none less dear than thine
and my good Marcius, I had rather had
eleven die nobly for their country than one
voluptuously surfeit out of action.


After the battle of Corioles, Coriolanus himself sums up this Roman credo to the two Roman generals, Cominius and Titus Lartius: "I have done / As...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

On the social level, then, Coriolanus cannot accept himself as a part of Rome, as simply a Roman; but neither can he separate himself from Rome to become an autonomous individual. Either possibility would allow him to establish an identity, but in the circumstances identity becomes impossible for him. Parallel to this struggle for a social identity, Coriolanus is also engaged in a struggle for personal identity. Here the principal issue is his relationship, not to the city, but to his mother Volumnia and to the other members of his family. At times in the play, as when Volumnia persuades her son to stand for consul in Act 3, and as when she persuades him not to conquer the city in Act 5, the city and the mother may...

(The entire section is 2169 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

As several recent critics have noted, issues of language are also central to Coriolanus, along with issues of political power and psychological integrity. Coriolanus himself seems deeply suspicious of language. Unlike virtually all of Shakespeare's other tragic protagonists, he never uses language to explore inward emotional states: he has only one true soliloquy (4.4),37 and it is primarily about the instability of human social relationships, rather than about Coriolanus' feelings. Coriolanus, Lawrence Danson asserts, demands "wholeness of being," and this demand leads to a "distrust of words, and indeed of all the conventional symbolic means (verbal and gestural) that men have for expressing...

(The entire section is 2791 words.)


(Shakespearean Criticism)

The system of homologies that I have here described defines all the names that our protagonist assumes, all the identities that he tries to create or that others create for him, as fundamentally contradictory—"impossible." An individual human being cannot become coterminous with the polity into which he is born, or separate himself entirely from it: no man can become his own father, and no man can name himself. "Coriolanus" has no "self that stands prior to the social and familial and linguistic systems which define his possibilities of existence. Moreover, the plurality of such systems within the play suggests that the issue here is not the state or the family or even language, but relationship itself. The self...

(The entire section is 5181 words.)