Works Cited - Humanities

Evidence of Modernity in Coriolanus and Julius Caesar
John Streit
“Shakespeare on Stage”
Dr. Ron Strickland
Summer 2001
The masterpieces of William Shakespeare lie within a framework of time between
the pre-modern and modern society. While critics have debated the precise time that
began modernity, one can look to some of Shakespeare’s works that clearly are signs of it
beginning. Two of these works are Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. These two political
plays have autonomous, self-absorbed characters that define modernity. The following
will shed some light on the events leading to the rise of Shakespeare’s modernity and
some elements in Coriolanus and Julius Caesar that clearly show them belonging in the
modern era.
To begin with, what is modernity? Critics have argued the timeframe of
modernity as well as what constituted modernity. Modernity is the era in which the focus
of man went from god or a theistic ruler to the individual. While the pre-modern society
focused on community and agrarian production, modernity focused on individualism and
urban industrial production. Hugh Grady stated about modernity:
It is involved in the question of the debates about individuality, identity, the self,
and humanism. . . division of labor, gender identity, and the emergence of the
private and public spheres. It matters to understanding cultural traditions and their
continual undermining by rapid socioeconomic change; to discussions on the
nature of art and the aesthetic; and to the beginnings of Western Colonialism
While this definition sounds all encompassing, it is not universal. It is not possible to
look at all published work that focuses on the individual and state that it constitutes
modernity. Likewise, it is difficult to examine all the works of one author in this era and
categorize it as modern. However, one can look at many of the works of Shakespeare and
classify it as modern. Shakespeare focuses on three aspects of modernity and manipulates
these elements in various ways in his plays. These aspects are that the lead or main
character has a modern rationality, a logical sense of power, and is typically a
malevolent, impersonal figure (Grady 269).
Grady states that the character has a rationale that is secular based and free from
values. The character has a thirst for power, and is generally vicious characters that
cannot play the victim role within the play.
Of all Shakespeare’s plays, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar stand out because they
both involve the aspects of modernity that Grady mentions. Both deal with lead
characters that are impersonal and self-absorbed, and they both deal with characters that
are power hungry and have a rational sense to them.
Before I begin to examine the issue of modernity in Coriolanus and Julius
Caesar, the inspiration for the plays must be dealt with. Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble
Greeks and Romans inspired both Coriolanus and Julius Caesar. Although Julius Caesar
is a close account of the events chronicled in Plutarch’s, Shakespeare has taken liberties
with the accounts that may have served as the inspiration for Coriolanus.
Shakespeare framed the uprising in Coriolanus around the events similar to those
of the Midlands Riots in May 1607. People were upset at the rising cost of corn and the
prospects of famine that were sweeping the country. Common people joined together in
protest and dug up enclosures that surrounded valuable farmland. Bryan Reynolds states
that Shakespeare departed from the legend of Coriolanus described in Plutarch’s.
“Shakespeare constructed a relationship between the play and issues important to its early
modern audience, making the play more compelling, and the audience ready for a
relevant political statement on the Midlands crisis” (Reynolds 110).
What Shakespeare did was to construct a play around a very modern political
topic. The Midlands Riots was a sure sign of modernity, where commoners strayed from
the practice of obeying the lord and staying within their boundaries to focus on
themselves and the injustices that were occurring. This allowed the audience to decide
what was best for everyone. “Like Julius Caesar, it presents three models of
government- the rule of one, the rule of the few, the rule of many- to be evaluated by the
audience, and by offering a choice of models, it potentially challenges authority’s
representation of monarchy as the only form of rule beneficial for England” (Sorge 232).
This strays from the pre modern notion that the best form of government is rule of one,
with the commoners below the ruler, thus putting Shakespeare on the cusp of modernity.
What truly makes Coriolanus and Julius Caesar modern plays is not the events
leading up to and surrounding the play, but the characters themselves. Both plays involve
a mob that must choose the form of government that it will live by. As detailed by David
Bevington concerning Coriolanus:
The play returns to a political problem that has been studied before in Julius
Caesar: the rivalry in ancient Rome between republican and absolutist forms of
government. Coriolanus, although written later than Julius Caesar, analyzes an
earlier period of Roman history. In Coriolanus, we witness the birth of
republicanism in its distinctively Roman form, a blend of aristocratic and
democratic elements; in Julius Caesar, we see the demise of this delicately
balanced regime (1345).
Both of these mobs, although different in form and goals, define modernity. To even
approach the topic of government types leads one to think of modernity. The idea of
representative government is an example of a modern topic. If the mob in Julius Caesar
were not modern, they would be looking to Julius Caesar for guidance and direction, not
looking to have him overthrown and killed. Even their fickleness is evidence of
modernity. To have the freedom of choice provides evidence to modernity.
Not only do the mobs function as modern characters, but also the main characters
function as two modern individuals who strive for an autonomous, individual life. The
first example of this is both Coriolanus’ and Julius Caesar’s attitudes towards the
common people. Coriolanus saw the commoners as beneath him. He did not see them in
this manner because of an aristocratic, pre modern rationale; he saw them as not being as
worthy as he because of who he was, thus focusing on the individual. “It would be
traumatizing for him to ‘stand naked’ and entreat people whom he sees as inferior to him.
. . many characters see him as a tremendous asset to his country (Reynolds 116-117).
Coriolanus simply sees himself as being more important than the community; thus
focusing more on himself than the standard practices that had been in place.
Likewise, Julius Caesar sees himself as more important than the community as a
whole. His ambitions to be named king consume his life and lead to his downfall and
eventual death. He states how he feels about himself:
I am constant as the Northern Star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is not fellow in the firmament
(3.1. 60-62)
Certainly one could argue that Caesar is being arrogant and narcissistic, and referring
back to a theistic form of government, yet this line of thinking focuses more on himself.
Shakespeare does not give any qualities to Julius Caesar that would lead one to believe
that he is more concerned for the community than he is for himself and his goals and
Another aspect that is evidence that Coriolanus and Julius Caesar are modern
subjects is their relationship with their wives. Little is known about the exact relationship
that either character had with their wives. This fact is the first clue that leans toward
modernity. Pre-modern subjects focused more on the extended family, while modernity
focused more on the nuclear family. This pairing down of the family circle gives rise to
the idea of the autonomous individual. Even if the family is an important aspect of the
modern subject, it reveals that family is not as important as it once was. By limiting the
influence or the involvement of the wives of the two main characters gives rise to the idea
that they were not an important element in the story.
It could be that Shakespeare was using both Virgilia and Calpurnia as a bridge
between the pre-modern and modern era. Shakespeare depicts these two women in very
different ways from their husbands. “”While his [Coriolanus] stays at home, he roams
abroad, while she is tender and silent, he is harsh and noisy” (Sorge 236). Virgilia
appears to be the devoted wife who will say nothing out of turn to her husband. She could
be seen as a pre-modern subject. Sorge further states that “she is almost as thoroughly
silenced as her husband wants the people to be” (236). It could be that Shakespeare was
using Virgilia to contrast how different a modern subject was to the pre-modern
Likewise, Julius Caesar’s wife, Calpurnia, could be seen as a pre-modern
character. Not much is known about Calpurnia except that she had premonitions. One
would not classify her as a modern subject. She does not see herself as an individual or
autonomous from others around her. She appears to be reliant upon her husband for just
about every need. She is outspoken about her premonitions and seems to convince Julius
Caesar that her dreams are real and to heed her warnings. However, Caesar is won over
by a flattering Decius and causing him to ignore Calpurnia’s advice. She appears to have
no response to Decius’ actions.
Finally, Shakespeare throws a wrench into the idea that he is using the women as
a bridge between pre-modernity and modernity. He does this with the enchanting
Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother and central figure to the entire plot. Unlike Virgilia and
Calpurnia, she is not a pre-modern character. She functions as the antithesis of Virgilia,
or even Calpurnia. As Norton states:
Volumnia’s own shrewdness and ferocity seems to belie the “naturalness” of a
system that excludes women from politics and combat. Unlike Virgilia, Volumnia
hardly seems content to stay home and do the sewing. But the incongruity
between her personality and her prescribed social role does not render her
skeptical of that role. Instead, she embraces her gendered destiny with
characteristic zeal. It maternity she finds an improbable outlet for her
aggressiveness (2788).
Modernity runs through her veins like blood. She is very focused on her son, but appears
to have that focus primarily for her benefit. She controls her son, influencing his every
move. Whenever there is a turning point in the plot, Volumnia is there. She is unlike any
other female character in either Coriolanus or Julius Caesar. Melvin Seiden describes
Volumnia in the following manner:
The paradoxically virile and patriarchal Volumnia is more than equal to the task
of mother, father, and drill sergeant all in one. Her son is the product of relentless
and even Skinnerian conditioning to the perils of war. She boasts that when ‘when
he was but tender-bodied’ he was raised by her to be a paragon of military
ruthlessness (28).
Shakespeare does not mention anything concerning Coriolanus’ father. One can assume
that Volumnia raised him into the man that he became, and was still molding him at the
time of the play. Shakespeare may have used Volumnia to illustrate that women, as well
as men, could be modern subjects. Shakspeare uses Virgilia and Calpurnia as weaker
subjects who are not as strong as their husbands. However, once Coriolanus establishes
himself as an autonomous individual, free from restraints from his weaker wife, in comes
his mother, Volumina, shedding light on the thought that any subject could be a case for
modernity. So is Coriolanus really a modern subject or does all the credit belong to
Volumnia? Seiden further argues that Volumnuia should receive all the credit:
. . .Coriolanus, is nothing but his mother’s work, her masterpiece, the damaged
product of her extravagant love. It was she who, upon his homecoming after the
great victory at Corioles, counted his wounds as if they were new grandchildren.
It is Volumnia who reminds him that he has not yet received ‘the one thing
wanting’ to crown his career—and that, predictably, is political power (28).
Seiden does raise a good point concerning Volumnia’s desire to control her son.
However, Coriolanus actions were from his own desires, thus making him the
autonomous individual that depicts a modern character. It is true that Coriolanus had
influences around him, yet so did other modern characters, such as Julius Caesar.
Shakespeare used Volumnia as an influence on Coriolanus, yet did not figure her role to
be more that just an influential role.
William Shakespeare depicted both Coriolanus and Julius Caesar as great men
who have a fatal flaw that leads to their eventual downfall, thus fitting the model of a
tragic hero detailed by Aristotle. What Shakespeare may not have figured in his
descriptions of these men were their profiles that categorized them as fitting into the
period of modernity. What makes these characters dynamic and interesting to study is
their autonomy and the manner in which they defy the normalcy that was in their society.
Both are clearly a picture of modernity.
Works Cited
Bevington, David., ed. 1992. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare, 4th ed. New
York: Harper Collins.
Grady, Hugh. 1999. “Renewing Modernity: Changing Contexts and Contents of a Nearly
Invisible Concept”. Shakespeare Quarterly 50.3 (fall): 268-284.
Greenblatt, Stephen, ed. 1997. The Norton Shakespeare. New York: W.W. Norton and
Company, Inc.
Reynolds, Brian. 2000. Shakespeare Without Class. misappropriations of cultural
capital. New York: Palgrave.
Seiden, Melvin. 2000. “American Coriolanus”. The Humanist 60.1 (Jan/Feb): 28-30.
Sorge, Thomas. 1987. “The Failure of Orthodoxy in Coriolanus” Shakespeare
Reproduced: the text in history and ideology. New York: Methuen.