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  • Coriolanus:Inordinate Passions and Powers in Personal and Political Governance
  • Unhae Langis (bio)

For wisdom is the property of the dead,A something incompatible with life; and power,Like everything that has the stain of blood,A property of the living …

—William Butler Yeats, "Blood and Moon"

Aristotle, in Nicomachean Ethics, defines moderation as a disposition to choose the just mean between excess and deficiency in emotion and action as a response to varying circumstances and relative to each particular person.1 As a situational ethic, moderation can only be limned "in outline and not precisely,"2 but that did not stop the golden mean from becoming a powerful cultural commonplace in early modern England.3 Despite its ubiquitous invocation as an ideal, there was a great divergence in how this ethical principle was to be construed or applied to the various spheres—economic, religious, social, amorous, convivial—of early modern life.4 [End Page 1]

Shakespeare distinguishes himself from most of his contemporaries, who pitted passion against moderation, excess against what they considered a lackluster Aristotelian mean. Given his complexity of thought, Shakespeare, throughout his corpus, presents diverse representations of moderation, reflective of various contemporary views: for example, self-restraint with regard to common pleasures, discipline in politics, virtuosity in self-advancement, and feminine modesty. Among Shakespeare's various depictions of the mean, however, none, I believe, is as innovative and potent as virtuous moderation, deploying rather than decrying passion toward salutary and excellent ends. Shakespeare throughout his plays vividly dramatizes a conception of moderation faithful to Aristotelian ethical theory of the mean as a situational virtue, which comprehends excessive affect and action. Moderation is, in value, a virtuous extreme and, in practice, an instrumental mean that involves the entire range of excessive and moderate passion and action: an excellence of disciplined passion.5 In Aristotle's famous illustration of moderation as the action of a skilled archer aiming at his target,6 the mean and the extreme converge literally in the bull's eye. As Aristotle suggests, even discerning the target in real life is much more complex than in archery in that the just mean is a moving target—not a simple arithmetic mean—varying by person, by circumstance, by emotion. As Shakespeare so richly shows, this perfective moderation, in harmonizing passion and reason, fuses effective strategy with virtue. The virtuous mean comprehends rather than eschews the sometimes extreme measures required of prudence; affectively, moderation, depending on the situation, might entail an intense expression of passion or a submerged one, without ever extirpating it. Entailing rational deliberation implemented in effective action—all fueled by a noble end—virtuous moderation presupposes psychologically complex, well-developed characters. It is no surprise then that the plays of Shakespeare, through their wealth of nuanced characters engaged in psychologically complex action, are so congenial for examinations of the passions and their virtuous governance.

This ethico-political study examines in Shakespeare's Coriolanus how the lack of virtuous moderation in the eponymous hero, Rome's first citizen, reflects the collective immoderation of the entire polity: the state's inability to bring its various parts into salutary corporate balance, [End Page 2] thus overturning its pro-republican advances. This tragedy has intrigued audiences at two levels—characterological and political. Its title character, herculean in his strength and moral integrity, continues to baffle and provoke ambivalence in us. The play, a dramatization of Rome as an emergent republic, has also garnered critical attention recently in the effort to recuperate early modern texts as pro-democratic documents.7 The personal and political strands merge in the interlinked fates of Coriolanus and the state. In this play exploring governance, Coriolanus's incontinence contributes to and is emblematic of Rome's constitutional imbalance as an incipient republic. The meaning of the tragedy depends on a clear vision of Coriolanus's character.

In this Roman tragedy, a heroic warrior is promoted to consulship only to be banished as a traitor. The peripetian course of Coriolanus's career in Rome from "th' casque to' th' cushion" (4.7.43)8 to a sudden descent suggests hamartia and other deficiencies of character that scholars have vigorously imputed to Coriolanus. Cynthia Marshall...

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