Study Guide

Coriolanus Language and Communication

By William Shakespeare

Language and Communication

No more talking on 't; let it be done. Away, away! (1.1.12)

The Roman Citizens (a.k.a. plebeians) aren't exactly known for their eloquence. When the play opens, they're ready to tear Caius Martius (Coriolanus) limb from limb and they don't want to waste a lot of time talking about it. On the one hand, we could say that their unwillingness to have some sort of dialogue suggests that they are disorganized, violent, and out of control. On the other hand, they're starving. Maybe they have no choice but to stop talking and take action. What do you think?

Sir, the people
Must have their voices; neither will they bate
One jot of ceremony. (2.2.164-166)

There sure is a lot of talk about the common people's "voices," a.k.a. votes. This makes sense in theory, because having a voice / right to vote means having a say in how the government is run. Of course, the plebeians don't have much of a say at all. They're virtually powerless—unless they take to the streets.

Thanks.—What's the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?
We have ever your good word.
He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. (1.1.174-179)

Ever heard the expression "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all?" Apparently, Coriolanus hasn't. The first thing out of his mouth in this play is a string of nasty insults hurled at the plebeians. And did you notice the Citizen's smart-alecky response? ("We have ever your good word.") That basically means that the plebs are totally used to Coriolanus insulting them. We also see here that Coriolanus is completely unapologetic for talking trash. In fact, he insists that anyone who gives "good words" (speaks kindly) to the plebeians is full of baloney.

I shall tell you
A pretty tale. It may be you have heard it,
But since it serves my purpose, I will venture
To stale 't a little more. (1.1.91-94)

Smooth-talking Menenius is the perfect foil to Coriolanus because he's all about using words to flatter and manipulate the plebeians. In this scene, he tells the plebs a fable in order to pacify their anger. Menenius is super clever because he knows how to use language for political gain. More importantly, he's willing to use language for political gain. Watch out for this guy.

My gracious silence, hail!
Wouldst thou have laughed had I come coffined
That weep'st so to see me triumph? (2.1.184-187)

Coriolanus' wife Virgilia is famous for her silence. When Coriolanus returns from war, she weeps quietly, even after her husband greets her and gently teases her for crying. Although Virgilia is often criticized for her silence (see 5.3.156), Coriolanus seems to be acknowledging her quiet dignity. After all, he calls her his gracious silence, right?

When blows have made me stay, I fled from words. (2.2.84)

Sticks and stones may break Coriolanus' bones, but words are way, way worse. He absolutely cannot stand to be praised in public—so much so that he'll run away from words of praise, even though he's the kind of guy who never runs away from a physical fight.

Consider further,
That when he speaks not like a citizen,
You find him like a soldier. Do not take
His rougher accents for malicious sounds,
But, as I say, such as become a soldier
Rather than envy you. (3.3.70-75)

When Coriolanus runs for consul and says all the wrong things to the voters, Menenius basically has to act like a spin doctor and try to do damage control. Here, Menenius is trying to turn Coriolanus' rough mannerisms into a positive. By blaming Coriolanus' harsh and abusive language on the fact that he is a soldier, Menenius is also reminding the voters that Coriolanus is a war hero who has saved Rome from its enemies on numerous occasions. Pretty crafty.

Daughter, speak you.
He cares not for your weeping.—Speak thou, boy.
Perhaps thy childishness will move him more
Than can our reasons. (5.3.177-180)

When Coriolanus' family shows up and begs him not to destroy Rome, Volumnia does most of the talking. There's plenty of evidence in the text to suggest that Volumnia is the one who convinces Coriolanus to stop the invasion. But she also orders her daughter-in-law and grandson to "speak" up. Does this mean she's not getting the reaction she wants from her son? It seems pretty clear that Volumnia thinks that Virgilia is weak and ineffective because she's not vocal, but we're not so sure. Maybe Virgilia's silence and tears do help convince Coriolanus' decision to stop.

Like a dull actor now,
I have forgot my part, and I am out, (5.3.46-47)

For once in his life, Coriolanus is at a total loss for words. And notice how Shakespeare describes it—as being like an actor who forgot his part.

Name not the god, thou boy of tears!
Measureless liar, thou hast made my heart
Too great for what contains it. 'Boy'? O slave!—
Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads,
Stain all your edges on me. 'Boy'? False hound!
If you have writ your annals true, 'tis there
That like an eagle in a dovecote, I
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles,
Alone I did it. 'Boy'! (5.6.120; 123-124; 133-138) 

Coriolanus' blurts out whatever comes to his mind, but that's not his only problem. Throughout the play, he often allows other peoples' words to provoke him into angry tirades. That's exactly what happens here. When Tullus Aufidius taunts him in front of the Volscians by calling him "boy," Coriolanus flips out. Not only does he brag about killing a bunch of Volscians during the siege of Corioles, he also dares the Volscians to go ahead and kill him. A few moments later, that's exactly what they do. Oops.