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  • Sacred Life and Sacrificial EconomyCoriolanus in No-Man's-Land
  • Nichole E. Miller

In book 1 of the Politics, Aristotle famously claims that

it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the "Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one" whom Homer denounces—the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war.1

In these lines we might trace a precursor for Shakespeare's Coriolanus, the military hero of the early Roman Republic who turns his back on his own city to join forces with its enemies. "First Citizen" speaks the first line of Coriolanus (ca. 1608–9): "Before we proceed any further, hear me speak" (1.1.1).2 The opening lines of the play thus link the shifting status of republican citizenship to rights, and rites, of public speech and popular representation, issues again foregrounded in the election scene of act 2, scene 1. Often considered the most political of Shakespeare's plays, his last tragedy has long provided fodder for those who speculate about Shakespeare's own political affiliations, particularly his attitude toward absolute monarchy, on the one hand, or some sort of protodemocratic populism, on the other. Recently, Andrew Hadfield takes up the issue in a series of books and articles.3 In his latest book, Hadfield identifies his critical task as an exercise in historical "recovery" or "archaeology," commencing with the provocative query "was Shakespeare a Republican?" Unlike Hadfield, in the argument that follows I do not overtly engage this question. Rather, as A. C. Bradley said nearly a century ago, "I do not propose to join this dance, or even to ask whether any reasonable conjecture as to Shakespeare's political views and feelings could be formed from [End Page 263] study of this play and of others."4 While I certainly agree with Hadfield's assertion that understanding how republicanism was construed in the period nuances our appreciation of Shakespeare's work, I also concur with Ineke Murakami's recent claim that, in Coriolanus, "[R]ather than stage solutions, [Shakespeare] raises questions."5 Whereas many critics feel they must answer Hadfield's question one way or the other, then, it is precisely the deep ambivalence of Shakespeare's treatment of the emergent polity in this play that interests me.6

The First Folio text of the play itself invites a consideration of this doubleness.7 In the many crowd scenes of the play, the Folio (abbreviated F) stage directions distinguish between various groupings: on the one hand, there are the variously ignominious troupes of Roman and Volscian soldiers and citizens, or the Roman "rabble of plebeians"; on the other, the highly articulate Roman "Company of Mutinous Citizens" in 1.1 and in the first half of 2.3; the "Roman and Volce" who meet to exchange news in 4.3; the Volscian "Watch or Guard" in 5.7, and even the Volscian "Commoners"8 in the play's closing scene. While it is perhaps foolish to attribute the Folio's stage directions to Shakespeare, rather than a compositor or printer, the very fact that someone created a palpable distinction between an easily manipulated mob and a politically savvy "company" or "commonwealth" of nevertheless individually distinct citizens in this initial printing should not go unremarked.9 It seems to me that those who favor a protorepublican reading (such as Hadfield and Annabel Patterson) focus most on the latter category, the articulate Roman citizens,10 whereas those who argue for a conservative, antipopulist Shakespeare (from William Hazlitt to Clifford Huffman) emphasize the "rabble" and the vicious tribunes.11 I will argue, however, that Shakespeare's ambivalent reception of the more idealized republic present in his main source, Plutarch's Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus, crystallizes around various facets of two linked but separable civic rituals: gift giving and election, both ligatures of the embryonic political order. Yet, like Coriolanus himself, his scored flesh signifying his fitness to stand for office, the very idea of election is increasingly "undone" throughout the course...


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