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Chapter 5
The Greatness of Coriolanus. Aufidius


In the atmosphere then of Volumnia's predominance we are to imagine young Marcius growing up from infancy to boyhood, from boyhood to youth, environed by all the most inspiring and most exclusive traditions of an old Roman family of the bluest blood. After the expulsion of the Tarquins, we must suppose that there was no more distinguished gens than his. The tribune Brutus gives the long bead-roll of his ancestry, the glories of which, as has already been shown, are even exaggerated in his statement through Shakespeare's having made a little mistake in regard to Plutarch's account, and having included representatives of later among those of former generations. But Volumnia is not the mother to let him rest on the achievements of his predecessors; he must make them his own by equalling or excelling them. He begins as a boy, and already in his maiden fight his exploits rouse admiration. Plutarch describes the circumstance:
The first time he went to the warres, being but a strippling, was when Tarquine surnamed the prowde . . . dyd come to Rome with all the ayde of the Latines, and many other people of Italie.... In this battell, wherein were many hotte and sharpe encounters of either partie, Martius valliantly fought in the sight of the Dictator; and a Romaine souldier being throwen to the ground even hard by him, Martius straight bestrid him, and slue the enemie with his owne [p. 572] handes that had overthrowen the Romaine. Hereupon, after the battell was wonne, the Dictator dyd not forget so noble an acte, and therefore first of all he crowned Martius with a garland of oken boughs.

This furnishes Cominius with the prologue to his eulogy:

At sixteen years,
When Tarquin made a head for Rome, he fought
Beyond the mark of others: our then dictator,
Whom with all praise I point at, saw him fight,
When with his Amazonian chin he drove
The bristled lips before him: he bestrid
An o‘erpress'd Roman and i‘ the consul's view
Slew three opposers: Tarquin's self he met
And struck him on his knee: in that day's feats,
When he might act the woman in the scene,
He proved the best man i‘ the field, and for his meed
Was brow-bound with the oak.

But it will be noticed that in Shakespeare's version Marcius' prowess is enhanced: not one opponent but three fall before him; he confronts the archenemy himself, and has the best of it. Similarly his derring-do at Corioli is raised to the superhuman. Plutarch's statement, as he feels, makes demands, but it is moderate compared with Shakespeare's.
Martius being in the throng emong the enemies, thrust him selfe into the gates of the cittie, and entred the same emong them that fled, without that any one of them durst at the first turne their face upon him, or els offer to slaye him. But he looking about him and seeing he was entred the cittie with very fewe men to helpe him, and perceyving he was envirouned by his enemies that gathered round about to set apon him: dyd things then as it is written, wonderfull and incredible: . . . By this meanes, Lartius that was gotten out, had some leysure to bring the Romaines with more safetie into the cittie.

Here he is accompanied at least by a few, among whom, it is implied, the valiant Lartius is one, and Lartius having extricated himself, comes back with reinforcements to help him. But in Shakespeare he [p. 573] is from beginning to end without assistance, and his boast, “Alone I did it,” is the literal truth. The first soldier says, discreetly passing over the disobedience of the men:

Following the fliers at the very heels,
With them he enters; who, upon the sudden,
Clapp'd to their gates: he is himself alone
To answer all the city.

And Cominius reports:

Alone he enter'd
The mortal gate of the city, which he painted
With shunless destiny; aidless came off.

But he is not merely, though he is conspicuously, a soldier. He is also a general who once and again gives proof of his strategic skill. Nor do his qualifications stop here. He has the forethought and insight of a statesman, at any rate in matters of foreign and military policy. He has anticipated the attack of the Volsces with which the play begins, as we learn from the remark of the First Senator:

Marcius, ‘tis true that you have lately told us;
The Volsces are in arms.

So after their disaster at Corioli, he estimates the situation aright, when even Cominius is mistaken, and conjectures that the enemy is only waiting an opportunity for renewing the war:

So then the Volsces stand but as at first,
Ready, when time shall prompt them, to make road
Upon's again.

And this, as we presently learn, is quite correct.

Even in political statesmanship, the department in which he is supposed to be specially to seek, he has a sagacity and penetration that show him the centre of the problem. This does not necessarily mean that his solution is the true one; and still less does it mean that he is wise in proclaiming his views when and where he does so: but the views themselves are certainly deep-reaching and acute, and [p. 574] such as would win approval from some of the greatest builders of states, the Richelieus, the Fredericks, the Bismarcks. He is quite right in denying that his invectives against the policy of concession are due to “choler”:

Choler!
Were I as patient as the midnight sleep,
By Jove, ‘twould be my mind!

His objections are in truth no outbreaks of momentary exasperation, though that may have added pungency to their expression, but mature and sober convictions, that have a worth and weight of their own. As we might expect; for Shakespeare derives almost all of them from Plutarch; and Plutarch, who had thought about these things, puts several of his favourite ideas in Coriolanus' mouth, even while condemning Coriolanus' bigotry and harshness; and while, for dramatic fitness, suppressing the qualifications and provisos that he himself thought essential.

To Marcius the root of the matter is to be found in the fact that the Roman Republic is not a democracy but an aristocracy, and in this respect he contrasts it with some of the Greek communities.

Therefore sayed he, they that gave counsell, and persuaded that the corne should be geven out to the common people gratis, as they used to doe in citties of Graece, where the people had more absolute power; dyd but only nourishe their disobedience, which would breake out in the ende, to the utter ruine and overthrowe of the whole state.
Shakespeare's transcription is, but for the interpolated interruption, fairly close:

Coriolanus.
Whoever gave that counsel, to give forth
The corn o‘ the storehouse gratis, as ‘twas used
Sometime in Greece,--

Menenius.
Well, well, no more of that.

Coriolanus.
Though there the people had more absolute
power,
I say, they nourished disobedience, fed
The ruin of the state.

[p. 575] That being so, he regards it as a kind of treason to the constitution to pay court to the plebs, or let it have a share of the government.
He sayed they nourished against them selves, the naughty seede and cockle of insolencie and sedition, which had bene sowed and scattered abroade emongest the people, whom they should have cut of, if they had bene wise, and have prevented their greatnes.

This is only a little more explicit in Shakespeare:

I say again,
In soothing them, we nourish ‘gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough'd for, sow'd, and scatter'd,
By mingling them with us, the honour'd number,
Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that
Which they have given to beggars.

For, and this is one of Shakespeare's additions, if they have any share at all, being the majority they will swamp the votes of the superior order.

You are plebeians,
If they be senators; and they are no less,
When, both your voices blended, the great'st taste
Most palates theirs.

And their magistrate, strong in the support he receives, dictates his ignorant will to the experience and wisdom of the senate.
[They should] not to their owne destruction to have suffered the people, to stablishe a magistrate for them selves, of so great power and authoritie, as that man had, to whom they had graunted it. Who was also to be feared, bicause he obtained what he would, and dyd nothing but what he listed, neither passed for any obedience to the Consuls, but lived in all libertie acknowledging no superiour to commaund him, saving the only heades and authors of their faction, whom he called his magistrates: . . . [The Tribuneshippe] most manifestly is the embasing of the Consulshippe.

This arraignment of the populace and its elect as mischief-makers whenever they try to rule and interfere with competent authority, goes to Shakespeare's [p. 576] heart, and he makes the passage much more nervous and vivid; but the idea is the same.

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 of the monster's, wants not spirit
To say he'll turn your current in a ditch,
And make your channel his.

By Jove himself!
It makes the consuls base.

The result must be division and altercation with all the resulting anarchy.

The state [of the cittie] as it standeth, is not now as it was wont to be, but becommeth dismembred in two factions, which mainteines allwayes civill dissention and discorde betwene us, and will never suffer us againe to be united into one bodie. Here, too, with some variation in the wording Shakespeare keeps close to the sense.

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.

The grand mistake was the distribution of corn, for, as Plutarch puts it very clearly:
They will not thincke it is done in recompense of their service past, sithence they know well enough they have so ofte refused to goe to the warres, when they were commaunded: neither for their mutinies when they went with us, whereby they have rebelled and forsaken their countrie: neither for their accusations which their flatterers have preferred unto them, and they have receyved, and made good against the Senate: but they will rather judge we geve and graunt them this, as abasing our selves, and standing in feare of them, and glad to flatter them every waye.

These weighty arguments, which Coriolanus is quite [p. 577] entitled to call his “reasons,” for reasons they are, are substantially reproduced in Shakespeare:

They know the corn
Was not our recompense, resting well assured
They ne'er did service for't: being press'd to the war,
Even when the navel of the state was touched,
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.

Thus we debase
The nature of our seats and make the rabble
Call our cares fears: which will in time
Break ope the locks o‘ the senate, and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles.

That seems convincing enough. Their refusal of military service shows that the citizens merited no leniency from the state, the charge that the patricians were hoarding stores was universally known to be baseless, so the malcontents can only infer that the senate gave the largesse in fright, and find in this encouragement for their usurpations. And in the meantime, while doubt exists as to the real centre of authority, the effect must be vacillation in the policy of the republic and neglect of the most urgent measures. This was a consideration that came home to Shakespeare, who never forgot the weakness and misery of his own country when it was torn by civil strife, so he calls urgent attention to it at the close. This is the only portion of the speech that is quite original so far as the thought is concerned.

This double worship,
Where one part does disdain with cause, the other [p. 578]
Insult without all reason, where gentry, title, wisdom,
Cannot conclude but by the yea and no
Of general ignorance,--it must omit
Real necessities, and give way the while
To unstable slightness: purpose so barr'd, it follows,
Nothing is done to purpose.

Your dishonour
Mangles true judgment and bereaves the state
Of that integrity which should become't,
Not having the power to do the good it would,
For the ill which doth control't.

All this contains a measure of truth that is valid in all times; from the point of view of the aristocratic republican it is absolutely true. Coriolanus' diagnosis of the case is minutely correct and every one of his prognostics is fulfilled. The plebs does proceed with its encroachments; the power of Rome is strangely weakened as the immediate result of the struggle; the foreign policy is short-sighted and unwise; the pressing need of defence is overlooked. Of course the answer is that his uncompromising suggestions might have led to a worse revolution, and that in the long run a great deal more was gained than lost: but the important point to note is that his views are certainly arguable, that much could be said for them, that at the very least they assert one aspect of the real facts, and are as far as possible from being the mere tirades of a brainless aristocratic swashbuckler. As already pointed out they give just the sort of estimate that some of the wisest statesmen who have ever lived would have formed of the situation. It is quite conceivable that his proposals if carried through with vigour and ruthlessness would have settled things satisfactorily at least for the moment. So besides his pre-eminence in war and generalship and his foresight in foreign affairs, we may claim for Coriolanus not indeed political tact but political grip.

And to these qualifications of physical prowess [p. 579] and intellectual force he adds others of a more distinctively moral description.

Among these the most obvious is his extreme truthfulness. He has no idea of equivocation or even of reticence. Menenius says of him:

His heart's his mouth:
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent.

Nor is his veracity confined to words; he is honest and genuine to the core of his nature and will not stoop to a gesture that belies his feeling:

I will not do't
Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth
And by my body's action teach my mind
A most inherent baseness.

And following on this is his innate loyalty. Nothing revolts him like a breach of that obligation, and in the crises of his career it is the accusation of treason that rouses him to a frenzy. Thus, after his imprudent speech, Sicinius cries:

Has spoken like a traitor, and shall answer
As traitors do.

And Coriolanus bursts out:
Thou wretch, despite o‘erwhelm thee.

It is the same word that scatters his prudent resolutions in the trial scene:

Sicinius.
You are a traitor to the people.

Coriolanus.
How! traitor!

Menenius.
Nay, temperately; your promise.

Coriolanus.
The fires i‘ the lowest hell fold--in the people!
Call me their traitor! Thou injurious tribune!
Within thine eyes sat twenty thousand deaths,
In thy hands clutch'd as many millions, in
Thy lying tongue both numbers, I would say
“Thou liest” unto thee with a voice as free
As I do pray the gods.

[p. 580] And similarly when Aufidius calls him traitor, he repeats the word “Traitor! how now!” in a wrath that is for the moment almost speechless, till it overflows in a torrent of reckless abuse. It is part of the tragic irony of the play that with his ingrained horror of such an offence, he should yet in very truth let himself be hurried into treason against his country. For all his instincts are on the side of faith and troth and obligation. When he wishes to express his hostility to Aufidius he can think of no better comparison than this:

I'll fight with none but thee; for I do hate thee
Worse than a promise-breaker.

One result of this is that he has a simple reverence for all prescriptive ties, which suffuses his stern nature with a certain tinge of kindly humanity. His piety to his mother comes of course from Plutarch; but his tenderness for his wife and delight in his son, lightly but strongly marked, are Shakespearean traits. So is the intimacy with Menenius, which greatly removes the impression of “churlishness” and “solitariness” that Plutarch's portrait conveys; and his self-effacement in obedience to the powers that be and to the word that he has pledged, appears in his willing acceptance of a subordinate rank. The tribunes wonder that

His insolence can brook to be commanded
Under Cominius;

and attribute it to base calculation in keeping with their own natures; but to this view Shakespeare's story gives no support. The real explanation is simpler: it is his former promise and he is constant (I. i. 241).

Even more pleasant is the famous instance of his respect for the claims of hospitality. This episode is obtained from Plutarch, but in several respects it [p. 581] is completely altered. After describing how Coriolanus declined all special reward, the original narrative proceeds:

“Only this grace (sayed he) I crave, and beseeche you to graunt me. Among the Volsces there is an olde friende and hoste of mine, an honest wealthie man and now a prisoner, who living before in great wealthe in his owne countrie, liveth now a poore prisoner in the handes of his enemies: and yet notwithstanding all this his miserie and misfortune, it would do me great pleasure if I could save him from this one daunger: to keepe him from being solde as a slave.” The souldiers hearing Martius wordes, made a marvelous great showte among them.
Compare this with the scene in Shakespeare:

Coriolanus.
The gods begin to mock me. I, that now
Refused most princely gifts, am bound to beg
Of my lord general.

Cominius.
Take't; ‘tis yours. What is ‘t?

Coriolanus.
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‘erwhelmed my pity: I request you
To give my poor host freedom.

Cominius.
O well begg'd!
Were he the butcher of my son, he should
Be free as is the wind. Deliver him, Titus.

Lartius.
Marcius, his name?

Coriolanus.
By Jupiter! forgot.
I am weary; yea, my memory is tired.
Have we no wine here?

The postponement of pity to wrath is a new characteristic detail which shows how these gentler impulses in Coriolanus must yield to his ruling passions. On the other hand his host is transformed from a rich to a poor man, and thus his humanity acquires a wider range, and we see how it can extend beyond his own class if only there is a personal claim on it. Above all there is the new illuminating touch of the lapse of memory. Sometimes this has been taken as betraying the indifference of the aristocrat for an inferior [p. 582] whose name he does not think it worth while to remember. Surely not. Coriolanus is experiencing the collapse that follows his superhuman exertions, the exhaustion of body and mind when one cannot think of the most familiar words: but he rallies his strength for a last effort, and is just able to intercede for his humble guest-friend ere he succumbs.

And this last passage brings before us another of his magnanimous qualities. He has refused most princely gifts. No one can accuse him of covetousness. His patrician bigotry aims at power and leadership, not at material perquisites. After the double battle, won almost entirely by his instrumentality, when Cominius offers him the tenth, he makes the generous answer:

I thank you, general;
But cannot make my heart consent to take
A bribe to pay my sword: I do refuse it.

He deserves the encomium of the consul:

Our spoils he kick'd at,
And look'd upon things precious as they were
The common muck of the world: he covets less
Than misery itself would give; rewards
His deeds with doing them, and is content
To spend the time to end it.

He “rewards his deeds with doing them”, without thought of ulterior profit or of anything beyond the worthy occupation of the moment. This leads to the next point, his cult of honour; and it must be confessed that he conceives it in a very lofty and noble way. His view of it reminds one of Arthur's saying in Tennyson's Idylls:
For the deed's sake my knighthood do the deed,
Not to be noised of.
Honour, of course, is not the highest possible principle. It implies a certain quest for recognition, and in so far has a personal and even selfish aspect. But [p. 583] in the right kind of honour the recognition is sought, in the first place, for real excellences that, in the second place, are determined only by competent judges, in some cases only by the individual's own conscience. In both respects Coriolanus bears examination.

Of course, when there is any pursuit of honour at all, it is almost impossible to exclude some admixture of rivalry and emulation: for the desire of recognition, if only by oneself, carries with it the desire of being recognised as having achieved the very best: and rivalry and emulation must to that extent have an egoistic direction. Coriolanus has these feelings to the full, and often gives them extreme expression in regard to his one possible competitor Aufidius. He calls him “the man of my soul's hate” (I. v. 11); and tells him: “I have ever followed thee with hate” (IV. v. 104). Aufidius has equal animosity against Coriolanus. His correspondent, to give an idea of his rival's unpopularity with his townsmen, writes of

Marcius your old enemy,
Who is of Rome worse hated than of you.

Lartius reports how the Volscian has said,

That of all things upon the earth, he hated
Your person most.

Marcius, hearing he is at Antium, sums up for both:

I wish I had a cause to seek him there,
To oppose his hatred fully.

As Tullus sums up on his side:

We hate alike;
Not Afric owns a serpent I abhor
More than thy fame and envy.

Still, it is precisely in his relations with Aufidius, and in comparison with Aufidius' passions and purposes, that Coriolanus' finer conception of honour becomes apparent. The true warrior values these encounters [p. 584] for themselves, and has a rapture in them second to none that he knows. He exclaims:

Were half to half the world by the ears, and he
Upon my party, I'ld revolt, to make
Only my wars with him: he is a lion
That I am proud to hunt.

This has sometimes been regarded as a hint in advance of Marcius' readiness to desert the national cause. But that seems to be taking au pied de la lettre one of those conversational audacities that much discreeter men than he often permit themselves. It is rather an exaggerated expression of his delight in the contest, and an ironical comment on his later abandonment of it for the sake of revenge. At anyrate, even if the worst interpretation be put on it, it suggests a more respectable motive for desertion than the parallel outburst of Aufidius:

I would I were a Roman; for I cannot,
Being a Volsce, be that I am.

For Coriolanus would change sides in order to confront the severest test, Aufidius would do so in order not to be of the defeated party. There is a meanness and bitterness in Tullus from which his rival is wholly free. All through, Marcius shows the generosity of conscious heroism. He is very handsome in his acknowledgment of Aufidius' merits:

They have a leader,
Tullus Aufidius, that will put you to't.
I sin in envying his nobility,
And were I anything but what I am,
I would wish me only he.

In their trials of valour he takes no advantage, but rather makes a point, first of facing his foe though he himself is wearied and wounded, and, second, of rousing him to put forth all his strength.

The blood I drop is rather physical
Than dangerous to me: to Aufidius thus
I will appear, and fight.

[p. 585] Then, when they meet, he dissembles his hurts, and cries:

Within these three hours, Tullus,
Alone I fought in your Corioli walls,
And made what work I pleased: ‘tis not my blood
Wherein thou seest me mask'd: for thy revenge
Wrench up thy power to the highest.

They are pledged to slay each other or be slain. Tullus has told the senators:

If we and Caius Marcius chance to meet,
‘Tis sworn between us we shall ever strike
Till one can do no more.

And to this he adds boasts of his own, which Coriolanus omits. Nevertheless, though his professions are the loudest, Aufidius makes good neither pledge nor boasts, but lets himself be driven back despite the assistance of his friends. And then, just as he would rather be a successful Roman than a defeated Volsce, his thoughts turn to getting the better of his victor by whatever means; he cannot take his beating in a sportsmanlike way, and thus shows finally how hollow is the honour after which he strives. Whether intentionally or not, Lartius' report gives a true description of his feeling:

He would pawn his fortunes
To hopeless restitution, so he might
Be call'd your vanquisher.

“Be call'd;” as though the vain ascription of superiority were all that he desired. But in truth he has already made the same confession in so many words, with the more damaging admission that he now feels as though he no longer cared by what foul play such ascription is won.

By the elements,
If e'er again I meet him beard to beard,
He's mine, or I am his: mine emulation
Hath not that honour in't it had: for where
I thought to crush him in an equal force, [p. 586]
True sword to sword, I'll potch at him some way
Or wrath or craft may get him.

My valour's poison'd
With only suffering stain by him: for him
Shall fly out of itself: nor sleep, nor sanctuary,
Being naked, sick, nor fane nor Capitol,
The prayers of priests, nor times of sacrifice,
Embarquements all of fury, shall lift up
Their rotten privilege and custom ‘gainst
My hate to Marcius: where I find him, were it
At home, upon my brother's guard, even there,
Against the hospitable canon, would I
Wash my fierce hand in's blood.

On this passage Coleridge comments:
I have such deep faith in Shakespeare's heart-lore, that I take for granted that this is in nature, and not as a mere anomaly; although I cannot in myself discover any germ of possible feeling, which could wax and unfold itself into such a sentiment as this.

It seems strange that Coleridge should say this, for it is proved by not a few examples that baffled emulation may issue in an envy which knows few restraints. Perhaps it was the avowal rather than the temper which struck him as verging on the unnatural or abnormal. Those who deliberately adopt such an attitude do not usually admit it to themselves, still less to their victims, and least of all to a third party. Which may admonish us that Aufidius' threats were not deliberate, but mere frantic outcries wrung from him in rage and mortification. Yet they spring from authentic impulses in his heart, and though they may for a time be hidden by his superficial chivalry, they will spread and thrive if the conditions favour their growth. When they have overrun his nature and choked the wholesome grain, he will not point to them so openly and will name them by other names. But they are the same and differ from what they were only as the thorny thicket differs from its parent seeds. They [p. 587] have always been there and it is well that we should be aware of their presence from the first. Coleridge concludes his criticism: “However I perceive that in this speech is meant to be contained a prevention of the shock at the after-change in Aufidius' character.” In short, it is not to be taken as his definite programme from which he inconsistently deviates when the opportunity is offered at Antium for carrying it out, but as the involuntary presentiment, which the revealing power of anguish awakens in his soul, of the crimes he is capable of committing for his master passion, a presentiment that in the end is realised almost to the letter.

And in the fulfilment, as in the anticipation, he has an eye merely to the results, and seeks only to obtain the first place for himself whether he deserve it or no. When Coriolanus consents to the peace with Rome, Aufidius soliloquises:

I am glad thou hast set thy mercy and thy honour
At difference in thee: out of that I'll work
Myself a former fortune.

It is the adventitious superiority and the judgment by appearances that always appeal to him. Listen to the interchange of confidences between his accomplice and himself:

Third Conspirator.
The people will remain uncertain whilst
‘Twixt you there's difference; but the fall of either
Makes the survivor heir of all.

Aufidius.
I know it:
And my pretext to strike at him admits
A good construction.

He will be heir of all, and his action will admit a good construction; that is enough for him. It only remains to keep another construction from being suggested; and he approves the conspirator's advice:

When he lies along,
After your way his tale pronounced shall bury
His reasons with his body.

[p. 588]

It has sometimes been questioned whether such a man would give his fugitive rival a welcome which at the first and for some time seems so magnanimous, and if he did, whether the magnanimity was sincere. But Aufidius, though he is above all a lover of preeminence at whatever cost and therefore cannot for long stand the ordeal of being surpassed, is not without a soldier's generosity; and moreover, the course which he was moved to adopt (and this is a more important consideration) would be one congenial to his meretricious love of ostentation and display. There is no rôle more soothing to worsted vanity and at the same time more likely to gain it the admiration it prizes, than that of patron to a formerly successful and now unfortunate rival. In the reflected glory, the benefactor seems to acquire the merits of the other in addition to a magnificence all his own. This, we may assume, was in part the motive of Aufidius; as appears from his own words, in which he shows himself well aware of his own generous behaviour:

He came unto my hearth;
Presented to my knife his throat: I took him;
Made him joint-servant with me; gave him way
In all his own desires; nay, let him choose
Out of my files, his projects to accomplish,
My best and freshest men; served his designments
In mine own person; holp to reap the fame
Which he did end all his; and took some pride
To do myself this wrong; till, at the last,
I seem'd his follower, not partner, and
He waged me with his countenance, as if
I had been mercenary.

The hasty flash of generosity, the hope of winning new credit, would soon be extinguished or transmuted by such persistent success, superiority and pride. And Coriolanus' popularity with the troops at the expense of his Volscian colleague, would be bitter to the most high-minded benefactor. It is [p. 589] brought out to us by his question to his lieutenant in the camp near Rome: “Do they still fly to the Roman?” (IV. vii. 1). Evidently the soldiers of Antium flock to the banners of this foreigner rather than to those of their own countrymen. The suggestion for this is furnished by Plutarch, but with Shakespeare a sting is added. In the Life Tullus stays behind as reserve with half the army to guard against any inroad, while Coriolanus acts on the offensive and captures a number of towns. Thereupon,
the other Volsces that were appointed to remaine in garrison for defence of theur countrie, hearing this good newes, would tary no lenger at home, but armed them selves, and ranne to Martius campe, saying they dyd acknowledge no other captaine but him.
It is much less wounding to Aufidius that his men should wish to exchange inaction for the excitement of war, than that he should witness their resort to his rival who is, in name, only his equal in command. Indeed his lieutenant in the play regrets that he did not do precisely what he did do according to Plutarch.

I wish, sir,--
I mean for your particular,--you had not
Join'd in commission with him; but either
Had borne the action of yourself, or else
To him had left it solely.

Thus Shakespeare gives Tullus a stronger motive, and in so far a better policy for his treason. On the other hand he bases it more exclusively on personal envy. For in Plutarch the truce of thirty days which Coriolanus grants Rome is the original occasion of the movement against him, in which other Volscians besides Aufidius share; and this movement culminates only after he has conceded peace on conditions which even Plutarch considers unfair to his employers. But in the play, as we have [p. 590] seen, the truce is omitted, and Tullus has determined on the destruction of his supplanter even at a time when he confidently expects that Rome cannot save herself:

When, Caius, Rome is thine,
Thou art poor'st of all: then shortly art thou mine.

Thus the last shred of public spirit is torn away from his selfish ambition and spite.

In contrast with all this lust for precedence and vainglorious egotism, we cannot but feel that Marcius is striving for the reality of honour and is eager to fulfil the conditions on which honour is due.

And connected with this is another point which we might regard as the natural and inevitable consequence, but which Shakespeare only inferred and did not obtain from Plutarch, who gives no indication of it. This is Marcius' indifference to or rather detestation of all professed praise. His distaste for eulogy does not of course lead him to reject a distinction and acknowledgment like the surname of Coriolanus that he is conscious of having deserved.

On the contrary he prizes it and clings to it, and among the circumstances that overthrow his selfcontrol in the final scene, the fact that Aufidius withholds from him this appellation has a chief place.

Aufidius.
Marcius!

Coriolanus.
Marcius!

Aufidius.
Ay, Marcius, Caius Marcius; dost thou think
I'll grace thee with that robbery, thy stol'n name
Coriolanus in Corioli?

Just in the same way, his aversion from mercantile profit does not lead him to refuse a gift from a friend when he feels that he has earned that friend's approval. So when Cominius bestows on him the charger, and bids the host hail him with his new [p. 591] title, he answers graciously enough if a little awkwardly:

I will go wash;
And when my face is fair, you shall perceive
Whether I blush or no: howbeit I thank you.
I mean to stride your steed, and at all times
To undercrest your good addition
To the fairness of my power.

But except on such semi-official occasions, which he is obliged to recognise, any sort of commendation abashes him and puts him out. Even Lartius' burst of admiration he immediately checks:

Pray now, no more: my mother,
Who has a charter to extol her blood,
When she does praise me, grieves me.

When Cominius persists, he would fain cut him short:

I have some wounds upon me, and they smart
To hear themselves remember'd.

When the host spontaneously breaks out in acclamation, he feels it is over much, and is more irritated than pleased:

May these same instruments, which you profane,
Never sound more! When drums and trumpets shall
I‘ the field prove flatterers, let courts and cities be
Made all of false-faced soothing!
When steel grows soft as the parasite's silk,
Let him be made a coverture for the wars!
No more, I say! For that I have not wash'd
My nose that bled, or foil'd some debile wretch,--
Which, without note, here's many else have done,--
You shout me forth
In acclamations hyperbolical;
As if I loved my little should be dieted
In praises sauced with lies.

So, too, with the welcome of the crowd at his home-coming:

No more of this; it does offend my heart;
Pray now, no more.

[p. 592] Where the formal, and therefore up to a certain point, conventional panegyrics have to be pronounced in the senate, he is honestly ill at ease and would rather go away. To the senator who seeks to stay him, he answers:

Your honour's pardon:
I had rather have my wounds to heal again
Than hear say how I got them.

And he adds, as he actually leaves his seat:

I had rather have one scratch my head i‘ the sun
When the alarum were struck, than idly sit
To hear my nothings monster'd.

He can dispense with the admiration of others, because he seeks “the perfect witness” of his own approval, and abhors any extravagant applause because he measures his actions by the standard of absolute desert. In other words, both his selfrespect and his ideal of attainment are abnormally, one might say morbidly, developed. And this explains both his humility and his self-assertion. Volumnia tells him:

Thou hast affected the fine strains of honour,
To imitate the graces of the gods.

If that is the goal, how far must even the mightiest fall short of it, and how much must he resent the adulation of his prowess as the highest to be attained. On the contrary he “waxes like the sea,” sets himself to advance
From well to better, daily self surpassed;
and every glory he achieves is, as Shakespeare read in Plutarch, less a wage that he has earned than a pledge that he must redeem.
It is daylie seene, that honour and reputation lighting on young men before their time, and before they have no great corage by nature, the desire to winne more, dieth straight in [p. 593] them, which easely happeneth, the same having no deepe roote in them before. Where contrariwise, the first honour that valliant mindes doe come unto, doth quicken up their appetite, hasting them forward as with force of winde, to enterprise things of highe deserving praise. For they esteeme, not to receave reward for service done, but rather take it for a remembraunce and encoragement, to make them doe better in time to come: and be ashamed also to cast their honour at their heeles, not seeking to increase it still by like deserte of worthie valliant dedes. This desire being bred in Martius, he strained still to passe him selfe in manlines: and being desirous to shewe a daylie increase of his valliantnes, his noble service dyd still advaunce his fame.

But, on the other hand, though he, as not having attained, presses forward to the mark of his high calling, he has but to spend a glance on his fellows, and being an honest man he must perceive that his performance quite eclipses theirs. When the citizen asks him what has brought him to stand for the consulship, his repl is from the heart: “Mine own desert” (II. iii. 71). He feels poignantly the indignity of having to ask for what seems to him his due, and this partly explains the reluctance, which Shakespeare invents for him, to face a popular election.

Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.

In bitter self-irony he belies the disinterestedness of his exploits, and libels them as mere contrivances to win favour:

Your voices: for your voices I have fought;
Watch'd for your voices; for your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd; battles thrice six
I have seen and heard of; for your voices have
Done many things, some less, some more.

His fault lies in an opposite direction. His sense of dignity and self-esteem makes him inflexible to [p. 594] any concession that would seem to disparage himself and the truth.

His nature is too noble for the world:
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident,
Or Jove for's power to thunder.

And he is entitled to this consciousness of his worth, for it is not merely individual. It collects in a focus the most valued traits of various social fellowships that are greater and wider than himself. He is-he has been taught to consider himself and to become--the peculiar representative of the great family of the great aristocracy of the great city of Rome. If he transcends the dimensions of ordinary human power and human error, this consideration enables us to see how he has come to do so, and brings him back to our ordinary human sympathies. These are the three concentric orbits in which his universe revolves, the three well-heads that feed the current of his life. They give impetus to his love of honour and volume to his pride.

His civic patriotism he lives to abjure, but at first it is eager and intense. It is this feeling that is affronted by the retreat of his townsmen before Corioli and that boils over in curses and abuse: he is wroth with them because they are “shames of Rome.” The climax to his appeal for volunteers is to ask if any thinks “that his country's dearer than himself” (I. vi. 72): and in the moment of triumph he classes himself unreservedly among all his comrades who have been actuated by his own and the only right motive, love for the patria.

I have done
What you have done; that's what I can: induced
As you have been; that's for my country:
He that hath but effected his good will
Hath overta'en my act.

He cherishes a transcendent idea of the state, and [p. 595] is wounded to the heart that its members fall short of it.

I would they were barbarians--as they are,
Though in Rome litter'd--not Romans--as they are not,
Though calved i‘ the porch o‘ the Capitol.

And he is similarly, but more closely bound up in his own order. The nobles, the patricians, the senate, are to him the core of the commonwealth, the very Rome of Rome. They are, as he says, “the fundamental part of state” (III. i. 151). His first thought on his return from the campaign is to pay his due respects to their dignity:

Ere in my own house I do shade my head,
The good patricians must be visited.

He is scandalised by the insolence of the plebs in revolting against such authority:

What's the matter,
That in these several places of the city
You cry against the noble senate, who,
Under the gods, keep you in awe?

His gorge rises at the thought of a representative of the people imposing his mandate on so august a body.

They choose their magistrate,
And such a one as he, who puts his “shall,”
His popular “shall” against a graver bench
Than ever frown'd in Greece.

He hates any innovation that is likely

To break the heart of generosity
And make bold power look pale.

For to him the power that is vested in the generous, that is, the high-born classes, is a sacred thing.

But the domestic tie is the closest of all. The whole story brings out its compulsive pressure and no particular passages are needed to illustrate it. Yet in some passages we are made to realise with [p. 596] special vividness how it binds and entwines him, as in that exclamation when he sees the deputation of women approaching:

My wife comes foremost; then the honour'd mould
Wherein this trunk was framed, and in her hand
The grandchild to her blood.

It is as son, husband and father that the depths of Coriolanus' nature can be reached. In his greetings to his wife, in his prayers for his boy, we have glimpses of his inward heart; but of course this family feeling is concentrated on his mother who, as it were, sums up his ancestry to him, and who, by her personal qualities and her parental authority, fills his soul with a kind of religious reverence. We have seen how she has fashioned him, how she commands and awes him. When she inclines her head as she appears before him, he already feels that it is incongruous and absurd:

My mother bows:
As if Olympus to a molehill should
In supplication nod.

When she kneels, it is prodigious, incredible; he cannot believe his eyes:

What is this?
Your knees to me? to your corrected son?
Then let the pebbles on the hungry beach
Fillip the stars; then let the mutinous winds
Strike the proud cedars ‘gainst the fiery sun:
Murdering impossibility, to make
What cannot be, slight work.

Not only then is Coriolanus in other respects a singularly noble personality, but even his pride is certainly not devoid of ethical content when it embodies the consciousness of the city republic, the governing estate, the organised family, with all their claims and obligations. These are the constituent elements that have supplied matter for his [p. 597] selfesteem, and all of them are formative, and capable, as we saw, of producing such a lofty, though limited moral character as that of Volumnia. Yet it is precisely to them, or at least to the way in which they are mingled in his pride, that Coriolanus' faults and misfortunes may be traced. [p. 598]

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    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1.1
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1.5
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1.6
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 2.3
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 3.1
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    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 4.7
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 5.3
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