By William Shakespeare

Shakespeare's Sources

Reading Plutarch and comparing the Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus with Coriolanus we appreciate the talents of Shakespeare's art - how he selected and omitted details, concentrated on his chosen themes, dramatising and intertwining them. It would be wrong to think of Shakespeare simply transplanting Plutarch onto the stage. In writing Coriolanus, Shakespeare was engaging in an imaginative act. It is easier to accept, partially if not fully, Eliot's claim that with Antony and Cleopatra, the play is Shakespeare's 'most assured artistic success'.

Shakespeare's vision was shaped in part by the social and literary culture in which he lived and worked, and by the Elizabethan and Jacobean audiences for which his plays were produced. The Renaissance conception of the Greco-Roman heroic ideal was a significant influence on the play and important for the meaning to contemporary audiences. Similarly, his treatment of civil disorder in Republican Rome was almost certainly influenced by popular tumults and protests of late Tudor and early Jacobean England. That Shakespeare overlooks Plutarch's claim that 'the sore oppression of usurers' was the principal complaint of the plebeians, and focuses on the shortage and high prices of grain in Rome, almost certainly derives from Jacobean socio-economic unrest of 1607-8. So too, where Coriolanus is almost obsessed with allusion to he body politic, the body-state metaphor, Plutarch has nothing of this. Contemporaries in the early Jacobean period did have a strong concern for the structure of society, and the dangers of insurrection. In one of these discussions of the structure of the state, that of Menenius' 'Belly Fable', Shakespeare reveals his textual diversity. In composing this, Shakespeare was drawing not only on Plutarch, but also on William Camden's Remaines of a greater worke concerning Britaine, Sir Philip Sidney's Apologie for Poesie and Livy's Roman History in both the original and Philemon Holland's translation of 1600.

The main events, and even the important scenes of Coriolanus - that is, Coriolanus' attack on the tribunes (III.i); his banishment from Rome and alliance with Aufidius (IV.i & v); and the scene with Volumnia in V.iii - are indeed based on Plutarch. Further Coriolanus' principal characteristics were derived from Plutarch, at least in their most elementary form. But what of the alterations and omissions the playwright made? Shakespeare does give greater emphasis than Plutarch to several features, notably Coriolanus' pride and tempestuous nature, and especially to the strength and power of the maternal bond with Volumnia. In the Life, Menenius has nothing of the prominence that Shakespeare ascribes to him. A major departure by Shakespeare is the omission of Plutarch's numerous references to Coriolanus' political manoeuvring. Plutarch also attributed Coriolanus with a reputation and flair for rhetoric; yet the Coriolanus of Shakespeare is more notable for his inability to engage in political debate and public speech. This heightened the portrait of Coriolanus' militarism, his heroism, his violence and his power, and more importantly served the tragic framework of the drama very well.

Yet simply comparing Plutarch's narrative of events with incidences where Coriolanus parallels the Life, or where the playwright's power of invention has provided expansion of characters or events, is only of a limited value for understanding how Shakespeare transformed Plutarch's original. The best example is Volumnia's great appeal to Coriolanus in Act V, scene iii (ll.19-209).