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Coriolan de William Shakespeare

Richard Hillman

Characterizing Coriolanus: Charlotte Brontë’s Reading and What It Tells Us

Ruth Morse


Cet article offre une lecture d’une lectrice de Shakespeare, pour, finalement, aborder la question de « character criticism ». Il entame une réflexion sur l’interprétation du personnage « Coriolan » selon Charlotte Brontë, dans son roman, Shirley, pour revenir à la pièce de Shakespeare. Qu’est-ce qu’on peut apprendre de cet engagement avec la tragédie shakespearienne de la part d’un auteur du xixe siècle ? Quels rapports particuliers existent-ils entre son « Coriolan » et le héros de Shakespeare ; plus généralement, quels sont les avantages et les inconvénients du « character criticism » ?

Texte intégral

  • 1 Hitherto, articles on Brontë’s use of Shakespeare have concentrated on their significance for the n (...)

1After the success of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë turned to a different kind of novel, a “condition of England novel” which would combine a two-couple plot with reflections on the social changes concomitant upon the industrialization of the cloth industry, particularly in her own Yorkshire. In 1849 she published Shirley, set in the last years of the Peninsular War against Napoleon.1 Brontë makes the connections to Coriolanus explicit, from references in a chapter title, to parallels in plot and in character. But there are also tacit links, as well as a tacit Imperial Theme. Like Shakespeare, she is concerned with dearth, with famine which arises less from nature than from social arrangements: not the corn riots of 1608-9 or the continuing threat of agricultural enclosures, but the economic depression which followed hard upon the Orders in Council which, in the early eighteen-teens, forbade trade with neutral nations and thereby caused an industrial downturn, with job losses, impoverishment of once independent workmen, and starvation for them and for their families. Rome’s poor are poor because they are poor, and because of hoarding and speculation; the wage-labourers’ insecurity of the Industrial Revolution bred a different kind of poverty. But both political situations invite serious reflection on the weight of law, and of custom, but above all on the need for charity. Coriolanus opposes a corn dole, a secular, civic poor relief. Nineteenth-century Britain distinguished the deserving from the undeserving poor. The boldest claim is to recognize that public discourses, whether, daringly, by players or by women, found oblique ways of depicting, and analyzing, public crises. Like Shakespeare, Brontë displaced discussion onto an earlier period of underlying glory: not the great Roman Empire to come, but the French Empire that was defeated. Social crisis is always a moment to consider connectedness – as Menenius shows, with his ultimately specious, worn-out allegory, the human body. Whether we call it loyalty, or deference, or employ the masculinist metaphors patriarchy, paternalism or patriotism, thinkers conceived of, longed for, society as mystically animate, connecting the individual to family to community. In what follows I shall explore the parallels I have indicated in order to take us back to Coriolanus and see it fresh. I shall conclude, however, with a warning.

  • 2 Remarked by Lane.

2Authors’ influences include not only what they adapt, but what they omit; when we talk about sources and analogues, suppressions count. There is anger and implacable resentment in Shirley, drunkenness, and violence, but there is practically no sex.2 Shirley does not rewrite Coriolanus; it uses Coriolanus selectively. Brontë’s setting is the end of the Napoleonic Wars, not simply because she was concerned with the historical crises of nation and of commerce, but also because she was particularly interested in character – in her francophone, flawed, manufacturer, Robert Gérard Moore. The nation was deep into the Peninsular War, against a Napoleon who continued to seem unbeatable; Orders in Council threatened to ruin the North’s nascent spinning and weaving manufactures. Unemployment ran high, and so did tempers, with mill machinery sabotaged by rioters, whose threats to civil order defied control. For many observers, the very fabric of an orderly, hierarchical society, built on assumptions of unchanging deference, seemed at risk. Methodism, and other forms of Dissent, appealed to a people disaffected from the national, Anglican communion and susceptible to demagoguery – what we might, in the context of Coriolanus, recognize as openings for tribunes of the people.

  • 3 See Parker, Introd., pp. 48, 110-11; Glenn, chap. 6.

3Reading Charlotte Bronte reading Coriolanus invites us to think about what is perhaps the oldest way of reading Shakespeare, the approach to character as extractable human beings. This was Anna Jameson’s achievement, as it was Samuel Johnson’s. Coriolanus was little performed in the nineteenth century, but it was much discussed.3 Brontë herself was as interested in moral examples as many other critics or users of Shakespeare. The best, as certainly the most famous, practitioner of this kind of reading was A. C. Bradley, whose Shakespearean Tragedy (2nd ed. 1905) remains a classic of criticism. So, however, does the article by the brash young L. C. Knights, demolishing Bradley’s approach to Shakespeare as if the playwright had been a novelist, and his characters consistent persons rather than the personae of the scene. Coriolanus was probably a historical agent, a person who lived and died, and was immortalized in Plutarch’s parallel lives. But a play by Shakespeare is never a biography, even if it appears to concentrate on a Life. Students learning to read and think about Shakespeare always need to be alert to this danger, and to the lesser danger of thinking of characters perhaps not as persons but at least as examples for moral discussion. Character criticism is a powerful approach, but one which always risks distorting a play, which is larger even than the sum of its characters.

4By contrast to critics, novelists can erect a hall of mirrors, and explore their own characters’ interpretations of Shakespeare’s, reading readings, at two levels. Brontë was an intelligent reader of Shakespeare, and, like us, she read, intelligently, in her period: she was typically a nineteenth-century reader, for whom Shakespeare offered extractable ethical examples of character. In this she was not unlike her great predecessor, Jane Austen, whose Mansfield Park also offers scenes in which characters read Shakespeare aloud, and analyze Shakespearean characters in their conversations. A generation later, George Eliot was also to extract character from Coriolanus for her own Felix Holt, with typical idiosyncrasies. All three of these novelists show individual interpretations, by their characters, of other characters. Above all, they draw characters reading, reading partially, with biases that illuminate their own motives, what we might call creative mis-reading. Such mis-uses always have an interpretative purpose: we are expected to know the play, to recognize the misinterpretation, to correct – but also to reconsider our first impulse of reprobation. At the first level, then, it is characteristic of any character-based criticism that it is an approach by social or private reading rather than by sitting in a theatre; there is a tendency in such criticism to take the character out of the dynamic context of one role evolving among many, and to offer a secular repertoire of moral types. What Brontë insisted upon was that a character might not be one thing or another, but both, and in Shirley she repeatedly referred to the agents of her story as admirable and “flawed”. Her own characters tended toward one or the other direction.

5Caius Martius Coriolanus is, in one way of thinking about the play, a scripted role for an actor. Even the most important role is only one part of a complex dramatic structure. It is poor reading to read only one character, to take that character as one imagined person, and one only. Even if that is the actor’s work, and the actor excels in showing his character change under pressures he may himself have created, that is never the director’s work, because the director has to think how the various possibilities of interpretation affect the play as a whole. “Who is right?” is everyone’s question except Shakespeare’s. Directors strive to find a balance among the many characters out of whom the play is made, and throughout Coriolanus, if the flaws entirely outweigh what is admirable, or potentially admirable, the play will have little attraction. It is always wise to ask why Coriolanus is an eponymous play: he is often absent, although often spoken of. He is the trigger of the action, but also of the play’s questions about Rome. If the play appears to contribute to a Life and Death story, the life and death also contribute to the play; that is, the play is about Coriolanus, but Coriolanus because of his importance to a city, the great capital of the world, Rome. In himself he is son, husband, soldier, traitor, boy of tears.

6In this main part of my essay, I shall begin by listening to Caroline Helstone and Robert Gérard Moore discussing Shakespeare’s play, contextualizing their discussions by looking at Brontë’s whole dynamic. I shall then move to some reflections on what we learn from our excursion into the nineteenth century, the novel, and, above all, a “condition of England novel”. For at the second, inner, level, what attracts our interest is that Brontë’s narrator is not the analyst of Coriolanus; rather, Coriolanus is used as a subject of discussion between two characters, focussing not only her central love interest, but also her central argument about women’s civilising mission. We listen to their refractions, their opinions of who Coriolanus was and what he exemplified, what Shakespeare “meant” with Coriolanus. As the novel’s characters are flawed, so their interpretations of Shakespeare’s characters are partial, incomplete, contradictory. I shall argue that the central, complex, lesson which Brontë intended us to take from her thoughts about this play has less to do with character than with civic virtue, with the balance of power and position among different social classes, vocations, and genders. Despite the social inequalities Brontë accepted, she adds to Coriolanus a sense of the power of women’s influence, women both young and old, single and married, rich and poor, within a Christian dispensation and, in particular, an Anglican assertion of companionship. This latter point emphasizes the limits of Coriolanus, though I will not expand upon the implications of this assertion here. What I will do is return us to Shakespeare to argue that Brontë invites us to see it as she did, as an inspiration for a “condition of Rome” meditation, not as the tragedy of a narrow, unimaginative, inflexible hero. Above all, what Brontë adapted for her novel, her two-couple plot, was a broadening out to serious insistence upon seeing things multiply.

7It is in Chapter Six, “Coriolanus”, that we find the attempts of a loving, disquieted Caroline Helstone to use Coriolanus to educate her beloved Robert, to try to make him see that there is a world, not elsewhere, but right here, and that it merits our tolerance and stewardship, even to the glad suffering of fools. In this chapter, Brontë offers a picture of an evening’s Shakespeare recital, in which Caroline proposes that they read Coriolanus aloud. The result, however, falls far short of the intended moral effect, because Moore’s interpretation of the text is quite different from Caroline’s. The scene is a fine example not of Coriolanus as a moral touchstone, but of the freedom of understanding motive, action, interiority according to one’s own projection of value. Moore approves precisely those shortcomings which make Coriolanus unsympathetic: his class loyalties, the narrowness of his sympathies, which can – and does – be interpreted as an utter disdain for the poor. Like many nineteenth-century readers, Moore admires Coriolanus, simply and without reservation. Before we dismiss him as merely a bad reader, let us consider what we can learn, for good and ill, from the extraction of Coriolanus from Coriolanus.

8Moore is not a patrician, with war as his calling. As a talented example of what was later frequently called, using a military metaphor, a “captain of industry”, he is potentially a leader. Indeed, the Napoleonic campaigns which form the backdrop to the events of the novel are a source of controversy throughout. There is no question but that war is bad for trade. But resistance to encroaching tyranny offers one of those over-arching values which ask us to sacrifice our self-interest to a greater good. To this appeal Moore is, at least at the beginning of the novel, utterly deaf; the question is absurd. Coriolanus, of course, might be considered to be the inverse: war is all he knows, and he cannot learn the art of winning the peace. Brontë muddies the waters by describing Moore as very foreign and with a pronounced accent, so his voice is unpleasant to Yorkshire ears (chap. 2 [“The Waggons”]). In his sensitivity to revealing himself to the multitude, Moore can be as embarrassed as Coriolanus. At the moment of suffering congratulation for his success in quelling riot, “these gross eulogiums shamed Moore deeply, and made him half scorn himself and his work. On abuse, on reproach, on calumny, it is easy to smile; but painful indeed is the panegyric of those we contemn. Often had Moore gazed with a brilliant countenance of howling crowds from a hostile hustings: he had breasted the storm of unpopularity with gallant bearing and soul elate; but he drooped his head under the half-bred tradesmen’s praise, and shrank chagrined before their congratulations”. Nothing in the novel, any more than in the play, solves this problem of pride and distance from groups to which heroes feel, rightly, superior, a problem we might recognize as an inability to suffer fools gladly.

  • 4 For a brilliant discussion of the detail of Coriolanus’s speech, see McDonald, pp. 52-65.

9But it is more than this: Coriolanus speaks a quarter of the play’s lines, in a play deeply concerned with “voices”, in the sense of political representation, if not specifically voting, as well as the ethical links between “voice” and “vice” – words which would, in terms of historical phonology, have sounded quite close in Shakespeare’s day.4 Bronte encourages us to think again about voice and vice through Moore’s pride, his foreignness, his inability to tolerate hypocrisy, ambiguity – all the dodgems of the socio-political discourse which surround him; she invites us to think about that public sphere in which Moore moves, and its contrast to Caroline Helstone’s, and women’s, private word and deed. Coriolanus may aspire to a degree of Spartan warrior values, but his Laconic style betrays both them and him. He lacks not only the common touch, but emotion: his apparently unbending masculinity is a terminal defect, isolating him as indeed a boy, stunted and unfinished. As Russ McDonald points out in his outstanding reading of the play’s styles, Coriolanus’s lack of syntactic connectives indicates a lack of affective social sense. Moore is educable; Coriolanus is not.

  • 5 Analysed by Pam Morris.

10Brontë uses both of the familiar approaches to Shakespeare adaptation: she catalogues character and action, and she shuttles between the play and the novel, providing us with the heavydrinking, unemployed preachers for Shakespeare’s tribunes; Mr Yorke, the free-thinking paterfamilias, for Menenius; Robert Gérard Moore himself for the eponymous hero; Caroline Helstone for a reaction very different from Virgilia’s gracious silence.5 Like Coriolanus with the poor prisoner (I.10.82ff.), Moore misses the opportunity to speak kindly to an unemployed man of whom he in fact thinks well. Brontë calls this failure “a chance he was lord of ”. At least Moore, as a man and a businessman, has chances. Brontë is explicit about the restrictions upon women, but she uses her young character, Caroline Helstone, both to reflect on old maids and their sphere of self-sacrificing private charity, while slipping in an egalitarian insistence that “each human being has his share of rights” (p. 180; chap. “Old Maids”). Each human being has his share of rights. Them’s fighting words.

11It is engagement with problems or themes in plays which is always more intriguing, and Brontë’s main concern in juxtaposing Moore and the patrician Roman is to examine a series of contrasts which focus the limitations of Moore’s strengths: his combination of courage which is also inflexibility; his focussed intelligence and social stupidity; his family pride, political naivety, and wider social indifference. Brontë calls it seeing the same man from different sides (Shirley, chap. 6). Early on, she writes of Moore, “A hybrid in nature, it is probable he had a hybrid’s feeling on many points – patriotism, for one; it is likely that he was unapt to attach himself to parties, to sects, even to climes and customs; it is not impossible that he had a tendency to isolate his individual person from any community amidst which his lot might temporarily happen to be thrown, and that he felt it to be his best wisdom to push the interests of Robert Gérard Moore, to the exclusion of philanthropic consideration for general interests: with which he regarded the said Gérard Moore as in a great measure disconnected” (chap. 2). Here the import is less the criticism of Moore than the list of critical topics, which we can take back to our reading of Coriolanus in order to analyze its themes.

12This invitation to return to the character in the play, renewed by Brontë, enlarges our reading of this play. The heart of the matter is to see the same man or the same thing from more than one side: Brontë understands Shakespeare’s multiplicity, the special characteristic of plays to seat speech and deed in an agent, at a moment in the elapsing time of the action, addressed to another agent. Coriolanus speaking to his wife or mother in private is not the same man addressing them in public (a gesture such as holding a hand may be more eloquent than words); Robert Moore in the privacy of his parlour is far from the sardonic public man organising his fellows and inferiors for dangerous action. Plays speed us along, and there is no stopping to turn back a page. Mistakes made early in the play are not recuperable later. There is no place for a narrator to ask, as Brontë asks, “What would a certain young kinswoman of his have said could she have seen her dear, good, great Robert – her Coriolanus – just now? Would she have acknowledged in that mischievous, sardonic visage the same face to which she had looked up with such love, which had bent over her with such gentleness last night?” The same man who appreciates, in the privacy of his home, André Chénier and Shakespeare, becomes, in his public role, someone unrecognizable. Unrecognizable, that is, unless one takes to heart Brontë’s and Shakespeare’s understanding that we are seeing the same man from a different side. Characters within texts have partial, particular vision; narrators can see more because they do, indeed, see more, and in more places than individual characters can go.

13Brontë sees that those different sides encompass different, and not always compatible, aspects of our lives as social beings. Within the will and action of her major actors, her plot has no solution: if the war continues, Moore – and not Moore alone – will be ruined, and his ruin will entail starvation and death for his workforce. Although his workmen understand that Moore’s ruin will be theirs, too, that knowledge does not inhibit them from attacking his innovative weaving frames, or, indeed, attacking his person. Like Shakespeare, Brontë has a good sense of the individuality of the members of that workforce, and she explores their different positions. Within Yorkshire, there is no compromise solution, and there is none in Rome, either. If the Volscians attack, the external enemy must persuade the Romans to unite. The “condition of Rome” play has no solution within the actions of the characters; that is a dilemma often repeated in different historical times and places. Like certain French aristocrats, Coriolanus learns nothing and forgets nothing. He does not die for Rome, for patriotism, for his reputation; his honour is long gone, although he does not know it; he does not even, perhaps, die for his family: he dies because he obeys his mother. Shirley has a happier outcome, but Shirley is a romance, not a historical tragedy. The “condition of England novel” finds at least a momentary resolution in an outbreak of peace, and in the expanding economic and social benefits of production and distribution.

14Within Shakespeare’s plot, within the will and action of Shakespeare’s major actors, Rome can find no solution: if the war with the Volscians continues – and even if it does not – Coriolanus is ruined, executed as a double traitor; in corrupting their social inferiors, the patricians will be further corrupted; the Tribunes, already corrupt in themselves, will corrupt the people of Rome, who will starve and die. There are no answers to the questions of who governs here, of who or what connects poor to rich, women to men, young to old. Coriolanus is a play which shows the condition of Rome as very short on the share of rights which belongs to each human being. The condition of Rome is already parlous, its people and fabric, as Parker makes clear (Introd., p. 76), long before the Republic gives way to Empire. In Coriolanus, class conflict in the face of external threat exacerbates the cracks which already threaten the social fabric, and, as Plutarch already saw in the paired essays which were one of Shakespeare’s sources, there is no solution. Critics have for many years sought a moral centre to the play, a place or a character to point to to say, “Here is right”. In the historical tragedies, Shakespeare counts costs, he balances claims, but he never finds a still point where societies are stable and just. As the final contribution to a series of Roman plays, Coriolanus offers a bleak picture, with a bleak, and contradictory ending. With Martius, that widow-maker, dead, Aufidius can weep the tribute of crocodile tears we remember Antony’s death drawing from Octavius.

  • 6 Discussed by Taylor.

15What has Shirley to do with this tragic finale? Back at the first level, Brontë alerts us to what is missing from this picture, in ways which can illuminate the sweep of Shakespeare’s multiplay trajectory through Rome, Livy’s great Ab Urbe Condita, from the foundation of the city, and thence to his larger historical sweep, always asking – like other historical writers – if history is tragic by nature. What is missing in pre-Christian Rome are charity, respect for rights, for compromise, for reform and renewal at the individual as at the social levels. Shirley, by contrast, invites us, as I said earlier, to consider civic virtue, with the balance of power and position among different social classes, vocations, and genders.6 Brontë’s use of Coriolanus was not only as a “condition of Rome” play, but as an invitation to consider Coriolanus’ tragedy as light upon the condition of England. Insofar as we accept that invitation, we may wonder, too, about Shakespeare’s multi-play trajectories in the English history plays, and ask whether Shakespeare found tragedy always historical by nature, and always contemporary. For readers tempted to overindulge themselves in reading character, Brontë also exemplifies what even the finest, most creative character criticism risks, when we extract, or allegorize, or isolate one character or aspect, of structures as complex, and as tragic, as Shakespeare’s whole plays. The stakes are high, and dearth is always a moment to reconsider the very questions raised by Caroline Helstone: the rights of men, and women, and citizens, and what kind of country we want to be citizens of.



Primary Source

BRONTË, Charlotte. Shirley [1849]. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1994.

Secondary Sources

ARNOLD, Margaret J. “Coriolanus Transformed: Charlotte Brontë’s Use of Shakespeare in Shirley”. Women’s Re-Visions of Shakespeare: On the Responses of Dickinson, Woolf, Rich, H.D., George Eliot, and Others. Ed. Margaret Novy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Pp. 76-88.

BRADLEY, A. C. Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, Macbeth. 2nd ed. London: Macmillan, 1905.

GEZARI, Janet. Charlotte Brontë: The Author and the Body at Risk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.

GLEN, Heather. Charlotte Brontë: The Imagination in History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

KNIGHTS, L. C. “How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?”. Explorations: Essays in Criticism Mainly on the Literature of the Seventeenth Century. London: Chatto and Windus, 1946. Pp. 1-39.

LANE, Christopher. “Charlotte Brontë on the Pleasure of Hating”. ELH 69 (2002): 199-222.

JAMESON, Anna. Characteristics of Women, Moral, Poetical, and Historical. 2 vols. London: George Bell, 1832.

McDONALD, Russ. Shakespeare’s Late Style. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006.

MARSHALL, Gail. “George Eliot and Shakespeare: Defamiliarising ‘second nature’”. Nineteenth-Century Gender Studies 1 (2005). <>. Date of access 2 December 2006.

MORRIS, Pam. “Heroes and Hero-worship in Charlotte Brontë’s Shirley”. Nineteenth-Century Literature 54 (1999): 285-307.

TAYLOR, Helen. “Class and Gender in Charlotte Bontë’s Shirley”. Feminist Review, no. 1 (1979) : 83-89.


1 Hitherto, articles on Brontë’s use of Shakespeare have concentrated on their significance for the novelist, as in Margaret Arnold’s pioneering essay; see also Gezari and Glenn.

2 Remarked by Lane.

3 See Parker, Introd., pp. 48, 110-11; Glenn, chap. 6.

4 For a brilliant discussion of the detail of Coriolanus’s speech, see McDonald, pp. 52-65.

5 Analysed by Pam Morris.

6 Discussed by Taylor.


Ruth Morse est originaire des États-Unis, où, ainsi qu’à Cambridge University, elle a fait des études en littératures anglaises médiévale et renaissante. Ayant enseigné aux universités de Londres, Sussex, Leeds et Cambridge, elle est depuis 1995 Professeur à l’Université de Paris VII – Denis Diderot. Elle compte parmi ses ouvrages Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages : Rhetoric, Reality, and Representation (Cambridge, 1991) et elle a publié des articles sur une gamme de sujets, de la littérature médiévale à la littérature post-coloniale. Elle termine actuellement une monographie intitulée « Imagined Histories : Medieval Fictions of the Past, Beowulf to Shakespeare » et en projette encore une sur l’histoire de La tempête de Shakespeare. Ses articles paraissent souvent dans le Times Literary Supplement.

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