I haven’t read Coriolanus in a while – and, by a while, I mean five or six years – so this was an interesting exercise.
Coriolanus, probably written sometime between 1605 and 1608, is one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays. The others are Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Titus Andronicus and they’re called Roman plays because they’re all tragedies set during the Roman Empire.
The play opens in Rome shortly after the expulsion of the Tarquin kings and there are riots in progress because stores of grain were withheld from ordinary citizens. Off to a good start. The rioters blame Caius Marcius (Coriolanus) for the loss of their grain for some reason and he basically annoys them further by saying that they, the normal citizens, are unworthy of the grain because they have not fought in the war. I’m not going to lie, I really hate Caius Marcius (Coriolanus) at the beginning of this play. He’s a smug, self-righteous idiot. Anyways, he leaves Rome after news arrives that a Volscian army is lurking nearby and does what he does best, fights in a war. During these shenanigans, Brutus and Sicinius (two ‘tribunes’ or elected officials) have privately condemned him.
Caius Marcius is given the agnomen (“official nickname”) of Coriolanus for his great courage against the Volscian army. His line attribution (is there a proper name for this in theatrical terms?) changes from Mar. to Corio. – at least in the First Folio – which is pretty cool.1 At this point of the play he’s at the top of the world! He’s a hero! Cue his terrible downfall thanks to Brutus and Sicinius. He’s cast out of Rome as a traitor and this is a tragedy so you know how it ends: inevitable death. I’m not going to spend any longer going into detail about the plot but it is a gripping play.
As with many of Shakespeare’s plays, there is no performance history from Shakespeare’s own time. It’s sad but we just have to deal with it.
In 1682, Nahum Tate (who is both my favourite and least favourite Restoration era adaptor of Shakespeare) adapted the play at Drury Lane and he gave it a new title: The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth.2 Unusually, this version is bloodier than Shakespeare’s original and the fifth act is an absolute bloodbath. Tate stayed loyal to Shakespeare for the first four acts but just gave it everything he had in the fifth and I applaud him for that. There were several other adaptations but Shakespeare’s original play was returned to the stage in 1754 by good old David Garrick.
One of the sources for Coriolanus is the “Life of Coriolanus” in Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. If you’ve read my post about Anthony and Cleopatra then you might recognise that text but Shakespeare often used North’s translation of Plutarch for his Roman stuff.
Several scholars, including R.B. Parker, have noted that Menenius’ speech about the body politic – one of my favourite Shakespeare speeches – is derived from William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke Concerning Britaine (1605), where Pope Adrian IV compares a well-run government to a body in which all parts performed their functions, only the stomach lay idle and consumed all.3
There was a time, when all the bodies members
Rebell’d against the Belly; thus accus’d it:
That onely like a Gulfe it did remaine
I’th midd’st a th’body, idle and vnactiue,
Still cubbording the Viand, neuer bearing
Like labour with the rest, where th’other Instruments
Did see, and heare, deuise, instruct, walke, feele,
And mutually participate, did minister
Vnto the appetite; and affection common
Of the whole body, the Belly answer’d.4
This exchange actually goes on much longer but I just wanted to quote from the very first part of the conversation between Menenius and the citizens.
Some of the major themes of Coriolanus are:
- Honour / Integrity
All of these themes blend together and influence each other but I’ve always been really interested in Shakespeare’s interpretation of class in play. Shakespeare presents his audience with a play about inequality and the struggle for balance between social classes. As I mentioned earlier, the play begins with plebeian riots over a grain shortage and Menenius tries to calm the citizens during the riots by explaining what the proper relationship between the government and the people should be. This is the ‘body politic’ speech which is written out just above this section. However, Coriolanus views the common people with contempt and this allows Brutus and Sicinius to harness the power of the common people to banish Coriolanus from Rome. Coriolanus’ actions towards the citizens of Rome, whom he considers himself above, ultimately leads to his downfall. This should be a message to all would-be politicians but Shakespeare undermines this power by revealing that Brutus and Sicinius have been manipulating things behind the scenes.
Arguably, this entire play is a commentary on the theatrics and dishonesty of politics and politicians. It’s about how people are manipulated by politicians and their campaign teams. Coriolanus cannot become a politician because he believes in honesty and integrity, expressing his views and opinions even if these opinions are awful and uninformed. We all know that people (politicians) like Brutus and Sicinius have the same views as Coriolanus but they are suited to the political sphere because they can hide these views behind a pleasant veneer. Coriolanus is still, unfortunately, relevant over 400 years after it was written.
- Ben Jonson’s Epicoene, Robert Armin’s Phantasma, and John Fletcher’s The Woman’s Prize, or the Tamer Tamed all allude to this play! That’s why scholars date it pre-1610.
- Other sources have been suggested for this play including Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy and even Shakespeare’s own grammar-school knowledge of the history of Rome.
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1. Digital facsimile of the Bodleian First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Arch. G c.7 via – Bodleian Library
2. Nahum Tate, The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth (London: Printed by T. M. for Joseph Hindmarsh [etc.], 1682) – via ProQuest
3. William Shakespeare and R. B Parker, The Tragedy Of Coriolanus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
4. Digital facsimile of the Bodleian First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays, Arch. G c.7 via – Bodleian Library
1. Title page Coriolanus in the First Folio (1616) via Schoenberg Center for Electronic Text & Image (SCETI)
2. The first page of The Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus from Thomas North‘s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the noble Grecians and Romanes via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection
3. Volumnia pleading with Coriolanus not to destroy Rome by Richard Westall (1800) via Folger Shakespeare Library Digital Image Collection