The Reading Room

The Leaders We Need, or the Leaders We Deserve?: Notions of the “Demos” in Coriolanus

When I am teaching about the problem of legitimate political authority, I always start with the First Book of Samuel, from the Hebrew Bible. The story is a debate over the nature of law, obligation, and leadership.  Israel was at the time “ruled” by the Law, provided by Moses and interpreted by judges.  But “the people” had decided they wanted a king. 
10 Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. 11 He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. 
12 Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.
 13 He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. 
14 He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. 
15 He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. 
16 Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. 
17 He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. 
18 When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.”
19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
There is an obvious tension between verses 11-18—the truth—and verse 20, which is what the people imagine when they think of a king. If you expect the king to go out before you and fight all your battles, you are likely to be disappointed.
Shakespeare famously gave it a shot, in Coriolanus. In the first Act, we have already seen various “voices”, or Roman citizens, condemn and extol and threaten and worship Caius Martius, an important general. The citizens fear the strong man, and mock him for his arrogance.
Things are brought to a dramatic climax in Act I, scene 4, when the Romans moving to besiege Corioli are instead counterattacked by a fierce Volscian charge. Martius is enraged: “They fear us not but issue forth their city!” What he means, of course, is that the Volscians disdain staying behind their walls, and are so confident of victory that they come out to fight on the open field.
And the Romans are in fact pushed back, retreating in disarray to their defensive positions; the Volscians laugh at them.  Martius is beside himself with fury at this insult, and lambasts his own men:
All the contagion of the south light on you,You shames of Rome! You herd of—Boils and plagues
Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorred
Farther than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese,
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
All hurt behind. Backs red, and faces pale
With flight and agued fear! Mend, and charge home,
Or, by the fires of heaven, I’ll leave the foe
And make my wars on you. Look to ’t. Come on!
If you’ll stand fast, we’ll beat them to their wives,As they us to our trenches. Follow ’s!
Through sheer heroic force of will, Coriolanus rallies his men and they beat the Volscians back toward the gates. When the gates open to let the now much abashed Volscians back into the city, Martius sees a glittering opportunity: instead of a drawn-out siege, they can win now, by charging en masse through the open gates!
So, now the gates are ope. Now prove good seconds!’Tis for the followers fortune widens them,
Not for the fliers. Mark me, and do the like.[Martius follows the fleeing Volsces through the gates, and is shut in.]
I once had a spirited argument with Shakespeare scholar Paul Cantor, who claimed that this scene represents the very height of heroism. Staging it, I really can’t imagine how a director can avoid playing it for laughs, though: where a moment ago there was alarum and tumult, now the gates are closed, Martius is shut in—alone—behind the gates, and the Roman soldiers are just standing there looking at each other and making excuses. It’s hilarious.
1st  SOLDIER  Foolhardiness, not I.2nd SOLDIER  Nor I.
1st SOLDIER  See they have shut him in.ALL  To th’ pot, I warrant him.
Of course, Martius is not “to the pot” (slain) at all. Instead, having driven off the entire Volscian army to other parts of the city, he opens the door to allow the Romans in to join the fight, now that victory is assured. 
This scene is the essential foreshadowing for the political climax later in the play, in Act II, Scene 3. Coriolanus (Martius has by now taken the toponymic cognomen in honor of his triumph at Corioli) embodies in his own thoughts, shared in a soliloquy, the key opposing forces of democratic governance. On one hand, he is confident he deserves to be consul of Rome; on the other, he rejects the idea that the citizen “voices” are strong or brave enough to be competent to make responsible choices of leadership. Groucho Marx famously said he would think less of any club that wanted him to be member. Well, Coriolanus thinks too much of himself to concede that he should have to ask the pusillanimous throng for the favor of its support. 
CORIOLANUS  Most sweet voices!Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here
To beg of Hob and Dick that does appear
Their needless vouches? Custom calls me to ’t.
What custom wills, in all things should we do ’t?
The dust on antique time would lie unswept
And mountainous error be too highly heaped
For truth to o’erpeer. Rather than fool it so,
Let the high office and the honor go
To one that would do thus. 
[Moves to leave, pauses, reflects, resolves to stay] 
I am half through;The one part suffered, the other will I do.
Part of the genius of Coriolanus is the depiction of humans’ contradictory impulses. On one hand, we want to be “free;” on the other, we want to be led, and by a powerful and charismatic leader. Howard Nemerov put it puckishly but succinctly, in his short poem, “Power to the People”:   “Why are the stamps adorned with kings and presidents?  That we may lick their hinder parts and thump their heads.” 
We need our leaders to be the best of us, but what we deserve, given our own weaknesses and selfishness, may be something quite different. Coriolanus, and ultimately Rome itself, are torn apart by this tension, and everyone does their best to make sure it’s a nice funeral.