On Social Media: Coriolanus

On 21 October 2020, Matthew Minicucci and I provided a brief introduction to the live-streamed performance of Coriolanus, produced by The Show Must Go Online and directed by Rob Myles. If you were not able to attend, the production is available free to view on YouTube. What follows is a transcript of our comments, with reference to Carlin A. Barton’s Roman Honor: The Fire in the Bones (University of California Press 2001), Derek Dunne’s “Blushing on Cue: The Forensics of the Blush in Early Modern Drama” (Shakespeare Bulletin 2016), and Philip Brockbank’s edition of of the play from the Arden second series (Bloomsbury 1998). See also this excellent special issue from Early Modern Literary Studies, “Rome And Home: The Cultural Uses Of Rome In Early Modern English Literature.”

2020-10-25 Update: read the kind review of the production by Mobile Theatre.


ET: In the early days of the Roman republic, grain is being withheld to feed soldiers rather than her people. Riot ensues. Attempting to console the people, Senator Menenius allays them with reason while General Caius Martius hurls insults. This conflict between the people and the state goes unresolved, however, as Caius Martius is called away to defend Rome from a Volscian advance. Thus the opening salvo of the play pits need abroad against need at home.

MM: So to whom does Rome belong? In his attempt to take the city of Corioles, General Caius Martius meets his Volscian equal, General Tullus Aufidius, in the field. If Caius Martius loses, Rome physically belongs to the Volscians, mirroring the struggle at home. But it’s a draw, and the question goes unanswered. Aufidius is pulled away by his soldiers at the last moment, and Coriolanus is left to bring this triumph home to Rome.

ET: Interpreted as a glorious success, the patricians (the blue blood, land-owning, ruling class of Rome) attempt to leverage this victory to convert General Caius Martius into Consul Coriolanus. The tension from the grain conflict remains unresolved, and is in fact exacerbated by Coriolanus’s unwillingness to humble himself to the people in order to gain the position. Tribunes take advantage of this moment by stoking the anger of the public to the point that they call for his death. In response, Coriolanus exiles himself. With Aufidius he leads the Volscian armies to the gates of Rome, only stopped by the pleading of his mother. There is a price to be paid in striking a truce.

MM: Elizabeth and I want to think on both sides of some of the questions this play summons: I from the vantage of Republican Rome and she from Jacobean London.

ET: So it’s a duel!

MM: In fact we could say it’s a dual, D-U-A-L, as in the grammatical number of not singular and not plural in languages with inflected morphology like Ancient Greek, with hints of it in Latin. Like eyes and arms, Hamlet to his foil Laertes, two, distinct, real world entities that function as pairs and require one another. We see a lingering ghost of it in our own English plurals: both versus all, either versus any, neither versus none, London versus Rome, patrician versus pleb, Coriolanus versus Aufidius, people versus city.

ET: The first dual is a political one: belly versus head. What should drive decisions in representative government? As contemporaries, we are taken with the notion of reason as deriving from the mind, from the head, from logic. King James VI and I, newly brought down from Scotland to govern an England that didn’t know him, styled himself head of the nation, head of the church, head of the newly-named Britain. Framing the commonweal’s head as monarch was a rhetorical departure for English government, wherein his predecessor Queen Elizabeth I claimed the “heart and stomach of a king, and a king of England, too.”

MM: This focus on stomach would have made perfect sense to the Romans: the belly was the center of all decision-making. Where we reference our head and our heart, they would have appealed to their entrails, their viscera. Reasonable decisions derived from splitting open the bellies of little birds and reading prophecies of their arranged innards—an act called augury, from avis or bird. In fact, when its mythical founders Romulus and Remus disagree on the number of birds they see in the sky, one kills the other; it’s called Rome for a reason.

EE: In his attempt to soothe the hungry people in need of grain, Senator Menenius counsels with the parable of the belly. Once upon a time, the body revolted against the belly for being lazy, the only part that did not contribute actively to its survival and hoarded all the food. The belly replied it is the storehouse and workshop of the body, necessary to equally distribute resources “through the rivers of your blood” to all its parts “whereby they live.” If the Senators of Rome are the belly, and the people its “mutinous members,” then to resist ones leaders is to harm oneself. Such a moral is an argument in favor of oligarchy and against democracy.

MM: But Rome isn’t a monarchy or democracy, it’s a republic—res publico,literally meaning “the stuff of the people.” This play is set just after the expulsion of the last kings in Rome, thus establishing the Roman republic. Comprising that republic are Senators, who are always from patrician families. In addition, there are two consuls, also always from patrician families, who act as magistrates of Rome and are designed to check power of any one individual. Finally there are the crucial Tribunes, a position invented after the first insurrection of the plebians, with the power to gather the people together in assembly to propose legislation. Most importantly, Tribunes held the power of intercessio, which allowed them to speak on behalf of any citizens and resist any action. But who intercedes on behalf of the English to a Scottish king? Who watches the watchers?

ET: Which I think gets at another useful dual: pride and shame. Coriolanus is routinely accused of being prideful, most importantly when he refuses to show his wounds in the marketplace to the people as proof of his sacrifice in their service. His mother and his friends advise him to suck it up and fake it; if only he were a better actor, he would have been consul. It is this problem of equivocation, to believe one thing in your heart—or stomach—but swear to its opposite, that occupies James’s government with laws on the books against it, activates witch trials that travel across the Atlantic to Salem by the end of the century, and motivate critique of the playing profession. It was an actor’s job to pretend and convince others of something they were not.

MM: More problematic than Macbeth in this regard, Coriolanus seems to register neither pride nor shame. In De Republica, Cicero (the chickpea himself) describes Rome as a place where its citizens seek approbation and avoid opprobrium: their “sense of shame with which nature has endowed man is a certain dread of just censures . . . Shame, no less effectively than fear, restrains the citizens. The same applies, indeed, to the love of praise.” The blush was, in itself, penalty enough. The play is obsessed with pride, shame, and the blush telling the difference; the body will out. You might keep track of when pride is expected, and when shame. Does it effectively restrain the right characters at the right time?

ET: But for Jacobean players, blushing on cue was a part of the gig.

MM: For Romans, blushing on cue was the surest sign of untrustworthiness. But in early modern England, the blush signified differently, and activated forensic desires for what was happening inside other people. For Roman slaves (who did all the acting) as much as Shakespearean players, the blush is where the actor maintains control over the body at precisely the point where their characts claims no such control is possible. And maybe that is one reason we don’t like Coriolanus, or find any character relatable for that matter. He won’t blush on cue or otherwise; he is motivated neither by shame nor pride. He is a hero in the most traditional sense in that he offers an untenable moral compass or world-view, and ultimately dies for it despite the usefulness he provides.

ET: As a final dual, what is the people without us? As playgoers, we are put in the position of the plebians to whom Coriolanus flings vitriolic epithets: “curs” whose favor is a valuable as a dead man’s, and whose opinion is easily influenced by “every feeble rumor.” We are by default complicit as passive witnesses to the action, just as we are made the jury to Portia’s sentence of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, or Hal’s army in Henry the Fifth. In fact, some argue that in collaborative projects Shakespeare was brought in as a protest specialist, able to create scenes of public resistance such as that led by Jack Cade in Henry the Sixth or the street scenes in Julius Caesar.

Here it is helpful to know that Classical plays were part of the public curriculum in early modern England: an essential pedagogical tool in which everyone memorized parts in order to practice by rote how to mount a rhetorical defense, to play devil’s advocate. Rather than mounting arguments, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus asks us to think on both sides of the dual, both sides of the question. And there are a number of questions this play can summon that we invite you—

MM: and your bellies—

ET: to consider. Being in the midst of a global pandemic will no doubt activate concerns around food insecurity and the stratification of wealth—while we are all sailing through this crisis together, the comfort of our individual boats differ.

MM: What is the role of advice-giving and -taking? Consider to what extent, for example, Coriolanus solicits and takes advice as compared to Aufidius. While the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother Volumina is complex, it can have new meaning if you consider her as not literally his mother, but rather as an allegorical figure of Rome herself. If his mother is Rome, then who is the father figure in this metaphor?

ET: By extension, who gets to have influence over whom? In whom do we, should we, and why do we give over our power, our sovereignty? No doubt that will resonate for US attendees in the midst of conflict over Supreme Court nominees, as well as a national election wherein a loud minority is manipulating a range of social ills to incite a majority.

MM: Do we need to see the needs at home as necessarily in opposition to the needs abroad, or rather as part of the same body? Quite possibly Coriolanus might suggest that the stuff of the people, like this broadcast, is not constrained by national borders; thinking beyond those duals by which, as Volumnia reminds us, “we are bound together” in this body natural and body politic.

ET: Thanks so much for having us!

MM: We hope you enjoy the show!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.