Study Guide

Coriolanus Art and Culture (and Politics)

By William Shakespeare

Art and Culture (and Politics)

Note me this, good friend;
Your most grave belly was deliberate,
Not rash like his accusers, and thus answered: (1.1.134-136)

Menenius is one of the few politicians that the plebeians actually like, because he really has their best interests at heart. Ha! Not really. They like him because he's a great story teller and entertainer. Here, he tells the angry plebeians a story (the fable of the belly) in order to get them to stop rioting on the streets of Rome. And it totally works! The plebeians are so mesmerized by Menenius and his ability to tell a good story with a political message that they forget why they're so angry. Moral: if you want to be a politician who is as successful as Menenius, you have to be a good entertainer who is willing and able to out on a good performance for your audience. We'll start planning our campaign now.

It then remains
That you do speak to the people.
I do beseech you,
Let me o'erleap that custom, for I cannot
Put on the gown, stand naked, and entreat them
For my wounds' sake, to give their suffrage:. Please
That I may pass this doing. (2.3.156-163)

We know that Menenius is comfortable being a performer slash politician but what about Coriolanus? Not so much. When Coriolanus decides to run for political office, he's advised to wear a "gown" of humility (a special toga that's pretty much a costume at this point) and go before the public to ask for votes. Coriolanus is not too into this idea. In fact, he says that he'd feel "naked" if he had to do this.

It is a part
That I shall blush in acting, (2.3.171-172)

Coriolanus comes right out and tells us that he'd be uncomfortable going around and asking for votes. See, he's used to insulting the plebeians, not praising them. Big difference.

I have lived
To see inherited my very wishes
And the buildings of my fancy. Only
There's one thing wanting, which I doubt not but
Our Rome will cast upon thee.
Know, good mother,
I had rather be their servant in my way
Than sway with them in theirs. (2.1.215-222)

We can see why Volumnia might just be the ultimate stage mother. When her son returns from war a hero, she's all like, "oh, that's great, but there's just one more tiny little thing …"—i.e., she wants Coriolanus to be elected Rome's consul. Coriolanus makes it pretty clear that he'd rather just be a warrior so he doesn't have to play any political games with the voters but Volumnia's not having it.

What must I say?
'I pray, sir?'—plague upon 't! I cannot bring
My tongue to such a pace. 'Look, sir, my wounds!
I got them in my country's service when
Some certain of your brethren roared and ran
From th' noise of our own drums.'
O me, the gods!
You must not speak of that. You must desire them
To think upon you.
Think upon me! Hang 'em!
I would they would forget me, like the virtues
Which our divines lose by 'em.
You'll mar all.
I'll leave you. Pray you, speak to 'em, I pray you,
In wholesome manner. (2.3.53-67)

This is where Menenius coaches Coriolanus through his public appearance and tells him what he should and shouldn't say to the voters, just like a campaign advisor—or a play director.

Ay, spare us not. Say we read lectures to you,
How youngly he began to serve his country,
How long continued, and what stock he springs of,
Say, you ne'er had done't—
Harp on that still—but by our putting on.
And presently, when you have drawn your number,
Repair to th' Capitol. (2.3.262-264; 280-283)

Speaking of politicians who act like directors, did you notice how Sicinius and Brutus basically "stage" the whole mutiny against Coriolanus by manipulating the plebeians? Not only do they tell the plebian voters how to storm the capitol and take back their votes for Coriolanus, they also tell the people what to say. Sounds like there are some director's chairs with their names on them.

You have put me now to such a part which never
I shall discharge to th' life. (3.2.129-130)

After Volumnia tells her son how to act and what to say to the voters, Coriolanus says that his mother has given him a kind of acting role to play. Not only that, but it's a tough "part" for him to play because (1) he's terrible at acting and (2) being nice to the plebeians doesn't come naturally to him. Double whammy.

Come, come, we'll prompt
I prithee now, sweet son, as thou hast said
My praises made thee first a soldier, so,
To have my praise for this, perform a part
Thou hast not done before. (3.2.131-136)

Here, Volumnia comes right out and says Coriolanus should "perform a part" when he panders to the voters. Again, this suggests that being a politician doesn't come naturally to Coriolanus, so he needs to be directed by his mom and Cominius. But here's the bigger question: if everyone needs to play a part to get elected, is being a politician just an unnatural job?

Well, I must do 't.
Away, my disposition, and possess me
Some harlot's spirit! My throat of war be turned,
Which choirèd with my drum, into a pipe
Small as an eunuch or the virgin voice
That babies lulls asleep! The smiles of knaves
Tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys' tears take up
The glasses of my sight! A beggar's tongue
Make motion through my lips, and my armed knees,
Who bowed but in my stirrup, bend like his
That hath received an alms. I will not do 't,
Lest I surcease to honor mine own truth
And, by my body's action, teach my mind
A most inherent baseness. (3.2.137-150)

Hmmm, this is interesting. Here, Coriolanus associates political pandering with effeminacy. Asking for the plebeians votes makes him feel like his once masculine voice ("throat of war") will turn into the squeaky, high-pitched voice of a "eunuch" (castrated man) or a "virgin" (young girl). Don't tell your congressperson.

Let us seem humbler after it is done
Than when it was a-doing. (4.2.5-6).

Hm. Turns out that Coriolanus isn't the only one trying to act. Here, Sicinius and Brutus decide that they should act with a lot more humility now that they've succeeded in bringing down Coriolanus. After all, they have votes to win, too.