Nature and human society: Coriolanus, Henry 5,
DOI link for Nature and human society: Coriolanus, Henry 5,
Nature and human society: Coriolanus, Henry 5, book
Reading and watching Coriolanus and Henry 5 from the perspective of the early twenty-ﬁrst century, we have a particular advantage over the ﬁrst readers and audiences: we know much more about how the human body works than they did. From the science of genetics, we are possessed of knowledge about how individual cells relate to the bodily whole that throws new light on the plays’ use of analogies between cooperation in the natural world and social organization. To see how, let us start with the most famous body/ politics analogy in the drama. Faced with a rebellion of mutinous citizens in the opening scene of Coriolanus, Menenius rehearses wellknown nautical and familial analogies for class relations in order to reproach the hungry crowd: ‘you slander | The helms o’ th’ state, who care for you like fathers’ (Coriolanus 1.1.74-5). No more convinced by these images of proper social relations than the rebels are, Menenius tries something altogether more intimate, the Fable of the Belly:
MENENIUS There was a time when all the body’s members, Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it:
3 4 5 6 7222 8 9 1011 1 2 3111 4 5 6 7 8 9222 20 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 30111 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing Like labour with the rest; where th’ other instruments Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel, And, mutually participate, did minister Unto the appetite and affection common Of the whole body. The belly answered –
The answer is easily guessed at, that the belly distributes the viands throughout the whole body and that all parts beneﬁt from what it receives. Whether this part of the fable had an analogy in recent Roman events is not the point, and indeed the play never reveals whether the rich are guilty as accused of hoarding grain. More fundamental is the bodily metaphor itself, for were the Roman state truly incorporate, rebellion by the citizens would be as absurd as one part of a human individual rebelling against another.