The Elements of Rogue in William Shakespeare's Coriolanus


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The term “Rogue” can be defined as 1: a dishonest, knavish person; scoundrel. 2: a playfully mischievous person; scamp. 3. A tramp or vagabond. (Dictionary) In Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus, I chose to analyze this term for many reasons. Upon my original reading of this play, this term almost immediately stood out to me due to the context of its placement, the versatility of the word given its accompanying tone, and the importance that falls upon the usage relative to the overall plot of the play.

Menenius: “For that, being one o’ th’ lowest, basest, poorest, of this most wise rebellion, thou goest foremost. Thou rascal, that art worst in blood to run, Lead’st first to win some vantage. But make you ready your stiff bats and clubs. Rome and her rats are at the point of battle; The one side must have bale. Enter Caius Martius. Hail, noble Martius.

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Martius: Thanks. —What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, Make yourselves scabs?… He that will give good words to thee will flatter Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs, That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you; The other makes you proud… you? With every minute you do change a mind and call him noble that was now your hate, (1.1.174-176; 178-181; 193-195)

In the modern term, the word rogue can be associated with the act of derailing, separating, or removing yourself from something or someone. I personally would not identify the word “rogue” with an insulting or degrading definition, yet when I first read this sentence, I instantly understood the intended meaning. I also found it extremely significant that this term was included in the opening lines spoken by Coriolanus. It served not only as his first introduction to the audience, but also acted as a foreshadow towards his downward spiraling character throughout the play.

The dialect and tone that Coriolanus chose to confront the furious mob with is embodied within his words, specifically, the term rogue, and his rant of disgust that follows. He instigates the mob with rage, anger, and an aristocratic attitude; much like his approach towards his political obstacles in the later acts. Instead of using reason, rationale, and composure, he relies on his short-fused temper to obtain the upper hand, while alienating his fellow Romans even more in the process. By insulting and berating them citizens, he accuses them of being dishonest, cowardly, and fickle.

Although a seemingly abrupt and callous response made towards an angry mob, Shakespeare offers support towards these claims made by Coriolanus throughout the play. This makes his audience question whether Coriolanus’s response is fueled by an irritable temperament, or if he’s simply addressing the legitimate inconsistencies between the political climate and the lower class. Shakespeare reminds us that the plebeians are in fact dishonest after lying about wanting Coriolanus banished from Rome (4.6. 136-145); they can be characterized as cowardly after fleeing in fear during the battle at Corioles (Act 1, scene 4); and they can be defined as fickle when they almost immediately rescind their votes after agreeing to elect Coriolanus to office (2.3.253-255).

With his word choice, Shakespeare offers us two conflicting sides to the relationship between the plebeians and Coriolanus; in one sense, the use of the term “rogue” can presage the nature of Coriolanus’s hard-headed temper and defamatory methods of addressing problems, complications, and relationships. On the other hand, it can be seen as a desperate cry from Coriolanus that unveils the troubles experienced when faced with a disapproving, hypercritical, and uncertain collective.

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