'The End of Absolutism':

Shakespeare's Coriolanus and the Consensual Nature of the Early Modern State



  1. Some years ago, in the Machiavellian Moment, J.G.A. Pocock described Shakespeare's Coriolanus as a historically precocious text, one which dramatises humanist republicanism in advance of the emergence of a civic humanist polity in England (Pocock 1975, 349). When viewed in the context of more recent historical and ideological interpretations of the play, Pocock's view of the exceptional and untimely nature of the play seems quaint. Recent discussions have described Coriolanus as transitional not because it is symptomatically republican at a time when England was residually absolutist, but (more radically and anachronistically) because the play dramatises embryonic capitalism, possessive individualism, or an early modern version of modern-day pragmatism, all despite its early seventeenth-century provenance (Riss, 1992; Engle, 1993).

  2. In the following pages I evaluate what I argue are transitionalist and capitalist misreadings of Coriolanus, and then attempt to reinterpret the play in the light of recent historical work on the nature of the Tudor-Stuart state, particularly Glenn Burgess's revisionist account of seventeenth-century 'absolutism' and Markku Peltonen's work on sixteenth-century English republicanism. I argue that most transitionalist readings of the play are based on an unwarranted assumption that the early modern state was an absolutist structure against which Puritan or bourgeois energies were waged throughout the Jacobean era. In an attempt to reverse our impressed beliefs that Jacobean politics was absolutist in nature, revisionist history has described a consensual model of early modern politics, according to which governmental 'opposition' was always expressed within the parameters of a consensual understanding between King and commons with respect to the scope of proper state powers.

  3. I argue that what has been traditionally described as ideological class or status polarization in Coriolanus should be more accurately described as non-ideological conflict. The representation of conflict in the play duplicates the consensual but potentially incommensurate nature of Jacobean statehood, which on the one hand is founded on a Ciceronian form of republicanism (a qualifiedly ethical conception of the state, predominantly concerned with safeguarding private property) but on the other hand is founded on a paternalistic conception of government, which mandates a redistribution of wealth on behalf of the dispossessed. Coriolanus and the Tribunes clash not due to the incompatibility between any fixed ideologies, but rather due to the fundamental ambiguity internal to the state itself: an unresolved tension between negative libertarianism and paternalism which reflects the internal self-fissuring of Jacobean government. Critics who have described Coriolanus as either absolutist or bourgeois individualist, or the Tribunate as the embodiment of medieval organicism, have not accurately described the politics of the play or the nature of early modern government.


  4. In a recent transitionalist reading of Coriolanus, Arthur Riss draws an analogy between the individualism and acquisitiveness of early modern enclosers and Coriolanus's urge to enclose his own body: 'In essence, just as the Midlands Revolt foregrounded the conflict between communal and private notions of the body, Shakespeare in Coriolanus dramatises the conflict between communal and private notions of the body. The movement to enclose land is metaphorically linked to the constitution of the individualistic, enclosed self' (Riss 1992, 52). For Riss, the representation in the play of individual sovereignty and self-ownership, examples of the emergence of 'philosophical liberalism', 'prompts the assertion of individual rights against the state when the state threatens an individual's autonomy' (Riss 1992, 54.)

  5. It is significant that Riss neither explains how nor under what circumstances liberalism is able to constitute itself during the early modern period, nor how the king's absolutism figures in the play, given the play's Republican dispensation. According to Hobbes, Locke, Macpherson and traditional Marxist accounts of absolutism, emergent liberalism is not self-constituting, nor founded on an opposition between the state and various bourgeois elements (enclosers, tenant-farmers, merchants) but rather on an alliance between the state and entrepreneurial forces. The early modern social system shows a non-correspondence between the political formation and the economic base: the state is patriarchal and interventionist, serving to protect individual property rights and functioning as a bulwark against aristocratic encroachments on the one hand and upswelling communal leveling reforms on the other. Nicos Poulantzas writes: 'The function of the absolutist (transitional) state is precisely not to operate within the limits fixed by an already given mode of production, but to produce not-yet-given relations of production (i.e. capitalist relations) and to put an end to feudal relations of production' (Poulantzas 1978, 161). Negative libertarianism, which Riss would suggest is prefigured historically by Coriolanus's tendency toward self-absolutising, is in fact made possible by the early modern state. 1 And enclosure practices themselves were fostered by the sale of land to entrepreneurs throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by the so-called absolutist state. 2

  6. Riss's essay is exemplary of the kind of transitionalist readings that suggest Coriolanus looks away from absolutism and forward to a bourgeois ideal. An essay by Thomas Sorge is exemplary of another kind of transitionalist reading, the nostalgic one, which finds as an alternative to absolutism the idylls of medieval organicism and communitarianism. Describing the social body of the citizens, Sorge writes, 'Though it is frequently denounced as a monstrosity by its opponents, this newly emerging body has few if any grotesque features. It rather moves within the province of time-worn communal, organic thought, and posits the body analogy in opposition to the Tudor and Jacobean ideology of civil obedience and order' (Sorge, 1990, 237). Sorge misleadingly describes medieval organicism as an alternative to an absolutist ideology of civil obedience. If one invokes the official ideology of Tudor-Stuart culture, which in Sorge's reading is 'civil obedience', such an ideology should be compared with the corresponding official ideology of medieval society, namely feudalism, which had been in many ways far more exploitative than Tudor-Stuart 'official' culture. 3 But rather than compare two analogous political and economic ideologies, Sorge compares a Tudor-Stuart political and economic ideology with a medieval social form, and hence elides discussion of the exploitative nature of feudalism. Nothing in Coriolanus suggests that the Tribunes look backwards to medieval folk culture and organicism. The Tribunes are concerned with the acquisition and availability of food, and as such any analogy the play draws with the Tribunes and an earlier common culture should logically line up the Tribunes with laboring serfs, constrained by exploitative overlords and subject to arbitrary levies on their products. The classical, slave-bearing past, the feudal, serf-bearing past, and the modern, wage-laboring future are all equally oppressive for the common culture. 4

  7. Both of the exemplary transitionalist interpretations noted above, the possessive individualist reading and the agrarian-communistic reading, arise because critics have posited unyielding absolutism as a political ideology which is resisted by radical utopian or entrepreneurial ideologies. Revisionist history on the subject of absolutism can help dispense with transitional readings of this sort, for without as a starting point an oppressive form of absolutism, it becomes more difficult to interpret resistance in Coriolanus as the release of anti-absolutising forces, and therefore less valid to impose prophetic or nostalgic myth-narratives onto the play.

  8. Glenn Burgess has recently shaken the traditional assumption that early seventeenth-century monarchy was either absolutist or arbitrary in nature. Critical of the 'parliamentary hermeneutic', which held that forcible resistance was the only effective means of resistance in seventeenth-century politics, Burgess tells us, 'there is a prima facie case for supposing that 'absolutism' is an inadequate term of analysis for early Stuart political thought. It too readily elides differences between things that were kept distinct: between irresistible kings and unlimited kings; even between particular 'absolute' powers and a general theory of arbitrary government...the early Stuart 'free'... 'imperial' or absolute monarch was not what we would call an absolute king....We need to look for expressions of the belief that the king was not bound by law, was legally unlimited' (Burgess 1996, 49). According to Burgess, early modern political culture was beset by conflict, but such conflict was not ideologically grounded: 'Conflict there undoubtedly was, but...it did not rise from ideological polarization. Early Stuart Englishmen did possess a variety of theoretical perspectives on monarchy, but they also possessed an intellectual framework that united those perspectives into a broadly consensual 'world view'. The occasional disagreement between divine right monarchy and contractual kingship was not the clash of irreconcilable opponents but a tension within a single intellectual system' (Burgess 1996, 167-168).

  9. Markku Peltonen has recently argued that because the Tudor monarchy was not founded on a common theory of government, in which a theory of order and rule of law were presiding features, a number of political vocabularies coexisted, one of which was a vibrant civic republicanism, structured around a 'prince with a full set of virtues' (Peltonen 1995, 9). Peltonen spends considerable time outlining the use by English culture of Ciceronian republicanism, suggesting that the classical humanist theory of citizenship flourished alongside a number of political forms, including royalist and common law. According to Peltonen, Ciceronian republicanism, endorsed by writers such as John Baston and Roger Baynes, held that 'liberty could be realised only if everyone led the civic way of life, was willing to disregard his own private good and to promote wholeheartedly the good of the whole community, without which it was impossible to avoid servitude' (Peltonen 1995, 163).

  10. While Peltonen's work is useful as a critique of univocal theories of early modern statehood, his discussion of the Ciceronian features of Tudor-Stuart departs significantly from recent discussions of Cicero's views on politics. As Gordon Wood and others have argued, the Ciceronian commonwealth, unlike its Green predecessors, is a non-ethical and non-teleological state form, one predominantly concerned with safeguarding private property rather than producing virtuous citizens. 5 In De Republica Cicero describes the ideal commonwealth as a mixed government (in which the aristocratic element preponderates) whose principle of justice is conceived as proportional rather than absolutist: 'In a government dominated by the people, even though they be just and self-disciplined, yet their very equality is inequitable in that it does not recognise degrees of merit' (Cicero 1929, 132). In De Officiis he writes that 'it is the proper function of citizenship and a city to ensure for everyone a free and unworried guardianship of his possessions....Now no property is private by nature, but rather by long occupation...by victory (when they acquired it in war), or by law, by settlement, by agreement, or by lot' (Cicero 1991, 9, 95). Consistent with his defense of private property and meritocracy, Cicero encourages cultivation of one's unique endowments: 'Everyone, therefore, should acquire knowledge of his own talents, and show himself a sharp judge of his own good qualities and faults (Cicero 1991, 81). Cicero's tentativeness regarding fair distribution follows logically from his individualistic and meritocractic conception of justice. Distribution should only be undertaken when the outcome will help maintain the well-being of the commonwealth: 'the law of nature itself, which preserves and maintains that which is beneficial to men, will undoubtedly decree that the necessities of life should be transmitted from an inactive and useless person to someone who is wise, good and brave, who, if he were to die, would greatly detract from the common benefit' (Cicero 1991, 81).

  11. Far from imagining a modernday kingdom of ends, Cicero's distributive ethic is both hierarchical and utilitarian. A.A. Long notes that 'Cicero construes society normatively as the aggregate of individual interests....Much of his treatment of justice...is suited to his brief as a hard-headed Roman lawyer and conservative opponent of what we would call left-wing politics' (Long 1992, 234). G.E.M. de St. Croix likewise writes that 'no surviving Greek writer is quite as explicit about the overriding importance of property rights as Cicero, the earliest known to me in a long line of thinkers, extending into modern times, who have seen the protection of private property rights as the prime function of the state' (Long 1992, 235). And Neal Wood tells us that 'Cicero...is the first important social and political thinker to affirm unequivocally that the basic purpose of the state is the protection of private property....Unlike Plato and Aristotle, he does not conceive the state fundamentally in moral terms, that is, as a means of shaping human souls, of creating men of virtue' (Wood 1988, 132).

  12. It is important to distinguish whether, as Peltonen argues, English Ciceronianism demands sacrifice on behalf of the state, or whether English Ciceronianism holds that civic virtue is a means to a private end unto itself. Peltonen notes that historians have argued that Ciceronianism had been supplanted by Tacitean pessimism, 'ethical skepticism', and self-preservationism by the beginning of the Jacobean period. Peltonen ultimately offers a compromise, arguing that both Ciceronian civic humanism and Tacitean contemplation coexisted during the period: 'It is clear...that neither the growth of royal absolutism, nor the legal accounts of the freedoms of the Englishmen...nor even Tacitean pessimism and its related insistence on the merits of the contemplative and private life, could completely outweigh traditional Ciceronian humanism and its urging of the merits of the active life' (Peltonen 1995, 132).

  13. Peltonen's account of the opposition between Ciceronian humanism and Tacitean contemplation does not seem to accurately describe the nature of the early Jacobean state. Jacobean politics resembles closely Ciceronian negative libertarianism, the only model of government and society Cicero ever recommended, according to the classical historians cited above. While Peltonen's treatment of Pocock's Machiavellian Moment attempts to read back Pocock's account of Machiavellian democracy into the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras, a more adequate revision of Pocock might read his account of Guicciardini's form of aristocratic republicanism forward into the Jacobean era, an affiliation which Pocock neglects to explore at length in his classic account of early modern republicanism. Guicciardini writes, consistent with Ciceronianism (and Jacobeanism), that 'one of the principal fruits to be derived from good government is security for one's person and one's possessions, and the ability to dispose of them as one wants...nor can any one feel fully secure who has to rely on the goodwill of others, for true security consists in enjoying a state of affairs where one citizen cannot be injured or hurt by another' (Guicciardini 1994), 85. For Guicciardini, to a larger extent than for Cicero, this form of negative libertarianism is still integrated with an ethical and honorific political system, since it enables the most virtuous citizens to flourish and assist in the preservation of commonwealth: 'for if one examines carefully the course of all history, ancient and modern, one finds it is always the virtue of a few people that counts, for only a few are capable of such elevated deeds, and they are the ones gifted by nature with more intelligence and judgement than the others...to encourage and facilitate these men to use their abilities to the good is surely a public benefit' (Guicciardini 1994, 90). Cicero's and Guicciardini's aristocratic republicanism, which upholds the sanctity of private property and the worth of a few worthy citizens against the claims of a sovereign or the common culture, shares much with Jacobean politics and the English forms of republicanism that arise during the civil war years. Nicholas Fuller tersely captures Jacobean negative libertarianism when he tells the House of Commons in 1610 that the individual held 'an absolute property in goods by the rule of law' (Sommerville 1986, 151). George Saltern, as J.P. Somerville notes, 'denied that nature had first established communism: "I cannot agree....that all thinges by the Lawe of nature were common: but as I take it the distinction of the propertied was enacted by almighty God in the beginning, and by him imprinted with other Lawes, in nature"' (Sommerville 1986, 161). Specifically regarding the crown's policy on individual holdings, Parliament held throughout Bates's case that extra-parliamentary levies and the king's royal prerogative were constrained by the common law protection of individual property. James Whitelocke, for instance, argued that if the 'king's right of imposition were established, the ancient frame of the commonwealth would be much altered and Parliament 'the storehouse of our liberties ' would be endangered' (Sommerville 1986, 153). Importantly, King James himself claimed in a speech to Parliament that 'if the fundamental Lawes of any Kingdome should be altered, who should discerne what is Meum and Tuum, or how should a King governe....I shall ever be willing to make the reason appeare of all my doings, and rule my actions according to my Lawes' (Burgess 1996, 152-153).

  14. One can turn to the historical work of Margaret Judson, Conrad Russell and Burgess for more documentation of the consensual and negative libertarian rather than absolutist nature of Jacobean politics. What we see is an extension of the Ciceronian and Guicciardinian ideal that government should not trespass on individual liberties. When theorising the nature of early modern statehood, however, one should also account for the other face of the Tudor and Stuart politics, the face which expresses itself in England's elaborate poor law apparatus, work-houses, encouragement for private philanthropy, and taxation on the wealthy to provide for the impotent poor in short the state's overarching paternalism and centralization. Beginning with Thomas Cromwell's poor law bills in the mid-1530's, legislators mandated that labor should be compulsory and financed by public taxation. In one Elizabethan statute (18, cap. 3) Parliament designated '"collectors and governors of the poor," whose duties were to collect contributions, provide materials, and direct and superintend the employment of the poor in cities and towns' (Nichols 1898, 167). In another statute (39, cap. 3) churchwardens and four householders in each parish were appointed to be overseers of the poor, to 'levy the contributions ordered by the justices, and to relieve the impotent poor, and raise stocks of materials for setting the able-bodied poor to work...' (Nichols 1898, 213). In 1609-10 (7 James) the preamble to a Parliamentary act argued that 'great sums of money have already been given, and that more is likely to be given in future, to be continually employed in binding out the poorest children'; it further encouraged well-disposed people 'to [bestow] money to the same good and godly purposes' (Nichols 1898, 227). A 1623 statute suggested that the people of Wales had attained to a sufficient manner of living that they must 'pay all duties, mizes, charges, subsidies, and taxations imposed upon or rated upon them for the relief of the poor' (Nichols 1898, 236). The sum of these acts shows the seventeenth-century supercession of the burdensome compulsory poor rate over private philanthropy, which had been steadily declining throughout the sixteenth century due to inflation and changing conceptions of poverty. By the 1620's public taxation had supplanted charity as the most effective means of poor relief. 6

  15. The statutes which document the burden on England's employed classes to finance Tudor and Stuart paternalism including the poor rates, the maintenance of the work-house and hospitals, the remuneration to salaried overseers and churchwardens are all integral features of the paternalist nature of the early modern state. It is important to note that while there is clear evidence of the consensual nature of English politics that James and Parliament agreed on the inviolability of property, that the king-in-parliament was subject to common law strictures, that divine right was operative in theory but not in a settled state that neither early seventeenth-century lawyers nor the crown advanced a public doctrine of general welfare that becomes a propagandistic tool used by both King and Parliament throughout the civil war. It is as if paternalistic poor law reform exists as a thing apart from common law politics, as if the two potentially conflictual public policies carry out their mandates in separate spheres, but under one governmental form. As Margaret Judson noted some years ago: 'Lawyers and judges uttered many remarks concerning general welfare but failed to see that in the integrated state evolving in the Tudor period they must clearly define the relation of the general welfare to the traditional rights of king and subject' (Judson 1988, 105). I argue below that Coriolanus represents the early modern state in its fullness and contradictoriness: the coexistence of Ciceronian negative libertarianism and a paternalist ideal, an historically accurate representation of the uneasily dualistic nature of early seventeenth-century state policy.


  16. Coriolanus's moral outlook is difficult to interpret because at times his conduct seems to be governed by negative libertarianism, but at other times seems to be directed by a selfless devotion to Rome and an organic or telic theory of the state. When he suggests that the citizenry should only receive as much corn as they deserve, he seems to be upholding a meritocractic ideal that reveals his unswerving commitment to the Roman state. He tells the First Senator, 'them we nourish 'gainst our Senate / The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition, / Which we ourselves have ploughed for, sowed, and / scattered...' (3.1. 71-3). 7 He then tells Brutus that 'They know the corn / Was not our recompense, resting well assured / They ne'er did service for't. Being pressed to th' war, / Even when the navel of the state was touched, / They would not thread the gates. This kind of service / Did not deserve corn gratis' (3.1. 122-7). These statements suggest that for Coriolanus each individual's right to goods and bounty is determined by that individual's exercise of military valor on Rome's behalf.

  17. The Tribunes, of course, interpret Coriolanus's remarks and conduct as intensely instrumental and unethical. Contemplating whether or not to prosecute charges against Coriolanus, the First Citizen says that Coriolanus 'pays himself with being proud' (1.1. 30-31), and then explains Coriolanus's heroism as follows: 'Though soft-conscienced / men can be content to say it was for his country, he / did it to please his mother, and to be partly proud...' (1.1. 34-36). Later in the scene, Brutus says that Coriolanus 'is grown / Too proud to be so valiant' (1.1. 256-7). In the second act, Brutus says that 'He's poor in no one fault, but stored with all', to which Sicinius responds, 'Especially in pride' (2.1. 17-18). Rather than interpret Coriolanus's conduct as oriented toward the fulfillment of the Roman state, the Tribunes view Coriolanus as a goal-oriented subject, each of whose acts adds to his previous 'store' of pride.

  18. Coriolanus is a good example of the kind of paradoxical negative libertarian figure Quentin Skinner describes in his essay on early modern republicanism and negative freedom. Typically, negative libertarianism implies for Hobbes in the seventeenth century and Isaiah Berlin in the twentieth century that social freedom is a right guaranteed by the state, a right which does not require citizens to be bearers and performers of civic virtues in the Aristotelian polis tradition. In his dismantling of the traditional opposition between on the one hand eudaemonia and human flourishing and on the other unobstructed liberty, Skinner suggests that the early modern period often held that the pursuit of individual interests was compatible with and even presupposed an ethical and organic conception of polity.

  19. Skinner invokes Machiavelli's conception of a virtuous polity in order to suggest that, paradoxically, all classical republican theories of citizenship served to maintain each individual's unobstructed freedom to pursue 'whatever ends they may choose to set themselves....The continued enjoyment of our personal liberty is only a possibility, according to Machiavelli, for members of self-governing communities in which the will of the body politic determines its own actions, the actions of the community as a whole' (Skinner 1986, 207). For Skinner, the essence of classical republican theories of citizenship is that a body politic acting according to a general will is the necessary condition for private, undetermined freedom, since an ethical community protects the citizenry from ambitious grandi or conquest by a neighboring community: 'A readiness to volunteer for active service, to join the armed services, to perform one's military services, constitutes a necessary condition of maintaining one's own individual freedom from servitude' (Skinner 1986, 213).

  20. Skinner's argument that classical republicanism actually merged negative freedom and positive virtue, or put positive virtue in the service of negative freedom, helps to explain Coriolanus's wavering between and ethos of self-sacrifice for Rome and a personal pursuit of glory. Typically negative 'freedoms' include unencroachable property rights, civil liberties, as well as protection from violent crime. Coriolanus's seeming selfless devotion to Rome provides personal freedoms as well, although his personal freedoms are not so much physical goods as psychological states, including reinforcement from Volumnia, a boyish pleasure in sparring with Aufidius, and of course, the overweening pride that so offends the Tribunate. The important idea here is that Skinner's account of early modern citizenship provides a framework in which to describe Coriolanus's conduct without describing such conduct as either ideologically and precociously entrepreneurial or, as Jonathan Goldberg argues, absolutist in nature (Goldberg 1989). Coriolanus is, by classical republican and early modern standards, a typical negative libertarian who secures personal freedoms by exploiting a republican system. And Skinner's argument not only helps explain Coriolanus's ideals, but also Peltonen's difficulty in conjoining an honorific late sixteenth and early seventeenth-century ideal of citizenship with Ciceronian negative libertarianism. When a range of Jacobean political theorists, including James, royalist councilors, and Parliamentarians, articulated ethical notions of citizenship, they were simultaneously stressing the importance of early modern negative freedoms.

  21. But if Coriolanus embodies this paradoxical, negative libertarian ideal, consistent with Jacobean consensualism, the Tribunate embodies a state ideal as well, the paternalist. The Tribunes, in spite of their temperamental treatment of Coriolanus, consistently argue for a fair distribution of goods over and above a system of distribution governed by meritocractic desert. The First Citizen articulates the paternalistic ideal when he complains, 'If they would yield us but the superfluity while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us humanely, but they think we are too dear' (1.1. 16-18). R.B. Parker rightly notes the 'echo of Lear' in the reference to 'humane' re-allocation. The paternalist dispensation is, of course, unmeritocractic in conception: 'humane' redistribution is justifiable as an affective and moral view of polity, which may have political benefits as unintended consequences of its guiding humanitarianism. Menenius invokes patrician humanitarianism when he reminds the citizens of the guiding influence of the 'helms o' th' state, who care for you like fathers' (1.1. 73-74), to which the First Citizen responds by listing the anti-humanitarian practices of those who repeal measures taken against the rich and pass statutes to 'chain up and restrain the poor' (1.1. 81).

  22. Given the paternalist face of Jacobean consensualism, the Tribunes' articulation of such a redistributive ideal should not be interpreted as an ideological stance set in opposition to any number of countervailing early modern ideologies, such as absolutism or (anticipatory) liberalism. As I have noted above, most levels of Jacobean society assumed that the state should promote both negative libertarianism and paternalism. Menenius's and the Tribunes' failure to agree on the most efficient delegation of paternalistic policy perhaps reflects the unsettled, although not ideologically embattled, nature of early modern state policy. Elizabethan and Jacobean culture at large believed it was not unduly oppressive in 'restraining' the free movement of the underclass and the non-laboring poor, and argued that confinement to work-houses was the most rational anti-poverty measure available, given high employment and the dangers of 'masterlessness' (Beier, 1985). The Tribunes' critique of the settlement laws is actually more prophetic in anticipating the Enlightenment description of the settlement laws as 'parish serfdom' than it is reflective of any seventeenth-century, rank-and-file critique of an official ideology.

  23. It follows that the Tribunate is not a dramatic instance of any early modern common culture or class, but a reflection of an aspect of the very state that one can too easily mistake for an oppositional body which might have been counterposed to the state. When one argues that the Tribunes comprise an exemplary early modern class formation, one inevitably contrives unhistorical parallels between text and context. Consider R.B. Parker's belief that an exploration of 'legal antiquarianism...lies behind the play's pervasive legal terminology and the Tribunes constant appeals to custom and traditional right neither of which can be found in Plutarch'. But ancient constitutionalism and legal antiquarianism are sources for the kind of negative libertarianism that is concerned primarily with respecting the boundaries of property and goods, the ideal of which Coriolanus and the Senate are the main proponents, not the Tribunes, who holds out for communal redistribution, without consideration of merit. During the Interregnum the Levelers, for instance, rejected immemorialism and common law theory and argued that the people were bounded by the laws which had been imposed upon them by the Norman Conquest, a clear expression of their disdain for legal antiquarianism and artificial reason. 8

  24. It is worth noting that the preoccupation with custom reflects not so much an opposition between classes but an ambiguity concerning the very nature of custom and its relationship to law during the Jacobean era. Deciding whether or not to beg for the voices of the Tribunes, Coriolanus says, 'Custom call me to't. / What custom wills, in all things should we do't' (2.3. 113-14). The implication here is that custom demands that Coriolanus simply ask politely for the Tribunes' voices. But after Coriolanus has achieved the voices, the Second Citizen decides that Coriolanus 'should have showed us / His marks of merit, wounds received for's country' (2.3. 158-9). Sicinius then later says not simply that Coriolanus had breached custom, but that 'He hath resisted law, / And therefore law shall scorn him further trial / Than the severity of the public power' (3.1. 269-70). Between the second and third acts, 'custom' miraculously transmutes into 'law'. Throughout the play it is never entirely clear what the proper custom and decorum is which would be required to gain the Tribunes' voices, and the precision with which everyone describes Coriolanus wounds is apposite to the ambiguity respecting just what he should do with those wounds (conceal them or display them) in order to honor custom and appease the Tribunes.

  25. Perhaps a contemporary context for the play's preoccupation with the unclear nature of custom can be found in King James's 1610 speech to Parliament, delivered around the time Shakespeare wrote the play. In the 1610 speech James tells Parliament that 'our Common Law hath not a settled Text in all Cases, being chiefly grounded either upon old Customes, or else upon the Reports and Cases of Judges...Yet I wish that some more certaintie were set downe in this case by Parliament...so the people should not depend upon the bare opinions of Judges, and uncertaine Reports' (Sommerville 1994, 187). The historical coincidence becomes more intriguing when one considers that the unspecified nature of law and custom is probably not a reflection of customary practices specific to the Roman Republic, for the Twelve Tables, written between 445-448 B.C., were meticulously detailed instructions for proper governmental operations and a fair distribution of powers. In any case, if there is a parallel between James's request that customs be codified and the nature of custom in the play, the parallel suggests not a class tension between opposing ideologies, but simply an ambiguity with respect to the nature of early modern customary law.


  26. I have been suggesting that the play represents the dualistic nature of the early modern state rather than any rigidified class antagonisms or ideologies. This suggests that Coriolanus's absolutist personality or unresolved Oedipal pathology does not foster disunity but that disunity is always potentially present given the dualistic nature of seventeenth-century government. But since this involves reading Coriolanus as a 'normal' Roman soldier, we should address the psychoanalytic readings of the play, those which trace Coriolanus's pathological aggression to his relationship with what has been described as a non-nurturing mother. In her influential essay on the play, Janet Adelman argues that Coriolanus's life is a kind of 'phallic exhibitionism, devoted to disproving the possibility that he is vulnerable. In the transformation from oral neediness to phallic aggression, anger becomes his meat as well as his mother's' (Adelman 1980, 132). For Adelman, Coriolanus's exhibitionism derives from maternal deprivation: 'Thrust prematurely from dependence on his mother, forced to feed himself on his own anger, Coriolanus refuses to acknowledge any neediness or dependency'(Adelman 1980, 132).

  27. Because Adelman's reading is unhistorical, she does not discuss the Volumnia- Coriolanus relationship in the context of classical theories and practices of child-rearing, much of which show not the exceptional and pathological nature of the Volumnia-Coriolanus relationship, but the normalcy of this sort of relationship throughout the Republic and early Empire. Recent work on Roman mothering has noted the ubiquity of Volumnia-type mothers. In her discussion of late Republican accounts of mothering, Susan Dixon writes that 'there is little stress in the softer side of such women as Volumnia, Cornelia or Aurelia. Rather, mothers were praised for diverting their sons from unsuitable courses...' (Dixon 1988, 2). Dixon adds that an identification of a 'Coriolanus complex' in Roman men is suspect, that there is 'no evidence that the Roman aristocracy produced a great proportion of sociopaths', for 'ancient authors saw it as appropriate for a mother not only to inspire and foster legitimate ambition but to curb mature excesses in her son much as she might check a youthful zeal for philosophy' (Dixon 1988, 135, 138). A 'mother who had been separated from her child after its birth...was still expected to behave dutifully towards the child....This seems to me to differ radically from the prevailing modern view which puts the emphasis on the relationship between mother and infant as the foundation of all subsequent interaction' (Dixon 1988, 120).

  28. Another feature of Roman culture which helps us to contextualise the nature of mothering in Coriolanus is the widespread reliance by Roman mothers on wet-nursing in order to raise children. Dixon points out a suggestive epitaph which reads: 'To Graxia Alexandria, an outstanding example of womanly virtue, who actually reared her children with her own breasts'. In the Tusculan Disputations, Cicero remarked that young children too often 'have drunk in error with the nurse's milk'; Quintilian assumed that the nurse is the person with whom the small child will have greatest contact' (Dixon 1988, 120, 122). Dixon concludes that 'the Roman mother's relationship to her young child...was not similar to the modern one. She was not the exclusive formative influence which Sociology and Psychology, developed within a few highly urbanised, wealthy modern countries, assume her to be' (Dixon 1988, 134).

  29. Interpreted in historical context, then, Volumnia's manner of raising Coriolanus seems fairly typical: 'When yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of my womb...when for a day of kings' entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering how honour would become such a person...was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame' (1.3. 5-13). Far from neglecting her son's emotional needs, she indulges what she sees are his natural inclinations (to 'let' him seek danger). The nature of Coriolanus's character may be interpreted in the light of the description given of his son, young Martius. Valeria says, 'I looked upon him o' Wednesday half an hour together: 'has such a confirmed countenance! I saw him run after a gilded butterfly, and when he caught it he let it go again, and after it again, and over he comes, and up again, catched it again' (1.3. 61-66). If young Martius does not seem to be unusually deprived of maternal care yet still is described as nearly an exact likeness to his father, how can we explain the similarity between father and son if Volumnia's non-nurturance of Coriolanus is the cause of his 'pathology?' One might respond that young Martius is as bereft of maternal care as Coriolanus, and that he will grow into the pathologies befitting his upbringing, but that would assume, given the normalcy of the mother-child relationships in the play, that all Roman men should develop like Coriolanus, which is at best reductionistic and at worst detracts from the uniqueness of Coriolanus's nature.

  30. Rather than describe Volumnia's role in the play as the source of Coriolanus's sociopathology, I think it is helpful to consider her character in relation to the incommensurability thesis I have been advancing. With respect to the two axes of early modern statehood the paternalist axis, which marks subjects as dependent, and the libertarian axis, which marks subjects as autonomous and unconstrained Volumnia allegorically reproduces in her relationship with Coriolanus an intertwining of both axes, since Coriolanus is both dependent upon and independent of her overarching influence. Volumnia is to Coriolanus as the early modern state is to all its subjects, and as such Volumnia's conduct as much as the Tribunes' or Coriolanus's is structured by the dual nature of early modern politics. Aufidius describes the consequences of Coriolanus's eventual capitulation to Volumnia as follows: 'As with a man by his own alms impoisoned, / And with his charity slain' (5.6. 10-11). Volumnia has allowed one state ideal, the paternalist, (refigured as the maternalist) to impose itself on another, the meritocractic and libertarian, by means of the sacrifice of her effective agent, Coriolanus, for the purpose of maintaining both ideals in precarious balance. During the moment at which Coriolanus extends his paternalistic 'charity' to his mother and Rome he has assured the libertarian freedoms of the city at large, even though his charitable gestures will ultimately prove suicidal.

  31. Interposing on the state's behalf, Volumnia helps to resolve through the sacrifice of Coriolanus the tension implicit in the play between an expansionist and maintenance goal for the culture. Typically, Republican polities were conceived either as imperialist and expansionist or stable and preservationist, bounded by population constraints and geographical restrictions. For example, the Venetian government served as a model for a preservationist ideology and the Roman for an expansionist one. The suggestion in the play is that ordinary, daily functioning and preservation of the polity can be upset by military conquest, particularly Coriolanus's disruption of the ordinary workings of the city. Sicinius notes, in a passage already cited, that once Coriolanus is exiled from the city one sees 'tradesmen singing in their shops and going / About their functions friendly' (4.6. 7-9). Sicinius adds that 'Rome / Sits safe and still without him' (4.6. 37-38). Sicinius does not mention whether or not Coriolanus's victories have allowed Rome to attain a level of prosperity without which the tradesmen would not be able to prosper in the first place that is, whether the normal functioning of the city requires the kind of turmoil Coriolanus introduces following conquest on Rome's behalf. The implication is that the city both gains and suffers at the hands of Coriolanus, and that Coriolanus needs to be contained when the costs of his influence outweigh the benefits. Even here meritocracy and paternalism compress, for the meritocractic ideal allows Coriolanus free play to exercise military virtue, but the paternalist ideal seizes upon that virtue when it is no longer helpful to the working citizenry.

  32. What seems to make Coriolanus a prophetic (but not transitional) play is that it reveals the fate of individuals who threaten the delicate, consensual nature of English politics. Coriolanus is not the embodiment of Jacobean absolutism, but rather the avatar of Charles, Laud, and Strafford, to the extent that each of these notables requires containment when a skewed pursuit upsets consensus in the settled state. Charles transgresses the common law rights to property; Laud indulges an excessively 'thorough' anti-Puritan campaign throughout England; Strafford attempts to impose Anglicanism in Presbyterian Scotland. Coriolanus prefigures all of these historical personages, each of whom is instrumental in advancing the state, but whose excesses are contained when they threaten the precarious balance of English consensualism.

  33. The play is also prophetic inasmuch as it emphasises the importance in English culture of ministering to the demands of the common culture, a practice which had just begun to show itself in the seventeenth century but which was not really undertaken by any early modern party or class until the civil war years. Prior to 1640, despite anti-enclosure rhetoric and pockets of rebellion like the Midland's Uprising, the common culture was largely an unthreatening political cipher, demanding little in the way of a vox populi argument made by Parliament or the Crown on its behalf: 'The idea...that Parliament was responsible to the nation, suggested by comparatively few men in Elizabeth's reign, quickly developed and matured in the first three decades of the seventeenth century. The parliamentary opposition...used it in the first place to strengthen an argument based on law and right, in the second place to justify an encroachment upon the realms of the king's absolute power, and in the third place to justify a new and aggressive procedure on the part of the commons' (Judson 1988, 279). Thus Coke famously said in Parliament in 1621, 'I will not dispute with my Maister for his words, but when the kinge sayes he can not allowe our liberties of right, this strikes at the roote. We serve here for thousands of tenn thousands' (Judson 1988, 286). The general welfare argument was used by Parliament against Buckingham in 1626, when Buckingham's opposition said that his actions 'assume the Nature of the highest Offences....The Welfare and Safety of the People and State, is the Supreme Law' (Judson 1988, 292). Such an argument was routinely waged against Parliament in order to marshal support against the Crown and vice versa, with little genuine concern for the common culture. Stone notes that the 'revolution was certainly not a war of the poor against the rich, for one of its most striking features was the almost total passivity of the rural masses, the copyholders and agricultural labourers' (Stone 1972, 54).

  34. I have argued that the point of departure for an analysis of the historical relevance of Coriolanus to early modern English politics is an understanding of the non-absolutist, consensual nature of early modern statehood, particularly the integration within the state platform of both negative libertarianism and paternalist centralization. Rather than interpret the play as an allegorical enactment of historically established party and class antagonisms, which did not in fact exist during the early seventeenth century, the class positions in the play should be seen as two unreified manifestations of the duality of the early modern state. 9 Coriolanus is a thoroughly Jacobean play that reflects consensual politics rather than embattled, transitional ideologies.


  1. On the non-laissez-faire nature of the early modern state see Shapiro 1986; see also MacPherson 1962.


  2. See Dobb 1963, especially chapter v.


  3. For discussions of feudal exploitation see Postan 1972 and Hilton 1990.


  4. It is surprising that while so many transitionalist readings appropriate Raymond Williams's distinction between residual and emergent cultures, more do not make reference to Williams's landmark work, The Country and the City, in which he demystifies sentimentalised accounts of pre-capitalist organicism: 'Take first the idealization of "natural" or "moral" economy on which so many have relied, as a contrast to the thrusting ruthlessness of the new capitalism....The social order within which this agriculture was practiced was as hard and brutal as anything later experienced. Even if we exclude the wars and brigandage...the uncountable thousands who grew crops and reared beasts only to be looted and burned and led away with tied wrists, this economy...was an order of exploitation of a most thorough going kind: a property in men as well as in land....' See Williams 1973, 37.


  5. See Wood 1988, 139. Wood writes that "while Plato and Aristotle maintain quite explicitly that direct economic producers should not rule, they are by no means equally explicit that the primary purpose of the state is the protection of private property. They think that the chief goal of the well-ordered polis is to encourage human beings to fulfill their rational nature by the achievement of true moral virtue'.


  6. See Hirst 1986, 21. For a general discussion of poverty legislation in England, see Slack 1988.


  7. All cites taken from William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, ed. R.B. Parker 1994.


  8. On Leveler anti-Normanism, see Hill 1995.


  9. On the problem of class formation during the early modern period see Laslett 1984; Wrightson 1982; and Zagorin 1971.


List of Works Cited

Adelman, Janet. '"Anger's My Meat": Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus.' In Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwarz and Coppelia Kahn. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Beier, A.L. 1985. Masterless Men: The Vagrancy Problem in England, 1560-1640. London: Methuen.

Burgess, Glenn. 1996. Absolute Monarchy and the Stuart Constitution. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1991. On Duties, edited by M.T.Griffin and E.M. Atkins. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cicero, Marcus Tullius. 1929. On The Commonwealth, translated by George Holland Sabine and Stanley Barney Smith. New York: Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc.

Dixon, Susan. 1988. The Roman Mother. Oklahoma Press.

Dobb, Maurice. 1963. Studies in the Development of Capitalism. New York: International Publishers.

Engle, Lars. 1993. Shakespearean Pragmatism: Market of His Time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goldberg, Jonathan. 1989. James I and The Politics of Literature. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Guicciardini, Francesco. 1994. Dialogue on the Government of Florence, edited and translated by Alison Brown. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hill, Christopher. 1995. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. London: Secker and Warburg.

Hilton, Rodney. 1990. Class Conflict and the Crisis of Feudalism: Essays in Medieval Social History. London: Verso.

Hirst, Derek. 1986. Authority and Conflict in England, 1603-1658. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Judson, Margaret. 1988. The Crisis of the Constitution: An Essay in Constitutional and Political Thought in England, 1603-1645. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Laslett, Peter. 1984. The World We Have Lost: England Before the Industrial Age. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Long, A.A. 1992. 'Cicero's Politics in De Officiis.' In Justice and Generosity: Studies in Hellenistic Social and Political Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

MacPherson, C.P. 1962. The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Nichols, Sir George. 1898. A History of the English Poor Law. Volume I. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons.

Peltonen, Markku. 1995. Classical Republicanism in English Political Thoughts, 1570-1640. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pocock, J.G.A. 1975. The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Postan, Michael. 1972. The Medieval Economy and Society. Penguin Books.

Poulantzas, Nicos. 1978. Political Power and Social Classes. London: Verso.

Riss, Arthur.1992. 'The Belly Politic: Coriolanus and the Revolt of Language.' ELH 59.

Shakespeare, William. 1994. Coriolanus, edited by R.B. Parker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Shapiro, Ian. 1986. The Evolution of Rights in Liberal Theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sommerville, J.P. Ed. 1994. King James VI and I: Political Writings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sommerville, J.P. 1986. Politics and Ideology in England, 1603-1640. London: Longman.

Sorge, Thomas. 1990. 'The Failure of Orthodoxy in Coriolanus.' In Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology, edited by Jean E. Howard and Marion O'Connor. New York: Routledge.

Stone, Lawrence. 1972. The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529-1642. New York: Harper Torchbooks.

Williams, Raymond. 1973. The Country and The City. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wrightson, Keith. 1982. English Society, 1580-1680. London: Hutchinson.

Zagorin, Perez. 1971. The Court and The Country: The Beginning of the English Revolution. New York: Atheneum.

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