Bad Shakespeare, Bad Politics: The Case of the Central Park “Julius Caesar”

1. Unlike most of those who have felt the need to express an opinion of Oskar Eustis’s production of Julius Caesar at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park, I’ve actually seen it. I attended a performance during the third of the three weeks of previews that preceded its formal one-week run — a couple of days before the furor over the production erupted into national news.  I found it to be reasonably entertaining — and embarrassingly confused:  dubious as a staging of Julius Caesar, and politically irresponsible.

I hasten to say that I see no merit at all in the indignant, opportunistic complaints of those who profess to be scandalized at Eustis’s choice to identify the character Julius Caesar with Donald Trump.    About those complaints, I will say only this. I can see nothing  objectionable in a theatrical representation of Julius Caesar as the sitting President of the U.S., even if that should include (as it inevitably would) on onstage assassination. A stage-play is not an incitement, period. In reply to the “serious question” hurled by the President’s son—in the words of his tweet, “When does “art” become political speech, and what difference does that make?” — I defer to the U.S. Supreme Court: Expression, artistic or not, counts as political speech the moment the attempt is made to suppress it for giving offense on political grounds; the difference that this makes is that it’s precisely then that the First Amendment kicks in with full force (vide R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul, 505 U.S. 377 (1992), Scalia, J., Opinion for the Court). The issue is much the same as with burning the flag. (I note without comment that the scandalized theatergoer who first put the would-be censors on the scent seems to have been as much scandalized by the sight of the Trump look-alike naked in the bathtub as by the assassination scene.) You don’t have to enjoy or admire the spectacle of it to acknowledge its legitimacy as political expression.     It confuses the issue to defend such expression on the grounds of its artistic worth or edifying value.

Among the unfortunate consequences of the controversy is that it’s shunted aside any serious discussion of the merits of Oskar Eustis’s staging. The play has been denounced on irrelevant, pernicious grounds by supporters of Trump, and embraced as a cause célèbre by the cultural establishment. An eminent scholar has assured the readers of The New York Times that the staging would have had the Bard’s own approval, and commended the production for illuminating our political circumstances. (The writer, James Shapiro, identifies himself as a consultant on the production, and I grant that his actual wording – although not the headline writer’s – is a bit more oblique.) I’m afraid I can’t agree.

As I say, the performance I attended was before all the nonsense went viral; I had the benefit of seeing it without any of that in my head.    I was disposed to enjoy it – waiting on line for five hours to get tickets does that to you. (Five hours in line is the standard procedure, for any Shakespeare in the Park production. The free tickets are distributed in Central Park at noon on the day of the performance; people start lining up even before the park opens at 6 a.m.) The actors’ performances  were consistently top-notch., and the details were  often clever.  But in the end the dramaturgy was incoherent, and the politics blinkered, or worse.   The representation of Caesar as Trump — that is to say, Trump as Caesar — has a certain specious believability, so far as it goes.  But it makes for a muddle of Julius Caesar, and muddled understanding of the political moment to which it purports to be tailored. Eustis has said that he looked to Julius Caesar to offer a parable for our time. But what he has made of the play isn’t a parable; it’s a proposition. It fails to carry conviction.

Preceding the performance (at least on the evening that I attended), a recorded audio announcement informs the audience that every line to be spoken onstage adheres to Shakespeare’s original (one small, immediately-recognizable topical joke excepted).  The same assurance is given in the director’s program note printed in Playbill.  The fidelity to Shakespeare’s text is cited as if this attested to the production’s coherence and seriousness.   In fact it’s part of the problem. It’s as if Eustis imagined that he need only supply the contemporary correspondences (a Caesar who talks and gesticulates like Donald Trump, an opponent of Caesar who sports a pink-pussy knit hat), and leave Shakespeare to do all the thinking.  The trouble is,  Shakespeare is thinking about other things.

2. That the actor in the part of Caesar, Gregg Henry, is meant to be taken for Donald Trump is uncontestable (and uncontested). His Caesar is not merely reminiscent of Trump, a Trump-like politician. He replicates all the signature mannerisms that are  unmistakably Trump’s.  Gregg Henry has mastered Trump’s verbal inflections and physical gestures with a literalness that by comparison makes Alec Baldwin look like, well, Alec Baldwin. That is to say, he approaches an order of verisimilitude that would interfere with Baldwin’s satirical purposes. The marvel of it, though, is that this is all done while speaking lines written by Shakespeare for Caesar. The lines Shakespeare gives Caesar to say are things we can well imagine Trump saying (were he a bit more verbally fluent).  Henry need only speak the lines in the manner we know to be Trump’s, and the fit appears perfect.

It’s a marvel, but it doesn’t get quite so far as all that.  The most that it shows is that Shakespeare’s idea of Caesar can pass fairly well for Trump’s idea of himself.    Caesar always delivers; he knows himself better than anyone. He’s the man that he takes himself for, the man that he gives himself out to be. Here is Caesar, explaining why he’d never reverse a prior decision:

…I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true-fix’d and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.
The skies are painted with unnumber’d sparks,
They are all fire, and every one doth shine;
But there’s but one in all doth hold his place.
So in the world: ’tis furnsh’d well with men,
And men are flesh and blood; and apprehensive;
Yet in their number I do know but one
That unassailable holds on his rank,
Unshak’d of motion; and that I am he,
Let me a little show it…

The actor  need only supply Trump’s spoken inflections, and his air-slapping gestures, for this to pass for a genuinely Trumpian utterance.  The audience, lately familiar with this sort of thing, understands that it doesn’t correspond to anything actual. We recognize the speaker as a man for whom constancy means nothing real.

That isn’t how Shakespeare sees Caesar. More to the point – it isn’t how Caesar is seen by anyone in Shakespeare’s play; it gets no purchase whatever on the situation with which Shakespeare’s characters are confronted. What’s alarming to Caesar’s opponents is not Caesar’s outrageous indifference to truth, but precisely the fact that Caesar is just as he says. Caesar, truly, always delivers, at least to the limit his aging body allows.   That’s the reason why Caesar’s most bitter detractor, Cassius, is reduced to harping on his limited physical stamina.  (Hmm… ) It’s also the reason — the only reason — why Brutus becomes persuaded that that Caesar must die.

This last point is crucial, for making sense of the play Shakespeare wrote. It’s not for tyrannical personality traits that Brutus comes to see in Caesar a menace to the republic.  “To speak truth of Caesar,” he says — in the soliloquy in which he persuades himself to join the conspiracy,  “I have not known when his affections sway’d / More than his reason.”  What makes Brutus fear for Rome’s safety – so he tells himself, anyway – is simply that Caesar is peerless, in every sense of that word.   The menace is hypothetical, consisting  in what future abuses that any leader so universally admired and applauded might at length be tempted to commit. (“So Caesar may; / Then lest me may, [let us] prevent.”) Brutus  knows very well this won’t fly as a political argument —  “the quarrel / Will bear no colour for the thing it is.” He takes it for granted that normal political opposition, on grounds such as this, is futile.  Desperate measures are called for.

Brutus  convinces himself that his notional fears will be publicly validated, if only he shows how far he’s willing to go in acting on them.  His egregious misjudgment in this becomes obvious, after the fact, when he proves to be no match for Caesar’s friend and admirer Mark Antony in controlling the public understanding of the assassination. But it isn’t so clear what alternative there might have been, in the world of the play, given the premises. And it isn’t so clear on what other premises Caesar is to be seen as a menace. There are no actions in the play that attest to alternative means of resistance to Caesar’s ascendancy — and no voices that counsel their adoption. (It’s not an accident that the figure of Cicero is sidelined – not just by the conspirators, but by the playwright.)   The alternatives offered — as Caesar’s opponents see it — are violence or acquiescence.

I do not mean to imply that Eustis’s staging endorses assassination, or advocates violence. Eustis states in his program note, and has repeated in the press, that the lesson of his staging is that “those who attempt to defend democracy by undemocratic methods… pay a terrible price and destroy their republic.” It’s presumably meant to be highly significant that the set’s painted backdrop — a mural which depicts, along with portraits of Washington and Lincoln, an image of the parchment presentation text of the U.S. Constitution — is abruptly torn down immediately after the assassination. Out come the riot police, commanded by Caesar’s successors. (I was briefly confused when Octavius comes on stage; the actor looks nothing like Jared.)   James Shapiro explains: “Anyone who sits through the final scene will see the consequences of deposing the tyrant: The brutality of the victors, Antony and Octavius, is far worse than that of Caesar.”  That’s clear enough.    Now all we need is for someone to explain how this is supposed to speak to the present political moment.

3.  It actually isn’t true that everything said onstage is from Shakespeare.  The production’s vaunted fidelity to Shakespeare’s text is limited to the lines spoken by  the named characters; Eustis gives himself greater license with the anonymous persons who stand in for the populace — appearing onstage in crowds, and sometimes shouting from the audience.  Especially in the latter third of the play, with Trump/Caesar gone from the scene, these extras serve as the bearers of the play’s topical reference, and do so verbally. They carry signs recognizable from anti-Trump demonstrations of the past half-year (“Resist!”).   And they chant: “This is what democracy looks like.”

What does democracy look like, in this staging of Julius Caesar? Who are these chanting protesters, in relation to the named characters of the play?   Watching the performance, I had assumed that they were to seen as the partisans of  the conspirators — I took their clash with the riot police for Eustis’ rendering of the conflict between the  forces raised by Brutus and Cassius and those loyal to Antony and Octavius.    (The text refers only to “powers”  on either side.)  After reading the director’s various statements in the press, I suspect I had misread the intention.  Perhaps the idea is that the unnamed protesters are acting on their own initiative, a leaderless movement à la Occupy Wall Street — acting independently of the conspirators, innocent of the conspirators’ violence.  In that case, the point of the chant is not to identify democracy with the cause of Brutus & co., but instead to announce the emergence of a more authentically democratic alternative.  That would better comport with the lesson that Eustis has said he has meant to convey; there’s a logic to it.   The trouble is just that it corresponds to nothing that anyone says in the play of Shakespeare’s that Eustis has chosen to stage.  It means discounting everything said in opposition to Caesar by any of Shakespeare’s characters, so as to affirm an alternative  mode of  oppositional politics (call it “resistance”) of which those characters are apparently unaware, and which has no discernible impact on the political situation.  Grant that these other, nobler democratic citizens are innocent of complicity in the fatal misjudgments of  Brutus and Cassius.  By the same token, they’re just as innocent of  responsibility for everything else that occurs in the play.  Their innocence is the obverse of their  inefficacy, from beginning to end of the tragedy.  Some resistance. Some democracy.

4. Eustis has stated that he made the decision to mount this Julius Caesar on November 9, the day after Trump’s election. I get that. But we’ve all had a chance to learn a few things, in the interim.



[Original Title: “An Emperor Disrobed: Some Thoughts on Oscar Eustis’s Julius Caesar.” Revised for clarity, 6/19/17.]

Is Othello Insecure?

W.E.B. Du Bois coined the phrase ‘double consciousness’ to name the anxious self-doubt that is commonly suffered by those for whom social success or acceptance is barred by hostile race prejudices. “The facing of so vast a prejudice could not but bring the inevitable self-questioning, self-disparagement, and lowering of ideals which ever accompany repression and breed in an atmosphere of contempt and hate,” wrote Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk.  Does this diagnosis apply to  the hero of Shakespeare’s Othello?  Might it help account for Othello’s tragic susceptibility to  Iago’s deceit?

In the play’s opening scene, we hear Othello denigrated, behind his back,  on account of his foreign birth and exotic appearance (I.i.63; I.i.87).  Iago contemns him for being black; Roderigo derides him as “an extravagant and wheeling stranger / Of here and everywhere.” (1.1.134-5).  This talk sets us on edge, and so we may well surmise that such bias must figure as a factor in Othello’s eventual fall. But there’s little real reason to think so.  Du Bois wasn’t thinking of sixteenth-century Venice (nor seventeenth-century England), and the syndrome he descried is nowhere to be found in  this play of Shakespeare’s.  Othello is immune to self-doubt. He is indifferent to social acceptance or approval. He is a man of extraordinary self-assurance, convinced of his merit and proud of his parentage.  Socially-conditioned self-doubt is no factor in his tragedy. What makes him susceptible to Iago’s manipulation is not this, but a doubt over whether his new marriage might be unworthy of him – a stain on his native nobility.

There is only one time in the play that Othello is faced with what seem to be hostile prejudices on account of his race or his origin.  That is when he is forced to contend with the wild accusations from his new father-in-law, Brabantio,  who claims that his daughter Desdemona could not have agreed to marry “such a thing” as Othello unless she were drugged or bewitched (I.ii.71).  It isn’t entirely clear if Brabantio’s words are expressive of racial animus, or whether such animus is shared by others among the Venetian elite. But supposing that this is the case – the question then is, how is Othello affected by it? If Brabantio’s attitude toward Othello can be seen as indicative of a prejudice pervasive in Venice, then Othello’s response must be seen as indicative of his resilience in such an environment. His composure is perfect; whatever offense or insults are intended, he shows no sign of taking umbrage or affront. The only reason he  deigns to respond to Brabantio’s wild accusations at all is that they are made in front of the Duke and the Senate, who are about to commission him to lead the Venetian campaign against the Turks.  He shows every confidence that his words will be credited.

Othello couldn’t care less what Brabantio thinks.  After all, he’s just run off with the man’s daughter without  having bothered to notify him in advance, let alone ask for his blessing.  On first hearing of Brabantio’s wrath, he’s unfazed and dismissive.  His words at the time make it clear how little he depends on Venice’s favor to nourish his self-esteem. There’s no sign that he’d care to assimilate socially to the people whose state he serves, or pattern his life or his manners on theirs. There’s nothing shameful to him in his origins; just the contrary:  “I fetch my life and being / From men of royal siege” (I.ii.22-3). His sense of his native nobility is closely connected with his sense of the heroic qualities manifested through his career as a free-booting soldier of fortune.  If it weren’t for his love for Desdemona, he wouldn’t care in the least to be hitched to her narrow, circumscribed people.   But that I love the gentle Desdemona,” he says, “I would not my unhoused free condition / Put into circumscription and confine / For the sea’s worth.”  (I.ii.26-28).   Venice was known as an opulent mercantile power, owing its wealth to its control on Mediterranean shipping; “the sea’s worth” thus stands for all of the ease and prosperity enjoyed by Venetian society. Othello’s not interested.

There is one other time, later on in the play, when Othello might be thought to suffer self-doubt on account of others’ perceptions of him as a racially-different foreigner.  It occurs right after Iago first plants the seed of suspicion concerning Desdemona’s fidelity.   Iago casually speculates that even if Desdemona had cared for Othello initially, her affections were sure to revert in due course to men of “her own  clime, complexion, and degree” (III.iii.241).  Othello then cuts the discussion short, and Iago leaves him to ponder what he’s been told.  “Haply for I am black,” Othello wonders aloud,

And have not those soft parts of conversation.
That chamberers have, or for I am declined
Into the vale of years — yet that’s not much —
She’s gone, I am abused, and my relief
Must be to loathe her.  (III.iii.304-9)

Notice how he swerves, mid-sentence, never completing the thought.  That might be because the thought is too painful for him to bear.  But it’s far likelier that the idea has no purchase on him;  it’s as if he can’t fully make sense of it, or its ramifications don’t interest him.  In concluding that Desdemona is gone, what he means is not that she’s left him – he knows very well that she hasn’t – but that she’s rotten, ruined.  Nothing he says for the rest of the play shows him pained  at having been spurned by his wife, or resentful at her having preferred a man with advantages that he lacks.     From this point forward – until the play’s very end, when he learns at last of Iago’s deception – he is consumed with the thought that Desdemona has been indiscriminate with her favors – and that she is therefore worthless – a “cunning whore” (IV.ii.91). 

If Othello is so sure of himself, why then does he so quickly credit Iago’s insinuations concerning his wife’s infidelity?  It may seem tempting to take this fact alone as the evidence that beneath his seeming self-confidence lies a  stratum of nagging self-doubt. That would be to underestimate Iago’s cunning, and the deviousness of his lies.   Iago’s malign stroke of genius is to finger Othello’s lieutenant Cassio as Desdemona’s supposed paramour.  This is not because Othello envies the poise of his polished lieutenant (although Iago certainly does).    Cassio had played the part of the intermediary in Othello’s and Desdemona’s courtship (III.iii.71, 100).  Iago professes surprise upon hearing of this, when the topic comes up, but he’s presumably known of it all along; it’s part of his scheme to remind Othello at this when planting his fabrications.  Othello and Desdemona may have had little chance to speak to each other directly when he was a guest at her father’s house; perhaps they were seldom or never alone together. For whatever reason, they had relied on the help of the ever-solicitous Cassio to serve as their go-between.  What this means is that Othello not only had been dependent on Cassio to relay his feelings to Desdemona, but had also depended on Cassio’s attestations of her love for him.   By suggesting that there had been something illicit between Desdemona and Cassio, Iago effectively undermines Othello’s confidence in the truth of all that had passed between himself and his bride before they were married.  In that same stroke, he loses his confidence in the storybook quality of their romance.  That he is a marvelous hero he never doubts; he merely suspects that he might have been duped into a marriage unworthy of his nobility.  “Why did I marry?” he finds himself wondering, helplessly disoriented (III.iii.245).

The presence of Cassio in the play points to a further reason for Othello’s susceptibility.  Cassio is Othello’s opposite: unpracticed in war, at ease with “the soft parts of conversation” – the consummate ladies’ man.  Othello has never aspired to any of that. He sees himself as a marvelous hero, but only a hero of daring adventures – at the head of army, or alone. He has apparently never before played the part of a lover, nor greatly cared to do so.  If he had ever pined for love, that was long in the past – by his own admission, the “young affects” of erotic ardor are in him “defunct” (I.ii.265-6)    Ever since boyhood, his “dearest action” has been in “the tented field /  And little of this great world can I speak / More than pertains to feats of broil and battle.” (1.iii.88). 

Othello has the great fortune of winning the love of a woman who reveres him for the very qualities that he most prizes in himself, and who requires of him no change in his habits or manners.  “My heart’s subdued / Even to the very quality of my lord,” Desdemona avers, “And to his  honours and his valiant parts / Did I my soul and fortunes consecrate.” (I.3.251-4).  He had reason to trust that this marriage would do nothing to hinder or hamper his way of life. And yet, even on the very night on his wedding, he betrays a certain uneasiness with the marital state, over whether it might constitute a distraction from “the serious and great business of war”  (I.iii.268).  The sign of this is the vehemence with which he insists  – without even having been asked – that having Desdemona with him in Cyprus would not interfere with his duties:

No, when light-winged toys
Of feathered Cupid seel with wanton dullness
My speculative and officed instrument
That my disports corrupt and taint my business,
Let housewives make a skillet of my helm
And all indign and base adversities
Make head against my estimation.   (I.iii.269-75)

In these lines he pledges never to let his intelligence and professional judgment (his “speculative and officed instrument”) be dimmed or impaired by Cupid’s darts;  he swears to surrender his  helmet for use as a housewife’s skillet should this ever come to pass. For a man who claims to find perfect bliss in the company of his bride, it’s an astonishing pledge – all the more so in being entirely unsolicited.  Why need he fear Cupid’s darts, if he’s happily married? It’s as if he believes that thing he must protect his intelligence from is the very condition of being in love –  as if to be in the thrall of a lover’s vexations would fatally compromise his martial vocation.

These words prove prophetic. The mere taste of jealousy – an anxiety foreign to him – is enough to leave Othello feeling not only deprived of his mental tranquility, but also bereft of his soldierly occupation (III.iii.369).  He finds this intolerable, an affront to his dignity. He refuses to be jealous – and chooses to loathe his wife, so as to spare himself of having the occasion to be.  “Think’st thou I’d make a life of jealousy / To follow still the changes of the moon with fresh suspicions?” he asks Iago, rhetorically. “No: to be once in doubt / Is once to be resolved”  (III.iii.180-2).  He would sooner persuade himself of Desdemona’s worthlessness than to suffer the least anxiety over the quality of their love.  “All my fond love thus do I blow to heaven: ’Tis gone!” (III.iii.448-9).



[Original title: “Othello’s Doubts”]

Coriolanus Before Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s chief source for his great Roman plays — Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus — was the writings of Plutarch, a Greek of the second century A.D. In the case of Coriolanus, Shakespeare drew solely, or nearly so, from Plutarch’s “Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus.”  (He may also have taken a detail or two from the Roman historian Livy.) Of course he modified what he found in Plutarch to suit his own purposes, and invented a great deal besides.  But there is also another factor distancing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus from Plutarch’s. Not reading Greek, Shakespeare knew Plutarch only in Sir Thomas North’s 1575 English edition of the Lives of Noble Grecians and Romanes. And North himself apparently knew little Greek, relying on Jacques Amyot’s 1559 French translation.

Some sense of the distance separating Shakespeare from Plutarch can be obtained from a look at how Amyot, and after him North, rendered the Greek of one key passage, at the opening of of Plutarch’s “Life of Coriolanus.”  (As in Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus is usually called by his family name, Martius.)  Plutarch sees the clue to Martius’ character in the fact his father died when he was very young, leaving him to be raised by his mother alone. It took Shakespeare to wonder what the mother was like — the strong-willed Volumnia of the play is his own creation.  Plutarch notices only the absent father: he describes Martius’ lot as that of an orphan, deprived of all normal supervision and guidance in his education. Plutarch simply assumes that Martius had no education at all – and attributes his failings to this.  Martius was able to accomplish great things, on account of his natural abilities, but he never learned moderation, and so was insufferable as a result. Plutarch opens the “Life” with some comments on this that are dense and compact in the Greek, and a bit more elaborate in Amyot’s French. It comes out different in North’s  second-hand translation. In the version Shakespeare read, what Martius failed to acquire, for want of education, is not so much moderation, as modesty – or rather,  humility.


The passage begins with Plutarch citing a received opinion that he takes Martius’ case to confirm. Without education, it is believed, a noble nature yields worthy things and worthless ones in mingled profusion −- like rich soil when left without cultivation. In the Greek:

 ὁ δ᾽ αὐτὸς ἀνὴρ ἐμαρτύρησε καὶ τοῖς τὴν φύσιν ἡγουμένοις, ἐὰν οὖσα γενναία καὶ ἀγαθὴ παιδείας ἐνδεὴς γένηται, πολλὰ τοῖς χρηστοῖς ὁμοῦ φαῦλα συναποτίκτειν, ὥσπερ εὐγενῆ χώραν ἐν γεωργίᾳ θεραπείας μὴ τυχοῦσαν.

In Amyot’s French:

Aussy à ce mesme personnage tesmoigné qu’auscuns estiment, qu’une nature forte et vigoureuse, quand elle est destituée de bonne nourriture, produict beaucoup de maulx et de biens tout ensemble, ne plus ne moins qu’une bonne terre grasse produict beaucoup de bonnes et de maulvaises herbes, si elle n’est bien cultivée…

And in North:

This man also is a good proofe to confirme some mens opinions. That a reare and excellent witte untaught, doth bring forth many good and evill things together: like as a fat soile bringeth forth herbes and weedes that lieth unmanured.

“Unmanured” may not sound quite right to our ears – but that’s only because North is using the word in its older sense: manure comes from the old French manoeuvre, which meant, work by hand.  Unmanured soil is untilled, uncultivated. (The word comes from French, but not Amyot’s French: North’s preference for the earthier alternative is characteristic for him.) So far so good.

Plutarch then goes on to explain how this applies in Martius’ case. It goes roughly like this:  Martius’ great mind and strong drive allowed him to accomplish many great things, but his combative, inflexible spirit made him impossible to get along with. Men were amazed at his his unyielding persistence, heedless of comfort, pleasure, or mercenary gain; they called it mastery, valor, and integrity (δικαιοσύνη, in the sense of being incorruptible). But in political affairs (ἐν ταῖς πολιτικαῖς…  ὁμιλίαις) they found this insufferably rigid, graceless, and elitist (ὀλιγαρχική).  In the Greek this is all one dense, complex sentence, expressing a single, continuous thought:

τὸ γὰρ ἰσχυρὸν αὐτοῦ πρὸς ἅπαντα τῆς γνώμης καὶ καρτερὸν ὁρμάς τε μεγάλας καὶ τελεσιουργοὺς τῶν καλῶν ἐξέφερε, θυμοῖς τε αὖ πάλιν χρώμενον ἀκράτοις καὶ φιλονεικίαις ἀτρέπτοις οὐ ῥᾴδιον οὐδ᾽ εὐάρμοστον ἀνθρώποις συνεῖναι παρεῖχεν, ἀλλὰ τὴν ἐν ἡδοναῖς καὶ πόνοις καὶ ὑπὸ χρημάτων ἀπάθειαν αὐτοῦ θαυμάζοντες καὶ ὀνομάζοντες ἐγκράτειαν καὶ δικαιοσύνην καὶ ἀνδρείαν, ἐν ταῖς πολιτικαῖς αὖ πάλιν ὁμιλίαις ὡς ἐπαχθῆ καὶ ἄχαριν καὶ ὀλιγαρχικὴν ἐδυσχέραινον.

In Amyot, it’s a bit more elaborate:

…la naturelle force, constance et perseverance de sa volonté, en ce qu’il avoit une fois entreprins, le poulsoit bien à attenter et executer plusiers belles et grandes choses: mais aussy de l’austre costé, sa cholere qui estoit impatiente, et son obstination inflexible de ne voulouir jamais ceder à personne, le rendroyent mal accointable, et mal propre pour vivre et converser entre les hommes, lesquels avoyent bien en admiration sa fermeté impassible de ne se laisser jaimais vaincre ny au labeur, ny à la volupté, ny à l’avarice, et la nommoyent bien force, temperance et justice: mais au demourant, ils ne s’en pouvoyent approcher ny le frequenter familierement, comme il se faict entre citoyens d’une mesme chose publicque, tant ses façons de faire leur estoyent mal agreables et odieuses, pour une certaine gravité qui leur sembloit trop seigneuriale. 

[The natural strength, constancy, and perseverance of his will, in whatever he once undertook, pushed him to attempt and carry out many beautiful and great things; but also, on the other hand, his temper which was so impatient, and his inflexible obstinacy in never willingly giving ground, made him hard to deal with, and unfit to live and converse among men — who granted their admiration his invincible firmness in never letting himself be conquered, neither by fatigue, nor lust, nor greed — calling it strength, temperance, and justice; but nevertheless, they could neither approach nor converse with him informally, as is done among citizens of the same republic, so disagreeable and odious were his ways of doing things, on account of a certain gravity that that seemed to them too lordly.]

Amyot makes no attempt to reproduce the dense syntactical parallelism in the Greek, and takes the liberty of expanding a bit. Martius’ unyielding drive, in its negative aspect, now becomes partly a matter of “cholere.. impatiente” – his short temper. Whereas Plutarch had said merely that Martius’ inflexibility was found  insufferable in political affairs,  Amyot explains that his manner was so disagreeable that men found it impossible to approach or to deal with him as a  fellow citizen (“ils ne s’en pouvoyent approcher ny le frequenter familierement, comme il se faict entre citoyens d’une mesme chose publicque.”)  That’s not false to Plutarch’s larger story, but it somewhat obscures the immediate point.  In the original, the point is that the same inflexibility that men found so amazing and admirable, in martial contexts, was unsuited to politics. In Amyot, the connection is weakened, with Martius’ failings more closely associated with his temper and his attitude. He is no longer merely inflexible and aloof, but haughty –   seigneuriale.

North follows Amyot fairly closely, if anything putting more stress on Martius’ incivility and hauteur:

For this Martius naturall witt and great harte dyd marvelously sturre up his corage, to doe and attempt notable actes. But on the other side for lacke of education, he was so chollericke and impacient, that he would yeld to no living creature: which made him churlishe, uncivill, and altogether unfit for any mans conversation. Yet men marvelling much at his constancy, that he was never overcome with pleasure, nor money, and howe he would endure easily all manner of paynes & travailles: thereupon they well liked and commended his stowtnes and temperancie.  But for all that, they could not be acquainted with him, as one citizen useth to be with another in the cittie. His behaviour was so unpleasaunt to them, by reason of a certaine insolent and sterne manner he had, which bicause it was to lordly was disliked.

The cause of Martius’ unpleasantness has become “a certain insolent and sterne manner he had” — from Amyot’s “une certaine gravité qui leur sembloit trop seigneuriale.” Both differ from the Greek in that it sounds like this is some further trait, not yet mentioned until now, when for Plutarch it’s that same unyielding persistence, encountered in a different context. In Amyot this was presumably just a way of coping with Greek syntax unmanageable in French. Without the Greek in front of him, North reads it as a separate thought, and draws his own inferences. What had been graceless rigidity is now insolence.

Plutarch then draws a general conclusion regarding the benefit of education. In the Greek, it’s a compressed, gnomic statement, roughly: The outstanding benefit of education is that through it men’s nature is tamed by reason, and excess gives way to moderation.

 οὐδὲν γὰρ ἄλλο Μουσῶν εὐμενείας ἀπολαύουσιν ἄνθρωποι τοσοῦτον ὅσον ἐξημερῶσαι τὴν φύσιν ὑπὸ λόγου καὶ παιδείας, τῷ λόγῳ δεξαμένην τὸ μέτριον καὶ τὸ ἄγαν ἀποβαλοῦσαν.

The thought is typical of Plutarch’s philosophical eclecticism: as in Plato, the roughness of nature is softened through the gifts of the Muses (i.e., music and poetry); as in Aristotle, education enables men to find the virtuous mean, shunning excess.

Amyot accurately captures the gist of Plutarch’s thought, putting it a bit more expansively:

Aussy à dire la verité, le plus grand fruict que les hommes apportent de la doulceur et beningnité des Muses, c’est-à-dire, de la cognoissance des bonnes lettres, c’est qu’ils en domptent et adoulcissent leur nature, qui estoit auparavant sauvage et farouche, trouvants avecques le compas de la raison, le moyen, et rejectants le trop.

[To tell the truth, the greatest fruit that men take from the sweetness and goodness of the Muses — that is to say, the knowledge of literature (bonnes lettres) — is that they tame and sweeten their nature, which had been wild and rude, finding the mean with the compass of reason, and rejecting excess.]

Amyot’s ‘le compas de raison’ is his elegant solution for Plutarch’s elliptical τῷ λόγῳ (an instrumental dative). The opposition of ‘le moyen’ and ‘le trop’ exactly renders Plutarch’s ‘τὸ μέτριον’ and ‘τὸ ἄγαν.’ (The equivalence is more exact than is possible in English – ‘ἄγαν’ is normally an adverb, like the French ‘trop’.)

Now turn to North:

And to saye truely, the greatest benefit that learning bringeth men unto, is this: that it teacheth men that be rude and rough of nature, by compasse and rule of reason, to be civill &. curteous, and to like better the meane state, then the higher. 

 Where Amyot had opposed ‘le moyen’ to ‘le trop’, North opposes ‘the meane state’ to ‘the higher.’ In the French (like the Greek), it’s the contrast between moderation and excess, the mean versus the extreme.  It’s possible that North intended much the same contrast – the O.E.D. lists ‘extreme’ among the various older senses of the word ‘high.’  But on the other hand,  North typically uses ‘meane’ to denote lowliness — in phrases like ‘meane birth,’ and so forth . In the context of North’s translation of the passage as a whole, it seems more to the point that another of O.E.D.’s archaic senses for ‘high’ is insolent.  We’ve already seen North make a leap from Amyot’s ‘seigneurial’  to the quality of insolence.

Plutarch’s remark about the benefits of education simply sums up the line of thinking in the preceding sentences. Martius’ failing is his immoderation, his inability to adapt himself to his circumstances. (There is an implied contrast with Alcibiades — the Greek whose biography Plutarch sets in tandem with Coriolanus’ — who was famously adaptable to whatever company he found himself in.)   If this is the consequence of Martius’ defective education, then it makes sense to say that the benefit of education lies in teaching moderation. In Amyot it’s less clear that Martius’ failing is a matter of immoderation – it also seems to do with his bad temper, irascibility. If this is taken as a separate aspect of his personality, then the assessment overall seems rather miscellaneous, and it becomes less apparent why learning moderation is the salient remedy. If what makes Coriolanus insufferable is not merely brusque inflexibility, but haughty insolence, then a lesson or two in humility might seem more to the point…