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
Coriolanus--the Killing Machine
Bill Long 1/7/08
Reflecting on I.iii.34-37
Often when we see a person engaging in self-destructive activity we wonder why s/he can't see the folly of the behavior and stop it in its tracks. After all, even though some of us engage in episodes of self-hatred of self-punishment, we really don't want to send ourselves into oblivion. But often the behavior continues until the person receives a painful comeuppance. What often is overlooked in this process is that the person doing the destructive activity feels they really have no choice but that they must act as they have been acting. From the perspective of those outside, this is a ludicrous claim. Of course, we think, you have a choice. Just exercise it!
The four lines from I.iii in Coriolanus help explore this issue and the psychology of this issue from the perspective of the warrior Martius/Coriolanus ("M"). When his mother Volumnia sees him in her mind's eye on the battlefield, she imagines what he must be doing. Instead of speaking in prose, she speaks in blank verse--a sign that her language is becoming more "elevated" or "poetic." She says to Virgilia, M's wife:
"His bloody brow
With his mail'd hand then wiping, forth he goes,
Like to a harvest-man that's task'd to mow
Or all or lose his hire," I.iii.34-37.
She likens her son to a harvester whose task it is either (the first "or" is "translated" as "either") to mow all the grain before him or to lose his job. He really has no choice if he wants to maintain his job as a harvester. You do the task before you or you lose your identity. For her son it means the same thing; he either plunges into the heart of the battle, killing as he goes, or he "retires" from the battlefield, no doubt to scorn and obloquy. The "problem" for M, however, is that he takes this attitude with him away from the battlefield and applies it to the affairs of his life. He must "continue the fight," so to speak, even though the weapons of choice in the political arena are those with which he isn't as familiar or skillful.
Looking at Life as Either/Or
This "either/or" attitude towards life, which is the way life is presented by Volumnia, is not just the something of literary invention by Shakespeare. It is the way that many people conceptualize the process of life. Let me illustrate. I know of a school where, long ago, the President was embarrassed by some things said about him by faculty/staff that ended up in an accreditation report when the regional accrediting team came through. Rather than looking at these criticisms as things that might help him address "real-life" issues on campus, he took umbrage at the thought that people could criticize him. He proceeded to try to "smoke out" the "offending members." He had his "informants" around campus to try to figure out who was against him. When he discovered this, he would try to retaliate against these people, by giving them harder work schedules, taking away privileges, cutting budgets, etc. Some went to the President and told him this wasn't the best thing to do; that it might be best just to let things go; that a few comments in an evaluation might not really be that bad, etc. But he was, like M, of such a mind that he could only conceive of fighting or losing. If he stopped the fight, it would be as if he was admitting defeat. He couldn't stop fighting. Eventually, he developed significant health problems and had to take a leave of absence. Either/or. Either I do the harvest or I lose my hire.
We see this in a more pathetic way in the last movie in the hugely-successful trilogy, the Bourne Ultimatum. CIA operations chief Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), becomes obsessed with finding and killing Jason Bourne. Bourne always either outsmarts him or ends up injuring/killing Vosen's men. Rather than pursuing a policy that says, "there are other ways to deal with the problem than either blowing him away or admitting defeat," Vosen grimly continued on his foolish ways, losing his reputation and position in the process.
Then, in a more personal note, I confess that I have sometimes considered my writing in this way. I either have to spend all my waking moments on research, thinking, writing and mastering more material or my life will fall apart, be worthless, or worse. But why do people (including myself) get themselves into this bind? Why do we adopt an either/or attitude towards life when clearly there are more than two choices or alternatives in most situations?
The Inability to See Alternatives
We don't see alternatives as true possibilities for us for a few reasons. First, there often is some good that comes out of acting in a focused, obsessive or "either/or" manner. And, you can see the results of this good pretty readily. For M it was an ever larger number of bodies piled up because of his sword which led, eventually, to a victory for Rome. For me it was an ever-growing list of essays which got me closer to something, whatever that goal was. That is, the fruit of either/or thinking can often be very pleasant at times. It allows you the satisfaction of victory or getting what you want.
Second, many people act this way because they feel if they 'let down their guard,' even for a moment, that someone else will come in and throw them out. Or, to put it differently, if they stop being so "either/or" in their outlook, they will fail at what they wanted to accomplish in life. It will give their opponents an opening, and the opponents will drive right through this opening to your advantage. Thus, those who are "either/or" people can begin to think that they can barely accomplish what they want by putting all their effort in to it; if they did anything less, life would just fall apart. So, the minds of "either/or" thinkers end up playing tricks on them/us. We begin to think that unless we view the world in terms of victory or defeat we will soon be cast aside as irrelevant players in life. Thus, we think that we can't see life in any other terms.
But the disadvantages of this approach are stark and easily evident. When you develop an "either/or" approach to life, you don't see things as they are. The quest of life for an adult is learning to see life in a nuanced way--as the product of often confusing and inexplicable forces that you do best to observe and follow rather than try to bend to your will. The process of maturation ought to encourage us to see that we really don't and can't control most things in life, and that lack of control is actually a good thing.
When you develop an either/or approach to life you can't receive new information; you really are rather "closed" to much new learning going on. Information has to fit into previously labeled boxes in order for it to be useful to you. You don't see irony or humor quite as easily. You tend to take yourself and life too seriously. You begin to judge others as not equal to you, as slow, dumb, lazy, shiftless, cowardly or a number of other things that strike your fancy. In short, when you develop an either/or approach to life you sink into a form of isolation and aloneness which isn't really too different from the oblivion that you want to avoid by adopting an "either/or" approach to life.
The Biblical character of Job is a great example of one who adopted an "either/or" approach to life/God as a result of his sufferings. Either God hates me or He wouldn't be doing this to me--that is what Job's philosophy eventually comes down to. But by narrowing your hermeneutical circle, you tend to interpret every piece of data flowing to you as confirming your "either/or" thesis. Thus, every new pain, every word of a friend, everything that happened just confirmed the fact that God had it out for Job; that God hated Job. But, in fact, it was only when Elihu came to Job in chs. 32-37 that Job began to open his mind more broadly and consider that perhaps God was trying to speak to him in a different way through his calamity. Rather than taking it as a sign of God's hatred, it might be an example of the divine care. "Either/or" thinking, however, can't see this.
This manner of thinking will afflict M throughout the play. Either he fights or he dies. There are no alternatives. He brings this attitude with him to the rest of his life's activities and applies the judgmentalism that goes with it (the plebs are lazy, cowardly, shiftless, worthless creatures) to people around him. Ultimately his own zeal consumes him, and he will go up in flames. But before we get to that sad occurrence, it is useful for us to pause and consider the type of thinking that might lead to this result.
Are there ways that we or others can be brought out of this kind of thinking before it is too late? It all depends, of course, on the individual. But if you can convince people that there is sometimes more than one way of interpreting life, that the holding to an either/or approach to things actually hurts the person (this is a harder argument to make), that you simply don't have to act a certain way because your parents brought you up to act a certain way (Volumnia's comment reflects her "either/or" view of life--we fight and win, or we become humiliated)--then you have a chance. But M won't be able to put the brakes on his conduct. And we see the result in the rest of the play.
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008