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Unbuilding the City: Coriolanus and the Birth of Republican Rome


“Unbuilding the City” considers the issue of republicanism in Coriolanus criticism and in early modern studies more generally, with special emphasis on how this issue relates to questions about bounded selfhood, thought to be emerging in early modernity. The essay argues against prorepublican readings of the play—and against norms associated with the bounded self—by demonstrating the salience to the play of recent theory, particularly that of Giorgio Agamben and Leo Bersani. And although Coriolanus is not a prorepublican or protoliberal document, it is still a politically viable one; if the play exhibits skepticism about bounded selfhood, it also exhibits investment in forms of self-undoing, especially in the representation of Coriolanus himself. Often read as the character most taken by the wish for bordered selfhood, Coriolanus is just the opposite; the value of the character, Kuzner contends, rests in our seeing just that. Belonging to Rome, Coriolanus is often used as its sword; he is a killer and is himself killed. But in seeking to exist outside Rome’s fictions, Coriolanus also stands for other, more habitable forms of exposed, unprotected existence. Bearing a historical likeness to Jonathan Goldberg’s sodomite and a theoretical likeness to Bersani’s gay outlaw, Coriolanus points to a way to life that is openly vulnerable but also livable, to a Sodom whose residents would renounce the constructs of discrete social identity and bodily integrity alike, a place in which subjects would perish but life would not.

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