Visiting Lecturer, Jonathan Day, offers his thoughts on Coriolanus

My selection comes from Shakespeare’s Roman tragedy Coriolanus. Our hero is Caius Martius, who has earned his honorific title, ‘Coriolanus’, from his actions fighting the enemies of Rome, the Volsces, in their city of Corioli. Throughout the play Coriolanus has been a singular figure, in conflict with the public of Rome. Rejected from the city, Coriolanus turns on Rome and approaches the leader of the Volsces, Tullus Aufidius, and demands that Aufidius either kill him or use him to conquer Rome. Here is Aufidius’s response to that ultimatum:
I loved 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! I tell thee,
We have a power on foot; and I had purpose
Once more to hew thy target from thy brawn,
Or lose mine arm fort: thou hast beat me out
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me;
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat,
And waked half dead with nothing.

This is a play that has seemingly consistently triumphed traditional conservative Roman values. Coriolanus is the warrior who literally forms his identity through war (note the honorific name ‘Coriolanus’), who subjugates his own welfare to the good of Rome, the warrior who fights to honour his mother and wife and for a future for his son, and is undone by a spirit of resentment that rules amongst a faceless mob. Above all this, the play would seem to suggest the successful man is a figure of magnificent isolation.

Within thirteen remarkable lines however, Shakespeare deflates all of this. These lines demonstrate none of the martial restraint one might expect of a warrior leader; they are not end stopped, that is to say, they are examples of enjambment. Each line does not contain a single complete phrase or idea but runs on in a stream. The whole speech consists of only four sentences, one of which, ‘Why, thou Mars!’ serves to disrupt the hypnotic rhythm and prevent monotony. This speech is frankly, almost explicitly, homoerotic in the language of dancing hearts at the appearance of Coriolanus, unbuckled helms, being ‘down together’ and nocturnal ‘encounters’. Again, this stands against so much else in the play. Finally, Shakespeare’s language subverts the idea of singularity into duality and interrelationship. The final magnificent sentence has six self-references to ‘I’ or ‘me’, six references to ‘thou’ or ‘thee’ and two ‘we’s. This sheer bulk in such a short span of text, combined with the fluid lines, serves to confuse the issue; who or what is being discussed here? This is most clearly present in the final five lines, in which the subject of the sentence is Aufidius himself; due to the dream-like flow of the language, by the time we come to the conclusion, it seems as if the subject is the ‘we’ of ‘we have been down together’. It is is Aufidius’s dream, but it seems as if they are both dreamers and have somehow both ‘waked half dead with nothing’. Why half dead, and what was the ‘something’ they might have had?

At the conclusion of the play Coriolanus returns to his identity model of isolation and independence; before his death he proudly recalls his actions in Corioles and remarks ‘Alone, I did it’. In the section above however we see Shakespeare’s art. It is the characteristic ‘volta’ or turn, of the sonnet writ large; within a few trance-like lines Shakespeare challenges the seeming grounds of his whole play. In its own way, this passage is as daring as Puck’s suggestion at the end of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that if we disliked the action, we should assume that we have been dreaming. Perhaps we ourselves might awaken half dead with nothing?