“Valour is the Chiefest Virtue:” A Reading of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

Coriolanus at the gates of Rome
Franz Anton Maulbertsch (c. 1795)

One of Shakespeare’s late tragedies, Coriolanus turns our attention back to the early founding of the Roman Republic during a crisis which threatens the city’s future. The fledgling republic faces threats both foreign and domestic, and the city’s greatest warrior is refusing to humble himself before the people. One of four great tragedies Shakespeare penned about Rome, Coriolanus serves as the natural introduction to Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, which take place several centuries later. As a whole, these three plays form a trilogy which examine key moments in the rise and fall of Rome. Coriolanus shows us the birth of the republic on the brink of civil war, while Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra portray the fall of the republic and the birth of the Roman Empire. In all three plays we are invited to consider questions of political philosophy, and therefore, of human nature.  

Unlike in Elizabethan/Jacobean England, which was ruled by a hereditary Christian monarchy, the setting of Coriolanus is the 6th century BC not long after Rome has managed to unshackle itself from the rule of kings. The Etruscan Tarquins have finally been banished, following the rape of a maiden woman named Lucretia by the son of Tarquin “The Proud.” This hideous violation of Roman custom tragically leads to Lucretia’s suicide, and in outrage, Rome rises up and overthrows the foreign Tarquin kings. Now, Rome has been re-founded as a republic (509 BC) under the shared governorship of two consuls appointed by the Senate each year. The elite of the city are a cohort of aristocratic, land-owning families –the Patricians– who serve in the Senate and as military generals. On the flipside, are the commoners, or Plebians –the cobblers, farmers, tradesmen and so on. They represent the “working class” in our modern vernacular. These two classes of citizenry, the Patricians and Plebians, are naturally distinct from one another, but in Coriolanus they are also at odds. Their antagonism wreaks havoc on the city, threatening to end the rule of self-government. By showing us this moment of crisis within the quintessential classical republic of antiquity, Shakespeare illuminates certain unpleasant truths about the tragic nature of politics.

At this point, Rome is a small, swampy city of seven hills located along the Tiber –it is not yet the global cultural mecca we have come to recognize today as a legacy of the decadent Roman Empire. According to Suetonius, it was not until the reign of Caesar Augustus that the magnificence of Rome began to take shape (“I found Rome a city of bricks and left it a city of marble”). In contrast, ancient Rome is merely one polis among many, a city at war with other nearby Italian tribes like the Volsci. Rome is not a state in the modern sense, but rather a city (“polis”) in the ancient sense. Perhaps it need not be said that the politics of Rome stands in stark contrast to our own. The Roman polis is small in size and it is distinguished by its geographic location, political regime, and civic religion. Indeed, in Shakespeare’s own age –the Renaissance– he bore witness to the remarkable rediscovery of classical antiquity and its ancient republican ideal, a regime which produces citizens rather than subjects. Writing from under a Christian monarchy, Shakespeare hearkens back to this pagan republic –a political community filled with immense human flourishing as mythological gods and heroes serve an integral function in public life. In a word, ancient Rome could not be more distant from our own modern age. There are no problematic notions of an “afterlife” as found in some of Shakespeare’s other plays like Hamlet. Neither are there modern absolutist notions of a single monotheistic divinity which transcends all political horizons. If characters want to live forever, rather than retreating into prolonged periods of prayer and asceticism, these characters must instead valiantly win enduring fame on the battlefield. As noted by Machiavelli, the genius of the Roman republic is that it subordinated religion to politics. At any rate, in order to protect itself from enemies, Rome relies heavily on the bravery of its warriors –and no Roman is more courageous than Caius Martius (later known as Coriolanus). He is a fierce, relentless warrior filled with self-assurance, self-fulfillment, and thumos. Like Achilles, Themistocles, or Alcibiades, “Noble” Martius “has no equal” and “will not spare to gird the gods” or “bemock the modest moon” and he “disdains the shadow he walks on at noon.” Indeed “his nature is too noble for the world… he would not flatter Neptune for his trident, or Jove’s for power to thunder.” Above all, he desires honor and fame. Martius is the archetypal classical hero –proud, strong, and confident. He is universally respected by the Patricians and the Senate alike. However, he maintains a posture of open contempt for the common people –the Plebians– who have recently been given their own political voice in the form of the tribunate (formed in 494 BC). A total of five tribunes have been granted to the people in order to “defend their vulgar wisdoms” (1.1.210), though only two of the tribunes are actually named in the play, Junius Brutus and Sicinius Veletus. Ostensibly, they both serve as the voice of the Plebians, elevating their concerns and defending their opinions, but Martius varyingly refers to them as “dissentious rogues” with wayward opinions who cry incoherently against the senate, as well as “fragments,” “rabble,” “rats to gnaw their garners,” and “worshipful mutineers.” He generally regards the Plebians as dirty, meek, ungrateful, and unnecessary. His character is noble to some, but loathsome to others.

Whereas our first introduction to Martius is filled with both triumph and arrogance, our initial introduction of the Plebians shows the people brimming with anger and resentment. They are famished, despite a granary surplus, and disillusioned with war against the Volscians. In their populist rage, they seek to place blame at the feet of the best of Rome –especially Caius Martius “the chief enemy to the people” (1.1.5). This riotous citizenry even suggests killing Martius. The Plebians believe Rome is ruled by a rich plutocracy which they regard as unfair and elitist. They look upward with envy at the educated warrior class of Rome. As has often been said, what the Plebians desire above all else is “bread and circuses” in order to be satisfied with life in the city, however both needs being currently unmet, the republic sits in a state of disharmony. Notably at the time Shakespeare was writing, England was enmeshed in plague and anger among the lower classes (Shakespeare, himself, was accused of hoarding his surplus grains). At any rate, some Patricians in Rome are better at speaking with the Plebians than Martius, men like Consul Cominius or Senator Menenius Agrippa.

Shakespeare’s Roman plays, as with Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy, take efforts to carefully draw our attention to the likes of Martius and the strength of the Roman spirit where “it is held that valour is the chiefest virtue.” Rome is a timocratic culture wherein a man would rather die than dishonor himself. Indeed, even Coriolanus’s mother Volumnia values her son’s honor above all else, including his own life. She says she is “pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame” and she would rather have given birth to eleven sons who die nobly for their country rather than one who simply sits voluptuously surfeit out of action. She is a fierce woman, full of thumos (in some ways her character echoes Lady Macbeth). She wants her son to be the best warrior as well as consul. Her character is starkly contrasted with Coriolanus’s gentle wife Virgilia (whom he calls his “gracious silence”). Consider the following remarks made by Volumnia:   

“The breasts of Hecuba
When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier
Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood
As Grecian sword contemning” (1.3.41-44).

She is a woman who both envies and praises the ancient warrior ethos. Needless to say, Martius wins an incredible victory over the Volscis by single-handedly raiding their city of Corioles (or “Corioli”), though Martius is technically under the consulship of Cominius and the generalship Titus Lartius. After refusing to accept defeat, Martius then battles his arch-nemesis and Volsci general, Tullus Aufidius (their relationship is one of “ancient malice” or “ancient envy”). Both men survive the fight but Martius returns to Rome with an injured left arm, crowned with an oaken garland, a valiant hero who is now dubbed “Coriolanus,” the conqueror of Corioles.

Spurred on by his supremely ambitious mother Volumnia, Coriolanus is somewhat reluctantly made a Consul of Rome (“I had rather be their servant in my way, than sway them in their”). This warrior now controversially becomes a politician. However, the delicate art of politics requires a very different skillset from the field of battle. When Martius is compelled to follow the city’s custom and “mildly” parade himself before the Plebians in the gown of “humility,” he once again fails to conceal his disgust for them, excoriating the Plebians as the “the beast with many heads” and refusing to “stoop to th’heard.” In response, the Plebians rise up and riot against Coriolanus, banishing the great warrior from Rome (aided by the two rabble-rousing tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, as well as their aediles plebii, assistants to the tribunes). If he returns, Martius will be threatened with the ancient punishment for traitors –he will be tossed off the Tarpeian Rock. The Tribune Brutus offers the following reflections as to why Coriolanus was banished:

“Caius Martius was
A worthy ooficer I’th’ war, but insolent,
O’ercome with pride, ambitious past all thinking,
Self-loving” (4.6 .29-32)

Volsci general Tullus Aufidius also offers the following reflections upon hearing the news of Coriolanus’s banishment:

“Whether ‘twas pride,
Which out of daily fortune ever taints
The happy man; whether defect of judgment,
To fail in the disposing of those chances
Which he was lord of; or whether nature,
Not to be other than one thing, not moving
From th’ casque to th’ cushion but commanding peace
Even with the same austerity and garb
As he controlled the war; but one of these–
As he hath spices of them all –not all,
For I dare so far free him—made him feared,
So hated and so banished” (4.7.37-48)

Like a beggar, the now-banished Coriolanus wanders southward from Rome to the Volsci city of Antium (Aufidius’s hometown) where Aufidius has already been warned that Coriolanus is en route, and that Rome is in open revolt. When he arrives, Aufidius surprisingly welcomes Coriolanus with a warm embrace. Together, they march on Rome, laying waste to the countryside along the way. After a string of victories, the Volscian soldiers praise Coriolanus for his courage, but it soon becomes clear that being the best warrior poses its own problems. Corionalus’s popularity quickly becomes a threat to Aufidius who begins plotting against his former enemy. Both Senator Menenius Agrippa and Consul Cominius exit the city gates of Rome but they fail to persuade Coriolanus against massacring Rome. Coriolanus is finally persuaded only when his mother Volumnia arrives with his wife Virgilia, their son, and a noblewoman named Valeria. Eventually Coriolanus relents. Upon seeing that he cannot escape his bloodline, he realizes that if he destroys, Rome he will destroy himself. He is intrinsically tied to his city and its people. Coriolanus is then made to realize that he is, in fact, not the “author of himself.” He decides to pursue a peaceful path between Rome and the Volscis. However, the peace is short-lived as a conspiracy instigated by Aufidius then fatally assassinates Coriolanus. Here we see a key moment in the Roman republic, a regime which both begins and ends with an assassination. Perhaps Coriolanus achieves his ambitions of fame and glory after all, as Aufidius claims he will become a “noble memory.”       

Volumnia Pleading with Coriolanus
Richard Westall (c. 1800)

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare shows us the fragility of the ancient Roman Republic –its internal divisions threatening the long-term viability of the republican regime. It seems unlikely from this vantage point that such a city would ever rise up and conquer the known world. However, Shakespeare nevertheless highlights the Rome for a reason. Rome offers an extreme case of a human ideal. It is a regime filled with excesses and deprivations, virtues and vices. In many ways, it is hard for us to avoid Shakespeare’s admiration for the Roman Republic, the undefeated eternal city. It has long been a popular academic theory that Shakespeare used Rome as a metaphor for England (i.e. “Shakespeare’s Rome is filled with Englishmen”), however Shakespeare’s pagan republic is culturally distinct from Christian monarchic England in more ways than one, and Shakespeare takes great imaginative efforts to present Rome as it truly was –an ancient city filled with proud citizens who speak their minds, a prevalent warrior ethos, a timocratic love of honor, and a rich evolving mythology which is integral to civic life. Unlike Christian medieval artwork which often portrays the life of Jesus in various medieval settings like Jesus in Ghent or Bruges and so on, Shakespeare places Coriolanus squarely in Rome, in an effort to accurately portray him in his own context. In Shakespeare’s day, Rome was often viewed as the pinnacle of human civilization (the legacy of the Greeks had only re-emerged in Western Europe after the fall of Byzantium perhaps in the 1450s). From a young age, Shakespeare would have been exposed to the Latin poets Terence, Plautus, Virgil, Horace, Catallus, and Ovid. He also would have read the likes of Livy and Plutarch (both of whom are key sources for Coriolanus). Thus, if Rome is to be regarded as the height of human civilization, it was necessary to portray it honestly.      

However, there is an extraordinary amount of nuance in Coriolanus, this is not simply another vain, conservative praise of the past. Shakespeare’s Roman republic contains both virtues and vices. Its virtue is expressed in its ability to produce warriors like Caius Martius Coriolanus, who can defend the city from its enemies. Its vice lies in its inability to keep the working-class Plebians sufficiently fed and entertained (a problem which will soon be resolved). One organ of the body is being led to rebellion. In turn, the city has failed to educate the Plebians, leading them to be easily swept up in vague superstitions and zealous pathos-invoking rhetoric. And this notion of rhetoric serves a key function in the play. Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus in unrhymed blank verse iambic pentameter –a style which lacks the flowery poetry as found in his other works like Romeo and Juliet. This deprivation of poetry reveals to us something about the character of Rome. Republican Rome is filled with the predominance of rhetoric –many characters deliver vast elaborate speeches because, for citizens in a republic, persuasion is an essential tool, even if characters in the play have few moments alone, and therefore few moments to soliloquize. The austere nature of the Roman republic, while praiseworthy for its spiritedness and elevation of reason, still lacks education, philosophy, and self-knowledge. It struggles to see the good wholistically, in spite of the metaphor of the “body” as invoked by Menenius. While Rome has an abundance of thumos, it lacks eros, the kind of love which acknowledges one’s own lack of self-sufficiency. This deprivation is perhaps best displayed among the Plebians. They long for completeness, the kind achieved by the Patricians. In the Platonic sense, thumos, or the heroic attitude, claims to be self-sufficient, whereas eros is vulnerable, tender, lacking, and poetic, like the story of love propounded by Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium. Both thumos and eros are irrational ways of being, and thus, according to Plato, logos is needed to rein in their excesses. Suffice it to say there are profound tensions between these attitudes in Coriolanus.

When there is an imbalance in the city, various sections of the city believe they can live independently –the Plebians believe they can overthrow the arrogant Patricians since they (the Plebians) are the laborers who toil for the sake of the city, while the warriors like Coriolanus believe they can dispense with the Plebians entirely without consequence. Imagining himself to be the “author of himself,” Coriolanis sees himself as independent and superior to any city. However, a wholly self-determined person, living in isolation outside the city, would surely be either a god or beast (according to Aristotle). Contra Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau, such a man would be unrecognizable to other humans. Therefore, from within the safe confines of the city, we often point to an imagined “state of nature” in order to justify this or that school of political thought, particularly in our own age of absolutist ideologies. However, Coriolanus shows us the tragic impossibility of our own self-sufficiency in this respect –to quote John Donne, “no man is unto himself an island.” The mythic image of an isolated farmer who is wholly self-sustained is little more than a fantasy. According to Aristotle’s Politics, the polis comes into being in order to satisfy the dictates of mere subsistence, but it allows for the flourishing of human life thanks to the birth of culture, art, economic development, and the division of labor –it allows for one person to become an artist, and another to become a magistrate. And since no city-dweller can serve all functions, there is a natural deprivation which makes a person feel unfulfilled in certain respects because each human being desires to become whole and complete. Coriolanus exposes this unsettling but necessary truth about human life and, in doing so, Shakespeare shows us that different classes are actually part of a greater whole, necessary for the health of the body politic, even if they wish to pretend otherwise. Despite representing the peak of heroic virtue, Coriolanus himself is not entirely self-reliant. Whether he realizes it or not, Coriolanus is intrinsically connected to Rome –he needs Rome, just as much as Rome needs him. With that being said, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus satisfies classical standards for poetics and tragedy –it both edifies as well as delights. Coriolanus offers a lesson in temperance for troubled times. Patricians like Coriolanus would do well to wear the gown of “humility” and transform themselves into “friends of the people” by showing compassion for their struggles and paying deference to their customs and superstitions, but above all, the Patricians must learn to understand and respect the Plebian desire for “bread and circuses.” Coriolanus cautions us that greatness necessarily breeds resentment, but in order to be a more complete hero, true greatness also requires diplomacy and the tact of a politician. There is also a lesson for the Plebians in Coriolanus. They would do well to honor their heroes and temper their natural proclivities for populist resentment and banishment, otherwise they risk destroying their own city. In revealing these tensions within the city –between Patrician and Plebian, virtue and vice, war and peace, greatness and mediocrity—Shakespeare subtly lifts the veil of illusion shrouding the idea of self-sufficiency (i.e. he reminds us we are not as independent as we might believe) and he invites us to consider one of the greatest political regimes in antiquity during a period of disharmony so that we may regard it, warts and all, with an eye toward Aristotelian moderation.

For this reading I used the impressive Arden edition of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus along with Paul Cantor’s excellent lectures.

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