What Are We to Make of Shakespeare’s Use of Bodies in Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus?

For my first post, I thought I would share an essay that I wrote while attending UCSC.  I won two prizes for this piece, and it is an example of some of my best work. I PROMISE that future posts will NOT be this long.  This post is unique in that it is waaaay more scholarly, it isn’t really a book review, and its pretty lengthy. I haven’t yet worked out the format and style that I want to use for regular posts but I do want to upload something to get this blog started. Enjoy!

A repeating theme in many of Shakespeare’s Roman plays is the parallel between Rome and the human body. He connects the two often enough that it becomes impossible to ignore the significance, and in fact, the two are so often conflated that it is sometimes difficult to distinguish one from the other. Shakespeare is seemingly fascinated with the body as a surface onto which hierarchical power, political agenda, and gendered meaning can be ascribed. He concentrates on both the physical body and the representative Roman body in many of his plays, but most explicitly in Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus. In both plays, Shakespeare demonstrates how individual and collective advancement within Roman power structures is achieved through the exploitation of the body—be it their own, or the body someone else. He also engages with the figurative Roman body in both plays as a way of making sense of hierarchical power structures.

Shakespeare makes use the body in both Titus Andronicus and Coriolanus as a way of showing his audience what is problematic about Roman power structures, in that Roman behavior often fails to align with the cooperative, albeit automatic system of an anatomic body. Another way of putting this is that Shakespeare draws his spectator’s attention to the body, not as a means to congratulate Roman leaders on their structural success, but rather as a method to critique those behaviors, and illuminate episodes when the introduction of foreign objects causes body parts to behave in a way that is different than that which is expected of them, resulting in death and suffering.

Shakespeare portrays Rome as a figurative body in Titus Andronicus, and his characters refer to the Empire as a body throughout much of the play. Marcus argues that Rome without a ruler is a “headless” body – but a “glorious” body, according to Titus (Titus Andronicus 1.1.189-90). At the conclusion of the play, after some of the most influential Roman politicians kill one other, a Roman Lord suggests that Rome has done “shameful execution on herself.” Also, Marcus offers to teach Roman men how to knit the “broken limbs” of the Empire back into “one body” (V.3.70-73, 76). There are many points of interest in these quotes, such as the assignment of gender to various body parts – the head is clearly male, yet the empire as a whole is female. To remove the masculine “head” of an evidently “broken” empire is shameful. There is no denying the brokenness of Rome, considering the number of dead bodies that pile up on the stage by the end of the closing scene – possibly the bloodiest of all Shakespeare’s plays! What is most clear, however, is that these broken parts of Rome are incapable of working together to keep the empire running smoothly, and seemingly, the biggest problem is the incorporation of the foreign Tamora.

Shortly after the Queen of the Goths is captured, she is subjected to plead with Titus that he spare the life of her son – which is swiftly followed by his murder. She then observes a wild exchange between the Roman rulers, Saturninus and Bassianus, as they disagree over who should be married to Titus’ daughter Lavinia – a quiet, albeit obedient object of trade—which eventually culminates in Titus killing his own son, Martius. After all of the mayhem, Bassianus keeps Lavinia for himself, and Saturninus chooses Tamora to take her place, proclaiming, “Behold, I choose thee, Tamora for my bride / And will create the Empress of Rome” (I.1.322). She agrees and as the conversation progresses she addresses Titus: “Titus, I am incorporate in Rome, / A Roman now adopted happily,” (I.1.465-66). Tamora, an outside force—an evil one at that—is incorporated into the body of Rome, and even more importantly, she is incorporated into the head of Rome. And, it is her welcomed incorporation that tears the empire apart. Out of revenge against Titus for having her son killed, she has Lavinia raped and then frames Titus’ sons for Bassianus’ murder—for which they are promptly put to death.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists a few definitions for the term incorporate, but the two that are most relevant to this context are as follows. The first reads: “To combine or unite into one body or uniform substance; to mix or blend thoroughly together” (“Incorporate”). The second definition reads: “To admit (a person) as member of a company or association; to receive or adopt into a corporation or body politic” (“Incorporate”). Both of these definitions demonstrate a shift from the combining of physical elements to the development of human relationships or combining of representative bodies into a blended whole. Like the first definition suggests, Tamora is incorporated into Rome through a blending or uniting process – that is to say, she is united with Saturninus, and their individual differences are (supposedly) dissolved through marriage. Secondly, because she marries Saturninus, she becomes a member of the Roman political system. Her incorporation is equalizing in the sense that she loses the title of an enemy in exchange for Roman citizenship, but she is also admitted to a position that grants her power within a body to which she is foreign. Finally, what is most interesting about Tamora’s incorporation into the Roman body is that she is later expelled right back out by the new male head, Lucius. Tamora is an alien object in the body of Rome, and she is so destructive to the rest of the body that it can no longer contain her poison, and so she is eventually vomited out. In this case, the body of Rome recognizes what has made it sick, and thereby rids itself of the problem, but not without first allowing it to wreak havoc.

Like in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare makes use of the figurative Roman body in Coriolanus. He does this at the opening of the play when Menenius addresses the Roman citizens. For this discussion, it is important to point out that Menenius is a patrician and the citizens are plebeians – there is a clear class difference. The play opens in the midst of what is about to become a plebeian revolt against the patricians—specifically, Caius Martius (Coriolanus)—because the plebeians are starving, they want to set their own prices for grain, and they believe that “Caius Martius is chief enemy to the people” (I.1.7-8). And, while it is true that Coriolanus harbors a deep hatred towards the citizens and does not keep his opinions to himself, it is not obvious why they think killing him will solve their food problems. In any case, Menenius arrives on the scene and offers the citizens an idea of the inner-workings of Rome through the analogy of the human body.

He suggests that Rome as a whole is a body, and it contains a belly – the senators, a heart – the court, and other superfluous body parts – the citizens. The belly is responsible for holding the grain. He claims, “‘True is it, my incorporate friends… that I receive the general food at first, / Which you do live upon; and fit it is, / Because I am a storehouse and the shop / Of the whole body” (I.1.128-132). Note the use of the term incorporate. Like Tamora, the citizens are also adopted into the political body of Rome. He goes on to explain, “I send it [food] through the rivers of your blood / Even to the court, the heart, to th’ seat o th’ brain… The strongest nerves and small inferior veins / From me receive that natural competency” (I.1.133-37). He then goes on to explain his metaphor, “The senators of Rome are this good belly, / And you the mutinous members… you shall find / No public benefit which you receive / But it proceeds or comes from them to you, / And in no way from yourselves” (I.1.147-52).

This rather self-aggrandizing speech does a few things. First, Menenius swiftly and artfully puts the plebeians back in their place by reminding them that they will always be at the good will of the patricians because they have control over the food supply. He reminds them that although they are incorporate in the body of Rome, they are not very important, and in fact they do not benefit other parts of the body at all – nor are they in any way self-sufficient. He even refers to one of the mouthier citizens as, “the great toe of this assembly” (I.1.153) Throughout the play, the citizens are frequently referred to as unpleasant ailments of the body. Coriolanus calls them “scabs” in Act I, and then later in Act III, “measles.” Like in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare uses these cruel titles to demonstrate that Rome is sick.

As is made evident by the analogy that Menenius so self-importantly shares with the citizens, the senators are responsible for the most important undertakings of the body as a whole. They process everything before passing it along to everyone else. Meanwhile, the court handles the heart, and the tribunes are an undefined part of the body – not quite as important as the belly or brain, but certainly more important than the toe. Each of these parts has a responsibility, and assuming they each do their job, nothing should go wrong. And yet, this is not actually what happens. If the citizens are starving, then clearly the belly is not passing the food along at reasonable rates. Also, Menenius’ claim that the plebeians are useless is entirely false. In fact, the fate of Rome rests in theirs and the tribune’s hands when Coriolanus is cast out of Rome. It is because of their behavior that Coriolanus decides to turn against Rome – a reaction that could potentially have lead to the death of the very body he was once a part of.

Like the tribunes, Coriolanus is an undefined component of the body, but a very important one nonetheless. Plutarch describes Coriolanus in the following way: “He was a man too full of passion and choler, and too much given over to self-will and opinion, as one of a high mind and great courage, that lacked the gravity, and affability that is gotten with the judgment of learning and reason, which only is to be looked for in the governor of state” (Life of Coriolanus). He is an intense character who has been forced to live in a society with strict behavioral requirements, and he simply does not fit in. After Coriolanus refuses to hear Menenius during his revenge march, Menenius notes, “His heart ‘s his mouth” which is a perfect description of Menenius. He says whatever he wants with no regard for consequences, as opposed to most others who follow the rules of Roman decorum, and apply a filter. The Oxford English Dictionary has a very interesting definition of the heart that fits very nicely with the context of Menenius’ quote. It reads, “The bodily organ considered or imagined as the seat of feelings, understanding, and thought”, and the sub-definition reads, “In the most general sense: the mind (including the functions of feeling and volition as well as intellect)” (“Heart”). How interesting that Coriolanus’ mouth is the proxy for his feelings and understanding, and even more specifically his mind, which functions according to his volition. In other words, his feelings and his decisions are one and the same, and because his mouth and heart are also one and the same, he cannot contain anything. His explosive personality and his inability to live according to specific standards as they relate to the Roman body are what make him different.

An excellent example of Coriolanus’ rebellious behavior is his disinterest in having his wounds praised. He claims, “I would rather have my wounds to heal again / Than hear say how I got them” (II.2.68-9). This is in direct opposition with how his mother feels about them; she exclaims, “O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for’t” (II.1.118). By showing his wounds, Coriolanus would be subjecting himself to the exploitation of others, because for him, the wounds are just signs of weakness. However, it is important to note that they are also a source of power.

Turning back to the Oxford English Dictionary, there is much to be said about the meaning of the word wound as it relates to Coriolanus’ position within the body of Rome. The most well-known definition characterizes the term as “a hurt caused by the laceration or separation of the tissues of the body by a hard or sharp instrument…” (“Wound”). It is also defined as “an oath or strong exclamation” and, the wounds of Christ are cited (“Wound”). The first definition suggests that his wounds are the result of an interaction with someone or something else. So, after an altercation of some sort, a torn, separated mess appears in the place of the “uniform” blended whole of the incorporated body. The second definition suggests that wounds are dynamic. They are powerful in such a way that they become properties onto which others can make oaths. This insight sheds some light on the complicated break in Coriolanus and his mother’s relationship.

Volumnia and Coriolanus are participants in a strange and twisted relationship. As mentioned earlier, Volumnia cares deeply about Coriolanus’ success as a war hero. In a conversation between Volumnia and Coriolanus’ wife, she gushes in prose about her son’s ability to seek honor: “I, considering how honor would become such a person… was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame” (I.3.9-13). She goes on to take credit for his success, “To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned… I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man” (I.3.13-17). This is not the only time she takes credit for his success. Later she tells him, “Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck’st it from me” (III.2.129).

Volumnia seems to live vicariously through Coriolanus and even appears to see him as an extension of her own body. During their confrontation in the final act, she reminds him, “There’s no man in the world / More bound to’s mother…” (V.3.148-49). She goes so far as to tell him that “thou shalt no sooner / March to assault thy country than to tread… on they mother’s womb / That brought thee to this world” (V.3.124-25). Volumnia clearly sees herself as a representation of Rome, thereby implying that Coriolanus’ relationship with her is a symbol of his relationship with his country. He is a part of the body of Rome, and by extension, he is part of the body of Volumnia. So, after the body of Rome spits him out – not unlike the way that Tamara was treated – and Coriolanus responds by turning on Rome, he also severs his relationship with his mother. His physical wounds, which were earned for his mother and country, are also the means by which he separates himself from them. Another way to put this is that Coriolanus’ physical wounds give him a tangible power through which he can initiate a disincorporation from his mother and country. His physical wounds – which are a literal “separation of tissue” parallel the psychological wounds that allow him to separate himself from the control of mother, thereby freeing himself from her overbearing control for a short time.

Regardless of this significant break, the mother and son are eventually reunited, just as Coriolanus is reunited with his country. After Volumnia presents herself to Coriolanus and delivers a touching speech, he changes his mind and abandons the attack. Perhaps he is so moved by her speech that he repents of his feelings of ill-will. Or, what is more likely, perhaps he comes to the realization that he interminably shares a bodily oneness with her, and it cannot be shaken. In Plutarch’s Comparison of Alcibiades and Coriolanus he suggests that Coriolanus “should have spared his his mother because his mother and wife were members of the body of his country and city, which he did besiege.” This is more-or-less what he does. He pardons Rome, not because he no longer wants revenge against the body of Rome, but because he is acting in self-preservation. To destroy her would be to destroy himself.

Shakespeare uses Coriolanus and Tamora to serve a purpose in the two plays. Despite their differing motives, both characters are responsible for illuminating the ill-functioning body of Rome. In Coriolanus’ case, it is his inability to fit in, and his problematic relationship with his mother that gets him cast out of Rome, thereby resulting in the potential destruction of the body through revenge. Coriolanus does not have an obvious place in the metaphorical body of Rome because he does not have the proper attitude; simultaneously, he keeps his physical body to himself, thereby failing to satisfy the Roman need to exploit it for their own use. He simply does not fit in anywhere. Like Tamora, he is something of a foreign element, trying to find a place within a barely functioning body, and it just does not work. And, like Tamora, he is expelled. However, unlike Tamora, he returns to destroy the body that rejected him. In Tamara’s case, she is incorporated into a body that does not realize how sick she will make them until it is too late. By then, she has already done irreparable damage, and she must go. Shakespeare integrates this critique beautifully into his plays in such a way that is discernible yet nuanced. It is available such that with a bit of curiosity and intent, the new or seasoned Shakespeare scholar could undoubtedly uncover all of the richness that lies beneath the surface.


Works Cited

Plutarch, John Dryden, and Arthur Hugh Clough. “The Comparison of

Plutarch, John Dryden, and Arthur Hugh Clough. “The Comparison of Alicibiades with Marcius

Coriolanus.” Plutarch’s Lives of Themistocles, Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades, and Coriolanus, Demosthenes, and Cicero, Cæsar and Antony. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909. N. pag. Print.

Plutarch, John Dryden, and Arthur Hugh Clough. “The Life of Marcius Coriolanus.”

Plutarch’s Lives of Themistocles, Pericles, Aristides, Alcibiades, and Coriolanus, Demosthenes, and Cicero, Cæsar and Antony. New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909. N. pag. Print.

Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus, Edited by Jonathan Crewe. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus, Edited by Russ McDonald. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.


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