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Coriolanus and The Body Politic: Martius’ Butterfly

Early in the action of Coriolanus (act 1, scene 3), Shakespeare surprises us with a scene of familial intimacy. Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother, discusses the behavior of her grandson, young Martius, who plays at being a soldier in emulation of his father. “He had rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his schoolmaster,” Volumnia says proudly. “I saw him run after a gilded butterfly,” says Valeria, another Roman matron, who continues, describing a scene of childlike play that ends unexpectedly:

… and when he caught it, he let it go again, and after it again, and over and over he comes, and up again, catched it again. Or whether his fall enraged him, or how ’twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it.

“O, I warrant it,” Valeria swears, “how he mammocked it!”

A mammock is a hunk of meat, or, more figuratively a scrap, shred or fragment. This passage is the first time it appears as a verb in the English language, in Shakespeare’s vivid image of dismemberment. In our contemporary era of gun violence, when military weapons and ideologies can intrude into the private sphere of children’s lives with horrific consequences, Shakespeare suddenly looks prescient indeed. And there is much more at stake than butterflies.

In fact, this image stands in for Coriolanus as a whole. Shakespeare draws his plot from Plutarch’s Lives, which tells the story of the aristocratic Caius Martius Coriolanus, the great Roman warrior who helped establish democracy by defeating Tarquin the Proud only to lead an army against Rome himself. This is a provocative plot, one that seems to question the underpinnings of democracy, and also finds fault in our attraction to charismatic military leaders. To this, Shakespeare adds a guiding metaphor very much in Elizabethan vogue: that of the body politic.

“The senators of Rome are this good belly,” Coriolanus’ friend Menenius tells a group of rioting citizens in the play’s first scene, which recalls images of Tea Party riots and Occupy protests, “And you the mutinous members.” According to Menenius, the leaner “members” of the commonwealth, i.e. the citizens, need to feed the “belly” in order for it to remain healthy. Menenius is apparently a fan of trickle-down economics, although the fact that he is rubbing his ample belly and belching in this scene may undermine rather than support his arguments.

Menenius may be jesting, but Shakespeare is deadly serious. Throughout the play, he calls our attention to the image of the body politic, and, like young Martius’ butterfly, to the dismemberment of that body. Instability, Shakespeare seems to be saying, is human nature, and thus it is also the nature of the bodies we create, whether physical or political. Late in the play, Coriolanus’ rival, the Volscian general Aufidius, comments on the impermanence of human creations:

So our virtues
Lie in th’interpretation of the time […]
One fire drives out one fire, one nail one nail;
Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail.
(act 4, scene 7)

It’s hard to think of a more pessimistic commentary on Roman or human history. Might makes right, and therefore right is relative. There is no such thing as morality, only competing political ideologies, as one interpretation drives out another. In the 20th century, Coriolanus was adopted for propagandistic uses by extremist parties on both left and right. It was Adolf Hitler’s favorite Shakespeare play, and it was also Bertolt Brecht’s.

What, then, should we make of Coriolanus? In our own fractured time of violent political ideologies and seemingly few principles, what is the right interpretation of our time? Perhaps one kind of answer lies in what happens to Coriolanus, one of Shakespeare’s most ambiguous tragic heroes. Like Martius’ butterfly, and like the state of Rome at the end of the play, he is mammocked.

This article was originally published as part of a newsletter for the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Bard Association members. Become a member of the Bard Association today by contacting

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