Ideals of the State in Shakespeare's Coriolanus
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Roman Life: The Ideal of the State in Shakespeare's Coriolanus

From Shakespeare as a Dramatic Thinker by Richard G. Moulton. New York, Macmillan.

The play of Coriolanus is pitched at an early point in the line of historical development: the only ideal here is the ideal of the state, the common life to which all actions must have their reference, while the claims of individuality have just begun to appear as a disturbing force. Thus in relation to this story the antithesis of the outer and inner life becomes the antithesis between pure political principle and that concession to the individual which we call compromise.

On the surface of the story we have contests of parties, patricians and plebeians. But these are not, like the Whig and Tory, Democrat and Republican, of modem times, organisations contending for different plans of reaching a common good. For both patricians and plebeians there is but one ideal, that of service to the state; and to this ideal the patrician party is wholly devoted, as typified by such leaders as Titus Lartius - ready to lean on one crutch and fight the enemy with the other [I.i.246] - or the incomparable Coriolanus. It is true that at one excited point of the conflict a representative of the plebeians - as if with a sudden insight into the thought of future ages - cries out [III.i.199]:
What is the city but the people?
But in the action of the play this comes only as a wild extravagance, and no representation of the motives actually at work. The plebeians as they appear in this drama have no ideal of their own to set up, but are defaulters to the conception of duty recognised by all. They "cannot rule, nor ever will be ruled"; their "affections are a sick man's appetite, who desires most that which would increase his evil." What their scornful opponents say of them harmonises with what their actions show in the story, as we see the mob stealing away at the first word of war, and even those who are equal to fighting the Volscians diverted from valour by the first chance of petty spoil [Compare III.i.40; I.i.255, stage direction]. This single political virtue to which part of the people are untrue is the very point of the famous Fable of the Belly and Members, with which Menenius strikes the key-note of the whole play [I.i, from 92]. The belly and the members are not coordinate limbs of the body; the drift of the parable is that the belly is the state, and the members, so far as they are not serving the belly, are disturbers of the general health of the physical or political body.
Men. Your most grave belly was deliberate,
Not rash like his accusers, and thus answer'd:
'True is it, my incorporate friends,' quoth he,
That I receive the general food at first,
Which you do live upon; and fit it is.
Because I am the store-house and the shop
Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood.
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o' the brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and most inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live: and though that all at once,
You, my good friends,' - this says the belly, mark me, -

First Cit. Ay, sir; well, well.

Men. Though all at once cannot
See what I 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.' What say you to't?

First Cit. It was an answer: how apply you this?

Men. The senators of Rome are this good belly.
And you the mutinous members: for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o' the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves. What do you think,
You, the great toe of this assembly?
First Cit. I the great toe! why the great toe?
Men. For that, being one o' the lowest, basest, poorest,
Of this most wise rebellion, thou go'st foremost.
What then is the position of the plebeian party in the conflict? They have no political ideal to set up; what they put forward is individuality reduced to its lowest terms - the bare right to exist. It is precisely the story of the petty defaulter and the grand minister of France: the defaulter makes his plea, Il faut vivre; to which the chancellor answers loftily, Monsieur, je n'en vois pas la necessite. So the plebeian mob:
They said they were an-hungry; sigh'd forth proverbs,
That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,
That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not
Corn for the rich men only. [I.i.209]
The claims of the individual life are not exalted into an ideal; they have come in as a disturbing force to the common ideal of the state and its service. The exact situation is that, at the opening of the action, the patricians have compromised with this disturbing claim of the individual; they have ordered distributions of corn as gratuities and not for service done; [III.i, from 120] worse than this, they have created tribunes of the people, [I.i.219] a perpetual mouthpiece for popular claims, and thus a disturbing force to the old single ideal of the state has been admitted within the constitution itself. Nothing but conflict can ensue; and at the height of the conflict the speech of Coriolanus - continued amid interruptions from both sides [III.i.91-171] - brings out clearly how this is a conflict between pure political principle, as Rome had understood it, and compromising recognition of popular demands.
O good, but most unwise patricians! why,
You grave but reckless senators, have you thus
Given Hydra here to choose an officer.
That with his peremptory 'shall,' being but
The horn and noise o' the monster's, wants not spirit
To say he'll turn your current in a ditch,
And make your channel his? . . . My soul aches
To know, when two authorities are up.
Neither supreme, how soon confusion
May enter 'twixt the gap of both and take
The one by the other. . . . They know the corn
Was not our recompense, resting well assured
They ne'er did service for't : being pressed to the war,
Even when the navel of the state was touch'd,
They would not thread the gates. This kind of service
Did not deserve corn gratis: being i' the war,
Their mutinies and revolts, wherein they show'd
Most valour, spoke not for them: the accusation
Which they have often made against the senate,
All cause unborn, could never be the motive
Of our so frank donation. Well, what then?
How shall this bisson multitude digest

The senate's courtesy? Let deeds express
What's like to be their words: 'We did request it;
We are the greater poll, and in true fear
They gave us our demands.' Therefore, beseech you, -
You, that will be less fearful than discreet;
That love the fundamental part of state
More than you doubt the change on't; that prefer
A noble life before a long, and wish
To jump a body with a dangerous physic
That's sure of death without it, - at once pluck out
The multitudinous tongue; let them not lick
The sweet which is their poison. ... In a rebellion,
When what's not meet, but what must be, was law,
Then were they chosen : in a better hour.
Let what is meet be said it must be meet.
And throw their power i' the dust.
Around this central idea of principle in conflict with compromise the characters of the drama naturally arrange themselves. Coriolanus himself embodies absolute devotion to principle, the one ideal of service to the state. Panegyric relates prodigies of valour, marvels of self-exposure against odds, which have made Coriolanus the grand hero of the age [E.g. II.ii, from 86]. Yet this is not the fire-eating battle passion of a Hotspur; Coriolanus hates praise, and would rather have his wounds to heal again than hear how he got them [II.ii.73-79].
I have done
As you have done; that's what I can: induced
As you have been ; that's for my country:
He that has but effected his good will
Hath overta'en mine act. [I.ix.15]
Still less can this warrior tolerate reward.
He covets less
Than misery itself would give; rewards
His deeds with doing them, and is content
To spend the time to end it. [II.ii.130]
The deeds are not actuated by personal ambition: Coriolanus has to be pushed forward by the patricians to office, and "would rather be their servant in his own way than sway with them in theirs." [II.i.219] From first to last no personal motive can be detected in Coriolanus: he is actuated solely by the passion for service. Hence the injustice of the common interpretation, which in this drama sees pride and its fall. The mistake is an easy one, for 'proud' is the epithet for Coriolanus that is heard throughout the story, and even in his own mother's mouth.
Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck'dst it from me,
But owe thy pride thyself. [III.ii.129]
Moreover, what we see of outward demeanour in Coriolanus is just the flash of scorn and mocking taunt with which pride expresses itself. Yet, if we force ourselves to do justice to this hero, we must acquit him of the charge of pride. Scorn is the expression of righteous indignation, as well as of personal haughtiness; the honest workman, of the type of Adam Bede, has nothing but scorn for the feckless makeshift throwing down his work the moment the bell rings; and this on a larger scale makes the magnificent warrior in his attitude to the plebeians who claim feed and shirk duty.

The mother of Coriolanus, we shall see, has an ideal different from that of her son; moreover, she is infected with the spirit of compromise around her, and fails to appreciate the pure stand for principle. Apart from this contempt for half service, where is the pride of Coriolanus to be found? It is not personal pride: for this hero of the battlefield cordially and without a moment's hesitation places himself under command of an inferior; his enemies the tribunes note this, and wonder how "his insolence can brook to be commanded under Cominius." [I.i.265] It is not the aristocratic pride that contemns the people as such: this is suggested by an incident in which the people can be seen apart from the plebeian defaulters. [I.ix.79]
Cor. The gods begin to mock me. I, that now
Refused most princely gifts, am bound to beg
Of my lord general.

Com. Take't; 'tis yours. What is't?

Cor. I sometime lay here in Corioli
At a poor man's house; he used me kindly:
He cried to me; I saw him prisoner:
But then Aufidius was within my view,
And wrath o'erwhelm'd my pity: I request you
To give my poor host freedom.
The "noble carelessness" whether the populace love or hate him, the bitter contempt he pours out, are in Coriolanus but the expression of the whole-souled devotion to principle, as against the universal tendency to temporise which he sees around him. [see notes below] His ideal may be the opposite of our modern humanity; but justice forces us to recognise the purest type of a soul in which all personal aims have been merged in the thought of service.
His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for his power to thunder. His heart's his mouth:
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent. [III.i.255]
It is Coriolanus alone who typifies purity of principle: all the other personages in some form or other exhibit the spirit of compromise. The tribunes, as we have seen, simply give expression to the compromising claims of the individual; their office has been created in a moment of panic, by a patrician party who shrink from carrying their political ideal to its logical conclusion. Aufidius up to a certain point keeps step with Coriolanus: each in his respective state is the absolute devotee of public service, and each recognises the perfection of the other. [E.g. I.i.232-40] But at last the honour of Aufidius begins to be obscured.
Mine emulation
Hath not that honour in't it had; for where
I thought to crush him in an equal force,
True sword to sword. Til potch at him some way,
Or wrath or craft may get him. [I.x.12]
Personal rivalry has here come in as a disturbing force to principle; and, although for a while Aufidius's honour flames up to its full brightness when Coriolanus surrenders to him, and he delights to exalt his former rival to the command over himself, [IV.v.142] yet Aufidius proves unequal to the strain, and yields to the base envy which plots against a personality acknowledged to be the great bulwark of the Volscian state. [IV.vii.] Even Volumnia must be referred to the same side of the antithesis. In the earlier part of the play not only does the mother of Coriolanus seem the equal of her heroic son, but she is put forward as the fount from which has flowed his public virtue. But as the crisis manifests itself, and the career and even safety of Coriolanus are at stake, Volumnia begins to draw apart from the pure principle of her son, and speaks the language of compromise, bidding him dissemble, and introduce into Rome itself the arts with which he fights Rome's foes [III.ii, from 41].
If it be honour in our wars to seem
The same you are not, which, for your best ends,
You adopt your policy, how is it less or worse,
That it shall hold companionship in peace
With honour, as in war, since that to both
It stands in like request ? ... It lies you on to speak
To the people ; not by your own instruction.
Nor by the matter which your heart prompts you,
But with such words that are but rooted in
Your tongue, though but bastards and syllables
Of no allowance to your bosom's truth.
Now, this no more dishonours you at all
Than to take in a town with gentle words,
Which else would put you to your fortune and
The hazard of much blood.
I would dissemble with my nature, where
My fortunes and my friends at stake required
I should do so in honour.
The compromising spirit so clearly described underlies Volumnia's action in the final crisis. The sympathies of the modern reader are with her, for she represents the modern ideal of patriotism. But, once the ancient point of view has been caught, it must be admitted that from this standpoint even patriotism is a compromise with principle; it is not pure devotion to the ideal of government, but devotion to that particular government with which the individual has been connected by the accident of birth. Coriolanus, as a servant of the Volscian state, exhibits the same absolute fidelity to the public service at all personal cost which once he had cherished for Rome. Volumnia on her knees before the conqueror appears as a force disturbing faithful service by motives of sentiment and passion.

The action of the play, no less than the character-drawing, is founded on this antithesis of principle and compromise, the state and the individual. The entanglement of the plot lies essentially in the opening situation, and not until the fifth act in the conduct of the hero. In the earlier part all the action serves to display the grandeur of the principal figure; it is not simply service, but magnificent achievement, at the price of infinite self-devotion, with Coriolanus rejecting all reward, and resisting the honours all are thrusting upon him, up to the point where further resistance would be exalting his personal feeling against the public voice. [I.ix.53-60] The patricians insist upon office for their hero: again he resists and prefers to be servant only of the state, once more pushing his resistance to the furthest point to which the individual may oppose the public will. [II.i.218] But just here appears the entanglement which the compromising spirit of the time has admitted into the constitution of Rome; popular claims have won recognition in election to office, and the candidate's gown is the outward symbol of two incompatible things in conflict, the patrician ideal of the state and the temporising courtship of individual plebeians.

It may be urged that Coriolanus plays his part as candidate badly; the tribunes point out "with what contempt he wore the humble weed." But what else could be expected from the situation created against his will for Coriolanus? Principle itself has been arrayed in the garment of compromise.
Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here,
To beg of Hob and Dick, that do appear,
Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to't:
What custom wills, in all things should we do't,
The dust on antique time would lie unswept,
And mountainous error be too highly heap'd
For truth to o'er-peer. Rather than fool it so,
Let the high office and the honour go
To one that would do thus. [II.iii.122]
The latent conflict works itself out to a sharp crisis: Coriolanus, as we have seen, makes one more stand for pure principle, and would sweep away at a stroke all that has allowed popular claims to interfere with the ideal of the state and the public service. It has become a question of brute force: the hero of the patricians is worsted and receives sentence of banishment. At this height of the struggle [III.iii.120] comes the magnificent stroke with which Shakespeare, in a single flash, presents the whole issue, as Coriolanus hurls against the hubbub of Rome's confusion the answering taunt â€"
Not Rome, but Rome in the hands of the tribunes, is thus addressed: the state has committed political suicide, self-surrendered to the forces that disintegrate it, before Coriolanus abandons it. The principle at stake is not patriotism, which roots the individual to the soil where he has grown; dismissed from the state it has so gloriously served, the life of service is free to transfer itself to another. Coriolanus becomes a Volscian, and, with no popular turbulence to interfere, leads the Volscian armies to victory. This may be called revenge, but it is no less service; and the service is as flawless as in the old days.
Cor. Wife, mother, child, I know not. My affairs
Are servanted to others: though I owe
My revenge properly, my remission lies
In Volscian breasts. [V.ii.88, and whole scene.]
A second crisis of the action is made where mother, wife, and child kneel in behalf of Rome before the conqueror. [V.iii] The whole force of kinship and patriotism is concentrated in one motive. But, from the ancient standpoint, kinship and patriotism are an exalted form of individuality: the two sides of the antithesis, the state and the individual, are seen in full conflict. The situation has been created which is so dear to the ancient drama â€" two opposing moral forces meet in the same personage: the tragic sequel is that the personage is crushed. Volumnia does not see this, and speaks of reconciliation. [V.iii.132]
Vol. If it were so that our request did tend
To save the Romans, thereby to destroy
The Volsces whom you serve, you might condemn us,
As poisonous of your honour: no; our suit
Is, that you reconcile them.
But her son sees more clearly, and reaUses the bitter irony of the situation. [V.iii.182]
Cor. (After holding her by the hand, silent) O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But, for your son, â€" believe it, O, believe it,
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come.
Coriolanus understands that a point has been reached where he must make a final choice between principle and compromise: the embodiment of principle chooses compromise, but he knows he is choosing ruin for himself.

There is yet another turning-point before the action of the play is complete. Coriolanus leading the Volscian army away from Rome gives scope for nemesis: the devotee of principle has surrendered to compromise, and the ruin that follows comes as retribution. But all the while there is by the side of the hero another personality, in which there has been a far worse surrender of honour; Aufidius has yielded to personal rivalry and base envy, and, by slander and secret plotting, at last strikes down Coriolanus on his return. [] Instantly, to the spectator of the story, nemesis has given place to pathos; the hero falls a wronged man, and his error is forgotten in the thought of his heroism. Even Aufidius has a pang of compunction:
My rage is gone,
And I am struck with sorrow.
And it is a lord of the Volscians who speaks the fitting epitaph for the supreme representative of old Roman honour:
Mourn you for him: let him be regarded
As the most noble corse that ever herald
Did follow to his urn. []

How to cite this article:
Moulton, Richard G. Shakespeare as a Dramatic Thinker. New York: Macmillan, 1921. Shakespeare Online. 2 Aug. 2011. (date when you accessed the information) < >.

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Coriolanus. From An Illustration of Shakespeare by Branston, 1800.