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Shakespeare Quarterly 57.4 (2006) 387-412

The Body of the Actor in Coriolanus

For the soule, nor god him selfe can distinctly speake without a bodie, having necessarie organes and instrumentes mete for the partes of the same, to forme and utter distinct wordes.

–Plutarch, "The Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus"1

The pivotal event in Shakespeare's Roman history play—Coriolanus's refusal to show his wounds—is without basis in Roman history. Whereas Plutarch's Coriolanus simply follows custom, exhibiting his scarred body in the marketplace as a matter of course, Shakespeare's Coriolanus balks at doing so, pleads against it, relents, declines to do so, argues against it, agrees reluctantly, refuses outright, relents again, and finally fails when put to a last test in the scene of his banishment in 3.3.2 What is a mere formality of rhetoric for Plutarch's Coriolanus becomes for Shakespeare's Coriolanus an explicitly theatrical exhibit of shame: "a part / That I shall blush in acting" (2.2.144–45). His injured body offered up only as an inert object, viewed through a thin gown, will not in and of itself convey battle heroism. In order to gain votes for his wartime exploits, Coriolanus must add sound track and gesture; embellish the objective facts of his appearance with emotion and narrative; alter his voice, expression, stance, and dress; modulate his movements self-consciously; communicate his subjective experience to others; and, in short, take on the role of an actor. [End Page 387]

In this essay, I argue that Shakespeare's invention of a pseudocrisis of modesty in Roman history, without precedent or analogue in Plutarch, effectively puts Coriolanus at the center of contemporary controversy over the legitimacy of theater and over ideas about the body raised by that debate. Yet in framing the play in terms of antitheatrical controversy, Shakespeare does not follow colleagues who merely reversed the claims of antitheatricalists to put forward a counterargument. Thomas Heywood, for example, asserts in An Apology for Actors that the stage, far from exercising a deleterious influence, instead molds spectators into patriotic subjects and chaste wives.3 Heywood enlivens his tract with lurid stories of confessions of murderous women. By his account, two such guilty widows, one in Norfolk and the other in Amsterdam, upon seeing murders enacted on stage, spontaneously shouted out admissions of their crimes with identical words: "Oh my husband, my husband!"4 Shakespeare himself had taken a more unidimensionally protheatrical position in earlier plays such as Hamlet (for instance, by supporting Heywood's claim about the power of the theater to extract confessions). In Coriolanus, however, Shakespeare presents the problem with more attention to its complexity and to the intellectual claims of theater's opponents. Coriolanus appears in the play as an antitheatrical ideologue who eventually finds, in his own body and in the theatrical arena of the marketplace, possibilities and constraints that contradict his initial conception of performance as inherently debasing.

This essay examines Shakespeare's portrait of Coriolanus as a recalcitrant actor via a historical correlative: the case of Oxford students who in 1592 were assigned theatrical roles by their professors and who suffered attacks on their reputations as a consequence. Both in Shakespeare's Coriolanus and in student performances at Oxford, the situation of a male amateur playing a part on stage provides a vivid test case for key social and philosophical concerns at stake in the pro- and antitheatrical debates. The argument in Oxford was set off by student performances of three Latin plays written by the respected professor and playwright William Gager. By focusing on specific practices and performances, the professors who participated in the exchange of vitriolic attacks and counterattacks, Gager and Alberico Gentili (on the protheatrical side) and John Rainolds (on the antitheatrical side), produced an account of the problem unique in the literature of such debates. Unlike writers of other such tracts, who rely largely on fanciful anecdotes, Gager, Gentili, and Rainolds analyze actual stage productions involving actual individuals. For this reason...


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