By Charles Matthews

Sunday, September 11, 2011

6. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, pp. 276-311

Act V

Scene I

Cominius has returned from pleading with Coriolanus to spare Rome, only to report that it did not go at all well: "He would not seem to know me." So Menenius is refusing to go: "Nay, if he coy'd / To hear Cominius speak, I'll keep at home." Cominius reports that he would not even respond to the name Coriolanus, that in fact he "forbad all names: / He was a kind of nothing, titleless, / Till he had forg'd himself a name o'th'fire / Of burning Rome."

So, Menenius taunts the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, this is all their fault. Cominius says he tried to plead on behalf of his friends in Rome, but Coriolanus said that "He could not stay to pick them / In a pile of noisy chaff. He said 'twas folly, / For one poor grain or two, to leave unburnt / And still to nose th'offence." It upsets Menenius to hear that he's one of the poor grains that have to be burnt with chaff like the tribunes and their followers, but Sicinius pleads with him to try to persuade Coriolanus, and reminds him of the praise he'll get from Rome if he succeeds.

This appeal to his vanity works on Menenius, so he decides he'll give it a try. Perhaps, he says, Coriolanus hadn't had his dinner when he saw Cominius. Maybe he'll be more amenable on a full stomach. (Menenius harkens back to his fable of the belly here.) So he says he'll wait until Coriolanus has eaten and then "set upon him." But when Menenius leaves, Cominius says, "He'll never hear him," perhaps a little miffed that Menenius thinks he'll succeed where he failed. He is certain "that all hope is vain, / Unless his noble mother and his wife, / Who, as I hear, mean to solicit him / For mercy to his country."

Scene II

Menenius is already having a tough time with the guards in Coriolanus's camp, who tell him, "You'll see your Rome embrac'd with fire before / You'll speak with Coriolanus." Menenius is certain, however, that when he hears it's his old friend Menenius who has come to see him, Coriolanus will welcome him. But the guards tell him, "the virtue of your name / Is not here passable." They argue on, with Menenius asking if Coriolanus has dined yet, and one of the guards asking if he really thinks that "the palsied intercession of such a decayed dotant as you seem to be" will carry any weight with a man who was kicked out of Rome after having defended it.

Finally Coriolanus enters, accompanied by Aufidius. Menenius tells the guards they'll see what a mistake they made by not letting him enter, and says to Coriolanus, "The glorious gods sit in hourly synod about thy particular prosperity, and love thee no worse than thy old father Menenius does! O my son, my son, thou art preparing fire for us: look thee, here's water to quench it."

But the "water," i.e., Menenius's tears, has no apparent effect on Coriolanus, who commands, "Away!" and when Menenius expresses surprise, says, "Wife, mother, child, I know not. My affairs / Are servanted to others." Their old friendship has been poisoned by the forgetfulness of the Roman ingrates who banished him. He gives Menenius a letter, but he won't listen to him. And then, to prove his loyalty to the Volscians, he asks Aufidius to observe his harsh treatment of someone who "Was my belov'd in Rome." Aufidius approvingly says, "You keep a constant temper." (Which of course has never been true of the volatile Coriolanus.)

After Coriolanus and Aufidius have left, the guards mock Menenius's earlier claims of closeness to Coriolanus. Menenius leaves, scorning their mockery, which causes one of the guards to observe, "A noble fellow, I warrant him." But the other says, "The worthy fellow is our general: he's the rock, the oak not to be wind-shaken."

Scene III

Coriolanus and Aufidius are discussing tomorrow's attack on Rome, and Coriolanus once again wants to impress on Aufidius that he really is on his side: "You must report to th'Volscian lords how plainly / I have borne this business." Aufidius says, yes, he certainly seems to have held up well, even against the pleas of "such friends / That thought them sure of you." (The ironic undertone of this is: If you can turn against old friends so easily, how can your new ones, like me, trust in your support?) Coriolanus continues to praise his resistance to their pleas: "This last old man, / Whom with a crack'd heart I have sent to Rome, / Lov'd me above the measure of a father,  / Nay, godded me indeed." But notice the ambiguity: Whose heart has been "crack'd"?  Menenius's or Coriolanus's? He now vows that he won't hear any more "embassies and suits" from Rome.

And immediately he is forced to eat his words, with the arrival of his wife, his mother, his young son, and their friend Valeria. He steels himself: "But out, affection! / All bond and privilege of nature break! / Let it be virtuous to be obstinate." Yet it's clear that he's affected by their arrival, that Volumnia's bow is "As if Olympus to a molehill should / In supplication nod," which makes him the molehill. He pulls himself together one last time:
                                                Let the Volsces 
Plough Rome and harrow Italy; I'll never 
Be such a gosling to obey instince, but stand 
As if a man were author of himself 
And knew no other kin.
Virgilia addresses him, however, and he begins to forget the part he is trying to play: "Like a dull actor now / I have forgot my part and I am out, / Even to a full disgrace." He chides himself for prating when he hasn't even acknowledged "the most noble mother of the world." And he kneels before her. "Sink, my knee, i'th'earth: /  Of thy deep duty more impression show / Than that of common sons." But where the earth he kneels upon is soft enough to show the "impression" of his knee, Volumnia responds by kneeling on harder ground, "with no softer cushion than the flint." (Volumnia has real mastery of the art of guilting her son.)

He next acknowledges Valeria and then, when Volumnia tells him to kneel, his son. But he pulls himself together for a moment and remembers the role he's playing:
                                      Do not bid me
Dismiss my soldiers, or capitulate 
Again with Rome's mechanics. Tell me not 
Wherein I seem unnatural. Desire not 
T'allay my rages and revenges with 
Your colder reasons. 
That echoing alliteration -- "rages," "revenges," "reasons" -- has a kind of falsely rhetorical quality, as if he has been rehearsing the speech for just such an occasion. But his mother is having none of it: "Oh, no more, no more!" She says they know that they're here to ask for something he's already denied to Cominius and Menenius, but she also reminds him that if they fail in their petition, the blame will fall on him for his "hardness," and not on them.

Coriolanus figures this is as good a time as any to tell the Volscians that he's not doing anything behind their backs: "we'll / Hear nought from Rome in private." And then Volumnia begins her great plea, playing on his sympathies by pointing out to him that she and Virgilia are "more unfortunate than all living women" in having to make such a request to their own son and husband. They should be happy to see him, but instead he is
Making the mother, wife and child to see 
The son, the husband and the father, tearing 
His country's bowels out. And to poor we 
Thine enmity's most capital. Thou barr'st us 
Our prayers to the gods, which is a comfort 
That all but we enjoy; for how can we, 
Alas! how can we for our country pray, 
Whereto we are bound, together with they victory, 
Whereto we are bound?
He has put them in an impossible dilemma, forcing them to choose between loyalty to country and loyalty to family. If he loses, they'll have to see him led in chains through the streets of Rome, but if he wins, he'll "Triumphantly tread on they country's ruin, / And bear the palm for having bravely shed / Thy wife and children's blood." In that case, he'll be treading on the womb that bore him, and, Virgilia notes, the womb that bore his son. As for the son, he pipes up to say, "A shall not tread on me. / I'll run away till I am bigger, but then I'll fight."

Coriolanus tries to leave, knowing that any more of this will be his undoing. But Volumnia tries a different tack: She knows he'll betray his sense of honor if he deserts the Volscians at this point, so she suggests that instead he bring about a reconciliation:
                                                     the Volsces 
May say, "This mercy we have show'd," the Romans, 
"This we receiv'd"; and each in either side 
Give the all-hail to thee, and cry, "Be bless'd 
For making up this peace!"
After all, she says, if he conquers Rome, he'll be cursed as the man who betrayed his own homeland. Instead, she's presenting a win-win situation. She asks him to speak, and tell her whether it is really "honourable for a noble man / Still to remember wrongs?" And in her usual mother-in-lawish way, she tells Virgilia to stop crying and say something: "Daughter, speak you: / He cares not for your weeping." And she urges her grandson to speak up, too, not to leave her to do all the talking: "There's no man in the world / More bound to's mother, yet here he lets me prate / Like one i'th'stocks." Not that she stops talking, of course. And when she sees him turn away, she urges the other two women to kneel and "shame him with our knees." And in a final artful stroke of guilt-tripping, she says, "Come, let us go: / This fellow had a Volscian to his mother; / His wife is in Corioles, and his child / Like him by chance." She says she'll say no more until Rome is burning.

She has won. He takes her hand and tells her so. But he also warns her of what he knows is coming: "O, believe it, / Most dangerously you have with him prevail'd, / If not most mortal to him. But let it come." He accepts the death he foresees at this moment, but turns to Aufidius and asks him if he were in his place, would he have resisted his mother's appeal. Aufidius grants him only, "I was mov'd withal." Coriolanus points out that "it is no little thing to make / Mine eyes to sweat compassion," to move him to tears. He won't return to Rome, however. He'll stay in Actium and take whatever is coming. And in an aside, Aufidius vows that he is glad Coriolanus capitulated, because this allows him to accomplish "a former fortune" -- become the victor in his old conflict with Coriolanus.

Coriolanus then bids farewell to his family, acknowledging that "All the swords / In Italy and her confederate arms / Could not have made this peace."

Scene IV

Menenius, wrong as he so often is, tells Sicinius that there's no hope that "the ladies of Rome, especially his mother, may prevail with" Coriolanus, and that they should prepare to be executed. Coriolanus is totally changed, "from man to dragon." Sicinius points out hopefully that Coriolanus loved his mother, but Menenius, abashed by Coriolanus's rejection of him, says, "So did he me; and he no more remembers his mother now than an eight-year-old horse.... There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger." And, he says, it's all Sicinius's (and Brutus's) fault. And speaking of Brutus, a messenger hurries in to tell Sicinius to hide: "The plebeians have got your fellow-tribune, / And hale him up and down, all swearing, if / The Roman ladies bring not comfort home, / They'll give him death by inches."

But then another messenger arrives with the good news: "The ladies have prevail'd." And there is a great noise of celebration as everyone goes off to welcome Volumnia and the others.

Scene V

Rome turns out to celebrate the peace.

Scene VI

It's a very different scene in the Volscian city where Aufidius is plotting his endgame with Coriolanus, who, he says, "Intends t'appear before the people, hoping / To purge himself with words." The irony of Coriolanus making an appeal to the people is obvious. But in Aufidius's eyes Coriolanus is "a man by his own alms empoison'd, / And with his charity slain," and he has summoned several "Conspirators," as the stage directions and speech headings identify them. Aufidius claims that Coriolanus has seduced his friends "and to this end / He bow'd his nature, never known before / But to be rough, unswayable and free." One of the conspirators points out the irony that Coriolanus lost his consulship "By lack of stooping."

Aufidius says that he deliberately took a back seat in his dealings with Coriolanus, "gave him way / In all his own desires," so that "at the last / I seem'd his follower, not partner," and that Coriolanus condescended to him "as if / I had been mercenary." The result is that Coriolanus will get the blame from the army for not taking Rome, on which, one of the conspirators said, "we look'd / For no less spoil than glory--." Exactly, Aufidius agrees, "At a few drops of women's rheum, which are / As cheap as lies, he sold the blood and labour / Of our great action. Therefore shale he die, / And I'll renew me in his fall."

There is a sound of trumpets and shouts that signal Coriolanus's arrival. And the Volscian lords enter, having been briefed by Aufidius on what took place. Coriolanus enters, followed by a crowd of commoners, to tell the lords that he has "made peace / With no less honour to the Antiates / Than shame to th'Romans," and that the spoils he has brought cover a third of the cost of the campaign.

But Aufidius steps forward and charges Coriolanus with treason, referring to him as Martius. "Dost thou think / I'll grace thee with that robbery, thy stol'n name / Coriolanus, in Corioles?" He turns to address the lords and to mock Coriolanus's capitulation to his wife and mother, claiming that "at his nurse's tears / He whin'd and roar'd away your victory." And when Coriolanus calls on Mars to witness this accusation, Aufidius says, "Name not the god, thou boy of tears!"

Coriolanus bristles at the word "Boy!" and calls on the lords of the city to "give this cur the lie," using the epithet he once applied to the plebeians of Rome. And then he turns on the Volscians, reminding them of his victory: "If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there, / That like an eagle in a dove-cote, I / Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioles. Alone I did it. Boy!" This is the moment that Aufidius has been waiting for, asking if they want to be reminded of "your shame, by this unholy braggart." The conspirators raise the cry of "Let him die for it," and the crowd, in various voices, calls out, "Tear him to pieces! Do it presently! He killed my son! My daughter! He killed my cousin Marcus! He killed my father!"

A lord calls out for peace, but Aufidius carries the day and Coriolanus is killed by the conspirators. The lords restore order, but express their displeasure with Aufidius: "Thou has done a deed whereat valour will weep." But Aufidius assures them that when they learn how dangerous Coriolanus was, "you'll rejoice / That he is thus cut off." And he submits to the judgment of the senate, promising to "deliver / Myself your loyal servant or endure / Your heaviest censure."

The First Lord orders Coriolanus's body taken away and says, "Let him be regarded / As the most noble corse that ever herald / Did follow to his urn." But the Second Lord signals what the judgment of the senate is likely to be: "His own impatience / Takes from Aufidius a great part of the blame, / Let's make the best of it."

Aufidius claims, "My rage is gone, / And I am struck with sorrow." And in his concluding lines, he manages to maintain a fine balance of condemnation and praise for Coriolanus.
                        Though in this city he 
Hath widow'd and unchilded many a one, 
Which to this hour bewail the injury, 
Yet he shall have a noble memory.
Is there a more ambivalent tragedy?

From the 1984 BBC production: Mike Gwilym as Aufidius; Valentine Dyall as Adrian; Patrick Godfrey as Cominius; Joss Ackland as Menenius; John Burgess as Sicinius; Anthony Pedley as Junius Brutus; Alan Howard as Coriolanus; Irene Worth as Volumnia; Joanna McCallum as Virgilia; Damien Franklin as Coriolanus's son; Heather Canning as Valeria; Teddy Kempner as Nicanor; Paul Jesson as First Citizen; Ray Roberts as Second Citizen; Leon Lissek as Third Citizen; Jon Rumney as Fourth Citizen; Russell Kilmister as Fifth Citizen; Peter Sands as Titus Lartius; John Rowe as First Roman Senator.

No comments:

Post a Comment