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Représentations et identités sexuelles dans le théâtre de Shakespeare

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Delphine Lemonnier-Texier

“Would you have me false to my nature? Rather say I play the man I am”: the Deconstruction of Masculinity in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus1

Delphine Lemonnier-Texier

Texte intégral

  • 1 This paper is the revised version of an essay originally published in Le Fustec Claude and Marret (...)
  • 2 Breitenberg Mark, Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Pre (...)

1Because of the exclusion of women from the stage in early modern England, Shakespeare’s female characters have drawn considerable interest from critics in the fields of feminist and gender studies since the early 1980s, leaving the male characters and the notion of masculinity aside, as if the male identity of the actors performing the parts erased the representational dimension of masculinity on the Shakespearean stage. Only recently has this assumption been challenged with such works as Mark Breitenberg’s or Bruce R. Smith’s2. When Shakespeare created his female characters he did so in full awareness of the need to construct an over-determined femininity that would supply what the onstage show could not provide, the illusion of a female character, despite the man in drag facing the spectators. But precisely because male actors were performing the women’s parts, the male characters’ masculinity had to be equally constructed by the playwright, if only to avoid any possible blurring of gender categories during the performance because of the presence of a single sexual signifier on stage, the male body of the actor. In other words, the over-determination of the femininity of the female characters had to be balanced by a similar over-determination of the masculinity of the male characters, which could be summed up in the following equation: one sexual signifier on stage, but two genders to be constructed out of it in the play. Sexual identity on the Shakespearean stage is indeed at the crossroads between the mimetic and performative dimensions of drama.

Gender as mimesis and performance on the early modern English stage: one signifier, two identities

  • 3 Mangan Michael, Staging Masculinities: History, Gender, Performance, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmill (...)

2The representation of sexual identity in drama is at the heart of the notions of incarnation and dramatic illusion. Incarnation because the actor fleshes out the character, and the spectator is constantly reminded by what he witnesses on stage of the duality of the performative process: the actor’s body represents the character’s, and the former is constantly visible underneath the costume and make-up that supposedly figure the latter; and dramatic illusion because by essence drama is a symbolic stylisation, not meant to reflect faithfully a given reality but to signify it. Drama does offer a reflection of contemporary gender issues and conflicts, but this dimension, just as any other sociological fact, is tempered by the process of stylisation that it undergoes. The playwright’s purpose, unlike the historian’s or the sociologist’s, is not to give a faithful picture of contemporary social realities, but to provide the spectators with characters or types that they can identify with on an ontological level, not necessarily only on a social or sexual one. This applies equally to the universal character of medieval drama, Everyman or Mankind, and to the recurrent trope of the theatrum mundi that pervades 16th century drama in England and in the rest of Europe3.

  • 4 Mark Breitenberg’s central proposition is that masculinity in early modern England is essentially (...)
  • 5 Mangan M., op. cit., p. 21-22.
  • 6 Ibid., p. 22, my emphasis.
  • 7 Liebler Naomi Conn, “Wonder Woman, or the Female Tragic Hero”, in Naomi Conn Liebler (ed.), The Fe (...)

3There is an undeniable congruence between early modern preoccupations with masculinity defined as unstable, somewhat insecure, and essentially performative, and the theatrical performances of gender that take place on stage4. However, as Michael Mangan demonstrates, despite resemblances, social performativity and theatrical performance are not identical5. The stage, in Mangan’s words, “operates both as a separate space subject to its own laws, and also as an extension of the everyday. It is a place where the ‘performances’ of everyday life are themselves re-performed, and in the process changed6.” Or in Naomi Conn Liebler’s words, “No tragedy would have the power to move us unless we were able to recognize an analogy—but not an identity—between ourselves and the protagonist. Analogy’s kaleidoscopic refractions are infinite7.”

  • 8 See. Kantorowicz Ernst R., The King’s Two Bodies. A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Princet (...)

4In the case of English drama, the issue of the representation of gender is specific, since women were banned from the stage and the representation of femininity was therefore a pure construct which made the performative process—accepting that the actor represents the character—deeply self-conscious. The dramatic practice of the boy actor has been thoroughly explored by critics, and is at the heart of Shakespeare’s reflections upon his art, especially in comedies when young female characters disguise themselves and pass for young men, so that the spectators end up watching men playing (women who play) men. However, the boy actor dimension has to be qualified: to a certain extent its supposedly overwhelming presence might have been overstated. It is quite unlikely that mature female characters whose age is repeatedly underlined and whose parts are difficult to memorize may have been acted out by teenage boys with little stage experience, and it seems quite reasonable to postulate the presence on stage of two types of actors in drag: boy actors playing the parts of the younger female characters, and adult male actors playing the parts of the more mature women, actors who would have been more experienced and skilled, and able to play Margaret in 3 Henry VI and Richard III, the duchesses of Gloucester and York in Richard II, or Volumnia in Coriolanus, to name but a few. Similarly, the critical debate has focused solely on the gender discrepancy between the actor’s body and the female character’s, finding in it a specific demand upon the spectators to suspend their disbelief. A similar gap existed however between the actor’s body and the sacred body of the monarch that this actor was supposed to represent on stage when playing the part of the king, in an age where the king’s body was both natural and politic, endowed with a sacred symbolic dimension, able to cure his subjects’ skin sores, scrofula, if they only touched his regal robes8.

5The gap existing between the onstage reality of the actor’s body and the represented identity of the king is made very visible in 1 Henry IV when Shakespeare has Falstaff play the king in the tavern:

  • 9 Shakespeare William, 1 Henry IV, (2.5.379-382), in Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells (ed.), The Comple (...)

Prince Harry: Do thou stand for my father, and examine me upon the particulars of my life.
sir John: Shall I? Content. This chair shall be my state, this dagger my
sceptre, and this cushion my crown9.

  • 10 Ibid., (2.5.135, 140, 144).

6The king is played by the very same fat drunkard that earlier in the scene was called “woolsack”, “whoreson round man” and “fat paunch10”, and it prepares the staging of King Henry IV himself when he is finally confronted with his dissolute son, making it virtually impossible for the spectator to turn a blind eye on the fact that the actor playing King Henry has none of the supposedly sacred attributes of the monarch. The mise en abyme of the performing of the part of the king underlines the gap existing between any actor’s body and the king’s sacred body, so that the parody of kingship enacted in the tavern can be interpreted as a parody of the performance of the very play 1 Henry IV. With Falstaff, it is made obvious in the inserted short play that the same signifier (the fat body of the actor playing Falstaff) represents both the heavy drinker and the sacred king, depending on the willingness of the onstage spectators to accept the newly established convention, soon to be discarded when Hal objects that Falstaff is unable to act and speak like a king. Hal then demands that they switch roles, so that he plays the king himself, and Falstaff plays Hal. Besides the naturally comical dimension of the parody, Shakespeare insists on the performative limitations of role-casting and on the interchangeability of parts between actors whose bodies do not necessarily seem compatible with the parts they play, be it for reasons of size, age or, in the case of female characters, gender. Gender, therefore, and its demands on the spectator concerning the representation of femininity on stage, is not fundamentally different from other self-conscious processes in the generation of dramatic illusion.

  • 11 See DiGangi Mario, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1 (...)
  • 12 See Laqueur Thomas, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, MA, Harvard U (...)
  • 13 Shepard Alexandra, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2 (...)
  • 14 King Henry says of his son: “young wanton and effeminate boy”, 1 Henry IV, (5.3.10). Macbeth and A (...)
  • 15 1 Henry IV, Act 1, scene 2 :
    Prince Hal: So, when this loose behavior I throw off
    And pay the debt I (...)

7Another critical tendency is the temptation to overlook the specifically theatrical dimension of gender in Shakespearean and other early modern plays, and to read it as a kind of discourse on sexuality in the Foucauldian sense. Recent criticism however has underlined the potential preposterousness of such approaches concerning 16th century England11, despite the undeniable congruence between the slippery status of gender on the early modern stage and the contemporary conceptions of sexual determination. Early modern medicine, where gender was not fixed but fluctuating, where there was no difference in nature between the sexes but a difference in degree, in accordance with Galen’s theories (the difference between the sexes being one of degree, not of nature, and men being constantly threatened with effeminizing processes such as those engendered by melancholy), found a striking analogy in English drama, the convention of the male actor being the dramatic equivalent of the possible slippage between male and female identities12. According to Alexandra Shepard, early modern men risked two types of debasement: becoming beast-like through indulgence, and becoming effeminate13. Strikingly, Shakespeare’s characters experience both: Bottom the weaver in A Midsummer Night’s Dream is “translated” and becomes an ass, and Hal in 1 Henry IV is “effeminate” because he keeps bad company14; both transformations are strongly defined as theatrical. Bottom is a weaver and an actor, and his transformation takes place during a rehearsal, when he is slipping out of his social identity to embody Pyramus, and Hal’s excesses in bad company in the tavern are also part of a process of social denial which is defined as theatrical. He, too, is escaping his class and the constraints attached to it, so as to create a foil to his future regal person. In a revealing monologue occurring at the beginning of the play, he tells the spectators about his strategy15. One key element in the analysis of these processes is their positive status: Bottom may have the head of an ass, it still enables him to receive the love of a queen, and his “dream” is not altogether unpleasant. Hal may be dissolute and not as masculine as his father wishes, he nonetheless enjoys an overpowering sense of freedom in the company of Falstaff. The debasement from man to beast, or from man to effeminate man is not a source of anxiety, as it is in the real world of the spectators, it is a source of freedom, an enriching process for the characters. This powerful crossing over between the performative and the mimetic, whereby the rules of the performative enable Shakespeare to reverse a negative element from the real world of the spectators into a positive one on stage from the point of view of the characters, probably explains the prevalence of unstable/insecure masculinities in Shakespearean drama, as well as the presence of a set of elements challenging the traditional gendering of values in the Elizabethan world.

The gendering of heroism and grief in the histories and the tragedies

  • 16 Concerning the notion of honour, see Mangan, op. cit., p. 73-74.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 81.
  • 18 Concerning for instance Joan or Margaret in the Henry VI trilogy, I would tend to disagree with Ro (...)
  • 19 1 Henry VI, (4.7.28-30): Talbot: Come, come and lay him in his father’s arms. (Soldiers lay John i (...)

8The self-consciousness of dramatic illusion in Shakespeare’s plays has repercussions on all the levels of gender that are manifest in the plays. Leaving aside the comedies and their effects of gender-blurring through cross-dressing within the plot, I would like to focus on the tragedies, where two heavily gendered elements recur: honour, understood as martial honour, and grief16. As Mangan demonstrates, “the figure of the warrior-hero is one which Shakespeare rarely leaves unchallenged17.” One may think of Joan of Arc, who epitomizes male honour in 1 Henry VI: she is courageous, martial, strong18. While the play makes a stage hero of John Talbot, considered as a national hero in English history for his bravery against the French, it also portrays him in highly unexpected gendered terms. Heroism, in the Talbot family, is gendered as feminine: Talbot values his son’s survival above his reputation and asks him to flee from the battlefield. When he recovers the young man’s body after the battle, he becomes a male embodiment of the figure of the pieta19. Honour, in the Talbot family, lies with the mother, the mother’s name and the mother’s womb, as the exchange between father and son before the battle demonstrates:

John: Is my name Talbot, and am I your son,
And shall I fly? O, if you love my mother,
Dishonour not her honourable name
To make a bastard and a slave of me (12-15).
[…]
Talbot: Shall thy mother’s hopes lie in one tomb?
John: Ay, rather than I shame my mother’s womb (34-35).

  • 20 Kurtz Martha A., “Tears and Masculinity in the History Play”, in Jennifer C. Vaught and Lynne Dick (...)
  • 21 Ibid., p. 175.

9Grief, which one would expect to be gendered as feminine, is entirely on the side of the father as far as Talbot is concerned. As Martha Kurtz demonstrates in her essay upon tears and masculinity in the history plays “Clearly something has happened to the status of tears in these plays. They have been, as Elizabethan culture generally regarded them, woman’s work, an emblem of weakness and effeminacy. Now they are neither. Now women kill, and men weep for it20.” She also notes that the status of tears changes between 1 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI: “In Part I the most admirable character is a man who knows how to suppress his tears. In Part III, it is a man who weeps21.” What has happened is a shift from the mimetic gendering of tears in 1 Henry VI, reflecting Elizabethan beliefs faithfully and using them as a symptom weakness in men, to the positive valuing of tears as a sign of strength, not in Elizabethan society, but on the Elizabethan stage, from a performance angle. One set of values has replaced another: it is now the values of the stage which determine the strength of the character, because on the stage, being able to cry at will is an enviable acting skill and a sign of power.

  • 22 The aristocratic ideal of the male warrior had become anachronistic by the early 17th century: see (...)
  • 23 Concerning this aspect of Antony and Cleopatra see Mangan, op. cit., p. 83-85. For a detailed anal (...)
  • 24 Jeanne Addison Roberts shows that Volumnia stands apart from other female characters with heroic g (...)
  • 25 See Lemonnier-Texier Delphine, “The Politics of the Body in Coriolanus”, in D. Lemonnier-Texier an (...)

10Gender “anomalies” concerning honour and grief recur similarly in a very striking way in Coriolanus, probably because Shakespeare explores the notion of the independent aristocratic male warrior ideal as embodied in the Roman virtus that Caius Martius epitomizes22. After dramatising the relationship of the warrior-hero with his warrior-queen in Macbeth and in Antony and Cleopatra23, Shakespeare explores the contradictions of the role in his relationship with his possessive mother24. Caius Martius Coriolanus is the epitome of masculinity and heroism, but also a weak child surrendering to a chiding mother, he is Rome’s martial hero, and Rome’s greatest traitor and would-be tyrant. The central issue of political power is inseparable from the hero’s body and its appropriation by Rome25. The play’s obsession with the body and with voices is hinged upon the two fields of politics and drama, and features the central notion of gendered identity.

  • 26 Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret, in the first tetralogy, both lead armies. Cleopatra is Shakespeare (...)
  • 27 Shakespeare William, Coriolanus, (1.7.77), ed. R. B. Parker, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994 (...)

11Such early commonplaces as the association of the domestic sphere with the feminine, and the battlefield with the masculine—with a few notable, if devilish, marginalized and monstrous deviations26—are obvious in Shakespeare’s plays, and the tragedy of Coriolanus is no exception to the rule. Nowhere else does Shakespeare magnify heroism on the battlefield to such an extent, turning Caius Martius into the semi-god who single-handedly defeats a whole town, endowing his somewhat banal agnomen in Plutarch with the aura of almost superhuman heroism, and turning him into an emblem of masculinity when, carried triumphantly on his soldiers’ shoulders, he exclaims: “O me alone! Make you a sword of me27?” In Coriolanus, heroism on the battlefield is the hyperbolized hallmark of masculinity, but battlefield heroics and masculinity translate poorly into Roman politics, and the play, just like its eponymous protagonist, offers resistance to appropriation.

  • 28 See Rose Mary Beth, op. cit. Mary Beth Rose sums up the “normative economy of gender in the Renaiss (...)

12A clue as to the reasons for such resistance may lie in the obsessive presence of the body in the fabric of the play. Conventionally a female paradigm in early modern England28, the body is the centre of the male characters’ discourse, and the chief feature of the eponymous hero. The metaphorical body of society is the central political reference in the speeches of the patricians, while the physical body of Coriolanus is the object of the eager gaze of all the other characters, and particularly the people. No other Shakespearean male protagonist’s body is subjected to such scrutiny except possibly for Richard III’s, but with the notable difference that most of the time it is Richard himself who draws attention to his body, whereas Coriolanus is the reluctant victim of this fascination for his physical appearance. A similar displacement of conventional gender fields can be identified in the importance given to the domestic sphere and to female characters in the play. The exposition presents Caius Martius in the public sphere in Act 1, scene 1. The spectators expect to see him in the private sphere and thus access his inner thoughts, as befits a conventional tragic protagonist. But Act 1, scene 3 features a hyperbolically female scene instead: the setting is domestic, it is Volumnia’s house, the characters are female types (the mother, the wife, and the virgin) and their activity is also heavily gendered: they chat and make embroidery. Caius is simply not there.

  • 29 Ibid., p. xiii: She argues that the state’s public production of violent punishments “renders anac (...)

13Whereas the three female characters are mentioned in passing by Shakespeare’s sources and only acquire some importance in their embassy to save Rome, Shakespeare turns them into full-fledged characters, with the added dimension of a heavily normative femininity. Just as Caius Martius in the battle of Corioles can be considered as a stereotype of masculinity, the women in Rome (Volumnia, Virgilia and the lady Valeria) are overdetermined as conventionally female. The tension established between the hyper-masculinity of Caius Martius on the battlefield and the demeaning of his manliness into a form of effeminacy in the city is often interpreted as resulting from the dynamic of antithesis that pervades the play: the male space of the battlefield on the one hand, the female space within the gates of the city on the other hand. Martius’s triumphant masculinity conquers the city single-handedly, the victory being epitomised in the phallic sword the soldiers make of Martius and in the implicit connotation of the city as female. When, however, Martius has to submit to the ritual of election, he has to leave aside his manly (soldierly) attributes, and being incorporated by the city, he suffers from the effeminizing effects of the process. Following Mary Beth Rose’s analysis of the notion of heroism in early modern literature29, Coriolanus’ inability to adapt when deprived of his soldierly attributes can be interpreted as an inability to take on both gendered roles, so that the failure of male heroics to translate into politics is in fact symptomatic of a blindness to the performative dimension of gender.

  • 30 Ibid., p. xiii-xvii.

14Because he will not play the part that Rome expects of him, a part he sees as effeminizing, Coriolanus is expelled and banished. After waging war on Rome with its fiercest enemies, the Volsces, Coriolanus is finally defeated by kneeling women and their silent tears. He accepts his death, while they are welcomed triumphantly back in Rome. The outline of the plot sketches out its strongly gendered dynamics, which seems to value self-sacrifice and endurance over sheer military ability and battlefield heroics. After all, the saviour of Rome in the play is Volumnia, not Coriolanus. In Mary Beth Rose’s terms, Coriolanus epitomizes “the heroics of action” and the play describes the defeat of male gendered heroics, and the victory of “the heroics of endurance and self-sacrifice” that is generally gendered as female, and that is embodied in the play by the women of Rome, and particularly by Volumnia30. The issues of political power, gender and theatricality are intricately linked in Coriolanus, together with an obsessive recurrence of the trope of the body and this is the reason why I would like to propose an exploration of the dramatic economy of the play as an early modern deconstruction of the notion of masculinity, which articulates the shift between old and new conceptions of honour and grief/suffering.

The ambivalent signifiers of masculinity in Coriolanus

  • 31 See George David, “Plutarch, Insurrection and Dearth in Coriolanus”, in C. M. Alexander (ed.), Sha (...)
  • 32 See Marx S., op. cit., p. 49-95.
  • 33 Wells, op. cit., p. 27.

15The context in which Coriolanus was created is rife with issues that the play mirrors, notably social unrest in the Midlands in 1607 and 1608, and the debate at court about pacifism31. Whereas King James was a pacifist, his son was surrounded by supporters of military ideals and at the time when Shakespeare turned to Roman history to create Coriolanus, there was a strong public debate on military values32. Caius Martius is “Shakespeare’s most extreme example of the Herculean hero” according to Wells33, but at the same time his failure stigmatises that of the values he represents. Caius Martius’ masculinity is manifest in a system of hyperbolic signs which are characteristically ambivalent. Entering in the middle of the plebeians’ rebellion that Menenius has somehow managed to tame, Martius soon appears as a caricature of the Herculean hero for the spectators of the play, as his evocation of Aufidius, Rome’s chief Volscian enemy, identifies Aufidius with the Nemean lion:

  • 34 Shakespeare W., Coriolanus, (1.1.231-234).

Martius: Were half to half the world by th’ears and he
Upon my party, I’d revolt to make
Only my wars with him. He is a lion
That I am proud to hunt34.

  • 35 See George David, op. cit.
  • 36 Coriolanus, (1.3.85-87). Shakespeare’s subversion of the exemplary figure of Penelope is analysed (...)

16Herculean heroism is here debased into an incongruous intertextual reference which shows that the system of signs in which Caius evolves is radically different from the political realities of the Roman republic in which the action of the play is rooted. The universe that Caius belongs in is that of Greek and Roman mythology, and is completely at odds with Rome’s political crises. Caius’ irrelevant mythological self-fashioning is all the more striking for Jacobean spectators as the play’s opening crisis—famine in Rome—was meant by Shakespeare to be highly topical, and reflected the Midlands riots of 160735, as if there were two parallel processes of exposition in this first scene: the exposition of the political plot, reflecting contemporary preoccupations and crises, and a reference to the first step in the well-known mythological narrative of Hercules’ labours, which appears as completely divorced from the political reality of the citizens and the city. The somewhat comic irrelevance of mythological identification is also strongly underlined by Valeria when she mocks Virgilia for trying to stick to the emblem of the faithful wife who waits patiently for her husband’s return: “You would be another Penelope. Yet they say all the yarn she spun in Ulysses’ absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths36.” The passage seems to indicate that mythological identification is both inconsistent (Caius Martius thinks of himself as Hercules, but his wife thinks of herself as Penelope) and irrelevant, for purely practical reasons. In the case of Virgilia and her mythological would-be identity, the consequences on the whole city are made obvious (a plague of moths on Ithaca), just as Caius Martius’ identification with Hercules will prove disastrous in the long run for Rome.

  • 37 Ibid., (1.4.9-10).
  • 38 Ibid., (1.5.12).
  • 39 Ibid., (1.9.8-9), emphasis mine.
  • 40 Ibid., (1.7.77).

17On the battlefield, Martius is the very embodiment of martial values. He calls for Mars’ help “Now Mars, I prithee, make us quick in work/That we with smoking swords may march from hence37”, he is eager to fight, his winning argument when exhorting the troops to march on is heavily gendered: “If you’ll stand fast, we’ll beat them to their wives38”, he is the one who penetrates, who enters the gate of Corioles, and who comes out again covered in the blood of the enemies that his sword has wounded. Later on, when facing Aufidius, he insists on the rape-like penetration of the city he performed, as if upon Aufidius himself: “Alone I fought in your Corioles’walls,/And made what work I pleased39.” Martius literally becomes a sword after emerging from the gates of the city when the cheering Roman soldiers bear him triumphantly in their arms: “O, me alone! Make you a sword of me40?”

18Martius is at the same time the symbol of absolute masculinity, and because the language used is that of chivalric brotherhood, a sexually ambivalent symbol. When greeted by Cominius, Martius’ enthusiastic response equates their encounter with his bridal night:

  • 41 Ibid., (1.7.29-33).

Martius:
O, let me clipye
In arms as sound as when I wooed, in heart
As merry as when our nuptial day was done,
And tapers turned to bedward!
[They embrace]
Cominius :
Flower of warriors41!

  • 42 Wells, op. cit., p. 161-167: « […] it is not at all surprising to find a relationship between warr (...)

19Wells links this friendship with the idealized love between knights in medieval romance42, but this hardly accounts for the deliberately sexualized vocabulary of the battlefield that is present elsewhere in Shakespeare, for instance in 1 Henry VI when Talbot describes young John’s first fight in terms of his first sexual encounter:

  • 43 1 Henry VI (4.7.16-18), emphasis mine.

Talbot:
The ireful bastard of Orleans, that drew blood
From thee, my boy, and had the maidenhood
Of thy first fight, I soon encountered43.

  • 44 Coriolanus, (1.10.28-29).
  • 45 Ibid., (2.1.139; 142).
  • 46 Ibid., (2.1.151).
  • 47 Ibid., (2.2.73-75):
    Coriolanus:
    I had rather have one scratch my head i’th’sun
    When the alarum were s (...)

20With such images, Shakespeare emphasizes the sexualized dimension of war heroics, which involves an active/masculine participant (the one with the sword) and a passive/feminine one (the one whose blood is drawn, whose body is penetrated, like young John Talbot’s). This gendered ambivalence recurs in the central issue of Martius’ wounds. After Rome’s victory, Martius insists upon the fact that he has been wounded many times: “I have some wounds upon me, and they smart/To hear themselves remembered44.” Menenius seems obsessed with Martius’ wounds, as he repeatedly asks Volumnia “Where is he wounded45?” and once she has made the inventory he asks for, he concludes “Every gash was an enemy’s grave46.” His wounds, suggestively labelled as gashes by Menenius, and later on by himself as “nothings47” have a distinct sexualized overtone connoting them as feminine, whereas his sword obviously links him with the masculine. One last element participates in the denunciation of masculine ideals as sexually ambivalent: the theatrical reference in Cominius’ eulogy. One of the key arguments in his demonstration of Martius’ worth is the fact that precisely at the same time as he was fit to play a woman’s part in a theatre, he was “best man” on the battlefield:

  • 48 Ibid., (2.2.92-96).

Cominius:
Tarquin’s self he met,
And struck him on his knee. In that day’s feats,
When he might act the woman in the scene,
He proved best man i’th’field, and for his meed
Was brow-bound with the oak48.

21This cue underlines the fundamental ambivalence of war heroism: in the context of the battlefield, Martius was the epitome of manhood, but in the context of the stage he was fit to play a woman’s part, his masculine and feminine sides being simultaneously present in him, and his sexual identity being inseparable from the notion of role-playing. The blatant anachronism in the reference to Jacobean stage conventions underlines a specificity of Shakespeare’s treatment of gender: the system of reference here is neither strictly Roman, nor mimetically borrowed from the world of the Jacobean spectators, but derived directly from the world of stage performance. In other words, the way Shakespeare has Martius’s heroic value established is through a direct reference to the stage, a metatheatrical reference. Besides, the parallel established by Cominius between acting the woman in the scene and proving best man in the field equates not only the two contexts of the battlefield and the stage, but also the two sexual identities and their manifestation: the proof of masculinity is no more and no less than the performing of femininity. It is easy to deduct by analogy that the field is but another stage, and that masculinity is a role to be performed, as was already hinted at in 1 Henry VI when after the first victory of the French lead by Joan, Alençon noted:

  • 49 1 Henry VI, (1.8.15-17), emphasis mine.

Alencon:
All France will be replete with mirth andjoy
When they shall hear how we have played themen.
Charles:
‘Tis Joan, not we, by whom the day is won—49.

  • 50 Coriolanus, (1.6.19-20)
  • 51 Ibid., (1.7. 69-70).

22In Coriolanus the failure of battlefield heroics to translate into Roman politics centres around the alienation of Coriolanus’ body, or more precisely its alienation by the multitude, by the people of Rome. It is not that Caius Martius refuses to stage himself, or sees this as a debasement of his masculinity. Indeed, in the context of the battlefield, and for the benefit of a certain spectator, namely Aufidius, he is willing to play a part. When Lartius suggests he should wash the blood that covers his body, he replies in the negative: “To Aufidius thus/Will I appear and fight50.” Similarly he then refers to the blood in terms that are borrowed from the vocabulary of the stage: “this painting/Wherein you see me smeared51.” But when Coriolanus has to follow the custom, speak to the people and show them his naked body and his wounds, his response is entirely different and strongly gendered: he sees this as a debasement of his masculinity. The custom is described solely in theatrical terms, and the part he is to play as the part of an eunuch, making him regress to the more feminine state of a “schoolboy” or a “virgin”:

  • 52 Ibid., (3.2.113-119).

Coriolanus:
Away, my disposition: and possess me
Some harlot’s spirit! My throat of war be turned,
Which choired with my drum, into a pipe
Small as an eunuch or the virgin voice
That babies lull asleep! The smiles of knaves
Tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys’ tears take up
The glasses of my sight52!”

  • 53 Ibid., (2.3.5-7).
  • 54 Slattery Denis Patrick, The Wounded Body. Remembering the Markings of the Flesh, Albany, State Uni (...)
  • 55 Ibid., p. 52.

23In a play where politics cannot be dissociated from theatrical performance, as the exposition scene manifests with Menenius Agrippa’s performance of the belly which appeases the angry mob, Caius Martius appears as distinctly unable to adapt his performance to the context of peace. Only on the battlefield does his body fit the part of the male hero. In the civilian context of the Roman republic, unless he agrees to perform the part that is expected of him, his body does not signify anything. And the political ritual/performance that the republic demands is one which is, once again, heavily gendered. The same crowd that made a sword of Coriolanus’ body expects him to perform a ritual in which they are to penetrate his body, enter his wounds with their tongues, and speak for them, as the third citizen explains: “For if he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them53.” The symbolism of the wounds is made particularly manifest by Shakespeare. While any soldier may display his wounds to prove he was in the war in Plutarch’s text, in Shakespeare’s tragedy, the showing of one’s wounds is the prerogative of the would-be consul, Coriolanus, and of those before him. Like Homer’s hero Odysseus, Coriolanus has wounds on his body which define “the indelible inscription of his history and his true identity54.” But while Odysseus’boar scar enables his faithful servant Eurycleia to identify him as she washes him, despite the fact he has been away for twenty years, Coriolanus’ scars do not fulfil their function. They should be “the loci of the action’s meaning; they are as well the origin of persona myths and the place in which one enters a communal mythos55.” This is how they appear in Menenius’ and Volumnia’s accounts, as traces, records of the history of Caius Martius which is inseparable from that of the republic. Instead of which they are defined, both in the citizens’own terms and in Coriolanus’, as loci for the debasement of the hero’s masculinity.

Volumnia, the universal performer

24The tragedy of Coriolanus is that of an individual whose skills are only fit for the battlefield and the limited range of the conventional masculinity that he represents. As he exaggerates the strong phallic dimension of Caius Martius’ body on the battlefield by turning it into a sword, Shakespeare also creates a figure in Rome endowed with the gift for being a universal performer, both in political and gendered terms: this figure, however, is not the eponymous character, and not a man either; it is a woman, and it is Volumnia. In the first scene where she appears, Volumnia does not only define herself as a somewhat incongruous Spartan mother who was happy to send her son to the war from an early age, she also demonstrates her amazing ability to play, literally, the part of Caius Martius by impersonating him, as she tries to talk Virgilia into staying despite the latter’s desire to be allowed to withdraw:

  • 56 Coriolanus, (1.3.30; 33-35), emphasis mine.

Volumnia:
Methinks I hear hither your husband’s drum,
[…]
Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus:
“Come on, you cowards, you were got in fear
Though you were born in Rome56!”

25This passage is not usually identified as one of metatheatricality, yet it is undeniably one: for a moment, as Volumnia impersonates Caius Martius, the male voice of the actor playing Volumnia can be heard, just as his male body (despite the drag) can be seen stamping, the metatheatrical dimension being made manifest in the repetition of “thus”. On the mimetic level, the spectators see a woman able to impersonate quite perfectly a man—Volumnia, in other words, literally becomes her son—and on the performative level, the dramatic illusion is temporarily suspended, and the spectators are reminded of the male actor in the dress on stage, both dimensions concurring to create a particularly powerful presence in the person of Volumnia, who proves able to perform both female and male parts.

26The same process is taken up in Act 3, scene 2 after Coriolanus has failed to follow the custom properly, and the patrician men, including the Senators, have failed to convince him to speak to the people again. It is then up to Volumnia to talk him into submitting to the rule and in order to do so, she does not only reiterate her performance and play his part, she also takes on the function of a stage-director, so that from a theatrical point of view, dramatic skills being the gauge of one’s political ability in Shakespeare’s Rome, she acquires an even more powerful status:

VOLUMNIA:

  • 57 Ibid., (3.2.74-86). My emphasis. The repetition of «thus» is again an indicator of the importance (...)

I prithee now, my son,
[she takes his bonnet]
Go to them with this bonnet in thy hand,
And thus far having stretched it—here be with them—
Thy knee bussing the stones—for in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ignorant
More learned than the ears—waving thy head,
Which offer thus, correcting thy stout heart,
Now humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling: or say to them
Thou art their soldier, and, being bred in broils,
Hast not the soft way which, thou dost confess,
Were fit for thee to use as they to claim,
In asking their good loves57;

  • 58 Ibid., (5.3.170).

27Finally and unsurprisingly, the outcome of the tragic plot seals the triumph of Volumnia as a universal performer by making the women of Rome become the true heroes of the city. Once Coriolanus has been expelled and has turned to the Volsces, his army threatens Rome with destruction. The powerless Senators decide to send embassies to Coriolanus to beg him to spare his the city. Cominius fails dismally and so does Menenius. Then the women of Rome, Volumnia, Virgilia and the lady Valeria, go to Coriolanus’ camp. In the long scene of confrontation between the two sides—Coriolanus on the one hand, and the three women and young Martius on the other—it is the women who have the upper hand, though they are using women’s weapons, as Volumnia’s order shows “Down, ladies; let us shame him with our knees58.” While Coriolanus is almost silent, Volumnia speaks profusely. He stands for the epitome of battlefield masculinity, she insists on her feminine frailty. And it is precisely by performing perfectly her woman’s part that she wins the day, outdoing the battlefield potential of any male, as Coriolanus states:

  • 59 Ibid., (5.3.206-209).

Ladies, you deserve
To have a temple built you. All the swords
In Italy, and her confederate arms,
Could not have made this peace59.

  • 60 Ibid., (5.4.40-41).

28The next two scenes, which are Shakespeare’s inventions, have the sole function of demonstrating clearly the victory of the women upon the men. The messenger bringing the good news to Menenius says: “The ladies have prevailed,/The Volscians are dislodged, and Martius gone60.” Menenius’enthusiastic response emphasizes the function of Volumnia as a universal figure in Rome, in terms of both politics and gender:

  • 61 Ibid., (5.4.52-55).

Menenius:
I will go meet the ladies. This Volumnia
Is worth of consuls, senators, patricians,
A city full; of tribunes such as you
A sea and land full61.

29Finally, the triumph of Volumnia is sealed by the greeting she receives upon her return, which replicates the triumph Coriolanus received after his victory, and undoes it at the same time, as if erasing it from Roman memory, as Menenius’ lines show:

  • 62 Ibid., (5.5.1-6).

Menenius:
Behold our patroness, the life of Rome!
Call all your tribes together, praise the gods,
And make triumphant fires. Strew flowers before them.
Unshout the noise that banished Martius,
Repeal him with the welcome of his mother.
Cry ‘Welcome, ladies, welcome!’
All:
Welcome, ladies, welcome62!

30This inscription of Volumnia in the history of Rome erases the deeds of Coriolanus, manifesting the victory of women upon men, and the triumph of performative ability upon battlefield skills. The historical picture that Shakespeare thus creates is one where performative criteria have replaced battlefield heroism.

  • 63 See footnote 40.
  • 64 See footnote 47.

31After demonstrating her mastery of the art of performance, and her ability to impersonate her son, Volumnia has proved she is a masterful stage-director, so that her political skills are expressed in performative and theatrical terms, which in turn has consequences on the mimetic and performative dimensions of gender on the Shakespearean stage. Coriolanus cannot conceive “being false to his nature” or accept the idea that masculinity is a performance. This is his Achilles’ heel. Volumnia is the opposite. She defeats the epitome of warriors with her own female weapons, words and gestures, and seals the victory of the ladies of Rome over Rome’s ultimate soldier, her own son. The flowers strewn before the women’s feet are an apt reminder of the destitution of the “flower of warriors63” that Coriolanus represented at the beginning of the play, just as Volumnia’s appropriation of the status of Rome’s hero aptly defines a performer who—within the play and from a performative point of view—is able to win the battle and become the hero of the tragedy by doing what her son, despite Cominius’eulogy64, was unable to do: she, ironically, proved best man in the field by acting the woman in the scene.

32The rules of the stage define the hierarchies in the world of the play, in a powerful overlapping between the mimetic world of the characters and the dramatic dimension of the performance. In such a system, where authority derives purely from performative abilities, it is no surprise that a universal performer should rank higher than one confined to a limited range of parts, hence Volumnia’s triumph over Coriolanus. Ultimately, power and authority are in the hands of those whose master the art of performance, regardless of their social status or of their sex, mapping out a new topography of gender and of power, and offering a specific perspective on history.

Notes

1 This paper is the revised version of an essay originally published in Le Fustec Claude and Marret Sophie (ed.), La fabrique du genre. (Dé)constructions du féminin et du masculin dans les arts et la littérature anglophones, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2008, p. 83-102.

2 Breitenberg Mark, Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1996. Breitenberg wants to pursue “the dialectic of desire and anxiety in the discursive construction of masculine subjectivity in early modern England” (p. 28). Similarly, Bruce R. Smith lists medical theories and literary texts showing that masculinity was as much of a social construction as femininity. Smith Bruce R., Shakespeare and Masculinity, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000, for instance p. 39-40.

3 Mangan Michael, Staging Masculinities: History, Gender, Performance, Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 44-46. Mangan analyses the characters of two moralities, Mankind (c. 1470) and Everyman (c. 1495) and shows the eponymous protagonists stand for all humanity, male and female alike, and also for the audience itself. On the trope of the theatrum mundi see Jacquot Jean, “Le théâtre du monde de Shakespeare à Calderon”, Revue de literature comparée, 31 (1957), p. 341-372. The idea that the world is a stage, famously voiced in Jaques’speech in As You Like It, is an analogy which leaves aside the specific circumstances of the Elizabethan stage and the absence of women on it. Jaques mentions men and women as players, which underlines the philosophical origin of the trope, and its relative irrelevance to the specific circumstances of the Elizabethan stage.

4 Mark Breitenberg’s central proposition is that masculinity in early modern England is essentially insecure: Breitenberg Mark, op. cit., p. 1-7. He sees in the theatre a locus where people become aware of the performative nature of their own identity: “The process of subjectification in the theatre calls attention to the fact that not only is identity performed, but is is performed in front of an audience, always enacted in relation to and dependent upon an Othera useful reminder of the specifically social basis of subjectivity in the early modern period” (p. 10). I would tend to emphasize the relation between performers and spectators and read gender on the early modern stage as essentially participating in the process of self-conscious dramatic illusion, which is not the point of Breitenberg’s study.

5 Mangan M., op. cit., p. 21-22.

6 Ibid., p. 22, my emphasis.

7 Liebler Naomi Conn, “Wonder Woman, or the Female Tragic Hero”, in Naomi Conn Liebler (ed.), The Female Tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama, New York, Palgrave, 2002, p. 1-31, p. 11.

8 See. Kantorowicz Ernst R., The King’s Two Bodies. A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1957, in particular chapter ii, p. 24-41.

9 Shakespeare William, 1 Henry IV, (2.5.379-382), in Gary Taylor and Stanley Wells (ed.), The Complete Works, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1988. All subsequent references to Shakespeare’s plays from this edition, except for Coriolanus.

10 Ibid., (2.5.135, 140, 144).

11 See DiGangi Mario, The Homoerotics of Early Modern Drama, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1997. In his introduction, DiGangi highlights the fact that homosexuality as a concept did not exist in the 16th century and that a number of critical anachronisms loom large when we try to find in those texts the modern notion of a discourse on sexuality (p. 1-28).

12 See Laqueur Thomas, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1990, p. 113-148. The central ideal in Galenic physiology concerning the sexual organs is one of essential continuity, the difference between male and female being one of degree and not of nature, men being a more perfect version of the same form that is imperfect in women.

13 Shepard Alexandra, Meanings of Manhood in Early Modern England, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 26-29.

14 King Henry says of his son: “young wanton and effeminate boy”, 1 Henry IV, (5.3.10). Macbeth and Antony are two other obvious examples.

15 1 Henry IV, Act 1, scene 2 :
Prince Hal: So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o’er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.

16 Concerning the notion of honour, see Mangan, op. cit., p. 73-74.

17 Ibid., p. 81.

18 Concerning for instance Joan or Margaret in the Henry VI trilogy, I would tend to disagree with Robin Headlam Wells who states that Shakespearean heroines are not heroic in the way Henry V or Macbeth or Coriolanus are heroic, and that heroism is essentially masculine because these qualities constitutes the virtus of the hero, or what makes him a man. I think that it is precisely this anomaly, the fact that those female characters are shown as heroic in the manly sense that is significant in the universe that the plays depict. Wells’ objection seems to result from a confusion between manliness and the representation of manliness. See Wells Robin Headlam, Shakespeare on Masculinity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2000, p. 1-2.

19 1 Henry VI, (4.7.28-30): Talbot: Come, come and lay him in his father’s arms. (Soldiers lay John in Talbot’s arms) My spirits can no longer bear these harms.

20 Kurtz Martha A., “Tears and Masculinity in the History Play”, in Jennifer C. Vaught and Lynne Dickson Bruckner (ed.), Grief and Gender 700-1700, New York and Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, p. 163-176, p. 173.

21 Ibid., p. 175.

22 The aristocratic ideal of the male warrior had become anachronistic by the early 17th century: see Rose Mary Beth, Gender and Heroism in Early Modern Literature, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2002, p. xiii. See Wells, op. cit., p. 10-19. Wells shows the influence of humanism on this change in the perception of heroism: rhetoricians considered figures of speech as martial instruments of defence, whereas some members of the aristocracy, such as Essex, longed for a return to literal weapons (p. 15). On King James I’s pacifism and Shakespeare, see Marx Steven, “Shakespeare’s Pacifism”, Renaissance Quarterly, no 45, Spring 1992, p. 49-98.

23 Concerning this aspect of Antony and Cleopatra see Mangan, op. cit., p. 83-85. For a detailed analysis of gender in Macbeth, see Wells, op. cit., p. 116-143.

24 Jeanne Addison Roberts shows that Volumnia stands apart from other female characters with heroic grandeur precisely because she, unlike Cleopatra or Lady Macbeth, is not associated with sexuality: Addison Roberts Jeanne, “Sex and the Female Tragic Hero”, in N. Conn Liebler (ed.), The Female tragic Hero in English Renaissance Drama, op. cit., p. 199-218, p. 200.

25 See Lemonnier-Texier Delphine, “The Politics of the Body in Coriolanus”, in D. Lemonnier-Texier and Guillaume Winter(ed.), Lectures de Coriolan, Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2006, p. 87-100.

26 Joan of Arc and Queen Margaret, in the first tetralogy, both lead armies. Cleopatra is Shakespeare’s most powerful example of a successful female warrior. Naomi Conn Liebler notes that Elizabethan drama featured a great many tragedies with singular heroic females, unlike Shakespearean tragedies, and that “in the light of his immediate and somewhat later contemporaries, Shakespeare’s shortfall must be considered an anomaly rather than the norm of the standard.” Liebler, “Wonder Woman, or the Female Tragic Hero”, in op. cit., p. 1-31, p. 20.

27 Shakespeare William, Coriolanus, (1.7.77), ed. R. B. Parker, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1994. All subsequent references to Coriolanus from this edition. In Plutarch as well as Titius Livius, both acknowledged sources for Shakespeare’s tragedy, Caius Martius enters the gates of Corioles with a few men following him. In Shakespeare’s play, he enters alone, which makes his ensuing survival and victory an amazing heroic deed.

28 See Rose Mary Beth, op. cit. Mary Beth Rose sums up the “normative economy of gender in the Renaissance based on hierarchythe male is superior and commanding, the female inferior and subordinate […] his identification with the soul underscores and transcends hers with the body”, p. xvii.

29 Ibid., p. xiii: She argues that the state’s public production of violent punishments “renders anachronistic the idealized figure of the independent, aristocratic male warrior who, protecting himself and his dependents, excels at individual, hand-to-hand combat. […] The male warrior becomes less of an elegiac and more of a problematic figure. […] his outsized military ability coexists with a helpless inadequacy in the face of civilian social demands [Coriolanus].” She argues that this “male heroics of action” is increasingly devalued and replaced by the “heroics of selfsacrifice and endurance […] which is not so clearly gendered as the heroics of action and includes both sexes”, p. xiv-xv, so that “by the end of the seventeenth century, the terms in which heroism in constructed and performed as the endurance of suffering are predominantly gendered female”, p. xvi. Her analysis of Coriolanus however is not developed: she merely states that the play “isolates with an insistent, almost glaring focus the bleak element of anti-social self-destructiveness inherent in active male heroism” (p. 21).

30 Ibid., p. xiii-xvii.

31 See George David, “Plutarch, Insurrection and Dearth in Coriolanus”, in C. M. Alexander (ed.), Shakespeare and Politics, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p. 110-129.

32 See Marx S., op. cit., p. 49-95.

33 Wells, op. cit., p. 27.

34 Shakespeare W., Coriolanus, (1.1.231-234).

35 See George David, op. cit.

36 Coriolanus, (1.3.85-87). Shakespeare’s subversion of the exemplary figure of Penelope is analysed by Sylvaine Bataille: Bataille S., “Fortune et infortune d’un exemplum odyséen dans le théâtre anglais de 1558 à 1642: les vicissitudes de Pénélope”, Études Épistémè, 16, 2009, p. 162-184, p. 176-177.

37 Ibid., (1.4.9-10).

38 Ibid., (1.5.12).

39 Ibid., (1.9.8-9), emphasis mine.

40 Ibid., (1.7.77).

41 Ibid., (1.7.29-33).

42 Wells, op. cit., p. 161-167: « […] it is not at all surprising to find a relationship between warriors described as quasi-erotic in language; indeed it was commonplace in chivalric literature. But this does not necessarily mean that Martius and Cominius are sodomites” (p. 162).

43 1 Henry VI (4.7.16-18), emphasis mine.

44 Coriolanus, (1.10.28-29).

45 Ibid., (2.1.139; 142).

46 Ibid., (2.1.151).

47 Ibid., (2.2.73-75):
Coriolanus:
I had rather have one scratch my head i’th’sun
When the alarum were struck than idly sit
To hear my nothings monstered.

48 Ibid., (2.2.92-96).

49 1 Henry VI, (1.8.15-17), emphasis mine.

50 Coriolanus, (1.6.19-20)

51 Ibid., (1.7. 69-70).

52 Ibid., (3.2.113-119).

53 Ibid., (2.3.5-7).

54 Slattery Denis Patrick, The Wounded Body. Remembering the Markings of the Flesh, Albany, State University of New York Press, 2000, p. 27.

55 Ibid., p. 52.

56 Coriolanus, (1.3.30; 33-35), emphasis mine.

57 Ibid., (3.2.74-86). My emphasis. The repetition of «thus» is again an indicator of the importance of the metatheatrical dimension, and is again associated with the transgressive dimension of the female taking on the function of the male.

58 Ibid., (5.3.170).

59 Ibid., (5.3.206-209).

60 Ibid., (5.4.40-41).

61 Ibid., (5.4.52-55).

62 Ibid., (5.5.1-6).

63 See footnote 40.

64 See footnote 47.

Auteur

Ancienne élève de l’ENS de Fontenay-St Cloud. Agrégée d’anglais, docteur en littérature anglaise, elle a soutenu une thèse sur les images emblématiques dans le théâtre de Shakespeare, sous la direction de François Laroque. Elle est l’auteur de plusieurs articles sur le théâtre shakespearien, et a co-dirigé plusieurs ouvrages collectifs, Lectures de Coriolan, avec G. Winter, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2006 ; Lectures du Roi Lear, avec G. Winter, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2008 ; Lectures de Endgame/Fin de partie, avec G. Chevallier et B. Prost. Elle a collaboré à l’édition Pléiade du Théâtre Elisabéthain, sous la direction de L. Cottegnies, F. Laroque et J.-M. Maguin. Ses recherches portent sur l’intertextualité shakespearienne dans le théâtre anglophone contemporain, ainsi que sur la notion de personnage dans le théâtre de Shakespeare.

© Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2010

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