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Coriolanus and the Realms of Immanence
Mark Richardson

What sort of an entity is a state? Maybe it is an organism, a kind of body, as the patrician Menenius would have the rabble believe in the first scene of Coriolanus—the scene in which he tries to forestall an insurrection. The patrician senators are the "belly," Menenius says, and though "they receive the general food at first," they do so only to send it through "the rivers of the blood" to the whole of the body politic—of which "body" the commoners constitute the arms and legs, and so on. It is as absurd for the commoners to rebel against the patricians, Menenius maintains, as it would be for the foot to rebel against the stomach. Of course, if the state is in fact like a body, the commoners—that "many-headed multitude" —might also be its cancer. Their uncontrolled prosperity may cause a fever of inflation for which the Federal Reserve (let us say) would have to prescribe a steep hike in the prime rate. This would be the view Coriolanus himself takes. At one point, and with reference to the pretensions of the commoners to share power, he says that his "lungs," until they decay, will "coin words" against "those measles / Which we disdain should tetter us, yet sought / The very way to catch them" (3.1.76-79).

To negotiate with the rabble—to indulge their demands—is promiscuously to expose the body politic to infection (a "tetter" is a boil on the skin such as measles can cause). Better, Coriolanus implies, to keep the peasants in quarantine. A few lines earlier Coriolanus offers another analogy to much the same effect: "I say again, / In soothing [the commoners] we nourish 'gainst our senate / The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition, / Which we ourselves have plough'd for, sow'd, and scatter'd, / By mingling them with us, the honour'd number" (3.1.67-71). Here, the state would be like a garden, and the commoners its weeds or "cockles." They choke off the growth of the "honoured number" —the rare crop that statecraft, properly understood, is meant to cultivate, and also to serve. On the other hand, the real integrity of the state may derive, as the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius argue, from some such cherishable abstraction as "the people," on whom a parasitic patrician class merely fattens itself. This would be the populist reading of the fable of the belly.

Of course, in airing all these questions, Coriolanus was prophetic. England (not Rome) would within a generation fall to a civil war in which the tribunes of the people mounted all the way to regicide. What sort of an entity was England? Shakespeare laid his finger along the fissures in the fabric of the state he and his audiences inhabited. Agrarian, anti-enclosure riots erupted in the English Midlands in 1607, shortly before Shakespeare began work on Coriolanus. As Lee Bliss, editor of the New Cambridge edition of the play, points out, the peasant rioters protested exclusionary land policies that would, in part, lead to the dearth of 1608 (Bliss, "Introduction" 2, 17). And in this they anticipated the grievances of the Diggers and Levellers of the revolutionary years, charging that the patrician "belly"—and here, they spoke with the mob in Coriolanus—had been hoarding the general breadbasket. The authorities were alarmed. They saw in these developments a larger threat to good order. And the problem of maintaining order—of policing the lines—is exactly what Coriolanus concerns. Bliss is no doubt correct: "the staging of a corn shortage and riots in fifth-century B.C. Rome would have seemed anything but 'ancient history'" to the play's first audience (25).

Cockles and tetters notwithstanding, Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia seem to prefer metaphors suggesting that commoners and nobles are of essentially different species— "crows" and "eagles," respectively, birds so unlike one another as to put out of question any possibility of cooperation for mutual benefit. Crows are carrion eaters, parasites; they attend unwholesomeness and decay. Eagles are birds of prey and work the air; they are clean. In scouting the suggestion that the nobles must court, out of policy, the favor of the commons, Coriolanus says:

Thus we debase

The nature of our seats, and make the rabble

Call our cares fears; which will in time

Break ope the locks o' th' Senate and bring in

The crows to peck the eagles.

To "debase the nature of our seats" means: to alloy them, to make them impure. "Courtship"-that is, any effort to compromise, or even to negotiate—always "debases" nobility in Coriolanus. This is the idea of which the play will ultimately make so much, once it becomes clear that "courtship" means "seduction" and, in Coriolanus's (gendered) terms, a kind of "harlotry." Anyway, Coriolanus is right to make the Nietzschean suggestion that "courtship" of any kind will make the rabble call his "cares" "fears." It is certainly true, in this play, that "fear" is the only thing that can make the nobility "care." To whom in the play is this not perfectly obvious? Coriolanus, for his part, calls a spade a spade. The paternal care exhibited by Menenius in his famous speech about "the belly" is a virtue enforced on him (and on his class) by circumstance: they are facing a rebellion. Solicitude is not a virtue; it is simply prudent. So, Coriolanus believes the plebeians should be kept sensible of their own fear, not of the fears of their betters. Fear is weakness; weakness brings out the scavengers. The common crows peck the eagles, making carrion of them, in a shocking reversal of "natural" relations (that is to say, natural relations of predator to prey). And this play finally suggests—what is really no surprise—that "eagles" inevitably give way to "crows." Everyone gets "pecked" in the end. If aristocracy is in fact a "natural" state—if its members are a species, as Coriolanus believes—it nevertheless stands over against a carrion Nature whose depredations it can never finally contain. This is why it is so hard, in this play, to think about politics clearly, let alone to do politics well; it is peopled with bother. Coriolanus fails his own test miserably. Why? Because, as I say, this "carrion" Nature is nothing he can hold at bay; in fact, he finds it at the source, at the very womb, of his "steel-like" manhood and integrity. Volumnia, his terrible mother, is at the bottom of it all. She is the passage through which ruin enters the play. She is the Devil's doorway, as the church fathers might have said, at once matrix and burial ground. That Shakespeare should have so magnified Volumnia's importance attests to his interest in this theme, for, as others have pointed out, there is little warrant for what he does with her in his source for the play, North's Plutarch (Bliss 10). And it is to Volumnia that any reader must turn.

Her suggestion that nobles and commons are different "species" sets something important in motion. When, in pleading with Coriolanus, Volumnia and Menenius suggest that he woo the rabble, we are allowed to draw a conclusion. To woo them is, for Coriolanus, worse than prostitution, which is the metaphor one thinks of first. (Coriolanus himself calls it "harlotry.") To woo them is also miscegenation—or, worse yet, bestiality. It is like seducing a creature of an alien race, which is why it inspires such perfect contempt.

VOLUMNIA. I prithee now, my son,

Go to them with this bonnet in thy hand;

And thus far having stretch'd it—here be with them--

Thy knee bussing the stones—for in such business

Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th' ignorant

More learned than the ears—waving thy head,

Which often thus correcting thy stout heart,

Now humble as the ripest mulberry

That will not hold the handling. Or say to them

Thou art their soldier and, being bred in broils,

Hast not the soft way which, thou dost confess,

Were fit for thee to use, as they to claim,

In asking their good loves; but thou wilt frame

Thyself, forsooth, hereafter theirs, so far

As thou hast power and person.

MENENIUS. This but done

Even as she speaks, why, their hearts were yours;

For they have pardons, being ask'd, as free

As words to little purpose.

VOLUMNIA. Prithee now,

Go, and be rul'd; although I know thou hadst rather

Follow thine enemy in a fiery gulf

Than flatter him in a bower. (3.2.73-93)

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