Coriolanus The Noble Thing and the Boy of Tears: Coriolanus and the Embarrassments of Identity
by William Shakespeare

Coriolanus book cover
Start Your Free Trial

Introduction

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Download Coriolanus Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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

II

(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 entire section is 12,889 words.)