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
Introduction and Act I Summary
Bill Long 12/29/07
Coriolanus, in all likelihood the last tragedy penned by Shakespeare (ca. 1608), has often been among the least appreciated and studied of all his tragedies. This is because of the unsympathetic nature of its "hero," the Roman warrior Coriolanus ("C"), as well as the seemingly "flat" or "monodimensional" nature of his characterization. C's harshness and pride, mentioned even by the plebians before C makes an appearance in 1.1. arises not simply from a foul temperament; it results from what you might call an "overripe" commitment to honor, toughness, duty and military valor.
Despite much scholarly commentary to the contrary, C is one of my favorite S plays. It explores the notion of honor and discipline, and is especially attentive to the ways that being overly disciplined in your activity actually leads to judgmentalism and, eventually, your own downfall. C is like a warrior against whom Plato warned us in the Republic--the one who is so hardened by his training that he has lost touch with the "softer" side of life. Because "hard" people can't "bend" to accommodate some of the ambiguities of life, they must break. C is the story of how one such man breaks. In this is the tragedy--not so much that we should identify and like the man Coriolanus but that we feel inclined to love the ideal to which he devotes himself but that the ideal itself, when pursued with single-hearted devotion, becomes the sharp floor on which people are shattered.
Coriolanus, the Source and the Background
S's source for the play was largely North's translation of the life of C in Plutarch's Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans. Plutarch was first translated into English in the late 16th century and became a popular source for moralizing biographies. In fact, until the dawn of critical biography in the 20th century, the approach of Plutarch to biography (biography as demonstrating the unfolding of character and the way that life could thus be "improved") reigned supreme. But though S borrows liberally from North's Plutarch, he does so with characteristic originality. He will expand on certain points, such as the unreliability of the plebians (a note that his Elizabethan audience no doubt would appreciate), the intimate relationship between mother Volumnia and son Coriolanus (which isn't in Plutarch), or stories which illustrate not simply military prowess but also occasionally provide a window into character.
The play C only exists in the First Folio ("FF") of 1623; that is, every later copy derives from this source. There is considerable scholarly debate regarding the source that lay behind the Folio play, but that debate is beyond my interest here. What is striking about the text of C are the number of emendations, unclarities and general confusion that attends it. Whether that is because S's or someone else's difficult handwriting lay behind the source for the FF is impossible to determine. It does mean that at several points scholars seem free to suggest alternative readings. I will occasionally mention disputed passages in the following essays.
One apparent paradox greets the reader in the opening scene that has to do with S's overall artistry--and this may be stated as follows: Why does S portray C as an unattractive person from the very outset of the play when C is the tragic hero of the play and his source, Plutarch, gives many stories of C's valiantness before he shows C's harshness? Isn't the purpose of tragedy to try to get the reader to sympathize with the dilemma of the tragic hero and then, when he falls, to weep with him at the sadness of fate and the unpredictability of the human dilemma? By portraying C's vituperativeness, S seems to remove our sympathy from him. Is this a flaw of the play and of S's artistry? Had he tired of writing tragedy after the genius efforts in Macbeth, King Lear, Othello and Hamlet?
I think a partial answer may be gleaned from looking at the accepted chronology of S's plays. The "big" ones were written from about 1601-07. Then he turned to his classical fare, writing Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens in rapid succession. One might argue that each of these plays, successively, demonstrates less and less engagement with character or depth of presentation. Thus, S might have had less "patience" to develop his C with the searching brilliance not only of a Macbeth or Othello but also with that of an Antony. He was, as it were, "burned out" on tragedy.
The remainder of this essay and the next summarizes Act I.
Act I Summary
Act I consists of 10 scenes, of which five are long and five are short. In contrast to most other S plays almost all the scenes of Act I are "public scenes," i.e., where the lead characters are involved in public acts, such as waging war or receiving the adulation of the troops or politicians after a successful battle. Even scene 3, the "private" scene, a conversation largely between Volumnia, C's mother, and Virgilia, C's wife, reflects on private things but cannot help but return to the fate of their husband/son on the battlefield.
The historical setting of the play is the beginning of the 5th century BCE. Rome has just, with C's help, thrown out the last of the kings (a point that S doesn't really want to emphasize, probably for obvious reasons...). But within two decades after that effort the plebians had become discontented with their lot and had pushed for the naming of tribunes. Five of them were named about 490 BCE. But the debate over naming of tribunes provoked dissent and bitterness among the patricians. Some felt that they had to "hold the line." If any sign of weakness was demonstrated, the plebs wouldn't stop until they controlled the fate of the Roman Republic. Others felt that granting tribunes to the people was a good way for the people to "let off steam." Their interests would be represented, some of their complaints would even be heard, and peace would be the result. The division among the patricians forms the background to I.i in our play. But this isn't the only division in the play. Indeed, the near riot in I.i results from the schism between patricians and plebians, the latter of whom is organizing together to try to push for change in I.i.
It is in the context of the plebians lobbying for tribunes that we first hear of and then hear Coriolanus. The people, debating among themselves, call him a "very dog to the commonalty" (I.i.28-29). C is a man, in their judgment, who "pays himself with being proud" (I.i.33-34). But before they can develop that idea much further, they are greeted by a patrician, Menenius Agrippa, who has a good relationship with the plebs despite the fact that he doesn't agree with their positions. He tells a long fable about the stomach and other parts of the body (reminiscent of St. Paul's words about the Body of Christ in I Cor. 12) to try to show the interdependence of the plebs and patricians in Rome. They each need the other. But the plebs are not convinced.
C then enters with a bitterness and bluster that takes the reader aback. He recognizes Menenius' greeting extended to him with a curt response ("Thanks"--I.i.163), but then he launches into a brief tirade against the plebs:
"What's the matter, you dissentious rogues,
that rubbing the poor itch of your opinions
Make yourselves scabs?" (I.1.163-66).
He just doesn't let up on the plebs--which I will illustrate in a few essays--and the scene ends with the information that the Volscians, neighbors to Rome, are up in arms ready to fight the Romans. Now, we are ready for some action--which I will describe in the next essay.
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008