Throughout history, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus has frequently been adopted or adapted for purposes of propaganda or political commentary. This item is a satirical print by caricaturist and literary illustrator George Cruikshank (1792–1878). It depicts King George IV as Coriolanus addressing an audience of cowering ‘plebeians’ outside his residence, Carlton House Palace. Below is written a part of Martius’s speech to the plebeians in Act, Scene 1, followed by a quotation (in French) from Buffon praising the nobility of the figure above (i.e. the king).
The period 1815–20 was one of great social unrest for Britain, which was still recovering from the Napoleonic wars. After the repeal of income tax in 1816, taxes disproportionately affected the poor and benefited the rich, who were reaping repayments of national debt. The poor were also affected by bad harvests; decreasing wages and grain prices for farmers; and increasing enclosures, unemployment and food prices. This all contributed to the disaffection of an increasingly unruly populous, who resented their corrupt government and the wasteful lavish spending of the King.
This caricature was issued on 29 February 1820, the day the Parliament of King George III (who had died a month before) was dissolved and six days after the discovery of the Cato Street Conspiracy to murder the prime minister and all the cabinet. The crowd of plebeians depicts contemporary reformers (radicals on the left and moderates on the right) including Arthur Thistlewood (one of the Cato Street Conspirators), William Cobbett (a farmer and pamphleteer) and Cruikshank himself. They wear bonnets-rouge (red caps associated with Roman freedmen and previous workers’ revolts) and carry reformist banners.
The print is often interpreted as a pro-government tableaux with George IV looking dignified as Coriolanus and the plebeians shrinking back in fear. However, it is possible that the ambivalence of Shakespeare’s play, and indeed the presence of the artist (who had produced numerous anti-government and anti-George pieces) among the plebeians, loads this image with potential criticism of the monarch too, and perhaps a more subtle critique of the situation as a whole.
- Full title:
- Coriolanus addressing the Plebeians ... with an autograph description of the caricature by the artist
- 1820, London
- Etching / Print / Illustration / Image
- George Cruikshank
- Usage terms
Folger Source call number: ART File S528c2 no.56 (size XS), Digital Image File Name: 25770. Used by permission of the Folger Shakespeare Library under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
- Held by
- Folger Shakespeare Library
- ART File S528c2 no.56 (size XS), Digital Image File Name: 25770
- Article by:
- Alice Rylance-Watson
Alice Rylance-Watson tells the story of a late-18th century art venture, the Boydell Shakespeare Gallery, which occasioned some of the most beautiful and iconic paintings of Shakespearean scenes. She discusses the relationship between commerce and fine art, and outlines the important role Boydell's enterprise played in the rise of British bardolatry.
- Article by:
- Michael Dobson
Michael Dobson describes the political context in which Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus, and how the play has resonated with later generations of playwrights, directors and actors.