The Grand Contrast. Shakespeare's Conception of the Situation in Rome
It is difficult to describe with any certainty the reasons for Shakespeare's variations from Plutarch in his treatment of the people. They may, like some of those already discussed, be due to the dramatic requirement of compression. They may be due to the deliberate purpose of exonerating the hero. They may, and this is more likely, have arisen quite naturally and unconsciously from Shakespeare's indifference to questions of constitutional theory and his inability to understand the ideals of an antique self-governing commonwealth controlled by all its free members as a body. In any case the result is a picture of the primitive society, from which some of Plutarch's inconsistencies, but with them some of the most typical traits, have been removed. The grand characteristic which the Tudor Englishman rejects, or all but rejects, is the intuitive political capacity which Plutarch, perhaps in idealising retrospect, attributes to all classes of citizens in the young republic, and which at any rate in after development formed the distinctive genius of the Roman state. He has indeed an inarticulate sense of it that enables him to suggest the general impression. He could not but have a sense of it; for few men have been so [p. 519] penetrated with the greatness of later Rome as he, and he seems to have felt, as the shapers of the tradition and as Plutarch felt, that such a tree must have sprung from a healthy seed. So when we examine what his story involves, we have evidence enough of a general spirit of moderation, accommodation, compromise, that flow from and minister to an efficient practical patriotism; an ingrafted love of the city; and a conviction of the community of interests among high and low alike. Mr. Watkiss Lloyd puts this with great emphasis, and on the whole with great truth.
Rome is preserved from cleaving in the midst by the virtues of the state, the reverence for the political majority which pervades both contending parties. The senate averts the last evil by the timely concession of the tribunitian power first, and then by sacrifice of a favourite champion of their own order, rather than civil war shall break out and all go to ruin in quarrel for the privilege and supremacy of a part. Rather than this they will concede, and trust to temporising, to negociating, to management, to the material influence of their position and the effect of their own merits and achievements, to secure their power or recover it hereafter. Among the people, on the other hand, there is also a restraining sentiment, a religion that holds back from the worst abuses of successful insurrection and excited faction. The proposition to kill Marcius is easily given up. Even the tribunes are capable of being persuaded to forego the extremity of rancour against the enemy of the people and of their authority, when he is fairly in their power, and commute death for banishment; and, the victory achieved, they counsel tranquility, as Menenius, on the other hand, softens down; and all goes smoothly again like a reconciled household, after experience of the miseries of adjusting wrongs by debate and anger.Similarly the interests of the country are supreme when Coriolanus, with his new allies, advances to the attack:
Some impatience of the people against the tribunes is natural, but the tribunes with all their faults, take their humiliation not ignobly, and the nobles never for a moment dream of getting a party triumph by foreign aid. The danger [p. 520] of the country engrosses all, and at last Volumnia presses upon her son the right and the noble, and employs all the influences of domestic and natural affection-but all entirely to the great political and national end,--and is as disregardful of the fortunes or interests of the aristocratical party, which might have hoped to seize the opportunity for recovering lost ground, as she is apparently unaware, unconscious, regardless of what may be the consequences personally to her much loved son.And Mr. Lloyd clinches his plea by his estimate of the catastrophe.
In the concluding scene we appear to see the supremacy of Rome assured . . . In the senate-house of the Volscians is perpetrated the assassination, from the disgrace of which the better spirit of the Romans preserved their city: Aufidius and his fellows with equal envy and ingratitude take the place of the plotting tribunes, and the senators are powerless to control the conspirators and mob of citizens who abet them.They are, in short, in comparison with Rome selfcondemned; and this becomes more manifest if we contrast the finale of the play with the concluding sentences in Plutarch, which Shakespeare leaves unused.
Now Martius being dead, the whole state of the Volsces hartely wished him alive again. For first of all they fell out with the Aeques (who were their friendes and confederates) touching preheminence and place: and this quarrell grew on so farre betwene them, and frayes and murders fell out apon it one with another. After that, the Romaines overcame them in battell, in which Tullus was slaine in the field, and the flower of all their force was put to the sworde: so that they were compelled to accept most shameful conditions of peace, in yelding them selves subject unto the conquerors, and promising to be obedient at their commandement.It is at first sight rather strange that Shakespeare should give no indication that the Volscians, first by condoning Tullus' crime, the breach of friendship from desire for pre-eminence, then by repeating it as a community, prepare the way for their own downfall. Perhaps he felt that no finger-post was necessary, and that all must see how in the long [p. 521] run such a state must inevitably succumb to the greater moral force of Rome. A few slight qualifications would have to be made in Mr. Lloyd's statement of his thesis to render it absolutely correct, but it is true in the main. Nevertheless, true though it be, it makes no account of two very important considerations. One of these is that despite the general appreciation which Shakespeare shows for the attitude of the Roman Civitas, he has no perception of the real issues between the plebeians and the patricians, or of the course which the controversy took, though these matters constitute the chief claim of the citizens of early Rome to the credit they receive in Plutarch's narrative. And the other consideration is, that Shakespeare's general appreciation of the community he describes is perceptible only when we view the play at a distance and in its mass: the impression in detail as we follow it from scene to scene is by no means so favourable to either party. The first point is well brought out by the total omission in the drama of the initial episode in the discussion between the populace and the senate, and between the populace and Marcius. And the omission is all the more noticeable since Plutarch gives it particular prominence as directly leading to the establishment of the tribunate, which the drama, as we shall see, ascribes merely to an insignificant bread riot. Here is what Shakespeare must have read, and what slips--from him without leaving more than a trace, though to modern feeling it is one of the most impressive passages in the whole Life.
Now (Martius) being growen to great credit and authoritie in Rome for his valliantnes, it fortuned there grewe sedition in the cittie, bicause the Senate dyd favour the riche against the people, who dyd complaine of the sore oppression of userers, of whom they borowed money. For those that had litle, were yet spoyled of that litle they had by their creditours, for lack of abilitie to paye the userie: who offered their [p. 522] goodes to be solde, to them that would geve most. And suche as had nothing left, their bodies were layed holde of, and they were made their bonde men, notwithstanding all the wounds and cuttes they shewed, which they had receyved in many battells, fighting for defence of their countrie and common wealth: of the which, the last warre they made, was against the Sabynes, wherein they fought apon the promise the riche men had made them, that from thenceforth they would intreate them more gently, and also upon the worde of Marcus Valerius chief of the Senate, who by authoritie of the counsell, and in the behalfe of the riche, sayed they should performe that they had promised. But after that they had faithfully served in this last battell of all, where they overcame their enemies, seeing they were never a whit the better, nor more gently intreated, and that the Senate would geve no eare to them, but make as though they had forgotten their former promise, and suffered them to be made slaves and bonde men to their creditours, and besides, to be turned out of all that ever they had; they fell then even to flat rebellion and mutinie, and to sturre up daungerous tumultes within the cittie. The Romaines enemies, hearing of this rebellion, dyd straight enter the territories of Rome with a marvelous great power, spoyling and burning all as they came. Whereupon the Senate immediatly made open proclamation by sounde of trumpet, that all those which were of lawfull age to carie weapon, should come and enter their names into the muster masters booke, to goe to the warres: but no man obeyed their commaundement. Whereupon their chief magistrates, and many of the Senate, beganne to be of divers opinions emong them selves. For some thought it was reason, they should somewhat yeld to the poore peoples request, and that they should a little qualifie the severitie of the lawe. Other held hard against that opinion, and that was Martius for one. For he alleaged, that the creditours losing their money they had lent, was not the worst thing that was thereby: but that the lenitie that was favored, was a beginning of disobedience, and that the prowde attempt of the communaltie, was to abolish lawe, and to bring all to confusion. Therefore he sayed; if the Senate were wise, they should betimes prevent, and quenche this ill favored and worse ment beginning. The Senate met many dayes in consultation about it: but in the end they concluded nothing. The poore common people seeing no redresse, gathered them selves one daye together, and one encoraging another, they all forsooke the cittie, and encamped them selves upon a hill, called at this daye the holy hill, alongest the river of Tyber, offering no creature any hurte [p. 523] or violence, or making any shewe of actuall rebellion; saving that they cried as they went up and down, that the riche men had driven them out of the cittie, and that all Italie through they should finde ayer, water and ground to burie them in. Moreover, they sayed, to dwell at Rome was nothing els but to be slaine, or hurte with continuell warres and fighting for defence of the riche mens goodes.Plutarch goes on to tell how in this crisis the Senate adopts a conciliatory attitude, and how after the fable of Menenius, the mutineers are pacified by the concession of five Tribuni plebis, “whose office should be to defend the poore people from violence and oppression.” Then he concludes this part of his recital:
Hereupon the cittie being growen againe to good quiet and unitie, the people immediatly went to the warres, shewing that they had a good will to doe better than ever they dyd, and to be very willing to obey the magistrates in that they would commaund concerning the warres.Now, in this account there is no question which side is on the right and has a claim on our sympathies. The plebs is reduced to distress by fighting for the state and for the aristocratic régime that was set up some twenty years before: its misery is aggravated by harsh and inadequate laws, the redress of which it seeks by a policy of passive resistance; its demands are so equitable that they are approved by a portion of the Senate, and so urgent that they are conceded by the Senate as a whole: but such is the strength of class selfishness, that when the hour of need is past, the patricians violate their explicit promise, and the grievances become more intolerable than before. Even now the plebeians break out in no violent rebellion, and hardly show their discontent in a casual riot. In their worst desperation they merely secede, and in their very secession they are far from stubborn. They admit Menenius' moral that the Senate has an essential function in the state: and as a preliminary to their return, only stipulate for a [p. 524] machinery that will protect them against further oppression. But hardly a line in the description of this movement which the plebeians conducted so moderately and sagaciously to a successful end, has passed into the picture of Shakespeare. He ignores the reasonableness of their cause, the reasonableness of their means, and fails to perceive the essential efficiency and steadiness of their character, though all these things are expressed or implied in Plutarch's narrative. This episode, in which the younger contemporary of Nero favours the people, the elder contemporary of Pym summarily dismisses, and substitutes for it another far less important, in which they appear in no very creditable light, but which had nothing to do with the institution of the Tribunate, and occurred in consequence of the dearth only after the capture of Corioli.
Now when this warre was ended, the flatterers of the people beganne to sturre up sedition againe, without any newe occasion, or just matter offered of complainte. For they dyd grounde this seconde insurrection against the Nobilitie and Patricians, apon the people's miserie and misfortune, that could not but fall out, by reason of the former discorde and sedition, betweene them and the Nobilitie. Bicause the most parte of the errable land within the territorie of Rome, was become heathie and barren for lacke of plowing, for that they had no time nor meane to cause come, to be brought them out of other countries to sowe, by reason of their warres which made the extreme dearth they had emong them. Now those busie pratlers that sought the peoples good will, by suche flattering wordes, perceyving great scarsitie of come to be within the cittie, and though there had bene plenty enough, yet the common people had no money to buye it: they spread abroad false tales and rumours against the Nobilitie, that they in revenge of the people, had practised and procured the extreme dearthe emong them.This circumstance, combined with the still later demand for a distribution of corn, Shakespeare transposes, and makes the surely rather [p. 525] inappropriate cause of the appointment of the tribunes. Inappropriate, that is, to what the logic of the situation requires, and to what the sagacity of the traditional plebs would solicit. They ask for bread and they get a magistrate. But not inappropriate to the unreasoning demands of a frenzied proletariat. Many parallels might be cited from the French revolutions. But this is just an instance of Shakespeare's inability to conceive a popular rising in other terms than the outbreak of a mob. And this leads us to the second point. The general moderation and dignity implied in the attitude of Rome, viewed broadly and comprehensively, almost disappears when we are confronted with the full concrete life of the participants in all its picturesque and incisive details. For consider first a little more closely the treatment of the people. We have seen that in many ways the proceedings which it and its representatives take against Coriolanus are more defensible in Shakespeare than in Plutarch: but, on the other hand, they have less rational grounds for the original insurrection, and are much less clear-sighted and consequent in choosing the means of redress. They are comparatively well-meaning and fair, neither bitter nor narrow-minded, but they are quite inefficient, far from self-reliant, very childish and helpless. They are conspicuously lacking in political aptitude, but they make up for it by a certain soundness of feeling. Plutarch's plebeians go the right way about protecting themselves from unjust laws, but they pursue Coriolanus with rancorous chicane even when his policy has been overturned. Shakespeare's plebeians seek to legislate against a natural calamity, but at the crisis they turn quite justifiably, if a little tardily, on a would-be governor who makes no secret of his ill-will. Taken as separate units, they may be unwashed and puzzle-headed, but they [p. 526] are worthy fellows whom misery has driven desperate, yet whose misery claims compassion, though their desperation makes them meddle in things too high for them. In the opening scene, the First Citizen, even when calling for the death of Marcius, does so merely because he imagines that it is the preliminary to getting cheap food:
The gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge. (I. i. 15.)But even among the maddened and famishing crowd, Marcius is not without his advocate. The Second Citizen admonishes them:
And though these the ringleader discounts on the ground that they were due not to patriotism, but to personal pride and filial affection, his apologist, persisting in his defence, points out that he is not responsible for his inborn tendencies.
Consider you what services he has done for his country?
What he cannot help in his nature, you account a vice in him. (I. i. 42.)All this is candid enough: a benevolent neutral could not say more. These rioters have no thought of libelling their adversary. They deny neither his claims nor his merits; they only assert that these are outweighed by his offences. The Second Citizen proceeds in his plea: You must in no way say he is covetous; and the First rejoins:
If I must not, I need not be barren of accusations; he hath faults, with surplus, to tire in repetition. (I. i. 43.)We have seen how Shakespeare adopts from Plutarch the motive for the plebeians' initial support of Coriolanus at the election, but he makes it a more striking instance of their fairness, for he [p. 527] represents them as quite aware and mindful of the reasons on the other side.
It is all very well for the candidate to turn this off with a flout, but it is the sober truth. That the despised plebeian should see both sides of the case shows in him more sanity of judgment than Coriolanus ever possessed: that he should nevertheless cast his vote for such an applicant shows more generosity as well. And the generosity, if also the simplicity, of the electors is likewise made more pronounced than in Plutarch by their persevering in their course despite the scorn with which Coriolanus treats them; of which Plutarch of course knows nothing. Even that they forgive till the tribunes irritate the wounds and predict more fatal ones from the new weapon that has been put into such ruthless hands.Fourth Citizen.
You have deserved nobly of your country, and you have not deserved nobly.
You have been a scourge to her enemies, you have been a rod to her friends; you have not indeed loved the common people.
All these instances of right feeling and instinctive appreciation of greatness are in Shakespeare's picture, while they are either not at all or in a much less degree in Plutarch's. And these citizens are capable of following good leadership as well as bad. They listen to Menenius, and are “almost persuaded” by his argument, without, as in Plutarch, making their acceptance of it merely provisional. Under Cominius they quit themselves, as he says, “like Romans,” and he gives them the praise:
Did you perceive
He did solicit you in free contempt
When he did need your loves, and do you think
That his contempt shall not be bruising to you,
When he hath power to crush?
[p. 528] Afterwards too he recognises that they are earning their share of the spoil, even as before they had borne themselves stoutly:
Breathe you, my friends: well fought.
This is said to the volunteers who come forward at Marcius' summons, an episode for which there is hardly a hint in Plutarch. There, indeed, we read that he cannot call off the looters from the treasures of Corioli:
March on, my fellows:
Make good this ostentation, and you shall
Divide in all with us.
Whereupon taking those that willingly offered them selves he went out of the cittie:which supplies the sentence,
But this hint, if hint it were, Shakespeare uses anew with far stronger and brighter colouring in the incident of Marcius' stirring appeal to Cominius' men and their enthusiastic response: which is to be found only in the drama:
I, with those that have the spirit, will haste
To help Cominius.
If they are handled in the right way, these citizen soldiers can play their part well. But they need to be rightly handled, they need to have their feelings stirred. They have no rational initiative of their own, and cannot do without inspiration and guidance. [p. 529] For, consider the grounds for their rising. Shakespeare not only completely suppresses the remarkable secession to the Mons Sacer, but barely mentions the social grievances that led to it. The First Citizen says indeed of the patricians:
If any such be here-
As it were sin to doubt--that love this painting
Wherein you see me smear'd: if any fear
Lesser his person than an ill report:
If any think brave death outweighs bad life
And that his country's dearer than himself;
Let him alone, or so many so minded,
Wave thus, to express his disposition,
And follow Marcius.
[They. all shout and wave their swords, take him up in their arms, and cast up their caps.]
But this is a mere passing remark, and no stress is laid on these, the real causes of the discontent, in comparison with the dearth, which for the rest seems to end with the Coriolan campaign, when there is, as Cominius promises, a “common distribution” of the spoils. Now the dearth is represented as a mere disastrous accident, for which no one is responsible, and for which there is no remedy save prayer-or such a foray as presently took place. Menenius expressly says so:
[They] make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily, to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will.
It is alleged, no doubt, by the mutineers that the “storehouses are crammed with grain,” but there is no confirmation of this in the play, and the way in which “hones”t Menenius reports the rumour, and Marcius, who is never less than honest receives it, implies that it is mere tittle tattle and gossip of the chimney corner.
For the dearth,
The gods, not the patricians, made it, and
Your knees to them, not arms, must help.
[p. 530] In short their temper is hardly parodied in the modern skit,Marcius.
What's their seeking?
For corn at their own rates: whereof, they say,
The city is well stored.
Hang ‘em! They say!
They'll sit by the fire, and presume to know
What's done i‘ the Capitol; who's like to rise,
Who thrives and who declines; side factions and give out
Conjectural marriages; making parties strong
And feebling such as stand not in their liking
Below their cobbled shoes. They say there's grain enough!
Who fills the butchers' shops with large blue flies?And if they resemble the ignorant fanatics of later days in the unreasonableness of their complaints, they resemble them too, as we have seen, in the unreasonableness of their remedies. If things were as the play implies what help would lie in constitutional reform? They are no better than the starving Sansculottes who sought to allay their hunger by snatching new morsels of the royal prerogative. It really reads like a scene in Carlyle's Paris of 1790 A.D., and not like any scene in Plutarch's Rome of 494 B.C., when Coriolanus describes the delight of the famine-stricken crowds at getting their representatives:
Moreover, when left to themselves, or when their sleeping manhood is not awakened, these plebeians, otherwise than those of Plutarch, have not even the average of physical courage. They can fight creditably under the competent management of Cominius, or heroically under the stimulus of Marcius' rousing appeal: but if such influences are lacking, they fail. Menenius says of them:
They threw their caps
As they would hang them on the horns o‘ the moon,
Shouting their emulation.
Marcius ironically invites them to the wars by indicating what would be, and turns out to be, provision for their needs:
Though abundantly they lack discretion,
Yet are they passing cowardly.
[p. 531] And the citizens steal away. In truth the low opinion of their mettle seems justified by events. At Corioli the troops under Cominius do well, but those in Marcius' division, perhaps because his treatment does not call out what is best in them, seem to deserve a part at least of his imprecations:
The Volsces have much corn: take these rats thither
To gnaw their garners. Worshipful mutineers,
Your valour puts well forth: pray, follow.
Nor do they appear in a better light in the moment of partial victory, for they at once fall to plunder instead of following it up and helping their fellows. This touch, of course, Shakespeare derived from Plutarch.
All the contagion of the south light on you,
You shames of Rome! You herd of------. Boils and plagues
Plaster you o‘er, that you may be abhorr'd
Further than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese,
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
All hurt behind! backs red, and faces pale
With flight and agued fear!
The most parte of the souldiers beganne incontinently to spoyle, to carie awaye, and to looke up the bootie they had wonne. But Martius was marvelous angry with them, and cried out on them, that it was no time now to looke after spoyle, and to ronne straggling here and there to enriche them selves, whilest the other Consul and their fellowe cittizens peradventure were fighting with their enemies; and howe that leaving the spoyle they should seeke to winde them selves out of daunger and perill. Howbeit, crie, and saye to them what he could, very fewe of them would hearken to him.But Shakespeare is not content with this. He quite without warrant describes the articles as worthless, to emphasise the baseness of the pillagers.
This strain of baseness appears in another way afterwards, when they yell and hoot at their banished [p. 532] enemy, like a pack of curs at a retreating mastiff, or when at his threatened return they eat their words and their deeds.
See here these movers that do prize their hours
At a crack'd drachma! Cushions, leaden spoons,
Irons of a doit, doublets that hangmen would
Bury with those that wore them, these base slaves,
Ere yet the fight be done, pack up.
What then is Shakespeare's opinion of the people as a whole? Despite his sympathy with those of whom it is composed, it is to him a giant not yet in his teens, with formidable physical strength, with crude natural impulses to the good and the bad, kindly-natured and simple-minded, not incapable of fair-dealing and generosity; but rude, blundering, untaught, and therefore subject to spasms of fury, panic, and greed, fit for useful service only when it finds the right leader, but sure to go wrong if abandoned to its own or evil guidance. To the danger of evil guidance, however, it is specially exposed, for it loves flattery and is imposed on by professions of goodwill: so Shakespeare reserves his severest treatment for those who cajole it, the demagogues of the Tribunate. No doubt in his tolerant objective way he concedes even to them a measure of justification. He was bound to do so, else they would have been outside the pale of dramatic sympathy; and also the culpability of Coriolanus would have been obscured. So there is something to be said even for their policy and management. They are quite right in fearing the results of Coriolanus' elevation to the chief place in Rome:First Citizen.
For mine own part,
When I said, banish him, I said ‘twas pity.
And so did I.
And so did I: and, to say the truth, so did very many of us ....
I ever said we were i‘ the wrong when we banished him.
So did we all.
[p. 533] Their admonitions to the electors are such as the organisers of a party are not only entitled but bound to give to a constituency :Sicinius.
On the sudden,
I warrant him consul.
Then our office may
During his power, go sleep.
These forebodings of what is likely to occur are not only thoroughly justifiable but obvious. Then, though their abandonment of the methods of violence and acceptance of a trial are discounted partly by the perils of open force, partly by their confidence in and manipulation of a verdict to their minds, their willingness to substitute the penalty of banishment for the extreme sentence of death, must stand, as we have seen, to the credit, if not of their placability, at least of their moderation and prudence. Moreover, if we could disregard the dangers of war, their “platform,” as we should now call it, seems approved by its success. One cannot but sympathise with the satisfaction of Sicinius at the results of Marcius' expulsion:
Could you not have told him
As you were lesson'd, when he had no power,
But was a petty servant to the state,
He was your enemy, ever spake against
Your liberties and the charters that you bear
I‘ the body of the weal: and now, arriving
A place of potency and sway o‘ the state,
If he should still malignantly remain
Fast foe to the plebeii, your voices might
Be curses to yourselves.
And when the citizens pass with their greetings, the tribune has a right to say to Menenius: [p. 534]
We hear not of him, neither need we fear him:
His remedies are tame i‘ the present peace
And quietness of the people, which before
Were in wild hurry. Here do we make his friends
Blush that the world goes well, who rather had,
Though they themselves did suffer by ‘t, behold
Dissentious numbers pestering streets, than see
Our tradesmen singing in their shops and going
About their functions friendly.
Even Menenius has to give a modified and grudging approval of the new position of things:
This is a happier and more comely time
Than when these fellows ran about the streets,
And when the disastrous news comes in, after the first outburst of incredulous wrath and terrified impatience, the two colleagues bear themselves well enough. There is shrewdness and good sense in Sicinius' words to the citizens:
All's well: and might have been much better, if
He could have temporised.
When this very natural and probable conjecture proves false, they both rise to the occasion, or seek to do so, the cross-grained Sicinius somewhat more effectually than the glib-tongued Brutus, and show a certain dignity and justness of feeling. Their remonstrance with and petition to Menenius, if we grant the patriotism on the one side as well as the other, are not without their cogency:
Go, masters, get you home: be not dismay'd;
These are a side that would be glad to have
This true which they so seem to fear. Go home,
And show no sign of fear.
When Menenius objects that his mission will be futile, Sicinius' reply comes near being noble:
Nay, pray, be patient: if you refuse your aid
In this so never-needed help, yet do not
Upbraid's with our distress.
When Menenius, returning from his fruitless mission, describes Coriolanus in his unapproachable, inexorable power, the tribune's rejoinder is again the true one: [p. 535]
Yet your good will
Must have that thanks from Rome, after the measure
As you intended well.
Yet these various traits so little interfere with the general impression, that perhaps many tolerably careful readers who are familiar with the play, hardly take them into account. In the total effect they both seem to us pitiful busybodies, whose ill-earned influence only leads to disaster; or, as Menenius describes them:Menenius.
He wants nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to throne in.
Yes, mercy, if you report him truly.
The first feature we notice in them is their pride, a vice which they blame in Coriolanus, and with which their own is expressly contrasted. For his is the haughty, unbending self-consciousness that is based on the sense of indwelling force, and has a shrinking disgust for praise. Theirs, on the other hand, revels in popularity, and their power depends entirely on the support which that popularity secures them. As Menenius tells them:
A pair of tribunes that have rack'd for Rome,
To make coals cheap.
You are ambitious for poor knaves' caps and legs.
They are really consequential and overweening rather than proud. And magnifying their importance and their office, they are apt to take too seriously any trifle in which they are concerned, and to become irritated at any mishap to their own convenience. Having no standard but themselves by which to measure the proportion of things, they are fussy over minor points and lose their tempers over petty troubles. This is the point of Menenius' banter.
Your helps are many, or else your actions would grow wondrous single: your abilities are too infant-like for doing much alone.
You wear out a good wholesome forenoon in hearing a cause between an orange-wife and a fosset-seller; and then [p. 536] rejourn the controversy of three pence to a second day of audience. When you are hearing a matter between party and party, if you chanced to be pinched with the colic, you make faces like mummers; set up the bloody flag against all patience; and, in roaring for a chamber-pot, dismiss the controversy bleeding, the more entangled by your hearing: all the peace you make in their cause is, calling both the parties knaves. (II. i. 77.)This is, they are disposed to treat a mole-hill as a mountain, but if they are galled, to break out in indiscriminate and unjustified abuse. Menenius gives it them home in respect of these foibles:
This is the utterance of an enemy; nevertheless it is confirmed by their behaviour, and is moreover a prophecy of their action in regard to Marcius. In the first place their pride has been insulted by his:
You talk of pride: O that you could turn your eyes toward the napes of your necks, and make but an interior survey of your good selves! O that you could!Brutus.
What then, sir? Menenius.
Why, then you should discover a brace of unmeriting, proud, violent, testy magistrates, alias fools, as any in Rome.
A man who gibes at the gods, the moon, and above all the tribunes, is evidently a profane and irreverent fellow who should be got rid of. And perhaps it is anxiety not only for the public good but for their own authority that makes them dread their office may “go sleep,” during his consulship. At any rate the disrespect with which they have been treated is one main motive of their indignation:Our Aediles [p. 537] smote, ourselves resisted! “they exclaim in pardonable horror” (III. i. 319). Then the means they take to ruin Coriolanus, though not without its astuteness, and similar enough to what is practised every day in parliamentary tactics, is altogether base: it is the device of mean, paltry, inferior natures. They speculate on the defect of their enemy's greatness, they reckon on his heroic vehemence and forcefulness to destroy him, and lay plans to betray his nobility to a passion that will embroil him with the people. It is as easy, says Sicinius, to drive him to provocation “as to set dogs on sheep” (II. i. 273). But easy though it is, they are careful to give minute directions to their gang. Sicinius tells them that any condition proposed to him,Sicinius.
Was ever man so proud as is this Marcius?
He has no equal.
When we were chosen tribunes of the people,--
Mark'd you his lip and eyes?
Nay, but his taunts.
Being moved, he will not spare to gird the gods-
Bemock the modest moon.
Then, after engineering the disavowal of the elected candidate, Brutus calculates
Would have gall'd his surly nature,
Which easily endures not article
Tying him to aught; so putting him to rage,
You should have ta'en the advantage of his choler
And pass'd him unelected.
And here are his final instructions for the behaviour of the people at the trial:
If, as his nature is, he fall in rage
With their refusal, both observe and answer
The vantage of his anger.
The suggestion for these proceedings comes, as we saw, from Plutarch; but in this one respect his tribunes are by no means so wily. They contrive a dilemma in which Coriolanus will have either to [p. 538] humble or to compromise himself; but though they would prefer the latter alternative, they do nothing to bring it about. Yet with all their activity in the matter, they are meanly desirous of evading responsibility and saving their own skins.
Put him to choler straight: he hath been used
Ever to conquer, and to have his worth
Of contradiction: being once chafed, he cannot
Be rein'd again to temperance; then he speaks
What's in his heart; and that is there which looks
To break his neck.
And parallel with this is the crowning vulgarity of their triumph:
A fault on us, your tribunes; that we labour'd,
No impediment between, but that you must
Cast your election on him.
Say you chose him
More after our commandment than as guided
By your own true affections, and that your minds,
Pre-occupied with what you rather must do
Than what you should, made you against the grain
To voice him consul: lay the fault on us.
This is perhaps the supreme instance of their headstrong, testy and inconsiderate violence, for, as we shall see, it embitters the wavering Marcius and drives him to alliance with the foe. But the same violence has abundantly appeared before. The rest do all in their power to appease the tumult and procure a hearing for Sicinius, he uses the opportunity to add fuel to the fire and deserves Menenius' rebuke:
Go, see him out at gates, and follow him,
As he hath follow'd you, with all despite;
Give him deserved vexation.
When Brutus proceeds in the same way, Cominius interrupts:
This is the way to kindle, not to quench.
[p. 539] Menenius has to admonish them:
That is the way to lay the city flat;
To bring the roof to the foundation,
And bury all, which yet distinctly ranges,
In heaps and piles of ruin.
Do not cry havoc, where you should but hunt
With modest warrant.
They do yield at last, but clearly the game they were playing in unreflecting impatience was most hazardous for the populace itself. Indeed, even when they have accepted more moderate counsels, the expulsion of Coriolanus seems an act not only of ingratitude but of recklessness. Their low cunning has attained an end, good perhaps in itself for the party they represent, but even for that party of insignificant advantage in view of the wider issues. Volumnia's taunt is very much to the point:
One word more, one word.
This tiger-footed rage, when it shall find
The harm of unscann'd swiftness, will too late
Tie leaden pounds to's heels.
For after all, the pressing need in that period of constant war, as Plutarch and Shakespeare imagine it, was defence of the whole state, the plebs as well as the senate, against the foreign enemy, and the danger of an invasion was one of the ordinary probabilities of the case. Most men who had any sense of proportion would, in the circumstances, pause before they banished the sword and soldiership of Rome. No doubt the tribunes were to be excused for not foreseeing the renegacy of Coriolanus; when it is announced as a fact Menenius can hardly credit it.
Hadst thou foxship
To banish him that struck more blows for Rome
Than thou hast spoken words?
[p. 540] It is less excusable that they should neglect the danger of a new attack from the Volsces, for though Cominius, as we saw, makes a similar error, he does so when Marcius is still on the side of the Romans. Menenius' exclamation, when the invasion actually takes place and when the news of it is first brought to Rome, describes a situation, the possibility or probability of which every public man should have anticipated.
This is unlikely:
He and Aufidius can no more atone
Than violentest contrariety.
This, though of course an understatement, for in point of fact Aufidius did not wait for Marcius' banishment, is at any rate the least that was to be expected. But the tribunes, with a sanguine and criminal shortsightedness that suggests a distinguished pair of British politicians in our own day, refuse to admit as conceivable a fact the likelihood of which the circumstances of the case and recent experience avouch.
Who, hearing of our Marcius' banishment,
Thrusts forth his horns again into the world:
Which were inshell'd when Marcius stood for Rome,
And durst not once peep out.
Besides, the Volscians were not the only jealous neighbours the young republic had to guard herself against. But their reception of the unwelcome tidings is a new instance of the ignoble strain in the tribunes' nature. The first effect they have on Brutus is to enrage him against the informant: “Go see this rumourer whipp'd”; and Sicinius seconds the humane direction, but improves on it that the public [p. 541] may be duly cautioned against telling unpalatable truths: “Go whip him ‘fore the people's eyes.” Menenius may well remonstrate:Brutus.
It cannot be
The Volsces dare break with us.
We have record that very well it can,
And three examples of the like have been
Within my age.
This is not merely an illustration of their habitual touchiness and irritability at whatever thwarts them. Once more we think of the words of the messenger in Antony and Cleopatra when he fears to report the worst: “The nature of bad news infects the teller;” and of Antony's reply: “When it concerns the fool and coward.” There is beyond doubt more than a spice of folly and cowardice in the selfimportant quidnuncs, with their purblind temerity and shifty meanness. We are very glad to hear in the end of Brutus being mishandled by the mob and very sorry that Sicinius goes free: but at least he has had his dose of alarm and mortification, and in the future his influence will be gone; which is well. Yet they are not bad men. They are very like the majority of the citizens of Great and Greater Britain, and no inconsiderable portion of those who govern the Empire and its members. They have a certain amount of principle, shrewdness, and, if the test of misfortune comes, even of proper feeling. They would have made very worthy aldermen of a small municipality. But measured against the greatness of Rome, or even of Coriolanus, they are as gnats to the lion. The picture, then, of the people and its elect is not flattering if we follow it in detail, but a similar examination is hardly more favourable to the nobles. Of course their behaviour is to a certain extent accounted for by the peculiarity of their position. Hitherto, since the expulsion of the kings, the [p. 542] “honoured number” have had it all their own way in the state, and Shakespeare imputes no blame to their management, unless it be their excessive arrogance towards the populace they rule and employ. But now bad times have made that populace seditious, and they have discovered that, rightly or wrongly, they must give it a share of the power. Their pride, their traditions, the consciousness of their faculty for government, pull them one way, the necessities of the case pull them another. A dominant caste is placed in a false position when it is forced to capitulate to assailants for whom it feels an unreasonable contempt and a reasonable mistrust. When we consider the difficulties of the situation and the broad results, the patricians, as we saw, come off respectably enough, and we must give them credit for circumspection, adaptability, and civic cohesion. But in detail their attitude betrays the uncertainty and weakness that cannot but ensue in a man or a body of men when there is a conflict between conviction and expediency, and an attempt to obey them both. Their scorn of the plebeians, followed by the very brief effort for their champion and very prompt acquiescence in his expatriation, makes an unpleasant impression; and this is more noticeable in the drama than in the biography. Plutarch repeatedly states that they disagree among themselves, many of them sympathising with the popular demands and only the younger men favouring the harsh and reactionary views of Coriolanus.1 This distinction has left no trace in the play except in the [p. 543] stage-direction which represents him as departing into exile escorted to the gates by his friends, his relatives, and “the young nobility of Rome” : but otherwise Shakespeare makes no use of it. Coriolanus is mouthpiece for the ideals not of heedless youth but of all the-aristocracy, though most of them may be more politic than he and not so frank. Nevertheless his presuppositions are theirs, and therefore they seem temporisers and polroons beside their outspoken advocate. Indeed, through Menenius, they admit they have been to blame:
Reason with the fellow,
Before you punish him, where he heard this,
Lest you shall chance to whip your information,
And beat the messenger who bids beware
Of what is to be dreaded.
Nor do they act very vigorously when destruction threatens Rome. They do not indeed seek to separate their cause from that of the whole community and make terms with their former friend for their own class. Beyond some naturally bitter gibes at the “clusters” and their leaders, not unaccompanied for the rest by bitter outbursts against themselves, there is no trace of the dissensions with the people which Plutarch describes. But they have no thought of organising any attempt at resistance. True, there are circumstances in Shakespeare that account for this supineness as it is not explained in his authority. It is partly due to the feeling that they are in the wrong, which Shakespeare in a much greater degree than Plutarch attributes to them. As their own words show:
We loved him; but, like beasts
And cowardly nobles, gave way unto your clusters,
Who did hoot him out o‘ the city.
[p. 544] And again:Cominius.
For his best friends, if they
Should say, “Be good to Rome,” they charged him even
As those should do that had deserved his hate,
And therein show'd like enemies.
If he were putting to my house the brand
That should consume it, I have not the face
To say, “Beseech you, cease.”
Partly, too, there has been no time for preparation, for, as we have seen, the invasion is a bolt from the blue, and after it has first struck there is no convenient truce of thirty days before its recurrence. Entreaty, says Sicinius, might help
If he could burn us all into one coal,
We have deserved it.
and it is the opinion of all.
More than the instant army we can make;
Partly, too, the inertness of Rome is a tribute to the greatness of the adversary, which is enhanced beyond the hyperboles of Plutarch, and with which to inspire them the Volscians are irresistible.
But contrition, unpreparedness, despair of success hardly excuse the palsy of incompetence into which this proud aristocracy has now fallen. It does not of course sink so low as in Plutarch. Of the first of the repeated deputations he narrates:
He is their god: he leads them like a thing
Made by some other deity than nature
That shapes men better: and they follow him,
Against us brats, with no less confidence
Than boys pursuing summer butterflies,
Or butchers killing flies.
The ambassadours that were sent, were Martius familliar friendes and acquaintaunce, who looked at the least for a curteous welcome of him, as of their familliar friende and kynesman. Howbeit they founde nothing lesse. For at their comming, they were brought through the campe, to the place where he was set in his chayer of state, with a marvelous and unspeakable majestie, having the chiefest men of the Volsces about him: so he commaunded them to declare openly the cause of their comming. Which they delivered in the most humble and lowly wordes they possiblie could devise, and with all modest countenaunce and behaviour agreeable for the same. When they had done their message; for the injurie they had done him, he aunswered them very hottely and in great choller.[p. 545] This is evidently the foundation of the interviews with Cominius and Menenius respectively, and it is worth while noting the points of difference. In the first place single individuals are substituted for an unspecified number. Just in the same way the final deputation consists of “Virgilia, Volumnia, leading young Marcius, Valeria, and Attendants,” without any of “all the other Romaine Ladies” that accompany them in Plutarch. In the last case it is the members and the friend of Coriolanus' family, in the previous cases it is his sworn comrade Cominius and his idolatrous admirer Menenius who make the appeal: and this at once gives their intercessions more of a personal and less of a public character. One result of this with which we are not now concerned, is that the rigour of Coriolanus' first two answers is considerably heightened; but at present it is more important to observe that the impression of a formal embassy is avoided. Cominius and Menenius strike us less as delegates from the Roman state, than as private Romans who may suppose that their persuasions will have special influence with their friend. There is nothing to indicate that Cominius was official envoy of the republic, and we know that Menenius went without any authorisation, in compliance with the request made by Sicinius and Brutus in the street. Shakespeare's senate is spared the ignominy of the recurring supplications to which Plutarch's senate condescends. If these are not altogether suppressed, the references to them are very faint and vague. And also the suppliants bear themselves more worthily. Menenius is far from employing “the most humble and lowly wordes” that could possibly be devised or “the modest countenaunce and behaviour agreeable for the same.” Cominius indeed tells how at the close of the interview, we may [p. 546] suppose as a last resort, he “kneeled before” Coriolanus, but there was no more loss of dignity in his doing so, consul and general though he had been, than there was afterwards in Volumnia's doing the same; and his words as he repeats them do not show any lack of self-respect. Still the inactivity, the helplessness, the want of nerve in the Roman nobles in the hour of need are somewhat pitiful. It was the time to justify their higher position by higher patriotism, resourcefulness and courage. They do not make the slightest effort to do so. Remorse for their desertion of Coriolanus need not have lamed their energies, since now they would be confronting him not for themselves but for the state. Even their “instant armies” might do something if commanded and inspired by devoted captains. At the worst they could lead their fellow-citizens to an heroic death. One cannot help feeling that if a Coriolanus, or anyone with a tithe of his spirit, had been among them, things would have been very different. But while they retain much of the old caste pride, they have lost much of the old caste efficiency. Thus Shakespeare, when he comes to the concrete, views with some severity both the popular and the senatorial party. They show themselves virulent and acrimonious in their relations with each other, yet inconsequent even in their virulence and acrimony: then, after having respectively enforced and permitted the banishment of their chief defender, they are ready to succumb to him without a blow when, it has well been said, he returns not even as an émigré using foreign aid to restore the privileges of his own order and the old régime, but as a barbarian bringing the national foe to exterminate the state and all its members. And we cannot help asking: Is this an adequate representation of the young republic that was ere long to become [p. 547] the mistress of the world? We must look steadily at those general aspects of the story which we have noticed above, as well as at the doings of the persons and parties amidst which Coriolanus is set, if we would get the total effect of the play. Then it produces something of the feeling which prompted Heine's description of the ancient Romans:
They were not great men, but through their position they were greater than the other children of earth, for they stood on Rome. Immediately they came down from the Seven Hills, they were small. . . .As the Greek is great through the idea of Art, the Hebrew through the idea of one most holy God; so the Romans are great through the idea of their eternal Rome; great, wheresoever they have fought, written or builded in the inspiration of this idea. The greater Rome grew, the more this idea dilated: the individual lost himself in it: the great men who remain eminent are borne up by this idea, and it makes the littleness of the little men more pronounced.2The Idea of Rome! It is the triumph of that which yields the promise and evidence of better things that the final situation contains. The titanic intolerance of Coriolanus after being expelled by fear and hatred from within, has threatened destruction from without, and the threat has been averted. The presumptuous intolerance of the demagogues, after imperilling the state, has been discredited by its results, and their authority is destroyed. The Idea of Rome in the patriotism of Volumnia has led to her self-conquest and the conquest of her son, and is acclaimed by all alike. Thus we have borne in upon us a feeling of the majesty and omnipotence of the Eternal City, and we understand how it not only inspires and informs the units that compose it, but stands out aloft and apart from its faulty representatives as a kind of mortal deity that overrules their doings to its own ends, and against which their cavilling and [p. 548] opposition are vain. What Menenius says to the rioters applies to all dissentients:
This, then, is the background against which are grouped with more or less prominence, as their importance requires, Coriolanus' family, his associates, his rival, round the central figure of the hero himself. [p. 549]
You may as well
Strike at the heaven with your staves as lift them
Against the Roman state, whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs
Of more strong link asunder than can ever
Appear in your impediment.