During our own age, Coriolanus has been the subject of critical commentary by scholars on both poles of the political spectrum. It has been scored alternatively as the conservative Shakespeare's defense of autocracy by critics on the left and the liberal Bard's endorsement of revolution against dictatorship, mass democracy, and, in fact, a communist economic system by critics on the right. The debate over Shakespeare's true political disposition continues to this day. It pivots on a tension in his plays between the characterization of evil tyrants, on the one hand, and strong warnings against the horrors of civil war, on the other. Acknowledging that Coriolanus is a political play, we can only affirm that it pits an upper-class, autocratic patrician viewpoint, as espoused and exploited by Menenius, against a lower-class, leveling plebian perspective, as espoused and exploited by the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus.
Far more interesting than the political mentality behind Coriolanus is the practical political problem that Coriolanus faces. He has distinguished himself by virtue of his heroic military feats; even his staunchest critics allow that Coriolanus has done great service to Rome. His person and his name, therefore, lend him power. But Coriolanus cannot transfer his military prowess into political clout. Indeed, the normative source of his success as a general, his dedication to a code of courageous nobility, is what undermines his power in the civil realm. The military field is a sphere of action, the civil domain is a sphere of words; Coriolanus is all action and no words. Time after time in the play Coriolanus either does not know what to say or expresses himself in a way that is deliberately inarticulate. Thus, for example, even among his fellow generals after the battle of Corioles, Shakespeare's Coriolanus stumbles when trying to express his thoughts, saying: "I have done / As you have done—that's what I can; induced / As you have been—that's for my country" (I.ix.15-17). Coriolanus cannot speak for himself for two reasons: first, he has never thought about his behavior and has nothing approximating introspection; second, his mother, Volumnia, does Coriolanus's thinking and speaking for him, a point to which we shall return shortly.
The best speaker in the play is the silvery-tongued Menenius, a veteran patrician who retains the favor of the plebians and is able to bend them to his purposes through stories. It is Menenius who narrates the famous belly speech to the riotous citizens of the opening scene and thereby introduces the controlling metaphor of Coriolanus, that of the body politic. As a father would hold the attention of small children, Menenius's story is that of all the other members of the body rebelling against the belly because it receives the first share of the food consumed by the whole. Not trusting his listeners to see the analogy, Menenius says that the "belly" is the Roman Senate, meaning the upper-class to which he belongs. He then notes that it is from the belly that the nourishment flows to the other parts of the body, as the belly responds that he is "the store house and the shop / Of the whole body" (I.i.133-134) even down to the big toe of the common citizens. The story placates the dense mob, but far more importantly it introduces the figurative model of the state or city-state of Rome as an organic unity, a single body having a commonwealth. But the civil unrest within Rome serves as a symptom that there is a disease in the body politic. Crucially, in the first scene of Act III, Sicinius incites the crowd against Coriolanus by declaring, "He's a disease that must be cut away" (III.i.294) from the body politics of Rome. To this charge, the pro-Corolanius politician Menenius says: "Oh, he's a limb that has but a disease; / Mortal to cut it off; to cure it, easy" (III.i.295-296). Later in the play,...
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- Act and Scene Summaries
- Critical Essays