A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Coriolanus and Alito


Bardseye readers who come upon this post in future years through some google search will learn it was written during the week that Judge Alito sat before the US senate judiciary committee to respond to its members' questions as to his fitness to serve on the US Supreme Court.

In the excellent-but-obscure play Coriolanus, a Roman general of that name returns to the capital in triumph after kicking the stuffing out of the Volscians, a barbarian nation with an appropriately Star Trekky name. Coriolanus is now eligible to become a consul, but to do so he must fulfill an ancient tradition. He must stand in the public square to be ritually questioned by Roman citizens as to his fitness to serve:

Enter Coriolanus in a gown of humility, with Menenius.

3rd Citizen: "Here he comes, and in the gown of
humility. Mark his behavior. We are not to stay
all together, but to come by him where he stands
by ones, by twos, and by threes…."
Men: "O sir, you are not right. Have you not known
The worthiest men have done 't?"

Cor: "What must I say?
'I pray, sir' – Plague upon 't! I cannot bring
My tongue to such a pace. 'Look, sir, my wounds!
I got them in my country's service, when
Some certain of your brethren roared and ran
From th' noise of our own drum.'"

Judge Alito, of course, is today's Coriolanus, standing in the public square to submit to ritualized questioning in conformity with an ancient practice. Here is an except of his exchange with Senator Specter, who questioned him on Casey, a Supreme Court case which is in line with Roe v. Wade in supporting abortion rights:

SPECTER: "Do you agree that Casey is a super-
precedent or a super stare decisis, as Judge Luttig

ALITO: "Well, I personally would not get into
categorizing precedents as super-precedents
or super-duper precedents or any..."

SPECTER: "Did you say super-duper?"

ALITO: "Right."

SPECTER: "Good. I like that."

ALITO: "Any sort of categorization like that sort
of reminds me of the size of the laundry detergent
in the supermarket."


If the issue de jour for applicants to the US Supreme Court is abortion and Roe v. Wade (abortion politics has been addressed by Bardseye here), the issue the Roman citizens have in mind to question Coriolanus about is humility:

3rd Cit: "Tell us what hath brought you to 't.

Cor: "Mine own desert."

2nd Cit: "Your own desert?"

Cor: "Ay, but not mine own desire."

3rd Cit: "How not your own desire?"

Cor: "No, sir, 'twas never my desire yet to
trouble the poor with begging."

3rd Cit: "You must think, if we give you
anything, we must hope to gain by you."

Cor: "Well then, I pray, your price o' the consulship?"

1st Cit: "The price is to ask it kindly."

Judge Alito seems willing to pay that same price this week by asking kindly enough. Though it must be said that no similar price was asked of his senatorial inquisitors. Senator Charles Schumer of New York, in particular, was tenacious in his insistence that Alito declare himself on the abortion issue:

SCHUMER: "Does the Constitution protect free

ALITO: "Yes, Senator, the First Amendment
protects free speech."

SCHUMER: "Well, why can you give me a straight
answer on that issue but not give me a straight
answer on abortion?"

ALITO: "Because the text of the Constitution
explicitly includes the term 'free speech.'"

An interesting point. Three more days at least await Judge Alito in the far more elaborate American version of this ancient nerve-testing ritual. Coriolanus, insulted that he must go hat in hand to the very citizens he had already protected through his military valor could not last one afternoon:

Cor: "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 will, 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…."

To translate: It would be better to die or starve than to beg for a job I already deserve. Why do I have to stand in a stupid-looking toga and ask every Tom, Dick and Harry that shows up for their votes? Custom requires it, and I suppose I should follow custom. Come to think of it, if we didn't follow custom, dust would collect unswept on time itself, and our errors would accumulate into a mountain too high for the truth to see over. So instead of fooling the tradition, let someone willing to undergo it have the honor.

Shakespeare is making his case for why traditions should be followed. Rituals sweep the dust off of antique time, keeping us in line with our ancestors and their accumulated wisdom. Without the guidance of tradition, our errors would eventually accumulate to the point where they would blot out our connection to truth.

Quite a thought to pull out of an unswept sentence in a forgotten corner of one of the Bard's lesser known plays.

Hope you enjoyed!

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