Edited by George R. Goethals and Georgia L.J. Sorenson
Chapter 4: Power
Michael Harvey We have power in ourselves to do it, but it is a power that we have no power to do. Third Citizen, Coriolanus (2.3.4–5)1 Coriolanus, a study of early 17th-century English political anxieties set in an cient Rome, is Shakespeare’s most searching meditation on power and leadership. It’s a bitter and ambiguous play, filled with largely unlikeable char acters jostling for power – one critic, Eric Bentley, called Coriolanus ‘the struggle of wrong and wrong’ (1954, 186). Caius Marcius Coriolanus, the im perious warrior who as a youth helped drive out the last king of Rome and bears the scars of a lifetime of warfare and command, decides to seek the consulship. The move from military to civil power requires him to learn a new kind of leadership and cultivate a truly reciprocal relationship with the commoners he has always disdained, for they have a crucial (though limited) voice in the elec tion of a consul. Shakespeare begins the play with images of conflict and power as physical force: mutinous citizens with rude weapons, Menenius’ fable of the belly with its literal imagining of the body politic (‘the arm our soldier’ [1.1.105]), war between Rome and the neighboring Volscians, soldiers armed with swords, and standing above all, the haughty, blood-drenched, heroic Cori olanus (the word ‘hero,’ a Coriolanus scholar reminds us, derives from the Greek word for ‘warrior’ [Maus 1997, 2785]). In the play, it is not the aristocratic Coriolanus but an anonymous commoner – one of...
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