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
Shakespeare's Language in I.i
Bill Long 12/31/07
Shakespeare is Shakespeare because of his language. His sentence inversions, compressed speech, verbalized nouns, vigorous images, memorable turns of phrases--all of these make him an author who must be read carefully and even memorized in order to catch the full flavor of the rich meal he serves. Especially noteworthy in C is S's skillful movement from blank verses to prose; if a speaker uses the former, s/he is a more refined or elegant person. Using the latter is an expression of lower class sentiments. S's words are like cherry tomatoes that explode when you bite into them. The purpose of this essay is to bring you into his language world in I.i of Coriolanus. I will especially focus here on some arresting phrase and insults that he uses.
Let's begin, however, with a word on the "flow" of I.i. It begins with the complaint of the people (plebs) in lines 1-50; then there is the conversation between Menenius and the plebs, in which the fable of the body and its parts is central (lines 51-163). Then, Martius ("M" or "M/C") appears (who will later be named Coriolanus) with his vituperative rancor against the plebs, and he engages in some vicious name-calling to their detriment (lines 164-251). The second half of this sub-section turns to the subject of the Volscian threat, which will move the action for the rest of Act I. Finally, the people renew their complaint against Martius (lines 252-279). It is a neatly constructed scene that both introduces the problematic of the play--the personality of Martius/Coriolanus--as well as the factor that moves the action along--the war with the Volscians, especially in Corioli.
Shakespeare's Unforgettable Language in I.i
S's words are like literary speed bumps that encourage us to slow down as we traverse his pages. The plebs complain about their mistreatment by the patricians. The plebs want to purchase grain at a reasonable price; they accuse the patricians of withholding the grain from them. Here is the complaint:
"But they (the patricians) think we are too dear: the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them," I.i.19-22.
Let's pause on the language. The meaning is that the patricians want to "use" the plebians' poverty as a sign or testimony to how wealthy and well-off the patricians are. Lack of grain, therefore is a "signal" of the people's low position in society, a sort of badge of shame that the plebs don't "measure up" to the fullness of membership in Rome. When plebs are wearing a badge of shame, the patricians can feel better about themselves. But the words S uses make us pause. The "dear" in the phrase "they think we are too dear," can mean either 'precious' or 'expensive.' I lean towards the former. The meaning would then be 'they think we are too precious for them'; i.e., we plebs are valuable for the patricians primarily as an object lesson--of their superiority and our inferiority.
But then it continues. Their leanness is "as an inventory to particularize their abundance." What is an inventory? Well, in the language of 2008, an inventory is a supply on hand that one has for a business. But it can also be a list of those supplies. The original meaning of the term, present in S's day, was a list of articles or goods in possession of a person at his decease or conviction of a crime, sometimes with a statement of the value or nature of each (OED). So, now we see the power of S's language. The leanness of the people is like the major item on the list of a deceased person (and they will soon die if they don't get grain!) that signals or singles out the abundance of the patricians. Our death is your abundance. That is the complaint.
Then, later in the scene, when Menenius tells the story of the stomach and the body, which is meant to be an allegory of the relationship of the patricians to the plebs, he describes the stomach as "cupboarding the viand" (I.i.100). The image is immediately clear. It means "putting into itself, as into a cupboard." This is the first of many instances where S makes a noun into a verb or participle. He is a master of it, and he gives us courage to remake the language in ways that fit our needs too. A few other example of this in I.i are where he uses "side" as a verb to mean "take sides with" (193) or "feebling" to mean "speaking of as feeble" or "depreciating" (195).
A third instance where S uses a visual phrase to slow us down is where Menenius concludes his story of the stomach and body by having the stomach say:
"Though all at once cannot
See what I do deliver out to each,
Yet I can make my audit up, that all
From me do back receive the flour of all,
And leave me but the bran," I.i.142-146.
To "make my audit up" means to "balance the books." The stomach is using the language of accounting to encourage the plebs to see that they, on balance, enjoy the best situation with respect to the patricians that they can.
One way to denigrate your opponent is to ascribe animal language to him. If someone is a "pit bull" or "snake" or "snarling cur," that person may be less than human. So in I.i Shakespeare pours out an abundant supply of this language to highlight the unbridgeable gulf between patrician and pleb. The people say that M/C is a "very dog to the commonalty" (28-29)--i.e., he is utterly savage to them. But both sides can play the game. After Menenius tells the story of the stomach and body, and sees that he is getting nowhere with the plebs, he ends his words with words of foreboding. "Rome and her rats are at the point of battle" (162); there is no doubt in the reader's mind who the "rats" are.
This rancor continues when M/C enters a few lines later. I will devote an entire essay to the way he insults the plebs, but suffice it to say here that he calls them "curs" (168) and "rats" (249). Some have thought it curious that he refers to them as "fragments" in l. 222 or "shreds" in l. 208, but I think this is fully explicable in light of M's earlier characterization of them as people who "sigh'd forth proverbs" (205). That is, the plebs seemed to have mastered not only the art of political persuasion, since they got the patricians to name five tribunes of the people, but also the important linguistic ability of putting their complaints in proverbial or aphoristic statements. A person who speaks aphoristically will speak memorably and powerfully. But, instead of recognizing the true power of a proverb--which is a short, pithy, "incomplete" statement to indicate a truth--M calls these statements, and the people who utter them "fragments." Instead of being words of compressed wisdom, proverbs for M are nothing other than incomplete thoughts. So he throws their "virtue" back in their faces by mischaracterizing a most beautiful literary expression. Surely the two sides are in an irreconcilable conflict.
We need to "meet" M in I.i, however, and the next essay describes his "first appearance."
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008