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Coriolanus /

Reading Shakespeare’s Language: Coriolanus

By Barbara Mowat and Paul Werstine
Editors of the Folger Shakespeare Library Editions

For many people today, reading Shakespeare’s language can be a problem—but it is a problem that can be solved. Those who have studied Latin (or even French or German or Spanish), and those who are used to reading poetry, will have little difficulty understanding the language of poetic drama. Others, though, need to develop the skills of untangling unusual sentence structures and of recognizing and understanding poetic compressions, omissions, and wordplay. And even those skilled in reading unusual sentence structures may have occasional trouble with Shakespeare’s words. More than four hundred years of “static” intervene between his speaking and our hearing. Most of his vocabulary is still in use, but a few of his words are no longer used, and many of his words now have meanings quite different from those they had in the seventeenth century. In the theater, most of these difficulties are solved for us by actors who study the language and articulate it for us so that the essential meaning is heard—or, when combined with stage action, is at least felt. When we are reading on our own, we must do what each actor does: go over the lines (often with a dictionary close at hand) until the puzzles are solved and the lines yield up their poetry and the characters speak in words and phrases that are, suddenly, rewarding and wonderfully memorable.

Shakespeare’s Words

As you begin to read the opening scenes of a Shakespeare play, you may notice occasional unfamiliar words. Some are unfamiliar simply because we no longer use them. In the early scenes of Coriolanus, for example, one finds the words unactive (i.e., lazy), bemock (i.e., flout), mammocked (i.e., tore to pieces), and vaward (i.e., vanguard). Words of this kind will become familiar the more Shakespeare plays you read.

In Coriolanus, as in all of Shakespeare’s writing, more problematic are the words that are still in use but that now have different meanings. In the opening scenes of Coriolanus, for example, the word nerves is used where we would say “sinews,” cranks where we would say “channels,” and disease where we would say “trouble.” Such words, too, will become familiar as you continue to read Shakespeare’s language.

Some words are strange not because of the “static” introduced by changes in language over the past centuries but because these are words that Shakespeare is using to build a dramatic world that has its own space, time, and history. In the opening scene of Coriolanus, for example, the dramatist quickly establishes the setting in the very early days of Rome by delineating its civil strife between what he has his patricians call the “helms o’ th’ state” (i.e., themselves) and the “dissentious rogues” as they fight over “the weal o’ th’ common.” He also arms the “mutinous rascals” with “pikes” and “staves.” Such language quickly constructs Coriolanus’s Rome; the words and the world they create will become increasingly familiar as you get further into the play.

Shakespeare’s Sentences

In an English sentence, meaning is quite dependent on the place given each word. “The dog bit the boy” and “The boy bit the dog” mean very different things, even though the individual words are the same. Because English places such importance on the positions of words in sentences, on the way words are arranged, unusual arrangements can puzzle a reader. Shakespeare frequently shifts his sentences away from “normal” English arrangements—often to create the rhythm he seeks, sometimes to use a line’s poetic rhythm to emphasize a particular word, sometimes to give a character his or her own speech patterns or to allow the character to speak in a special way. When we attend a good performance of the play, the actors will have worked out the sentence structures and will articulate the sentences so that the meaning is clear. When reading the play, we need to do as the actor does: that is, when puzzled by a character’s speech, check to see if words are being presented in an unusual sequence.

Often Shakespeare rearranges subjects and verbs (e.g., instead of “He goes” we find “Goes he”). In Coriolanus, when the eponymous hero says “Yonder comes news” (1.4.1), he uses such a construction. So does Cominius when he says “dare I never” (1.6.82). The “normal” order would be “news comes yonder” and “I never dare.” Shakespeare also frequently places the object before the subject and verb (e.g., instead of “I hit him,” we might find “Him I hit”). The First Volscian Senator provides an example of this inversion when he says “Our gates, / . . . we have but pinned with rushes” (1.4.23–25), and Coriolanus another example when he says of some Roman looters “Cushions, leaden spoons, / Irons of a doit . . . these base slaves . . . pack up” (1.5.5–8). The “normal” order would be “we have but pinned our gates with rushes” and “these base slaves pack up cushions, leaden spoons, irons of a doit.”

Inversions are not the only unusual sentence structures in Shakespeare’s language. Often in his sentences words that would normally appear together are separated from each other. Again, this is frequently done to create a particular rhythm or to stress a particular word, or else to draw attention to a needed piece of information. Take, for example, Cominius’s

                                        the dull tribunes,

That with the fusty plebeians hate thine honors,

Shall say against their hearts “We thank the gods

Our Rome hath such a soldier.”


Here the subject (“the dull tribunes”) is separated from its verb (“shall say”) by the adjective clause “That [i.e., who] with the fusty plebeians hate thine honors.” As the purpose of the sentence is to assert that Coriolanus’s martial feats are so impressive that even the tribunes, his detractors, will have to admire them, the adjective clause characterizing the tribunes as hating his fame has an importance that gives it precedence over the verb. Or take Volumnia’s self-justification for allowing Coriolanus to go to war when still a boy:

I, considering how honor would become such a

person—that it was no better than picturelike to

hang by th’ wall, if renown made it not stir—was

pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to

find fame.


Here the subject and verb (“I . . . was pleased”) are separated by a participial phrase (“considering . . .”) that involves first one clause (“how honor . . .”), then another (“that it was . . .”) and another (“if renown . . .”). This accumulation of language separating subject and verb focuses attention on what was intrinsically appropriate for the boy Coriolanus (“such a person”), as if Volumnia’s desires exercised no influence on her judgment to risk her young son’s life and health in battle. Even when the verb finally arrives, it is passive (“was pleased”); thus Volumnia’s language continues to deny her any role in the action of the son she so obviously shapes to her wishes. In order to create sentences that seem more like the English of everyday speech, one can rearrange the words, putting together the word clusters (“The dull tribunes shall say . . .” and “I was pleased to let . . .”). The result will usually be an increase in clarity but a loss of rhythm or a shift in emphasis.

Often in Coriolanus, rather than separating basic sentence elements, Shakespeare simply holds them back, delaying them until other material to which he wants to give greater emphasis has been presented. He puts this kind of construction in the mouth of Menenius, who says “Why, masters, my good friends, mine honest neighbors, / Will you undo yourselves?” (1.1.63–65). The basic sentence elements (“will you undo”) are here delayed for a moment until Menenius addresses the armed plebeians in three different complimentary ways (“masters, my good friends, mine honest neighbors”) in his effort to mollify them. Cominius employs the same kind of sentence structure—in this case also creating an elaborate example of inversion—when he lavishes the spoils of war on Coriolanus in recompense for the younger man’s extraordinary contribution to the Roman victory, delaying the basic sentence elements of subject and verb (“we render”) in order to place first, and thus to stress, the magnitude of the booty in which Coriolanus will have such a large share:

                                          Of all the horses—

Whereof we have ta’en good and good store—of all

The treasure in this field achieved and city,

We render you the tenth[.]


Finally, in Shakespeare’s plays, sentences are sometimes complicated not because of unusual structures or interruptions but because the dramatist omits words and parts of words that English sentences normally require. (In conversation, we, too, often omit words. We say, “Heard from him yet?” and our hearer supplies the missing “Have you.”) Sometimes in Coriolanus ellipsis contributes to the formality with which Rome’s highest officials speak, as when a senator yields precedence to Coriolanus in order to honor him: “Right worthy you priority” (1.1.279). With the omitted words conjecturally supplied, the senator might be understood to mean “Right worthy are you of priority” (i.e., “You are truly deserving to go first”). At other times, ellipsis conveys brutal vulgarity. After Coriolanus, alone among the Romans, is shut into the hostile Volscian city of Corioles, the Roman soldiers who failed to accompany him into the city predict his ignominious death. “To th’ pot, I warrant him” (1.4.62); conjectural expansion yields “he will be sent to the cooking pot, I warrant him,” suggesting that Coriolanus will be hacked to pieces like food to be boiled in a pot on a fire.

Shakespeare’s Wordplay

Shakespeare plays with language so often and so variously that entire books are written on the topic. Here we will mention only two kinds of wordplay, metaphors and puns. A metaphor is a play on words in which one object or idea is expressed as if it were something else, something with which the metaphor suggests it shares common features. For instance, when the First Citizen describes the effects of a famine on the common people of Rome, he says “we become rakes” (1.1.22–23), comparing himself and his companions in their emaciated condition to ordinary farm implements and invoking the proverb “As lean as a rake.” In discussing a fable that likens the state to a body, the Second Citizen employs a series of metaphors that equate each part with one function: “The counselor heart, the arm our soldier, / Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter” (1.1.119–20). These metaphors seem neutral in tone when set against Coriolanus’s scathing characterization of the plebeians’ behavior in warfare: “He that trusts to you, / Where he should find you lions, finds you hares; / Where foxes, geese” (1.1.181–83). Here Coriolanus uses metaphor to link the common people of Rome with undesirable features of animals—hares are quick to flee danger, and geese readily become the prey of foxes.

A pun is a play on words that sound the same but have different meanings (or on a single word that has more than one meaning). Menenius uses the first kind of pun when he refers to the tribunes as “wealsmen” (2.1.55). Literally, the word means “men devoted to the public good,” but it sounds like “wellsmen,” and Menenius may thus be subtly ridiculing the tribunes for their habit—obvious in the play’s dialogue—of overusing the word well. The same character is given the second kind of pun earlier in the play when he instructs the famine-stricken citizens to cease their armed revolt against the Senate and instead turn to prayer: “For the dearth, / The gods, not the patricians, make it, and / Your knees to them, not arms, must help” (1.1.74–76). Here Menenius puns on the word arms, which means both “weapons” and, as is underscored by its placement after the word knees, “the upper limbs of the body.”

Implied Stage Action

Finally, in reading Shakespeare’s plays we should always remember that what we are reading is a performance script. The dialogue is written to be spoken by actors who, at the same time, are moving, gesturing, picking up objects, weeping, shaking their fists. Some stage action is described in what are called “stage directions”; some is signaled within the dialogue itself. We must learn to be alert to such signals as we stage the play in our imaginations.

Often the dialogue offers an immediately clear indication of the action that is to accompany it. For example, when Menenius says “Take my cap, Jupiter” (2.1.108), he can be assumed to toss his cap in the direction of Jupiter—that is, up into the air. Therefore we feel fairly confident about adding the stage direction “He throws his cap in the air,” putting it in square half-brackets to signal that it is our interpolation, rather than words appearing in the earliest printed text. Again when Volumnia addresses the kneeling Coriolanus with the words “Nay, my good soldier, up” (2.1.179), it seems likely that Coriolanus would immediately obey—first, because he is presented throughout the play as such a dutiful son, and, second, because almost immediately after this exchange he is greeting his wife and others in a way that demands he be standing. Therefore we add the stage direction “He stands” to this line, again putting it in half-brackets.

Occasionally, in Coriolanus, signals to the reader are not so clear. At the end of 1.8, the First Folio presents the fight between Martius (who is not yet Coriolanus) and Aufidius in the following sequence of stage directions and dialogue:

Heere they fight, and certaine Volces come in the ayde of Auffi. Martius fights til they be driuen in breathles.

  [Aufidius.] Officious and not valiant, you haue

  sham’d me

 In your condemned Seconds.

(1.8.19 SD–22)

At least two puzzles arise from this passage. First, if read literally, it sets up a dramatic impossibility: Aufidius’s chastisement of the Volscians for coming to his aid cannot be heard by them if Martius has already driven them offstage (in) before Aufidius issues his rebuke. Second, it is not clear how the scene is to end: the Folio provides no exit for the two main combatants, Aufidius and Martius. Do they exit the stage continuing to fight, with the outcome of their contest left to be reported in later dialogue? Or does their battle end when Aufidius is shamed by the unfair intervention of the Volscians repulsed by Martius, and do he and Martius then exit separately? We have edited the passage as follows to address these questions:

Here they fight, and certain Volsces come in the aid of Aufidius.

To the Volsces. Officious and not valiant, you have  shamed me

In your condemnèd seconds.

Martius fights till they be driven in breathless.

Aufidius and Martius exit separately.

Such editorial change allows the Volscians the opportunity to hear their general’s repudiation of their unwanted intrusion and also resolves the question of how the fight between Aufidius and Coriolanus ends. In the present text, it concludes with Coriolanus’s defeat of the Volscians who come to Aufidius’s aid. However, we would not argue that our (provisional) solution is the only one possible. Hence our use of square half-brackets around the stage direction we have devised; hence too our preservation of the Folio’s version in our Textual Notes, to allow the reader to grapple independently with the problems presented by the Folio.

Practice in reading the language of stage action repays one many times over when one reaches scenes heavily dependent on stage business. Think, for example, of scene 1.4, in which the Romans capture Corioles. The battle begins when the Volscian army enters the stage, presumably through a single door, as if issuing out of the gates of their city. They drive the Romans offstage, presumably through another door, as if “back to their trenches.” While the Volscians are still onstage, Martius reenters from the door through which the Romans have retreated. He rallies the Romans, in turn, to drive the Volscians offstage, back through the door from which they first issued. Alone he follows them through. The stage is now occupied only by the Romans who have abandoned him and who discuss his fate—until he reenters from the door that has come to represent the gates of Corioles. Bleeding from his ongoing fight with the Volscians, he keeps the door (gates) open to admit the Romans and enable them to take the city.

It is immensely rewarding to work carefully with Shakespeare’s language—with the words, the sentences, the wordplay, and the implied stage action—as readers for the past four centuries have discovered. It may be more pleasurable to attend a good performance of a play—though not everyone has thought so. But the joy of being able to stage a Shakespeare play in one’s imagination, to return to passages that continue to yield further meanings (or further questions) the more one reads them—these are pleasures that, for many, rival (or at least augment) those of the performed text, and certainly make it worth considerable effort to “break the code” of Jacobean poetic drama and let free the remarkable language that makes up a Shakespeare text.