The Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans was written by the Greek historian Plutarch (c. AD 46–c. AD 120). The work features 50 biographies of notable historical figures, 46 of which are paired, as a way of drawing out their character through comparisons. Plutarch was particularly interested in exploring the moral character of his subjects through anecdotes about key moments in their lives, and wrote on themes such as heroism, stoicism and the relationship between the individual and the state.
In 1579, Sir Thomas North published an English translation of Plutarch’s Lives. In his ‘Preface to the Reader’, North argues that:
stories are fit for every place, reach to all persons, serve for all times, teach the living, revive the dead, so far excelling all other books, as it is better to see learning in noble men’s lives, that read it in Philosophers’ writings. (sig. π3r)
This is very much a ‘great men’ theory of history, in which the world is shaped by the virtues and vices of individuals such as Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar. North dedicated his book to Queen Elizabeth I, with the disclaimer that he did not presume to be able to teach her anything, but rather had made this book to benefit her subjects.
Shakespeare used Plutarch as a key source for Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Timon of Athens.
Plutarch’s Lives and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus
Shakespeare, in this play obsessed with Roman values, frequently takes his lead from Plutarch and North. Indeed Coriolanus contains what is probably the longest continuous passage in Shakespeare’s work in which the playwright relies closely on a particular source: Volumnia’s plea not to invade Rome and Coriolanus’s impassioned response (pp. 256–57). However, Shakespeare also makes some significant changes. In Plutarch, the civil unrest is about the lack of protection against usury (the unfair practices of money lenders such as charging extortionate rates of interest). However, in Shakespeare it is about the lack of corn, possibly in response to the civil unrest in 1600s England over enclosures and food shortages and/or the influence of other historical sources including Livy and Machiavelli. Plutarch’s plebeians also hold Coriolanus in greater honour for his valour and military prowess than Shakespeare’s do. Furthermore, Plutarch paints a more sympathetic version of the people, for example relating that some of them bear wounds from previous military service where Shakespeare makes them non-combatants.
Plutarch’s Lives and Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
Shakespeare drew on the lives of Caesar, Brutus, and Antony to write Julius Caesar. The extract from the life of Julius Caesar shown here gives background to the time frame of Shakespeare’s play. On page 791 next to ‘Caesar reformed the inequality of the year’, North discusses how Caesar had created the ‘Julian’ calendar system to adjust for the irregularities created by the patterns of the sun and moon. This issue was under renewed debate in Shakespeare’s time. Page 792 describes Lupercalia, the February festival in progress in Act 1, Scene 2, in which Antony has stripped for the race and Caesar asks him to touch Calpurnia. Page 793 of North’s translation explains the importance of the Ides of March – the 15th of that month – as the day a soothsayer ‘prognosticated’ for Caesar’s death. Though the time between Lupercalia and the Ides of March would in fact have been a month, Shakespeare uses poetic license and contracts this period in his play to around two days.