2006 Norton Scholar’s Prize Winning Essay

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    "Directitude? what's that?": A Verbal Blunder and Unstable Identity in Coriolanus

    Garth Kimbrell

    Shakespeare uses the word "directitude" only twice in all his of works: in line 217 and 218 of act four, scene five, of Coriolanus. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), "directitude" is a "humorous blunder, used apparently for wrong or discredit," and the OED cites no other instances of the term's use outside of its appearance in Coriolanus. The character who first utters the anomalous word, the Third Servingman, however, neither invents any other words, nor makes any other verbal blunders, nor plays the part of a clown or a fool; and, furthermore, Shakespeare highlights the strange word by following its first use with the First Servingman's response, "Directitude? what's that?" (IV.v.218). Critics have spilled no shortage of ink on the singular word: Malone writes, "I suspect the author wrote Whilst he's in discreditude" (Variorum 446) and Malone concludes that Shakespeare "could hardly have meant that he (the Third Servingman) should talk absolute nonsense" (Variorum 446). Collier agrees with Malone that we may consider "directitude" as one of the "literal errors superabundant in both folios" (Variorum 446); however, he disagrees with Malone's "discreditude" and suggests emending with "dejectitude." Many editors and critics side with either Malone or Collier, while a few suggest that the Third Servingman possesses the tendency towards speaking malapropisms that characterizes Shakespearean clowns.

    Surprisingly, though, given the attention that language, and especially the failure of language, has received regarding this play, no one has yet considered the implications of a word like "directitude" in its immediate context and in the play as a whole. While we could easily dismiss the word as some kind of mistake, either a printer's error or a mere verbal blunder, if we look closely at the scene in which "directitude" appears twice for the first and last time in Shakespeare's writing, we find that this word comes at a particularly apt time. If we look at the play as a whole, "directitude" has even more ramifications, all of which suggests that Shakespeare may have had a definite purpose for the strange word.

    After the banished Coriolanus leaves Rome, he goes to the house of his Volscian enemy and personal rival, Tullus Aufidius. Dressed as a commoner, Coriolanus finds himself received disdainfully at first by Aufidius' servingmen and then by Aufidius himself; but, after Coriolanus reveals his identity, his former rival gives him "a thousand welcomes" (IV.v.149). The two warriors exit offstage together, and two servingmen come forward to voice their opinions of their new guest. A few lines later, the Third Servingman joins them; and, as the three servingmen discuss the prospect of Coriolanus' waging war upon his former home and his chances for success, the Third Servingman says, "he has as many friends as enemies; which friends, sir, as it were, durst not, look you, sir, show themselves, as we term it, his friends whilst he's in directitude" (IV.v.215-217). The First Servingman responds, "Directitude? what's that?" (IV.v.218), but the Third Servingman does not explain his apparent blunder and the scene moves on to the end.

    What makes "directitude" such an arresting word in this scene comes from how much the latter part of act four, scene five, possesses what we might call "indirectitude." After Coriolanus and Aufidius exit the stage, the First Servingman and Second Servingman begin to share their impressions of the new guest, saying:

    SECOND SERVINGMAN. Nay, I knew by his face that there was something in him. He had, sir, a kind of face, methought,— I cannot tell how to term it.
    FIRST SERVINGMAN. He had so, looking as it were — Would I were hanged, but I thought there was more in him than I could think.
    SECOND SERVINGMAN. So did I, I'll be sworn. He is simply the rarest man i' the world.


    While Shakespeare often gives us the "common man's view" of important actions and people, usually this view includes some exposition, information, or a point of view to which we would not have access otherwise. In this scene, however, the servingmen do not inform us of anything we do not already know, and they express no point of view beyond such unrevealing and inarticulate impressions as, "I knew by his face that there was something in him," and "he is simply the rarest man i' the world." Surely the audience members have formed their own, more scrupulous, opinions of Coriolanus by now, so that all this would seem like a mere waste of dialogue.

    One's perplexity at this seemingly superfluous scene would only grow at the entrance of the Third Servingman, who then relates Coriolanus' reception into Aufidius' company of guests, their plans to capture Rome, and the past fights between Coriolanus and Aufidius. Shakespeare could just as easily have shown Coriolanus' reception at Aufidius' table and shown the discussion that leads to their plan to sack Rome; and he has, moreover, already shown Coriolanus defeat Aufidius in battle in act one, scene eight. The latter part of act four, scene five, contains nothing we have not already seen or anything Shakespeare could not show us directly; and so this scene, then, becomes filled with "indirectitude" just as Shakespeare gives us our crucial word. The Third Servingman says of Coriolanus, "whilst he's in directitude" at a moment when Shakespeare puts Coriolanus least directly before the audience. The response, "directitude? what's that?" becomes a humorous, self-satirizing moment in the scene; it serves to direct our attention to the ironic genesis of the newly invented word.

    "Directitude," given its context in the scene, also points to a much larger problem that runs throughout the play: the dependence of one's identity upon others and Coriolanus' difficulty with language. James L. Calderwood, discussing the problem of language in Coriolanus, asserts that in the play "the plebeians exercise a corrosive influence upon language" (213). Drawing from Coriolanus' statement to the plebeians that "with every minute you do change a mind, / And call him noble that was now your hate" (I.i.186-187), Calderwood says:

    The symbol "noble" as applied to a man is emptied of meaning, in the sense of having an identifiable referent, if the same referent is in the next instant symbolized by "hateful." Words lose their substance, drift free of meanings, and become merely noises or breath. (213)

    Calderwood further claims that "lacking a common set of values, feelings, allegiances, principles, and knowledge, and hence lacking a viable language, Coriolanus and the plebeians can have no real dialogue" (213). Little in the play, however, suggests that Coriolanus and the plebeians actually have any real trouble communicating. Coriolanus loathes the plebeians, and he successfully manages to communicate his loathing to them. The plebeians understand this, and, fearing that his elitism might lead him to establish a dictatorship, they banish him in their own self-interest. Nothing about this indicates a failure in communication; rather, it indicates the opposite, and the plot could not advance in act three without at least some amount of understanding between Coriolanus and the plebeians. Carol M. Sicherman correctly writes that "insufficient speech is not … Coriolanus' main problem: he is better off, usually, when he is silent. His problem, his downfall, is logorrhea" (198). Indeed, she observes that "he [Coriolanus] cannot stop talking" (198) when among the plebeians. His problem comes from saying too much and being understood altogether too well.

    Another problem arises from Calderwood's assertion that the plebeians' words come "close to signifying nothing." Employing late-Wittgensteinian thought in his views of language, Calderwood nonetheless misconstrues the conditions under which language fails. He conflates capricious linguistic meaning with caprice expressed linguistically. The plebeians often change their opinion of people quickly, according to Coriolanus at least, but their mutable opinions do not cause language itself to fall apart. To follow Wittgenstein, linguistic meaning depends upon a speaker knowing the rules for a word's use according to publicly-known standards (9-15). As long as we use a word in accordance with its normative and public standards of use, the word has meaning; and as long as a group knows the rules of use for words, they can communicate, regardless of how often they change the concrete referents of a particular word (Wittgenstein 51-58). The inability of two people to understand one another indicates a failure of language, but only once in the play do we clearly see someone fail to understand another speaker: when the First Servingman asks, "Directitude? what's that?"

    I would suggest, then, that a failure of language does not pose a problem for Coriolanus; rather, the fact that language can succeed so well causes him to act as he does in the scenes where he must speak to the people. Despite "lacking a common set of values, feelings, allegiances, principles, and knowledge" (Calderwood 213), Coriolanus and the plebeians can, in fact, still communicate with language. Their ability to understand one another indicates that language fundamentally ties them together, and something like this would deeply trouble an elitist like Coriolanus. To understand fully why this poses such a problem to him, and its relation to our anomalous word, we must first look at language's relation to identity in the play.

    Michael McCanles elucidates the central problem of identity for Coriolanus, writing that "the snob can only define himself against those before whom he parades his superiority, and so, paradoxically, we can say that the snob needs these to the exact degree that he wishes to reject them" (44). McCanles adds later that "Coriolanus is tied dialectically to the people by the same drive toward transcendence of them which must deny this tie in order to achieve transcendence" (47). The more Coriolanus wishes to transcend the plebeians, the more he needs them so as to have something to transcend. Thus, instead of shunning the people, he goes out of his way to insult them. As the First Officer in act two, scene two, recognizes, "he [Coriolanus] seeks their [the plebeians'] hate with greater devotion than they can render it him, and leaves nothing undone that may fully discover him their opposite" (II.ii.18-21).

    His success in communicating, however, demonstrates that Coriolanus is subject to the same normative and public linguistic rules as the plebeians; and, therefore, not their opposite entirely. Indeed, in his use and view of language throughout the play, we can see a paradox similar to the dialectic of transcendence. While Calderwood claims that Coriolanus attempts to construct his own private language that ultimately fails (217), I think that Coriolanus, rather, merely attempts continually to articulate to the plebeians his differences from them. His long speech, early in the first act, beginning, "He that will give good words to thee will flatter / Beneath abhorring" (I.i.165-166), shows him enumerating and elucidating every way in which the plebeians are different and inferior to him. His lengthy speeches in act three illustrate repeatedly Coriolanus' desire to express how little he has in common with the commoners; yet, the fact that all his speeches use the same language as those to whom he speaks must frustrate his sense of innate and evident superiority, for he has the same "tongue" as the multitude. Indeed, just as he needs the plebeians so that he can transcend them, he needs their language to express his superiority of self and speech to them.

    By constantly insulting and expressing his hatred of them, Coriolanus manages to avoid, in his mind, the difficulty of this paradox. When his friends call upon him to flatter the people, to give them "good words," he immediately demonstrates an anxiety that results from such a paradoxical situation. Thus, when Coriolanus eventually consents to dissemble before the people, he says:

    The smiles of knaves
    Tent in my cheeks, and schoolboys' tears take up
    The glasses of my sight! A beggar's tongue
    Make motion through my lips, and my armed knees,
    Who bowed but in my stirrup, bend like his
    That hath received an alms! I will not do't,
    Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth
    And by my body's action teach my mind
    A most inherent baseness.


    Here we see that Coriolanus regards pretending to be what others want him to be as an act of becoming those others. Those for whom Coriolanus must feign, the "knaves" and "beggars," would become a part of him irrevocably by his conciliatory action. Crucially, Coriolanus does not see himself becoming what he pretends to be; rather, he sees himself becoming those for whom he pretends. In some sense, at least, he seems to recognize the important connection between language, identity, and its dependence upon the other, such as we find elucidated in the work of Lacan as a whole, most famously in his discussion of the mirror-stage (Écrits 1-7; The Language of the Self 39-45). Once he stops expressing his differences from the plebeians, he must admit the important commonality of language with them. The logorrhea that Sicherman notices results from his desperate and constant attempt to overcome the paradox of expressing his "inherent" differences in the same language as the plebeians.

    He uses, moreover, yet another strategy to avoid the problem of the common language: he tries to avoid hearing the commoners. He states outright his desire to silence the plebeians altogether, saying that the patricians ought to "pluck out / The multitudinous tongue" (III.i.154-155). In act three, scene one, Coriolanus asks Sicinius about the plebeians' tribunes, saying, "Must these have voices …?" (III.i.34). Indeed, throughout act two, scene three (the directly preceding scene), Coriolanus almost exclusively conceives of the plebeians metonymically as "voices." When Coriolanus begs for the voices of the plebeians in act three, one can sense a certain amount of wry humor at work; for if they give him their voices, he will probably not let them have their voice again. Later, when he stands before the tribunes, Coriolanus speaks so much and with such insistence that he excludes anyone else from speaking at all. Never in the play does Coriolanus flee from his own words, but always from those of others.

    Throughout the play, Coriolanus seeks a direct identity: an identity independent of others, reliant only upon action and not the perception of others. Thus, he dislikes Cominius' praise because such praise renders action in language and dispenses it to the commoners. When the servingmen in act four come forward immediately after Coriolanus and Aufidius exit the stage, however, and begin to voice their impressions and opinions of him, we see that Coriolanus cannot escape the recognition and ensnarement in language that he loathes. The audience, at this point, can only see Coriolanus through these servingmen; and by this Shakespeare reminds us that Coriolanus, as well, can only see himself through others. Such "indirectitude" explains, perhaps, why so much of the play occurs before large audiences, either of soldiers or citizens, and why Coriolanus has so few soliloquies.

    Strangely, then, at the moment when Coriolanus finds himself once again subjected in language by commoners, the very people he loathes and seeks to transcend, communication momentarily fails. Whatever "directitude" may have meant to Shakespeare, I must grant that it means something else entirely to the Third Servingman. Since he does not attempt to explain his word, we may safely assume that he committed a blunder that he henceforth ignores. Despite this mistake, however, the Third Servingman does not have a speech rich in intentional or unintentional malapropisms like an ordinary clown, though his mistake is patent enough to elicit a direct question from one of the other servingmen. We must wonder, then, why Shakespeare would place such a blunder where he does and even highlight it with the First Servingman's question.

    With all its contextual irony of being coined in a scene of "indirectitude," "directitude" reminds us of the ever-changing nature of language itself. No doubt, such a word as "directitude" would only confirm Coriolanus' disdain of such men as these servingmen; Coriolanus does not speak with the rich eloquence of a character like Hamlet, but he does speak clearly, simply, and unambiguously. One might imagine Coriolanus as embodying what Bakhtin would consider the centripetal, centralizing force of language (270). As a patrician and a representative of the timeless Roman virtues, Coriolanus represents a ruling class seeking verbal-ideological unification and stability in society. The three servingmen, as members of the lower class, speak in what Mommsen calls, "the purest servant-jargon" (Variorum 447). These are the men who invent new words and recreate language as they need, and as such they represent the centrifugal, disunifying force in language (Bakhtin 271-272). The Third Servingman's attempt at a new word results in a nonsensical blunder, no doubt; yet, nonetheless, all of the words suggested by editors and critics to replace "directitude," words such as "discreditude," "dejectitude," "decreptitude," or something on the pattern of "rectitude" (Variorum 446-447), are all new coinages themselves. Regardless of what word we think the Third Servingman, and possibly Shakespeare himself, meant, the First Servingman nonetheless does not understand what the Third Servingman says.

    Whatever he means, the Third Servingman gives us a new word; and new words, to someone like Coriolanus, who uses a language that assures maximum communication and continuity through time and place, represent something at once ridiculous and subversive. On the one hand, this servingman cannot use his own language properly; on the other hand, through agents such as this lowly and buffoonish servingman, something as vast as language changes. That his attempt at a coinage miscarries in this instance indicates that language does not evolve through perfectly lucid progression; miscommunication indicates rapid change, but also suggests the possibility of ultimate understanding. The Third Servingman, in spite of all his silliness, stands as one of those who make and re-make the rules of language that every speaker must follow in order to communicate, even the elitist Coriolanus. If Coriolanus could not actually have a dialogue with the plebeians, he would consider that a natural result of his differences from them and his superiority. That he can communicate with them, though, for all his supposed differences, bothers him far more than would any inability to communicate.

    Thus, though Coriolanus seeks action and desires "directitude" with his "own truth," he finds himself throughout the play unable to escape the commoners and the language that force his identity into a constant state of "indirectitude." For all he hates the commoners, both they and their language form an integral and irremovable part of his own psyche; and so, trapped in the dialectic of transcendence and forced to use their language, he finds himself in an indissoluble bind. As Coriolanus seeks an identity solely in "directitude," Shakespeare reminds us of the ineluctable problem of "indirectitude."

    Works Cited

    • Bakhtin, M. M. "Discourse in the Novel." The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Eds. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Trans. Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.
    • Calderwood, James L. "Coriolanus: Wordless Meanings and Meaningless Words." Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 6 (1966): 211–224.
    • Lacan, Jacques. "The Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience." Écrits, A Selection. Trans. Alan Sheridan Jr. New York: Norton, 1977.
    • —. The Language of the Self: The Function of Language in Psychoanalysis. Trans. Anthony Wilden. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968.
    • McCanles, Michael. "The Dialectic of Transcendence in Shakespeare's Coriolanus." PMLA 82 (1967): 44–53.
    • Shakespeare, William. The Tragedie of Coriolanus (Variorum Edition). Ed. Horace Howard Furness, Jr. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1928.
    • Shakespeare, William. William Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Gen eds. Stephen Orgel and A. R. Braunmuller. New York: Penguin Books, 2002.
    • Sicherman, Carol M. "Coriolanus: The Failure of Words." ELH 39 (1972): 189–207.
    • Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Philosophical Investigations. 2nd ed. Trans. G. E. M. Anscombe. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd.