Early
"The price of one fair word": Negotiating Names in Coriolanus
David Lucking
University of Lecce, Italy
dlucking@mail.clio.it

Lucking, David. "'The price of one fair word': Negotiating Names in Coriolanus." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.1 (1996): 4.1-22<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-1/luckshak.html>.

  1. A curious episode occurs in the aftermath of the battle in which the protagonist of Coriolanus secures for himself the name from which the play itself derives its title. It is an incident which, although of no great importance in itself, receives sufficient emphasis as to stand out in suggestive relief from its immediate dramatic context, hinting at a perspective in which the play as a whole can be viewed. The undisputed hero of the day, Caius Martius, recalls, or professes to recall, a citizen of Corioli who in times gone by has offered him hospitality, and who has now been taken captive in the storming of the town. He requests that his former benefactor be set at liberty, a suit that is willingly granted by his grateful general Cominius. When the officer charged with releasing the captive asks "Martius, his name?", however, the unexpected reply he receives is "By Jupiter, forgot!" (I.ix.88).[1] Things proceed no further than this, for having stumbled upon this mysterious lacuna in his memory, Martius casually lets the matter drop, attributing his forgetfulness to fatigue and inquiring whether there is any wine to be had. The incident continues to reverberate in the mind, however, if only because of its proximity to another event pivoting upon names. This is the improvised ceremony at which Martius is invested with a new name of his own, the agnomen Coriolanus, conferred in recognition of the decisive role he has played in the conquest of Corioli. The implication would seem to be that there is a symbolic connection between the two events, that in some elusive way it is precisely because the name of the defeated town itself has been assimilated to Martius' own that the name of one of its inhabitants should have lost its status as such.

  2. As various critics have remarked, such incidents as these suggest that Coriolanus might be read as a drama about names and naming, about who is empowered to name and on what basis, about what a name designates, and about the relation between names and identity.[2] The play has aptly been described as "the tragic history of a name,"[3] and it is this history that, in some of its broader implications, I propose to examine in the course of the following discussion. It will perhaps be agreed by many readers of this tragedy that among the issues it explores is that of personal identity in its relation to the various communal codes through which selfhood is fashioned and sustained, systems of belief and value which are not necessarily mutually reinforcing or even commensurable, and in the light of which different evaluations of the individual's worth and conduct will be formed.[4] A conspicuous instance of such a cultural code, one that looms into particular prominence in this play, is the ethic of heroic individualism which Coriolanus embodies in so trenchant a form, but there are others which are no less powerful and with which such an ethic will inevitably come into collision. Insofar as these different systems of value are characterized by the distinctive modes of discourse or "languages" that articulate them, the individual's relation to such systems might manifest itself in his attitude towards language as well -- in the way he uses language and also in the way he interprets the function of language. The relevance of names in this context lies in the fact that it is the name by which the individual is known that situates him within the network of heterogeneous and only partially overlapping languages which in their totality make up the linguistic environment of a community. To the extent that the "meaning" of an individual's name resides in a linguistic matrix that corresponds in some way to the complex of cultural codes through which that individual defines himself, the "history of a name" will also be the history of an identity.

  3. In terms of such a perspective, the language of which names comprise a constituent element might almost be perceived as the true medium of action in Coriolanus, human beings themselves being frequently represented merely as voices, in their relation to voices, or as constituted by voices. Attention is directed towards the spoken word in the opening line of the play, when the First Citizen delivers what amounts to an extra-dramatic instruction to Shakespeare's audience: "Before we proceed any further, hear me speak" (I.i.1). What we hear the citizens speak is only one language among the several that the play presents, but it is one which reflects with particular clarity some of those problematic aspects of language which Shakespeare repeatedly brooded over in his drama: its relative, provisional status, its uncertain relation to the objects of its own discourse, its liability to demagogic excess, distortion and outright manipulation. Though not wholly lacking in discipline or its own canons of relevance, the language spoken by the Roman populace is characterized from the first as being volatile, transactional, constantly subject to revaluation. One of its most distinctive qualities is illustrated in the reply one of the citizens makes when asked whether Martius' services to his country do not merit consideration, that he "could be content to give him good report for't, but that he pays himself with being proud" (I.i.31-3). This is the idiom of the market place, unabashedly economic in spirit as well as in vocabulary, an oral currency that participates in a complex network of exchange relationships and that accordingly resists being anchored to fixed meanings. Even the celebrated Fable of the Belly, the "pretty tale" with which Menenius attempts to convert the incensed crowd to the patrician point of view in the first scene of the play (I.i.89), proves not to be exempt from the market laws that govern all discourse. Although Menenius is clearly of the opinion that the significance of his tale is luminously self-evident, what becomes apparent on the contrary is that it is susceptible to and indeed in a sense actually generated by interpretation, that the meaning of the story is not somehow contained within itself but externally determined by the community of listeners.

  4. In his public pronouncements, at least, Martius evinces a conception of language which is radically opposed to that of the market place. His willful disregard for the practical dynamics of language use mirrors his equally deliberate refusal to acknowledge the social mechanisms by which values, including the values upon which his own sense of self is dependent, are created and sustained.[5] Whereas the plebeians are aware that meaning is contingent on viewpoint, the patrician Martius professes to be an unshakable believer in intrinsic meanings, just as he is a staunch believer in such absolute virtues as his own valour and integrity.[6] One of the things he most detests about the plebeians is precisely that their language is relative, incessantly shifting, conditioned by the mutating conditions of the moment: "With every minute you do change a mind, / And call him noble that was now your hate" (I.i.181-2). That language is not to be compromised or prostituted, but exacts its own inviolable standards of integrity, is the linguistic corollary of Martius' severely aristocratic value system. It is symptomatic of this linguistic puritanism that he should be able to think of no more vehement phrase to express his abhorrence for the Volscian general Aufidius than to say that "I do hate thee / Worse than a promise-breaker" (I.viii.1-2). Keeping one's word being for him a supreme psychological, as well as strictly ethical, imperative, he strenuously resists the notion that words might merely be exchangeable tokens, and that they might therefore fluctuate in value like any other currency. It is his anxiety about the linguistic ramifications of the market ethos, his awareness that "things created / To buy and sell with groats" (III.ii.9-10) might buy and sell with words as well, that leads in the end to his rupture with his society. When he falls foul of the tribunes by unambiguously speaking his mind he refuses to salvage the situation by making even a token concession to the law of equitable exchange, defiantly insisting instead that "I would not buy / Their mercy at the price of one fair word" (III.iii.90-91).

  5. At least as regards Martius' conscious motivations, then, it might appear that James Calderwood is right in asserting that this militant insistence on the integrity of language represents an attempt "to fashion a private language whose words, unlike those of the plebeians, are cemented to their meanings and incapable of distortion."[7] This is not, however, all that there is to the matter. There is considerable evidence to suggest that what is ultimately responsible for Martius' almost perverse inflexibility in matters pertaining to speech is his own intuition that what language generates are, in the final analysis, inevitably no more than relative truths, truths that are both provisional and manipulable. Furthermore, I think it might reasonably be argued -- though the majority of recent commentators on the play would doubtless disagree with me -- that Martius himself participates, more than he is prepared to admit, in precisely those linguistic practices he most condemns. That Martius is aware of the real nature of language is indicated, among other things, in the fact that he is himself perfectly prepared to exploit its rhetorical potential, even if only in determinate circumstances. Although he protests that he is constitutionally incapable of flattery, for instance, it is difficult to imagine what more appropriate term might be applied to his exhortation to his soldiers on the battlefield, men who belong to the detested plebeian order and so under normal conditions would be beneath his notice altogether:

      If these shows be not outward, which of you
      But is four Volsces? None of you but is
      Able to bear against the great Aufidius
      A shield as hard as his. (I.vi.77-80)

    This invigorating specimen of rhetoric, triggered by the spectacle of the soldiers enthusiastically casting their caps into the air (I.vi.76 SD) comes a few scenes after that in which Martius has excoriated the Roman citizens in the most contemptuous possible terms, deriding them among other things for precisely the same gesture of throwing their caps into the air (I.i.211-13). Apparently Martius believes that there is ample justification for dissembling one's true feelings and intentions in war, that it is entirely honourable, as his mother Volumnia puts it, "to seem / The same you are not" (III.ii.46-7) at least as a matter of tactical policy. The principle of dissimulation having once been admitted, however, whether in words or in conduct, the question of where the line of demarcation is to be drawn between the legitimate and the illegitimate use of "seeming" becomes overwhelmingly problematic.

  6. This contradiction between the linguistic absolutism that Martius professes and the pragmatic manipulation of language to which he often resorts in practical affairs appears elsewhere as well. Commentators on the play, evidently acquiescing in its protagonist's monolithic conception of his own character, have not on the whole taken adequate account of his posturing, the histrionic dimension to much of his conduct, his tendency to play roles,[8] and have consequently minimized or overlooked altogether the element of ambiguity and even of insincerity in his character. Ironically, it is the supposedly benighted citizens of Rome who are able to penetrate his mask and perceive not only that he is desperately avid for celebrity but that in his all-consuming dedication to fame he is guilty of unconscious duplicity:

      I say unto you, what he hath done famously, he did it to
      that end: though soft-conscienced men can be content to
      say it was for his country, he did it to please his mother,
      and to be partly proud, which he is, even to the altitude of
      his virtue. (I.i.35-9)

    Martius' much-vaunted patriotism is subservient to, or at least closely allied with, his impulse to self-aggrandizement, his craving to have his exploits extolled publicly. While he may not indulge in the comparatively naive kind of "narrative self-fashioning" that Stephen Greenblatt ascribes to Othello,[9] he does seem to be continually striving to induce others to enshrine his exploits in the elevated language of epic favoured by such exponents of patrician values as Cominius. Volumnia reminds her son at one point that "My praises made thee first a soldier" (III.ii.108), and whatever Martius says or believes about the matter, it is on praise that he continues to subsist.[10] Although Martius frequently proclaims his aversion to being made the object of what he terms "acclamations hyperbolical" (I.ix.50), he invariably does so in circumstances in which, as he cannot fail to be aware, his remonstrations will go unheeded, in which they will avail not to stifle praise but to magnify it. Such affectation is not incidental to his character, for as the prominent strain of theatrical imagery in the play suggests, Martius is constantly playing to an audience, always on stage in one form or another, until the moment of reckoning at last comes in which "Like a dull actor now / I have forgot my part and I am out, / Even to a full disgrace" (V.iii.40-2). And the primary function that this role-playing discharges is of course that it also imposes roles on others, obliging them to say of Martius what he wants to hear, to transform his life into heroic narrative, to immortalize his deeds and character in that "good report" which Volumnia says would have served as a satisfactory substitute for her son even in the event that he had died in battle (I.iii.20-21). Menenius displays considerable insight into the covert motivations of his friend when, seeking to confer with him in the Volscian camp towards the end of the play, he bases his claim to consideration on the fact that he has been "The book of his good acts whence men have read / His fame unparallel'd, haply amplified" (V.ii.15- 16). The name of Martius' mother, Volumnia, may be assimilable to the same pattern of imagery.

  7. It is in the light of Martius' eagerness to have his deeds and virtues commemorated in words that we should read such scenes as that following the capture of Corioli in which the hero is invested with his new name. What has perhaps been insufficiently emphasized by critics examining this episode is the pertinacity with which Martius contrives, through irritable disclaimers and patently insincere exhibitions of modesty, to keep the limelight focused uninterruptedly on himself, notwithstanding the fact that there are presumably more pressing matters to attend to in the wake of a major battle than the awarding of palms. Cominius gives credit where credit is due by telling Martius that an exhaustive narration of his exploits would strain even his own capacity for belief -- "If I should tell thee o'er this thy day's work, / Thou't not believe thy deeds" (I.ix.1-2) -- and assuring him that a suitably glowing report will be delivered in the appropriate quarter. When Lartius adds his tribute to that of his general, however, Martius suddenly begins to disparage his own performance, declaring that he has done no more than what his sense of duty has required of him. As occurs elsewhere in the play, the effect of this ritual of self-deprecation is not to stem the flow of praise but positively to oblige the others to intensify their efforts to render the honour that is due. Lest Martius suspect him of trying to buy him off with a handful of compliments, Cominius assures him that there is no question of attempting to discharge a debt, that the public proclamation of Martius' value performs a symbolic rather than a compensatory function:

      `Twere a concealment
      Worse than a theft, no less than a traducement,
      To hide your doings, and to silence that,
      Which, to the spire and top of praises vouch'd,
      Would seem but modest. Therefore I beseech you --
      In sign of what you are, not to reward
      What you have done -- before our army hear me. (I.ix.21-7)

    But Martius continues to demur, saying that "I have some wounds upon me, and they smart / To hear themselves remember'd" (I.ix.28-29). Possibly growing somewhat impatient at Martius' obstinacy, his stubborn refusal to let the matter of his merit be decently settled and dismissed, Cominius proposes more tangible tokens of appreciation:

      Of all the horses --
      Whereof we have ta'en good, and good store -- of all
      The treasure in this field achiev'd and city,
      We render you the tenth (I.ix.31-4)

    Such an offer would almost constitute an affront to Martius, since what it amounts to is a tacit attempt to quantify his merit, to measure it according to the criteria of the market place. Martius has already expressed the most scathing contempt for those soldiers who, looting the city, "prize their hours / At a crack'd drachma" (I.v.4-5), and he now declines Cominius' offer on the grounds that he "cannot make my heart consent to take / A bribe to pay my sword" (I.ix.37-8). It is at this point that Cominius offers Martius the only recompense he is likely to accept, the formal recognition of absolute rather than relative value, a public acknowledgment that Martius has not only made a valuable contribution to the success of the day but has converted that success into an exclusively personal triumph. This acknowledgment takes the form of the supreme trophy of the name by which Martius is consecrated as hero of his people and indelibly inscribed in the language of his country:

      Therefore be it known,
      As to us, to all the world, that Caius Martius
      Wears this war's garland: in token of the which,
      My noble steed, known to the camp, I give him,
      With all his trim belonging; and from this time,
      For what he did before Corioli, call him,
      With all th'applause and clamour of the host,
      Martius Caius Coriolanus! (I.ix.57-64)

    Martius not only does not refuse this name, conferred amid accolades of precisely the sort he claims to detest, but totally appropriates it as his own in words which hint at a ceremony of self-baptism:

      I will go wash;
      And when my face is fair, you shall perceive
      Whether I blush or no: howbeit, I thank you.
      I mean to stride your steed, and at all times
      To undercrest your good addition,
      To th'fairness of my power." (I.iv.66-71)

    It is immediately after this, when attention is deflected from himself towards the more urgent business of negotiating with the defeated Volscians, that Coriolanus once again thrusts himself to the center of the stage by recollecting the old citizen of Corioli whom, in a fine display of soldierly magnanimity, he petitions to be released, but whose name he has so inexplicably forgotten.

  8. If Martius' tendency to monopolize the limelight already betrays the essential hollowness of his pretensions to lofty self-sufficiency, there are overtones to the foregoing scene that are even more ironic in potential, even more at odds with the absolutist aristocratic ethic professed by both Martius and Cominius. For although what Martius and Cominius are ostensibly talking about is the attribution of honour in recognition of an order of merit that transcends considerations of mere price, they are also, in a certain sense, though perhaps unbeknownst to themselves, engaged in a subtle process of bartering. While Cominius augments his offer by successive increments, Martius persists in holding out for more, until at last a price is arrived at that Martius does consider commensurate with his dignity, the price of one fair word. Martius too, in other words, is in his own way playing by the rules of the market place, negotiating so that the maximum amount of glory will accrue to himself. It is the fact that such tacit bargaining does occur even in patrician circles that gives ironic point to the scene in which Menenius and Volumnia compile an inventory of Martius' wounds and eagerly compute their number, arriving by meticulous calculation at a figure of twenty-seven (II.i.144-55). Martius affects to regard his wounds as the purely private tokens of honour, and will not demean himself before the Roman populace so far as to "Show them th'unaching scars which I should hide, / As if I had receiv'd them for the hire / Of their breath only!" (II.ii.148-50). The fact that the nature and number of his scars is a matter of public knowledge, however, suggests that they have become, to all intents and purposes, negotiable units of value on the patrician honour market.[11] And since Martius' acquisition of honour -- and of the name which is the linguistic embodiment of that honour -- does after all have more than a little in common with a market transaction, it is ironically appropriate that when one of his admirers remarks that "there's wondrous things spoke of him," Menenius should reply "Wondrous! Ay, I warrant you, and not without his true purchasing" (II.i.136-8).

  9. Coriolanus' tragedy, if tragedy it can be called, proceeds from a category confusion, a failure (or refusal) to discriminate between dimensions of value or, more accurately, to openly acknowledge what his own behavior confirms: that all value is in the final analysis relative and therefore subject to negotiation. The crux of the problem appears in Volumnia's account of her motives for instilling the desire for achievement into Martius, "considering how honour would become such a person -- that it was no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if renown made it not stir" (I.iii.10-12). Whereas Volumnia draws a pragmatic distinction between honour and fame, however, Coriolanus is convinced that there exists a necessary correlation between the two.[12] If honour is essentially a private matter, or at least for most ordinary purposes can be equated with self-esteem, fame is necessarily public, and depends upon the estimation of others. Coriolanus however believes, or believes he believes, that fame and honour are merely different aspects of the same thing, that public recognition is necessarily due to one who has amassed a sufficient amount of honour, and that the individual's honour increases in direct proportion to his renown. As long as he is dealing solely with members of his own class no incompatibility emerges between the concepts of honour and renown, because in the patrician world the criteria according to which these are determined are essentially identical. It is when he is compelled to descend into the market place, and thereby make explicit what has already been implicit in his bargaining session with Cominius, that a fatal contradiction arises.

  10. This contradiction is dramatized once again in terms of the linguistic metaphor which constitutes a dominant leitmotif in the play and, more specifically, of contrasting conceptions of the status and authority of names. Martius has been invested with a new name at Corioli, and credited in Cominius' dispatches to Rome with "the whole name of the war" (II.i.133-4). When he returns to Rome a herald proclaims that he "hath won, / With fame, a name to Martius Caius" (II.i.162-3), and Volumnia reinforces the association between name and fame when she greets her son with the salutation "By deed-achieving honour newly nam'd -- / What is it? -- Coriolanus, must I call thee?" (II.i.172-3). At first no complications arise for the simple reason that the entire city is united in its admiration for the newly-returned hero, that "All tongues speak of him" with equal adulation (II.i.203). To the profound dismay of the tribunes, who fear that his growing ascendancy might pose a threat to their own prerogatives, Coriolanus' name has become a household word. But it is precisely because a name is only a word, and therefore subject in the final analysis to the forces that govern all language, that Coriolanus is destined to a downfall.

  11. The critical test comes when Coriolanus is obliged to present himself before the common people in order to obtain their ratification for the decision of the Senate to bestow upon him the office of consul. In view of his popularity, no one anticipates any difficulty in Coriolanus' securing the necessary endorsement, provided that he plays by the rules prescribed by custom. As one of the citizens says:

      ... if he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are
      to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them.
      So if he tell us his noble deeds, we must also tell him our
      noble acceptance of them. (II.iii.5-9)

    The language here is transactional: if Coriolanus does one thing, the citizens will reciprocate by doing something in return. At least in form, this is the logic of the market place, the law of quid pro quo, expressed not only in linguistic but in explicitly lingual terms. But Coriolanus has a conception of language which is very far from transactional, and is consequently, as North's Plutarch says of him, "altogether unfit for any mans conversation."[13] When he presents himself before the commoners he fulfills the tribunes' prediction that he "will require them / As if he did contemn what he requested / Should be in them to give" (II.ii.156-8). Actually confronted by members of the plebeian class, he discovers that "I cannot bring / My tongue to such a pace" (II.iii.52-3) as to formulate the humble request that is expected of him, and provokingly announces that it is "Mine own desert" (II.iii.66) that brings him before them. He repeatedly and offensively identifies the plebeians exclusively with their voices, having maliciously taken his cue from the tribunes' insistence that "the people / Must have their voices" (II.ii.139-40), and pointedly mocks the logic of the market place at the same time that he travesties the conventions of courteous speech:

      Coriolanus: Well then, I pray, your price
      o'th'consulship?
      First Citizen: The price is, to ask it kindly.
      Coriolanus: Kindly, sir, I pray let me ha't. I have
      wounds to show you, which shall be yours in private. Your
      good voice, sir. What say you? (II.iii.74-8)

    By failing to comply with all the requirements of the ceremony, refusing to display his wounds on the grounds that it would seem "As if I had receiv'd them for the hire / Of their breath only!" (II.ii.149-59), Coriolanus is denying the plebeians access to what they themselves have obliquely described as "mouths" through which they would willingly have voiced a favourable opinion of his worthiness.

  12. This scene brings to a sharp focus the fundamental contradiction in Coriolanus' view of things, a contradiction that permeates his conception of identity, his notion of what it is to be a man, as well as his attitude towards language. The paradox latent in his position is, as I have already suggested, that the codes through which he seeks to define himself in isolation from his community are themselves derived from that community, that even the image he projects of heroic self-sufficiency is constructed in relation to a social context in the absence of which it would be empty of significance. The fact that Martius presents himself as a candidate for the consulship at all, that he pursues a public office together with a title that confers social definition, indicates that he wishes to situate himself within the institutional framework of his city, to establish (or elaborate) his identity in terms of an antecedent system of cultural conventions. On this occasion as well, as D. J. Gordon points out, "in seeking the voices Coriolanus is a subject looking for his name,"[14] aspiring to yet another "addition" to complement that acquired at Corioli. As is also the case in the scene in which he receives his agnomen, however, Martius is playing by the rules of the game only up to a certain point. What he is actually striving to do once again is negotiate a title for himself without committing himself to the broader implications of the process in which he is engaged, to enhance his personal status through the acquisition of a name without acknowledging that all names depend for their meaning upon a public consensus. When Martius mocks the voices and tongues of the citizens whose votes he is soliciting, in other words, he is placing himself in a position that might be described as one of linguistic inauthenticity, since he wants to be "nam'd for consul" (III.i.194) by the very people whose authority to name he emphatically denies.

  13. Although they initially consent to Martius' nomination as consul, the plebeians are aware of the derision with which they have been treated, and the tribunes adduce this as grounds to arraign their enemy publicly. What is dramatized in the course of the ensuing scenes is, among other things, a contest between rival conceptions of language, a specifically linguistic exemplification of the phenomenon that in more general sociological terms has been referred to as "legitimation crisis."[15] When the tribunes announce that the people have withdrawn their authorization, Coriolanus criticizes their want of linguistic responsibility -- "Have I had children's voices?" (III.i.29) -- and follows this up by challenging their right to speak at all: "Must these have voices, that can yield them now / And straight disclaim their tongues?" (III.i.33-4). Language being for Coriolanus a medium of self-definition, it cannot be compromised as the plebeians have done without compromising the self as well. For his own part, when one of the tribunes charges him with having spoken against the distribution of grain to the poor he defiantly stands by his words even though in so doing he is knowingly committing political suicide: "This was my speech, and I will speak't again" (III.i.61). It is perhaps significant that the issue of the grain, introduced in the opening scene of the play, should present itself again at this critical juncture, because what Coriolanus is in a certain sense doing at this point is claiming a monopoly over words analogous to that which the patricians have been exercising over the food supply.[16] His conception of language as a "servant of essences he alone can recognize because he alone embodies them," to borrow Stanley Fish's useful phrase,[17] precludes the possibility of conciliation or even of genuine communication, because it effectively denies the collective authority of the community to legislate meaning according to its own conventions. In one of Coriolanus' more impassioned outbursts, references to wounds as the index of personal honour, to coinage, and to words coalesce in a revealing association of ideas:

      As for my country I have shed my blood,
      Not fearing outward force, so shall my lungs
      Coin words till their decay ... (III.i.75-7)

    If Martius seems on this occasion to be invoking the conception of words as currency -- the transactional view -- it is only because he is simultaneously claiming for himself the exclusive authority, by virtue of the wounds he has sustained in the service of Rome, to mint that currency. His linguistic despotism becomes increasingly blatant as he urges the patricians to "pluck out / The multitudinous tongue" (III.i.154-5) by abolishing the office of tribune, thus occasioning dismay even among his closest allies. It is at this point that the true basis of linguistic authority, which for better or for worse can only be vested in the community itself, begins to reassert itself as one of the tribunes summons the people "in whose name myself / Attach thee as a traitorous innovator / A foe to the public weal" (III.i.172-4).

  14. It is perhaps worth reiterating that there is nothing homogeneous or compact about the "community" that Martius is defying at this point, just as there is nothing homogeneous or compact about the patrician class he represents. It is made perfectly clear in the play that the tribunes are not simply voicing the will of the Roman populace in whose name they profess to be acting, but are seeking to promote their own particular interests in accordance with canons of Realpolitik which represent one possible, but no more than one possible, conception of rational social conduct. The patricians, similarly, though they formally subscribe to the same absolute values that Martius defends, are prepared in practice to compromise their principles in order to safeguard their privileges. Menenius in particular, though he fully shares Martius' elitist convictions, is also aware that language is transactional by its very nature, and cannot with impunity be deployed merely as a private instrument. He advocates "Only fair speech" (III.ii.96) as the sole means by which Martius might yet extricate himself from his predicament, and is seconded in this counsel by Volumnia herself, who points out that in the present emergency her son might honourably resort to the policy of dissembling he has employed to such good effect in warfare. Despite his unabated repugnance -- "Must I / With my base tongue give to my noble heart / A lie that it must bear?" (III.ii.99-101) -- Coriolanus does in the end yield to pressure, promising his mother to descend into the market place and to "return consul, / Or never trust to what my tongue can do / I'th'way of flattery further" (III.ii.135-7). It is ironic that in the trial which follows Martius, for whom keeping one's word is a supreme imperative, and who hates promise-breakers only to a slightly lesser degree than he hates Aufidius, should perjure himself by failing to honour that undertaking. Provoked by the tribunes, he repeats his error of disregarding the transactional character of language, defying his adversaries with the statement "I would not buy / Their mercy at the price of one fair word" (III.iii.90-91). He is therefore banished "in the name o'th'people" (III.iii.99), and his retaliatory gesture of banishing Rome in his turn (III.iii.123), through the logical culmination of his attempt to usurp the language and judicial procedures of the city for his own purposes, is self-evidently bankrupt as a response.

  15. Martius has been evicted not only from a physical community but from an environing social order in terms of whose conventions he has, while affecting to scorn them, established his own sense of self. When he is subsequently seen in Antium he is shorn of identity, "disguised and muffled" as a scene direction informs us, and his subsequent actions might be understood as attempts to recover what has been forfeited. He presents himself before Aufidius confidently expecting to be recognized but, notwithstanding the broad hints with which he attempts to elicit his own name from his enemy, he is obliged in the end to pronounce it himself. It is tempting to suspect the presence of a parodic undercurrent to this scene, a kind of travesty of Martius' own epic conception of himself, as the literary convention of the disguised hero's unmasking himself to the infinite confusion of his enemies degenerates into something bordering on bathos:

      Aufidius: Whence com'st thou? What wouldst thou? thy name?
      Why speak'st not? Speak, man: what's thy name?
      Coriolanus: [Unmuffling] If, Tullus,
      Not yet thou know'st me, and, seeing me, dost not
      Think me for the man I am, necessity
      Commands me name myself.
      Aufidius: What is thy name?
      Coriolanus: A name unmusical to the Volscians' ears,
      And harsh in sound to thine.
      Aufidius: Say, what's thy name?
      Thou hast a grim appearance, and thy face
      Bears a command in't. Though thy tackle's torn,
      Thou show'st a noble vessel. What's thy name?
      Coriolanus: Prepare thy brow to frown: know'st thou
      me yet?
      Aufidius: I know thee not! Thy name?
      Coriolanus: My name is Caius Martius, who hath done
      To thee particularly, and to all the Volsces,
      Great hurt and mischief: thereto witness may
      My surname, Coriolanus. (IV.v.54-69)

    "Only that name remains" (IV.v.74), he complains a moment later, apparently forgetting that this name can hardly have the meaning for the Volscians that it has for himself, since its significance depends upon conventions specific to the community from which he has been exiled. Although Aufidius, who has evidently already determined to exploit Martius' vulnerabilities for his own purposes, refrains for the moment from pointing out the inappropriateness of Martius' invocation of his agnomen in the present circumstances, the issue will assume crucial importance in the final scene of the play.

  16. Aufidius, explicitly aware of the relativity of value as Martius is not, knows that in the final analysis it is a function of a public consensus and therefore inevitably subject to the shifting circumstances of the moment. As he later says:

      So our virtues
      Lie in th'interpretation of the time,
      And power, unto itself most commendable,
      Hath not a tomb so evident as a chair
      T'extol what it hath done.
      One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail;
      Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail. (IV.vii.49-55)

    This perception gives him an immense advantage over Coriolanus, who continues to adhere to the doctrine of absolute value that his own behavior has exposed as specious. With a view to securing his own advantage, Aufidius astutely supplies Martius with exactly what he most craves at this moment, the exterior tokens of boundless admiration, the prospect of reconstituting himself in the esteem of his former foes, "fair words" in abundance:

      I lov'd the maid I married; never man
      Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here,
      Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
      Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
      Bestride my threshold. Why, thou Mars! (IV.v.115-19)

    It is symptomatic of the torpor into which his critical faculties have lapsed that Martius fails to perceive the glaring insincerity of such remarks as this, or finds anything in the least suspicious in Aufidius' subsequent asseveration that the Volscians would attack Rome "Had we no quarrel else to Rome, but that / Thou art thence banish'd" (IV.v.128-9). The individual who has scorned flattery in any form now becomes hopelessly entangled in its toils, incapable of discriminating between a candid expression of esteem and calculated deception. The irony of this situation becomes almost comically manifest in a servant's report on the scene in which Coriolanus is introduced to other Volscian worthies:

      Why, he is so made on here within as if he were son and
      heir to Mars; set at upper end o'th'table; no question asked
      him by any of the senators but they stand bald before him.
      Our general himself makes a mistress of him, sanctifies
      himself with's hand, and turns up the white o' th'eye to his
      discourse. (IV.v.196-202)

  17. The project that Martius conceives at the instigation of Aufidius to unleash a Volscian army upon Rome in order to wreak exemplary vengeance effectively belies, though he does not know it, the parting words with which he has turned his back on his countrymen: "There is a world elsewhere!" (III.iii.135). His thoughts continue to gravitate obsessively towards Rome, because it is Rome which is the origin and ground of everything he has been and stood for, which continues to embody the authority of community even when he is permitted no option but to define himself in a negative relation to that community. Notwithstanding his new formal allegiance, therefore, he remains essentially bereft of personal coordinates, resembling less a human being than a mechanical colossus devoid of conscience or sentiment, "a thing / Made by some other deity than nature" (IV.vi.91-2). It is Cominius, who after the events at Corioli is uniquely in a position to appreciate the importance that names have for Martius, who comes nearest to comprehending that what the renegade is afflicted with is a tormenting loss of identity, and that his unspoken objective in marching on Rome is nothing other than to fabricate a new name for himself:

      "Coriolanus"
      He would not answer to; forbad all names:
      He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
      Till he had forg'd himself a name o'th'fire
      Of burning Rome. (V.i.11-15)

    In terms of the premises of the play, such a design might seem to possess a certain grim logic. But as Menenius discovers to his chagrin when he visits Martius in the Volscian camp, and is at first rebuffed by the sentinels with the comment "the virtue of your name / Is not here passable" (V.ii.12-13), names have meaning only within the context of a specific linguistic community. For this reason Coriolanus' project is ultimately self-defeating, because the name he intends to forge for himself in the fire of burning Rome is to be acquired through the complete annihilation of the only linguistic community that, in the view of a Roman such as himself, can underwrite names and endow them with significance.

  18. The contradictions latent in Martius' stance with respect both to his own name and to the identity which that name designates become manifest when his family visits him in an effort to intercede on behalf of Rome. Notwithstanding Martius' declaration of his intention to act "As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin" (V.iii.36-7), Volumnia and Virgilia make an initial attempt to reclaim Martius for their community on the grounds of personal affiliation, contesting in effect his radically simplified conception of what a name consists in, his exclusive identification of it with individual renown. If Coriolanus' agnomen is a purely personal token of honour, his nomen Martius designates the clan to which he belongs, the "noble house o'th'Martians" of whose history, as even the tribunes obliquely acknowledge, any scion might legitimately be proud (II.iii.236-43). When Volumnia describes Martius' son, who has inherited his name, as "a poor epitome of yours, / Which by th'interpretation of full time / May show like all yourself" (V.iii.68-70), she is invoking another possible basis for identity than that which is to be located in a personal reputation alone. She is also, in a certain sense, unwittingly supplying her own commentary on Aufidius' remark that "our virtues / Lie in th'interpretation of the time" (IV.vii.49-50), since the "interpretation of full time" through which a child arrives at maturity belongs to a realm of human experience unaffected by the provisional status of reputation. Martius' wife Virgilia reiterates this idea when she tells her husband that she has "brought you forth this boy, to keep your name / Living to time" (V.iii.126-7).[18] What is being suggested -- or what at least might reasonably be inferred -- is that the only kind of immortality to which the individual can attain is to be found not in the endless reverberations of undying fame but in what Shakespeare refers to in the sonnets as "increase,"[19] and that the perpetuation of the self achieved through such means affords access to a domain of value which, though certainly not absolute, is perhaps not entirely arbitrary either.

  19. From the point of view of the personal tragedy depicted in this play, however, what is chiefly significant about this phase in the conference is that Martius does not draw such an inference, or at least does not allow himself to be swayed by it. He tries instead to terminate the discussion, and it is at this point that Volumnia changes verbal tactics, this time shrewdly striking her son where he is most vulnerable. If the concept of "name" has been briefly associated with familial self-perpetuation in her abortive appeal to Martius' paternal sentiments, it is once again firmly coupled to fame in her subsequent remarks, though in the unexpectedly negative sense this time of notoriety. For the first time it is given Martius very clearly to understand that a famous name might be the token not of honour but of its precise opposite:

      ... if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
      Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name,
      Whose repetition will be dogg'd with curses,
      Whose chronicle thus writ: "The man was noble,
      But with his last attempt he wip'd it out,
      Destroy'd his country, and his name remains
      To th'insuing age abhorr'd." (V.iii.142-8)

    Volumnia goes even further, and warns that she herself might become the mouthpiece through which this unenviable chronicle finds utterance. This occurs at the climax of the impressive sequence of rhetorical variations on the theme of speaking in which, in a devastating crescendo, she ranges over the entire spectrum of human and social obligations that Martius is violating and then, unsure of the effect her words are having, pronounces what amounts to a threat of anathema:

      Yet give us our dispatch:
      I am husht until our city be afire,
      And then I'll speak a little. (V.iii.180-82)

    The idea that his own mother, who more than any other person has been responsible for inculcating his insatiable craving for a name, might be moved by allegiance to her city to render that name synonymous with betrayal, is intolerable to Martius. For the first time he is compelled to recognize what has always been the case: that his reputation, his name, and hence in the final analysis his very identity, are not in his own hands, that he does not possess an exclusive monopoly on language, that neither in the literal nor the figurative sense can any man be author of himself. In capitulating to his mother at this point he is tacitly deferring to the authority of the community in whose codes he is inscribed, and it is dramatically very appropriate that he should be -- as the eloquent scene direction "Holds her by the hand silent" intimates (V.iii.183) -- left quite literally without words.

  20. While what occurs subsequently might appear to be more in the nature of an epilogue than anything else, there is a certain ambiguity attaching to the conclusion of the play that hints at the possibility of an obscure redemption for Martius and even of a partial vindication of the essentialism he has defended so tenaciously. Aufidius, who is himself chafing under the ignominy of being, as Cominius describes him, merely "The second name of men" (IV.vi.126), and who is seeking a pretext to eliminate his old enemy once and for all, publicly impugns the name of which Martius is so proud: "Dost thou think / I'll grace thee with that robbery, thy stol'n name / Coriolanus, in Corioles?" (V.vi.88-90). Not only does he despoil him of his name, but he even denies his right to name, adjuring him to "Name not the god, thou boy of tears!" when Martius apostrophizes Mars (V.vi.101). Since it is the name of this deity that inspires that by which Martius is familiarly addressed, what Aufidius is contesting in effect is his entitlement even to invoke his own nomen.[20] Angrily asserting his undiminished preeminence in the face of this relentless expropriation of the names in which his sense of self is vested, Martius confronts his enemies with the chronicle of one of the greatest exploits of his career, which is also as it happens the chronicle of one of the Volscians' most humiliating defeats: "If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there, / That like an eagle in a dove-cote, I / Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioli" (V.vi.113-15). But Martius' heroism, like everything else about him, lies in the interpretation of the time, and it is this final effort to affirm his identity through an appeal to the epic quality of his personal story that supplies Aufidius with the justification he needs for killing him.

  21. This death can be construed in different ways: as a kind of coup de grace delivered to a man who has already demonstrated the inauthenticity and ultimate bankruptcy of his notions of value and meaning and selfhood, or as a supreme gesture of personal affirmation on the part of a genuinely exceptionable individual who immolates himself willingly on the altar of his own heroic conception of life. I have been arguing that Coriolanus can be read as a play about the paradox inherent in the concept of personal identity, and that it raises questions concerning the status of selfhood in a world in which all definitions of selfhood are socially given. But perhaps it should also be pointed out that if the contradictions latent in Martius' ideal conception of himself are exposed with relentless clarity in the course of the play, there is no alternative viewpoint -- neither that of the patricians or the tribunes or the Roman populace -- that receives the tacit endorsement of unambiguously sympathetic treatment.[21] It is true that the sheer single mindedness of Martius' quest for absolute meaning has severed him from the only possible ground of meaning, leaving him without a name and without an identity in the end. But it is no less true that, with the expulsion of Martius and what he stands for, Rome has disintegrated into a babel of quarreling factions. The dialect of the marketplace now appears as the travesty of itself, with Menenius assuring the citizenry that Martius will "pay you for your voices" with wholesale destruction (IV.vi.137), and one of the tribunes, referring to the report that Martius has joined forces with Aufidius, expressing the wish that "half my wealth / Would buy this for a lie!" (IV.vi.160-1). And if Rome does in the end achieve a precarious unity which is signaled in the communal festivities surrounding Volumnia's triumphal return after her final conference with her son, it must not be forgotten that this unity is the direct consequence of a decision that Coriolanus has taken, one for which he personally assumes full responsibility. Whatever his defects, and they are without question monumental defects, it is arguable that even amid the ruins of his ambition Martius remains the noblest Roman of them all.

  22. Because the ambiguity surrounding Martius' life attends its termination as well, both possible views of the significance that is to be attributed to the circumstances of his death may be equally valid. Coriolanus is the tragedy of a man who, in the name of a realm of absolute value he believes to be worthily exemplified only by himself, seeks first to manipulate the conventions by which selfhood is socially constituted, and then, when those conventions prove intractable to his efforts at total appropriation, resolves to dispense with them altogether. He begins by inciting others to become "The book of his good acts whence men have read / His fame unparallel'd, haply amplified" (V.ii.14-16), and arrives at the point of proclaiming, in a pun that is no less suggestive for being involuntary, his intention to act "As if a man were author of himself" (V.iii.36). The posthumous destiny that awaits him is that anticipated, once again in narratological terms, in the words of the conspirator who urges Aufidius to kill him before he can address the Volscians, so that "When he lies along, / After your way his tale pronounc'd shall bury / His reasons with his body" (V.v.57-9). The final irony of the play may be that the man who has lived his life as his own epic narrative is fated at the last to be absorbed into the narrative of another, to survive even in memory only as an interpretation of the tale he has not been granted sufficient time to relate. Or the final irony may be of another kind altogether, consisting in the possibility that Aufidius will honour his solemn undertaking that his victim "shall have a noble memory" (V.vi.153), that Martius will therefore achieve in the end precisely what he desired to the exclusion of all other imperatives, and that the man who has lived for a name and died for a name will after all go down in history by that name.

Notes

Works Cited


Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at EMLS@UAlberta.ca.


1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(April 23, 1996)