Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Coriolanus and the Paradox of Place

Academic journal article Early Modern Literary Studies

Coriolanus and the Paradox of Place

Article excerpt

1. To describe the place of Shakespeare's stage as one of simultaneity is nothing new. Sir Philip Sidney in his Defence famously inveighed against the simultaneity of place in stage plays having "Asia of the one side, and Afric of the other, and so many other under-kingdoms" (45). Just as famously, the Chorus to Shakespeare's Henry V celebrates, if apologetically, how the singular place of the platform stage might represent places innumerable; in his words, "a crooked figure may / Attest in little place a million" (Prologue 11-12).1 Another kind of simultaneity can be seen in the way Shakespeare and his fellow dramatists often placed their dramas abroad, but meant for them to stand for locations in England-often as a kind of "plausible deniability" or topographical euphemism that allowed playwrights to criticize English authority from a safe distance.2 Douglas Bruster describes this "refusal to stay abroad" of English drama as "anatopism," a term that "recognize[s] the ultimate slipperiness of settings and locales" (33) in Renaissance drama. Leah Marcus attributes this mobility of place to the "Renaissance penchant for topical speculation" and notes that "Place in Shakespeare is more highly charged, more elusive, sometimes more downright deceptive than the reassuring advance labels provided by modern editors allow us to perceive" (161).3

2. This essay deals with the "elusive" place of Coriolanus' final scene. Certainly, of all Shakespearean scenes, its place is among the most vexed, beginning with its characters describing their location as the Volscian capital, Antium, but then near the end of the scene describing the location as Corioles. In this essay I explore the possibility that previous discussions of the scene have relied on overly simplified ideas of what place meant in Renaissance England. I wish to rethink the place of this scene for two reasons. First, most commentary regarding the place of Coriolanus' final scene is based on a fictional account of Shakespeare's state of mind during its composition, one that was invented to solve a problem of modern editorial practice and that has little to do with Renaissance performance. Second, a more historically accurate account of Renaissance place might allow us to ascribe a dramatic function for this odd change of places, which I argue is not a change but the simultaneous presence of two places. In particular, I want to argue that what we find in this scene is a concept of place that is decidedly premodern. I will suggest that in the final scene we find what Peter Platt has recently called a Renaissance "paradox of place" (121), which for Coriolanus provides a topographical correlative to the hero's own paradoxical and simultaneous place in the world.

3. During Shakespeare's lifetime, place as a concept was undergoing transformation. Edward Casey describes this change as one from a sense of place that emphasized a vertical hierarchy of interrelated and dependent places to an emphasis on a linear array of discrete places related to one another through geometrical proportion.4 It was a change, as Casey describes it, from an Aristotelian sense of place to a Platonic one. Aristotle claimed that one place was always contained within another and that all places were ultimately conjoined (Aristotle, Physics 209a-12a; Casey 50-71).5 Platonic conceptions emphasized a less hierarchical, more abstract sense in which the places of the world existed in mathematical proportion to one another upon a backdrop of undifferentiated space (Plato 50c-52b; Casey 32-49).

4. Changes from Aristotelian concepts to Platonic ones went hand-in-hand with other ideological transformations, primarily those in religion, science, and education. Reformed religion sought to make hierarchical church polities less hierarchical and their authorities more diffuse. The New Science sought to level Aristotelian hierarchical cosmographies, diffusing planetary bodies across the universe. And the Ramists taught from a spatialized system that made knowledge linear and schematic. …

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