Coriolanus’s Wounds

Coriolanus’s Wounds

  Brut.  I heard him swear,
Were he to stand for consul, never would he
Appear i’ the market-place nor on him put
The napless vesture of humility;
Nor showing, as the manner is, his wounds
To the people, beg their stinking breaths.

Coriolanus, 2.1.231-36

In Plutarch’s Lives, the proud general Coriolanus, seeking public office, dons a gown of humility in the marketplace, sues the Roman citizens for their favor, and shows them the wounds and scars he received in 17 years of wartime service. The citizens are aware of his contempt for them, but his wounds compel them to elect him consul nonetheless. In Roman literature and in Shakespearean drama alike, wounds are mouths, and they all say the same thing: “This man is a valiant and honorable soldier.” Wounds are signs of virtue, signs that invert the usual significance of stigma: wounds signify virtue while other physical marks like deformity, disability, and disease are signs of vice. In fact, on the early English stage, wounds signify the highest virtue: in the Corpus Christi cycles, the resurrected Christ displays his divinity by showing his stigmata to a doubting Thomas. In Shakespeare’s play, however, Coriolanus refuses to fulfill the figure of Christ, refuses to show his wounds to the Roman people, refuses to perform this histrionic custom. His wounds exist, yet neither the Romans on the stage nor we in the audience ever actually see the wounds: they hide underneath his gown, and thus their significance reverts back to viciousness. Even as they signify his Roman valor and Christian virtue, they come in their hiddenness to signify the error of pride, the error that gets Coriolanus banished from Rome and inaugurates the tragic action of the play. Coriolanus declares himself to be an exception, not an exception like Freud’s Richard III, whose deformed birth was so unfair that he felt justified excusing himself from the compulsions of legality and morality, but an exception in the sense that the German political theorist Carl Scmidtt spoke of the sovereign as the one with the power and authority to declare when the rules would not apply. In Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus’s pride is not counterbalanced by his wounds, as happens in Plutarch’s Lives; instead, his pride is expressed specifically in his refusal to show his wounds. Plutarch’s Coriolanus is proud because he is a masculine warrior while the Romans are effeminate citizens. This Coriolanus has no problem showing his wounds because those wounds show him to be an accomplished warrior. But Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is proud because he refuses to perform for the Roman people. This Coriolanus cannot show his wounds because he cannot engage in something that is staged by actors for audiences. In the end, what the example of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus draws attention to is (1) the dramatic and (2) the circumstantial nature of stigma. First, the showing of the wounds is a show for the audience in the theater as much as it is for the citizens in the drama. Second, stigma takes its meaning from the context in which it originates and operates, and no stigma has an absolute value, whether it is the positively valued war wounds of Coriolanus, or the negatively valued deformity of someone like Richard III.


Wounds in Classical Literature
Wounds in the Corpus Christi Cycles
Wounds in Shakespeare 


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