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Coriolan de William Shakespeare

Richard Hillman

Tragedy as a Crying Shame in Coriolanus and Alexandre Hardy’s Coriolan: The “Boy of Tears” and the Hardy Boys

Richard Hillman


Cet article se veut une brève analyse intertextuelle des deux pièces plus ou moins contemporaines, sans pour autant soutenir une hypothèse d’influence quelconque. Il part du fait que les dramaturges anglais et français se sont basés tous les deux sur le récit plutarquien dont leurs écarts respectifs sont parfois significatifs et même complémentaires. Certains moments hautement rhétoriques de Hardy, tels que l’expression de la jalousie d’Amfidie (l’équivalent d’Aufidius) et notamment le soliloque de Volomnie, personnage qui termine la pièce par se blâmer de la mort de son fils et par prévoir son propre suicide, mettent en relief, par comparaison, des éléments qui, dans la version de Shakespeare, s’avèrent psychologiquement chargés. On a donc affaire à des conceptions dramaturgiques très différentes, qui se rejoignent d’ailleurs sur le terrain du potentiel théâtral, centré sur les relations personnelles, de leur matériau plutôt historique et politique.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Cf. Shakespeare, Coriolanus, ed. Brockbank, pp. 75-76.

1The coincidences, if that is what they are, have evidently not been too striking to ignore, since almost all commentators and editors have ignored them. A notable exception is M. W. MacCallum, who devotes several pages of his magisterial Shakespeare’s Roman Plays to the broad parallels between the works of Shakespeare and Hardy in their adaptations of, and indeed supplements to, Plutarch. But his premise remains the unthinkability of influence in either direction: on the one hand, there is “hardly any possibility of Shakespeare’s having used” Hardy’s work and, on the other hand, “even less” of the latter’s “being influenced by Shakespeare’s treatment”. And if these combined improbabilities render it “all the more interesting [...] to observe the coincidences that exist between them” (MacCallum, pp. 475-76), such interest can hardly reach a serious critical level. Geoffrey Bullough resoundingly endorses MacCallum’s judgement – “It is extremely unlikely that [Shakespeare] knew Hardy’s Coriolan” (Bullough, p. 476) – although a certain defensiveness creeps in; he feels impelled to summarize Coriolan (which he dates, on unclear authority, prior to 1600 [p. 474]), and to insist: “That Shakespeare’s play comes nearer to French classical drama than any of his others is due, not to influence by any French writer, but to the neatness of Plutarch’s presentation and to the moral intensity which Shakespeare brought to the theme” (p. 476).1

  • 2 See Hardy, Coriolan, ed. Allott, Introd., p. VIII, and Deierkauf-Holsboer, Vie d’Alexandre Hardy, p (...)
  • 3 Allott, ed., Introd., pp. xvii-xviii, cites Kirchner, Coriolanus Tragicomica (1599), and Pierry Thi (...)
  • 4 Almost certainly in late 1608 or early 1609; see Parker, Introd., p. 7.

2The unthinkability of a connection is fostered by gaps in the historical and bibliographical record: the few specialists in the vast œuvre of Alexandre Hardy appear to agree that his tragedy of Coriolan dates from roughly 1607, but there is no hard evidence2; its earliest known publication was in 1625, as part of the second volume of Le théâtre d’Alexandre Hardy, Parisien (Paris: Jacques Quesnel), containing what the author identified as six of his youthful productions (sig. ă ijr). The fact is that the subject is relatively rare, if not unprecedented, in the European theatre of the period – rare by comparison, for instance, with Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. Moreover, in treating that subject, Hardy, who thereby produced his only historical piece on a Roman theme (Allott, ed., Introd., p. VII), was innovative in closely tracing the contours, and often imitating the expression, of Plutarch’s Life (as translated by Amyot).3 Did Shakespeare happen to get the same idea a year or so later?4 Or might Hardy’s recent staging of the story have suggested to Shakespeare a respectably classical framework adaptable to his own purposes, which extended to sensitive political issues? Or indeed might some of the politics also overlap? In her edition of Coriolanus, Lee Bliss argues for an evocation of Essex (pp. 33-40) and cites Chapman’s Conspiracy of Byron (p. 37), in which Queen Elizabeth mentions the late English earl to the ambitious French duke as a cautionary example of how not to get ahead. Meanwhile, Terence Allott, the only modern editor of Coriolan (1978), identifies Biron as a recent political parallel and extends his reference to Chapman, though not Essex (Introd., p. XIV). Certainly, Biron and Essex were brought together as cautionary exempla in at least two French pamphlets of the period; with regard to criticism of Coriolanus in relation to Coriolan, however, the rule seems to have been that the rebellious twain should never meet.

3A general knowledge of current French theatrical activity on Shakespeare’s part is hardly a remote possibility: we do know that English troupes acted in Paris, in the provinces, and at court at least in 1598 and 1604 (Deierkauf-Holsboer, Le théâtre de l’Hôtel de Bourgogne, pp. 40-41, 44-45, 173-74, 176-77). The few pages devoted by Henry Carrington Lancaster to possible relations between Shakespeare’s and Hardy’s works speculate adventurously on this basis (pp. 3-6). Lancaster goes so far as to propose the French wooing scene in Henry V, presumably staged in France by Shakespeare’s own company – and for this there is no evidence at all – as an influence on Hardy’s La mort d’Achille (dated prior to 1610). On the other hand, Lancaster dismisses several other parallels proposed from time to time between Shakespeare and Hardy as ignorable coincidences. These include the composition by both of a tragedy of Coriolanus, very likely at nearly the same moment.

  • 5 MacCallum (p. 478) singles out Volumnia’s advice to her son to humble himself to the people and Cor (...)

4Obviously, I suspect that there is more than coincidence behind the points on which I wish to relate Coriolanus and Coriolan. I would not presume to explain the fairly detailed knowledge of the French text thereby implied on Shakespeare’s part, but explanations are conceivable: he might have heard a full report of Coriolan; he might have read it in some version now unknown, printed or manuscript; he might even have seen it performed. And conceivably, according to the preferred itinerary of Lancaster, the influence might have gone in the other direction, although my analysis would not support this. In any case, I propose to take (not for the first time) the coward’s way out and simply to read the two plays intertextually, side-by-side. My point of departure – or “ungrammaticality”, in intertextual theory – will be their departures from Plutarch, though not the particular “supplements” specified by MacCallum.5 Thrown into relief will be some striking resemblances between the two dramatic treatments, but also some divergences, and, paradoxically, the latter may prove more critically productive. The main cumulative effect is to shed light on a much-discussed Shakespearean contribution to his raw material: the psychological dynamic involving the protagonist and his formidable mother. That dynamic is surprisingly adumbrated, I suggest, by the rhetorical postures and flourishes that were de rigueur in the French Humanist theatre.

5Given that it must cover a certain span and move between Rome and Antium, Hardy’s play hardly flouts the Unities (though it arguably plays with them in the monologue of II.1, discussed below); and that of action is especially well preserved by devoting the first act to the last stages of Coriolanus’ alienation from Rome before his banishment. None of the preceding war is shown; the confrontations mentioned by Plutarch are radically telescoped; and the dialogue between Volomnie and Coriolan – her only son, as in Shakespeare but not Plutarch – shows little beyond a fearful mother urging moderation and a hero scornfully defiant. Act II begins his banishment – by this point Shakespeare is already well into Act IV – and initiates the sequence involving the meeting with Aufidius (called here, according to another tradition, Amfidie). This is Hardy’s first real swerving from Plutarch, and it coincides with one by Shakespeare. Both heroes, on the verge of entering their adversary’s house with the idea of offering, as in Plutarch, alliance or death, soliloquize. This is, no doubt, a natural enough response by both dramatists to the source, which effectively points the way by recounting that Coriolanus spent some days at his country house, “turmoyled with sundry sortes and kynde of thoughtes, such as the fyer of his choller dyd sturre up” (Bullough, ed., p. 526).

6But Shakespeare makes this into a (literally) liminal moment on Aufidius’ threshold – a unique one, in which Coriolanus’ (Tarpeian-)rock-solid sense of identity momentarily gives way to a dynamic interiority. This corresponds to the conventional “wavering” rhetoric (eighty lines of it) given Hardy’s hero:

Devoré de pensers, & outré dans l’ame,
Un conseil incertain, puis un autre je trame,
Dissous par la fureur qui me boult au cerveau ;
Ainsi que qui voudroit escrire dessus l’eau,
Rompre des tourbillons la subite carriere,
Et contraindre le flot de rebrousser arrière. (ll. 301-6 [II.1])

7Coriolanus’ meditation on the “slippery turns” of friendship is also roughly anticipated – again, naturally enough in the circumstances – as Coriolan comments on the untrustworthiness of those he has just put to the test and ironically foreshadows the future false friendship of the Volscian:

  • 6 According to convention, initial guillemets signalled sententiae or otherwise notable affirmations.

»L’amitié se cognoist és affaires douteux6 ;
Ce n’est pas tant de fondre en des regrets piteux,
Plaindre celuy qu’on dit affecter de parolle,
Et souffrir cependant que l’honneur on luy volle.
(ll. 323-26 [II.1])

8There is theatrical highlighting here, too, of the crossing of a Rubicon-like threshold; Hardy’s unlocalized scene suddenly acquires definition and direction at the conclusion of the monologue, and in terms that match the symbolic death of the Roman identity of Shakespeare’s character:

Je me veux d’une robe incognuë déguiser,
Par laquelle mon dueil soit aisé d’aviser,
Et en tel equipage entrer jusqu’à ces lares,
Franchise inviolable entre les plus barbares.
(ll. 375-78 [II.1])

9Coriolan prays to the gods actively for success in pursuing his vengeance, as Coriolanus does not, although the latter, in the subsequent exchanges with Aufidius, adds, “You bless me, gods!” (IV.v.136), to dialogue that generally follows Plutarch’s account closely.

10So, in general, do the respective supplication sequences, although Menenius has no equivalent in Coriolan, any more than in Plutarch at this point. Both dramatic versions, however, give Coriolanus a single son, not children, to accompany the women. Both have Martius yielding in essentially the same way, although Hardy writes more tendentiously towards the catastrophe. This point leads to the most substantial comparison. For the tendentiousness is incorporated into a tragic momentum that a psychological approach to character would find it natural to develop as self-destructive, and which, in Hardy’s treatment, unlike Plutarch’s, actively implicates the protagonist’s mother.

11Even in Plutarch, Martius foresees his danger but assimilates it to defeat: “oh mother, sayed he, you have wonne a happy victorie for your countrie, but mortall and unhappy for your sonne: for I see my self vanquished by you alone” (Bullough, ed., p. 541). Shakespeare’s character is far more portentous about the personal consequences:

O my mother, mother, O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But for your son, believe it, O believe it,
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,
If not most mortal to him. But let it come. (V.3.186-90)

12This is essential context for the famous silence of the women, which, in the case of the otherwise verbally irrepressible Volumnia, is ambiguously eloquent. More sensitive criticism, including that of Christina Luckij (in an important article) and Brian Parker (Introd., p. 53, and “Death of a Hero” in the present volume), sees her as intuiting the tragedy initiated by her persuasive victory.

13Such is conspicuously the case in Coriolan. Moreover, the hero is not only explicit about his danger but accusatory. He levels at his mother the very charge of betrayal that will soon, like the motif of ingratitude, ricochet against himself:

Ah ! Mere, Qu’as-tu fait pour sauver ton païs ?
Ma vie & mon honneur, cruelle tu trahis,
Pour luy tu as vaincu une victoire heureuse.
Mais, à ton sang dompté, fatale & funereuse.
(ll. 1047-50 [IV.4])

  • 7 Variations on the term “ungrateful” run throughout Coriolanus and in Coriolan ironically link Volom (...)

14Indeed, both the vocabulary of treason and that of ingratitude link the treatments of Shakespeare and Hardy, even as they bypass Plutarch.7 And in concluding the supplication scene, Hardy seized on the same dramatic potential as did Shakespeare, though in a less subtle way. His Coriolan not only intuits danger but evokes his rival’s plot (“ma perte est conjurée” [l. 1066]), and, as his mother begins to realize what the future holds and prays for his safety, he replies sardonically, “Ne l’esperez plustost qu’en Herebique salle” (l. 1073) – that is, he will be safe only when dead. Far from silent, she gets the last word here, as she will later, and it is rife with premonition. While that premonition is in itself the standard stuff of Humanist drama – an almost obligatory flourish – it is suggestively couched in the form, if not quite of an accusation of her own, at least of a realization of the ambiguity finely poised in “ton sang dompté”; if she has subdued him on one level, he has achieved dominance on another: “Hélas! de ce soupçon tu me navres le cœur” (l. 1075).

  • 8 The accusation thus structurally corresponds to the Tribunes’ earlier charges in Coriolanus (III.1. (...)

15More than incidentally, when Coriolan declares that “ma perte est conjurée”, he refers to something explicitly established. Scene 2 of Act IV (ll. 825ff.) consists of an extended and surprisingly complex monologue by Amfidie, who expounds his hateful jealousy of Coriolan, already labels him as a “traistre” (l. 855),8 and vows to entrap him. The speech is broadly in the style of Machiavellian self-declaration that Marlowe and Shakespeare himself are credited with inventing in English, but which, in sixteenth-century French drama, may be traced back at least to the villainous Coligny caricatured in the 1574 tragedy of François de Chantelouve. In Coriolan, however, the dimension of caricature is almost absent, and it is replaced by the closest thing in the play to psychological development, unfolded through changes of tone, self-address, and apostrophe of the absent Coriolan. This again represents a practical dramatist’s filling of a gap in his source and seizing on a bare hint in order to do it: Plutarch says nothing about Aufidius’ resentment until after the episode of supplication, then introduces the conspiracy with the slight remark that “Tullius [...] hated and could no lenger abide him for the feare he had of his authoritie” (p. 543).

16Shakespeare, by contrast, fundamentally took Hardy’s course, beginning with the evanescence of “honour” from Aufidius’ “emulation” (I.11.12-13) – a significant variant on Plutarch (“they were ever [...] striving in all emulation of honour” [Bullough, ed., p. 526]). Closely corresponding to Amfidie’s soliloquy in Act IV, Scene 2, is Aufidius’ exchange with his lieutenant (IV.7), likewise an ironic preparation for the supplication sequence. Very similar changes are rung on the jealousy theme, including a self-reproach for having accepted Martius in the first place. The speech of Hardy’s villain, incidentally, is charged with the motif of spying, strong in Coriolanus but, as Parker notes (n. to I.2.2), lacking in Plutarch. The two conclusions particularly bear comparison, for Shakespeare’s character, too, breaks into ominous apostrophe:

When, Caius, Rome is thine,
Thou art poor’st of all; then shortly art thou mine.

je te prepare un tel piege au retour,
Que tu perdras ensemble & la gloire & le jour.
(ll. 867-68 [IV.ii])

17Within the supplication scene itself, while only Shakespeare introduces Aufidius in person and thereby confirms what awaits Coriolanus on his return to Antium – a choice the hero makes despite his better knowledge – Hardy provides similar pivotal foreshadowing through the commentary of the figure called Conseil; the latter is at once bitterly critical of Coriolan’s yielding and open to comprehension, as Aufidius professes himself to be (“I was moved withal” [V.3.195]).

  • 9 The episode figures, of course, in various histories, but Shakespeare’s development of Caesar’s wav (...)

18The French play’s modern editor finds that the soliloquy of Coriolan with which the fifth act opens, as he fearfully presages his death – “Glacé, pâle, tremblant d’une crainte inconnuë, / Ma resistance est vaine, & ma constance est nuë” (ll. 1077-78) – is out of character, an attempt to build suspense “difficilement conciliable avec la fermeté de caractère dont Coriolan fait preuve dans le reste de la pièce” (Allott, ed., p. 74, n. to p. 59, l. 1077). Yet more important than consistency of character in this theatre is the ringing of familiar rhetorical changes on emotional themes, and one of these is the shuddering anticipation of death. The pattern was put in place, arguably, by Jacques Grévin in his César of 1560, where an equally improbable knocking of knees introduces that otherwise imperturbable hero (I.1). (He recovers his equilibrium in time to resist Calpurnie’s fears [III.2], but Shakespeare, one suspects, made dynamic use of this access of feebleness in complicating his own Caesar, notably in the scene of Caesar’s hesitations as to whether to “go forth” to the Senate where the conspirators await [JC, II.2.1-107]9).

  • 10 Notably in confiding conspiratorially in his mother: “Je vous veux en secret conferer / Quand, et c (...)

19At any rate, Hardy’s protagonist, who goes so far as to call himself a “coüard” (l. 1116) – the classic term, which preoccupies Caesar in the Shakespearean scene just mentioned (JC, II.2.32, 41) – thereby offers intertextual corroboration for Aufidius’ ultimate insult. For Coriolanus’ enemy notoriously goes beyond “traitor” – that is where Coriolan stops, but then Hardy’s protagonist more plausibly behaves like one10 – to the psychologically biting “boy of tears” (V.6.103). The provocation is absent from Hardy, but there is a correspondence between Amfidie’s charge to the council that Coriolan “Lâchement suborné de feminines pleurs / Pour la deuxiesme fois a levé nostre siege” (l.1140-41), and that of Aufidius: “But at his nurse’s tears / He whined and roared away your victory” (V.6.99100). That Coriolan also weeps on stage is confirmed by Volomnie (“fermant nostre Adieu de larmes [...]” [l. 1267]). The tears themselves flow from Plutarch, at least at the beginning of the encounter (“nature so wrought with him, that the teares fell from his eyes” [Bullough, ed., p. 539]). Only in the two plays, however, do they come back to haunt the hero by way of his adversary. In the Life, the charges against Coriolanus are neither precise nor openly stated, and the conspirators, at Aufidius’ instigation, give him no chance to speak in his defence. Both dramatists saw the potential for a confrontation blending the personal and political, and leading to a spectacular climax. Indeed, in seizing that potential, Hardy was the more aggressively innovatory: he produced one of the exceedingly rare moments in French Renaissance tragedy where a murder is carried out on stage.

20The fact is that Coriolan remains, by comparison with Shakespeare’s equivalent, if not exactly a “boy of tears”, at least a would-be excuser of his actions, professing to have doubted the Volscians’ prospects for victory and, when directly challenged by Amfidie for yielding to the women – “N’as tu (sollicité de prieres de femmes) / A notre armée enjoint une retraite infame?” – replying lamely, “Las! Je ne sçache aucun de vous qui n’eust fléchy, / Et par la pieté de son devoir gauchy” (ll. 1205-8). Finally, instead of letting himself be provoked into the defiance and boasting that trigger the death of Coriolanus, Coriolan ineffectually calls for help and begs the Volscians to stop. There is no psychological trick for Amfidie to play because there is no psychology to play it on. After the murder, however, the scenes fall back into step, developing a hint from Plutarch about the Volscians’ regret and honourable treatment of the body. In both cases Aufidius/Amfidie gets the last word; in both it is distinctly hypocritical:

J’approuve volontiers cest avis magnanime,
L’injure aux trépessez est un enorme crime.
(ll. 1237-38 [V.ii])

My rage is gone,
And I am struck with sorrow. Take him up.
Help three o’th’ chiefest soldiers; I’ll be one.

. . . . . . . . . . .
Though in this city he
Hath widowed and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet shall he have a noble memory. Assist. (V.6.147-54)

  • 11 “Ainsi mourut Cesar, ainsi mourut Alcide” (Matthieu, l. 2090 [Act V]) ; “Votre fils massacré, autre (...)

21Only, this cannot be the end of the play, as far as Hardy is concerned. Even if Plutarch states merely that the women of Rome were allowed the customary period of mourning (Bullough, ed., p. 545), for a dramatist steeped in the Humanist tradition, where there is a mother, there must be a mother’s tears; they must at once harp on the heartstrings and carry a vindictive charge. And so the final scene belongs to Volomnie. La Guisiade of Pierre Matthieu likewise concludes by having Mme de Nemours, the mother of the slaughtered hero (Henri, duc de Guise) first intuit, then respond to the dismal news of the messenger (who, as in Coriolan, invokes the fall of Hercules11), and finally launch into protracted lament. Like Mme de Nemours, Volomnie is full of blame and bitterness, but there is a telling difference. Picking up her sense of responsibility where the supplication scene left off, she unequivocally blames herself.

22The effect begins before the messenger arrives. Not only does Volomnie anticipate her son’s death (with the usual rhetoric of emotional turbulence), but she insists on his deliberate preference of death to her displeasure:

Helas ! Mon cher enfant, ta grande pieté
Sera (je le crains bien s’elle ne l’a esté)
Cause de ton desastre, & auras debonnaire
Mieux aymé le trépas certain que me deplaire :
Tu auras mieux aymé à la Parque courir,
Que le blâme impieux de ma bouche encourir. (ll. 1255-59 [V.iii])

23The mourning soliloquy itself pivots on the paradox that in giving life to her country she has destroyed her reason for living. It is the same paradox exploited by Shakespeare when Coriolanus’ yielding shatters Volumnia’s identification of herself with Rome as “our dear nurse” (V.3.111) – the mechanism recalls Perseus’ use of his reflecting shield against Medusa – to reveal both as the devourers of their children. Hence, the grotesque gap between her silent return to Rome and the Senator’s gleeful shout: “Behold our patroness, the life of Rome!” (V.5.1). Mme de Nemours, too, experiences such an existential vacuum, but she instantly fills it with thoughts of revenge against the murderer (Henri III). In Coriolan, the guilt is assumed by the mother herself; she can exorcise it only by joining her son in death, and since grief alone will not suffice, she will commit a noble Roman suicide (the models of Portia and especially Cleopatra make themselves felt here). She is one, she laments,

A qui la terre nuit, & le Ciel rigoureux,
Qui n’espere appaiser de complaintes tes Manes,
Mais bien de ma presence aux rives Stygianes,
Et que mon deuil n’estant pour ce faire assez fort,
En un coup genereux je trouveray la mort. (ll. 1348-52)

  • 12 I have made the case for parallel self-destructive careers, though without help – or hindrance – fr (...)

24Apart from its unhistoricality, it is clear why such a resolution into pathos of Volumnia’s ambiguous silence at the end of the supplication in Plutarch would not have attracted Shakespeare, at least in a straightforward way. Hardy’s rhetorically mandated ending, however powerful on its own terms, is at once melodramatic and anti-climactic. At the same time, not only does the very unhistoricality throw the role of Coriolan’s mother into high relief, but the twist of culpability to her grief is far from conventional; it resonates, moreover, with a psychological dynamic in Coriolanus to which criticism has devoted relatively little attention.12 This may be illustrated most succinctly through a further comparison. It has arguably been under-appreciated that, of the other Shakespearean heroes with whom Coriolanus overlaps at various points and to various effects, the list includes Hamlet.

25Obviously, the scope of the comparison is limited, and my point in applying it here is by no means to suggest (with flagrant anachronism) that Hamlet (c. 1600) might be indebted to Hardy’s play. There is, nevertheless, room in principle for the latter to have functioned as an intertextual catalyst for Shakespeare after the fact, a demonstration that the character of Coriolanus might be liable to construction according to a pattern he had already used for a figure who in most respects was radically different; indeed, the very improbability of such common ground may be taken as the “ungrammatical” sign of the intertext. That common ground consists in a basic double and contrary movement in the broad trajectories of the two Shakespearean figures: on one level, not least in their own view, they advance in heroic self-assertion – and the appointed mission of the post-banishment Coriolanus is likewise revenge, which he says he “owe[s] [...] properly” (V.2.81-82); more profoundly, however, the movement is ironically toward self-destruction. Choler is Coriolanus’ temperamental excuse, melancholy is Hamlet’s, but the results in both cases are equally mortal, self-defeating in the most profound sense.

  • 13 “by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his” (Ham., V.2.77-78); “were I anything but w (...)
  • 14 On Shakespeare’s development of this effect in Coriolanus beyond the Plutarchian source and by way (...)

26“On the face of it, Coriolanus’ death lacks inevitability”, as Parker points out (Introd., p. 64); the same might be said for the chaotic confusions of the fencing-match to which Hamlet improbably agrees, anticipating Coriolanus’ “let it come”, which has no correlative in Plutarch or Hardy, by riddling about the sparrow’s fall and concluding, “the readiness is all” (V.2.222). But audiences are cued to look beyond “the face of it”, and there they see death at once defied and sought out, time after time, virtually from start to finish. In both cases, the hero effectively recasts his banishment as a banishing of others (Cor., III.3.124; Ham., III.4.200ff.). And at the finish, self-imaging enemies13 – Laertes, Aufidius – are caressed and provoked as executioners. Both figures insist throughout on their isolation, their apartness,14 and in their final acts of heroic defiance this distinctly carries an advertisement of vulnerability amounting to a leap off the Tarpeian rock: “High and mighty, You shall know I am set naked on your kingdom. [...] And in a postscript here he says, ‘alone’” (Ham., IV.7.43-44, 52); “like an eagle in a dovecoat, I / Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles. / Alone I did it, boy!” (Cor., V.6.115-17).

27Most fundamentally, the ambivalence is played out in relation to parental figures, with Hamlet’s sense of emulation and inadequacy toward his father’s spirit mirrored in Coriolanus’ attitude toward Volumnia. Both givers of life have denied the life of individual will, autonomy, to their children, and the only suitable revenge against them is at once to escape their tyrannous influence and to strike back, through auto-destruction, at their life-giving function in the impeccable guise of doing their bidding. Motherhood, moreover, encompasses those who give life to the protagonist’s own sons, in fact or in potentia: Coriolanus finds Virgilia’s kiss “as sweet as my revenge” (V.3.45), but no sweeter; Hamlet would prevent Ophelia from becoming “a breeder of sinners” (Ham., III.1.121). Virginity is correspondingly exalted: Ophelia as nun, “dear Valeria” as the “icicle / [...] / [that] hangs on Diane’s temple” (Cor., V.3.65-67). The ban extends to surrogate fathers. Claudius bears the double burden of being a usurper in this sense too, putting Hamlet “too much in the sun [son]” (Ham., I.2.67), while Coriolanus’ fantasy of self-engendering, “as if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin” (V.3.36-37), requires repudiating and humiliating Menenius, who proudly speaks in terms of father and son (e.g., in V.2.61ff.). Finally, that high-liver is induced despairingly to articulate Coriolanus’ working principle: “He that hath a will to die by himself fears it not from another” (101-2).

28Hamlet’s multiple repudiations and humiliations of his mother are notorious: they can (though they need not) generate a staging of the final scene in which Gertrude, caught in an impossible situation, knowingly drinks the poison intended by Claudius for her son. His “soul” may “contrive” (I.5.85-86) nothing against her, according to the Ghost’s strictures, but one way or another, she falls within the scope of his revenge: “Follow my mother!” (V.2.327), the dying Hamlet enjoins the dying Claudius. He is obsessed with her “frailty” and her “tears” from the first soliloquy on (I.3.146ff.), and the climax of the closet scene is to make her cry, less for herself than for him: “O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain” (III.4.156). Coriolanus obviously has more scope for displacement, but his interest in making women weep for him is no less evocative for being obliquely expressed – witness his address to the overwhelmed Virgilia:

Wouldst thou have laughed had I come coffined home,
That weep’st to see me triumph? Ah, my dear,
Such eyes the widows in Corioles wear,
And mothers that lack sons. (II.1.172-75)

29There is, then, an ironic reminder in Aufidius’ reference to crying widows in his epitaph that the chickens Coriolanus has brought home to roost include the “poor hen, fond of no second brood”, that “clucked [him] to the wars and safely home, / Loaden with honour” (V.3.163-65).

30Thus the climactic supplication scene in Coriolanus may act more like Hamlet’s play-within-the-play than either he or Hamlet would admit: both scenarios effectively, if surreptitiously, reposition the wielder of power as the inevitable victim, at least in the long term. Coriolanus, moreover, has invented the better Mousetrap, since his auditors are not roused to anger and reproaches but reduced to silence; the fatal consequence will come from elsewhere – as, in effect, a stab in the back. Clearly, the neutral narrative of Plutarch at this point did not satisfy Hardy, whose Coriolan is precise about his danger and whose Volomnie is made to articulate both her grief and its cause: “tu me navres le cœur”. To give Volomnie the culminating monologue, in which she determines to act as Gertrude may do, was a logical way of rendering tragic, as Hardy understood the genre, a sequence that does not self-evidently abound with such potential in the historical account. It happens also to be a procedure, however, that effectively literalizes a dynamic that in Shakespeare becomes subtextual: to this extent, Shakespeare play is Hardy’s turned, not inside-out, but outside-in.

  • 15 Sa prise ne nous doit balancer incertaine ;
    D’ouverte & vive force, ou du temps ménagers
    Avec moins d (...)

31This is also to reiterate that Shakespeare’s terms were by no means Hardy’s, and certainly not when it came to the central figure: across the rhetorical set-pieces that manifest French dramatic authorship in the period, Coriolan is several charactertypes at various points – “boy of tears” among them, even a calculating general, as opposed to a lone wolf. (He actually proposes starving the Romans into submission rather than assaulting them – and his language at this point recalls Volumnia’s when she urges Coriolanus to speak mildly to the citizens.15) One thing he is certainly not, however, is “author of himself” (V.3.36), and he could therefore have no interest in writing himself at once into and out of the story over, symbolically speaking, his parents’ dead bodies. Yet, for a successor playwright, to re-vision Plutarch across such contradictory multiplicity might have pointed to Coriolanus as subject rather than object, his master’s voice transformed into the “method” actor who needs to know the unknowable – “What is my motivation?” – and, if he does not know it, is liable to dry up:

Like a dull actor now
I have forgot my part, and I am out
Even to a full disgrace. (Cor., V.3.40-42)

32It is no contradiction – on the contrary – that Coriolanus presumes an essential self without defining it; on this ground, too, he joins Hamlet:

Would you have me
False to my nature?
Rather say I play The man I am. (Cor., III.2.14-16)

These indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (Ham., I.2.83-86)

33I will indulge myself, in conclusion, with a few remarks stumbling after the will-o’-the-wisp of influence. Shakespeare’s knowledge of Hardy’s work might have had various results. It might have revealed otherwise obscure areas of dramatic potential behind the prosaic political scenes of Plutarch. It might have triggered the re-imagining of a jejune political miscalculation in terms of wilful self-delusion – the standard Shakespearean tragic template. But most basically, it might have opened up the parent-child relation as potentially a dynamic of power and identity, and à double tranchant. Against the fading background of Plutarch, Volomnie’s concluding monologue could not have failed to stand out. Just possibly, Shakespeare was thereby impelled to over-determine Volumnia’s silence, as he so potently does, by re-imposing it. Of course, he could also have arrived at such a refashioning of Plutarch quite on his own – on one of those frequent days, for instance, when the Continent is said to be cut off by fog. Arguably, however, the fog was thinner in those days, even if the waves were undoubtedly higher.



Primary Sources

CHANTELOUVE, François de. La tragédie de feu Gaspard de Colligny. Ed. Keith Cameron. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1971.

___. The Tragedy of the Late Gaspard de Coligny. Trans. with Notes and Introduction by Richard Hillman. The Tragedy of the Late Gaspard de Coligny and The Guisiade. Carleton Renaissance Plays in Translation, 40. Ottawa : Dovehouse Editions, 2005.

GRÉVIN, Jacques. César. Ed. Ellen S. Ginsberg. Textes littéraires français. Geneva: Droz; Paris: Minard, 1971.

HARDY, Alexandre. Coriolan. Ed. Terence Allott. Textes littéraires, 28. Gen. ed. Keith Cameron. Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1978.

___. Le théâtre d’Alexandre Hardy, Parisien. 5 vols. vol. 2. Paris : Jacques Quesnel, 1625.

MATTHIEU, Pierre. La Guisiade. Ed. Louis Lobbes. Textes littéraires français. Geneva: Droz, 1990.

PLUTARCH. The Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus. Trans. Thomas North. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Ed. Geoffrey Bullough. 8 vols. vol. 5: The Roman Plays: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus. London: Routledge; New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Pp. 505-49.

___. The Life of Marcus Brutus. Trans. Thomas North. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. Ed. Geoffrey Bullough. 8 vols. vol. 5: The Roman Plays: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus. London: Routledge; New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Pp. 90-135.

SHAKESPEARE, William. Coriolanus. Ed. Lee Bliss. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

___. Coriolanus. Ed. Philip Brockbank. The Arden Shakespeare, 2nd ser. London: Methuen, 1976.

___. Hamlet. The Riverside Shakespeare. Gen. eds G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

___. Julius Caesar. The Riverside Shakespeare. Gen. eds G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.

Secondary Sources

BULLOUGH, Geoffrey. Introduction to Coriolanus. Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare. 8 vols. vol. 5: The Roman Plays: Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus. London: Routledge; New York: Columbia University Press, 1977. Pp. 453-95.

DEIERKAUF-HOLSBOER, S. Wilma. Le théâtre de l’Hôtel de Bourgogne: I, 1548-1635. Paris: Nizet, 1968.

___. Vie d’Alexandre Hardy poète du roi 1572-1632 : 47 documents inédits. Rev. ed. Paris: A. G. Nizet, 1972.

HILLMAN, Richard. Shakespearean Subversions: The Trickster and the Play-text. London: Routledge, 1992.

LANCASTER, Henry Carrington. “Alexandre Hardy and Shakespeare”. Todd Memorial Volumes. Ed. John D. FitzGerald and Pauline Taylor. vol. 2. New York: Columbia University Press, 1930. Pp. 3-6.

LUCKYJ, Christina. “Volumnia’s Silence”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 31 (1991): 327-41.

MacCALLUM, M. W. Shakespeare’s Roman Plays and Their Background. Introd. T. J. B. Spencer. London: Macmillan, 1967.


1 Cf. Shakespeare, Coriolanus, ed. Brockbank, pp. 75-76.

2 See Hardy, Coriolan, ed. Allott, Introd., p. VIII, and Deierkauf-Holsboer, Vie d’Alexandre Hardy, p. 155.

3 Allott, ed., Introd., pp. xvii-xviii, cites Kirchner, Coriolanus Tragicomica (1599), and Pierry Thierry, Tragédie de Coriolanus (1600); see also Brockbank, ed., Coriolanus, p. 75. Both works have far less in common with Shakespeare’s play than does Hardy’s.

4 Almost certainly in late 1608 or early 1609; see Parker, Introd., p. 7.

5 MacCallum (p. 478) singles out Volumnia’s advice to her son to humble himself to the people and Coriolanus’ presentation of his banishment as an act of his own that will expose Rome’s need of him.

6 According to convention, initial guillemets signalled sententiae or otherwise notable affirmations.

7 Variations on the term “ungrateful” run throughout Coriolanus and in Coriolan ironically link Volomnie’s speech of persuasion (l. 997 [IV.4], echoed by Coriolan himself in l. 1067), with Amfidie’s of accusation (l. 1167 [V.2]). The concept is certainly implicit in Plutarch, but the term is not actually used in North’s translation.

8 The accusation thus structurally corresponds to the Tribunes’ earlier charges in Coriolanus (III.1.164-65, 173), which Bliss (Introd., p. 40) sees as distinctively Shakespearean and as evoking the “traitors” Essex and Raleigh; the term resonantly recurs at the end of both plays, again through Aufidius (V.6.85ff.) and Amphidie (ll. 1158, 1180 [V.2]). In general, Hardy’s text, on its own terms (more rhetorical, less theatrical), is as insistent as Shakespeare’s in its effects of doubling and echoing.

9 The episode figures, of course, in various histories, but Shakespeare’s development of Caesar’s wavering stands out. In Plutarch’s Life of Marcus Brutus there is a matter-of-fact mention of “Caesars long tarying, who came verie late to the Senate: for bicause the signes of the sacrifices appeared unluckie, his wife Calpurnia kept him at home, and the Soothsayers bad him beware he went not abroade” (Bullough, ed., p. 100). The point is not substantially developed in the accounts of Velleius Paterculus or Suetonius (see Bullough, pp. 143, 153).

10 Notably in confiding conspiratorially in his mother: “Je vous veux en secret conferer / Quand, et comment le camp je feray retirer” (ll. 1051-52); this is another dramatic supplement to a hint from Plutarch, who says merely that “he spake a litle a parte with his mother and wife” (Bullough, ed., p. 541).

11 “Ainsi mourut Cesar, ainsi mourut Alcide” (Matthieu, l. 2090 [Act V]) ; “Votre fils massacré, autrefois nostre Alcide, / A d’un peuple saoulé la fureur homicide” (Hardy, ed. Allott, ll. 1285-86).

12 I have made the case for parallel self-destructive careers, though without help – or hindrance – from the French intertext, in Shakespearean Subversions, pp. 195-99; on the point of contact in Coriolanus’ “let it come”, see Parker, Introd., p. 67, and “Death of a Hero”.

13 “by the image of my cause I see / The portraiture of his” (Ham., V.2.77-78); “were I anything but what I am, / I would wish me only he” (Cor., I.1.229-30).

14 On Shakespeare’s development of this effect in Coriolanus beyond the Plutarchian source and by way of the word “alone”, see Parker, Introd., p. 56.

15 Sa prise ne nous doit balancer incertaine ;
D’ouverte & vive force, ou du temps ménagers
Avec moins de hazard, de perte & de danger,
Moins prodigues de sang, & plus meurs de prudence [...]
(ll. 946-49 [IV.4])
Now this no more dishonours you at all
Than to take in a town with gentle words,
Which else would put you to your fortune and
The hazard of much blood. (III.2.60-63)


Richard Hillman est Professeur à l’Université François-Rabelais de Tours (Département d’anglais et CESR). Surtout spécialiste du théâtre anglais de la Renaissance, il a écrit de nombreux articles et cinq monographies sur ce sujet, dont la plus récente, Shakespeare, Marlowe and the Politics of France (Palgrave, 2002), témoigne de la concentration actuelle de ses recherches sur les liens entre la France et l’Angleterre. Il a également publié la traduction, avec introduction et notes, de L’histoire tragique de la Pucelle de Dom-Rémy, par Fronton Du Duc, et celle de La tragédie de feu Gaspard de Coligny, par François de Chantelouve, accompagnée de celle de La Guisiade, par Pierre Matthieu (Carleton Renaissance Plays in Translation, n° 39 et n° 40, Ottawa, Dovehouse Editions, 2005).

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