Aphorisms on Art
by Joseph Suglia
Art is not art the moment that it ceases to be a fabrication. I support anything in art, on the basis that it is choreographed / fabricated. The moment that a human being wounds, mutilates, kills an animal, the boundary that separates art from life has been crossed. The moment that an artist kills an animal in the name of art, she or he has ceased being an artist in my eyes.
Art is a way of making life seem more interesting than it actually is.
Art transforms the spectator’s relation to the world, to others, and to oneself. It is a human activity, not a natural or divine activity.
I have become an aesthetic nihilist: The word “art” is applied to whatever a person or a community believes is art. I can only speak or write with authority on what I think art is.
Art is the perception of a perception.
An Analysis of All’s Well That Ends Well (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Die Forderung, geliebt zu werden, ist die grösste aller Anmassungen.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, Volume One, 525
My argument is that Shakespeare is both the most overestimated and the most underestimated writer in the history of English literature. His most famous plays are stupendously and stupefyingly overrated (e.g. The Tempest), whereas the problematical plays that have been relatively understaged and underread until recently, such as Measure for Measure and Love’s Labour’s Lost, are his masterworks. All’s Well That Ends Well is rightly seen as one of the problematical plays, since it does not exactly follow the contours of the Shakespearean comedy.
One could rightly say that all of the Shakespearean comedies are conjugal propaganda. They celebrate marriage, that is to say, and marriage, for Hegel and for many others, is the foundation of civil society. In the Age of Elizabeth, long before and long afterward, the way in which children are expected to have been begotten is with the imprimatur of marriage.
But there is no marriage-boosterism in All’s Well That Ends Well, no ra-raing or oohing and aahing over marriage. In All’s Well That Ends Well, a celebration of marriage is absent.
Whereas Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream end in anti-orgies, in collectivized, communalized, semi-coerced marriages, the wedding in All’s Well That Ends Well takes place in the second act and is absolutely coerced.
The play is about a woman named Helena who forces a man named Bertram to marry her and to have sexual intercourse with her. As blunt as this synopsis might be, it is nonetheless accurate. A psychotic stalker, Helena will stop at nothing and will not take “Yes” for an answer. She pursues Bertram relentlessly. As I shall argue below, Bertram genuinely does not want to be married to Helena, nor does he wish to be physically intimate with her. Not only that: There is absolutely no evidence that he desires Helena at the end of the play. Quite the opposite, as I shall contend. Much like her predecessor, Boccaccio’s Giletta, Helena is a monomaniac whose obsession ends in the achievement of her desire and her scheme: “[M]y intents are fix’d, and will not leave me” [I:i]. And yet, does obsession ever end?
When we are first presented with her, Helena remarks, “I do affect a sorrow indeed, but I have it too” [I:i]. She means that she affects a sorrow for her father, who died not more than six months ago, but is genuinely sorrowful over the thought of the impossibility of possessing Bertram: “I think not on my father, / And these great tears grace his remembrance more / Than those I shed for him” [Ibid.]. Her indifference to her father’s death reveals that she is hardly the virtuous innocent that the Countess, Lefew, and (later) the King of France take her to be: “I think not on my father… I have forgot him. My imagination / Carries no favour in’t but Bertram’s” [Ibid.]. All she thinks about is Bertram, whose “relics” she “sanctifies” [Ibid.], much like a dement who collects the socks of her lover which she has pilfered from the laundry machine.
Even more revealingly, Helena’s love for Bertram has a social and political valence: “Th’ambition in my love thus plagues itself” [I:i]. Am I alone in hearing in the word ambition an envy for Bertram’s higher social status? I am not suggesting that her love for him is purely socially and politically motivated. I am suggesting rather that her love is inseparable from the desire for social / political advancement.
When he takes his leave, Bertram does not propose that Helena visit Paris to win the King’s favor, despite what Helena’s words might suggest: “My lord your son made me to think of this; / Else Paris and the medicine and the king / Had from the conversation of my thoughts / Haply been absent then” [I:iii]. Helena lies to the Countess—and/or lies to herself—when she says that her love “seeks not to find that her search implies, / But riddle-like lives sweetly where she dies” [I:iii]. No, Helena is indefatigable and is hardly the self-abnegating “barefooted” saint [III:iv] that she pretends to be. Furthermore, she is lying to herself and to the Countess of Rossillion when she says that she is not “presumptuous,” as she is lying when she says that she would not “have [Bertram]” until she “deserve[s] him” [I:iii]. Who decides when she should “deserve” Bertram? Apparently, Helena believes that only she is authorized to decide when she is deserving of Bertram. Why is Bertram not permitted to decide when and if she is deserving of him? Helena is sexually aggressive from the beginning unto the sour end.
The fundamental challenge of the play is not for Helena to find a way to become married to Bertram. As I wrote above, Bertram is forced to marry Helena in the second act of the play. The fundamental challenge of the play is for Helena to find a way to have sexual intercourse with Bertram—to couple with him, whether he wants to couple with her or not.
And Bertram has made it clear that he does not find Helena sexually attractive. And yet Helena refuses to accept his rejection and sexually unifies with Bertram while dissembling herself as another woman, Diana Capilet.
Helena is not satisfied merely being married to Bertram. Nor, it seems, would she be satisfied with Bertram’s assent and consent, even if he had assented and consented to the marriage. She wants to possess Bertram against his own will: “[L]ike a timorous thief, most fain would steal / What law does vouch mine own” [II:v].
Why not take Helena at her word? On the one hand, she is saying that she is lawfully entitled to the appropriation of Bertram’s body, but that is not enough for her. She is saying that she has the power to break his life, but she would rather have the power to break his heart. On the other hand, taking Helena at her word, she is the thief who would like to steal what is lawfully her own. She would like to experience the thrill of transgressing the law without ever transgressing the law. All’s well that ends well. She does not want to take the wealth of his body; she wants to steal the wealth of his body. Now, this might seem a curiously literal interpretation of the line, but does Helena not deceive her husband like a thief in the night [III:ii]? She does not cheat on her husband; she cheats with her husband. She is like the banker who steals from her own bank or like the casino owner who gambles at her own casino.
It would be a mistake to see Bertram as an erotophobe, since he does attempt to seduce Diana. He is revolted by Helena. The idea of having sex with her suffuses him with nausea. Bertram acknowledges that he is married to a woman whom he does not love, but he swears that he will never be physically intimate with her. In a letter to his mother, Bertram writes: “I have wedded [Helena], not bedded her, and sworn to make the ‘not’ eternal” [II:ii]. He is so disgusted by the idea of having sex with her that he goes to war to escape her: “I’ll to the Tuscan wars and never bed her” [II:iii].
Bertram’s reluctance to be yoked to Helena must be seen within the horizon of the early seventeenth century. Let us not forget that Queen Elizabeth was the monarch at the time of the play’s composition, and within Bertram’s refusal to become the “forehorse to a smock” [II:i] (the leading horse in a train of horses spurred on by a woman) one can hear the resonances of Elizabeth’s reign. However, it would be mistaken to suggest that Bertram does not want to marry Helena merely because she is a woman who has been invested with regal authority or merely because she was once lowborn and poor. Again, he finds her physically repellent.
Helena does not stop until she couples with Bertram without his consent. Is this not rape? According to the standards of our day, impersonated sex is indeed sexual violation, but it is unlikely that it would have been considered ravishment in the Age of Elizabeth.
And is this not incest, for Helena and Bertram are sister and brother, disregarding the banality of biology? There is a conversation about incest in Act One, Scene Three, the conclusion of which is: Helena would acknowledge the Countess as her mother, on the condition that the world does not recognize Bertram as her brother. But are Helena and Bertram not sister and brother? They grew up together in the same household, and it is possible that Bertram rejects Helena partly out of the fear of incest.
The Countess certainly sees Helena as her organic daughter: “If [Helena] had partaken of my flesh and cost me the dearest groans of a mother I could not have owed her a more rooted love” [V:v]. Helena is the replica that is naturalized, much like the artificial fruit in the bowl that lies upon your kitchen table, which you accept as natural.
Fortune (what is constituted after birth) and Nature (what is constituted at birth) reverse each other: Bertram becomes the bastard child; the orphan Helena becomes the proper daughter: “Which of them both / Is dearest to me I have no skill in sense / To make distinction” [III:iv]. Much worse: The Countess raises Helena to a status that is higher than that of her own son, who is written off by her as a reprobate. When the Countess intones the opening line of the play, “In delivering my son from me, I bury a second husband” [I:i], you do get the impression that her biological son is dead through the act of birth, that her son is a stillborn.
Throughout the play, there are posited false equivalences. Convalescence is falsely equated to marriage, as virginity is equated to mortality. Epexegesis: The revival of the King of France is equated to the compulsory marriage of Bertram to Helena (Bertram questions this false economics of equivalence: “But follows it, my lord to bring me down / Must answer for your raising?” [II:iii]), in a Bachelorette-style gameshow that is rigged in advance in which she nominates Bertram without ever taking any of the French lords seriously as his competitors. The death of the King is equated to virginity, as virginity is equated to death in Parolles’ campaign against virginity (“He that hangs himself is a virgin; virginity murthers itself, and should be buried in highways out of all sanctified limit, as a desperate offendress against nature” [I:i]). The King strikes a balance between Bertram’s loss and Helena’s gain: “Take her by the hand / And tell her she is thine; to whom I promise / A counterpoise, if not to thy estate, / A balance more replete” [II:iii]. A fake equivalence, false equation is again posited, between the sacrifice of Bertram’s social status and the elevation of Helena’s status. One thing is taken for another, one person is replaced with another, as we see with the replacement of Diana with Helena. Such is the logic of substitution or the logic of substitutability in All’s Well That Ends Well.
Those literary critics who praise Helena as an innocent are wrong (I am looking at you, Harold Bloom), in the same way that the Countess of Rossillion and Lefew are wrong about her “innocence”: Helena is not saintly, she is not simple, she is not unambiguously honest (unless by “honesty” one intends “virginity”), she is not unambiguously good, she is not uncomplicatedly “virtuous” [I:i]. She is not reducible to the role of the innocent that she plays. Shakespeare’s characters are not undifferentiated. His fools tend to be wise, and his characters in general are neither simply good nor simply evil, but rather both good and evil—sometimes, his characters are even good and evil at the same time. This is stated almost aphoristically in the words of the First Lord, a gentleman whose role seems to be to emphasize that #NotAllMenAreSwine: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together; our virtues would be proud if our faults whipp’d them not, and our crimes would despair if they were not cherish’d by our virtues” [IV:iii]. The proto-Nietzschean Shakespeare is ventriloquized through the First Lord, I think. Both Nietzsche and Shakespeare admonish us against pouring all of humanity into twin buckets, one marked GOOD and the other marked EVIL. Shakespearean characters are of overwhelming and self-contradicting complexity, assemblages of oxymoronic elements.
For this reason, those critics who condemn Bertram as a cad are wrong in the same way that Diana is wrong when she calls him simply “not honest” [III:v]. (Let me remark parenthetically that Parolles is the double of Bertram, as Diana is the double of Helena. Parolles absorbs all of Bertram’s negative traits, particularly the tendency to seduce and impregnate washerwomen.) (And here is a second set of parentheses: Parolles is also the double of Helena. He ignores his social status when he refuses to call his lord Bertram “master” [II:iii].) Those who suggest that Helena shyly longs after a man who is unworthy of her are as wrong as Lefew, who claims that the French lords reject Helena, when it is the other way around. (I’m still looking at you, Harold Bloom.) Bertram is a cad, a seducer, yes, but he is not reducible to his caddishness.
Despite her indifference to her father’s death, Helena identifies with her father, Gerard de Narbon, the physician, and uses her father’s recipes to heal the King of France. When Bertram pleads to the Florentine washerwoman, “[G]ive thyself unto my sick desires” [IV:ii], it is apparent that he is conscious of his own sickness, and it is Helena who will wear the quackish mask of the physician once more. The first half of the play folds upon the second half: In the first half, Helena cures the King of his ailment; in the second, Helena cures Bertram of the sickness of his lechery—against his will.
When the King’s eyes first alight upon Helena, she seems a radiant presence: “This haste hath wings indeed” [II:i], he says, as if she were a seraphic apparition. It is Helena’s womanly charm, her femaleness, that resurrects him from the dead: “Methinks in thee some blessed spirit doth speak / His powerful sound within an organ weak” [Ibid.]. It is her vixenishness that virilizes him.
The King is revived from the dead. Now, Bertram has lost the right to say, “No” to Helena. Love for Helena is now equated to the obedience to the King of France: “Thou wrong’st thyself if thou should’st strive to choose [to love Helena]!” [II:iii], the King screams at Bertram. In other words, “You should not have to choose to love Helena. I have commanded you to love Helena, and therefore you MUST love Helena.” The word of the King is law, and to defy the word of the King is misprision. Behind Helena’s monomaniacal pursuit of Bertram is all of the weight of legal and regal authority. Love of Helena is bound up with love of the King, and an affront to Helena is an affront to the throne. This is to say that Bertram is legally and politically obligated to love Helena, as if love is something that could be compelled, coerced, commanded.
Here, the King of France ignores that desire is not logical or causal and is not subject to regal injunction. Desire cannot be systematized. We cannot program our minds to love; we cannot download love applications into the smartphones of our minds.
Were she not such a monomaniac, Helena would have let Bertram go after he refuses her, but she does not. Not once does Helena accept Bertram’s rejection. Not once does she turn her attention to another man after Bertram scorns her. Instead, she pretends to relinquish the man she is determined to appropriate: “That you are well restor’d, my lord, I’m glad. / Let the rest go” [II:iii]. When Helena says this, it is accismus, that is, the feigned refusal of that which is earnestly desired. It is not a statement of resignation. Nor should one mistake her demand to marry for a marriage proposal. Helena does not propose marriage; she imposes marriage.
It would have been noble had Helena renounced Bertram upon learning that he is a marriage escapee, that he defected to Italy and entered the Tuscan Wars and a likely death to escape her. However, this is not what Helena does: Instead, she pursues him to Italy. Her path of reflection is as follows: “Bertram left France to escape me; therefore, I will leave France, as well—and follow him to Italy.” Whereas Helena wants presence, Bertram wants absence: “Till I have no wife I have nothing in France” [III:ii], he writes to his mother. To say that she wants everything would be a gross understatement. She wants more than everything—she wants to eat her Key Lime Pie and refrigerate it at the same time.
Bertram gives away his six-generation family ring to Helena, who is disguised as a Florentine washerwoman, and this is ring will be returned to him. The ring seals not only his marriage to Helena, but also seals his marriage to the community / to the collective. The symbol of the ring is clearly the chief symbol of the play, for treason moves in an annular pattern. Treachery is circular; treason is circular. This is the meaning of the difficult and frequently misinterpreted words of the First Lord:
We are, the First Lord says, “[m]erely our own traitors. And as in the common course of all treasons we still see them reveal themselves till they attain to their abhorr’d ends; so he that in this action contrives against his own nobility, in his proper stream o’erflows himself” [IV:iii].
I would translate these lines thus: “We human beings are traitors to ourselves. We betray ourselves in the very act of betrayal. As we betray others, we betray ourselves—that is, we reveal ourselves as traitors and thus we betray our own betrayals.” According to a citation in The Oxford English Dictionary, “till” could mean “while” in 1603. All’s Well That Ends Well is believed to have been written between 1604 and 1605. If “till” meant “while” in 1603 in England, then this is a justifiable reading of the lines.
All of the main characters are unrepentant traitors, and traitors always betray themselves. We see treacherous treason in the treacheries of Parolles, of Helena, and of Bertram.
Parolles intends to betray the Florentine army, but ends up betraying military secrets to the Florentine army.
Helena does, in fact, deceive her husband, but this deception ends in legitimized sexual intercourse. Moreover, she lies when she says that she “embrace[s]” death to “set [Bertram] free” [III:iv], but she does so in order to affirm the sanctity of marriage. She is a liar who feigns her own death—but she does so in order to honor marriage and thus to honor Elizabethan society. In the eyes of the world, she has done nothing wrong. Who could blame her for cozening someone who would unjustly win? Would could blame her for deceiving her husband in order to sanctify conjugality? A Casanova in reverse, she takes a honeymoon to Italy and has sex with her husband—only her husband thinks that he is having sex with someone else. No one is devirginized, except for Bertram’s wife.
Bertram would betray Helena by cheating upon her, but he ends up betraying himself. He intends to commit adultery on his own wife, but he ends up committing adultery with his wife.
From a purely external / legal / formal point of view, neither sin nor crime has been performed in each case. In each case, the three characters have sinful intentions, and yet commit no sin. All’s well that ends in a socially acceptable manner. It is for this reason that Helena says that the reason within her treasonous marriage plot “[i]s wicked meaning in a lawful deed, / And lawful meaning in a lawful act, / Where both not sin, and yet a sinful fact” [III:vii]. And later in the play: “All’s well that ends well; still the fine’s the crown. / Whatever the course, the end is the renown” [IV:v]. “Fine” here means “ending.” The formal close of the plot sanctifies all of the deception that came before it. The ring turns itself around; the end communes with the beginning. The ring is closed, erasing all of the treachery and deception that was used to forge it.
No one is innocent, and no one is guilty. Diana implies the innocent guilt of not only Bertram, but of all traitors, when she says: “Because he’s guilty and he is not guilty” [V:iii]. The traitors of the play (Parolles, Helena, and Bertram) are innocent, though their intentions are treasonous.
One character after the other intends to perform a treacherous action, but this action is transmuted into its opposite. Such is the reversal of language: As the First Lord says to the Second Lord (in reference to a secret that will be communicated by the latter to the former): “When you have spoken it, ’tis dead, and I am the grave of it” [IV:iii]. Language kills. That is: Language has the tendency to say the exact opposite of what we mean. When we say or write, “I am lonely,” we cannot be lonely, for we open up the possibility of communication. When we say or write, “I am sad,” we are not sad enough to stop speaking or writing.
Concerning the intentional errors of language: The bescarfed fool Patrolles misuses words throughout, and this is always Shakespeare’s way of ridiculing characters he does not respect. For instance, Parolles says “facinerious” instead of “facinorous” [II:iii]. He uses an affected language, such as when he calls Bertram’s defection from marriage a “capriccio” [Ibid.]. He often cannot finish his sentences. Again and again, his sentences are broken off with em-dashes (this is what rhetoricians call aposiopesis). And yet there is some sense in his nonsense. When he intones, “Mort du vinaigre!” [III:iii], this might seem to be mere babble, and yet might it not evoke the crucifixion of Christ, whose broken lips and tongue were said to be moistened by vinegar? When Parolles is accosted by the Florentines, dressed as Muscovites, they utter gibble-gabble, such as “Boskos vauvado” and “Manka revania dulche” [IV:i]. And yet are they gabbling? Dulche might invoke Dolch, a German word that means “dagger” (after all, the Florentines-dressed-as-Muscovites are pointing their poniards at Parolles), and boskos might evoke “bosk” or “boscage,” which makes sense, since the scene takes place in a forest. Even though they are gabbling, there is significance in their gibble-gabble. Shakespeare cannot allow his writing to be meaningless. There is, in his writing, a tyranny of meaning. Even the nonsense in his plays carries sense.
At the end of the play, which does not end well, and which therefore belies its own title, Bertram acknowledges that his wife is his wife, but he does so in formalistic and legalistic language: “If she, my liege, can make me know this clearly / I’ll love her dearly, ever, ever dearly” [V:iii]. In other words, “I love you because I am socially, legally, and politically obligated to love you.” He speaks as if the knowledge of information led to desire, as if the confirmation of a legal contract necessarily issued in passion. Indeed, Helena has proven that she has fulfilled both conditions of the contract: that she pull the ring from his finger and that she produce a child of whom he is the father. The ring is given as evidence to Helena’s kangaroo court; the parturition of the child is demonstrated, as if this were the Elizabethan version of a talk-show paternity test. It is probable, however, that Bertram intended “ring” and “child” as metaphors—and yet Helena takes the letter as the law. Helena literalizes what might have been intended metaphorically.
Is the social, legal, and political obligation to love another human being not the definition of marriage? Kant defined marriage as the mutual leasing of each other’s genital organs, and philosophers since Hegel have criticized his glacial definition. But was Kant incorrect? All’s Well That Ends Well implies essentially the same thing. It could be said, with only slight exaggeration or overstatement, that this play is a work of misogamy in contrast to the epithalamia Much Ado about Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Shakespeare’s most problematical comedy would suggest that marriage is the lie of all lies, the hoax of all hoaxes, and should be avoided by anyone who values solitude, privacy, and freedom.
When Bertram submits to the will of Helena and the will of the King the first time, it is hardly a profession of love: “I find that she, which late / Was in my nobler thoughts most base, is now / The praised of the king; who, so ennobled, / Is as ’twere born so” [II:iii]. This is the least erotic assent to marry someone that has ever been articulated.
“All yet seems well” [V:iii; emphasis mine]. There is the semblance of a happy closure, the simulation of a happy ending. Simply because the circle has closed in a formal sense, this does not mean that anyone is happy. All’s Well That Ends Well does not end well. All is not well in All’s Well That Ends Well. All’s ill that ends well.
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATISM: An Analysis of THE TRAGEDY OF CORIOLANUS (William Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Poverty and underdevelopment are not God-given but are man-made, and can be unmade by man.”
—“The Move Forward,” Christopher Hitchens, 21 June 1971
THE POETRY OF CONSERVATIVISM
If you would like to know where your friends stand politically, you could do no better than give them The Tragedy of Coriolanus (circa 1605-1608) to read, arguably Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy but also his most politically reactionary play. If your friends side with Caius Martius Coriolanus, they are likely more conservative. If your friends side with the Roman crowd, they are likely more liberal.
The play is perhaps the prototypical poem of conservativism and even more politically conservative than The Tragedy of Julius Caesar, which explains why the work is T.S. Eliot’s favorite play, why Hazlitt dislikes it so much, and why Brecht, the radical Marxist dramatist, turned Coriolanus into a fascist dictator in his 1951 reinterpretation of the tragedy. It does not explain, however, why Beethoven (a republican in the old sense of the word, someone who we would today call a liberal) wrote an overture in the general’s honor.
The most intelligent architects of modern political conservativism (including Hegel) are Machiavelli and Hobbes. One of the premises of modern political conservatism is an intuition that can be found in the writings of both Machiavelli and Hobbes: Do not trust the crowd, for the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious. If you trust in the crowd, you are likely a liberal. If you think that the crowd is fickle, unreliable, stupid, lazy, selfish, and malicious, you are likely a conservative.
The rightist politics of The Tragedy of Coriolanus are evident from the very first scene on. It is a politics that is contemptuous of democracy.
STARVING THE POOR
When we first see him, Coriolanus is astride a horse, condemning the poor of Rome for demanding food to eat. He chastises the famishing wretches for having the temerity to beg for corn, for the criminal impertinence of demanding corn from the aristocracy. The crowd claims that the Roman nobility has more food than it could ever eat (“If they [the patricians] would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us [the poor] humanely” [I:i]); when he became consul, the real-world Coriolanus pledged to withhold food from the poor unless the rights of the poor were revoked. The most salient of these rights was the right to appeal to the tribunes, the representatives of the people—a right that was given to appease the people after the plebeian secession. The real-world Coriolanus loathed, more than anything, the system of tribunes, of the vocalizers (and influencers) of the popular will. Not only did the real-life Coriolanus deny the poor corn after he became consul, demanding the rescission of the rights of the poor—he demanded that their spokesmen be divested of power, as well.
The Tragedy of Coriolanus was composed at a time of grain shortage, when hunger in England reached near-famine levels. The insurrection of the Roman people does not recall Ancient Roman history at all; it recalls the Midlands Revolt of 1607, as well as the insurgencies and rebellions in Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwickshire, which were fomented in response to insufficient harvests and the food-hoarding of the English aristocracy. There is even the appearance of English mills in the grain of the text (“’Tis south the city mills” [I:x])—as the 1878 Clarendon edition glosses, this refers to the mills of London, not those of Rome. As is always the case in Shakespeare, though the subject matter is historical, the play is presentist, not antiquarian: It is a work that concerns not Roman antiquity, properly, but the Elizabethan present in which Shakespeare is writing.
We are supposed to believe that the macerating poor have no right to ask for food, that they should starve to death rather than importune Coriolanus, who alone has the right to the things of necessity (food, shelter, clothing), to comfort, and to pleasure. He even makes fun of the words that they use (“an-hungry” is the demotic style, a low-class colloquialism): “[The poor] said they were an-hungry” [I:i]. The poor “sighed forth proverbs— / That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” [I:i]. These all might be platitudes, as Coriolanus points out (some of which were emblazoned on placards held aloft by the unruly crowd in Ralph Fiennes’ 2011 cinematic interpretation), but who has the right to tell the hungry that they are not hungry? And what arrogance it is to mock the hungry for articulating their hunger and for clamoring to satisfy their hunger! Coriolanus repudiates the poor for the need to put food in their stomachs. The brutality and factuality of hunger are undeniable. Coriolanus is saying, in essence, “I don’t want to hear about your hunger” with the same incensed dismissiveness and lofty indifference with which Chris Christie said that he doesn’t want to hear the New Jersey poor talk about raising the minimum wage (it has been raised twenty-five cents to a grudging $8.85 in the year in which I am revising this essay, 2019).
How dare the poor beg for bread! How dare they insist that their stomachs be filled! For their irreducibly human need to eat, the poor are called “dissentious rogues” [I:i]—rascally wretches and wretched beggars. The a priori assumption is as follows: The more the poor have, the less the nobility has. The less the poor have, the more the nobility has. The hungrier the poor are, the more prosperous the nobility. The humiliation and immiseration of the poor lead to the dignity and luxury of the rich: “The leanness that afflicts us [the poor, the miserable], the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them” [I:i]. The starvation of the poor equals the elevation of the nobility, and the fetid, contaminating sewer water of the poor should never flow into a conflux with the pure waters of the nobility. Thus, Martius espouses an Ancient-Roman precursor of trickle-down economics: Feed the rich, and perhaps, someday, scraps shall fall from their table, scraps on which the poor may snack.
Martius has a granular understanding of the poor. He sees the poor as if they were so many grains of corn, so many motes, so many “fragments” [I:i]; he sees them not as individual totalities, but as disjointed pieces broken from the whole of the Roman commonality. He even welcomes crushing them in the war against the Volscians: “Then we shall ha’ means to vent / Our musty superfluity” [I:i]. They are either grains of corn or vermin verminizing England. For the crime of hunger, Martius expresses the wish that the poor be mass-exterminated in the Roman-Volscian war, as if they were rats: “The Volsces have much corn. Take these rats thither / To gnaw their garners” [I:i]. (Garners = granaries.) Send them to the wars! Coriolanus echoes exactly what the Roman poor say about the patricians—to the wealthy, the poor are either fodder for the war or starvelings: “If the wars eat us not up, they will” [I:i].
The play itself is on the side of Coriolanus, not on the side of the poor. Already, in the first scene, this is evident. To be clear to the point of bluntness: The play’s glorification of Coriolanus makes the tragedy a reactionary, rightist, ultraconservative work of dramatic literature. If I am wrong about this (and I am not), why are the poor not presented in a poetical manner? Only Coriolanus is enshrined with poetical loftiness and lyrical magnificence. The poor are not given a poetical voice. Only Coriolanus is given a poetical voice. The reason for this might be, as Hazlitt writes, that the principle of poetry is “everything by excess” and is therefore married with the language of power. Poetry is not about equality; it is about the contrast (the dissymmetry) between the low and the high. Poverty is not an easy subject for poetry, which is nothing without elevated moods and elevated language. It is, of course, possible to write a poem about food stamps, but it is not possible to write a good poem about food stamps without some poetical sublimation or fantastication. Hazlitt’s idea is that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is fascistic (though he does not use this word, writing, as he did, in 1816) because poetry is fascistic by its very essence. This would be to view the politics of the play through the speculum of poetry rather than to explain the poetry of the play through the speculum of politics.
THE INFANTICIDAL MOTHER
Coriolanus’s war-loving and war-mongering mother is living vicariously through her soldier-son. Volumnia, the bellicose mater, only becomes peace-loving when her son wages a war against her country, Rome [I will return to this point below].
The real mother of Coriolanus was named Veturia, and the real-world wife was named Volumnia. It is extraordinary to notice that Shakespeare gives the fictional mother the name of Coriolanus’s real-world wife.
Indeed, there is a disturbing sexuality between mother and son in the play. The mother says to Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife, in prose, “If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed, where he would show most love” [I:iii]. The mother is projecting herself, through the medium of the imagination, into the mind of Virgilia, Coriolanus’s wife. But this is trifling chitchat when set against the epiphany: The mother is imagining what it would be like to have sex with her own son. Even more arrestingly shocking and shockingly arresting is the recognition: The mother would rather her son die in war than have sex with anyone (else?), as her succeeding remark makes clear. Asked the sensible question of what she would think if her son died in combat, the mother responds that “his good report” (the report of his war death) should have been her son: “I therein would have found issue” [I:iii]. “Issue” here is meant in the original sense of “offspring,” and the flabbergasting implication is that her son will only fulfill his human promise when pierced by the sharp end of the enemy’s sword. She continues: “Hear me profess sincerely: had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” [I:iii]. Not only is the mother introjecting herself, imaginarily, into the role of her son’s wife; she is declaring to this same wife that the mother would rather her son put his life at stake on the slaughterfield than enjoy the pleasures of the bed (“voluptuously surfeit out of action”). This implies, again, that she has imagined having sexual intercourse with her own son and that she is gleefully anticipating her son’s lethal besmearing. She would have him become a “thing of blood” [II:ii].
The mother’s dark romance with her son takes the form of violence and death. Volumnia salivatingly counts the scars that had been inflicted and inscribed on her son’s body at the expulsion of the Tarquins, cataloguing his wounds with malicious lust (“malicious,” “maliciously,” or “malice,” used eleven times in the text, is one of the most signifying words in the play): “There will be large cicatrices to show the people when he shall stand for his place. He received in the repulse of Tarquin seven hurts i’th’ body” [II:i]. She proudly numbers the sum of her son’s wounds at twenty-five—“He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him” [II:i]—and is gushingly elated to learn that the number has increased to twenty-seven. Menenius, the substitute father, is overjoyed to learn that his substitute son Coriolanus has been wounded in the Battle of Corioli. He is delighted to report that the surrogate son has been wounded “[i]’th’ shoulder and i’th’ left arm” [II:i].
Lawrence Olivier would giggle uncontrollably as he read the line in which Volumnia declares her willingness to perform six of Hercules’ labors (“If you had been the wife of Hercules, / Six of his labours you’d have done and saved / Your husband so much sweat” [IV:i]), but is it so difficult to conceive the woman hacking away with a sword at the Hydra? She is a militaristic machine, and, as I have argued, one who would rather see her only son killed on the slaughterfield than catch him in bed with a woman. War, or the vicarious experience of war, is motherly pleasure for Volumnia.
Ralph Fiennes was very wise to put Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) in a military uniform that vaguely resembles a uniform of the Yorkshire Regiment of the British Army in his film interpretation of the play. Her role as military commandant (for what else is she?) supersedes her role as a mother. She cares more about Martius’s military victories than about his well-being. No, worse than that: She is seized with a kind of bloodlust, and this is absolutely evident in the following lines: “[Blood] more becomes a man / Than gilt his trophy / The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier / Than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword contemning” [I:iii].
Martius fights for the mother, in the name of the mother. No wonder he is psychologically stultified—never developing into an adult with the consciousness of an adult, never loosening or severing dependency on the mother. No wonder he doesn’t know how to talk to the common people, no wonder he cares only for himself and for his mother (for the mother is the origin of his selfhood), no wonder he hoards the grain for himself and for his peers. His loyalty to his motherland is loyalty to his mother Volumnia.
Consider that Coriolanus is a mother-obsessed fascist, and this consideration gives one insight into the psychology of fascist consciousness: Overmothered mammothrepts become fascists (Bertolucci’s The Conformist (1970), anyone?). Martius was a fascist long before the word existed. For the word fascism comes from the Latin fascis, which means “bundle,” and under fascism, an entire society is bundled around a single authoritarian leader. Martius is bundled by the mother.
War is an industry. Beyond the psychodynamic dimensions of her relation to her son, does Volumnia not also have a financial interest in her son’s military victories? When Martius defeats the Volscians, the defeat of the Volscians benefits Rome. If Martius, now “Coriolanus,” as the Volscian general, were to defeat Rome, this would obviously erode the mother’s position of authority. We see, in the play, that familial relationships are also financial relationships. Volumnia has a relation to her son that reminds one of the financial and erotic interest that Donald Trump takes in his daughter Ivanka Trump. What benefits Rome benefits Volumnia. His victories against Volsci are her political and financial victories. Though she says that she would rather have the entire city perish than lose her son, could this be because Volumnia believes that the city will perish without her son?
KILLING MACHINE (NEARLY) BECOMES CONSUL
To say that Martius is a great soldier would be a gross understatement. He is an army-annihilating zombie, an anthropomorphic mega-drone, a super-tank in human form. He hospitalizes the best fighters and slaughters everyone else. His worthiest enemy, Aufidius, flees for his life, is driven away breathless by Martius five times [I:x]. Martius is pure lethality and neither Volsci nor Rome can win a war without him when he is on the other side.
Martius surges into Volsci and besieges the city of Corioli. The Roman senate and the Roman people are so impressed with the besiegement and with his military performance that they nominate Martius consul and rename him with the cognomen “Coriolanus,” named after the toponym “Corioli.” Thus begins the becoming-Volscian of Martius. The mother seems dismayed by the renaming of her Caius Martius: “‘Coriolanus’ must I call thee?” [II:i]. The re-nomination of Martius as “Coriolanus” marks the beginning of the veering-away from the mother, which will be short-lived.
The soldier soon proves to be an inept statesman—he shows such contempt for the plebeians that they reject him as consul, as his appointment is not confirmed, and expel him from the city of Rome.
The brutishness and arrogance of Coriolanus are fitting for a soldier, but less than fitting for a statesman. As I suggested above, he does not know how to speak to the commoners; he has no feeling for the commonal. He is the skillful military general who cannot function as a politician. He is reluctant to speak to the people after being nominated consul [II:ii], as he is reluctant to canvass them for votes [II:iii]; when he does address the people directly, it is almost always with disgust. Coriolanus’s language defeats him.
When Coriolanus declares, “I banish you” [III:iii] to the mob, it is as if he were a disgruntled ex-employee who, seconds after being fired, shouts at his employer: “You can’t fire me; I fire you!” A woman breaks up with her boyfriend. The erstwhile boyfriend shoots back: “You want to break up with me? I am breaking up with you!” Coriolanus is every bit as childish as the ex-employee and the rejectee—he is a child-adult or an adult-infant.
The Romans estrange Coriolanus, literally: They turn him into a stranger, a transformation which was presaged by his name change. When he is re-nominated “Coriolanus,” it is not long thereafter until the people of Rome see him as a foreigner, as though he were a resident of Corioli. The Romans see Coriolanus now as a foreigner, but are the Romans not foreigners to Coriolanus? Along the same lines: The Romans see the Volscians as foreigners, but are the Volscians not foreigners to the Romans? The Volscians have vanished into the abysses of history, but they were a formicine tribe that gathered south of Rome—“formicine” (ant-like) only because they dwelled upon the hills of what is now Southern Italy. When Coriolanus is repatriated to Volsci, why do we see this as a betrayal? Why are so many of us pious toward the country in which we were born? Why is Rome the home-space—especially considering that Coriolanus was a stranger in “his” own motherland? Why are the marshland people of Volsci the strangers? Why do the swamps and hills of Volsci form a shadowzone?
THE PRIVATE AND THE PUBLIC
Coriolanus is incapable of separating his public and private selves. (For a discussion of the separation of public and private selves in bourgeois society, see Karl Löwith, From Hegel to Nietzsche.) As far as I can tell, he only gives one soliloquy, in the fourth scene of the first act (“You souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men…”)—this is the only time in the play when he is alone. Otherwise, he is forever enrounded by other people.
If Coriolanus does not understand the difference between the public and the private, this is likely because his mother never taught him the difference between the public and the private. Indeed, his mother nurtured him to become a soldier, thus confusing his familial and public roles. We see this confusion of roles clearly in the moving scene of reconciliation between mother and son. Martius’s tearful discourse with his own mother would have been more appropriate in private, not held before an audience of Volscian thugs. His exhibition gives Aufidius free hand to taunt him for being a mamma’s boy.
Coriolanus has the tendency to say whatever comes to his mind without filter. A particularly illustrative example of Coriolanus’s tendency to blurt things that should not be said in public: He asks the Roman senate to forgo the custom of requiring the nominee to the consulship to speak to the people. This is a custom, he says, that “might well / Be taken from the people” [II:ii]. Now, as the editors of the Arden edition point out, the outrageousness and inflammatoriness of this remark could be soothed somewhat if we imagine that he is addressing his remarks to Menenius. In Ralph Fiennes’ contemporization, a live microphone picks up Coriolanus’s careless remark—which should not have been heard by the people and certainly not by the tribunes. In the film, at least, he didn’t intend for anyone but Menenius to hear what he said.
The one exception to his ignorance of the distinction between the private and public spheres is when Coriolanus tells a citizen, from whom he would solicit votes, that he has “wounds to show [the citizen] which shall be [his] in private” [II:iii]. The crowd unjustly resents him for not displaying his stigmata in the agora (yes, I know this is a Greek and not a Latin term).
His public and private languages are mixed together, as Menenius acknowledges: Coriolanus is “ill-schooled / In bolted language. Meal and bran together / He knows without distinction” [III:i]. Coriolanus cannot disengage crass language (bran) from diplomatic language (meal); he cannot distinguish the crude from the pure. He speaks insultingly when the language of diplomacy would be more appropriate.
HIS LEAST FAVORITE WORDS
There are four words that “trigger” Coriolanus, and they are kindly, shall, traitor, and boy. When these words are said to him, in certain contexts, he loses his mind.
Lucius Sicinius Vellutus dispenses with personal pronouns when he gives Coriolanus a command: “It is a mind that shall remain a poison / Where it is, not poison any further” [III:i; emphasis mine].
Coriolanus’s response: “Mark you his absolute ‘shall’?” [III:i]. The shall is described by Coriolanus as coming from the “horn and noise o’th’ monster’s” [III:i], one of the vocalizers / influencers of the will-to-power of the people.
What incenses Coriolanus is the absolute, peremptory command of the people—the relativization of the desired absoluteness of his will-to-power. The nobility no longer has absolute authority if it shall submit to the will-to-power of the people. The shall announces the conflux of the plebeians and the patricians, or indeed the subordination of the patricians to the plebeians, which is exemplified by Coriolanus’s metaphor of the crows pecking the eagles: “Thus we debase / The nature of our seats… and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles” [III:i]. The crows raiding the eagles’ aeries are the poor and their tribunes; the eagles are the patricians.
When Sicinius calls Coriolanus a “traitor,” this incites from Coriolanus a torrent of insults, a full-throated denunciation of the people: “The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!” [III:iii]. One Word instigates the total denunciation of the people—and this means that One Word is what drives Coriolanus into / brings on the sentence of banishment, causes his expulsion from the city of Rome.
The third word, boy, spoken as a taunt by Aufidius, prompts a recognition of what Coriolanus is: an adult-infant. Insults only hurt us when we recognize them as truthful. Is it not thinkable, then, that Coriolanus is a boy?
HE LEAVES ROME
Coriolanus sallies forth from Rome and resituates himself in Antium, the capital of Volsci and home to Aufidius, leader of the Volscians. (Antium is present-day Anzio, a coastal city in the South of Italy.) He then does what anyone in his state would do: He joins the opposite side and fights against the civilization that nurtured him. Of course, this is a non sequitur: It doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to defection. It certainly doesn’t follow that banishment must lead to war against the country that banishes you.
I imagine that others might say that Coriolanus, chewing off the umbilicus, is developing into a full-blown individual. This, however, is doubtful, given that he becomes no one at all [I shall return to this point below].
Coriolanus seeks a “world elsewhere” [III:iii]: the other-world of Volsci, the very city against which he sallied as a general. In the introduction to the Arden edition of the play, Peter Holland makes the brilliant point that liminal spaces (such as the sea) are not enough for Coriolanus. The warrior must either have his way or defect to the other side—there is no medium, no middle ground for him. He wages a war against Rome after he doesn’t get what he wants, leading the Volscian army against Rome and its territories in a strike of vengeance. The Muttersohn becomes dragon: Initially, he goes alone to Antium, “[l]ike to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes feared and talked of more than seen” [IV:i]. He approaches the dragon (Aufidius) and then becomes the dragon of the Volscians, “fight[ing] dragon-like” [IV:vii] against the land of his birth. Notice the draconic metaphor used by Menenius: “This Marcius is grown / from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a / creeping thing” [V:iv].
THE RECONCILIATION WITH MOTHER ROME
Incubated by the mother, Caius Martius crawls out of the womb a super-soldier who single-handedly massacres entire populations, armies and civilians alike. Now, the mother-obsessed soldier turns against the motherland. This leads one to wonder: Is Coriolanus’s hatred for Rome not powered by an unconscious hatred for his mother? Is Coriolanus’s draconic attack on Rome not also a tacit attack on his mother? When disclaims Rome, is he not also disclaiming his mother?
Menenius, the substitute father, appeals to Coriolanus in vain. Only Coriolanus’s mother moves her son to give up his campaign of vengeance against Rome; he gives up his antipathy for Rome after the mother arrives and pleads with her son to stop fighting against the Roman people. She smothers the blaze of his hatred with her tears. Martius only knows two extremes, two antipodes: He is either mother’s infant, or he is a repatriated zombie who fights against his motherland.
Turning against the mother, Coriolanus was reduced to a “kind of nothing” [V:i], as Cominius identified him. When his mother (accompanied by his wife and his son) creeps into the enemy camp, there is an emotional spectacle in front of the dead-hearted army thugs; only then does he show human feeling. I consider this to be the most emotionally powerful scene in the whole of Shakespeare—someone who is a cipher, a zero, becomes human, even though he never becomes completely human. It is as if the mother is giving birth to him a second time—it is a palingenesis rather than a genesis.
In the real world, the mother’s intercession was an act for which the statue of Fortuna was established; the act was blessed by the memorial. The mother and the wife are memorialized for ending the siege on Rome: “The ladies have prevailed” [V:iv]; “Behold your patroness, the life of Rome!” [V:v]. And yet the reconciliation between Rome and Volsci was merely a surface reconciliation: The Volscians did later launch unsuccessful sallies against the Romans, all of which were squelched.
I hold that The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Measure for Measure, and Timon of Athens are among Shakespeare’s greatest accomplishments as a playwright. While these plays are by no means unknown, they are certainly much less known and celebrated than the overrated The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Particularly, I second T.S. Eliot’s opinion that The Tragedy of Coriolanus is immeasurably superior to The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Of course, Hamlet will kill Claudius, usurper and parricide; there is no surprise in that. His vacillations are a mere plot contrivance to temporize until the inescapable killing of the stepfather; as I will argue in my essay on The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, the play is about the problem of free will, but this is not the right place to pursue this argument. Whereas the conflict in Hamlet is simple, the conflict within Coriolanus is much more complex. Coriolanus’s decisions to finesse a conciliation of the Volscians and a reconciliation of Volsci and Rome must be understood in psychodynamic terms as reconciliation with the mother and as the return to the uterus.
All seems well until Aufidius defames Coriolanus to the Volscians and takes away his “stolen name” [V:vi], stripping him of his cognomen. He instead refers to him by his birth name—Martius—thus symbolically reverting his opponent to his infant status. Martius is then hacked to death by Aufidius’s conspirators, a move which is itself a form of infantile regression.
The terrifying mob assault at the end of the play recalls the dismemberment of Pentheus beneath the talons of the crazed Maenads at the end of Euripedes’ Bacchae. Coriolanus is torn to pieces, ripped to shreds, by the blades of Aufidius’s assassins, while they chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” [V:vi]. The mob cheers them on; the mob has not forgotten that Coriolanus has widowed and orphaned so many of them.
The climax is suggesting: If you try to eat the mob, then the mob will eat you. The mob wants to eat Coriolanus. And Coriolanus wants to eat the mob. That is to say: The rich are eating up the poor at the beginning of the play: “If the wars eat us [the poor] not up, they [the rich] will” [I:i]. Coriolanus is feasting upon the poor, consuming the poor, ingurgitating the poor, who will then be ejected from Coriolanus’s anus.
Two figures run throughout the play: the figure of eating-the-poor and the figure of being-eaten-by-the-poor. The second appears at the close of the play, wherein Martius is devoured by the mob. At the climax, it is indeed the poor who are devouring the rich. Both figures nourish my suspicion that politics is largely about food. Those who are more conservative want to hoard all the food for themselves; those who are more liberal want to distribute the food evenly. Coriolanus is keeping pace with his promise. Knifed as the mob shouts for his blood, Coriolanus is realizing the supreme desires of his mother which have always been his own.
by Joseph Suglia
The plural of haiku is haiku.
The frog leaps into the water:
My inexistent wife
Plays the flute.
The grapes dance;
The rats are in the barn
Eating the oats.