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Coriolan de William Shakespeare

Richard Hillman

The Spectacular in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: Notes and Suggestions

André Lascombes


Cette contribution est une présentation succincte de quelques moyens mis en œuvre dans le texte dramatique, depuis son organisation structurelle jusqu’aux ressources linguistiques et stylistiques utilisées, pour accentuer l’efficacité spectaculaire de la pièce, de la lecture à la représentation. Il s’agit donc d’une esquisse pour l’étude de l’ostension théâtrale. Très brève, et plus incitative que prescriptive, elle n’offre pas de conclusions.

Texte intégral

1The aim of this paper is simply to open a few vistas on the topic and briefly to instance some of them, leaving it for every reader to add to my suggestions both by filling up my categories and by extending their scope. To ease my conscience, I shall underline the following point, which has been taught me by my triple experience of CAPES/Agrégation as candidate, teacher and examiner: namely that, beyond linguistic proficiency, quality of general information and analytical aptitude, the key to success lies in personal reactions to each work rooted in close readings of it.

2As you are well aware, the society pictured in Coriolanus is one engaged in a severe crisis, which is in fact compounded of three distinct conflicts over economic, political and moral/ethical problems. These begin with the conflict for territory and preeminence with the neighbouring Volscians, and the internal class-struggle between the Roman plebs and the Senate about new political rights for the former and their access to corn in times of scarcity. These two problems develop against the background of a third clear-cut socio-cultural divide which, though never an actual conflict, nevertheless runs through the play as a half-submerged subtext opposing on the one side the virile ethos of the Roman warriors and their values, and on the other the ethos of the feminine gender founded on the respect and sanctity of home and hearth, the preservation of family links in spite of wars and the upkeep of demography. These feminine values are embodied by the three ladies figuring among the key characters.

3This brief superficial survey may suffice to account for the view upon which I shall base my review of the topic: by embedding in the play those three major oppositional patterns, Shakespeare creates a sense of social fragmentation which is reflected at every stage of the dealings of antagonistic characters who continuously face each other in an endless opposition of dramatic actions, argument, themes and feelings. Though I am well aware that this is the staple substance of any play, such confrontations are here so many-sided, generally so intense and at times so vital that the spectators-hearers are endlessly invited to attend vocally, physically, and even to the point of experiencing a sense of partisanship, the successive face-to-face clashes in a long and tragic contest. Hence, I feel, the deepest rooting of the spectacular in the play. But all specific theatrical qualities are by definition technically to be exploited, so that I must now turn to a review and presentation of the techniques resorted to by the playwright to keep up and enhance that spectacle of strife. In my incipient listing of them I shall classify them, on the one hand, as those, the more obvious perhaps, affecting the structure of the play itself, and, on the other, those, dependent upon the writing, which operate more fleetingly but, as they affect the characters’ physical and vocal scenic presence, may well be just as effective in the long run.

I. The Techniques of Spectacularity: Structural Devices

4My first, fairly obvious, remark is that, in this succession of contests, the multiple characters belonging to antagonistic groups, engaged in arguments or oppositions of various kinds, are seen to play varying functions for variable reasons (from mere witness to silent ally or vocally aggressive adversary). As a result, we, as audience, see in some at least of these dramatic agents, members of an onstage audience seemingly duplicating our own position. The aesthetic effect on us, the offstage audience, of their presence and action is to shorten the distance between their stance and ours, silently inviting us to share more closely in their emotional or intellectual situation, drawing us nearer to the show in progress. This does not only emphasize our emotional or intellectual participation, but it also forcibly imposes upon us the sense of being both within and in front of that show. It really founds, in my view, our sense of viewing a spectacular play.

5This may also be assisted by the occasional use of the old trick, so current in medieval drama, of discretely anglicizing details of the dramatic fiction, so that it sounds nearer to the audience’s everyday world. Brian Parker (n. to I.11.31) underlines this aspect of Aufidius’ mention to the soldier that he is “attended at the cypress grove” and explanation, “’Tis south the city mills” (I.11.30-31), words which might well have been identified by an Elizabethan audience not as an actually Roman topographical reference, but as an allusion to a spot well-known to Londoners and indeed not so far from the place of performance. Similarly, the three or four references to sitting cushions on the benches of the Roman Senate may, as Parker suggests (Introd., p. 98; n. to II.2.0.1), be meant as referring to those accommodating the members of the English Parliament (see II.2.0 S.D.; III.1.103; IV.7.43). Even more blatantly, Coriolanus addressing his friends at the opening of III.2 initially substitutes the familiar forms of Elizabethan punishment or torture for those to be prepared for him by the Roman plebs:

Let them pull all about mine ears, present me Death
on the wheel or at wild horses’ heels,
Or pile ten hills on the Tarpeian rock. (III.2.3-5)

6Thus the playwright deliberately places the hero’s emotional outburst in the context of the offstage audience’s actual world, before allowing them to return in fancy to the universe of fiction in the remainder of the speech. Some other such more-or-less discrete additions of cultural detail extraneous to the historical material of the fiction may be found in the course of the play.

7As to the next, equally structural, factor, I shall again refer to Parker’s mention that in successive scenes Shakespeare threads together twists of dramatic matter in combinations which (following Madeleine Doran) he calls “plaiting” (Introd., p. 27 and n. 2). If the device is fairly constant in most plays by Shakespeare (let us think of the regular alternations of geographical placing and moral atmosphere between Rome and Egypt in that other Roman play, Antony and Cleopatra), it is surely richer and more complex here both on account of the number of conflicting groups and ends pursued, and also because of the greater variety of moods depicted, the number and diversity of moments of encounter selected, of character status and argumentative placing. I shall briefly review how that plaiting is conducted over the course of Act I.

8Let us observe first that the only long scene in Act I is actually made up of four dramatic units, or D.U.’s (a D.U. being loosely defined as the sequence between the entrance and exit of any one of the characters involved): 1) the encounter between the citizens and Menenius (I.1.1-159); 2) the encounter between Martius and the citizens (160-220), ending with Martius’ contemptuous dismissal, “Go get you home, you fragments”; 3) the announcement of an imminent fight with the Volscians and the exchange between Martius, the military leaders and Senators (221-49); 4) the bitter commentary on Martius’ attitude in the exchange between the two Tribunes, left alone (250-77). We already see by this plaiting of episodes how the relationships between the plebs and the aristocrats and the army are just as strained as those between Romans and Volscians, and how Martius is continually seen to tower above the rest. This sequence is immediately opposed and complemented by a scene in Corioles (I.2) which is the reciprocal of D.U.3 in I.1: it is there to show the concern of the Volscian Senate and the army chief Aufidius that Martius may once again be in command and defeat their side, an idea which further increases Aufidius’ spite and envy of Martius’ military virtue. Then ensues a series of brief scenes (3 to 11) relating episodes of the war waged between the two cities under the heroic authority of a Roman chief quickly covered in blood, a series ending with the official recognition of his worth. But before these and immediately after the Aufidius-Senator exchange in I.2, the third scene of Act I admits us to the privacy of Volumnia and Coriolanus’ house, for the only really domestic scene in the play. There we attend the eloquent confrontation of contradictory viewpoints between the three Roman ladies who are most closely connected to Martius, a face-to-face opposition which further discloses the nature and extent of the linkage between Martius, his family and the city, as well as the crucial differences dividing the three ladies on the topic. This enumeration should suffice to show the constant concern of Shakespeare to exhibit, in a continuous stream of alternations and reshufflings of character images, the complexity of the interconnected conflicts making up the background of the tragedy and its respective stakes. By so doing, the playwright repeatedly stresses the distance between such a society, mined by discord, and the Roman symbol of strength and unity, the fasces, ceremoniously displayed by the lictors in the Roman senatorial procession (II.2.34 S.D.). He also thereby emphasizes from the start the tragic potentialities of the challenges posed. And certainly the variegated moods, from stern violence to forms of comedy ranging from the sarcastic to the humorous, further add to the attractiveness and effectiveness of such scenes.

9Lastly, I am ready to concur with Parker’s suggestion that spying is a significant theme in the play (n. to I.2.2), but I would add to this that scenes of spying are in my view, together with scenes or passages of commentary, inherent in the spectacular quality of the play. I am referring here to a scene of spying such as IV.3, showing the encounter of the two spies exchanging information and commentary on the military projects on both sides. It is worth noting here that the two envoys share with remarkable impartiality the forty-eight lines of the exchange and that they barter news of practically equivalent strategic weight. The point, to me, is that such an exchange heightens the sense we, as offstage audience, have of viewing an action plotted by elements of an invisible fictional audience, as well-informed as we are and silently manipulative. The numerous scenes or passages devoted to commenting on what has already happened or what will occur next enforce a similar effect. One of the most effective scenes in that respect is certainly III.1, a fairly long sequence subdivided into at least five dramatic units, each involving more or less the same people who have just been or who are about to be involved in the action: Coriolanus, Menenius, patricians, the Tribunes, plus the citizens. As it prepares for Coriolanus’ election to consulship and its provisional acceptance by the plebs (before its subsequent rejection through the artful interference of the “politic” tribunes), the long scene is central to a lasting sense of a manipulating onstage audience that heavily weighs upon the final outcome of the tragic action. It is fairly easy to spot a number of other shorter scenes or passages of commentary which feed that insistent impression of an active, and also passive, preparation of the oncoming ruin of the hero.

10I shall now pass on to a review of some finer devices operating at the more immediate level of linguistic arrangement but just as effective none the less in terms of spectacular efficacy.

II. Linguistic and Rhetorical Devices Emphasizing Spectacularity

11Though most of these are essentially verbal in their mechanisms, their aim is mainly to enhance the visual/aural effectiveness of the story related, as well as the affects or ideas it may trigger off. They belong to the vast category of the techniques of theatrical “ostension”, understudied up to now, I regret to say, though they were abundantly exploited by the various writers and revisers of the earlier categories of drama, from the medieval and post-medieval forms, to the various developments of the proto-modern drama to which Shakespeare’s production belongs. About ostension, may underline the fact that the Latin verb “ostendere” (meaning “to bring closer to the face”) implies that both eyes and mouth, vision and speech are engaged in the ostensive process?

12On the borderline between my so-called structural factors and the various linguistic/rhetorical devices meant to enhance the spectacular, there is one known as “teichoscopy” (from scopein, to look at, gaze at, and teichos, a wall). This includes reports of offstage events enabling the audience to see (as “through a wall”, or “over a wall”) what is not made visible to them. Quite a few such forms are to be found in the play, so that I may limit myself to commenting on the first three instances, respectively in I.3 and II.1. In I.3, during the scene taking place in Coriolanus’ home, at first between Volumnia and Virgilia, and then in the additional presence of Valeria, one remembers how, probably to please young Martius’ mother, Valeria relates how she had a few days before observed him chasing, catching, releasing and catching again a poor butterfly, and how, enraged after coming a cropper, he had finally and savagely “mammocked” (68) the poor creature, a relation which mother and grandmother comment on in their several ways. If this scene, so many times quoted by critics, so firmly sticks in the reader’s and probably the spectator’s memory, it is not only because of the potent interest of this domestic scene: what it says of Volumnia’s personality, and also of how Virgilia’s determined refusals to join the other ladies display her own inner strength and difference. I would say that this memorability is also due to the verbal transcription inserted in the onstage action of an invisible episode so visually violent. If we turn to the next two instances of teichoscopy in II.1.201-27 and 258-64, we shall more clearly see how the device is likely to benefit spectacular efficiency.

13In the first of the two passages, Brutus the tribune has just sustained a long and fairly violent exchange with Menenius and then attended in possibly disapproving silence Menenius’ enthusiastic joy at the news of the return of the victorious Martius. Then, left alone onstage with his peer Sicinius, upon hearing shouts and a flourish of trumpets, he launches into a mock-heroic teichoscopic description of the glorious march of Coriolanus towards his reward by the Senate: “All tongues speak of him, and the bleared sights / Are spectacled to see him” (III.1.201-2). These initial words of the spiteful Brutus eloquently depict how his relation makes us party to the event in its visual and its aural dimensions. They make us hear those tongues in the very first syntagm, while the next one makes “spectacled” our own “bleared sights” by causing us to identify with the crowd who actually see him. If it is not scientifically clear at this stage how such a teller’s mediation enhances our reception (possibly by distancing the view and also by severing it from other parasitical proprioceptions), at least we have all in actual life experienced such an effect.

14The next bit of teichoscopy concerning the same event a few lines later will make this more explicit. The effect is due this time to a messenger, an almost neutral reporter, who enters to fetch Brutus:

I have seen the dumb men throng to see him,
And the blind to hear him speak. Matrons flung gloves,
Ladies and maids their scarves and handkerchiefs.
(II.1.258-60; my emphasis)

15Beyond confirming the catching excitement of the Roman crowd at viewing victorious Martius, the first two statements tellingly sustain the above assumption. The contradictive association of “dumb men” with “see”, then of “the blind” with “hear” (with each verb respectively denoting the activity of the sense – sight and speech – denied in the subject phrase), efficaciously brings to mind the common experience anyone has of a linkage between the two media, when the inability to see what is heard or to hear what is visible actually boosts the working of the other sense. Shakespeare here, and on many similar occasions in his plays, provides us with a glimpse into the effectiveness of teichoscopy.

16It is high time I turned now to other forms of “ostending” the visible on stage (and even what is in essence invisible, such as the inner feelings of a character, or rather those anticipated in reception). For the ostension of the onstage visible, this play largely resorts to the use of close-ups, a trick common in today’s reproduction techniques of the visible (e.g., in the cinema). It is so easy for any reader to spot such close-ups either of characters’ faces or of their bodies, attitudes, gestures and voices, that I need not spend too much time on this, beyond selecting a few examples. I should point out to begin with that such portraits are more efficiently used at moments of greater dramatic tension and that they may, possibly for that reason, combine with the abovementioned device of teichoscopy. So does, for instance, Volumnia’s mental portrait of her death-wielding soldier-son, felling Volscians as a harvester fells corn stalks (II.1.154-57). Or else Cominius, who on two occasions praises the hero whose mentor he has been. He does this once very briefly in front of the troops just after the battle (I.7.22-4 and 25-7), and a second time in more leisurely style before the Senate (II.2.89-119).

17Such portraits undoubtedly add to the spectacular force of the play but this proves even truer at moments of more dramatic strain. I’ll pick up two such instances featuring totally contrasting moods. Menenius, in the conclusion of a hardly friendly exchange with the Tribunes, wishes aloud that Fortune might endow the two old fools with a capacity to look backwards, so that they might be able to glimpse their own folly and emptiness (II.1.36-39). Moments afterwards, possibly to renew a more diplomatic relation with them, he will offer an equally grotesque but humorous portrait of himself as “one who converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning” (49-51). Though we learn little about his face, the sally reveals something of the inner quality of the old fellow.

18On a different note, Volumnia, reproaching her son with his inability to pretend, shows him how to proceed to win the voices of the plebs and, borrowing his bonnet, actually acts out the part he should play, illustrating her demonstration with her famous saying: “Action is eloquence” (III.2.78). Upon his indignant refusal to divorce his heart from his words and body, Coriolanus himself verbally mimics what he thinks he might turn into should he comply. Before he shies away in sheer revulsion from obeying her, he describes in scathing terms, hardly flattering for his good mother, the wretch he fears he might become (112-24 and again 133-36). The violence of the conflict between mother and son is verbally made graphic here.

19I would like to finish on this subject with two more, closely linked, instances of a theatrically efficient use of the close-up, but this time combined with yet another common ostensive resource in dramaturgic writing: the “vocative” or the “address”. Though the ostensive turn itself is too common to deserve attention, its use in Coriolanus is interesting, in that it is paradoxically compounded with the antagonistic grammatical form of “delocution”.

20In linguistic parlance, the “delocutor” is the person or thing about whom or which one is talking with one’s interlocutor and, as such, is referred to in the third-person singular or plural. Parker, on two or three occasions, mentions in his notes that such or such an address has a distancing effect. I would suggest that it is the delocutory form of address which, posing the person or thing addressed face-to-face with the interlocutors and the audience, thereby turns him or it into an onstage “object” which is highlighted by the ostensive form. As may be imagined, the device is the more effective when it takes place in some highly dramatic context or at moments of maximized argumentative tension. So, the first encounter we witness between Coriolanus and his wife, as he returns victorious from the war, occurs in II.1). As he first sees her he has the famous address: “My gracious silence, hail!” (172). Then, affectionately joking about her past alarms and present joy in the next sentence, as he notes her tearful eyes, he, quite unexpectedly, links them to those of the widows he has himself made in Corioles, and the mothers of the slaughtered men:

Ah, my dear,
Such eyes the widows in Corioles wear,
And mothers that lack sons. (II.1.173-75; my emphasis)

21Undoubtedly, the unexpectedness of such an emotional weight of antagonistic feelings in a man of the notoriously stiff upper lip does much here to make the passage memorable. But the delocutary form of address to the eyes of Virgilia, coupled with those, unseen, of the anonymous victimized Volscian women, certainly gives an additional visual impact to those eyes, both seen and invisible. Much later, on the second, highly tragic, encounter of the two characters, he, noting first of all her presence in the group of four approaching his chair of state, exclaims, as she curtsies to him, “What is that curtsy worth? Or those doves’ eyes / Which can make gods forsworn?” (V.3.2728; my emphasis), before she addresses him as “lord and husband” (37) and draws closer to kiss him. Whereas his next few words comment on his tortured state of mind – “I melt, and am not / Of stronger earth than others” (28-29) – confirming the impact on him of the presence of a wife he also calls “Best of my flesh” (42), her eyes, twice alluded to in the third person, are for us as audience, though never actually seen, a potent synecdoche of the feminine tenderness which, practically alone in the play, she breathes upon the barbarity of the context and the savagery of Coriolanus’ plan.

22Before leaving aside the delocutory form, may I still insist on the fact, paradoxical only in appearance, that its efficiency is even greater when it applies to an object rather than to a person. Two instances will certainly suffice to persuade of the reality of the phenomenon. In the immediate vicinity of the two delocutory addresses just quoted, two such others seem to be particularly demonstrative of their capacity spectacularly to ostend an object which is a key element in the situation in progress. Coriolanus rising from his chair of state to welcome his visitors, Virgilia draws nearer and kisses him. He immediately vents some of the conflicting emotions assailing him: “O, a kiss / Long as my exile, sweet as my revenge!” (V.3.44-45). Then, immediately afterwards, realising his immersion in private feelings and apparent forgetfulness of his mother’s presence, he exclaims:

You gods, I prate,
And the most noble mother in the world
Leave unsaluted! Sink, my knee, i’th’ earth;
He kneels
Of thy deep duty more impression show
Than that of common sons. (48-52; my italics in 50 and 51)

23Coming after his reference to his “armed knees / Who bowed but in my stirrup” (III.2.120-21), and just before a tragic sequence of family knees bending in supplication to him –

What’s this?
Your knees to me? To your corrected son? (V.3.56-7)

VOLUMNIA: Your knee, sirrah.
[Young Martius kneels] (76-76 S.D.)

VOLUMNIA: […] Down, ladies; let us shame him with our knees. (170)

24– Coriolanus’ delocutory invocation of that body part, symbolic of his conception of life and a key reference in the development of the scene, aptly energizes with spectacular insistence the acts about to deflect the tragic course of events.

25I trust I have said enough to establish that this series of instances is but an incipient exploration of an extremely rewarding topic, and that I hardly can offer at this stage any valid conclusion to such an incomplete treatment of it. I shall therefore just venture a couple of closing remarks, however trite they be: 1) contrary to much rubbish heard about the prime creative importance of directing, staging, or even acting, it should be clear that the spectacular is woven into the fabric of the play from the inception of the dramatic text, and down to the least choice of its linguistic detail, well before the blooming out of the dramatic text in performance; 2) as an emphatic return to my beginning, I wish to voice my essential belief in the hermeneutic virtue of close-reading such a text, for in it lie numerous lineaments of the play as successful spectacle.



Secondary Sources

LASCOMBES André. “Formes théâtrales du trope de syllepse”. Rhétoriques du texte et du spectacle. Actes du Congrès 1991 de la Société Française Shakespeare. Ed. M.-T. Jones-Davies. Paris : Les Belles Lettres, 1992. Pp. 21-38.

___. “Pour une rhétorique du spectaculaire : Notes sur l’ostension”. Spectacle in Early Theatre, England and France. Papers from the colloquium “Spectacularité au theatre duMoyen Âge à l’époque classique, Angleterre et France”, Oxford, March 1994. Ed. J.-P. Debax et Y. Peyré. Medieval English Theatre 16 (1994): 10-24.

MAGUIN, Jean-Marie. “Cacher, sire, montrer, taire – régime de l’imaginaire shakespearien”. Du texte à la scène, langages du théâtre. Actes du Congrès 1982 de la Société Française Shakespeare. Ed. M.-T. Jones-Davies. Paris : J. Touzot, 1983. Pp. 111-31.

PAVIS, Patrice. “Ostension”. Dictionnaire du théâtre. Preface by Anne Ubersfeld. 1980 ; Paris : Dunod, 1996. Pp. 236-38.


André Lascombes est Professeur émérite à l’Université François-Rabelais de Tours (Département d’anglais et CESR). Professeur de Première Supérieure au Lycée Joffre à Montpellier (1964-1966), puis assistant à l’Université de Tours, il a d’abord travaillé sur les rapports entre littérature dramatique et culture vernaculaire dans l’Angleterre de la prime Renaissance (sa thèse d’état fut soutenue en janvier 1980 à l’Université de Paris III). Professeur de littérature anglaise à l’Université de Tours en 1981, il a dès 1983 fondé au CESR, au sein du Groupe interdisciplinaire de recherche sur le théâtre de la Renaissance, une équipe angliciste de recherche sur le théâtre pré-shakespearien, et créé les années suivantes les rencontres internationales bisannuelles dites Tables Rondes Tudor. Celles-ci furent publiées dans la Collection THETA chez Peter Lang à Berne, puis dès la 9e (tenue en septembre 2004) en ligne sur le site du CESR. La 10e Table Ronde doit se tenir en septembre 2007. Ses recherches et publications personnelles se sont progressivement centrées sur l’étude des principes et techniques structurant la rhétorique et la poétique du spectacle théâtral dans l’Angleterre de la première modernité. Ses derniers projets visent à établir un répertoire critique relatif au théâtre de ce corpus et à terminer un ouvrage sur la poétique de ce théâtre.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2007

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