Act I Summary
Summary of I.i
Language in I.i
Insults in I.i (I)
Insults in I.i (II)
Summary of I.iii
Cor. as Machine
Act II Summary
Martius Insults the Plebs in I.i (I)
Bill Long 12/31/07
Anger Unleashed in I.i.164-200
In the first forty lines after Martius/Coriolanus has made his appearance, he manages to insult the plebs with about five or six images that drip with rage and bitterness. My purpose in this and the next essay is to walk through those insults, not only so that you will better be able to appreciate S's rapier-like words but so that you might devote some attention to the fine art of insult-making. With the easy access of four-letter words in our culture, we are in danger of losing the imaginative capacity which lies at the foundation of a good insult.
Let's begin with mention of a few other S insults. From All's Well, "A most notable coward, an infinite and endless liar, an hourly promise breaker, the owner of no one good quality." From MfM, "Thou are a flesh-mongerer, a fool and a coward." From As You Like It, "Thou art like a toad; ugly and venemous." From Henry V, "There's no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune" and, one of my favorites, "Thine face is not worth sunburning." Or, from Henry IV, Part II, "You are as a candle, the better burnt out." With these as a sauce to sprighten (just made that up) your food, let's turn to Coriolanus.
Martius ("M") enters in the middle of I.i with bluster and contempt dripping from his mouth. He has just returned from another part of the city, where the Senate has given in to demands of the plebs that they have had five Tribunes appointed them to represent their interests. M later tells about that incident and is so upset with it that he can only remember two of the Tribunes' names (216-217) before cursing. M sees the naming of Tribunes as a sign of weakness, an indication that the patricians are, in fact, encouraging insurrection. M is so spitting mad that he wouldn't mind slicing up a whole row of plebs and putting them in a quarry. In fact, S very cleverly has M mix up his time sequence in describing what he wants to do to the plebs:
"And let me use my sword, I'd make a quarry
With thousands of these quarter'd slaves, as high As I could pick my lance," I.i.198-200.
One commentator remarks that the logical order is "I'd quarter thousands of these slaves, and make a quarry of them." That is, you've got to slice and dice them before you bury them. But M is so angry that he rushes to the end or result of the action (quarrying them) before explaining how it is that he gets them there (quartering them).
M is enraged because he, the big and powerful man, is powerless to stop the political process. What works so well in the battlefield for him (dishing out vengeance and punishment) doesn't work so well once he is back in the arena of human relations. After all, even Tony Soprano learned that you can't kill everyone who slightly displeases you in the world. So he becomes a veritable cauldron of rage, and he uses language to do for him what he can't do with the really effective weapons--his arms.
After entering and calling the plebs "dissentious rogues," who, by "rubbing the poor itch of your opinion/ Make yourself scabs" (164-166), M continues uninterrupted:
"He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him,
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man's appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favours swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye?
With every minute you do change a mind;
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland," I.i.167-184.
In these nearly 20 lines we have at least five insults against the plebs, attacks that argue for the plebs' fickleness, lack of commitment to justice and powerlessness. Indeed, from M's perspective, the plebs are a pathetic lot. He wished he could line them up and hew them down and bury them. That is what he would do, in fact, if the nobility would only lay aside their "ruth" (i.e., mercy; line 197).
First, the plebs like "nor peace nor war." They are dissatisfied with every social situation primairly because, as he will explain later, they want to exploit the magnanimity of the patricians for their own ends. So, they are afraid when they are in battle (examples of that will come later in Act I), and they become arrogant during peacetime. What can they be other than a bunch of worthless and unappreciative curs?
Second, they cannot be relied upon. The are like the coal of fire on a frozen Thames. The coal will quickly go out. Some scholars see this reference, in fact, as a sort of terminus a quo (time after which the play had to have been composed) because the Thames froze over in 1607, an event that hadn't happened for the previous 40 years. Even if S has that event in the back of his mind, his use of the image is what interests me. Instead of lions he finds hares. What a bunch of wimps are the plebs! S's description here reminds me of Job's description of his "friends" in ch. 6. They are like the wadis that dry up in the summer. Precisely when you need refreshing water, they are nowhere to be seen. When Job says this about his "friends," as I have argued elsewhere, you know that a fissure has developed between them that will be impossible to close. So it is here. There is no community of interest between M and the plebs.
The next essay finishes these thoughts.
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008