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' Selflessness and Pride
Bill Long 12/28/07
Looking at Act I, Scene ix
The thesis of this essay is that Coriolanus' ("C") apparent selflessness in giving himself to the Roman cause in the fight against Corioli is, in fact, an expression of pride, a pride that so is do deeply embedded in his heart that it will lead to his downfall as a person. We see the dynamic of selflessness/pride working especially in I.ix, after C has not only raided Corioli in a single-handed act of heroism (I.iv), but has also aided the more "laid-back" commander Cominius in the battle in the field (I.vi). The scene opens when the general Cominius commends C for his acts of valor; even the tribunes (the representatives of the people):
"Shall say, against their hearts, 'We thank the gods/ Our Rome hath such a soldier," I.ix.8-9.
Honors, therefore, are the order of the day. Cominius is seconded by the other general, Titus Lartius, who chimes in:
"Here is the steed [pointing to Coriolanus], we the caparison [the mere cover]," I.ix.12.
But C, who is still called Marcius at this point (he receives the name Coriolanus later in the scene, at line 65), will have none of all this adulation:
"Pray now, no more: my mother
Who has a charter to extol her blood,
When she does praise me grieves me. I have done/ As you have done,--that's what I can; induced/ As you have been,--that's for my country:/ He that has but effected his good will
Hath overta'en mine act," I.ix.13-19.
C's response to all the attention is to say, as it were, 'Ah shucks, it was nothing. You would have done the same, too. In fact, since I only did what I could, it is much less than the honor that should come to others who do things by 'effecting' his 'good will,' i.e., who do something truly heroic.' My point here is C really doesn't believe his attempt at modesty and egalitarian philosophy ('I did what you would do under the circumstances'). Let's examine the philosophy of pride, and see how it arises out of a false sense of egalitarianism and selflessness.
Shucks, Folks, I'm Speechless
C's point is that he doesn't like to be praised because anyone could do what he did. What he did, he suggests, came naturally to him. Therefore, don't make a big deal of it. But when you do something truly out of the ordinary, which C did here--by bursting into the City and opening the gates for his fellow soldiers, and by inspiring the troops in the field to rejoin the battle, you should feel as if you did something special. And, in fact, you know in your heart that you did something extraordinary. By denying the extraordinary nature of what you have done, you give the impression that what you did was "ordinary," was just another day at the office. But when you then have to deal with other people, whose day at the office is much less productive than yours, you will inevitably begin to compare yourself to them and criticize them, thinking that they are less than you, because you can do so much more at the office than they can. You are, in your natural condition, then, much more than anyone else. By not recognizing the specialness that you bring to the task, then, you tend to distance yourself from other people and judge them harshly because they can't do what you can. This, in fact, is the way that C comports himself towards others when not in a military context. He is harsh, judgmental, intolerant and proud. But his pride comes from the basic act of self-deception--that he ought to have no special pride in what he did because, in fact, anyone would have done the same had he had the opportunity. But, they can't. And C ought to have realized that.
Blame it on Mom
We meet C's mother Volumnia in I.iii. She is quite a woman, and her words drip with the imagery of blood and martial valor. C says here that when his mother "does praise me (she) grieves me." But where does this grief come from? And what is its relationship to maternal praise? I recall my father often telling me that he couldn't stand it when people praised him. He had a lot of praiseworthy characteristics, to be sure, but he he wanted to have nothing to do with any commendation for his actions. In one particularly visual image, he said that praise "turned his stomach." I think that what was key for him and for Coriolanus is the nature of their upbringing. My father was raised in penurious circumstances and learned at an early age that life was hard, very hard. You didn't have time to perform dances in the end zone. Life was a battle and not a journey or a party. You had a job to do. And, when you had completed that job, you quietly kept working on something else. Indeed, I don't recall my father ever being truly satisfied with anything he did. There may be something about the harshness of early circumstances and the lessons derived from these circumstances that make one unwilling to accept praise later on. If life was so praiseworthy, why was it so miserable and so hard for so many years? Life is, in fact, simply unremitting toil, toil that brings a harshness towards those that might not work as hard or be quite as talented.
Not every talented person who grew up in harsh circumstances hates praise. But a certain nature does. And that, it seems to me, was C. But, in fact, his attitude was the soil out of which pride grew. And the pride that grew was not a pleasant plant such as the tall and dominant Allium but a noxious weed that ended up being useless and even harmful. Thus, beware of false humility, of attempts to downplay a contribution which really is a special contribution. Behind every person who denies his/her special activity is a person who secretly distances him/herself from ohters and ends up weighing them in the balance and finding them wanting.
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008