Queer Coriolanus

We might imagine, when Menenius goes to see Coriolanus for the last time as Coriolanus’s Volscian army knocks at the gates of Rome, that in the letter Coriolanus gives to Menenius as he tells Aufidia, “This man, Aufidia, was my beloved in Rome” is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 108:

What’s in the brain that ink may character,
Which hath not figur’d to thee my true spirit?
What’s new to speak, what new to register,
That may express my love or thy dear merit?
Nothing sweet boy; but yet, like prayers divine,
I must, each day say o’er the very same;
Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,
Even as when first I hallow’d thy fair name.
So that eternal love in love’s fresh case
Weighs not the dust and injury of age,
Nor gives to necessary wrinkles place,
But makes antiquity for aye his page,
Finding the first conceit of love there bred
Where time and outward form would show it dead.

Left with nothing but a name as a souvenir from Rome, Coriolanus can only repeat the name of his beloved as an eternal mnemonic in the face of Rome’s violent severance from Coriolanus and Coriolanus’s unbounded plunge into the wound that Rome’s severance has left.

Despite the pervasive rebellion, violence, blood, tyranny, death, and betrayal of Coriolanus, it is a play filled with different types of love that are unbridled by gender, age, or creed and that often cannot be unraveled from  the same complexities of humanity that love is often said to transcend: rebellion, violence, tyranny, blood, death, betrayal, and time.  Coriolanus loves his mother, for whom he sacrifices his revenge and life; loves Menenius who says of him,

The general is my lover: I have been

The book of his good acts, whence men have read

His name unparallel’d, haply amplified;

loves his son, who emulates him, and acts in his “father’s moods;” his wife, “That brought you forth this boy to keep your name/ Living to time;” his country more than wife ,child, and life,

I have been consul, and can show for Rome

Her enemies’ marks upon me. I do love

My country’s good with a respect more tender,

More holy and profound, than mine own life,

My dear wife’s estimate, her womb’s increase,

And treasure of my loins;

Aufidia, who may love him more and dreamed of him,

O Martius, Martius!

Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart

A root of ancient envy.  Let me twine

My arms about that body.  (They embrace.)  Here I clip

The anvil of my sword and do contest

As hotly and as nobly with thy love

As ever in ambitious strength I did

Contend against thy valor.Know thou first,

I loved the man I married; never maid

Sighed truer breath.  But that I see thee here,

Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart

Than when I first my wedded husband saw

Bestride my threshold.  Thou hast beat me out

Twelve several times, and I have nightly since

Dreamt of encounters ‘twixt thyself and me –

We have been down together in my sleep

Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat,

And waked half dead with nothing;

and all except those he believes undeservedly oppose him. Often, it is tempting to separate these different types of love into categories of friendship, family, country, lust, etc., but Coriolanus, like many of Shakespeare’s plays, resist these types of arrangements. One bleeds into the other as desire manifests itself in various forms but never stops to rest in the confines of one name, articulation, or category.

Notably, Coriolanus loves Menenius like a father and Aufidius for his nobility. However, to not acknowledge the charged sexuality of these relationships and lend them a platonic air is both to miss the mark of Coriolanus and male friendship. As with all things early modern, the story of homosexuality in early modern England is unclear. On one hand, anti-theatricalists, religious leaders, and politicians all spoke of homosexuality in brutal terms. On the other hand, laws against homosexuality and sodomy were rarely enforced and when they were enforced, it was often for reasons beyond the condemnation of queerness itself. As Alan Bray eloquently puts it, “There was an immense disparity in this society between what people said–and apparently believed– about homosexuality and what in truth they did” (9). Official discourses of homosexuality were often couched in metaphor or emerged in places that often did not resemble the representations of their subjects.

What we do know is that the term “homosexual” was not in use in English until the late 19th century and that a series of other terms– sodomite, bugger, ingle, catamite, ganymede, pathic, among others– were used to describe what we now call homosexuality. We also know that punishment for homosexuality or any type of queerness was often a product of transgression of public, official, social norms rather than a vigilant surveillance of private acts and that definitions of sexual deviance often did not distinguish between sexual practices as strictly as the West has done in the past hundred years. In short, love and desire were measured by different moral and legal scales than they are today or than they were fifty years ago.

Certainly, “sodomite” was a term thrown about as an insult by Puritans and other groups. It is used against the theater by Philip Stubbes when he writes that after the play is over, playgoers go to secret meetings,

these goodly pageants being ended, every mate sorts to his mate, everyone brings another homeward of their way very friendy, and in their secret conclaves covertly they play the Sodomites or worse. (Anatomie of Abuses 166)

Yet, what is perhaps more interesting about Stubbes’s allegation is, as Bryan Reynolds points out in his “The Devil’s house or worse”, Stubbes’s use of “or worse.” In his imaginative goings, he exceeds his own regulatory desires, and  language, for him, breaks down. He becomes somewhat linguistically debauched. This is not to equate his allegations with his writings, but rather to point out as Reynolds has done, that neither theater nor queerness can be contained or controlled because any attempt to contain it is more often an invitation to be transformed by it. Deviance changes language and the laws that use it in the past as it does today.

However, my goal here is not to detail the rich history of homosexuality in the early modern world, which many have already done and some of whose work appears below in my suggestions for further reading, but rather to briefly take a look at two loaded terms– “time” and “friendship”– in order to contextualize some relationships that emerge in this particular Coriolanus and to look more closely at some of the gender-swapping that these characters have undergone. The point I wish to get across is that queerness provides us with a lens to look at the love and humanity of this inhuman play, just as attention to it helps us unravel some of the political and conceptual complexities of Coriolanus in a more affirmative light.


Menius’s appeal to Coriolanus could be interpreted as a dramatic device that builds anticipation for Coriolanus’s concession to Volumnia– a kind of tickling of the audience who, on the tips of their toes, are itching to know whether Rome will burn in the apocalyptic terms that the patricians decry or whether compassion will prevail and peace will be made. Nevertheless, the dramatization of his appeal is strange because the same anticipation could be achieved without dramatization, as it is with Cominius’s appeal. The exchange between Menenius and Coriolanus is a kind of interruption that fills the fast pace of the last act with a little breath of eternity. This breath, I argue, is queer time, and it is at one of the cruxes of the play’s political fashioning.

Though, many have taken on the problem of time in the early modern England and in Shakespeare’s plays in particular, the most ambitious studies have been made by David Scott Kastan, G.F Waller, Ricardo Quinones, Agnes Heller, and Matthew Wagner. Despite their various elaborations and disagreements, they all agree on three claims: 1) conceptions of early modern time were often in paradoxical suspension between providential and historical time, or between the Christian idea of Fate and the secular idea of Fortune; 2) Time was often a medium of working through subjective crises and the idea of change; 3) Time was becoming more material as mechanical clocks began to be more common and the advent of science promised to demystify time through the magic of objective measure. In theory, time could be captured, but in practice the discrepancies between abstract eternity and particular present were much harder to reconcile because the materiality of time threatened to dissolve eternity and things. Things, both exuberantly and terrifyingly, could no longer mean the same thing forever. Time became a surface composed of contradiction to be written upon and erased, and the existence of time itself became the material of micro-transgressions by which individuals could uncontrollably change or die and be forgotten in the process of doing so.

Before we look at Menenius’s strange interruption, I want to first go back to my initial imagining (and hopefully we imagined this together) that in the letter that Coriolanus gives to Menenius is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 108.  Why this sonnet at this moment? This sonnet, I think, brings together time and love in ways that are important to the time of the play, the time of the scene, and time in early modern England.

It begins with a question about the relationship between thought, which is presumably eternal, and writing, which is presumably finite. Once something is written, it threatens to be forgotten– to be torn up, lost, burned, or otherwise destroyed. It threatens to betray the unbounded quality of thought and love. Moreover, it threatens to be repeated, and in repetition, to become no longer sacred. “What’s new to speak, what new to register,/ That may express my love or thy dear merit?” the author asks, and the reply is “Nothing sweet boy” because this love and the eternity within which it is held can not be contained by the banality of ink and parchment. However, there is hope, because the love that the author talks about is eternal, and the repetition of words is like the repetition of prayer– they touch the sacred and create love anew each time they are repeated. Each repetition makes the name of the beloved and of the love between the two fresh again: “I must, each day say o’er the very same;/ Counting no old thing old, thou mine, I thine,/ Even as when first I hallow’d th fair name.” This repetition then promises to ward off the materiality of time: age, wrinkles, death, and the ticking of the clock despite the fact that “Finding the first conceit of love there bred/  Where time and outward form would show it dead.” The bodies of lovers and the bodies of work they produce may disappear, but love lives on in eternity. The beauty of this idea is that it introduces the hopefulness of difference and repetition without eradicating the presence of eternity. In other words, time can both be measured and be immeasurable because each measurement is an encounter with the immeasurable infinite. The fact of change becomes an affirmation of life rather than a negation of the divine. Fortune becomes an encounter with Fate even as it changes it.

For Coriolanus, then, the poem is a kind of promise that the violence about to be done to Rome is only another encounter, which though outwardly ugly, is a repetition of his and Menenius’s names that alights their love anew even in extreme distress. But these are all just imaginings. The poem does not appear in Coriolanus. Menenius appears to Coriolanus. He tells him:

The glorious gods sit in hourly synod about the particular prosperity, and love thee no worse than thy brother Menenius does. O my brother! Thou art preparing fire for us; look thee, here’s water to quench it. I was hardly moved to come to thee, but being assured none but myself could move thee, I have been blown out of our gates with sighs, and conjure thee to pardon Rome, and thy countrymen. The good gods assuage thy wrath, and turn the dregs of it upon this varlet here–this who, like a block hath denied my access to thee.

In this moment, the gods, who are eternal, are in active consultation and love Coriolanus no less than Menenius. Meninius’s love for Coriolanus is compared to the eternity of the gods and it, indeed, exceeds the love of the gods, for the gods love him no less than Menenius as if there is no love earthly or divine that could exceed Menenius’s own. In this moment, the gods are brought down to the material time of the clock and eternity becomes anticipatory. All of time seems to be concentrated for Menenius in this moment between him and Coriolanus. In the next lines, all of space becomes concentrated in their encounter as well. Coriolanus is “preparing fire for us”– for all of Rome– but Menenius’s tears are meant to quench it. Menenius’s body is all of Rome, all of the reverberations of many names, all of the roofs, streets, windows, and columns contracted into a single body just as all of time is contracted into the minutes, seconds, and hours of anticipatory and measurable time.  And then, after this moment of intensity, there is flirtation. Menenius did not want to come on his own. He did not believe in this love. He had to be assured that he and only he could convince Coriolanus to pardon Rome and its people. Menenius appeals to the publicity of their love like Patrick dancing on the bleachers for Kat in Gil Junger’s 1999 adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. Once all of space and time–both public and private– is contracted into the moment, Menenius asks Coriolanus to prove his love and, in doing so, to weaponize it against the Volscians who Menenius paints as the obstacle to their union. That is his mistake. It is the other side of Coriolanus’s mistake to depend too much on the tyranny of eternal time. Coriolanus rejects Menenius, and it is perhaps because Menenius yet again disgraces their love. Love might be changing and material, but it is the change and materiality of encounter with the eternal, and the intensity of those encounters can neither be contained nor weaponized. It is queer.

In my imagination, Coriolanus recognizes, in the end, the complexity of balancing between the folds of eternity and mutability because he ultimately recognizes the “unnatural scene” of his mother’s kneeling, but that recognition is both too soon and too late. It is too soon because Menenius’s attempt to weaponize Coriolanus’s love comes as an over-indulgence in the materiality of time and its relationship to love, and it is too late because Coriolanus has already been fully made a tool by both Romans and Volscians. He cannot escape the fatality of the ticking clock that his imbrication, formed across two complex networks, creates. Nevertheless, for a moment, between Menenius’s plea and the delivery of Coriolanus’s letter, the action does not turn on the cogs of cause and effect, but instead on the held intensity of two men deeply in love. For a moment, there is some humanity in the space carved out of historical time by queer time.


For early moderns, male friendship was regarded as the purest type of relationship. The celebration of male friendship was predominately based on Greek and Roman texts, particularly Cicero’s De Amicitia, that also upheld male friendship as an ideal relationship. Male friends are seen as alter egos or second selves. For instance, in his essay “Of Friendship” Michel de Montaigne writes,

All things being by effect common betweene them; wils, thoughts, judgements, goods, wives, children, honour, and life; and their mutuall agreement, being no other than one soule in two bodies, according to the fit definition of Aristotle, they can neither lend or give ought to each other. (“Of Friendship” 141)

Only a few pages before, he details his own friendship:

Beyond all my understanding, beyond what I can say about this in particular, there was I know not what inexplicable and fateful force that was the mediator of this union. We sought each other before we met because of the reports we heard of each other, which had more effect on our affection than such reports would reasonably have; I think it was by some ordinance of heaven. We embraced each other by our names. And at our first meeting, which by chance came at a great feast and gathering in the city, we found ourselves so taken with each other, so well acquainted, so bound together, that form that time on nothing was so close to us as each other. (“Of Friendship” 139)

Similarly, almost half a century later, Francis Bacon writes,

it will appeare, that it was a Sparing Speech of the Ancients, to say, That a Frend is another Himselfe: For that a Frend is farre more than Himselfe. Men have their Time, and die many times in desire for some Things, which they principally take to Heart; The Bestowing of a Child, The Finishing of a Worke, Or the like. If a Man have a true Frend, he may rest almost secure, that the Care of those Things, will continue after Him. (Sir Francis Bacon: ‘The Essayes or Counsels, Civill and Morall 86)

The common pattern among these examples and others not listed here is that male friendship is a kind of ideal sharing of body, mind, space, and time. It is ideal because the two friends are seen to be fully equal under the law and in a society– both publicly and privately.

Ironically, one of the most forceful depictions of male friendship in Coriolanus is between enemies: Aufidius and Coriolanus. When Coriolanus finishes his speech at Aufidius’s house, Aufidius exclaims “Let me twine my arms about that body” and details his dream of war-like encounters in the most bodily terms: fisting each other’s throats, unbuckling helms, rolling down on the ground. In less intense terms, Coriolanus is also bound to Aufidius:

Were half to half the world by th’ ears and he

Upon my party, I’d revolt to make

Only my wars with him.  He is a lion

That I am proud to hunt.

Though they are enemies, there is a relationship between them that is that of friendship, a kind of boundedness in encounter. Moreover, it is a relationship that is at once pure in its equality and transgressive in its intensity. Coriolanus and Aufidus do not wish to be subjunctively one, as if together, but literally one. They wish to consume each other.

Critics have returned repeatedly to the relationship between Aufidius and Coriolanus for its homoerotic language and entryways into the way that homoerotic coding emerged in martial, political, and civil discourse. However, in Paul Cook’s version of the play, the homoerotics of the original are made more complex by the transformation of Aufidius into Aufidia.

While there are many examples of female-female friendships in Renaissance literature, they are usually depicted as parallel or in opposition to marriage, though there are notable exceptions as Valerie Traub discusses in her The Renaissance of Lesbianism in Early Modern England (2002). Some reasons for the weaker depictions of female-female friendship might be the preponderance of male writers in early modern England and Europe; the general legal, economic, and moral restrictions put upon women; as well as the market conditions out of which these early modern texts emerged. Depictions of male-female friendships, however, are virtually none-existent primarily because women were seen as unequal to men, or as Montaigne puts it,

the ordinary capacity of women is inadequate for that communion and fellowship which is the nurse of the sacred bond; nor does their soul seem firm enough to endure the strain of so tight and durable a knot. And indeed, but for that, if such a relationship, free and voluntary, could be built up, in which not only would the souls have this complete enjoyment, but the bodies would also share in the alliance, so that the entire man would be engaged, it is certain that the resulting friendship would be fuller and more complete. But this sex in no instance has yet succeeded in attaining it, and by the common agreement of the ancient schools is excluded from it.

Luckily, despite the abundance of inequalities that exist in our contemporary moment, we do not always subscribe to the ancient schools and the capacity of women has been proven adequate for “that communion of fellowship which is the nurse of the sacred bond.” The transformation of Aufidius into Aufidia enacts a relationship that is not “fuller and more complete” but rather one that is differently intense. Moreover, it takes the charged homoerotics of a “pure friendship”–two bodies sharing the continuity of time already queered by the violent physicality of Aufidius’s and Coriolanus’s relationship–and gives that friendship political amplification. No longer ideal struggles and transgressions, the encounters of Aufidia and Coriolanus become subject to the material politics of gender that is overcoded and caricatured both in the play via the relationship between Virgilia and Coriolanus, and in our world through the various media we consume.

What the transformation of Aufidius into Aufidia brings to light is the contractual nature of Aufidia’s and Coriolanus’s desire. Like Wanda and Severin who enter a contract of dominance and subservience in Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, Aufidia enters a contractual relationship with Coriolanus. He is given her armies and she tells him to “say yay to thy desires.” She answers his desires for vengeance and for her embrace with a contract of dominance, and it is indeed the breaking of that contract that eventually leads her to kill him. His and her desires become bounded in contractual time, or that time of history, and it is only the break of that contract, of that time, that leads to the consummation of their relationship as she holds him dead in her arms. The difference between an encounter between Aufidius and Coriolanus and Aufidia and Coriolanus is the materiality of power. If the struggle of idealized male friendship is out of time, the struggle of male-female friendship is in time and mediated by the external materiality of the world– by the ink that characters their relationship. Through the insertion of materiality, of contract, of history, it is a struggle that becomes more tenuous and complex because it forces us to consider a relationship that exists in this world rather than an abstract one. The power of such a relationship, of course, is that it acknowledges the plurality and viscosity of times by letting desire exceed the confines of this world rather than some ideal one. It paradoxically injects more humanity into a contract that would otherwise be more other-worldly in both the world of Coriolanus and ours. However, just as this relationship injects humanity into an inhuman play, the injection of humanity also brings to light the inhuman features of humanism. We come full circle to the dystopia of humanism founded upon the enslavement and erasure of black bodies, the subjugation of female bodies, and the delusions of abstract power, all of which cannot be abstracted from historical time. Yet, it is these small breaths of queer time– the moments of desire between Coriolanus, Menenius, and Aufidia– that both bare witness to injustice and venture to pose the question of whether there can be humanity in it.


Between the successes and failures of political performance and misperformance flows desire. The desire between Coriolanus and Menenius and Coriolanus and Aufidia showcases the human motors of action beneath the most spectacular of facades. It also showcases that time is perhaps always out of joint. It seems that everything in this play happens too early or too late, and it is the incongruity of times that gives this play its action-packed fast pace. Queer time, however, gives the inhuman pace pause and lets us see how desire bubbles over history with lava-lamp viscosity. My attention to friendship and time in exploring the queer relationships of this Coriolanus is intended to articulate the beauty of the moments that are non-normative in this play and to showcase the sometimes violent and sometimes honest hope that they offer in an otherwise dystopian play. For the time, being, I hope that queer time will make a few moments of this play last just a little longer. I also hope that those moments remain breathes in the context of discord– a pause that maybe makes the dissonance of the historical and contemporary politics of performance resound into something that makes comfortable rhythms of thought and action a little bit uncomfortable.


Further Reading: 

Homosexuality in Renaissance England (1992) Alan Bray

Shakespeare and Masculinity (2000) Bruce Smith

Queer/Early/Modern (2006) Carla Freccero

Sexual Inversion (1897) Havelock Ellis

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) John Boswell

Queer Masculinities, 1550-1800 (2006) ed. Katherine O’Donnell and Michael O’Rourke

Queer Philologies: Sex, Language, and Affect in Shakespeare’s Time (2016) Jeffrey Masten

Textual Intercourse (1997) Jeffrey Masten

“Technologies of the Self” (1982) Michel Foucault