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 Lord of Triumph

Statue of Britannica

The play begins during a food shortage which leads to political dissent by a crowd marching and assembled against the plutocrat Caius Marcus – “the enemy of the people”. His friend Mennenius Agrippa explains to the angry mob that the gods are responsible for the famine, not Caius Marcus who also hears that five people’s tribunes have gained representation at the Roman Senate. Fresh news comes to Marcus and his fellow compatriot that the Volschians, led by Tullus Aufidus are also in revolt against him. They decide to lead an expedition against the Volschians while the play continues to introduce Marcus’ mother Volumnia and his peace-loving wife Virgilia. The Romans attempt to capture the Volschian capital Corioli but are driven back, but Caius Marcus rallies his strength breaks through the city gates and although badly wounded he entreats the other Roman forces to take the city. Although the Volschian troops attempt a counter-tactic, they are defeated and the Roman leader Cominus awards Caius Marcus the title “Coriolanus”. The Volschian leader Tullus Aufidus swears vengeance. In the second act although Coriolanus receives a victor’s welcome at home he is rebuked by Sicinus and Brutus for denigrating his friend Menenius Agrippa. The people’s tribunes now fear that since the war hero Coriolanus has such a popular following that he would be in line for the position of elected Consul. Coriolanus is something of a reluctant “people’s representative” and makes his own contemptible views known to his family and friends.

In act III Coriolanus hears that his vanquished enemy Tullus Aufidus has retired to Antium where he is marshalling new forces for an attack against him. Furthermore he is rejected by the tribunes as a potential candidate for Consul and the plebeians are instructed to rally against Marcus because he refused to distribute free corn during the famine. To vindicate his honour Marcus agrees to meet at the Senate and answer any charges against him while Menenius Agrippa attempts to placate the mob. Unfortunately his reputation as a proud and unfeeling nobleman works against him at Rome and he is exiled. In banishment he reluctantly leaves his mother, Volumnia, sorrowful wife Virgilia and reviles the antagonistic envious tribunes rallied against his rich estate. When Aufidus hears that Coriolanus is having trouble in his own state he sees the opportunity to encourage the revolt thereby splitting Rome and making it vulnerable to attack from Antium. Disguised as a poor acolyte Coriolanus then goes to the house of his arch-enemy Aufidus at Antium and declares that he should slit his throat now or call for a respectful peace. Coriolanus is received with honour and in good spirits by Aufidus. Misleading messengers then report that Coriolanus is now in league with Aufidus against Rome. In act V Cominius has been to discuss terms with the rebel Volschian camp but meets with a stern rebuff. Menenius Agrippa is then encouraged to discuss a truce with Aufidus and Coriolanus which again is rejected. Aufidus and Coriolanus march against Rome but are met by his mother Volumnia, his wife Virgilia and his young son. They plead with Coriolanus to abandon his plans, to leave the Volschians to their own devices and return back with them to Rome. After much discussion and rebukes from the Volschian camp Coriolanus finally agrees to abandon his claim to the capital. However, while he returns to cheers from the locals and some measure of relief from the citizens of Rome, Aufidus is busy hatching yet another plot. Having abandoned the Volschians Coriolanus is charged with making a suitable peace treaty with Aufidus and arranges a visit to Antium. However, Aufidus has arranged for Coriolanus to be publicly assassinated there by some willing conspirators.

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


%d bloggers like this: