Coriolanus: Legend and Literature

The historical origins of the central figure of Shakespeare’s tragedy

Coriolanus Standing, Louis Galloche c. 1746

Coriolanus is the story of a Roman general, a man more at ease in the throes of battle than the comforts of home. His extraordinary efforts on the battlefield mark him for governmental power, but also limit his ability to perform the niceties and prevarications required by politics. While his doomed trajectory is best known to us now from Shakespeare’s play, it didn’t originate with him. Where did Shakespeare find Coriolanus, and how does he translate to the stage?

As with many of Shakespeare’s Roman and Greek plays, including Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus finds its source in Plutarch. Plutarch was Greek, born to a prominent family around 46 AD. He was a writer, a magistrate, and a priest of Apollo. At some point he became a Roman citizen, sponsored by a consul named Lucius Mestrius. Upon receiving citizenship, his name was Romanized to Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus, reflecting his sponsor and his Romanization while keeping his Greek name at its core. Coriolanus, too, was rechristened: born Caius Martius, he takes on Coriolanus as thanks from Rome for his military achievements.

Plutarch’s bust at Chaeronea, his hometown

Plutarch’s most famous work was Parallel Lives, a collection of biographies of prominent Greeks and Romans, featured in pairs to highlight common moralities between the cultures. Twenty-three of Plutarch’s pairs survive, among them Coriolanus, whom Plutarch pairs with the Greek statesman and general Alcibiades. Where Coriolanus’ military exploits should have earned him honors and love, his pride brought out only scorn from the Romans; conversely, Alcibiades was unscrupulous in his flattery, earning love from the Athenians despite his arguably poor performance as a statesman. As Plutarch writes in Parallel Lives:

“And so in spite of great and frequent hurt that he had done the city, [Alcibiades] was repeatedly appointed to office and command; while Coriolanus stood in vain for a place which his great services had made his due. The one, in spite of the harm he occasioned, could not make himself hated, nor the other, with all the admiration he attracted, succeeded in being beloved by his countrymen.” — The Comparison of Alcibiades with Coriolanus

Plutarch’s account of Coriolanus’ life claims he was descended from an early Roman king. Plutarch writes of the soldier, then called Caius Martius, succeeding in his first battle; he fought against Tarquin the Proud, who was attempting to regain the Roman throne from the newly created Republic. The young Martius received honors for saving the life of a fellow Roman citizen in battle. After his later success in the siege at Corioli, earning him his new name, Coriolanus became a respected figure in Rome. When a grain shortage struck the city a few years later, he proposed distributing the stores of grain equally, but only if the representatives of the common people were expelled from government. The people turned on him, and he was exiled; he eventually joined the Volscians, an enemy of Rome, and waged war against his home city for several years.

The first edition of Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives

Shakespeare’s interpretation of Plutarch’s account is similar; Coriolanus’ military exploits and glories are present, as is his remarkably close relationship with his mother. A major leap from Plutarch’s page to Shakespeare’s stage is in the timeline, which Shakespeare condenses dramatically to a matter of weeks.

Modern scholars doubt Plutarch’s account, written as it was more than 500 years after Coriolanus was supposed to have lived; some even question whether the man was real, believing him to be a strictly legendary figure. The truth or myth of his life is immaterial to Shakespeare’s usage of him, though, as he was able to find parallels to his own time. In 1607–1608, precisely when Shakespeare is believed to have been writing Coriolanus, a harsh winter caused bread riots in England, and the common English people drew up a political manifesto in opposition to their treatment by the nobles. Prominent political figures of his own time also saw themselves in Coriolanus, lending credence to the idea that while Shakespeare took names and plot from Plutarch, he was using his own moment as source material. Some contemporaries saw Coriolanus in both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, but it is the Earl of Essex — haughty, eventually executed for treason — most often compared to the doomed Roman. The Earl once said “shortly they will play me on the stage”; perhaps even he could see the parallel life he was leading with Coriolanus.

Join us for Coriolanus at Lantern Theater Company, March 9— April 16, 2017. Visit our website for tickets and information.