By Diana Major Spencer 

Among the least produced of Shakespeare’s plays, The Tragedy of Coriolanus is as much about the fall of Rome as about one of its military heroes. The hero’s first speech exposes his loathing of the common people: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That rubbing the poor itch of your opinion / Make yourselves scabs?” (1.1.164–66; line references are to The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974]). Describing to Menenius how they have extorted political power from the senate in the form of five tribunes, he dubs the plebeians unreliable, fickle, changeable, demanding, ignorant, pretentious, indiscreet, and smelly (1.1.170–221).

Alas, his assessment is accurate. Those characteristics pervade the play, among both commoners and their double-dealing tribunes, Junius and Sicinius, who are as blatantly treacherous as Iago or Richard III. The citizens reluctantly support Coriolanus for consul because of his military heroism (2.3.60–144), but they are easily swayed against him as soon as he leaves the stage (2.3.155–255). Junius and Sicinius, the tribunes, incite them to withdraw their vote for the consulship, finally encouraging a call for execution or banishment. Then when they hear the “fearful news” that Coriolanus is leading an enemy troop against Rome, the commoners cry, “Though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will” (4.6.144–45). Shakespeare’s mobs are notoriously changeable and dangerous, but never so erratic as here.

In contrast, the hero adheres to the highest Roman virtues: reason, virtue, and fidelity to Rome. Unsympathetic as he seems, Caius Marcius (surnamed Coriolanus) is more principled, heroic, and constant than anyone else in the play. From the viewpoint of Elizabethan (and Roman) philosophy, his rigorous attempts to keep non-patricians in their place, or purge them if he must, illustrate the ideal—and the impossibility— of the Great Chain of Being.

From Plato through the eighteenth century, the dominant European world-view centered on order and degree in God’s Great Creation: the earth, seas, and heavens, with hierarchical ranks of creatures therein. Described as the Great Chain of Being, the philosophy was absolute (“unshakable, inflexible, firm, adamant, autocratic”)—an adjective applied to Coriolanus by his mother (3.2.41) and by Aufidius (4.5.136).

According to this philosophy, creatures are ranked, as links in a chain, from superior to inferior. Individuals fit above or below other individuals by virtue of birth, birth order, gender, citizenship, status, and so forth. In the macrocosm, species correspondingly rank higher or lower than others, based on similarity to God. Angels, for example, rank higher as a species (kind/kindred) than humans, humans than canines, canines than insects. All creatures and their kind have a place in this scheme and are natural only while they remain in that place. Rebellion (unnatural behavior) provokes disaster in the form of eclipses, earthquakes, storms, wars, and deaths of princes.

Thus, plebeians as a kind/kindred are of a different kind than patricians and therefore rank lower on the Chain, with fewer rights and privileges. Voting for or against a patrician, for example, is a privilege restricted to patricians. Giving commoners a voice in the government through the tongues of tribunes constitutes an enormity (“out of the normal; a perversion of nature”) in the traditional view subscribed to by Coriolanus. Their approval is not merely irrelevant, but aberrant, and hence invites the chaos that ensues.

Behaviors that bind a kind together constitute kindness—which functions only within a kind:one can show kindness only in relation to one’s own species. Accordingly, Coriolanus shows kindness when he insists on the inferiority of the plebeians and insults their presumption in judging him. A commoner telling Coriolanus that “the price [of the consulship] is to ask it kindly” (2.3.75) violates a patrician’s inherent privilege of status. On the other hand, if God or a higher being shows kindness to humans or lower beings, it becomes mercy. For example, when Menenius realizes that Coriolanus is leading an enemy army towards Rome, he laments, “We are all undone, unless / The noble man have mercy” (4.6.107–108); similarly, when Coriolanus capitulates to the pleas of his mother and wife to spare Rome, Aufidius remarks in an aside, “I am glad thou hast set thy mercy and thy honor / At difference in thee” (5.4.200–201).

Menenius, along with other patricians, copes with changes in Roman political structure by vacillating in his attitudes towards commoners. At first, he panders to them with the parable of the belly to show how necessary centralized power is to the well-being of the whole (1.1.96–155). Later, he agrees with the plebeians that Coriolanus merited his banishment: “All’s well; and might have been much better, if / He could have temporized” (4.6.16–17), fulfilling Sicinius’s earlier remark, “O, he [Menenius] is grown most kind of late” (4.6.11), which hints that the efforts of Menenius to appease them denotes his decline to their level. Finally, Menenius condemns the tribunes and commoners for bringing misfortune on Rome: “ You have made / Good work, you and your cry!” (4.6.147). 

Coriolanus, in contrast, cannot bring himself to play the game. Forthright as he is, he fails to maintain a pretense of humbling himself before his inferiors. “In soothing them,” he tells his “nobler friends,” “we nourish ’gainst our Senate / The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition, / . . . / By mingling them with us, the honor’d number, / Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that / Which they have given to beggars” (3.1.69–74). “Your dishonor,” he tells Brutus, “Mangles true judgment, and bereaves the state / Of that integrity which should become it” (3.1.157–59). Adamantly, he defines the demands of the tribunes and commoners as unjust and predicts the destruction of Rome in consequence of breaking the Chain.

Once the Chain is broken, God’s masterwork convulses in order to set things right again. Coriolanus turns to the enemy, Aufidius, to “be . . . quit of those my banishers” (4.5.83). Those words can, of course, be understood as “to be rid of them, to leave them behind, or to (ac)quit himself nobly against them.” The OED, however, also contains a now obsolete meaning, “to (re)quite, to balance out.” He tells Aufidius that his motive is “mere spite” (4.5.82), yet purging Rome of the superfluous rabble would eliminate “the cruelty and envy of the people, / Permitted by our dastard nobles” (4.5.74–75). He might even restore correct order to Rome.

Unfortunately, however, the absolute Coriolanus succumbs to the pleas of his mother. “O mother, mother!” he moans. “What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope, / The gods look down, and this unnatural scene / They laugh at” (5.3.182–85). The Chain of order, degree, and propriety collapses when reason gives way to emotion. Aufidius, too, is surprised: “He bow’d his nature, never known before / But to be rough, unswayable, and free” (5.6.24–25); and “at a few drops of women’s rheum, which are / As cheap as lies, he sold the blood and labor / Of our great action” (5.6.45–47).

Who can predict the aftermath? We’re not really sorry that Coriolanus dies a treacherous death. But we’re not really happy about the survivors either. The capricious plebeians, the sinister tribunes, the waffling senators, the weeping women, the deceitful Volsces—who among them can re-establish a Rome of order and degree?