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Coriolanus was probably first performed between 1607 and 1609, so it is Jacobean rather than Elizabethan. It’s primary source was ‘The Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus‘ in The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans, translated into English by Thomas North. The fable of the belly probably comes from Camden’s Remaines, published in 1605, where a very similar fable is attributed to Adrian IV.
The play comes to us through the First Folio. There is no quarto.
The story of Coriolanus is one of a proud, arrogant, early (1st battle fought against Tarquin, ex-king of Rome) Roman soldier, willing to fight and die for his country, who comes into conflict with the people, and their representatives the tribunes, when he puts himself up for election as consul. When the action takes place, Rome was moving from a monarchy slowly towards the Roman version of democracy (SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanum). The struggle for power between the Patricians / Aristocrats and the Plebs is ongoing.
The Plebs reject Coriolanus, essentially for his arrogance, and he joins with Rome’s enemies, the Volscians, to overthrow Rome. His widowed mother, who had brought Coriolanus up alone, persuades him not to invade Rome, and he returns to the Volscians, who kill him.
So this play is yet another dramatisation of the conflict between aristocratic virtues and the emerging democratic values, as we have seen in Troilus and Cressida, Richard II, or more generally, the Henriad (Richard II, Henry IV Part I, Henry IV Part II, Henry V).
The sub-plots enrich and deepen this story:
The play starts with scenes showing the battles between the Roman and Volscian armies. These show the strong bonds and values of soldiers fighting together and depending upon eachother for their lives and in the common struggle for their homeland, Rome. There are also the beginnings of hints that their struggle with their enemy also creates respect and even bonds for and with the enemy.
When Coriolanus returns to Rome, his comrades and his mother, Volumnia, persuade him to offer himself for the Consulship. Coriolanus‘s relationship with his mother is another key element of the play. She is instrumental in the plot: she persuades Coriolanus to stand for Consul; she persuades Coriolanus to give up his attack on Rome, and return to the Volscians and his death. She also seems to embody for Coriolanus the aristocratic virtues of Rome. She delights in her son’s valour, ‘Coriolanus, must I call thee?”, and she offers him political sagacity:
‘O sir, sir, sir, I would have had you put your power well on,
Before you had worn it out.’
Perhaps she represents the matronly disciplines of Rome, or the desire of the woman in a masculine society to live through her son. Perhaps she provides an opening for exploring the role of women in encouraging their men folk to go to war as, for example, the women in The Four Feathers. It is perhaps no coincidence that she brought Coriolanus up alone, being widowed early.
In the conflict between Coriolanus and the people and tribunes, Shakespeare is perhaps less sympathetic towards the people than one might expect. He put a high premium on political stability. He seems to see the conflict between Coriolanus and the people, at a time of national insecurity, as part of the self-destructive potential of human society.
When Coriolanus is banished, and joins with the Volscians, his recent enemies, against Rome, we see the bond between them in almost sexual terms:
‘We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other’s throat–
And wak’d half dead with nothing.’
Considerations for C21 production:
These seem unfashionable themes today. We find it difficult to honour and respect the soldier’s virtues, even though we still depend upon them. The democratic ideal has won out over the aristocratic values.
Perhaps because they are so unfashionable, it is time to listen to them again, amd find some way of bringing this story to a modern audience.
The character of Coriolanus seems to be not dissimilar to that of the archetypal English Public Schoolboy. Some emphasis on aristochratic values, including the pursuit of excellence; public service; and contempt for those they are still inclined to call ‘the plebs’.”
What is particularly interesting is the Roman view of Coriolanus. Plutarch, who indirectly was the source of Shakespeare’s story, in ‘The Life of Coriolanus‘, has a few revealing statements which reflect the Roman view:
” Caius Marcius [Coriolanus]… lost his father at an early age, and was reared by his widowed mother…. The same Marcius bore witness for those who hold that a generous and noble nature, if it lack discipline [from the father], is apt to produce much that is worthless along with its better fruits, like a rich soil deprived of the husbandman’s culture. For while the force and vigour of his intelligence, which knew no limitations, led him into great undertakings, and such as were productive of the highest results, still, on the other hand, since help indulged a vehement temper and displayed an unswerving pertinacity, it made him a difficult and unsuitable associate for others. “
“Marcius, who thought he owed his mother the filial gratitude also which would have been due to his father, could not get his fill of gladdening and honouring Volumnia.”
“He had indulged the passionate and contentious side of his nature, with the idea that there was something great and exalted in this, and had not been imbued, under the influence of reason and discipline, with that gravity and mildness which are the chief virtues of a statesman. Nor did he know that one who undertakes public business must avoid above all things that self-will which, as Plato says, is the “companion of solitude”; must mingle with men, and be a lover of that submissiveness to injury which some people ridicule so much.”
“If Plutarch and the Romans should be right about the weaknesses resulting from being brought up without a father, perhaps we are in for some interesting times when with the children of the current large number of single-parent families grow up.”