From Identity, Otherness, and Empire in Shakespeare’s Rome, by Maria Del Sapio Garbero
Coriolanus tells us that he is going to join with Aufidius to make war upon his city because sometimes friends become enemies and sometimes enemies become friends, both for entirely trivial reasons. Why does he insist on the triviality of these quarrels?
Although Shakespeare never mentions the legendary founders of Rome by name, their story becomes decisive in the late Roman plays.
There are no literary brothers in Antony and Cleopatra or Coriolanus, but male rivalry here repeatedly takes on the metaphorical coloration of fratricide.
Shakespeare probably knew the legend of the twins. We know he consulted Ovid’s Fasti for “ The rape of Lucrece” and Ovid talks about Romolus and Remo.
Early on in the Aeneid, Jove reassures Venus that “ Ilia, a royal princess, shall bear to Mars her twin offspring. The Romulus, proud in the tawny hide of the she-wolf, his nurse, shall take up the line and found the walls of Mars and call the people Romans after his own name”.
Antony and Cleopatra is full of allusions to the Aeneid.
Plutarch repeats several versions of the twins’story in his life of Romulus, including Livy’s speculation that perhaps the story of the she-wolf arose from the loose morals of the woman who eventually raised Romulus.
Plutarch’s story ends as Livy’s ends, with suspect auguries and deadly rivalry among the brothers: “Romulus having nowe buried his brother… beganne then to build and laye the foundation of his cittie”
It is by now a commonplace to note that Shakespeare’s Roman plays are centrally concerned with the construction of masculinity. But as the author argued elsewhere (altrove), masculinity in Shakespeare is always constructed against the presence of the female and therefore (perciò, quindi) is compromised by too-close proximity to the figure of the mother, who can infect her son with her own femaleness (femminilità). The Romulus and Remus legend may have constituted one fantasy-solution to the problem of maternal origin for the Romans themselves.
Perhaps the twins are more fortunate because they are thus freed (liberati) from maternal contamination. Violently separated from their mother, Rome’s founding figures are conveniently nursed by a “mother” who is far from femininity.
Coriolanus, Volumnia: Shakespeare combines two different maternal elements of the Romulus and Remus legend in her, she is both the original exiler of her son and his wolvish nurturer (allevatrice con tratti da lupo).
We can see the elements of that Romulan legacy (eredità) in earlier Roman plays: in Julius Caesar’s entirely justified worry about the lean and hungry Cassius and especially in Octavius Caesar’s long encomium of Antony’s Roman hunger as the defining virtue of his Roman soldiership. Rivalry (rivalità) between Octavius and Antony like the famous twins.
Shakespare revises at least two founding legends of Rome in his British romance.
Cymbeline divides into two distinct plots: the first plot, in which a very Italianate Iachimo makes a wager (scommessa) with Posthumus about the chastity of his wife Imogen, deliberately returns to the material of “The Rape of Lucrece”. Like Tarquin, Iachimo praises (elogia) her husband to his victim in order to gain (ottenere) her trust. Posthumus’s capacity to repel (respingere) this new Tarquin simultaneously foregrounds Britain’s Trojan ancestry and goes Rome one better as it revises the origin story of republican Rome. This is an accommodation of the play’s two conflicting imperatives: the imperative to portray Britain as inviolable and intact (like Imogen, at the end of the play. She calls herself Fidele) and the imperative to portray (rappresentare) the translation of Roman virtue and Roman Empire into Britain.
Guiderius and Aviragus are forcibly (con la forza) removed from their lineare and the civilized centre of power. They are fed in this wilderness by a man who is twice identified as their nurse. Separated both from female influence and from the savage nursery of the she-wolf, the boys retain their heroic masculinity, but they are free of the fratricidal imperative that governs brotherly relations in Rome.
The British Posthumus who defeats the Traquinized Iachimo enacts (rappresenta) the beginning of the translation imperii from Rome to Britain.