Act I Summary
Summary of I.i
Language in I.i
Insults in I.i (I)
Insults in I.i (II)
Summary of I.iii
Cor. as Machine
Act II Summary
Martius/Coriolanus' Insults of the Plebs in I.i (Second Essay)
Bill Long 12/31/07
Third, they pervert justice and turn the very concept on its head. Here are his words:
"Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him
And curse that justice did it," I.i.174-176.
We ought to pause for a moment to understand these words because they are the same type of complaint which is made today about people who support each other regardless of the demands of justice. In a nutshell, M is accusing the plebs of covering up for each other. In fact, a person's "offense" has actually subdued him but you folk, you curs, you dogs, you plebs, "make him worthy" by saying that "justice" did it. In other words you glorify the criminal whose own offense brought him into trouble by claiming a miscarriage of justice. These are the words of those who cannot take responsibility for their own actions and failings. People curse the stars and fail to examine themselves. Or, even worse, people hold up as virtuous those who really are guilty of their illegal conduct. The plebs, therefore, have overturned virtue and every rule of nature to justify their own rapscallionism.
Fourth, he accuses them of exacerbating their condition like a sick man who only eats things harmful to him.
"And your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil," I.i.177-179.
This is the reason that M thinks that the plebs must be stopped in their feverish desire for recognition. They are eating destruction on themselves like a sick man and, if they are left unchecked, they will soon bring down the whole society. The argument of those against change to the status quo is that any change will embolden those who achieve a victory through the change to push for more and more, until all order is lost and chaos results. We see in M's type of argument that he is a person of extreme inflexibility, a man who applies his military insight to political situations with, probably, disastrous results. It might be all right to say in battle that you won't let your enemy come one step closer to you because, if you do, they will take a second and third and then the result will be your downfall. But who is to say that military realities define civic values and argument? Why is the yielding of rights or privileges to one part of the body politic like giving ground to an enemy in battle? S deftly shows us through just a few words how M's harshness, which will make him a hero in battle, simply can't "translate" without more to the political process. Yet, M's military virtues give him so clear a picture of the world that if anyone tends to cloud this picture by acting in a way not consistent with it, immediately this action calls down the most extreme reaction from M.
Fifth, the plebs are absolutely useless, in M's mind.
"He that depends
Upon your favors swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye?," I.i.179-181.
Now we get to the picturesque S images, ones that we can see before our eyes. S sets a meal before us, or many meals really, and we simply have to slow down to see the beauty of what he has prepared. They are so clear that they need little comment. "Fins of lead" sink you. Who would imagine swimming with them? But someone who depends on the plebs swims this way. Even Ian Thorpe woul sink like a rock if he was swimming with fins of lead. Another way of saying this is that those who depend on the plebs bail their ship with cans when gaping holes exist throughout the ship. Then, he shifts the image to another picture of helplessness--attempting to cut down a tree with grass. To use Scriptural images, it is like "vanity and a striving after wind."
Why Does S So Portray M?
We learn early in our study of tragedy that its effectiveness relates to the way that the author almost requires us at first to look sympathetically on the tragic hero. We see him as a child or as a sympathetic person; we are drawn into his orbit; we are "rooting" for him. Then, something devastating happens, where his strength becomes his weakness or he falls from grace in a sad way. We are sad; we bemoan our human condition. We gain wisdom.
How could S, who already had his classic tragedies behind him (though they may not have been so recognized, of course, as he was writing them), seem to violate this basic piece of advice by portraying such an unsympathetic Martius to us in I.i of C? After thinking about this for a while, I think that S knew precisely what he was doing. In fact, rather than being a universally abhorrent person, M is actually a rather attractive person to a certain kind of reader. Let's look at it this way. M is one who took physical culture and training to the nth degree. He was inured to battle from youth; he trained constantly; in the field of battle he kicked ass regularly; he came back and had the same simple, straightforward, no-nonsense analysis of problems as he did on the battlefield. Don't you think he would be an attractive person to a number of people? He sounds like a sort of modern athlete not on steroids, one who has given his all to become better at his sport. Don't we kind of worship those people and secretly, or maybe not so secretly, realize that one of the "down sides" of this kind of training is perhaps a tendency to live a somewhat "criminal" life out in the world? We don't excuse the criminality completely (witness Michael Vick), but we do tend to give wide berth to athletes who have a tough time living in accordance with the requirements of the law.
Thus, I think S's portrait of M as a sort of physical culture extremist, who is a military warrior without equal, is something that can tend not only to explain but also overshadow, in many people's minds, his nasty language and attitudes toward the plebs which we see in I.i. Though we may not admire everything that M says in these words, we tend, secretely, to admire the kind of commitment he has. He has truly "gone for it," while we, in the comforts of our lives and the fickleness of our devotion, have wimped out time after time.
Even though M is a military hero, we are mistaken if we think that he selflessly devotes himself to the cause of Rome. Indeed, there is one cause even more significant than the cause of Rome--it is the cause of himself. The next essay will illustrate this point.
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008