- The Rhetoric of Wounds in Coriolanus; or, a Tragedy of Renaissance Rhetoric
It is the sad lot of the tragic hero that he is essentially misunderstood. His pride and failure to engage the vicissitudes of vulgar society and its inclinations to deceit and vice are met with a hard misapprehension of malice in his stubborn resolution to absolute moral clarity. What's more, the tragic hero's pretension, born out of the greatness and simplicity that define his mind, of having comprehended his place and the place of others in the world ensures that tragedy is rife with misinterpretation. Hence the prominent acts of misinterpretation and misrecognition across the history of tragic drama, from Herodotus's story about King Creon having misinterpreted the prophecy of the oracle at Delphi, who told him to his ruin that if he attacked the Persians a great empire would fall; through Brutus's conflation of patrician Republican ideals with popular support; to Wotan's refusal to forfeit the absolute power of the ring despite the warnings of the Rhinemaidens in Wagner's Ring tetralogy. And especially in Coriolanus, a play obsessed with voice and understanding, such misinterpretations serve as a constant source of anxiety, and ultimately tragedy.
Shakespeare's Coriolanus is a colossus, imposing in the weight of his stature and the hard finish of his resolutions. As strong as stone and as terse as its plinthed inscriptions, Coriolanus is the living embodiment of Roman virtus, the predicates of which include strength, fidelity, courage, and, most importantly, the Stoic principle of homologia, otherwise known as constancy. The ideal of Roman virtus tends toward uniformity and regularity in action and feeling, like a marble curve. Critics have noted the deep current of Stoicism running through the play, though some have also asserted its absence in the protagonist, arguing that Coriolanus's ostensible constancy is no more than what the Dutch Neo-stoic Justus Lipsius called "obstinacy or frowardness"; or else claiming that Coriolanus's disturbance by public honor and domestic affections proves him to "not have a drop of Stoic blood in his veins."1 Indeed, T.S. Eliot ridiculed Stoic [End Page 27] pretensions in Shakespeare as nothing more than "self-consciousness and self-dramatization."2 In Eliot's post-classical world, pride is opposed to the Christian virtue of humility, and Coriolanus's virtus thus easily reads as obstinacy and arrogance. But his intense regard for constancy, in both the domestic and public spheres, is in fact mistaken by critics for a failure in Stoicism. Nowhere is the play's fascination with the complexities of Stoicism and the hero's remarkable determination to virtus more apparent than in the pivotal scene in the marketplace when theatrical performance threatens Stoic constancy.3
By constancy is usually meant a kind of steadfastness, uniformity, and fidelity. Being constant implies virtue in remaining true to one's self, to be an unmoving rock upon which opinion and influence break like water. Geoffrey Miles argues that constancy is not merely local Roman coloring but the necessary question of the play, that "in a paradox characteristic of this intensely paradoxical play, the passionate traitor Coriolanus is Shakespeare's most self-consciously 'constant' character."4 In both antiquity and the Renaissance there are however two conflicting traditions of constancy, and the near impossibility of negotiating them contributes to Coriolanus's ruin. These conflicting traditions derive from the writings of two major classical authors: Seneca and Cicero. The Senecan ideal celebrates the kind of constancy to which has been referred above, which is primarily reflective and ethical. Seneca says in De constantia sapientis that such constancy is a rational imperative to moral conviction, and its wisdom should be exercised even in the face of tyrants who threaten torture as well as fortune's reversals.5 By contrast, the Ciceronian ideal, which is often described in theatrical metaphors, demands social propriety and thus a public responsibility to act according to a certain part. In the first book of De officiis, a treatise on duty, Cicero decidedly identifies social virtue with moral virtue, each a demonstration of constancy in either action or word.6 For Cicero, propriety is key...