Coriolanus describes the people and tribunes as many-headed in multiple instances.

"[H]e himself stuck not to call us the many-headed / multitude" (2.3.16-17).

Here the citizens discuss whether or not they will give their votes to Coriolanus.

"You grave but reckless senators, have you thus / Given Hydra here to choose an officer" (3.1.124-25).

Coriolanus tells the Senators that they have allowed the tribunes, a Hydra, to determine his Consulship.

"The beast / With many heads butts me away" (4.1.1-2).

After the people exile Coriolanus, he calls them a beast with many heads.

What is the significance of this?

  • Hi, welcome to Lit SE. Your second example doesn't contain "many-headed".
    – Eddie Kal
    Nov 12 '20 at 1:41
  • 2
    @EddieKal The Hydra was a many-headed monster.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 12 '20 at 8:42
  • @Randal'Thor Okay, but the title asks about describing "the common people as many-headed". I didn't think the second example fit the bill and I was too tired to go back to the text and reread the act. I am going to retire the answer and retire myself for now.
    – Eddie Kal
    Nov 12 '20 at 8:45

Coriolanus describing the people as many-headed brings together a number of interesting aspects.

First, the play contains many animal metaphors, especially because political opponents are described as beasts. For example, Menenius talks of "Rome and her rats" in Act I, scene 1 and calls the plebeians "beastly" in Act 2, scene 1. Other animal references include the following:

  • the bear, e.g. "As children from a bear, the Volsces shunning him" (Volumnia in Act 1, scene 3), and "He's a lamb indeed, that baes like a bear" (referring to Coriolanus, in Act 2, scene 1),
  • the dog, e.g. "he's a very dog to the commonalty" (referring to Coriolanus, Act 1, scene 1),
  • the dragon, e.g. in Act 4, scene 1,
  • the osprey, e.g. in Act 4, scene 7,
  • the tiger, e.g. "in him than there is milk in a male tiger" (Act 5, scene 4),
  • the eagle, e.g. "like an eagle in a dove-cote" (Act 6, scene 6).

Not all of these animal metaphors and comparisons are negative, but if when they aren't they create distance between, on the one hand, the person being described and, on the other hand, humans generally and Romans in particular.

Second, the scene that contains the first reference to the "many-headed multitude" is Act 2, scene 3, also represents the beginning "the beginning of the great central section of the play, dealing with the clash between Coriolanus and the people" (G. R. Hibbard's edition of Coriolanus (The New Penguin Shakespeare, Penguin, 1967), page 216). If you look at the animal metaphors and comparisons used throughout the play, you will see that they are used by both sides.

Finally, there is the more genral aspect of Shakespeare's views on citizens as individuals versus citizens as members of a crowd. When citizens become members of a crowd, they lose their indviduality, their good humour and their common sense. The crowd can have an urge to destroy, so comparisons with a monster suggest themselves. For earlier examples of crowd scenes, see Act 4, scene 1 in the Second Part of Henry VI (which contains the infamous line "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.") and the crowd scenes in Julius Caesar, e.g. Act 3, scene 2.

The Hydra metaphor nicely combines these aspects of the play: if you cut off one of the Hydra's heads, it regrows two heads; when transferring this metaphor to a crowd, you risk making it more destructive by using violence against it.

  • 1
    In addition to what you said, I thought it that the Hydra also represents the numerous opinions the people have and their undecisiveness. Unlike Coriolanus, who is constant throughout most of the play, the people always change their beliefs and can never focus stick to one decision. i.e.: how quickly they go from supporting Coriolanus to wanting his death, or from supporting the tribunes to being angry that they have banished their protector.
    – Nathan Dai
    Nov 17 '20 at 16:12
  • @NathanDai Thanks. That's an interesting point that I hadn't thought of.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 17 '20 at 17:16

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