As much as Coriolanus is a play about politics, it is also (overtly) a play about language. Put most simply, the play’s thesis about language could be summed up as “language is power.” It seems insufficient to say that language is important to politics within the play—language is politics. Throughout the play, the plebeians are called “voices,” referring both to their opinions and “voices” meaning votes. It’s these voices (votes) that Coriolanus must seek to be named Consul. The two tribunes harness the voices of the public, and they become the “tongues [of the] common mouth.” They’re able to use language to turn the public against Coriolanus and enact his banishment, showing that language can be an act with powerful consequences. And on the other side of the political sphere, language is still used as power. Menenius masterfully uses language to manipulate, to obscure the truth, to debate, to comprise, to prop men up, and to bring them down. In other words, he uses language to politic. And Cominius, too, despite being a military figure, is able to use language to politic. His brilliant oration describing Coriolanus’s heroic deeds is a perfect example. Note that this speech begins with the classic rhetorical move of claiming ineptitude – one that echoes Mark Antony’s claim to be a terrible orator in Caesar – “I shall lack voice.”
While Cominius is using false humility to make his language and his argument more convincing, Coriolanus truly does lack voice. As a military man of action, Coriolanus has no ability to make eloquent speeches, to politic, or to even pretend that he does. Throughout the play, Coriolanus is told to use his words and his eloquence to win the “voices” of the common people, but his language simply fails him. He is not able (or is not willing) to speak, and he even says that he prefers wounds to words. Ultimately, Coriolanus tries to stop speaking (and stop engaging with language) altogether. When leading a vengeful military attack on Rome, Coriolanus is met by his former advisors and generals, but he refuses to speak with them or hear them. It’s not until his mother confronts him with first a long speech and then a painful, silent demand for a response that he abandons his military pursuit (action) in favor of language. This decision saves Rome, but it quickly leads to Coriolanus’s death, which is in turn caused by Aufidius’s own language.
Names and naming are also a crucial aspect of the way language operates within the play. In Rome, the naming system was based on three names: praenomen, nomen, and cognomen. The nomen was a family name, used to identify families and clans within Rome. Caius Martius’s son, for example, is only referred to as Young Martius. The praenomen, like Caius, was more personal and used as a first name. However, in Roman naming convention there were only a handful of names in popular use for praenomen, so these names weren’t very useful for distinguishing between people. This is the context in which Caius Martius is given the cognomen (a nickname that then usually becomes hereditary) of “Coriolanus.” Thus, the deed for which he is given the name, conquering Corioles, becomes his defining characteristic – it becomes the essence of himself, and the new name seems to lead him in the transition from human to unfeeling, unhuman hero as explored in the Heroism vs. Humanity theme. Yet Coriolanus, who is inept when it comes to language, has no idea of the power that names carry. Coriolanus tries to spare a man from the city of Corioles, for example, but he cannot because he forgets the man’s name. The casual unimportance of that Volscian’s name in all likelihood leads to his death. Likewise, Coriolanus seems unaware that for Volscians, his new surname is a constant reminder of the way he ravaged their city, an insult added to injury that helps push them to turn on him and murder him.
Language and Names ThemeTracker
Language and Names Quotes in Coriolanus
There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ th’ midst o’ th’ body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labor with the rest, where th’ other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body.
The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members. For examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o’ th’ common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves.
I shall lack voice. The deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be uttered feebly.
At sixteen years,
When Tarquin made a head for Rome, he fought
Beyond the mark of others. Our then dictator,
Whom with all praise I point at, saw him fight
When with his Amazonian chin he drove
The bristled lips before him. He bestrid
An o’erpressed Roman and i’ th’ Consul’s view
Slew three opposers. Tarquin’s self he met
And struck him on his knee. In that day’s feats,
When he might act the woman in the scene,
He proved best man i’ th’ field and for his meed
Was brow-bound with the oak. His pupil age
Man-entered thus, he waxèd like a sea,
And in the brunt of seventeen battles since
He lurched all swords of the garland.
Before and in Corioles, let me say,
I cannot speak him home. He stopped the flyers
And by his rare example made the coward
Turn terror into sport. As weeds before
A vessel under sail, so men obeyed
And fell below his stem. His sword, Death’s stamp,
Where it did mark, it took; from face to foot
He was a thing of blood, whose every motion
Was timed with dying cries. Alone he entered
The mortal gate o’ th’ city, which he painted
With shunless destiny; aidless came off
And with a sudden reinforcement struck
Corioles like a planet.
We have power in ourselves to do it, but
it is a power that we have no power to do; for, if
he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we
are to put our tongues into those wounds and
speak for them. So, if he tell us his noble deeds, we
must also tell him our noble acceptance of them.
Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to
be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude,
of the which, we being members, should
bring ourselves to be monstrous members.
The mutable, rank-scented meiny, let them
Regard me, as I do not flatter, and
Therein behold themselves. I say again,
In soothing them, we nourish ’gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plowed for, sowed, and
By mingling them with us, the honored number,
Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that
Which they have given to beggars.
His nature is too noble for the world.
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident
Or Jove for ’s power to thunder. His heart’s his
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent,
And, being angry, does forget that ever
He heard the name of death.
SICINIUS: He’s a disease that must be cut away.
MENENIUS: O, he’s a limb that has but a disease—
Mortal to cut it off; to cure it easy.
What has he done to Rome that’s worthy death?
Killing our enemies, the blood he hath lost—
Which I dare vouch is more than that he hath
By many an ounce—he dropped it for his country;
And what is left, to lose it by his country
Were to us all that do ’t and suffer it
A brand to th’ end o’ th’ world.
MENENIUS: Return to th’ Tribunes.
CORIOLANUS: Well, what then? What then?
MENENIUS: Repent what you have spoke.
CORIOLANUS: For them? I cannot do it to the gods.
Must I then do ’t to them?
VOLUMNIA: You are too absolute,
Though therein you can never be too noble
But when extremities speak.
For in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant
More learnèd than the ears—waving thy head,
Which often thus correcting thy stout heart,
Now humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling. Or say to them
Thou art their soldier and, being bred in broils,
Hast not the soft way, which thou dost confess
Were fit for thee to use as they to claim,
In asking their good loves; but thou wilt frame
Thyself, forsooth, hereafter theirs, so far
As thou hast power and person.
To beg of thee, it is my more dishonor
Than thou of them. Come all to ruin. Let
Thy mother rather feel thy pride than fear
Thy dangerous stoutness, for I mock at death
With as big heart as thou. Do as thou list.
Thy valiantness was mine; thou suck’st it from me,
But owe thy pride thyself.
The fires i’ th’ lowest hell fold in the people!
Call me their traitor? Thou injurious tribune!
Within thine eyes sat twenty thousand deaths,
In thy hands clutched as many millions, in
Thy lying tongue both numbers, I would say
“Thou liest” unto thee with a voice as free
As I do pray the gods.
You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’ th’ 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 rumor shake your hearts;
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders, till at length
Your ignorance—which finds not till it feels,
Making but reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes—deliver you
As most abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising
For you the city, thus I turn my back.
There is a world elsewhere.
Anger’s my meat. I sup upon myself
And so shall starve with feeding.
Come, let’s go.
Leave this faint puling, and lament as I do,
In anger, Juno-like. Come, come, come.
My name is Caius Martius, who hath done
To thee particularly and to all the Volsces
Great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may
My surname Coriolanus. The painful service,
The extreme dangers, and the drops of blood
Shed for my thankless country are requited
But with that surname, a good memory
And witness of the malice and displeasure
Which thou shouldst bear me. Only that name
O Martius, Martius,
Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart
A root of ancient envy.
Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, whereagainst
My grainèd ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarred the moon with splinters.
Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
He is their god; he leads them like a thing
Made by some other deity than Nature,
That shapes man better; and they follow him
Against us brats with no less confidence
Than boys pursuing summer butterflies
Or butchers killing flies.
Yet one time he did call me by my name.
I urged our old acquaintance, and the drops
That we have bled together. “Coriolanus”
He would not answer to, forbade all names.
He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
Till he had forged himself a name o’ th’ fire
Of burning Rome.
There’s no man in the world
More bound to ’s mother, yet here he lets me prate
Like one i’ th’ stocks. Thou hast never in thy life
Showed thy dear mother any courtesy
When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood,
Has clucked thee to the wars and safely home,
Loaden with honor. Say my request’s unjust
And spurn me back; but if it be not so,
Thou art not honest, and the gods will plague thee
That thou restrain’st from me the duty which
To a mother’s part belongs.
Volumnia: This fellow had a Volscian to his mother,
His wife is in Corioles, and his child
Like him by chance.—Yet give us our dispatch.
I am hushed until our city be afire,
And then I’ll speak a little.
(He holds her by the hand, silent.)
CORIOLANUS: O mother, mother!
What have you done?
There is differency between a grub and a
butterfly, yet your butterfly was a grub. This Martius
is grown from man to dragon. He has wings;
he’s more than a creeping thing.
When he walks, he moves like an engine, and the ground
shrinks before his treading. He is able to pierce a
corslet with his eye, talks like a knell, and his hum
is a battery. He sits in his state as a thing made for
Alexander. What he bids be done is finished with
his bidding. He wants nothing of a god but eternity
and a heaven to throne in.
AUFIDIUS: Tell the traitor in the highest degree
He hath abused your powers.
CORIOLANUS: “Traitor”? How now?
AUFIDIUS: Ay, traitor, Martius.
AUFIDIUS: Ay, Martius, Caius Martius. Dost thou think
I’ll grace thee with that robbery, thy stol’n name
Coriolanus, in Corioles?
You lords and heads o’ th’ state, perfidiously
He has betrayed your business and given up
For certain drops of salt your city Rome—
I say your city—to his wife and mother,
Breaking his oath and resolution like
A twist of rotten silk, never admitting
Counsel o’ th’ war, but at his nurse’s tears
He whined and roared away your victory,
That pages blushed at him and men of heart
Looked wond’ring each at other.
CORIOLANUS: Hear’st thou, Mars?
AUFIDIUS: Name not the god, thou boy of tears.
Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads,
Stain all your edges on me. “Boy”? False hound!
If you have writ your annals true, ’tis there
That like an eagle in a dovecote, I
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles,
Alone I did it. “Boy”!