The belly fable in William Camden's Remains Concerning Britain, 1605


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.

Full title:
Remaines of a greater Worke, concerning Britaine
1605, London
Book / Quarto
William Camden
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library

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