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Naming in 'Coriolanus.' (play by dramatist William Shakespeare)

In V.ii a Roman elder arrives at the entrance to the Volscian camp as his city's ambassador to its avenging son. He presents his calling-card to the two enemy sentries: 'My name hath touch'd your ears: it is Menenius' (11; Arden edition by Philip Brockbank, London and New York, 1976). He receives a disconcerting reply: 'Be it so, go back; the virtue of your name / Is not here passable'. Menenius needs a 'pass' word, a name not his own, to cross the line. He tries again: 'Prithee, fellow, remember by name is Menenius' (28). The retort is the same: 'I . . . must say you cannot pass'.

How then did the object of Menenius' embassy, the Volscians' new general crossed over from Rome, himself gain access to enemy headquarters? The First Watch offers him a clue: 'You are a Roman, are you?' (35). To which Menenius cannily responds: 'I am as thy general is'. The Watch translates to Menenius what Roman-ness now means, and in the process reveals the password: 'Then you should hate Rome, as he does'/. Such treason Menenius cannot bring himself to commit; his mission thus fails. The sentries resume their taunting: 'Now, sir, is your name Menenius? 'Tis a spell, you see, of much power. You know the way home again' (93-5).

The former Roman general's ability to change sides is unconsciously illuminated by Menenius himself, the source of his Roman identity:

I have been The book of his good acts whence men have read His fame unparaellel'd, haply amplified; For I have ever verified my friends, Of whom he's chief, with all the size that verity Would without lapsing suffer. Nay, sometimes, Like to a bowl upon a subtle ground, I have tumbled past the throw, and in his praise Have almost stamp'd the leasing. Therefore, fellow I must have leave to pass. (V.iii.14-23; italics added)

Menenius has therefore authorized a false or at least a questionable definition of who Caius Martius is. Public knowledge of him comes second-hand, as from a book, the proxy of a self.

The self has in fact been elusive or indirectly represent throughout the play. This is paradoxical, since Martius repeatedly insists that he cannot be other than who he is, indeed the very 'author' of himself (V.iii.36): a blunt fellow (like that other Caius, in King Lear), despising fools and hypocrisy alike, incapable of measure or 'policy', his heart on the sleeve of his sword-arm. Yet that very judgement of him, made by others as well as himself, is just as repeatedly called into question. In his first scene, for example, Martius hints at his exchangeability with Tullus Aufidius, his Volscian alter ego: 'were I anything but what I am, / I would wish me only he' (I.i.230-1). In her first speech, his mother imagines a different though no less potent exchange: 'If my son were my husband . . .' (I.iii.2). Early on, therefore, the hero's identity is shown to be at least imaginatively less stable than is implied both by his self-boastings and by his status as a public icon.

That public image, moreover, is itself not the general, but a dressed-up version of him. When Martius enters from the battle in I.vi, his commanding officer does not recognize him: 'Who's yonder, / That does appear as he were flay'd?' (21-2). Martius' reputation depends of course on his being 'mantled' in others' blood, not his own (28-9; cf. I.viii.9-10, II.ii.108-9.) He himself calls it a 'painting' (I.vi.68). He will have to 'wash' it off before his 'face' can be truly read (I.ix.66-7).

This acknowledgement that the 'real' Martius is invisible follows straight on the heels of his acquiring a new name, Coriolanus, which itself pays tribute to his painted, not his native, sell as the victor of Corioles. It specifies what his mother reports as 'the whole name of the war' that his deeds have earned (II.i.133-5), and will from now on cover over the names that have hitherto defined him. Not for nothing does an alias become the name of the play itself. The hero's personal anonymity is further intimated by association a few lines later, when, in a touch added by Shakespeare to his Plutarchan source, Martius cannot remember the name of his kind host in Corioli (I.ix.88).

On the Roman army's triumphant return home, Caius Martius is formally invested with his new title. The Folio's own stage directions specify an elaborate public spectacle, culminating in a chorus drumming the new name in our ears (II.i.164-6). This is a profoundly ironical moment, for the Roman hero will indeed become Coriolan. The tribunes' accusation of treason against him (III.i.161 ff.) is the very thing that goads him into actually betraying, or offering to betray, his country. The same charge is later made by Aufidius, who strips him of the honorific so deeply insulting to all Volscians (V.vi.85 ff.). The course of the play reveals, therefore, that neither the personal nor the national identity of Caius Martius Coriolanus has any fixed abode.

The fact that the protagonist's public identity is an assumed one is emphasized by another Shakespearian departure from Plutarch: his unwillingness to 'stand naked', with 'unbarb'd sconce', 'perform[ing] a part' before the people as the price of securing the consulship (II.ii.137,148; III.ii.99 ff.) He offers instead to show his wounds 'in private' (II.iii.77), and can hardly wait to doff the 'wolvish toge' of humility (114) in order to 'know himself' again (145-6). The people are easily persuaded that the new consul's public display is a public pretence, and he is banished. He comforts himself that 'there is a world elsewhere' (III.iii.135): another world, another identity.

Coriolanus now appears in Antium like one of the plebeians he has denounced, 'in mean apparel, disguised and muffled' (IV.iv.s.d). In a scene covering the exile's journey between cities (IV.iii), the playwright briefly introduces another transient figure, Nicanor, who is both Roman and a traitor to Rome. Without a beard (a 'performer's' disguise?), his Volscian interlocutor does not recognize him any more than, in the following scene, the Volscian commander will recognize his old adversary. No fewer than six times must Aufidius thrust his question at the 'muffled' stranger: 'What's thy name?' Five times, in response, Martius plays with the very notion of naming (IV.v.54-74), finally offering to live up to his adopted name, Coriolanus. Abandoned by his country, 'only that name remains', a password or passport redefining his entire identity. Politically declared a non-person, he becomes persona grata only conditionally, at the Volscians' pleasure. He understands the mutation necessary: 'These eyes are not the same I wore in Rome' (V.iii.38). His mother goes further: 'This fellow had a Volscian to his mother; / His wife is in Corioles, and his child / Like him by chance' (V.iii. 178-80); and his old friend Menenius further still: 'This Martius is grown from man to dragon. . . . When he walks, he moves like an engine and the ground shrinks before his treading . . .' (V.iv. 12 if.). Ironically, Menenius describes this eye-witness account of the non-human 'thing' that Martius has become as not only a machine but a painting (cf. I.vi.68). It fulfils, moreover, the hero's own prophecy of himself as 'a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes fear'd and talk'd of more than seen' (IV.i.29-31).

But Coriolanus' identity depends on his 'name' in another sense as well: his lasting reputation. Volumnia's appeal to her son's sense of honour is the key to his relenting, as it effectively denies her daughter-in-law's blander expectation that Martius' own progeny will keep his 'name / Living to time' (V.iii. 126-7):

Thou know'st, great son, The end of war's uncertain, but this certain, That if thou conquer Rome, the benefit Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name Whose repetition will be dogg'd with curses, Whose chronicle thus writ: 'The man was noble, But with his last attempt he wip'd it out, Destroy'd his country, and his name remains To th'insuing age abhorr'd.' (V.iii. 140-8)

Volumnia winds up her charge with the reminder that 'Coriolanus' is only a 'surname' (170), a surface, an 'addition' (I.ix.65).

The act of naming is universally understood to signify the named object's essential nature. The name Coriolanus denotes the Roman hero in all his transience. Military leaders have typically acquired such agnomina: from Scipio Africanus to Kitchener of Khartoum, Montgomery of Alamein, Mountbatten of Burma.(1) But the one that most vibrantly suggests Caius Martius of Corioles is Lawrence of Arabia. Arabia, as it bonded him to others, was Lawrence's cover for an uncertainty of self. That mask removed, fresh pseudonyms were needed to replace it: Aircraftman Ross, Trooper Shaw, Aircraftman Shaw. Lawrence himself declared, 'My name is Legion!'(2) Concomitantly, his personality, like his Roman antecedent's, was deeply narcissistic, and illuminates for readers of Shakespeare the essential void within the heroic ego. Lawrence's premature retirement to his own hermitage, a tiny cottage in Dorset, was itself an act of self-abnegation that made sooner or later inevitable his final self-destruction (by motor-bike), only weeks after his final discharge from military service at the early age of forty-six.

Jeffery Meyers reports that T. E. Lawrence was dominated by his mother, who comfortably outlived him, to more than twice his age. Her sons, claims Meyers, 'became trophies of her authoritarian power'.(3) Both Lawrence and Martius were types of the soldier who never grows up. We learn from both Volumnia and Cominius that Martius was already winning battles when a boy (I.iii.5-18; II.ii.87-101); thereafter he could only repeat himself, become stuck in the role of wunderkind. Volumnia still calls him her 'boy' (II.i.99). No surprise, then, that Aufidius' final charge of 'boy' against his enemy strikes so deeply home; the other in his rage echoes it three times (V.vi.101 ff.). In fact the Volscian offers Martius a quadruple insult: mocking the paralysis of his will by his 'nurse's tears' (i.e. his mother's); accusing him of treason; in dubbing him 'traitor' reducing him to his real name Martius (stripped of his 'stol'n name', Coriolanus); and finally forbidding him to 'name' the god of War to whom Martius is indebted for the only name remaining to him (85-101). Ironically, he left even that name behind him in Rome (IV.v.74).

The hero's final anonymity has been ominously forshadowed by Cominius, reporting on the failure of his mission to Martius in the Volscian camp:

Yet one time he did call me by my name. I urg'd our old acquaintance, and the drops That we have bled together. 'Coriolanus' He would not answer to; forbad all names; He was a kind of nothing,(4) titleless, Till he had forg'd himself a name o'th'fire Of burning Rome. (V.i.9-15)

Fortunately for Rome, tragically for him, the exile is never allowed to return home and forge himself a new identity there. He dies beyond the civitas, nameless like his kindred exile, Timon of Athens, who renamed himself Misanthropos and devised his own lonely epitaph: 'Here lies a wretched corse, of wretched soul bereft; / Seek not my name . . .' (Arden edition by H. J. Oliver, V.iv.70-1).

Coriolanus is a martial hero. Yet as his portrait of Achilles (among others) implies,(5) Shakespeare was concerned to represent in his warlords both sides of the Renaissance ideal, what Claudius apropos of Hamlet calls the 'exterior' and the 'inward man': not alone the classical hero's virtus - what Eugene M. Waith aptly terms his 'Herculean' aspects(6) - but also his inner life, or lack of it. As G. R. Hibbard concludes,(7) Coriolanus does not know, and does not come to know, himself, despite his claim to do so (II.iii.146).(8) That inner vacancy is surely the main reason why modern actors find the character so hard to perform. But that is another Note.(9)

MURRAY BIGGS Yale University

1 Anne Barton compares Martius"sur-addition' with the 'Leonatus' bestowed upon Posthumus' father in Cymbeline: The Names of Comedy (Toronto, 1990), 149; see also pp. 154, 194-5.

2 B. H. Liddell Hart, Clouds Hill (The National Trust, 1996), 17.

3 The Wounded Spirit, 2nd ed (New York, 1989), 117.

4 Alan Howard, who played the role on stage, for the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1977-8, and in the BBC television series, has described the last days of Coriolanus as 'nihilistic' (The BBC TV Shakespeare (1984), 28).

5 See Troilus and Cressida. Arden edition by Kenneth Palmer, esp. II.iii. 171-7; III.iii.95-9.

6 The Herculean Hero (New York and London, 1962), 121-43.

7 Introduction to New Penguin edition (Harmondsworth, 1967), 34, 40-1.

8 Cf. Liddell Hart on Lawrence: 'He knew others; himself he did not know' (op. cit., 17).

9 For related discussions, see especially D. J .Gordon, 'Name and Fame: Shakespeare's Coriolanus', in Papers Mainly Shakespearian, ed. G. I . Duthie (Edinburgh and London, 1964); and Peter F. Neumeyer, 'Not Local Habitation Nor a Name: Coriolanus', University of Kansas City Review, xxxii (1966), 195-8.
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Author:Briggs, Murray
Publication:Notes and Queries
Date:Sep 1, 1998
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