Coriolanus begins with what David G. Hale called a “plebians’ riot,” or what Shakespeare called “a
company of mutinous Citizens with staves, clubs, and other weapons.” Arthur Riss, Frank Kermode, Philip
Brockbank, and countless others have chiefly explained the significance
of this “plebians’ riot” by propagating E.C Pettit’s 1950 claim that it
was inspired by the Midlands Insurrection of 1607; this, in addition to
a reference to a hot coal on ice
(an elliptical allusion to the great frost of 1607-8), is principally used to confine the play’s composition
to 1608 or thereabouts. While I’m not here going to contest this dating
of the play, since most critics admit that “no decisive evidences exist
to determine the precise date of the play’s composition,” the categorical assumption that
the opening “riot” has some correspondence to the Midlands Insurrection
needs re-examination, not only because it is generally weak, but because
this assumption of a Midlands correspondence has overwritten what should
be clearer correspondences between the play and essentially urban anxieties
over dearth and upheaval.
There is more at stake here than whether we imagine
a Shakespeare who drew his inspiration from either the Midlands Insurrection
or from (for instance) London’s Tower Hill or Evil May Day riots. The critical
orthodoxy that ties Coriolanus to the Midlands Insurrection has effected
the building of strained connections between the play’s social concerns
and those of the Midlands rebels, enclosure chief among them; this has in
turn left many promising readings of the play unduly concerned with somehow
detecting phantom commons in Shakespeare’s Rome. Arthur Riss, for instance,
claims that the
[Midlands] rebels […] were protesting the landowners’ policy of transforming
traditionally public, open fields into centralized, fenced-in, private
property…In essence, just as the Midlands Revolt foregrounded the conflict
between a communal and private organization of property, Shakespeare in
Coriolanus dramatizes the conflict between communal and private
notions of the body. The movement to enclose land is metaphorically linked
to the constitution of the individualistic, enclosed self.
While there is of course a correspondence between the public and
private concerns of the Midlands rebels and the public and private concerns
of the Caius Martius, this reading moves unnecessarily outside the text
of the play – the focus of Riss’s article is on the role of language in
describing and performing the separation of public and private bodies, a
reading of the play which really does not need the Midlands Insurrection
(and is more than a bit strained by it). While Coriolanus admittedly
has one compelling textual connection to enclosure, (the only known Shakespearean
use of the word “depopulation,”) it is otherwise barren of direct or metaphorical
references to the practice. This is surprising because the use of enclosure
as a trope elsewhere worked as a sort of connotative shorthand: when Marlowe’s
Barabas wants to “enclose / Infinite riches in a little room,” it’s clear that Marlowe is leveraging
the word “enclose” to move Barabas’s “Infinite riches” closer to being fundamentally
distasteful. While other authors like Marlowe were, in short, making productive
and direct use of enclosure metaphors, Shakespeare seems to have avoided
them in Coriolanus.
Critics’ connections of the “plebians’ riot” with
the Midlands Insurrection are also surprising because neither Shakespeare’s
riot, nor its corresponding riot North’s Plutarch (which was the principal
source for Coriolanus) involves a land dispute. North’s riot is closer
than Shakespeare’s however; his citizens riot because their assets are being
seized by usurers and creditors, and because
[The Senate] suffered them to be made slaves and bondmen to
their creditors, and besides, to be turned out of all that ever they had:
they fell then even to flat rebellion and mutiny, and to stir up dangerous
tumults within the city.
This, because it concentrates on the forced movement of citizens
into poverty and systematic threats to their livelihood, seems closer to
enclosure than Shakespeare’s riot, which is over grain subsidies. “Let
us kill him,” says one citizen (meaning Caius Martius), “and we’ll have
corn at our own price.” And he continues:
What authority surfeits on would relieve us. If they would
yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess the
reliev’d us humanely; but they think we are too dear. The leanness that
afflicts us, the object of our misery, is an inventory to particularize
their abundance. Let us avenge this with our pikes, lest we become rakes;
for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for
This citizen’s assumption that the patricians
are hoarding grain points to a particular anxiety over social exchanges
and entitlements that, I think, are specifically urban and were specifically
tested during the Great Dearth of 1593-97. And while I’ll avoid arguments
about authorial intent, it also seems clear that Shakespeare chose to
move his “plebians’ riot” away from North’s rhetoric of “slaves” and “bondsmen,”
where it might have found more ready association with the depredations
of enclosure, which turned nominally independent copyholders into itinerant
wage laborers. What he was moving towards was, I think, nothing less
than a foundational rearticulation of political relationships whose principal
anxieties included the distribution of food.
Agriculture and the Republic
The contentious political relationships in Coriolanus
have been the focus of re-readings and rewritings of the play since at least
the late seventeenth century; Restoration authors certainly saw the potentials
of shaping the play to fit current affairs – hence Nahum Tate’s Ingratitude
of a Commonwealth (1682), John Dennis’s The Invader of His Country
(1719), and Thomas Sheridan’s Coriolanus: or, The Roman Matron (1755).
But it was John Philip Kemble’s interpretation of Coriolanus, loosely
based on Sheridan’s, that seems to have inspired well over a century of
decidedly anti-republican performances and criticisms of the play. E.C.
Pettit, apart from connecting the play’s opening riot to the Midlands insurrection,
also concluded that because Shakespeare was himself a landowner he would
have deeply distrusted the commoners of Coriolanus’s Rome.
C.C. Huffman likewise reads the play as a defense of Jacobean autocracy, and W. Gordon Zeeveld maintains
that Shakespeare’s audience, as anti-republican as Pettit’s Shakespeare,
would have read Coriolanus’s personal tragedy against a larger “tragedy
of the commonwealth” which ends in the “spectacular failure of representative
government.” More recently,
Jonathan Goldberg has concluded that Jacobean culture in general and Coriolanus
in particular are “devoted to the absolutist project.”
But newer threads in the tapestry of Coriolanus
criticism have been spun by connections between Shakespeare’s Roman republic
and notions of English civility. Part of this argument rests on the play’s
reception by what Patrick Collinson called an “audience familiar with the
notion of a balanced republic but not itself republican,” or a politically
sophisticated Elizabethan society who had “cut its teeth on the acephalous
conditions of Edward IV’s minority.” As Markku Peltonen has claimed,
while the audience of Coriolanus had likely not seen Edward’s minority,
the residue that minority’s political sophistication led to a citizenship
that saw itself in terms of participation rather than subjection, or in
terms of a “monarchical republicanism” which imagined that the workings
of power were not confined to the court and its intimates. Because of this sophistication, Andrew Gurr
sees the probable reception of Meninius’s fable of the body politic as a
cynical “verbal smokescreen” that demonstrates his contempt for Rome’s citizens,
and an attempt to exclude them from a civic participation rooted in republican
ideas of self rule which were, in Elizabethan and Jacobean England, increasingly
valued and widespread. As Patrick Collinson notes, the 1594 Bond
of Association (which provided for government of the realm in the event
of Elizabeth’s death) included the signatures of English and Welsh city-dwellers
and freeholders, providing “a vivid insight into both the autonomous political
capacity of the Elizabethan republic and its extent and social depth.”
But as Cathy Shrank has argued, there was
another way in which far wider sections of the population experienced
the kind of political participation that would have made Coriolanus’s
Rome recognizable: namely, the civic politics of the 204 towns and cities
throughout England that had been incorporated by the end of the first
decade of the seventeenth century.
The extent of these incorporated cities’ autonomy was recorded by
the Venetian ambassador Giovanni Micheli, who claimed that London, for one,
seemed to be “governed without the interference of either the monarch or
his ministers,” and Leah Marcus has compared
Coriolanus’s Rome to a Jacobean London that was “dominated by fierce
civic pride and clamor for the preservation of local autonomy.” Other critics, such as Gail Kern Paster, Zvi Jagendorf, and
Alexander Leggatt, have also found the possibility of a specifically urban
civic politics of Coriolanus useful in analyzing the play’s signature
conflict between the needs of the community and those of the heroic individual. In his Bakhtinian reading of the play, Michael Bristol argues
that Coriolanus’s crowd scenes and citizens’ discussions offer an
alternative urban political culture of everyday life,
and Annabel Patterson’s reading of the play, which makes careful distinctions
between the manipulative tribunes and the plebeians, concentrates on the
possibilities Coriolanus offers to increasingly autonomous urban
centers, where citizens could imagine an adjustment of power relationships
in the Jacobean state by which they could claim a greater share of government.
This critical thread, which reads the “mutinous”
citizens as legitimate parties in an essentially republican political negotiation,
has clear implications for the role of language in Coriolanus, not
least in Menenius’s “belly politic” speech. This has also attracted some
critical attention, not least from Arthur Riss, who explores how the play
redeploys “the hierarchies upon which both figurative and political authority
depend,” concluding that “the emergence of philosophic liberalism and its
concomitant claims for an individual’s sovereignty over his or her own body”
threaten the political and linguistic order of Shakespeare’s republican
Rome in much the same way that this emerging model of subjectivity chipped
away at the foundations of absolutism in Jacobean England. Similarly, Thomas Sorge reads
the failure of Menenius’s analogy as part of Coriolanus’s concern
with conflicting republican and anti-republican forces in the context of
the essentially revolutionary and “historically new habit of examining the
validity of conventional signs such as the image of the body politic by
comparing them to the things they are referred to.”
What strains Meninius’s “belly politic” speech is, in other words, a distance
between the political order that his words should represent and the dramatized
material conditions of Roman existence that Coriolanus’s audience
would have inferred using an unstable combination of stage cues and their
own political understandings.
Both Meninius’s attempt to represent a political
order and his attempt to dramatize material conditions of existence have,
in short been understood in the context of an London which was increasingly
autonomous and developing republican sympathies; in this line of criticism,
the citizens’ riot is an attempt to negotiate on purely political terms,
to expand (or to maintain) their prerogatives as citizens in a republic
– prerogatives which are alternately threatened by Caius Martius’s autonomy
and corrupt tribunes. This line of criticism has, for the most part, excluded
a second and earlier line that has principally concerned itself with the
Midlands riots; in this earlier line of criticism, the citizens’ riot is
an attempt to negotiate on purely material terms, to expand (or to maintain)
their food entitlements in the face of largely offstage threats to their
livelihood. But there is no reason that these readings of the play need
be exclusive or even so distant from one another; the Midlands Riots may
have been the violent renegotiation of entitlements chronologically closest
to the writing of Coriolanus, but this should not blind us to the
conditions of food distribution in London, which in many ways closely parallel
Maninius’s speech. And his speech, in this context of food distribution,
also suggests some of the ways that London may have been developing republican
sentiments of its own.
From Point Midlands to Point Tower Hill
The citizen who claims to speak “in hunger for
bread, not in thirst for revenge” assumes that the patricians are hoarding
grain, either in their private capacities as wealthy citizens (as Shakespeare
did), or in their public
capacities as representatives of state order. While this citizen’s grievance
against private hoarding is clearly historically appropriate, since the
crown’s Assize of bread (issued regularly from 1550 onwards) specified
the legal punishments for forestallers (who attempted to buy grain before
it reached the market “to the intent to make the victual or corn dearer
in the market, in hurt and prejudice of the king’s people,”) and for regrators
(who bought as much market corn as possible to “selleth it again dearer
in the market in hurt of the king’s people,”) that it is “authority” that
“surfeits,” rather than “wealth” or some like term, suggests that what is
in fact occurring is civic or institutional hoarding as part of a subsidy
1513 saw the establishment of one such grain subsidy
program financed by London’s guilds, who
Were ordered to lend the civic authorities sums of money […]
to be repaid when the corn was sold. […] Later, the companies were themselves
compelled to purchase the grain in prescribed quantities, and store it
in the Bridge House.
This “Bridge House” was “a great establishment, with granaries, mills,
and even bakeries […] established on London Bridge, and this Bridge House
became the centre of the corn administration.”
Later, on the national level, the Book of Orders of 1586/87 effected the
sale of grain on a “sliding scale of prices … adjusted to reflect the varying
degrees of poverty of its recipients.” These subsidy policies, coupled with imports of Baltic grain,
(which may have lessened as early as 1608 but played a significant role
in relieving the poor during the failed harvests of 1586 and the Great Dearth), provided market-dependent poor significant
relief, both in London and elsewhere. At Norwich, where in 1596 rye had
been selling for 6s 4d. or higher, 4,600 quarters of imported rye were sold
at 4s. per bushel. Likewise, in Shrewsbury, where a bushel of rye cost
a remarkable 12s., 3,200 bushels were imported and sold for 8s. But perhaps
the most ambitious and successful of such subsidy programs was executed
in Coventry between March 1597 and March 1598; it “supplied regularly some
500 to 700 households, perhaps as much as a third and, at its peak, a half
of the city’s population.”
This kind of well organized subsidy was not the
rule for rural England. In 1597 Stratford, for instance, “townsmen petitioned
local justices to impose the Privy Council’s Book of Orders against
hoarding.” The Book
of Orders’ regulations had not, in other words, been in force in Stratford
during the prior four years of failed harvests. One reason for this was
that the relief of rural areas was not principally a matter for the Crown;
the Book of Orders like many subsequent documents, required nobles
to leave London and return to their estates – presumably to manage the distribution
of what food there was and dispense charity as part of customary lord and
tenant relationships, but also to administer the provisions for harvest
failure that the book codified. These provisions were, in short, intended
“to ensure a sufficient stock of grain to which the poor should be given
a priority of access, if necessary with financial assistance.” But the increasingly sharp competition
among peers for increasingly scarce patronage made return to far-flung estates
politically inexpedient, and many (like Robert Devereux) remained at court
despite the provisions in the Book of Orders.
Secondly, the century after Bosworth field saw
the depopulation of the upper nobility – not only in the sense that some
of these were executed, but even many of those who quietly expired saw their
estates revert to the crown at times when, customarily, a new noble would
have been created. This meant that rural areas, who would have
relied on the upper nobility to provide some formal form of subsidy or relief,
found themselves without provisions or subsidies comparable to those in
the Book of Orders, and without the means to institute even the modest
securities allowed the citizens of a town like Lyme Regis.
The citizens’ desire during the opening riot, to
“have corn at our own price,” consequently makes the riot seem like an attempt
to influence policy concerning the disbursement of grain from municipal
granaries, or perhaps some other species of regulated grain subsidy. Either
case would have been historically specific to London – or at least to an
urban area – rather than the Midlands. And other aspects of Coriolanus’s
opening scene also suggest that Shakespeare’s Rome is modeled on some real
or imagined riot in Shakespeare’s London. While I do not think that this
opening scene of necessity found its inspiration in a single event (it could
have drawn its inspiration from a long historical discourse on London rioting)
I think that the 1595 Tower Hill riot provides some compelling parallels.
The Tower Hill riot is one of the few large London
disturbances of the 1590s. As Steve Rappaport has claimed, although there
is evidence of frequent disturbances throughout the 1590s, “it would be
an exaggeration to claim that London’s streets were filled with turbulence
and riot.” There were, in other words, small disturbances. April 1590,
for instance, saw three journeymen imprisoned for breaking windows after
a football game, and May 1592 saw a disturbance between several marshalmen,
who had burst into a house to drag a Feltmakers’ apprentice off to prison,
and a number of other violently-minded Feltmakers’ apprentices who tried
to prevent their friend’s arrest. When these apprentices later gathered
outside of Marshalsea prison, they were truncheoned by marshalmen until
they dispersed. But there are reasons to believe that even this disturbance
was not “very serious”; it is not mentioned in the municipal records, and
watches were not increased nor were other steps taken to prevent further
trouble. Instead, the mayor complained to the queen’s lord treasurer about
the marshalmens’ behavior, and asked that they use more discretion when
serving future warrants.
Tower Hill began similarly in the middle of June
1595, with a group of apprentices sent to Billingsgate for fish. Finding
that fishwives had bought the entirety of the day’s catch for later resale
(which would have been considered either forestalling or regrating if done
with grain), the apprentices caused a disturbance in which they chased several
unlucky fishwives into Southwark and took their fish – paying for it, but
not at full price.
London’s aldermen, perhaps concerned by this incident
and a general discontent with high grain prices, ordered frequent double
watches for the next two weeks and commanded that apprentices and journeymen
should remain indoors on Sundays and holidays. Two days later, the privy
council (perhaps seeing in this wild fish chase the potential for serious
instability) ordered that
insolent apprentices and others inhabiting within the borough
of Southwark…[would] receive open punishment through divers parts of the
city for an open and public example to all others not to commit the like.
This pressure broke what was already a fragile peace.
The crown would later blame the Tower Hill riot
on apprentices, journeymen, and disbanded soldiers who gathered in front
of the Tower “to rescue out of the hands of public officers such as have
been lawfully arrested,” but London’s aldermen insisted that most of
the violence was committed when Tower’s wardens attacked the mayor and other
citizens who had turned out to pacify the rioters. The aldermen would in
fact later bring suit against Tower wardens for the incident.
While this may not seem to have much to do with
the plebians’ riot at the beginning of Coriolanus, there are a few
compelling similarities. The first has been noted by Leah Marcus, who locates
the political inspiration for Coriolanus in jurisdictional disputes
between the London corporation and the crown, which led to the new city
charter in 1608 that guaranteed the city’s “liberties and franchises.”
These disputes clearly comprise the Tower Hill riot’s aftermath, but also
some of the longer-term tensions between apprentices, the city, and crown
agents (like marshalmen) that were the riot’s preconditions.
- Secondly, both riots involve scarcity of food; while this is indirect
in the case of Tower Hill, scarcity speaks to both the cause of the more stringent
regulation that led to the riot (the chase of Fishwives into Southwark), and
the general atmosphere of the riot (since it occurred during the Great Dearth,
when London grain prices were rapidly increasing). Doubtless, some of the
Tower Hill and Coriolanus rioters would have felt the same way as Hugh
Plat, who in 1596
could wish that all inferiour officers in their places, would
have a more charitable and religious care in the execution of those orders,
which have of late been penned, and published with grave and deliberate
advise from the higher powers for the furnishing of our markets with all
kinds of graine.
The subsequent restrictions posed by the aldermen (and privy council
two days later), which restricted the movement of apprentices and journeymen
and allowed for their indiscriminate punishment, could also be the engine
behind one plebian’s complaint in Coriolanus’s opening riot: that the
patricians “provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain
the poor,” not only referring to the class-specific
nature of the aldermen’s and privy council’s edicts (which was commonplace)
but the rapid succession of the aldermen and council’s edicts (which was not).
- Finally, there is some similarity in the riots’ structures. In the
Tower Hill riot, it seems that the mayor and several citizens turned out to
pacify the rioters and, in the process, were assaulted by the Tower wardens.
While there aren’t any warden beatings or Star Chamber suits in Coriolanus,
Menenius – soon followed by Caius Martius and several senators – turns out
to pacify the crowd before the situation further degenerates.
The Belly Politic
The speech Menenius uses to
calm the riot – or in his attempt to calm it, since Rome is saved from the
rioters by the threat of Volscan invasion – has excited a great deal of
commentary, mostly because it plays on the body politic trope so prevalent
throughout both Coriolanus and sixteenth-century England, but also
because it is the first of the play’s many linguistically-mediated political
negotiations. Leonard Tennernhouse, for instance, sees the struggle for
semantic authority between the Commons and James I reflected in the Tribunate’s
struggle to (re)define the ways political power can be exercised in Shakespeare’s
Rome; the struggle to control Rome “in the new order is to be waged with
language.” While Caius
Martius’s place in that order is endangered by his inability to “use language
rhetorically,” the ordering
of Rome, and the conflict between the plebians and the tribunes, happens
in purely representational terrain.
This begins with Meninius’
retelling of Aesop’s fable of the belly:
There was a time when all the body’s members
After a plebian’s interruption, Menenius continues:
Rebell’d against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I' the midst o’ the body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labour with the rest, where the other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body.
“True is it, my incorporate friends,” quoth he,
“That I receive the general food at first,
Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
Because I am the store-house and the shop
Of the whole body: but, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood,
Even to the court, the heart, to the seat o’ the brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live…”
- And then he explicates:
The senators of Rome are this good belly,
This unsurprisingly fails to calm the starving rioters, and the passage as
a whole has (equally unsurprisingly) left critics wondering what this episode
means for Menenius’s character. Stanley Cavell has claimed, as has Stephen
Greenblatt, that Menenius’s version of the fable is in “competition with Sir
Philip Sidney’s familiar citing of the fable in his Defence of Poetry” and consequently highlights
Menenius’s oratorical failure; in Sidney, the tale "wrought such an effect
in the people, as I never read that ever words brought forth but then so sudden
and so good an alteration; for upon reasonable conditions a perfect reconcilement
ensued." But why this oratorical gambit fails
in Coriolanus is another matter entirely, made the more pressing because
Sidney paints it as a success. As Arthur Riss reads the situation:
And you the mutinous members; for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o’ the common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves.
As the plebs see it, the problem is precisely that the patricians
are unwilling to give the plebs anything but words to digest […] therefore,
rather than quieting the rebels, Menenius reminds them of the literal cause
of their rebellion: their empty bellies…
Put another way, Riss is arguing that Menenius’s speech represents the failure
of a metaphorical economy, in which Menenius’s allegorical belly “would have
to become a self-consuming artifact, signifying and then canceling its own
literality,” essentially substituting a benign belly of words for the rumbling
bellies of the starving plebians; in other words, Menenius’s speech attempts
to symbolically appropriate the plebes’ literal collective bellies, and in
the process represent them as something else – the tropic center of a body
politic – to which hunger is applied as a matter of political abstraction
rather than a matter of immediate physical need.
- While Riss’s “speech as self-consuming artifact” conjecture gives
a theoretically compelling explanation for why Menenius’s speech fails, it
doesn’t account for the relationship between Menenius and the plebs that complicates
the speech’s delivery – Menenius gets interrupted by a particularly noisy
plebe a half-dozen times during his sixty-line belly speech, and twice more
before he can explicate it. Those objections aren’t along Riss’s lines of
substituting words for food; the closest line to anything of the sort is the
plebe’s interruption before the speech itself begins: “Well, I’ll hear it,
sir; yet you must not think to fob off our disgrace with a tale.”
- The citizens’ principal objection (which Riss categorically ignores) starts
after Menenius has mapped out his body politic, having told the plebeians
of the limbs’ rebellion against the belly and set up the belly’s response
to them. One of the plebes – the same who wants corn at his own price
– anticipates the body politic analogy Menenius is about to elaborate on and
objects in a remarkable fashion:
The kingly-crowned head, the vigilant eye
This response – uncharacteristically in verse rather than prose – points to
the plebe’s central objection: that the body politic operates with the king
as its head and governor, not with the belly as the center of political power.
This catcalling royalist plebe in the middle of republican Rome suggests Patricia
Meszaros’ argument that Coriolanus is a highly experimental play that
uses well-known ancient history as a mirror for the politics of Jacobean London,
and which attempts to “translate a sense of momentous political change in
England into dramatic terms.”
In this sense, this contested anatomy of the body politic might reflect the
tensions between London’s civic government and the crown, or between republican
and royalist sympathies.
The counselor heart, the arm our soldier,
Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter,
With other muniments and petty helps
In this our fabric, if that they [should by
The cormorant belly be restrained, who is
The sink a’ th’ body] –
- But according to David Hale, this interpretive disagreement
represents a categorical failure of the entire metaphorical project of the
body politic, since the body politic’s other analogical applications in Coriolanus
– such as the exchange between Sicinius and Menenius over whether Coriolanus
constitutes a curably diseased limb to be rehabilitated or a gangrenous one
to be amputated – do not seem politically enlightening.
But his pronouncing the body politic dead on arrival does not account for
its successful employment by Volumnia when Coriolanus, at the head of the
Volscan army, threatens to invade Rome in a scene which closely parallels
the food riot at the play’s opening. “If I cannot persuade thee,” says Volumnia
[…] thou shalt no sooner
This body politic is less elaborate, but still effective – relying on the
same mother/country homology that gave the founder of the Roman republic,
Lucius Brutus, supreme power in Rome. As Anne Barton has claimed, Shakespeare
was indebted to Livy for more than the six belly politic lines he borrowed
from the Ab Urbe Condita; in her reading, Livy’s interest in Rome’s
institutional evolution made Coriolanus, of all Shakespeare’s political
plays, “the only one specifically about the polis.”
But as James Holstun, Karen Aubrey, and Shannon Miller have argued,
Coriolanus is also capable of a multilayered and genre-conscious irony
that borders on the satiric.
Livy’s retelling of Brutus’ founding of the republic presents, in the context
of the body politic, one layer of these ironies:
March to assault thy country than to tread –
Trust to’t thou shalt not – on they mother’s womb
That brought thee to the world. (V. iii. 120-125).
A voice came from the lowest depths of the cavern: “Whichever
of you, young men, shall be the first to kiss his mother, he shall hold
supreme sway in Rome.” Sextus had remained behind in Rome and to keep him
in ignorance of this oracle and so deprive him of any chance of coming to
the throne, the two princes insisted upon absolute silence being kept on
the subject. They drew lots to decide which of them should be the first
to kiss his mother. On their return to Rome, Brutus, thinking that the oracular
utterance had another meaning, pretended to stumble, and as he fell kissed
the ground, for the earth is of course the common mother of us all.
- While this is in Coriolanus a persuasive employment of the body
politic, as Riss has noted, it also operates through several layers of historical
irony. The mother/country homology that preserves the Roman republic in Coriolanus
is the same homology that indirectly led to the Rome’s invasion by Brutus
who, in successfully unraveling the riddle posed by the voice from the cave,
was able to successfully unseat the autocratic Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.
As Livy suggests, Lucius Brutus did this not for ideological reasons, but
to hold “supreme sway” in Tarquin’s place – it was only because of Brutus’s
death in the ensuing re-invasion of Rome by Tarquin’s army, and the elevated
mortality rate of Roman co-dictators, that Rome became the republic Coriolanus
would later unsuccessfully invade.
- This makes for irony in Coriolanus because (1) Brutus used
the body politic, (specifically the mother/country homology,) to invade Rome
and become dictator. The rapid succession of dictators after Brutus, and
the political instability that accompanied it, led to the organization of
republican Rome. (2) Coriolanus fails to invade the republic because the
same mother/country homology is employed by (3) his mother, Volumnia, rather
than his country, in the form of Cominius and (more importantly,) Menenius,
whose belly politic failed to quell the riot in Act I.
- This deeply ironic use of the body politic suggests that the metaphor
was under considerable strain; rather than dying as Hale would have it, or
living on (in spite of Menenius’s singularly unsuccessful usage) as Riss would
have it, the body politic metaphor in Coriolanus was undergoing a transition
between two very different ways of articulating social order. Menenius’s
belly politic, specifically, shows the interpretive and political stretch
marks of a political metaphor trying to linguistically accommodate both a
changing metaphysics of social ordering and more tangible changes in London’s
political structures, and a tension between representational and rhetorical
From Point James to Point Hobbes
- In Leviathan¸ (written about forty years after Coriolanus,)
the body politic would reach a metaphorical nirvana in which the entire apparatus
of the state
is but an artificial man, though of greater stature and strength
than the natural, for whose protection and defense it was intended; and
in which the sovereignty is an artificial soul, as giving life and motion
to the whole body […] the magistrates, artificial joints […] reward and
punishment…are the nerves […] Lastly, the pacts and covenants by which the
parts of this body politic were at first made, set together, and united,
resemble that of the Fiat or the “let us make man,” pronounced by
God in the creation.
This contrasts neatly with 1598, (about ten years before Coriolanus,)
when James wrote himself as the body politic’s head in his True Law of
Free Monarchies, where “from the head…proceedeth the care and foresight
of guiding and preventing all evil that may come to the body, or any part
thereof,” and that “the head cares for the body, so doth the king for his
- Both of these bodies politic leverage the widely understood correspondence
between macrocosm (e.g. politics) and microcosm (e.g. the body). Hobbes describes
his body politic, the “artificial man,” in something approaching those terms:
Nature (the art whereby God hath made and governs the world)
is by the art of man, as in many other things, so in this also imitated,
that is can make an artificial animal […] Art goes yet further imitating
that most rational and most excellent work of nature, man. For by art
is created that great Leviathan called a Common-Wealth or State (in Latin,
Civitas), which is but an artificial man…
The trope of the body politic here at first seems much like James’s, but
it differs in that the resemblance between the state and man is sylleptic
rather than strictly metaphorical. That is, Hobbes only claims that the
between the state and man allows for productive analogical
discussion, not that the state and man correspond in some greater metaphysical
sense. The tenor of Hobbes’s artificial man simile is “imitation,” or man’s
re-enactment of the divine “Fiat
in the “person” of the state.
Hobbes’s, in short, claims we may “say” that the state is an artificial
man as a matter of linguistic expedience. James, on the other hand, claims
the agreement of the Law of nature in this
our ground with the Lawes and constitutions of God, and man, already alledged,
will by two similitudes easily appeare. The King towards his people is
rightly compared to a father of children, and to a head of a body composed
of diners members: For as fathers, the good Princes, and Magistrates of
the people of God acknowledged themselues to their subjects. And for all
other well ruled Common-wealths, the stile of Pater patriae was
euer, and is commonly vsed to Kings. And the proper office of a King towards
his Subiects, agrees very wel with the office of the head towards the
body, and all members thereof…
For James, the body politic is not simply a simile which makes discussion
of “the Lawes and constitutions of God” more accessible, but evidence for
the agreement between these laws and the laws and constitutions of men;
it is both evidence and
a simile in the sense that James does not
admit to the productive separation of those terms. In his case, a simile
which “rightly compares” the monarch to a “father of children” and to the
“head of a body” does not just express a complex political and social relationship
in familiar and accessible terms, but works inside a structure in which
the homologous “agreement” between God’s and man’s laws occupies a space
reserved for the revelation of truth. In that sense, James’s employment
of the body politic is in keeping with more extensive expressions of the
body politic, like Edward Forset’s Comparative Discourse of the Bodies
Natural and Politique
(1606), which takes the similarity of these bodies
as metaphysically given and catalogues their part-by-part correspondence
in grotesque detail.
But as we might expect from
Bacon’s disciple Hobbes, tangible evidence occupies the same interpretive
space that metaphysical correspondence occupies for James. Hobbes’s comparison,
like James’s, rests ultimately on what he considers self-evident similarities,
but what establishes the self-evident for Hobbes are directly observed,
rather than metaphysical, structures of correspondence:
seeing life is but a motion of limbs, the beginning whereof is in some principal
part within, why may we not say that all automata (engines that move themselves
by springs and wheels as doth a watch) have an artificial life? For what
is the heart but a spring; and the nerves but so many strings; and the
joints but so many wheels, giving motion to the whole body as was intended
by the artificer?
Hobbes not only removes the foundation for self-evident homologies of man
and the state to the realm of the observed, but moves his operant terms
there, too. “Life,” Hobbes observes “is but a motion of limbs,” rather than
an essentially unverifiable state for which the movement of limbs would
be one of many symptoms. For Hobbes, the observable is not a manifestation
of a larger structure of similitude that constitutes both the real and proper
order of things, but the only significant component in a reality governed
by principles that the homology of the body politic does not effectively
constitute, but linguistically approximates.
These two bodies politic chart an interpretive
shift between two positions, which the body politic in Coriolanus
positions itself between. James’s body politic is reasoned from the first
principles of a natural homology, and its essential truth is dependent on
his ability to analogically access metaphysical systems by linguistically
identifying them, as well as his ability to linguistically create a metaphysical
system (or position himself within it).
Hobbes’s body politic is built
on first principles as well, but these principles are buried under a materialist
rhetoric. In order to preserve his first principle of “sovereignty,” he
analogically moves it from the head of the body to its soul – the position
of a governing process which has real effects, but is not in itself observable.
He also employs “art” and “nature” to slippery effect, using “art” to describe
both his analogical reasoning from first principles (as when God creates)
and his inductive reasoning from observed phenomena (as when man creates).
“Nature” and “artificial” are used in much the same way.
In other words, the difference between James’s
traditional body politic and Hobbes’s artificial man can be generally accounted
for by epistemological shifts (albeit uneven and granular ones) on a national
scale; where for James the “truth” of the body politic resides in a metaphysical
structure of correspondence, and access to truth means linguistically revealing
that structure, Hobbes maintains that the body politic’s structures of correspondence
are primarily linguistic, rather than metaphysical. Between James and Hobbes,
the body politic has become responsible for explaining observed political
phenomena, rather than policing the boundaries of an omnipresent homology
of social ordering.
This epistemological shift was accompanied by a
shift in the political methods the body politic was pressed into describing.
During the Great Dearth, it seems that the mechanics of London life found
a conspicuous role in the storage and distribution of grain subsidies, importing
Baltic rye, funding the storage of surplus grain in the Bridge House, and
enforcing the crown’s price controls spelled out in the 1596/87 Book of
Orders and the continually reprinted Assize of bread, among others.
If other aspects of Coriolanus find their
inspiration in late sixteenth-century London, it should be unsurprising
that Menenius’s belly politic, which elevates the grain-distributing bureaucracy
above the crown, should speak to the relative visibility of London’s political
structures during the Great Dearth, and to the tensions between the city’s
movement toward an autonomous, republican politics in the context of an
increasingly absolutist monarchy.. The Bridge House, where subsidized grain
was distributed, must have been to many a more immediate, and consequently
more real, political structure than the court at Whitehall which, for all
its proximity, had little to do with the city’s increasingly visible day-to-day
What this means for Coriolanus is, I think,
an open question, though it may change our understanding of the play’s composition.
While there remains in the first scene a roundabout allusion to the Great
Frost of 1607-08, and the play is stylistically typical of Shakespeare’s
later drama, it also seems clear that much of the play is in orbit around
the political and social concerns of late sixteenth-century London. One
reason for this may of course be that the events surrounding the Great Dearth,
such as the Tower Hill riot and the distribution of grain subsidies, left
some impression on Shakespeare himself, and that their presence in his play
is an effect of that impression rather than their chronological proximity.
It is also possible that the play was begun at some point following the
Tower Hill riots and then either completed or revised later in Shakespeare’s
career, following the sequence of composition and revision typical of his
But it also suggests that Coriolanus, like
the city comedies that would emerge during or slightly after its composition,
was inspired by or patterned on both well-remembered and day-to-day events
in London, rather than the events of the Midlands Insurrection. Secondly,
it suggests that Coriolanus did not just parrot the language of the
body politic, but participated in an extensive reworking of the body politic
metaphor to accommodate not only changing epistemologies (as Aristotelian
principles gave way to Baconian empiricism and Hobbesian materialism), but
changing political realities (as Tudor and Stuart autocracy gave way to
increasingly bureaucratic systems of local government, at least in London).
These positions, if nothing else, make the play worth including in studies
of emerging Stuart genres or of sea changes in political thought and rhetoric.
 David G. Hale, “Coriolanus: The Death of A Political Metaphor.” Shakespeare
Quarterly, vol. 22 no. 3 (Summer 1971), 197-202. pp. 201-202.
 I.i. Stage Direction. I have here used the text of the Riverside Shakespeare,
second edition, edited by G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflen,
I. i. 170-71: “You are no surer, no / Than is the coal of fire upon the
ice, / Or hailstone in the sun.”
 As related in Dekker’s The Great Frost: Cold Doings in London (1608).
 Arthur Riss, “The Belly Politic: Coriolanus and the Revolt of Language,”
English Literary History 59 (1992): 53-75, note 6.
 Riss, “The Belly Politic: Coriolanus and the Revolt of Language,”
 E.C. Pettit, “Coriolanus and the Midlands Insurrection of 1607,”
Shakespeare Survey 3 (1950), pp. 34-42.
 C.C. Huffman, “Coriolanus” in Context (Lewisburg: Bucknell University
 W. Gordon Zeeveld, “Coriolanus and Jacobean Politics,” Modern Language
Review 57 (1962), 321-34 (333).
 Jonathan Goldberg, James I and the Politics of Literature (Baltimore:
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), p. 189.
 in “The monarchical republic of Elizabeth I” in The tudor Monarchy, ed.
John Guy (London: Arnold, 1997), 110-35. qtd p. 115.
 Markku Peltonen, Classical Humanism and Republicanism in English Political
Thought, 1570-1640 (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995).
 Andrew Gurr, “Coriolanus and the Body Politic.” Shakespeare Survey
28 (1975), pp. 63-69, qtn from 67.
 Collinson, “The monarchical republic of Elizabeth I” in The Tudor Monarchy,
ed. John Guy (London: Arnold, 1997), 110-35, qtn from 115.
 Cathy Shrank, “Civilty and the City in Coriolanus.” Shakespeare
Quarterly 54, no. 4 (Winter 2003), 406-423. p. 407.
 Qtd. In Shrank, p. 408.
 Leah Marcus, Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and its Discontents
( Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1988) p. 203.
 In Kern Paster’s The Idea of the City in the Age of Shakespeare (Athens:
U. of Georgia Press, 1985); Jagendorf’s “Coriolanus: Body Politic
and Private Parts,” Shakespeare Quarterly 41 (1990): 455-69; and
Alexander Leggatt’s Shakespeare’s Political Drama: the history plays
and the Roman plays. New York: Routledge, 1988 (esp. p. 196).
 Michael Bristol, “Lenten butchery: legitimation crisis in Coriolanus,”
In Jean E. Howard and Marian R. O’Connor (eds.) Shakespeare Reproduced:
The text in history and ideology (London: Methuen, 1987) 207-224.
 Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Blackwell,
1989). For more on the commoners’ potential as citizens of a free republic,
see Alexander Leggat’s Shakespeare’s Political Drama: the history plays
and the Roman plays (New York: Routledge, 1988). For an introduction
to this criticism, I am especially indebted to Alexander Leggatt and Lois
Norem’s Coriolanus: An Annotated Bibliography (New York: Garland,
1989), Shrank’s “Civility and the City in Coriolanus,” and Lee Bliss’s
excellent “What Hath a Quarter-century of Coriolanus Criticism Wrought?”,
The Shakespearean International Yearbook 2 (2002): 63-75.
 Riss, “The Belly Politic: Coriolanus and the Revolt of Language,”
 Thomas Sorge, “The failure of orthodoxy in Coriolanus.” In Jean E. Howard
and Marian R. O’Connor (eds.) Shakespeare Reproduced: The text in history
and ideology (London: Methuen, 1987) 225-241, qtn from 238.
 Richard Wilson reads Coriolanus in the context of Shakespeare and other
maltsters’ grain hoarding in “Against the Grain: Representing the Market
in Coriolanus.” The Seventeenth Century 6 (1991): 111-148.
 W.J. Ashley, Bread of our Forefathers (London: Clarendon, 1928), p.
43. See also: Andrew Cunningham and Ole Peter Grell,The Four Horsemen
of the Apocalypse: Religion, War, Famine and Death in Reformation Europe.
(Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000), esp. p. 236-240.
 Ashley, Bread of our Forefathers, 43-44.
 R. Schofield and John Walter, “Famine, Disease, and Crisis Mortality in Early
Modern Society” in Famine, disease and the social order in Early Modern
Society (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989), 1-74.
 J. Walter, “The Social Economy of Dearth in Early Modern England" in Famine,
Disease, and the Social Order in Early Modern Society (Cambridge: Cambridge
UP, 1989) 75-128, qtn from 118.
 Walter, “The Social Economy of Dearth", 119.
 Wilson, “Against the Grain", 111.
 Schofield, and Walter. “Famine, Disease and Crisis Mortality in Early Modern
Society”, p. 46.
 For instance, after Robert Devereux’s abortive coup he was of course executed,
but no Tudor allowed Devereux’s son (also Robert) to succeed to his father’s
title (although James I would elevate him in 1604). Henry Grey was of course
Marquis of Dorset, but when he was created Duke of Suffolk in 1551, he took
on two titles that would go unfilled after his 1554 execution; the Earldom
of Suffolk had been left vacant since Edmund de la Pole's execution in 1513,
and the Dukedom of Norfolk similarly lapsed after Thomas Howard’s 1572 execution
for his (now occasionally doubted) role in the Rudolfi plot. Likewise unfilled
were the Earldoms of Huntingdon (vacated in 1595 with the death of Henry
Hastings), Lincoln (in 1585, with the death of Edward Fiennes de Clinton),
Pembroke (in 1601, with the death of Lord Henry Herbert), and Warwick (in
1590, with the death of Sir Ambrose Dudley). This effective reduction was
mirrored in the less-elevated offices of the peerage, such as the Viscounty
and Barony of Rochford (vacated in 1536 by George Boleyn) and the Viscounty
of Lisle (vacated in 1580 by Ambrose Dudley).
 Steve Rappaport, Worlds within worlds: structures of life in sixteenth-century
London (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1989), p. 11.
 Rappaport, Worlds within worlds, 12.
 From the Journals of the Court of Common Council (from the Corporation of London
Records Office) 1-27: 1416-1609. References to the Tower Hill riot and
its aftermath occur principally in 24: 25-38v. This quotation is from 24:22v.,
and qtd. in Rappaport, Worlds within worlds, 12.
 Corporation of London Records Office: Journals of the Court of Common Council,
1-27: 1416-1609. 24:28-35.
 In Puzzling Shakespeare: Local Reading and its Discontents (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 1988) p. 208-209.
 Plat, Sundrie
new and Artificiall remedies against Famine (1596), A2r.
 Leonard Tennenhouse, “Coriolanus: History and the Crisis of Semantic
Order”, Comparative Drama 10 (1976): 328-346, qtn from 328.
 Tennenhouse, “Coriolanus: History and the Crisis of Semantic Order”,
 Stanley Cavell, “Coriolanus and Interpretation of Politics,” Themes
Out Of School (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984), pp. 82-83.
Philip Sidney, The Defence of Poesy. From Sir Philip Sidney,
ed. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2002), pp. 662-663.
Riss, “The Belly Politic: Coriolanus and the Revolt of Language,”
 Depending on the editor. The mislineations in the 1623 Folio have led some
editors to variously attribute the plebes’ parts in I. i.
 I. i. 115-122. The brackets indicate my relineation of the text, since Menenius
interrupts the plebe halfway through, and most editors continue to write
the plebe’s speech as prose rather than verse.
 Patricia M. Meszaros,“’There is a world elsewhere’: Tragedy and History in Coriolanus,”
Studies in English Literature 16 (1976): 328-46. p. 334.
 III. i. 295-308; David G. Hale, “Coriolanus: The Death of A Political
Metaphor.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 22 no. 3 (Summer 1971), 197-202.
 Riss notes this success of the body politic on pp. 68-69.
 Anne Barton, “Livy, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.” Shakespeare
Survey 38 (1985): 115-29. p. 128.
 See James Holstun, “Tragic Superfluity in Coriolanus.” ELH 50
(1983): 485-507; Karen Aubrey, “Shifting Masks, Roles, and Satiric Personae:
Suggestions for Exploring the Edge of Genre in Coriolanus.” in David
Miller, ed., “Coriolanus”: Critical Essays. (New York: Garland,
1995), pp. 299-338; Shannon Miller, “Topicality and Subversion in William
Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.” Studies in English Literature
32 (1992): 287-310.
Livius, Ab urbe condita, tr. Rev. Canon Roberts. Everyman’s Library
(London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1912), 1. 56. 10-12. Lucius Brutus would of
course be killed by the royal family he expelled from the seat in Rome;
Valerius would take the purple, and the political fallout from the increasingly-short
lifespans of Roman rulers would lead to the republic’s founding.
Responses to this piece intended for
the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
2007-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).