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Interpretation of True Autonomy in William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

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False Autonomy in Coriolanus

The question of free will has loitered around in the human psyche since time immemorial. Are we all just constructions of our environment? Did some divine power shape us, mold us along a pre-determined path? Are we ever truly independent from our surroundings? Shakespeare may not have considered all of the above, but certainly, as the events in Coriolanus suggest, he was keenly aware of the contradictory nature of human politics, the arbitrary lines categorizing groups of people, and the pressing matter of whom depended on whom—because, especially in Act II, scene ii, it is blatantly obvious that divorcing one man from his defining populace, either in praise or in condemnation, sends waves of contention throughout the sociopolical sphere. In this scene the “fragments” of the common people, the tribunes who would feed them biased assertions, and the senators that would “monster” the deeds of their finest soldier not only define Coriolanus, defying his own aggressive will to self-style himself, but also render him equally fragmentary—a mere shard contributing to a mosaic, in which autonomy dissolves to form a whole, if contentious, image.

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The scene opens benevolently enough with a debate between two unnamed officers preparing the space where Coriolanus is soon to stand. Like the officers, who seem to occupy a space between patrician and plebeian (neither fragment nor whole), the debate is someone blasé, as though the first officer reads from a cons list and his counterpart reads from a pros list. Coriolanus is broken down in seemingly the most rational discussion existing in the play—which is far more tragic for its lack of audience. Indeed, these characters seem to be employed solely for the purpose of spoon-feeding an audience all the source of conflict over Coriolanus, which is to play out after the too-civil, and frustratingly ambiguous, conclusion to their brief debate: “No more of him; he’s a worthy man” (2.2.32). One has to wonder at the definition of “worthy”: is Coriolanus the soldier truly fit to be Coriolanus the civil servant, or is he simply deserving of it, based on a history of service? The difference is marked yet frustratingly abandoned almost as soon as the question is broached—perhaps more so because Coriolanus’ own sense of worth, and however he may define it, is neither contingent on the common peoples’ opinions of it, nor is it free of said opinions’ effects. That he is introduced in this scene by others’ conceptions of him reflects the paradox of the obstinately independent soldier defying the customs, and the people, that formed him.

For much of this scene, Coriolanus is noticeably absent from the proceedings. As Cominius commends the consul-to-be in justifiably long-winded speech, Coriolanus stubbornly remains unseen; as Cominius continues, he seemingly invokes the mighty warrior as one might a spirit—or a demon, as it were. From the poetry of Cominius’ praise rises Coriolanus, not merely man or soldier, but a force of nature to be awed, and an unstoppable machine to be feared. Likening Coriolanus’ precocious military skill to a swelling sea, Cominius continues:

For this last,

Before and in Corioles, let me say

I cannot speak him home. He stopped the fliers

And by his rare example made the coward

Turn terror into sport. As weeds before

A vessel under sail, so men obeyed

And fell below his stem. (2.2.98-104)

The image of soldier has all but vanished, readily replaced with the illusion of unfeeling motion. Thus, even as Coriolanus stubbornly resists the customs that would define him in a light he detests, he fails to avoid the act of others defining him by their standards and proliferating those definitions regardless of his consent. His spirited exit may bring attention to his defiance to custom and to his willingness to take control of a situation that seemingly robs him of it, but his absence perhaps makes it even easier for his “nothings” to be “monstered,” and for him and his military conquests to be recreated over and over in the eyes of his peers.

That his deeds are open to interpretation, even in a supposedly warrior-central Rome, belies another lack of independence. “I had rather have one scratch my head I’th’ sun/ When the alarum were struck than idly sit/ To hear my nothings monstered,” he contends before storming out of the room (2.2.73-75). “Monstered,” is a powerfully ambiguous word. On one hand, is it possible that a senator would “monster” Coriolanus’ deeds by embellishing them—flattering his actions, so to speak? Or might a tribune “monster” the same acts in a perhaps more traditional sense of the word? Would these acts of valor be hideously twisted into something vile, repugnant, a blemish on Rome and its citizens? Coriolanus’ obvious lack of power in this situation culminates in his blustering exit, as though to dismiss all possibility of outsiders’ interpretations rather than to resign himself to any judgment that is not his own.

This, of course, is a useless, if laudable, gesture. While Coriolanus is obviously free to flee the room (dignified though he may try to make it look), his past actions remain the subject of consideration and debate. In other words, his uncompromising assertion of agency is utterly meaningless—though he may contend that his acts of valor had nothing to do with the common people (2.2.144-147), or indeed that “He covets less/ Than misery itself would give, rewards/ His deeds with doing them” (2.2.123-125), the repercussions of his actions, and the actions themselves, cannot be interpreted independent of their agent.

Perhaps most telling of Coriolanus’ true lack of autonomy is the fact that this scene, which defines his acts as feats of valor and integrity and his detestation for fickle plebeian crowds as proof of his hate, neither opens nor concludes of his own accord. As throughout the play, Act II scene ii demonstrates that Coriolanus remains bracketed by a social environment completely outside of his control. Specifically, those who would build him up (the officers who concluded him to be “worthy,” Cominius, and Menenius) and those who would actively seek his destruction (the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus) offer more information about, and therefore hold more control over, Coriolanus than the man in question ever could.

In any case, Coriolanus may be free to act, but escaping the interpretations of his actions is futile—thus, he is never truly independent, as his deeds can never exist outside the realm of others’ contemplation. Action must have reaction; reaction must inform action. And while we may be tempted to question if Coriolanus is more a villain than a hero, or vice versa, the question itself skirts around the fact that, either way, Coriolanus becomes Coriolanus the Valiant or Coriolanus the Villain through the eyes and constructions of his countrymen. Struggle and defy as he might, as he has been conditioned to do, he cannot escape the reality that he is a product manufactured by context, either to be beautifully wrapped or effectively destroyed by those around him.

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