William Camden (1551–1623) was an educator, historian, antiquarian and topographer. His book Remaines of a Greater Worke concerning Britaine (1605) collected excerpts in English from Britannia (1586), his large Latin work on the ancient and medieval history and topography of England, Scotland and Ireland. Remaines includes sections collecting names, epitaphs and wise speeches.
The body politic and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus
In Coriolanus, Menenius’s speech to the plebeians in the opening scene recounts the well-known fable of ‘the belly and the members’, which is one of the earliest known versions of the metaphor of the body politic. From his retelling in Coriolanus, it seems Shakespeare was familiar with the belly fable in a number of different versions from classical, medieval and renaissance literature, including Livy, Plutarch, Sidney and Camden. Textual echoes of words which only appear in Camden’s version, such as the use of the word ‘gulfe’ for ‘belly’, suggest that Shakespeare had also read Remaines. Camden’s Remaines follows the version of the body politic image found in John of Salisbury’s Policratus (1159, first printed c. 1470), which emphasises the unity of the body politic and portrays the serving of princes as being for the common good. Policratus is also famous for claiming that it is just to slay a tyrant.
The metaphor of the body politic recurs throughout Coriolanus and contrasts with the protagonist’s alternative depiction at various points in the play of the plebeians as a many-headed monster, for example as discussed by several citizens in the opening of Act 2, Scene 3. Although Menenius pays lip-service to the ideas of common good and mutual obligation, the grievances aired by the citizens (1.1.15–23 and 1.1.79–86) suggest that the patricians, senators and generals are failing in their obligations. The Citizen’s interjections also mock the idea of mutual obligation (1.1.114–19), pointing to disorder in the body politic.
- Article by:
- Liza Picard
- Shakespeare’s life and world, Elizabethan England
Liza Picard describes how, between the Queen at the top and the beggars at the bottom, there was jockeying for position in the different levels of Elizabethan society.
- 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.