Within Shakespeare’s Coriolanusclass is exposed and examined via a variety of methods. He places Coriolanus, the ‘lone, aristocrat, the heroic individual’ against ‘the common people, the hungry, disempowered voices’(CITE THIS VG HANDOUT) to produce a dramatization of class war. However, the war between the two, notably the war of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat is not one where there is a crossing of swords; instead Shakespeare uses the power of language, the imagery, the representation of political democracy, and the powerful voices of both opposing sides to produce a play where the resolution is not forthcoming. Shakespeare chooses to offer a dramatization of this struggle and to place both side by side so the audience can decide whether the proletariats should influence the political sphere and in turn extinguish the class divide.
The opening sees the ‘munitions Citizens with staves, clubs and other weapons’ (1.1), laying the foundations for the play. The citizens, working class proletariats, appear on stage en masse demanding that they are fed. The positioning of the class debate, arguably one that is seen today, and like classic Rome despite changes to the controlling elite, the giving of ‘democracy’, still large groups of citizens are without their basic needs. Shakespeare, four hundred years ago, was positioning the same class divide. Citizen one leads with: ‘you are all resolved rather to die than to famish? (1.1.4) to which they shout ‘resolved, resolved’ (1.1.5). The dramatization of the class war is visual, the audience would hear the crushing words that the citizens would rather die than starve, and they are on the point of rebellion. Plutarch explanation goes some way to explain why the citizens are on the brink as ‘Rome was the consequence of an irresponsible patrician authority which permitted usurious practices to enslave the plebeians’ . Here it is the starving of the citizens, but the citizens are not focusing their predicament on the Senate of Rome, they single out one individual; Caius Martius: ‘first, you know Caius Martius is chief enemy to the people’ (1.1.6) and adds ‘let us kill him’ (1.1.9). The singling out of one individual is more in keeping with the Monarchical state, which Rome had just replaced with a Republic. The killing of one individual would not change the ‘irresponsible patrician authority’ , however, the divide between the classes is founded within the distribution of power. The power of the elite, the bourgeoisie, has been kept, the patricians' rule and, the power does not filter down to the plebeians. Citizen one gives his speech as they see their position: ‘we are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good. What authority surfeits on would relieve us. If they would yield us but the superfluity while it is wholesome, we might guess they relieve us humanely’ (1.1.13-17). The word ‘poor’ (1.1.13) against the word ‘good’ (1.1.14), places the notion that the plebeians are impoverished but also less than the ‘good patricians’. The power of the language drives at the heart of the class debate. The ‘surfeits’ (1.1.14) and ‘superfluity’ (1.1.15) of the corn are used as a political weapon on both sides to control the debate. The plebeians see that the patricians are withholding the corn to oppress them, that if they thought of the plebeians as human, they would ‘relieve’ (1.1.14) them. The powerful language continues and a vivid image is developed: ‘let us revenge this with our pikes ere we become rakes; for god know, I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge’ (1.1.20-23). The citizens envisage them becoming ‘rakes’ (1.1.21) if they do not seek ‘revenge with our pikes’ (1.1.20). The ‘revenge’ (1.1.23) is not sought in ‘thirst’ (1.1.23) but in ‘hunger’ (1.1.23). Tennenhouse reflects that this speech is ‘deliberate opacity’by Shakespeare to ‘complicate our moral response’to the power and ultimately the class struggle. The language of the citizens describing Caius as ‘a very dog to the commonalty’ (1.1.26), is a metaphor that Caius is as ruthless as a dog to the common people. Shakespeare visits this again within Coriolanus; with Caius: ‘what would you have, you curs’ (1.1.163), placing the plebeians as a ‘worthless, low bred or snappish dog’ . The dual use of an image of a dog complicates the moral outlook of the class debate, as the audience sees the plebeians and the patricians both as dogs. It also, as Tennenhouse notes, makes it ‘difficult to sympathize with the furious attack’on Caius. However, placing the speech from citizen one under the lens of a Marxist it is not so difficult. The citizens do not own the means of production, they are exploited and are starving while the elite control, oppress and become ultimately more powerful, as the plebeians are left to ‘become rakes’ (1.1.21).
The patricians are able to prevent the plebeians from shedding their false consciousness. The character of ‘worthy Menenius Agrippa; one that hath always loved the people’ (1.1.46) uses the idea of body politics in order to subdue the workers into submission once again so that they can remain exploited. Menenius’ gives an elegant speech were the political and indeed class position of the patricians is made clear, he announces they are ‘friends’ (1.1.60). This reinforces the idea that Menenius is of the people. He further adds that the ‘patricians’ ‘care’ ‘for your wants’ (1.1.60-61). However this is masked with a veiled threat; ‘you may as well / strike at heaven with your staves, as lift them / against the Roman state, whose course will on / the way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs (1.1.63-65). He is using his voice, a voice that the plebeians believe is one that ‘love[s]d the people’ (1.1.46) to assert control. The plebeians are faced with Menenius words resounding that they have as much hope as raising heaven as they do in changing the Senate, that the Senate is ten thousand times stronger. When Menenius uses his silver-tongued charm to declare that the Senate, ‘care for you like fathers / when you curse them as enemies' (1.1.72-73), the citizen, who had previously had doubts regarding the killing of Caius, speaks up: ‘care for us?' (1.1.74). The voice of the oppressed is heard, the rebellion that is needed to ensure that there is an abolishment of the class divide seems to be poised for action. The citizen continues with: ‘suffer us to famish, and their storehouses / crammed with grain; makes 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. (1.1.75-80), this raging attack brings the divide under the examination of the audience. The citizen is highlighting that the patrician's storehouses are full, while the plebeians are left to famish while making laws that chain up the plebeians. Although Shakespeare is two hundred and fifty years before Karl Marx; Marx uses the same vivid imagery of the working class being held down by chains formed by oppressive laws. Shakespeare is exposing, like Marx, that all the workers have to lose is their chains. Menenius’ silver-tongue charm comes out again and he reinforces a false consciousness of the citizens by obscuring the reality of the grain situation: ‘I shall tell you / a pretty tale’ (1.1.84-85). He promotes an ideological process by fabricating a tale of the belly metaphor. He speaks as if telling a bedtime story to his children, ‘There was a time' (1.1.91) is almost the same as once upon a time. What follows is a vision, where to Menenius the patricians play the role of the stomach within the human body. The stomach is the storehouse of the nutrients, and so dispenses them to the rest of the body. The parallel can be drawn in that the Roman patricians collect and dispense the grain to the city. Menenius’ view of the plebeians is also shown to a degree with his analogy that the rebelling citizens are the ‘toe of this assembly’ (1.1.150). The toe representing the bottom of the body, and Menenius muses that it is because the rebels are the ‘lowest, basest, poorest’ (1.1.153). As Garber writers, ‘Shakespeare’s masterful Menenius is at once funny, deft and pointed’ , he is to the class debate the astute politician. He is able to twist, manipulate, and portray that they are cared for by the state by telling them a fable. The plebeians are standing there shouting for democracy, for the bread and he is buying them off with ‘utterance’of blank verse. The ‘utterance’ of ‘funny’, ‘deft’ and ‘pointed’ language is shattered as Caius marches onto the stage and with ‘single ill-tempered curse’ .
Caius’ shattering curse: ‘what’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion / Make yourself scabs? (1.1.159-161). Caius’ opinion of the plebeians is shameless, they are ‘scabs’ and their opinion is an ‘itch’ (1.1.161).Menenius’ smooth-talking charm has been dulled and the audience are confronted with the reality of the situation. Those with the power really do not care, in this play they do not care about the plebeians, but the timeless nature of Coriolanus this attitude can be applied throughout the ages. The attitude that indeed the lower class can starve, rebellion is pointless, and the common person needs representing within the chosen form of government. Although this is a moot point, as the true sense of equality is to have no hierarchy. Hierarchy brings with it power and ‘power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely ‘CITE Caius has hierarchical power, the power afforded him by his status. From Caius’ entrance onto the stage his positioning is one against the plebeians: ‘he that will give good words to thee will flatter / beneath abhorring’ (1.1.162-163). Caius turning to answer the citizen who dared to voice their discontent; ‘thee’ (1.1.162) positioning his authority, highlighting that he believes his social standing is superior to theirs. What comes next it a diatribe against the plebeians, ‘hares, foxes, geese’ (1.1.166-167), are all used as insults. Imagery of language is used to dramatize the class divide: ‘no surer, no, / than is the coal of fire upon the ice / or hailstone in the sun’ (1.1.167-169), the idea that the plebeians are as insecure as burning coal on ice, or as hailstone is to the sun. ‘Your virtue is / to make him worthy whose offence subdues’, (1.1.169-170), for Caius, as indeed for the Roman elite, virtue was valour. The valour on the battlefield was idolised and integral part of being worthy enough to be a voice within the Senate. The noble death of fighting, as seen when Volumnia thanks ‘the gods for’t’ (CITE 2.1.120ish) Caius’ battle scars when fighting the Volsces; for the ethic of the elite class is one where valour is won on the battlefield. This is visited again, ‘our gentleman, / the common file a plague! tribunes for them! / the mouse ne’er shunned the cat as they did budge / from rascals worse than they’ (CITE 1.6.42ish), Caius, again using animal imagery to dramatically elucidate that the plebeians should be cursed with a plague, tried for their lack of valour; as they ran away like a mouse does from a cat. For Caius he is morally superior to the plebeians, he stands and fights the Volscians, enters Corioles alone and wins. They instead remain in the trenches, this adds to why Caius does not view them as significant and are not worthy of being included in decisions, especially not worthy of entering the Senate. Ultimately Caius’ being unable to ‘humour’ or move away from his aristocratic moral code brings about his downfall. He fails to appreciate that the nobility are reliant on the plebeians and for Caius to become Coriolanus he needs these ‘hares, foxes, geese’ (1.1.166-167). Caius is not astute and when Cominius orders Caius to be named Coriolanus the permanence of the title relies on the consent of common people.