Coriolanus, the Union Controversy, and Access to the Royal Person

By Garganigo, Alex | Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview
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Coriolanus, the Union Controversy, and Access to the Royal Person


Garganigo, Alex, Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900


While the metaphor of the body politic preoccupied Shakespeare throughout his career, only Coriolanus (1608) with is fable of the belly subjects the body politic to explicit scrutiny as a theoretical problem, and as a discourse peculiar to the early years of James I's reign. (1) I wish to situate Coriolanus's obsession with bodies natural and politic within the controversy over James's plans to combine England and Scotland into a larger Great Britain--plans not realized until the Act of Union a century later--because, in many ways, the Union debate revolved around the status of the king's body. (2) The idea of the body politic became increasingly important in a number of texts in the first half-decade of James's reign, with representations of his own body playing a crucial role in James's political program. (3) Jonathan Goldberg has demonstrated the significance for literary culture of the fact that, as a monarch with two healthy male heirs, James provided a welcome relief to the succession anxieties that had plagued England under all of the Tudors except Henry VII. The spectacle of his body within an apparently fruitful family life provided a strong argument for his authority and stability. (4) In the first years of his reign, James made the body politic analogy his almost exclusive property: more than ever before, it became a tool with which to exact and maintain obedience. James's argument against tobacco invoked his duty "as the proper Phisician of his Politick Body ... to purge it of all those diseases." (5) His speeches to Parliament from 1604 to 1610 referred to himself as the head of the body politic, often invoking the sanctity and safety of his person. (6) When the Gunpowder Plot nearly succeeded in blowing up king and Parliament in 1605, such fears for James's personal safety were only confirmed, and royal proclamations both before and after the Plot were full of references to the "Royall Person." (7) But most importantly for my purposes, James made his body the centerpiece of his argument for Union. H e insisted that his body natural, his physical body, had effected a union of the crowns of England and Scotland, that Union was "an Action, which God by the lawes of Nature ... hath now in effect perfected in my Person," and that Parliament ought to make this union more systematic and permanent by uniting their legal and political systems. (8) In effect, he wanted to codify body politic theory in law.

Historicist critics have read Coriolanus within the contexts of rogue Elizabethan aristocrats such as the earl of Essex and Sir Walter Ralegh, (9) the Midlands Grain Riots, (10) abstract constitutional debates about king, Parliament, and Parliamentary selection, (11) London city politics, (12) the plantation of Ireland, (13) and Prince Henry's militant Protestantism. (14) Feminist and psychoanalytic readings of the play have begun to focus on Coriolanus's body, especially its erotically charged relations with Volumnia and Aufidius, but have not fully investigated how these matters might be topical. (15) Some recent readings have even focused on the contradictions inherent in mystifying the royal body and the parallels between Coriolanus and James. (16) Approaching some of the feminist-psychoanalytic strand's insights from a historicist vantage point, (17) I argue that the play obliquely criticizes the politics of the body involved in James's Union scheme and the royal patronage system. (18)

This essay first investigates the place of James's body in discussions of his Union plan and patronage system around the time of Coriolanus's probable composition, 1607-08. Then it examines how the play as a whole and the belly fable in particular gesture toward these issues by establishing limited parallels between Republican Rome and Jacobean England, between various characters and King James. The third section concentrates on the play's exploration of the relationships between the body of the state and the bodies of several characters, most notably Coriolanus, while the fourth argues that the logic of the royal patronage system informs the play's many scenes of supplication, as well as the relationship between the title character and Aufidius.

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