The Crush between Crowd and Individual in Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”

Actions of the play take place in ancient Rome. The plot of the play develops in several directions: in the first case, it is the strife between Romans and the Volsci in result of which major part of moral and physical features of heroes is revealed. In the second case, in the second plan of the plot, relations of ordinary people and those of political as well as state actors are represented. Key hero is Caius Marcius Coriolanus, who after defeating the Volsci returns Rome. He is offered to become consul and govern the republic. And in this point is the knit of the play, when public tribunes fearing from glory and possible successes of Coriolanus begin to lay in ambush to provoke conflict between the people and Coriolanus.

In world literature it is accepted that the main question of the play is the strife between Plebes and Patricians. This viewpoint has been evolved as a result of comparison between Plutarch’s work and the tragedy. In Plutarch’s work Coriolanus was on the side of aristocrats and shared their ideology. But Shakespeare changed the plot and wrote in such a way as if C. Marcius was against Patricians and fought against them.

The main contradiction is not between aristocrats and plebes, but between an individual and the crowd, particularly, between Coriolanus and the crowd.

Patricians and Plebes

In “Coriolanus” surely there is a struggle between patricians and plebes, which is expressed in the speech of a citizen, but this does not take storyline and ideological central role.

“First Citizen,-What authority surfeits on would relieve us; if they would yield us but the superfluity, while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us humanely.”

“Suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.”

From words of the first citizen it is obvious that the governing elite sought to meet its own desires. They concentrate law, power and all other opportunities on their own well-being. This is characteristic for all social systems, including the Armenian reality.

Individual-Crowd Relationship

The society or the crowd including their functions is subject to periodic change. It can throw out those individuals who stop meeting the demands and represent a threat. The society becomes dangerous when it does not conduct the functions characteristic to it. Let us quote Marcius words directed to the crowd.

“He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no,
Than is the coal of fire upon the ic,
Or hailstone in the sun. Your virtue is
To make him worthy whose offence subdues him,
And curse that justice did it. Who deserves greatness
Deserves your hate; and your affections are
A sick man’s appetite, who desires most that
Which would increase his evil. He that depends
Upon your favors swims with fins of lead,
And hews down oaks with rushes. Hang ye! Trust ye!
With every minute you do change a mind;
And call him noble that was now your hate,
Him vile that was your garland.”

Via contradiction between an individual and society the author demonstrates the deep gap which is seen by a great or self-sufficient individual between himself/ herself and society, and it can lead to mutual destruction.

When Coriolanus appeared in beggar’s rags in front of Ofidius’s home, servants wanted to beat and take him away, but after knowing who he was immediately said:

“Second Servingman: By my hand, I had thought to have strucken him with a cudgel; and yet my mind gave me his clothes made a false report of him.

First Servingman. What an arm he has!”

Or the same serving men knowing about probable war between Romans and the Volsci, announced:

“Second  Servingman. Why, then we shall have a stirring world again.

This peace is nothing, but to rust iron, increase tailors, and bread ballad-makers.

First Servingman. Let me have war, say I; it exceeds peace as far as day does night;

Second Servingman.’Tis so: and as war, in some sort, may be said to be a ravisher, so it cannot be denied but peace is a great maker of cuckolds.

First Servingman. Ay, and it makes men hate one another.”

The aforementioned quotes are the striking examples of relations between an individual and society and also are proves of crowd’s unscrupulousness, its lack of own opinion and idea on certain things and phenomena. Their preferment of night instead of day, of war instead of peace does not speak about their courage, exceptional outlook but about their perception of their lords’ words as indisputable truth. These servicemen are collective characters of those like them.  Such people speak and act in a way favorable to their lords and those who rule.

Shakespeare underlined the “herd” outlook in the play, through which public tribunes Brutus and Velutus manipulate and govern the people and stimulate their further steps.

The latter are political actors and their goal is to maintain power and glory, but they do nothing for it, but feed people by empty words. Conversely, Coriolanus struggled for peace and well-being of the population, but he did not showed pursuit of fame.

The crowd is coward and weak –minded and fears to have its own opinion, to make decisions, and political actors use this fact while governing them. The crowd has no memory and moves forward under the impression of the present, immediately forgets the sacrifices of Coriolanus to defeat the Volsci and liberate the Romans from their attacks.

They only remember that this Roman hates the ordinary people and wants to become a consul to eliminate the inhabitants of Rome. And when he returns with power and leading the army of Aufidius, the crowd begins to regret that he has been exiled.

First Citizen. For mine own part, When I said, banish him, I said ’twas pity.

Third Citizen.  And so did I; and, to say the truth, so did very many of us: that we did, we did for the best; and though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will.”

These citizens deprived of their identity and acting as a crowd, who exiled the hero of Rome do not have a sense of responsibility. They blame each other and try to distinguish themselves from that environment, and by this they underline their weak will and their belonging to the crowd. The same phenomenon can be found in all times.

Even today in Armenian reality the crowd expresses its dissatisfaction with state and political actors, as well as with people used by these actors, but groups which raise the wave of dissatisfaction do not differ anyhow from those, who are accused, they act like them.

In tragedy the flux of regrets is sequenced by waves of crowd’s wrath, in result of which Brutus is caught and pulled in the streets. The crowd announces the return of Coriolanus leading the Volsci army and accuses Brutus of having a desire to take revenge. People do not realize or do not want to realize they carry the responsibility for their actions and decisions, as because of their weakness they are used as puppets by political actors.

Not only Romans, but also the Volsci are deprived of memory. When Coriolanus enters the city, he is met by stormy enthusiasm and calls, forgetting that the same commander killed their sons, husbands and generally all inhabitants during the previous war.

Second ConspiratorAnd patient fools,
Whose children he hath slain, their base throats tear
With giving him glory.”

And immediately after this the crowd is reminded what Caius Marcius has done against the Volsci, they suddenly change their minds and begin to request answer.

That is to say, this phenomenon is characteristic of all societies, because, as was mentioned above, the society and particularly, the crowd is deprived of conscious of personality. They are led only by functions of “we” having no mind of their real merit.

Individual-Groups Relationship

As a rule, groups or communities are not able to bear talented people who do not share their opinion. Those, who do not follow their wishes, also represent a threat to them, for example, the crowd, because its members do not have their own personalities and convictions, but unsustainable desires.  The individual, who does not follow the crowd and demands his/her own role, can also be a threat. Gaius Marcius took such a role in the play.  Agrippa’s words on Brutus and others like him are very characteristic:

“Agrippa. You are ambitious for poor knaves’ caps and legs: you

wear out a good wholesome forenoon…

and then rejourn the controversy of three pence to a

second day of audience”.

By the words of Agrippa the difference between patricians and public tribunes is marked. The abovementioned quote is characteristic because Shakespeare underlined this very thought in his play: aristocrats have principles, sense of responsibility and fairness by which they move forward. They do not sale their dignity for pennies and adhere to their title.

Shakespeare represented public tribunes’ and political actors’ plots in consequential relation, which makes their behavior persuasive. Coriolanus was a threat to them, hence their tricks and lies were understandable.

“Julius Brutus. So it must fall out

To him or our authorities. For an end,

We must suggest the people in what hatred

He still hath held them.”

But Shakespeare distinguished Coriolanus from others and underscored such features as bravery, fairness, pride, conscience of self-love (which is characteristic for real aristocrat or patrician). Being in a danger of probable exile, he does not agree to cheat or flatter the people. Because of these very features, he is sentenced to death.  He hates the throng for its inconstancy and unsustainability, especially when it evinces respect to those, who are not worthy or less worthy than he, Coriolanus. From this point the crush between an individual and groups (in this case, Coriolanus- Public tribunes-Senate) as their ideological and principle incompatibility is completely revealed.

“Coriolanus. You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate

As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize

As the dead carcasses of unburied men

That do corrupt my air, I banish you;

And here remain with your uncertainty!

Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!”

It is true that he wanted recognition, fame, leadership, but their achievement should not have been through eloquence and wounds, but thanks to his feats, his love towards his motherland. Such an authority would have weakened the power and influence of public tribunes. They would have not been able to manipulate the people and use them for their own interests, therefore it was necessary to take measures to avoid such developments.

Finally, a man with certain ideological and convictional outlook could not be changed in line with developments, however, the end of tragedy is quite persuasive (the murder of Coriolanus). In this case, the society feared from person differing from it, but deep in the heart realized that he was better than the society. As a consequence, instinctive fear appeared which is characteristic of  animals which have a dread to lose their leadership. From psychological viewpoint, rage of people and actors is justified, because they face the danger of turning to the second role.

Studying Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus” tragedy, we can see that the author portrayed an individual, who sought political activity and leadership, who facing the reality and its tricks was not able to surmount and alter it. As the throng is the majority of the society, and its mood, demolitions, manipulation and usage were meanness for Coriolanus, for him it was impossible to change the minds of the people on social system without using those strongholds. In fact, Gaius Marcius is the symbol not only of the struggle of his times. He has become enduring phenomenon, which is characteristic of social systems of all spatiotemporal dimensions.


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Author: Arlina Sargsyan© All rights are reserved.

Translator: Sona Aramyan.


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