Coriolanus makes a lot of references to birds. For someone who says he’s inarticulate, he makes a lot of puns – accusing his soldiers of having ‘souls of geese’, for example, he tells them battle is ‘not for the fliers’. Elsewhere, the people are crows, and a disruption of civil order will
Break ope the locks o’th’senate, and bring in
The crows to peck the eagles
(Punning on crowbars.) Later, he tells a servant that he lives in ‘th’city of kites and crows’, to which they reply:
Third Servant: I’th’city of kites and crows? […] Then dwellst thou with daws too?
Cor. No, I serve not thy master
Coriolanus goes one better on the servant’s joke, playing on the meanings of ‘daw’ ( as jackdaw/fool). Several possible meanings of one bird has provoked debate:
[…] like an eagle in a dove-cote, I
Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioles.
There are two different versions of these lines in early printed editions of the play. One early version has the Volscians flatter’d; another has the Volscians flutter’d. (Most editions choose ‘flutter’d.) As with many such arguments, it doesn’t really matter that much, and what seems more interesting than making the case for either verb, is the common ground between them. The very fact that there are versions of the lines suggests that the compositor, the man who prepared the letters for the seventeenth-century press, made a small mistake – confused one word for a workable alternative. Flatter’d inevitably puns on flutter’d when you are talking of a disturbance of birds. On the other hand, it has been noted that Coriolanus speaks out against flatterers and flattery several times in the play; the word is central to his vocabulary. Either way, the phrase works both with and against its alternative.
Each of these instances involves Coriolanus using images of birds to establish an order in which he is the natural superior. He uses words to take control – putting one over on the person he sit talking to by mastering the multiple meanings. For all that he says he hates words, again and again Coriolanus brings to mind some creature that does not have language, that can only shriek or howl or wail, and uses it to push language to its most sophisticated and flexible. His words are full of too many meanings – he’s setting himself up for a fall.