Position of the Play Before the Romances.
Its Political and Artistic Aspects
Coriolanus seems to have been first published in the folio of 1623, and is one of the sixteen plays described as not formerly “entered to other men.” In this dearth of information there has naturally been some debate on the date of its composition, yet the opinions of critics with few exceptions agree as to its general position and tend more and more to limit the period of uncertainty to a very few months. This comparative unanimity is due to the evidence of style, versification, and treatment rather than of reminiscences and allusions. Though a fair number of the latter have been discovered or invented, some of them are vague and doubtful, some inapposite or untenable, hardly any are of value from their inherent likelihood. Of these, one which has been considered to give the terminus a quo in dating the play was pointed out by Malone in the fable of Menenius. Plutarch's account is somewhat bald: “ On a time all the members of mans bodie, dyd rebell against the bellie, complaining of it, that it only remained in the middest of the bodie, without doing any thing, neither [p. 455] dyd beare any labour to the maintenaunce of the rest: whereas all other partes and members dyd labour paynefully, and was very carefull to satisfie the appetites and desiers of the bodie. And so the bellie, all this notwithstanding, laughed at their follie, and sayed: “It is true, I first receyve all meates that norishe mans bodie: but afterwardes I send it againe to the norishement of other partes of the same. Even so (quoth he) O you, my masters, and cittizens of Rome: the reason is a like betwene the Senate, and you. For matters being well digested, and their counsells throughly examined, touching the benefit of the common wealth; the Senatours are cause of the common commoditie that commeth unto every one of you.”” This is meagre compared with Shakespeare's fullblooded and dramatic narrative, and though in any case the chief credit for the transformation would be due to the poet, who certainly contributes most of the picturesque and humorous details and all of the interruptions and rejoinders, it has been thought that he owes something to the expanded version in Camden's Remaines concerning Britaine, which appeared in 1605. “ All the members of the body conspired against the stomacke, as against the swallowing gulfe of all their labors; for whereas the eies beheld, the eares heard, the handes labored, the feete traveled, the tongue spake, and all partes performed their functions, onely the stomacke lay idle and consumed all. Here uppon they ioyntly agreed al to forbeare their labors, and to pine away their lasie and publike enemy. One day passed over, the second followed very tedious, but the third day was so grievous to them all, that they called a common Counsel; the eyes waxed dimme, the feete could not support the bodie, the armes waxed lasie, the tongue faltered, and could not lay open the matter; therefore they all with one accord desired the advise of the Heart. Then Reason layd open before them that hee against whome they had proclaimed warres, was the cause of all this their misery: For he as their common steward, when his allowances were withdrawne of necessitie withdrew theirs fro them, as not receiving that he might allow. Therefore it were a farre better course to supply him, than that the limbs should faint with hunger. So by the perswasion of Reason, the stomacke was served, the limbes comforted, and peace re-established. Even so [p. 456] it fareth with the bodies of Common-weale; for albeit the Princes gather much, yet not so much for themselves, as for others: So that if they want, they cannot supply the want of others; therefore do not repine at Princes heerein, but respect the common good of the whole publike estate.” It has been pointed out,1 in criticism of Malone's suggestion, that in some respects Shakespeare's version agrees with Plutarch's and disagrees with Camden's. Thus in Camden it is the stomach and not the belly that is denounced, the members do not confine themselves to words but proceed to deeds, it is not the belly but Reason from its seat in the heart that sets forth the moral. This is quite true, but no one doubted that Shakespeare got from Plutarch his general scheme; the only question is whether he fitted into it details from another source. It has also been objected that Shakespeare was quite capable of making the additions for himself; and this also is quite true as the other and more vivid additions prove, if it needed to be proved. Nevertheless, when we find Shakespeare's expansions in the play following some of the lines laid down by Camden in the Remaines, occasionally with verbal coincidence, it seems not unlikely that the Remaines were known to him. Thus he does not treat the members like Plutarch in the mass, but like Camden enumerates them and their functions; the stomach in Camden like the belly in Shakespeare is called a gulf, a term that is very appropriate but that would not occur to everyone; the heart where Reason dwells and to which Camden's mutineers appeal for advice, is the counsellor heart in Shakespeare's list.2 Moreover, it has been shown by [p. 457] Mr. Sidney Lee that there were friendly relations between the two men. So it is a conjecture no less probable than pleasing that Shakespeare owed a few hints to the great and patriotic scholar whom Ben Jonson hailed as “most reverend head.” It is clear, however, that if the debt to Camden was more certain than it is, this would only give us the year before which Coriolanus could not have been written, and it would not of itself establish a date shortly after the publication of the Remaines. [p. 458] Such a date has been suggested, but the reference to Camden has been made merely auxiliary to the argument of a connection between the play and the general circumstances of the time. This surmise, for it can hardly be called more, will presently be noticed, and meanwhile it may be said that the internal evidence is all against it. On the other hand, an excessively late date has been proposed for Coriolanus on the ground of its alleged indebtedness to the fourth edition of North, of which it is sometimes maintained that Shakespeare possessed a copy. Till 1612, Volumnia says in her great appeal:
Think now with thy selfe, how much more unfortunatly, then all the women livinge we are come hether;but in the fourth edition this becomes unfortunate, and so Shakespeare has it:
But the employment of the adjectival for the adverbial form is a very insignificant change, and is, besides, suggested by the rhythm. Moreover, such importance as it might have, is neutralised by a counter argument on similar lines, which would go to prove that one of the first two editions was used. In them Coriolanus tells Aufidius:
Think with thyself
How more unfortunate than all living women
Are we come hither.
If I had feared death, I would not have come hither to have put my life in hazard: but prickt forward with spite and desire I have to be revenged of them that thus have banished me, etc.In 1603, this suffers the curtailment, “pricked forward with desire to be revenged, etc.” But Shakespeare says:
[p. 459] This argument is no doubt of the same precarious kind as the other; still in degree it is stronger, for the persistence of spite is much more distinctive than the disappearance of a suffix. In any case this verbal detail is a very narrow foundation to build a theory upon, which there is nothing else to support, except one of those alluring and hazardous guesses that would account for the play in the conditions of the time. This, too, as in the previous case, may be reserved for future discussion. Meanwhile the dating of Coriolanus, subsequently to 1612, is not only opposed to internal evidences of versification and style, but would separate it from Shakespeare's tragedies and introduce it among the romantic plays of his final period. If, however, we turn to the supposed allusions that make for the intermediate date of 1608 or 1609, we do not find them much more satisfactory. Thus it has been argued that the severe cold in January, 1608, when even the Thames was frozen over, furnished the simile:
I had fear'd death, of all men i‘ the world
I would have ‘voided thee, but in mere spite,
To be full quit of those my banishers,
Stand I before thee here.
But surely there must have been many opportunities for such things to present themselves to Shakespeare's observation or imagination, by the time that he was forty-four years old. Again Malone found a reference to James's proclamation in favour of breeding silk-worms and the importation of young mulberry trees during 1609, in the expression:
You are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice.
But even in Venus and Adonis Shakespeare had told how, in admiration of the youth's beauty, the birds
Now humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling.
Would bring him mulberries and ripe-red cherries; （1103.)[p. 460] and in Midsummer-Night's Dream, Titania orders the fairies to feed Bottom
A third of these surmises is even more gratuitous. Chalmers calls attention to the repeated references in the play to famine and dearth, and supposes they were suggested by the scarcity which prevailed in England during the years 1608 and 1609. But the lack of corn among the people is one of the presuppositions of the story, to which Plutarch also recurs. There is only one allusion that has strength to stand by itself, though even it is doubtful; and it belongs to a different class, for, if authentic, it is suggested not to Shakespeare by contemporary events, but to a contemporary writer by Shakespeare. Malone noticed the coincidence between the line, “He lurch'd all swords of the garland” (II. ii. 105), and a remark in Epicoene. “You have lurched your friends of the better half of the garland” (v. i.); and considered that here, as not infrequently, Ben Jonson was girding at Shakespeare. Afterwards he withdrew his conjecture because he found a similar expression in one of Nashe's pamphlets, and concluded that it was proverbial; but it has been pointed out in answer to this 3 that Nashe has only the lurch and not the supplementary words, of the garland, while it is to the phrase as a whole, not to the component parts, that the individual character belongs. This, if not absolutely beyond challenge, is at least very cogent, and probably few will deny that Coriolanus must have been in existence before Epicoene was acted in January 1609, old style. How long before? And did it succeed or precede Antony and Cleopatra? [p. 461] Attempts have been made to find in that play immediate anticipations of the mental attitude and of particular thoughts that appear in Coriolanus. Thus Octavia's dilemma in her petition has been quoted:
With purple grapes, green figs, and mulberries.
And this has been taken as a link with Volumnia's perplexity:
A more unhappy lady,
If this division chance, ne'er stood between,
Praying for both parts:
The good gods will mock me presently,
When I shall pray, “O, bless my lord and husband!”
Undo that prayer, by crying out as loud,
“O, bless my brother!” Husband win, win brother,
Prays, and destroys the prayer; no midway
‘Twixt these extremes at all.
But then the same sort of conflict puzzles the Lady Blanch in King John:
And to poor we
Thine enmity's most capital: thou barr'st us
Our prayers to the gods, which is a comfort
That all but we enjoy: for how can we,
Alas, how can we for our country pray,
Whereto we are bound, together with thy victory,
Whereto we are bound? Alack, or we must lose
The country, our dear nurse, or else thy person,
Our comfort in the country. We must find
An evident calamity, though we had
Our wish, which side should win.
Could not this style of argument be used to prove that Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra immediately followed King John? [p. 462] Or again the contemptuous descriptions of the people by Octavius, Cleopatra and Antony himself have been treated as preludes to the more savage vituperations in Coriolanus. But Julius Caesar gives an equally unflattering account of mob law, and some of Casca's gibes would quite fit the mouth of Coriolanus or Menenius. On these lines we should be as much entitled to make this play the direct successor of the first as of the second of its companions, a theory that would meet with scant acceptance. The truth is that whenever Shakespeare deals with the populace, he finds some one to disparage it in the mass. Still there is little doubt that Coriolanus does occupy the position these arguments would assign to it, but the real evidence is of another kind. To begin with there is what Coleridge describes in Antony and Cleopatra as the “happy valiancy of style,” which first becomes marked in that play, which is continued in this, and which henceforth in a greater or less degree characterises all Shakespeare's work. Then even more conclusive are the peculiarities of metre, and especially the increase in the total of weak and light endings together with the decrease of the light by themselves. Finally, there is the conduct of the story to a conclusion that proposes no enigma and inflicts no pang, but even more than in the case of Macbeth satisfies, and even more than in the case of Antony and Cleopatra uplifts the heart, without troublesome questionings on the part of the reader. “As we close the book,” says Mr. Bradley, “we feel more as we do at the close of Cymbeline than as we do at the close of Othello”. We cannot be far wrong in placing it in the last months of 608 or the first months of 609. Attempts have been made to find suggestions of a personal kind for Shakespeare's choice of the subject. The extreme ease with which they have [p. 463] been discovered for the various dates proposed may well teach us caution. Thus Professor Brandl who assigns it an earlier position than most critics and discusses it before Lear sees in it the outcome of events that occurred in the first years of the century.
Which is the side that I must go withal?
I am with both: each army hath a hand;
And in their rage, I having hold of both,
They whirl asunder and dismember me.
Husband, I cannot pray that thou mayst win;
Uncle, I needs must pray that thou mayst lose;
Father, I may not wish the fortune thine;
Grandam, I will not wish thy wishes thrive:
Whoever wins, on that side shall I lose
Assured loss before the match be play'd.
The material for Coriolanus was perhaps put in Shakespeare's way by a contemporary tragedy which keenly excited the Londoners, and especially the courtly and literary circles, about 1603 and 1604. Sir Walter Raleigh had been one of the most splendid gentlemen at the court of Elizabeth, was a friend of Spenser and Ben Jonson, had himself tried his hand at lyric poetry, and in addition as adventurous officer had discovered Virginia and annexed Guiana. He was the most highly considered but also the best hated man in England: for his behaviour was domineering, in the consciousness of his innate efficiency he showed without disguise his contempt for the multitude, the farm of wine-licenses granted him by the Queen had made him objectionable to the pothouse politicians, and his opposition in parliament to a bill for cheapening corn had recently drawn on him new unpopularity. He, therefore, shortly after the accession of James succumbed to the charge, that he, the scarred veteran of the Spanish wars, the zealous advocate of new expeditions against Spain, had involved himself in treasonous transactions with this, the hereditary foe of England. In November 1603 the man who had won treasure-fleets and vast regions for his country, almost fell a victim to popular rage as he was being transferred from one prison to another.4 A month later he was condemned to death on wretched evidence: he was not yet executed however but locked up in the Tower, so that men were in suspense as to his fate for many years. To depict his character his biographer Edwards involuntarily hit on some lines of Shakespeare's Coriolanus. The figure of the Roman, who had deserved well but incurred hatred, of the patriot whom his aristocratic convictions drive to the enemy, was already familiar to the dramatist from North's translation of Plutarch; and Camden's Remaines concerning Britaine, which had newly appeared in 1605 contributed a more detailed version of the fable of the belly and the members, first set forth by Livy. From this mood and about this time Coriolanus, for the dating of which only the very relative evidence of metre and style is available, may most probably have proceeded.5 [p. 464] In this passage, Professor Brandl has brought out some of the considerations that would lend the case of Raleigh a peculiar interest in the eyes of men like Shakespeare, and has made the most of the parallels between his story and the story of Coriolanus. 6 It is necessary of course to look away from almost all the points except those enumerated, for when we remember Sir Walter's robust adulation of Elizabeth, and tortuous policy at court, it is difficult to pair him with the Roman who “would not flatter Neptune for his trident,” and of whom it was said, “his heart's his mouth.” Still the analogies in career and character are there, so far as they go; but they are insufficient to prove that the actual suggested the poetical tragedy, still less to override the internal evidence, relative though that be; for they could linger and germinate in the poet's mind to bring forth fruit long afterwards: as for example the treason and execution of Biron in 1602 inspired Chapman to write The Conspiracie and The Tragedie which were acted in 1608. Again, in connection with what seems to be the actual date, an attempt has been made to explain one prominent characteristic of the play from a domestic experience through which Shakespeare had just passed. His mother died in September 1608, and her memory is supposed to be enshrined in the picture of Volumnia. As Dr. Brandes puts it:7
The death of a mother is always a mournfully irreparable loss, often the saddest a man can sustain. We can realise how deeply it would go to Shakespeare's heart when we [p. 465] remember the capacity for profound and passionate feeling with which nature had blessed and cursed him. We know little of his mother; but judging from that affinity which generally exists between famous sons and their mothers, we may suppose she was no ordinary woman. Mary Arden, who belonged to an old and honourable family, which traced its descent (perhaps justly) back to the days of Edward the Confessor, represented the haughty patrician element in the Shakespeare family. Her ancestors had borne their coat of arms for centuries, and the son would be proud of his mother for this among other reasons, just as the mother would be proud of her son. In the midst of the prevailing gloom and bitterness of his spirits,8 this fresh blow fell upon him, and out of his weariness of life as his surroundings and experiences showed it to him, recalled this one mainstay to him-his mother. He remembered all she had been to him for fortyfour years, and the thoughts of the man and the dreams of the poet were thus led to dwell upon the significance in a man's life of this unique form, comparable to no other-his mother. Thus it was that, although his genius must follow the path it had entered upon and pursue it to the end, we find, in the midst of all that was low and base in his next work, this one sublime mother-form, the proudest and most highly-wrought that he has drawn, Volumnia.Thus Shakespeare, in a mood of pessimism, and in the desolation of bereavement, turned to a subject that he treated on its seamy side, but redeemed from its meanness by exalting the idea of the mother in obedience to his own pious regrets. Even, however, if we grant the assumptions in regard to Mary Arden's pedigree and her aristocratic family pride, and the unique support she gave to her son, does this statement give a true account of the impression the play produces? Is it the fact that, apart from the figure of Volumnia, the story is “low and base,” and is it not rather the record of grand though perverted heroism? Is it the fact that Volumnia stands [p. 466] out as a study of motherhood, such as the first heartache at a mother's death would inspire? The most sympathetic traits in her portrait are drawn by Plutarch. Shakespeare's many touches supply the harshness, the ambition, the prejudice. If these additions are due to Shakespeare's wistful broodings on his own mother, a woman with a son of genius may well hope that he will never brood on her. Then, especially by those who advocate a later date for the play, a political motive for it has been discovered. Mr. Whitelaw, who would assign it to 1610, when James's first parliament was dissolved, conjectures that “in Coriolanus Shakespeare intended a two-fold warning, to the pride of James, and to the gathering resistance of the Commons.”9 Mr. Garnett,10 on the other hand, maintains that “Coriolanus, to our apprehension, manifestly reflects the feelings of a conservative observer of the contests between James and his refractory parliaments,” and placing it after the Tempest, would connect it with the dissolution of the Addled Parliament in 1614. But since the friction between King and Commons, though it intensified with the years, was seldom entirely absent, this theory adapts itself pretty well to any date, and Dr. Brandes, while refusing to trace the spirit of the play to any “momentary political situation,” adopts the general principle as quite compatible with the state of affairs in 1608. He puts the case as follows:
Was it Shakespeare's intention to allude to the strained relations existing between James and his parliament? Does Coriolanus represent an aristocratically-minded poet's sideglance at the political situation in England? I fancy it does. Heaven knows there was little resemblance between the amazingly craven and vacillating James and the haughty, [p. 467] resolute hero of Roman tradition, who fought a whole garrison single-handed. Nor was it personal resemblance which suggested the comparison, but a general conception of the situation as between a beneficent power on the one hand, and the people on the other. He regarded the latter wholly as mob, and looked upon their struggle for freedom as mutiny, pure and simple.This theory, however, in all its varieties seems to attribute too definite an influence to the controversies of the hour, and to turn Shakespeare too much into the politician prepense. Certainly Coriolanus is not meant to be a constitutional manifesto; probably it does not, even at unawares, idealise a contemporary dispute; it is hardly likely that Shakespeare so much as intrudes conscious allusions to the questions then at issue. And this on account not only of the particular opinions attributed to him, but, much more, of his usual practice in poetic creation. Do any of these alleged incentives in the circumstances, public or private, of his life go far to explain his attraction to a story and selection of it, its power over him and his power over it? Doubtless in realising the subject that took his fancy, he would draw on the stores of his experience as well as his imagination. In dealing with the tragedy of a proud and unpopular hero of antiquity, very possibly he would be helped by what he knew of the tragedy of a proud and unpopular worthy of his own time. In dealing with the influence of a mother and the reverence of a son, very probably the memories of his own home would hoverbefore his mind. In dealing with the plebeians and patricians of Rome, he would inevitably fill in the details from his knowledge of the burgesses and nobles of England, and he might get hints for his picture of the by-gone struggle, from the struggle that he himself could watch. But it is the story of Coriolanus that comes first and that absorbs all such material into itself, just as the seed in its growth assimilates nourishment from the earth and sunshine [p. 468] and rain. These things are not the seed. The experiences are utilised in the interest of the play; the play is not utilised in the interest of the experiences. It is particularly important to emphasise this in view of the circumstance that Coriolanus has often been regarded as a drama of principles rather than of character, even by those who refrain from reading into it any particular reference. But Shakespeare's supreme preoccupation is always with his fable, which explains, and is explained by, human nature in action. He does not set out to commend or censure or examine a precept or a theory or a doctrine. Of course the life of men is concerned with such matters, and he could not exclude them without being untrue to his aim. Thus, to take the most obvious example, it is impossible to treat of character with a total omission of ethical considerations, since character is connected with conduct, and conduct has its ethical aspect; and, indeed, success in getting to the truth of character depends very much on the keenness of the moral insight. It is very largely Shakespeare's moral insight that gives him his unrivalled position among the interpreters of men; and we may, if we like, derive any number of improving lessons from his works. But he is an artist, not a moralist; and he wrote for the story, not for the moral. Just in the same way an architect seeks to design a beautiful or convenient building, not to illustrate mechanical laws. Nevertheless, in proportion as these are neglected, the building will not rise or will not last; and if they are obeyed, however unconsciously, the illustration of them will be provided. In Charlotte Brontë‘s Shirley, when Caroline gives Robert Moore this very play to read, he asks, “Is it to operate like a sermon?” And she answers: “It is to stir you; to give you new sensations. It is to make you feel life strongly”-(that is the main thing, and then [p. 469] comes the indirect consequence)-“not only your virtues but your vicious perverse points.” Now just as in all Shakespeare's dramas, though or rather because they are personal, the ethical considerations cannot be excluded; so in a drama that moves through a constitutional crisis, though or rather because it, too, is personal, political considerations cannot be excluded. They are there, though it is on the second plane. And just as his general delineation of character would be unsatisfactory if his moral insight were at fault, so his delineation of the characters that play their part in this history would be unsatisfactory if his political insight were at fault. He is not necessarily bound to appreciate correctly the conditions that prevailed in reality or by report: that is required only for historical accuracy or fidelity to tradition. But he is bound to appreciate the conditions as he imagines them, and not to violate in his treatment of them the principles that underlie all political society. Yet this he has been accused of doing. He has been charged with a hatred of the people that is incompatible even with a benevolent tyranny, and with a glorification of the protagonist's ruthless disregard of popular claims. Thus Dr. Brandes, in the greater part of a chapter, dwells upon Shakespeare's “physical aversion for the atmosphere of the people,” and “the absence of any humane consideration for the oppressed condition of the poor”; and, on the other hand, upon his “hero-worship” for Marcius, whom he glorifies as a demigod. Though admitting the dramatist's detestation of the crime of treason, this critic sees no implicit censure of what preceded it. To him Shakespeare's impression of life as conveyed in the play is that “there must of necessity be formed round the solitary great ones of the earth, a conspiracy of envy and hatred raised by the small and mean.” [p. 470] It is no doubt true that this and many other Shakespearian plays abound in hostile or scornful vituperation of the people; and not only of their moral and mental demerits; their sweaty clothes, their rank breaths, their grossness and uncleanness are held up to derision and execration. But are we to attribute these sentiments to Shakespeare? Such utterances are ex hypothesi dramatic, and show us merely the attitude of the speakers, who are without exception men of the opposite camp or unfriendly critics. Only once does Shakespeare give his personal, or rather, impersonal estimate. It is in the Induction to the second part of Henry IV., when Rumour, whose words, in this respect at least, cannot be influenced by individual bias, speaks of
That is, the populace as a whole is stupid, disunited, fickle. And this is how, apart from the exaggerations of their opponents, Shakespeare invariably treats crowds of citizens, whether in the ancient or modern world. He therefore with perfect consistency regards them as quite unfit for rule, and when they have it or aspire to it, they cover themselves with ridicule or involve themselves in crime. But this is by no means to hate them. On the contrary he is kindly enough to individual representatives, and he certainly believes in the sacred obligation of governing them for their good. Where then are the governors to be found? Shakespeare answers: in the royal and aristocratic classes. It is the privilege and duty of those born in high position to conduct the whole community aright. Shakespeare can do justice to the Venetian oligarchy and the English monarchy. But while to him the rule of the populace is impossible, he also recognises that nobles and kings may be unequal to their task. The majority of his [p. 471] kings indeed are more or less failures; his noblesand in this play, the patricians-often cut a rather sorry figure. In short, popular government must be wrong, but royal or aristocratic government need not be right. And this was exactly what historical experience at the time seemed to prove. The Jacqueries, the Peasants' Wars, the Wat Tyler or Jack Cade Insurrections, were not calculated to commend democratic experiments; and, on the other hand, the authority of king and nobles had often, though not always, secured the welfare of the state. Now, holding these opinions, would Shakespeare be likely to glorify Coriolanus? Of course, in a sense he does. There is a Lues Boswelliana to which the dramatist like the biographer should and must succumb. He must have a fellow-feeling for his hero and understand from within all that can be urged on his behalf. So Shakespeare glorifies Coriolanus in the same way that he glorifies Hamlet or Brutus or Antony. That is, he appreciates their greatness and explains their offences so that we sympathise with them and do not regard them as unaccountable aberrations; but offences they remain and they are not extenuated. On the contrary they receive all due prominence and are shown to bring about the tragic catastrophe. This is even more the case with Coriolanus than with some of the others. So much stress is laid on his violence and asperities that to many he is antipathetic, and the antipathy is reflected on the cause that he champions. Gervinus says very truly:
the blunt monster of uncounted heads,
The still-discordant, wavering multitude.(line 18.)
It will be allowed that from the example of Brutus many more would be won over to the cause of the people, than would be won over to aristocratic principles by Coriolanus.Quite apart from the final apostasy he strikes the unprejudiced reader as an example to eschew rather [p. 472] than to imitate. Charlotte Brontë, not a Shakespearian scholar but a woman of no less common sense than genius, gives the natural interpretation of his career in the passage I have already referred to. After Caroline and Moore have finished the play, she makes the former ask concerning the hero:
Was he not faulty as well as great?Moore nodded. “And what was his fault? What made him hated by the citizens? What caused him to be banished by his countrymen?” She answers her own question by quoting Aufidius' estimate, and proceeds:
And you must not be proud to your work people; you must not neglect the chance of soothing them; and you must not be of an inflexible nature, uttering a request as austerely as if it were a command.That, so far as it goes, is a quite legitimate “moral” to draw from the story; and it is the obvious one. How then does Shakespeare conceive the political --situation? On the one side there is a despised and famished populace, driven by its misery to demand powers in the state, that it cannot wisely use, and trusting to leaders that are worse than itself. On the other side there is a prejudiced aristocracy, numbering competent men in its ranks, but disorganised and, to some extent, demoralised by plebeian encroachments, so that it can no longer act with its old efficiency and consistency. And there is one great aristocrat, pre-eminently consistent and efficient, but whose greatness becomes mischievous to himself and others, partly because it is out of harmony with the times, partly because it is corrupted by his inordinate pride. And to all these persons, or groups of persons, Shakespeare's attitude, as we shall see, is at once critical and sympathetic. Admitting the conditions, we can only agree with Coleridge's verdict: “This play illustrates the [p. 473] wonderfully philosophic impartiality of Shakespeare's politics.”11 And there is no reason why the conditions should not be admitted. It is easy to imagine a society in which the masses are not yet ripe for self-government, and in which the classes are no longer able to steer the state, while a gifted and bigoted champion of tradition only makes matters worse. Indeed, something similar has been exemplified in history oftener than once or twice. Whether in point of fact Shakespeare's conception is correct for the particular set of circumstances he describes is quite another question, that concerns neither the excellence of Coriolanus as a drama nor the fairness of its political views, but solely its fidelity to antiquarian truth and the accuracy of its antiquarian data. Clearly it was impossible for Shakespeare to revive the spirit of the times in Coriolanus, even to the extent that he had done so in Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra, for the simple reason that in them, with whatever trespasses into fiction on the part of himself or his authority, he was following the record of what had actually taken place, while now he was dealing with a legend that seems to have the less foundation in fact the more it is examined. The tribunate, with the establishment of which the whole action begins, the opposition to which by Marcius is his main offence, and the occupants of which play so important a part in the proceedings, is now generally held to be of much later origin than the supposed date of the story. There is no agreement as to the names of the chief persons; Coriolanus is Cneius or Caius, his mother is Veturia or Volumnia, his wife is Volumnia or Vergilia, the Volscian leader Tullus Aufidius or Amfidius or Attius Tullius. Even the appellation Coriolanus rouses suspicion, for the bestowal of such titles seems to have been unknown [p. 474] till long afterwards, and, in the view of some, points not to conquest but to origin; and there are contradictory accounts of the hero's end. It has been conjectured 12 that the whole story arose in connection with religious observances and contains a large mythological admixture; and we may remember how at the end it is associated with the erection of the temple to Fortuna Muliebris. This much at least is beyond doubt, that the account given by Plutarch, from whom Shakespeare took his material, and even by Livy, whom he may have read, has much less matter-of-fact reality than characterises the later Roman lives. There are many discrepancies and contradictions, especially in Plutarch's description. Now he gives what we may consider an idealised picture of the plebs, attributing to it extraordinary self-control and sagacity, and again it is to him merely the rascal vulgar. Now he seems to approve the pliancy which the Senate showed on the advice of the older and wiser men, and again he seems to blame it as undignified. And the mixture of bravado and pusillanimity during the siege is almost unintelligible. Now the city sends the humblest embassages to the rebel, now it haughtily refuses to treat till he has withdrawn from Roman soil, and again it despatches what North calls “a goodly rabble of superstition and priestes” with new supplications. From a narrative that teemed with incongruities like the above, Shakespeare was entitled to select the alternatives that would combine to a harmonious whole, and he rightly chose those that were nearest to his own comprehension and experience, though perhaps in doing so he failed to make the most of such elements of historic truth as the tradition may contain, and certainly effaced some of the antique colouring. [p. 475] But if Plutarch's Coriolanus has less foundation in fact than some of the later Lives, it is not without compensating advantages. The circumstance that it is in so large measure a legend, implies that the popular imagination has been busy working it up, and it already falls into great scenic crises which lend themselves of their own accord to the dramatist's art. It is rather remarkable in view of this that it had received so little attention from the tragedians of the time. Perhaps its two-fold remoteness, from worldwide historical issues on the one hand, and from specifically romantic feeling on the other, may have told against it. The stories of Lucretia and Virginia had as primitive and circumscribed a setting. and were nevertheless popular enough: but they have an emotional interest that appeals to the general taste. The story of Julius Caesar lacks the sentimental lure, but concerns such mighty issues that it was the best beloved of all. And next comes the story of Antony and Cleopatra, which in a high degree unites both attractions. But Coriolanus, even as treated by Shakespeare, is unsympathetic to many, and the legend is of so little historic significance that it is often omitted from modern handbooks of Roman history; so, for these reasons, despite its pre-eminent fitness for the stage, it was generally passed over. Not universally, however. It seems already to have engaged the attention of one important dramatist in France, the prolific and gifted Alexandre Hardy. Hardy began to publish his works only in 1623, and the volume containing his Coriolan appeared only in 1625; so there is hardly any possibility of Shakespeare's having utilised this play. And, on the other hand, it was certainly written before 1608, probably in the last years of the sixteenth century, but in any case by 1607, so there is even less possibility of its being influenced by [p. 476] Shakespeare's treatment. All the more interesting is it to observe the coincidences that exist between them, and that are due to their having selected a great many of the same motifs from Plutarch's story. It shows that in that story Plutarch met the playwright half way, and justifies the statement of Hardy in his argument that “few subjects are to be found in Roman history which are worthier of the stage.”13 The number of subsequent French dramas with Coriolanus as hero proves that he was right, though in England, as so frequently, Shakespeare's name put a veto on new experiments. Hardy's tragedy in style and structure follows the Senecan manner of Jodelle and Garnier, but he compromised with mediaeval fashions in so far as to adopt the peculiar modification of the “simultaneous” or “complex” decoration which is usual in his other plays. In accordance with that, several scenes were presented at the same time on the stage, and actors made their first speeches from the area appropriated to that one of them which the particular phase of the action required. There was thus considerable latitude in regard to the unity of place, and even more in regard to the unity of time; but the freedom was not so great as in the Elizabethan theatre, for after all there was space only for a limited number of scenes, or “mansions” as they would formerly have been called. Generally there were five, two at each side and one at the back. In the Coriolan there were six, and there is as well a seventh place indicated in the play without scenical decoration 14 Even so they are few, compared with the two and twenty15 that Shakespeare employs; and though no [p. 477] doubt that number might be considerably reduced without injury to the effect, by running together localities that approximate in character and position, one street with another street, the forum with a public place and the like, still it would in any case exceed what Hardy allows himself. This may account for some of his omissions as compared with Shakespeare. His scenarium includes the house of Coriolanus and the forum at Rome, the house of Coriolanus and the house of Amfidius at Antium, the Volscian camp near Rome, the council-hall at Antium, and in addition to these an indeterminate spot where Coriolanus soliloquises after his expulsion.16 There is no room for Corioli, and this may be why Hardy begins somewhat later than Shakespeare with the collision between the hero and the people, and gets as far as the banishment by the end of the first act. In the second, Marcius leaves Rome, presents himself to Amfidius, and obtains the leadership of the Volscians. The third portrays the panic of the Romans and the reception of their embassage by Coriolanus. In the fourth, the Roman ladies make ready to accompany Volumnia on her mission, Amfidius schemes to use all Coriolanus' faults for his destruction, Volumnia arrives in the camp and makes her petition, which her son at length grants though he foresees the result. The fifth is occupied with his murder in the Senate House at Antium, and concludes with his mother's reception of the news. Thus the sequence and selection of episodes are much the same in the two tragedies, except that Hardy, perhaps, as I have said, owing to the exigencies of his decorative system, does not begin till the exploit at Corioli is over, and adds, as he could do so by using once more Coriolanus' house in Rome, the final scene with Volumnia. Otherwise the [p. 478] scaffolding of the plays is very similar, and it is because both follow closely the excellent guidance of Plutarch. But it is interesting also to note that some of their additions are similar, for when they were independently made, it shows how readily Plutarch's narrative suggested such supplements. Thus, as in Shakespeare, but not as in Plutarch, Volumnia counsels her son to bow his pride before the people, and he, though in the end consenting, at first refuses.
Volomnie.Thus Coriolanus, again as in Shakespeare but not as in Plutarch, accepts his banishment as a calamity to those that inflict it.
Voicy le jour fatal qui te donne (mon fils)
Par une humilitétes hayneurs deconfits;
Tu vaincras, endurant, la fiere ingratitude
Et le rancoeur malin de ceste multitude.
Tu charmes son courroux d‘une submission;
Helas! ne vueille done croire à ta passion.
Cede pour un moment, et la voila contente,
Et tu accoiseras une horrible tourmente,
Que Rome divisée ébranle à ton sujet:
La pieté ne peut avoir plus bel objet,
Et faire mieux paroistre à l'endroit d‘une mere,
À l‘endroit du païs, qu'escoutant ma priere.
Madame, on me verroit mille morts endurer,
Plustôt que suppliant sa grace procurer,
Plustôt qu'un peuple vil à bon tiltre se vante
D‘avoir en mon courage imprimé l‘épouvante,
Que ceux qui me devroient recognoistre seigneur,
Se prévallent sur moy du plus petit honneur:
Moy, fléchir le genoüil devant une commune!
Non, je ne le veux faire, et ne crains sa rancune.
Je luy obeirai, ouy ouy, je mettrai soinThus the machinations of Amfidius before the final cause of offence are amplified far beyond the limits of Plutarch, and these are in part excused by his previous rivalry with Coriolanus which, as in Shakespeare, is made ever so much more personal and graphic. [p. 479]
De quitter ces ingrats plustost qu'ils n'ont besoin.
Un esperon d‘honneur cent fois nous a conduits,In short, though Hardy's drama, as compared with Shakespeare's, is a work of talent as compared with a work of genius, it shows that the Life had in it the material for a tragedy already rough-dressed, with indications, obvious to a practised playwright, of some of the processes that still were needed. Shakespeare, then, was now dealing with a much more tractable theme than in his previous Roman plays, and this is evident in the finished product. Technically and artistically it is a more perfect achievement than either of them. In Julius Caesar the early disappearance of the titular hero does not indeed affect the essential unity of the piece, but it does, when all is said and done, involve, to the feelings of most readers, a certain break in the interest. In Antony and Cleopatra the scattering of the action through so many short scenes does not interfere with the main conception, but it does make the execution a little spasmodic. In both instances Shakespeare had to suit his treatment to the material. But that material in the case of Coriolanus offered less difficulty. It lay ready to the dramatist's hand and took the shape that he imposed, almost of itself. The result is a masterpiece that, as an organic work of art, has been placed on the level of Shakespeare's most independent tragedies.18 Thus it is easy to see how the personality of the hero dominates the complex story, as the heart transmits the life-blood through the body and its [p. 480] members, and receives it back again; how his character contains in itself the seeds of his offence and its reparation; how the other figures are related to him in parallel and contrast; how the two grand interests, the conflict between Coriolanus and Aufidius, the conflict between Coriolanus and the people, intertwine, but always so that the latter remains the principal strand; how the language is suited to the persons, the circumstances, and the prevailing tone. In short, whatever the relations in which we consider the play, they seem, like the radii of a circle, to depart from and meet in one centre. Hardly less admirable are the balance and composition of the whole, which yet in no wise impair the interest of the individual scenes. Dr. Johnson indeed makes the criticism: “There is perhaps too much bustle in the first act and too little in the last.” This possibly is more noticeable when the play is acted than when it is read; but it is fitting that from the noise and hubbub of the struggle there should be a transition to the outward quietude of the close that harmonises with the inward acquiescence in the mind of reader or spectator. Nor is the element of tumult entirely lacking at the last. To the uproar in the street of Rome, where the life of Marcius is threatened, corresponds the uproar in the public place of Antium where it is actually taken. But Dr. Johnson was probably thinking of those battle scenes beloved by Elizabethan audiences and generally wearisome to modern taste. There are no fewer than five of them in the first act, a somewhat plentiful allowance. But they are written by no means exclusively in the drum-and-trumpet style. On the contrary they are rich in psychological interest, and bring home to us many characteristics of the hero that we have to realise. Not only are we witnesses of his prowess, [p. 481] but his pride in Rome, his contempt of baseness, his rivalry with Aufidius, his power of rousing enthusiasm in the field, are all shown in relief. Such things lift these concessions to temporary fashion above the level of outworn crudities. And the construction is very perfect too. Perhaps the crisis, understood as the acme of Coriolanus' success, when he is voted to the consulship in the middle of the third scene of the second act comes a little early. But crisis may bear another meaning. It may denote the decisive point of the conflict, and this is only reached in the centre of the play. To the supreme tension of the scenes that describe Coriolanus' denunciation of the Tribunes, the consultations in his house, his final condemnation, all that goes before gradually leads up, and from that all that follows after gradually declines. In the first act we are introduced to the circumstances, the opposition between the Romans and the Volsces, the Senate and the Plebs, and to all the leading characters, as well as Coriolanus and his friends and opponents, in an exposition that is not merely declaratory but is full of action and life: and we see that the situation is fraught with danger. In the second act we are shown more definitely how the grand disaster will come from the collision of Coriolanus with the people, and the cloud gathers even in the instant of his success. In the third the storm breaks, and, despite a momentary lull, in the end sweeps away all wonted land-marks. The fourth presents the change that follows in the whole condition of things: the rival of Aufidius has recourse to his generosity, the champion of Rome becomes her foe, and the people, after its heedless triumph, is plunged into dismay. In the fifth we proceed by carefully considered ways to the catastrophe: the deliverance of Rome from material and the hero from moral perdition, the expiation of [p. 482] his passion in death and the fruitless trumph of his rival. But through this symmetrical rise and fall of the excitement, there is no abatement of the interest. Attention and suspense are always kept on the alert. They are secured partly by the diveristy of the details and the swiftness of the fluctuations. Dr. Johnson says:
Aveugles de fureur, à ces termes reduits
De sentre-deffier 17 au front de chaque armée,
Vouloir mourir, ou seul vaincre de renommée.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus is one of the most amusing of our author's performances. The old man's merriment in Menenius, the lofty lady's dignity in Volumnia, the bridal modesty in Virgilia, the patrician and military haughtiness in Coriolanus, the plebian malignity and tribunition insolence in Brutus and Sicinius, make a very pleasing and interesting variety; and the various revolutions of the hero's fortune fill the mind with anxious curiousity.This is so because, while the agitation culminates in the third act, the emotion is neither overteaxed in the two that precede nor allowed to subside in the two that follow. For through this movement, first of intensification, then of relaxation, is discernible in the play as a whole, it is not uniform or uninterrupted. There is throughout a throb and pulse, an ebb and flow. The quieter scenes alternate with the more vehement: Coriolanus' fortune by turns advances and retires. Only when we reflect do we become aware that we have risen so high out of our daily experience, and have returned “with new acquist” of wisdom to a spot whence we can step back to it once more. But to produce so consummate a masterpiece from the material of history, no matter how dramatic that material was, Shakespeare was bound to reshape it more freely than he was wont to do when dealing with historical themes. We have seen from Hardy's example what stores of half-wrought treasure Plutarch's narrative offered to a dramatist who knew his business. Still it was only half-wrought, and in [p. 483] working it up Shakespeare consciously or unconsciously allowed himself more liberties than in his other Roman plays. His loans indeed are none the fewer or the less on that account; nowhere has he borrowed more mumerous or so lengthy passages. But it almost seems as though with the tact of genius he had the feeling that he was at work, not on fact, but on legend. Though he is far from recasting the Roman tradition as he recast the pseudo-historic traditions of his own island in “Lear” and “Macbeth”, yet he give a new colouring to the picture as he hardly does to genuine histories like “Richard II” or “Antony and Cleopatra”. This will appear from a comparison of the play with the “Life”. [p. 484]