A Marxist Reading of Coriolanus
One popular dissecting instrument of any Shakespearean character is the modern tool of psychoanalysis. Many of Shakespeare's great tragic heroes-Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, and Othello, to name a few-have all been understood by this method of plying back and interpreting the layers of motivation and desire that constitute every individual. Add to this list Shakespeare's Roman warrior Coriolanus. His strong maternal ties coupled with his aggressive and intractable nature have been ideal fodder for modern psychoanalytic interpretation. This interpretation, however, falls within a larger, political context. For despite the fact that Coriolanus is a tragedy largely because of the foibles of its title character, its first and most lasting impression is that it is a political play. Indeed, the opening scene presents the audience with a rebellious throng of plebeians hungry for grain that is being hoarded by the patricians. When Menenius, a patrician mouthpiece, enters the scene a dialectic is immediately established, and the members of the audience inexorably find themselves on one side or the other of this dialectic, depending, most likely, on their particular station in life.
The English nobility that viewed this play in Shakespeare's time undoubtedly found Menenius' fable of the belly compelling, in which the belly-representing the patricians-is said to be a distribution centre that may initially receive all the flour (nourishment), but parcels it out evenly to the various limbs, and organs-representing all other classes of the republic-leaving itself only the bran. I doubt the audience in the pit found this body trope very persuasive, especially since this play was initially performed at a similar time of corn shortages and insurrection in England. Their allegiance most probably was with the plebeians in the play, and their arguments against the patricians' attitudes likely resembled and anticipated Marxist theory.
Marxism, essentially, is a theory of the proletarian liberation movement. This theory is dialectic in that society is seen as a composition of contraries (e.g., rich vs. poor), and that what makes humanity evolve is the struggle between these contraries. The triumph of one over the other produces change. Change, however, is resisted by the ruling class because most, if not all, of the wealth is concentrated in their hands; they in turn control the means of production, allowing them to exploit the workers for their own ends and widen the gap between the rich and poor even more in the process. This situation produces alienation in the worker; it deprives him of something, and this is not only degrading but depersonalizing as well (Appignanesi, 79).
From this perspective, Menenius' fable of the belly is clearly fallacious and intended to instill a false state of consciousness in his listeners. The tale deflects the cause of the plebeians hunger from the patricians...