« IndietroContinua »
CORIOLANUS was first published in the Folio of 1623. No quarto edition ever appeared, and the text, printed directly from a MS., abounds in inaccurate punctuation and blundering verse-division.
External evidence of date is wholly wanting. There is no record of its performance, and the ingenuity of the 'Allusion' hunters has detected no further traces of its influence than an apparent reference in Fletcher's A King and No King (1611), and another in Jonson's Silent Woman (1609). But style and metre assign it clearly to the close of the tragic period, i.e. to the years 1608-10. The metrical innovation of weak endings,' first employed freely in Antony and Cleopatra, gains ground; extra syllables impede or complicate the flow of the line; melody is harsher and rarer; nowhere has Shakespeare's verse less of lyric manner. These changes were in part prompted by conscious art. But they were also symptoms of a decaying sense of form. Declining freshness of dramatic invention is betrayed too by the preponderance of typical traits in most of the characters. Volumnia is certainly not sufficiently defined as the typical 'Roman mother,' or even Virgilia as the 'devoted wife'; but the individual and personal traits of both are, for Shakespeare, slightly pronounced. Coriolanus alone among the Roman plays
has affinities with the Roman tragedies of Jonson. Its political animus is significantly easy to read: no other work of Shakespeare can be so excusably mistaken for a treatise on government. Shakespearean imagination triumphs less clearly over the raw material of biography than either in Casar or in Antony. We have to do with highly intellectualised prose breaking fitfully into poetry of astonishing magnificence, rather than with work fundamentally and securely poetical. All these characteristics confirm the conclusion that Coriolanus belongs to the closing years of the tragic period.
Shakespeare's sole source was Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus, as translated by North (1579). Thus Plutarch was here dealing with a story as legendary as those of Hamlet or Macbeth, but steeped in sentiment quite foreign to Holinshed or Saxo. A blurred picture of the early struggles of the Republic formed the background of a patriotic myth, which represented a Roman mother saving the State by an appeal to the mercy of her son. Plutarch was the very man to do justice to this triumph of humanity over bruteforce, of the tie of kinship over the passion for vengeance; and he described the great scene in Coriolanus' camp before Rome with a moving eloquence to which Shakespeare himself added little. But Volumnia's sway over Martius was purchased, in Plutarch's view, by grave defects in his upbringing. Martius is for him the type of 'a rare and excellent wit untaught'; his 'natural wit and great heart did marvellously stir up his courage to do and attempt notable acts'; but for lack of education he was so choleric and impatient that he would yield to no living creature; which made him churlish, uncivil and altogether unfit for any man's conversation. So, still more severely: 'He was too much given over to self-will and opinion,
and one of a high mind and great courage, that lacked the gravity and affability that is gotten with judgment of learning and reason, which only is to be looked for in a governor of state.' The citizen was altogether absorbed in the son; for 'the only thing that made him to love honour was the joy he saw his mother did take of him.' A temper so unsocial might have sufficed to account for Coriolanus' rupture with his countrymen. But Plutarch dwells so vindictively upon the machinations of his enemies, the tribunes, to bring it about, that the sympathy of his readers is all given to the banished man. Moreover, when allied with the enemies of Rome Coriolanus uses his power with statesmanlike moderation, demanding for his Volscian allies only admission to the Latin league and the restoration of their conquered lands,-reasonable demands, which his countrymen meet with arrogant defiance or with panic-stricken prayers for mercy.
If Plutarch's Coriolanus is of somewhat varying complexion, his description of the Roman polity abounds in inconsistencies. He regards the Roman plebs with prepossessions derived from the mob of his own time, and their victory is for him a triumph. of the poor needy people and all such rabble as had nothing to lose and had less regard of honesty before their eyes' over 'the noble honest citizens whose persons and purse did dutifully serve the commonwealth in their wars.' But even in the blurred tradition he followed, some traits of a different and more authentic stamp had been preserved, and he faithfully records them. Thus, at the very outset, the plebeian rabble are seen to be the military mainstay of the city, whose valour puts the nobles themselves to shame; their method of seeking redress for intolerable grievances is the peaceful retreat to the Sacred Mount—a masterstroke
1 North, p. 284.
of sagacious self-control and disciplined civil temper. Having extorted a constitutional reform of the first importance, the creation of tribunes, they return, 'doing harm to no man,' and the 'city grows again to good quiet and unity.' All these facts Plutarch records; but aristocratic bias colours every detail, and he rarely speaks of the popular leaders but as 'the seditious tribunes,' or 'busy prattlers that sought the people's good-will by flattering words.'
Thus Plutarch, in his scrupulous regard for conflicting traditions, overlays the germs of tragedy which the legend clearly possessed. No such scruples impeded the art of Shakespeare. His Rome is still farther than Plutarch's from the Rome of history. He drew the Roman plebeians in the light of Plutarch's animus, and ignored the inconsistent facts embedded in his narrative. His plebs is a rabble, devoid of political ideas, craving nothing but bread. The retreat to the Sacred Mount resembles, in his hands, the revolt of Jack Cade, and the 'rebels' have a similar blatant communism put in their mouths. We are reminded with remorseless iteration that their caps are greasy and their breath foul. What is more, they are cowards in battle,—hares and geese where they ought to be lions and foxes. In this last point Shakespeare diverged point blank from Plutarch. His tribunes deserve Plutarch's scornful epithets even better than their prototypes. Few characters in Shakespeare less serve to illustrate his large humanity. The violent but honest party leader is still discernible in Plutarch behind the unscrupulous demagogue: Shakespeare effaces the finer traits and brings out the baser with incisive emphasis. His tribunes are more concerned for their own official authority than for the rights of the plebs whom they heartily despise: they speculate on the 'ancient malice' which will
drive his merits into oblivion on the least offence (ii. 1. 243); they attack him with vamped-up charges which impose only upon the docile herd they lead, and calculate upon his native rashness of speech to provide under that provocation the means of breaking his neck (iii. 3. 25). In Plutarch the reaction which deprived Coriolanus of the consulship is due to the cautious after-thoughts of the plebeian electors who had approved it: in Shakespeare it is the work of the sleepless jealousy of the tribunes.
Such enemies gave some pretext to Coriolanus' scorn. And Coriolanus himself stands out, in Shakespeare, yet more than in Plutarch, as a giant among pigmies. He has the surpassing excellences of the true aristocrat, and seems to embody at once the aristocratic ideals of heroic Greece and of feudal chivalry. He scorns money and pain; he has a natural eloquence always at command, and everything he says is impressed with an indefinable greatness. Less 'churlish and solitary' than in Plutarch, for Shakespeare gives him the adoring friendship of Menenius and Cominius, he is at bottom more 'uncivil,' less fit for citizenship, more impracticable in his passionate self-will. This aspect of his character Shakespeare has emphasised with a series of admirably imagined strokes. It is only in the drama that Coriolanus revolts against the traditional ceremony of displaying his wounds, and declaims, with the naïve unreason of a headstrong nature, against the authority of custom,' on which his own patrician privilege ultimately rested. His vengeance is far more sweeping and uncompromising. He comes to burn Rome, not to get reasonable concessions for his allies; far from 'keeping the Noble men's lands and goods safe from harm and burning,' he sternly dismisses the appeal of his noble friends for discrimina