By William Shakespeare

Coriolanus and the Jacobean World

There are important links with the ancient world and that of Jacobean England. The Roman setting of Shakespeare's play offers a limited form of cover for the playwright to address social and political issues of his own times. However, this has been extensively debated by critics. England at this time had absorbed many facets of the continental Renaissance and in the political sphere of Parliament, classical precedents were frequently recalled by both King and Commons. Educated men of Shakespeare's time would have been able to decipher attempts at contemporary political commentary or other such hidden meanings through characters or events of classical history.

With Coriolanus, Shakespeare extends beyond his other Roman plays and, in fact, those of any other playwright of his age in examining class conflict and its impact on the dynamic and unstable realm of Roman political power. It is interesting, and perhaps important, that the several grievances of the citizens that Plutarch records were reduced by Shakespeare to just one in the play: grain shortage. The years 1607-8 (around the time critics believe the play was most likely to have been composed) England experienced bad harvests and rioting. It is alleged that during these disturbances the origins of the mid-century political radicals the Levellers are to be found. The First Citizen's attack on the opulence without charity of the Roman nobility mirrors a strand of puritan preaching that emerged towards the end of the 1610s. William Burton, for example, in his sermons attacked the greed and wealth of the political classes, especially because of their lack of charity towards the poor. In many ways Coriolanus' position mirrors that of the English nobility under the pacific James I. There was strong desire for a Protestant foreign policy under the early Stuart kings. In 1604 James agreed peace with England's 'old enemy', Spain. The memory of the defeat of the Armada in 1588 and campaigns in the Low Countries reigned strong whilst James I was a pacific king, who hoped to establish himself as something of the mediator of European confessional politics. This did not cut well with the militaristic aristocracy.