Coriolanus

Shakespeare might have had either Sir Walter Raleigh or the Earl of Essex in mind when developing the central heroic character of Coriolanus. The aristocrats Walter Raleigh and the Earl of Essex both met an ignominious end because they were incapable of adapting to the demands of a peace with Spain. The hoarding of grain actually coincides with the actions of William Shakspere in Stratford-upon-Avon who took an active and controversial part in the enclosures of common land. William Shakspere and his father in the 1590’s were actually fined for hoarding grain during a drought.

Coriolanus is a first folio play derived from Roman tragic sources namely Plutarch’s “Parallel Lives”, consisting of 23 pairs of the biographies of Greek and Roman statesmen translated by Sir Thomas North (1595). This play was probably written against the background of the Peasant’s Uprising in Northamptonshire (The Diggers)- a precursor to the Civil War much later. The text derived not entirely from an original manuscript but more likely derived from a promptbook. In parts it is either unfinished or in need of revision although act divisions are clearly inserted. It was presumably written sometime in 1608 and probably performed for the first time at the Blackfriars Theatre. This is a thoughtful political play whose central character is portrayed as a war hero who cannot adjust to a period of peace and is betrayed by his forbearance and adherence to virtues of honesty and personal integrity. Shakespeare might have had either Sir Walter Raleigh or the Earl of Essex in mind when developing the central heroic character of Coriolanus. The aristocrats Walter Raleigh and Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex both met an ignominious end because they were incapable of adapting to the demands of a peace with Spain. If that is the case then the idea for the play might have evolved much earlier and the play could have been structured and revised sometime after the death of Edward de Vere.

In a chronological context the action takes place some 400 years before the time of Rome’s Emperor, Julius Caesar, the late 5th century BC when the state lacked the sophistication of Rome in contrast to that when Mark Anthony was alive. It actually coincides with the lives of the Tarquin dynasty whose scurrilous relatives feature in Shakespeare’s poem The Rape of Lucrece. In the early life of Coriolanus, Lucius Junius Brutus removed the monarchy and replaced it with a newly instituted republic ruled entirely by aristocrats. The senate believed the famine was a consequence of the gods not their rulers and implore the populace to make the appropriate sacrifices. Consequently, the majority of the Roman people were plagued by injustice and poverty. There was a yawning gap between the rich, privileged minority and the poor disempowered majority. This lack of social or political cohesion would no doubt have been the subject of debate and consternation in Elizabethan England. According to Plutarch the people of Rome agreed to easy loans in return for fighting the neighbouring Sabines. They were later bankrupted when interest rates were increased and decided to revolt. After the uprising the working populace were allowed to elect their own representatives in the senate. Whether in real terms they had a voice in political and judicial affairs is another matter. Similarly, in England, during a food shortage, the local merchants tended to hoard grain in the hope that prices would increase which precipitated anger and conflict among the starving populace.

Ideally monarchs prefer to exercise absolute power, with some few exceptions, and the ruling monarch in the latter part of Shakespeare’s lifetime did not enjoy compromises with either the House of Lords or the Commons. Analogies could be drawn and allusions debated regarding the nature of the character Coriolanus with those heroic warriors who fought in Spain and the Netherlands. But equally, the essential debate hidden in this play is who really displays valour through populist acts of heroism and who plays the puppet master? This paradox is clearly an aspect of the play which many Oxfordians say harks back to the Earl of Essex’s Rebellion, as well as Walter Raleigh’s reluctance to end the war with Spain and the back room machinations of William Cecil and Frances Walsingham.

Furthermore, this was the last of the Shakespeare plays about the gore and glory that was ancient Rome. It is a psychological drama about a man who is also a child and whose ambitious mother has more influence on his future reputation and psyche than anything else. An ancient aphorism states (Ignatious of Ayola): “Show me the child at seven and I will prescribe you the man” and this is especially true of the character of Coriolanus, a war hero who is not suited to the demands of peace but is more anxious to engage in battle than he is to manage the difficult affairs of state that require restraint and diplomacy. Unlike say Hamlet, Coriolanus is not an introspective or intellectual man, he is foremost a man of action.

The links to my publications “Shakespeare’s Qaballah”, a Companion to Shakespeare Studies and my anthology of poetry, “Pathenogenesis” are as follows:

https://www.amazon.com/dp/8182537193
https://www.cyberwit.net/publications/1721

Website: www.qudosacademy.org

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