Coriolanus: a sword-pull at the point of no return

Using Professor Rodes’ midpoint theory, let’s take a look at Coriolanus.

There are 3323 lines in in the play, which means the midpoint is at line 1662, or at Act Three, Scene One, line 224. According to Dr. Rodes’ theory, you could find at this midpoint–or within twenty lines either way–a speech that perfectly sums up a major theme of the play (the 20-line leeway was to help remove the differences in prose line lengths between individual editions).

Fittingly, Act Three Scene One is the longest in the play. This is where Martius, after meeting with the people as a part of the process of become a Consul, is stopped by the plebeians’ tribunes before entering the Senate House. The tribunes have convinced the people to rescind their approval of Martius, and he doesn’t take the news well. There is a bit of an argument, guards are called for, and the tribunes attempt to have Coriolanus arrested. While the tribunes call for death, Menenius calls for calm.

And at the exact midpoint of the play, in a wonderfully succinct stage direction, “Coriolanus draws his sword” (III.i.224 stage direction).

This is the turning point of the play. This is when Coriolanus actually begins to turn against Rome. And it happens dead-center in the play.

Now, earlier in our discussions of the play, I mentioned that “the people” is used more in this play (by far) than any other in the Canon. The play also has more usages of other forms of “people” as well: citizens, plebeians, patricians. And at that point, I mentioned that I thought Shakespeare’s sympathies were with the people.

Why do I mention this? Well, because another word keeps popping up  (at least to my eyes). It’s not like I think Shakespeare turns his back on the citizenry. But this bears noting:

The word “rabble,” in Coriolanus, is used in dialog three times (two by Martius, one by his mother Volumnia) and in stage directions twice more (and those five uses are the most in any play in the Canon…Hamlet is second with two [and one of those is stage direction]).

I know, I’m not supposed to look too much at stage direction in Shakespeare, which seems more editorial than compositional. But here I’m going to make an exception. The first time “rabble” is used in stage direction, it comes after the tribune Sicinius cries out, “Help ye, citizens!” (III.i.180 s.d.); the stage direction that follows reads, “Enter a rabble of Plebeians, with the Aediles” (III.i.180 s.d.). They are a rabble, “the lowest class of people; the section of the population which is regarded as socially inferior, uncouth, or disorderly; the mob” (“rabble, n.1.A.II.3.c” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017). And later in the scene, when Brutus and Sicinius lead them back onstage, they’re described as “the rabble again” (III.i.264 s.d.). In each case, they are lead by the tribunes. (and I know, if I should treat stage direction with care, discretion, and skepticism, then CASE in stage direction should be doubly dubious: but that said, in both instances, “rabble” is with the lower-case R.)

However, when the crowd is pushed back after Martius draws his sword, they are described as “the People” (III.i.230 s.d.)…note the capitalization. Even later, when they enter the scene after learning that Martius has joined with Aufidius and now threatens Rome, they are described as “a Troop of Citizens” (IV.vi.131 s.d.). I just find it interesting that when they are under the influence of their “leaders” the tribunes, they’re a “rabble,” when they act upon their own volition, they are “the People” and “a Troop of Citizens.” Oh, and I’m sure the use of a more martial-sounding “Troop” to describe a group that Martius disdained for not going to war is purely coincidental… no, really, I think it probably is coincidental, but pretty damned fitting.

So what does this all mean? I don’t know. But I’m not entirely sure that Shakespeare is with the people here…he may sympathize with their plight, and bemoan their manipulation by their leaders, but I don’t think he’s giving them blanket approval for their actions. At the same time, I’m pretty sure Martius drawing his sword to kill his own countrymen isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement, either. And given that act is the midpoint of the play, I’m wondering then if this turning from his own people is what we’re supposed to notice.

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