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"I am the man I play". Coriolanus and Language. By JH.

Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s 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.(1) 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 play.

His reputation precedes him in Act 1, scene 1 (1,1)(2) where the citizens name him as ‘chief enemy to the people’,(3) a ‘very dog to the commonalty’(4) who has made his reputation in battle to be ‘proud’ and to ‘please his mother’.(5) The scene which begins in activity dwindles into leisurely discussion with the patrician Menenius’s long ‘fable of the belly’,(6) 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 Menenius’s greeting and a peremptory demand:

Thanks. What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues,

That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,

Make yourselves scabs.

(1,1, L. 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’.(7) 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,(8) 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………

(1,1, L. 165-167)

His reaction to the news of the approach of the Volsces, Rome’s ancient enemy, illuminates his love of war and fighting and his restlessness when not involved in battle:

I am glad to hear on’t; ……………..vent

Our musty superfluity”.

(1,1, L. 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.’(9) In their encounters Aufidius and Coriolanus address each other in the second person singular, usually used in conversation between lovers.(10) Their language stresses the quasi-amorous nature of their relationship which is based on heroic fights and envy(11) and both verbally eroticise their joy and pride in fighting.(12)

The language of Coriolanus reflects his aggressively active nature.(13) The structure of his speech(14) is not smoothly rhythmic; lines are crammed with thoughts, feminine endings, strange ellisions –‘ th’ market place,(15) ‘i’ th’ lowest hell’(16)- 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 punctuation(17) emphasising the pithy, stressed, often explosive projection of Coriolanus’s 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 Coriolanus’s speech which intensifies the sense of emotional conflict and aggression.(18) Even in his more measured and controlled moments his language is forceful:

Oh good but most unwise patricians! ….


The one by th’other.”

(3,1, L. 92-113)

the shortness of the phrases, the stresses, compression and lack of metaphor, giving the speech urgency. The use of the ‘if…then’ 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.(19)

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.(20) 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,(21) worthless, and unclean,(22) berating them as ‘fragments’,(23) 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,(24) 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.(25) 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(26) he requires - he seems to be wooing the utterance rather than the person who gives it breath.(27)

Most sweet voices!

Better it is to die, better to starve,


Indeed I would be consul.”

(2,3, L. 98-117)

Lines 98 – 110 offer a rare insight into his feelings and possibly also indicate his lack of enthusiasm for the consulship itself,(28) 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 most counterfeitly.” (29)

the prose emphasising the verse rhythm of Coriolanus’s mocking incantation.

Coriolanus uses animal imagery constantly, describing the plebeians variously as curs, rats, crows, geese and hares,(30) and speaking of himself as ‘an eagle’ and ‘a dragon’. His wife’s 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’,(31) and himself as a ‘sword’; he speaks of ‘purpose so barred’,(32) 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 as‘mangle’(33) - adding to the sense of a sinewy, violent language. Occasionally a fleeting poetic image(34) emerges, his wife is his ‘gracious silence’(35) and Valeria is:

“……..chaste as the icicle

That’s curdied by the frost from purest snow

…………………………..” (5,3, L.65-6)

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 Coriolanus’s life is fighting and battle. He defines himself by his valour, his ‘valiantness’.(36) The play is full of the clash and clamour of war. Part of Rome’s problem is that Coriolanus attempts to bring his ‘throat of war’(37) 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”(38)

(1,6, L. 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:

“……………………………….I play

The man I am.”

(3,2, L. 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,(39) he states:

I would not buy their flattery at the price of one fair word

(3,3, L. 97-98)

and total physical disintegration seems preferable to acting.(40) 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 ‘rot’d in tongue’ is also made very clear – any split between seeming and being is perceived as a threat to his personal integrity. Words(41) for Coriolanus are anchored to their meanings and should not be misused.

When blows have made me stay, I fled from words

(2,2 l.172)

Coriolanus’s 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.(42) He believes that to use words that contradict his inner integrity would alter his very being and teach him an ‘inherent baseness’.(43) He is ‘constant’ saying only what he means,(44) 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,(45) but acting ‘a part’(46) ‘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 the marketplace(47) at 3,3 that leads to his banishment as ‘traitor’ from Rome:

Put him to choler straight……….

………Being once chafed, he cannot

Be reined again to temperance;……

(3,3 L. 26-28)

and in 5,6 Aufidius uses it to goad him to the rage that presages his assassination.(48)

Coriolanus’s response to his banishment is impressively in character, if ultimately futile:

“…………………. I banish you.



For you, the city, thus I turn my back.” (49)

(3,3, L. 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 the inevitable.(50)

In the time lapse between the end of Act 3 and Coriolanus’s appearance outside Aufidius’s 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 (4,1, L.12-26). Unlike Hamlet(51) 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,(52) he has a surprisingly – for him – polite exchange with some citizens then, left alone,(53) begins his soliloquy with a recognition of the perverse changeability(54) of fortune:

“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,(55) 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.(56) He has become a war machine fuelled by his desire for revenge - not against the plebeians who had ‘whooped’(57) him out of Rome, but the patricians, who had betrayed Rome by giving them the power to do it. He sets himself against nature,(58) 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.(59) 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.

(5,3, L.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!



They laugh at……………………………………..”

(5,3, L.183-186)

In sparing Rome he knows that he condemns himself, but, like Hamlet, recognises that ‘the readiness is all’:

“……But let it come. - ”

(5,3, L.190)

He dies as he lived, fighting, allowing Aufidius’s taunts to fuel the destructive rage that precipitates his assassination(60) – but he dies reclaiming his name, his identity and his reputation, true to himself still, but finally recognising his own humanity.

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 Shakespeare’s 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’(61) – 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. Shakespeare’s Drama, ed. Kenneth Muir, London, Methuen, 1980.

Gordon, D.J. Name and Fame: Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, published in, Papers: Mainly Shakespearian, collected by G.I.Duthie, Edinburgh, The University of Aberdeen, 1964.

Gross, Kenneth. Shakespeare’s Noise, (Chapter 5, War Noise), Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2001.

Kermode, Frank. Shakespeare’s 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)


(1) The inadequacy of words to describe deeds partially motivating Coriolanus’ hatred of flattery or praise. Kenneth Gross suggests that for Coriolanus to have his deeds made heroic by other people’s contaminated tongues is to become a monster. Gross stresses the political intelligence that sifts through his rages against fama, in his recognition of the political lies, evasions and readiness of the plebeians to listen to lies and have their minds changed by others, and the passive accommodations of the patricians who appropriate his fame for their own political ends. Shakespeare’s Noise, P143

(2) All quotations are taken from The New Cambridge Shakespeare edition of Coriolanus, edited by Lee Bliss, CUP, 2000.

(3) 1,1, L.5-6

(4) 1,1, L. 21

(5) 1,1, L. 25-30

(6) 1,1, L. 79-146

(7) Kay Stevens points out that the plebeians and Coriolanus operate in parallel – he calls them ‘curs’ they call him ‘dog’, they accuse him of pride as he suggests they are made proud by flattery, he is coached by Volumnia and Menenius on how to ‘act’ in the market place they are coached by the tribunes, and they do not want to be monsters by ingratitude just as he does not want his ‘nothings monster’d’. ‘ Hear Me Speak’: Listening to Coriolanus, printed in Shakespeare, Readers, Audiences, Players, 1998

(8) Later he refers to them as ‘measles’ 3,1, L. 79.

(9) Gross suggests that in fact Coriolanus’s greatest enemy is words.( Shakespeare’s Noise.)

(10) Or with inferiors and children.

(11) “I sin in envying his nobility,

And were I anything but what I am,

I would wish me only he.” (1,1, L. 214-216)

(12) F. Kermode, Shakespeare’s Language, p. 252.

(13) Compared with the more passive and exploratory language of other characters, who tend to say much that does not actually move the action forward.

(14) In common with Shakespeare’s other late plays.

(15) 3,2, L.105

(16) 3,3, L. 73

(17) Often late in the line.

(18) His language seems to strain to escape the constraints of the structural form, as he does the constraints of the expectations of his society.

(19) Even in his very short soliloquy at 4,1 L. 12-26, he simply declares his alternatives, to die or to give the enemy some service.

(20) “Coriolanus, a portrait of a hero who despises words, [is] almost relentless in its exposure of the defects and inadequacies of language……..” nevertheless the “stark power of the play’s attack on words is a paradoxical assertion of what words can achieve.” Russ McDonald, Shakespeare and the Arts of Language, p. 179.

(21) So, paradoxically, he is described by the tribunes who influence the people to ‘whoop’ him out of Rome. 3,1, L. 224.

(22) “…………Bid them wash their faces,

And keep their teeth clean…….” (2,3, l.54-5

(23) 1,1, L. 206

(24) The actor, Alan Howard, who played Coriolanus in Terry Hands’s RSC production of 1977/8 commented on the lack of personal soliloquies in this play, but found the Coriolanus’s internal musings fascinating – the ‘internal soliloquy’ where he talks to himself in the middle of a scene, he found ‘intensely personal and mysterious’. Quoted in Coriolanus in Europe, in interview with David Daniell, p. 165.

(25) It seems from his statements (2,2, L. 142-145 – “Show them th’unaching scars, which I should hide / As if I had received them for the hire / Of their breath only.” ) that he perceives it to be part of the despised rewards for his service to Rome through fighting and gaining wounds, and he has always refused to take any ‘bribe to pay his sword’ – as he sees it. Even the citizens have to concede that he is not covetous, 1,1, L. 32.

(26) Voice was used by Hamlet who gave his to Fortinbras ‘he has my dying voice’ to elect him to kingship of Denmark.

(27) D.J.Gordon states that the synecdoche reduces the plebeians reality to this one function. They are mouths – or tongues – in the heads that contain them. Papers, Mainly Shakespearian. P45

(28) He also remarks that he would rather serve the state in his way than ‘sway with them in theirs’. 2,1, L. 176-177. A reading of which could be that he does not want the office of senator – others suggest that he wants to be senator in his own way – by crushing any power of the people.

(29) In fact, judging by his character as demonstrated in the play, this would be totally impossible for him to do!

(30) An example of this is in 1,1, L. 150-155.

(31) 1,1, L. 164

(32) 3,1, L. 149

(33) A rare usage of this word in this context.

“………. Your dishonour

Mangles true judgement…….”

(3,1, L. 158-159)

(34) Coriolanus as poet – The writer Uma Ellis Fermor believes that the last two acts of the play force a reassessment of its hero – she suggests that he cannot focus real self as he is in rebellion against a society that has forced him to harness his inner poetry to battle and bloodshed. He instinctively recognises in Virgilia the balancing graces of silence and wisdom vital to the wholeness of life. Hands and Howard in Daniells’ Coriolanus in Europe, suggest that Shakespeare deliberately left the enigma of Coriolanus’s relationship with his wife – and mother – unexplored.

(35) Silence is an important word in this play as it seems relentlessly noisy. Everyone talks, clashes, rages and battles. The one area of silence for Coriolanus is his wife, who makes no demands of him and seems an oasis of clam in the midst of the clamour surrounding him. The other great silence of the play is in 5,4 where he accepts his humanity and his fate – perhaps a form of silent soliloquy?

(36) Now in those days, valliantness was honoured in Rome above all other virtues: which they call Virtus, by the name of vertue selfe, as including in that generall name all other speciall virtues besides.” North’s Plutarch’s Lives, vol 2, p.144. quoted in Papers: Mainly Shakespeare, ed. G.I. Duthie, p.51

(37) 3,2, L. 113

(38) Editors are divided over where to assign this sentence as it is unclear in the folio – it could be shouted by the volunteer soldiers, whom Coriolanus accords respect as fighting men, or said by Coriolanus himself, as some editions ascribe it.

(39) 3,2, L. 105-106 “You have put me now to such a part which never / I shall discharge to th’ life.”

(40) 3,2 L. 112-124 “Away my disposition……….inherent baseness

(41) Objects should also only be given their proper use. Trumpets and drums proclaim war and should not be used in acclamation. “May these same instruments that you profane / Never sound more! When drums and trumpets shall/ I’ th’ field prove flatterers, let courts and cities be / Made all of false-faced soothing.” (1,9, L. 41-44)

(42) Daniell in Coriolanus in Europe points out the nature of dramatic illusion and its uncomfortable place in society – dictators are maintained in power by mass illusion, as are actors. Audiences need fantasies of an impossible ideal and want to be included in the process of maintaining them. As fantasies enlarge and encroach they become too threatening and have to be banished as a problematic reality. p. 162.

(43) This is the only time that Shakespeare uses the term ‘inherent’ and it is a usage that derives from Montaigne’s idea of a disgraceful transformation of being. A quality can be physically struck in the mind by acting the gesture that expresses it.

(44) Which, unfortunately, is often unpalatable to those listening to it.

(45) The mirror scene of this is 5,5 when Volumnia again persuades her son to change his path of action and saves Rome and his ‘name’ for posterity at the cost of his death.

(46) In a sense Volumnia betrays her son by encouraging him to dissemble and act – it goes against all that she has brought him up to be.

(47) Where, needless to say, he fails to ‘act mildly’.

(48) “…….thou boy of tears”

(5,6 L 103)

(49) If Coriolanus is perceived as a metaphor for the true Rome, then the false Rome is banished and the true Rome, leaves to become a ‘lonely dragon’ until it can be reinstated through the destruction of the false.

(50) “………. Tell these sad women / ‘Tis fond to wail invisible strokes / As ‘tis to laugh at ‘em.” (4,1, L. 25-27).

(51) Another tragic hero who is uncomfortable with acting and distrusts words – but he is introspective in contrast with Coriolanus’s active aggression.

(52) But no guilt, or fear.

(53) It is rare for Coriolanus to be alone on stage.

(54) Chiastically musing on the shifts of friend to enemy and good to bad fortune.

(55) The third name given is the cognomen – the individual name that no one else has: “The third was some addition geven, either for some acte or notable service…….or els for some speciall vertue they had.” North’s Plutarch’s Lives, vol 2, pp154-5, quoted in Papers: Mainly Shakespeare, ed. G.I. Duthie, p.51

(56) In Rome the audience watched him interacting with the people – even if only to berate them.

(57) ‘Whooped’, is a trivial word and ‘whoop’ a phatic gesture, and its use as part of a transitive verb only occurs in this play, giving it a weight that augments the sense of its triviality; it cheapens those who use it and him it is used against. It forms a paradox as it is in itself meaningless, but is uttered by the ‘voice’ of the people, which here has the power to take away his ‘name’ and banish him. (D.J.Gordon, Name and Fame, p42 )

(58) “All bond and privilege of nature, break!” (5,3, L.24)

(59) “……………………,I’ll never

Be such a gosling as to obey instinct, but stand

As if a man were author of himself

And knew no other kin.” (5,3, L.34-37)

(60) Mirroring the banishment scene of 3,3, but this time with deadly consequences.

(61) Kenneth Tynan, 1959. On Olivier’s Coriolanus.

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