Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"Beloved of All the Trades in Rome": Oeconomics, Occupation, and the Gendered Body in Coriolanus

Academic journal article Shakespeare Studies

"Beloved of All the Trades in Rome": Oeconomics, Occupation, and the Gendered Body in Coriolanus

Article excerpt

From laboring hands and voting tongues to sermonizing bellies, Coriolanus teems with the language of the body politic. In Shakespeare's early republican Rome, various body parts blur the borders of the philosophical, the erotic, and the grotesque, but the play's most challenging corporeal image may in fact be the entire "common body" of the Roman public (2.2.47). (1) The figurative popular "body" pushes against the boundaries of the literal as it breaks down into its constituent parts: tongues, hands, and bellies, to name a few. Moreover, the significance of its being "common" is complicated, as one exchange between Coriolanus and a Citizen suggests: "You have not ... loved the common people," his detractor accuses, to which the hostile hero retorts, "You should account me the more virtuous that I have not been common in my love"--that is, his value is greater because he has not prostituted himself and his services to the general populace (2.3.82-85). Here, as throughout the play, Coriolanus exhibits his penchant for provoking those whom he regards as his inferiors, and he simultaneously defines his social, moral, and sexual status by his fraught relationship to the "common body" of Rome. Both of these elements of Coriolanus's character derive from his belief that the social world is inherently divided into binary oppositions: plebeian versus patrician, noble versus vulgar, and manly versus effeminate, among others. Textual sources for Coriolanus's convictions may be found in classical humanist authorities who were widely read in Shakespeare's day, and Coriolanus channels them in an especially rigid and reductive manner as he struggles to maintain his sense of self as a virtuous aristocrat, a masculine warrior, and a superior Roman citizen, uniquely fit for a privileged position within the commonwealth.

The conflict between each of the facets of Coriolanus's identity comes to a head at the crucial moment when he is compelled by custom--and heavily encouraged by his mother and his patrician friends--to display his war wounds to the Roman people in the marketplace in order to be elected consul. Critical discussions of this marketplace wound display with its accompanying imagery of the body politic typically employ one of two lenses. Many critics have found that the political strife of Shakespeare's Rome serves less to illuminate public concerns than to direct attention to Coriolanus's private anxieties about gender and sexuality. Charles Hofling's claim that "the interest in the drama is attached much more to character than to class" and that "the aspect of the [marketplace] situation which [Coriolanus] finds most intolerable" is "being placed in the passive position" has met with broad assent from later critics, many of whom regard the hero's wounds as a collective anti-phallus. (2) Ralph Berry, for example, suggests that the hurts on Coriolanus's body evoke the unhealed "wounds of adolescence," including the fear of "impotence," and Madelon Sprengnether argues that the hyper-masculine warrior quails at "[exposing] his incompleteness, his implicitly castrated condition." (3)

The second common perspective on Coriolanus adopts an historicist view: a number of scholars who resist the dominant psychoanalytic treatments of the play find that excessive attention to Coriolanus's interiority and sexuality obscures pertinent socioeconomic concerns. Zvi Jagendorf, who calls explicitly for the study of Coriolanus's marketplace crisis "in the light of economics and politics rather than that of gender and psychoanalysis," argues that the aristocratic soldier fights in vain to stem the tide of a surging bourgeois economy in republican Rome (and, by extension, in Jacobean England), championing an impossible "one-man economy that boldly distinguishes itself from the market and the getting, spending, exchanging of ordinary men." Jagendorf's hero "is a pre-economic man" who "fears and hates the market" and "is disgusted by the system of exchange that would convert his deeds in battle into rewards, praise, and, worst of all, votes/voices of the common people. …

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