Hover your mouse over the footnote numbers to read them.
"I am the man I play".
Coriolanus and Language. By JH.
Coriolanus, Shakespeares late tragedy, resounds
with the name of its eponymous hero. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion to
express about Caius Martius, and those opinions, appropriately for this play,
are conflicting. Name and the meaning and integrity of the self delineated by
the name is a major concern of the play, juxtaposed with a critique of the idea
of fama, or what others do with that name.
It is regarded by many as difficult, both in its language, which lacks the
fluidity and poetic imagery of other great tragedies such as Othello,
and Hamlet, and in its warrior hero, who appears isolated from audience
sympathy and understanding by his unwillingness or inability to
share his inner feelings or thoughts. There is very little soul-searching or
questioning through soliloquy in Caius Martius Coriolanus. Our knowledge and
understanding of the man, therefore, relies on what is said about him and by
him, and through observation of his actions and interaction with others in the
His reputation precedes him in Act 1, scene 1 (1,1)
where the citizens name him as chief enemy to the people, a very dog to the commonalty who has made his reputation in battle to be
proud and to please his mother. The scene
which begins in activity dwindles into leisurely discussion with the patrician
Meneniuss long fable of the belly, introducing the metaphor of Rome as a body and its citizens as
parts of that body. Caius Martius erupts into the play at line 146 with a
brusque acknowledgment of Meneniuss greeting and a peremptory demand:
Thanks. Whats the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs.
(Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 146-149)
Immediately the pace and tone of the scene changes from passive
to active, his contempt of them ironically paralleling their earlier criticism
of him, as he accuses them of being made proud and describes them
as curs. Within his first speeches the audience are
given a clear demonstration of his arrogant contempt for the fickle citizens
that he regards as the diseased parts of the body that is Rome, his
anger at the thought of giving power to those he considers unworthy of it as
cowards who do not fight for the State, and his mistrust of words that flatter
but mean nothing:
With every minute you do change a mind
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland
(Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 165-167)
His reaction to the news of the approach of the Volsces,
Romes ancient enemy, illuminates his love of war and fighting and his
restlessness when not involved in battle:
I am glad to hear ont;
Our musty superfluity.
(Act 1, Scene 1, Lines 209-210)
There is a paradox in his contempt for the citizen
curs of Rome and his love of possibly - his
greatest enemy Aufidius, a lion that he is proud to
hunt. In their encounters Aufidius and Coriolanus
address each other in the second person singular, usually used in conversation
between lovers. Their language stresses the quasi-amorous
nature of their relationship which is based on heroic fights and envy and both verbally eroticise their joy and
pride in fighting.
The language of Coriolanus reflects his aggressively active
nature. The structure of his speech is not smoothly rhythmic; lines are crammed
with thoughts, feminine endings, strange ellisions th market
place, i th lowest hell- and enjambment as thoughts and sentences spill over
into the next line; the language seems rugged, choppy and harsh. Lines are
often divided, sometimes more than once, the caesuras created by the
emphasising the pithy, stressed, often explosive projection of
Coriolanuss words, adding to an impression of his impatience and rage.
The rhythm of the verse is further disrupted by the frequent use of trochaic,
spondaic and pyrrhic feet, creating a tension between the contrasting regular
iambic pentameter and Coriolanuss speech which intensifies the sense of
emotional conflict and aggression. Even in his more measured and controlled
moments his language is forceful:
Oh good but most unwise patricians!
The one by thother.
(Act 3, Scene 1, Lines 92-113)
the shortness of the phrases, the stresses, compression and lack
of metaphor, giving the speech urgency. The use of the if
clause proclaims the absoluteness of the alternatives Coriolanus is offering;
if they have power, use it immediately before it is taken away, if not give in
totally to the plebeians. Although he displays a certain political acuity,
Coriolanus constantly verbally demonstrates his inability to compromise.
Much of the imagery in Coriolanus concerns the body and
its parts, the constant theme of mouth, tongue and voice, pervading a play that
is in many ways itself an exploration of language. Related images of cleanliness and disease
reflect the central metaphor of the body of Rome. Coriolanus sees the people as
a diseased part of the state, worthless, and unclean, berating them as fragments, whose breath stinks of the rotten fens. Breath is
needed for voice and voice to name, but Coriolanus does not want the voices of
the common herd. In 2,3 when he is forced to ask for the voices of
the people to gain election to the senate, in one of his very few introspective
speeches, he makes very obvious his humiliation,
resentment and frustration at being forced to beg for an honour
from a group of people he despises and show his wounds as if in proof of his
worth. He turns the ceremony into a mockery by his
constant reiteration of the word voice, as a synecdoche for the
people themselves. Good sweet and worthy
are the opposite of his real opinion of the people whose voices
he requires - he seems to be wooing the
utterance rather than the person who gives it breath.
Most sweet voices!
Better it is to die, better to starve,
Indeed I would be consul.
(Act 2, Scene 3, Lines 98-117)
Lines 98 110 offer a rare insight into his feelings and
possibly also indicate his lack of enthusiasm for the consulship itself, he pauses, on the verge of rejecting it
before resigning himself to completing the task, reapplying himself to the
request for election at line 111. He responds contemptuously to the Fourth
Citizen who tells him the price for his voice is to ask politely:
And since the wisdom of their choice is rather to have
my hat than my heart, I will practise the insinuating nod and be off to them
the prose emphasising the verse rhythm of Coriolanuss
Coriolanus uses animal imagery constantly, describing the
plebeians variously as curs, rats, crows, geese and hares, and speaking of himself as an
eagle and a dragon. His wifes eyes are likened to those
of doves a very gentle image from such a warlike man
and his great enemy is a lion. His similes are often harsh and
metallic, he talks of swimming with fins of lead, and himself as a sword; he speaks of purpose so
barred, and frequently uses ideas of metal being forged in hot
fires and smoking furnaces. Words of war are often onomatopoeic and short, and
there are some strange usages of verbs - such asmangle - adding to the sense of a sinewy, violent
language. Occasionally a fleeting poetic image
emerges, his wife is his gracious
silence and Valeria is:
..chaste as the icicle
Thats curdied by the frost from purest snow
(Act 5, Scene 3, Lines 65-66)
Although there are occasional moments of gentleness which
surprise the audience the momentary pity for the prisoner in Corioli,
even if he does forget his name -
throughout the play it is clear that the whole focus and purpose
of Coriolanuss life is fighting and battle. He defines himself by his
valour, his valiantness. The play is full of the clash and clamour of
war. Part of Romes problem is that Coriolanus attempts to bring his
throat of war
into the city, where it is most definitely unwelcome and
inappropriate. Fighting and killing are the two activities that appeal to him
most in contrast to the stifling passivity of those around him. Battle
energises and fulfils him and his language of battle is both violent and erotic
in tone and image.
Oh me alone, make you a sword of me
(Act 1, Scene 6, Line 76)
In a life defined by war and valour, and seemingly motivated by
rage, Coriolanus appears to actively search for objects to set himself against
or above whenever he is not involved in battle against legitimate enemies. His
stage is the battlefield and his role is as a warrior, he can play no other.
The double irony of Coriolanus is that its hero, played by an actor,
hates acting, and in a play, he is eloquent in his stated distrust and
discomfort with words. Dissembling or playing a part is anathema to Coriolanus.
His absolute perception of self, linked inextricably to his ideas of virtue,
honour and nobility, are made clear throughout:
The man I am.
(Act 3, Scene 2, Lines 16-17)
When his mother and Menenius try to persuade him to retrieve the
disastrous situation caused by the debacle at the Senate by dissembling,
I would not buy their flattery at the price of one fair
(Act 3, Scene 3, Lines 97-98)
and total physical disintegration seems preferable to acting.
Any compromise in this absolute is
impossible for him to contemplate. His rigidity and choleric nature make him as
vulnerable to manipulation by others as the plebeians, whose fickleness makes
them easy prey for the tribunes. His concept of verbal integrity and distrust
of words merely rotd in tongue is also made very clear
any split between seeming and being is perceived as a threat to his personal
for Coriolanus are anchored to their
meanings and should not be misused.
When blows have made me stay, I fled from
(Act 2, Scene 2, Line172)
Coriolanuss response to any form of praise whether
genuine or not - is distrust and rejection, which exacerbates his appearance
overweening pride and increasingly isolates him within a society that needs his
myth but not his unsettling presence if he cannot conform.
He believes that to use words that
contradict his inner integrity would alter his very being and teach him an
inherent baseness. He is constant saying only what
and this inflexibility of language adds to
the harsh masculine tones of the play. Coriolanus does not make witty puns.
Volumnia demonstrates her domination over her son in 3,2, through her ability
to coerce him into an attempt to dissemble, even though he recognises it will
damage his integrity,
but acting a part
mildly is patently impossible
for him, as it opposes his other dominant characteristic, his choler.
Coriolanus is an angry hero and his lack of self-control is a
serious flaw. Whenever he is put to it he loses his temper and it
is a character trait that makes him vulnerable to his enemies. The tribunes use
it to exacerbate the situation in 3,1 at the Senate house, and in the furore in
at 3,3 that leads to his banishment as traitor from
Put him to choler straight
Being once chafed, he cannot
Be reined again to temperance;
(Act 3, Scene 3 Lines 26-28)
and in 5,6 Aufidius uses it to goad him to the rage that
presages his assassination.
Coriolanuss response to his banishment is impressively in
character, if ultimately futile:
. I banish
For you, the city, thus I turn my back.
(Act 3, Scene 3, Lines 128-143)
and the leave-taking of his family is perhaps one of the rare
occasions when an audience can feel sympathy for this arrogant warrior, as he
remonstrates quite gently with his wife and mother on the futility of bewailing
In the time lapse between the end of Act 3 and Coriolanuss
appearance outside Aufidiuss house in Antium in 4,1 , while Coriolanus
has been living under the canopy in the city of kites and
crows some change appears to have taken place in him. He speaks to the
audience in his first and only - real soliloquy (Act 4, Scene 1,
Lines12-26). Unlike Hamlet
and other great tragic heroes, the soliloquy
does not explore his internal thoughts, or ask deeply searching questions about
his situation, but, although it does not reach out toward the audience, it is
the first time he really communicates in this way. After commenting on the
irony of his arrival in a city that has cause to hate him and acknowledging the
danger of his presence there,
he has a surprisingly for him polite exchange with
some citizens then, left alone,
begins his soliloquy with a recognition of
the perverse changeability
Oh world, thy slippery turns
Then expresses his feelings in a terse, rhythmic form, without
metaphors, and through using alliteration and plosives, and displaced grammar,
emphasises his bitterness towards Rome:
My birthplace, hate I
He sets out a simple plan of action, to die or to do the enemy
state some service. His city and his name, Coriolanus,
have been rejected, but he has retained his
integrity and will re-forge his name through the destruction of Rome. He
determines to stand as author to himself, rejecting all bonds of
family and friendship and his remoteness is emphasised by the lack of
interaction with the people of Antium.
He has become a war machine fuelled by his
desire for revenge - not against the plebeians who had whooped
him out of Rome, but the patricians, who had
betrayed Rome by giving them the power to do it. He sets himself against
but cannot sustain the role. In the great
pleading scene of 5,3 the character conflict in Coriolanus almost forms another
soliloquy. The audience watch and listen to his internal struggle
as he is forced to recognise his unnatural action as wrong. Nature will not
allow the denial of instinct and natural affection. He describes the approach of his family as
the audience observe it and he reaches breaking point.
I melt, and am not
Of stronger earth than others.
(Act 5, Scene 3, Lines 28-29)
It is here, at last, that Coriolanus begins to question his
actions, realising that he cannot deny the value of his former self without
destroying himself. Finally, after the long and powerful exhortation by
Volumnia, Coriolanus acknowledges not only his humanity but also his ultimate
fate. The long silence of a full half line, is eloquent in itself as Coriolanus
struggles to accept this knowledge the first real silence of this
incredibly noisy play.
O, mother, mother!
(Act 5, Scene 3, Lines 183-186)
In sparing Rome he knows that he condemns himself, but, like
Hamlet, recognises that the readiness is all:
But let it come. -
(Act 5, Scene 3, Line190)
He dies as he lived, fighting, allowing Aufidiuss taunts
to fuel the destructive rage that precipitates his assassination
but he dies reclaiming his name, his
identity and his reputation, true to himself still, but finally recognising his
Coriolanus appears arrogant, contemptuous, violent and full of
anger; his speech patterns harsh, uncompromising and difficult. Yet contained
within his words also lies an image of a nobility enhanced by his refusal to
dissemble, or to compromise his valour and inner truth. If language can reveal
character, then of all Shakespeares tragic heroes Coriolanus should be
the easiest to understand he is what he says. Yet to dismiss him as
simplistic a monument to pig-headed splendour
is to underrate the power of his
presence in this play and the complexity of his apparent simplicity. The
tragedy of his death seems to diminish a world that was perhaps just too small
to confine him. Flawed, dangerous, and safer removed from society,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.
Bayley, John. Shakespeare and Tragedy, Routledge and
Kegan Paul, London, 1981.
Bradley, A.C. Shakespearean Tragedy, London 1905.
Calderwood, James L. Coriolanus: Wordless Meanings and
Meaningless Words, published in, Coriolanus, Critical Essays, ed. D.
Wheeler, NY and London, Garland Publishing Inc., 1995.
Daniell, David. Coriolanus in Europe, (Chapter 10,
Coriolanus in Performance), London, The Athlone Press, 1980.
Ellis-Fermor, Uma. Shakespeares Drama, ed. Kenneth Muir,
London, Methuen, 1980.
Gordon, D.J. Name and Fame: Shakespeares
Coriolanus, published in, Papers: Mainly Shakespearian, collected by
G.I.Duthie, Edinburgh, The University of Aberdeen, 1964.
Gross, Kenneth. Shakespeares Noise, (Chapter 5, War
Noise), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001.
Kermode, Frank. Shakespeares Language, London, Allen Lane,
The Penguin Press, 2000.
McDonald, Russ. Shakespeare and the Arts of Language,
Oxford Shakespeare Topics (gen. eds. Peter Holland and Stanley Wells), Oxford,
Oxford University Press, 2001.
Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus, ed. Lee Bliss, The New
Cambridge Shakespeare, (gen. ed. Brian Gibbons), Cambridge, Cambridge
University Press, 2000.
Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus, The Arden Shakespeare,
ed. Philip Brockbank, (gen. eds, R. Proudfoot; A. Thompson; D.Scott Kastan,)
Third Edition: 1997.
Stevenson, Kay. Hear Me Speak: Listening to
Coriolanus, published in Shakespeare: Readers, Audiences, Players,
edited by R.S.White, Charles Edelman, Christopher Wortham, Australia,
University of Western Australia Press, 1998.
Wilson Knight, G. The Imperial Theme, reprinted London,
Routledge, 1989. (Originally OUP, 1931)
© JH and Winamop, so don't pass it off as your own work