This old man…

Back when I was doing the first act plot synopsis for Coriolanus, I mentioned a story point that I hoped would pay off later. Well, guess what?

It doesn’t.

Or does it?

To recap, in Act One, Scene Nine, upon the victorious Martius’ return to the Roman camp, he relates the story of part of his time in battle:

I sometime lay here in Corioles
At a poor man’s house; he used me kindly.
He cried to me; I saw him prisoner;
But then Aufidius was within my view,
And wrath o’erwhelmed my pity. I request you
To give my poor host freedom.
  • I.ix.81-6

At some point during his fight for Corioles, he stayed in the home of a poor man, who treated him well. But in the taking of the town, the man was taken into captivity by the Romans. The man cried out to Martius for help, but it was at that point that Martius saw Aufidius and any thoughts of saving the man were replaced by the desire to fight his opposite number. He asks that the poor man be granted freedom. Cominius agrees, but there’s only one problem.

Martius cannot remember the man’s name. “I am weary,” he says, “Yea, my memory is tired” (I.ix.90).

We never hear of the man or this incident again.

In my first read-through, I thought this might be one of those cases where Shakespeare set up something, then forgot to have it pay off (like Leonato’s wife or Claudio’s uncle in Much Ado). But on a second reading, I’m not so sure that’s the case.

Martius’ speech doesn’t end with his lamentation over the man’s forgotten name; his next line in the speech is the unrelated, “Have we no wine here?” (I.ix.91). It’s not just the man’s name which is forgotten; the man is lost to time as well.

And it got me wondering…

Is this a kind of front-loading of Martius’ flaws, a way to signal for us to see him negatively? In Act Two, Scene Three, the third citizen makes a statement, “Ingratitude is monstrous” (II.iii.9). Are we then to see Coriolanus as a monster? That his arrogance and status-snobbery is monstrous?

Is this another clue to Shakespeare’s siding with the people on this?

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