An introduction to Coriolanus

An introduction to Coriolanus

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.

Coriolanus – the most political play in the canon, structured throughout around the collision between a military hero and a civilian society – may have been the first play Shakespeare wrote specifically for performance in the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, which the King’s Men acquired in 1608. Depicting a solitary patrician repeatedly pitted against angry crowds – from the hungry demonstrators Caius Martius curses in the opening scene, to the enemy army he defeats at Corioli, to the Roman mob who refuse to endorse his promotion to consul and subsequently insist on his banishment, to the organised group of Volscians who finally kill him – the play seems to presuppose a measure of sympathy for the one against the many, and for the patricians against the plebeians, an attitude perhaps native to this more exclusive, up-market auditorium. But Shakespeare’s play makes it clear that the people of Rome are quite right to recognise that if they make Coriolanus consul, their hard-won right to representation in the state will be abolished, and from the first the history of Coriolanus in performance has mirrored and magnified the political disputes its script dramatises.

Caricature of George IV as Coriolanus by George Cruikshank, 1820

Caricature of George IV as Coriolanus by George Cruikshank, 1820

The one against the many. Coriolanus has a long history of use in political commentary.

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Food shortages and riots

Given that Shakespeare was himself a Warwickshire property holder, in 1607–08 the story he had found in Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives about a conflict between established authority and a militant popular crowd must have seemed urgently topical. Throughout that period there were riots in Shakespeare’s home county against what we would now call the privatisation of public land: agricultural labourers who under an earlier, medieval dispensation had been able to grow most of their own food, were now reduced to working for the landowners who had claimed the right to enclose what had formerly been common ground. With wages low and harvests poor many labourers were becoming dangerously hungry. As Harley MS 787/11 – a declaration issued by 'the Diggers of Warwickshire' – shows, the leaders of isolated local disturbances sought to make common cause with one another, uniting in a shared demand that the state – the ‘commonwealth’ – should be organised for the well-being of all, rather than in the interests of the rich. This is exactly the impulse which motivates the plebeians and their tribunes in Coriolanus, and the connection between the grievances articulated in the play and those audible in the Warwickshire riots is underlined by one of Shakespeare’s adjustments to his source. Whereas in Plutarch the demonstrators blame their problems on the greed of moneylenders, in Shakespeare they are angry about food shortages, accusing the patricians of deliberately hoarding grain to maintain its high market price. Shakespeare had himself been convicted of hoarding grain a decade earlier, and in 1614 he would be involved in a dispute about an enclosure project at Welcombe, which the Stratford Corporation opposed: this was subject matter he knew from both sides.

Declaration of the Diggers of Warwickshire, 1607

Declaration of the Diggers of Warwickshire, 1607

A rallying cry from hungry Warwickshire labourers to other rural workers during the Midland Revolt of 1607.

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Royal Proclamation concerning the Midland Revolt of 1607

Royal Proclamation concerning the Midland Revolt of 1607

James I’s official responses to the uprising mandate its suppression, with force if necessary.

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Reflecting political sympathies: from Stuart monarchy to communist Berlin

The high tension the play maintains between the demands of the people and the claims of their patrician masters – a faction Coriolanus’s friend Menenius calls ‘us o’the right-hand file,’ in an accidental anticipation of a political terminology of right and left which would not come into common use for another two centuries – has tempted many of its theatrical interpreters to intervene on one side or the other in order to make their own political sympathies unambiguously clear. In a bid to produce some theatrical propaganda for the Stuart monarchy against the Whig politicians who sought to limit its power, Nahum Tate rewrote the play in 1681 as The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth, a version in which Coriolanus is wholly sympathetic and his adversaries wholly cynical. After the Stuarts had been banished, however, and after the Old Pretender – James Francis Edward Stuart, the son of James II – had sought to reclaim his former kingdom by force in 1715, the more Whiggish John Dennis transformed Shakespeare’s play into The Invader of his Country, in which Coriolanus is more impossibly megalomaniac than ever and the audience’s sympathies are steered towards the freedom-loving tribunes.

This alternation between pro- and anti-Coriolanus versions of Shakespeare’s script would be recapitulated in the 20th century. In Paris in 1934 the fascist Action Française party persuaded the Comédie-Française to stage a version of the play which treated it as an all-out attack on democracy (stimulating violent demonstrations outside the theatre, which, however, failed to provoke a hoped-for military coup); in Moscow the following year a version approved by Stalin’s Ministry of Information instead treated Coriolanus as a wholly contemptible enemy of the people. This pattern was even more marked in Germany, where the Nazis hailed the play as a hymn to strong leadership and as a result the occupying powers banned it after their downfall until 1953. Established as East Germany’s theatrical laureate, Bertolt Brecht set about adapting the play for his Berliner Ensemble so as to underline its sympathy for the people, but his version remained unfinished at his death in 1956 and was only acted, in a version re-revised to bring it closer to Shakespeare’s original, from 1963 onwards.

Photographs of Berliner Ensemble's Coriolanus

Photographs of Berliner Ensemble's Coriolanus

The Berliner Ensemble production of 1964, based on elements of Brecht’s unfinished socialist adaptation.

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Modern British productions

In the British theatrical traditional, the play has been less often revived than most of the other tragedies apart from Titus Andronicus, although certain actors have made its title role their own. Laurence Olivier scored one of his greatest successes in Peter Hall’s Stratford production of 1959, with Edith Evans as Volumnia. With characteristic physical bravado Olivier made Coriolanus’s death resemble the throwing from the Tarpeian rock earlier threatened by the tribunes, falling precipitately from the upper stage to dangle upside-down by his ankles. Toby Stephens, unusually young for the role, made a brilliant RSC debut as Coriolanus in 1994, in a production by David Thacker which, dressing its cast in clothes of the early 19th century, made its protagonist resemble a sneering Regency cadet defying the French Revolution. In this it echoed the work of one of the few major actor-managers ever to make Caius Martius his signature role, John Philip Kemble (1757–1823). Regarded as an autocrat by his theatrical colleagues, Kemble came to be regarded as an unacceptable favourer of patrician encroachment by most of his audience into the bargain when, in September 1809, his reopened Covent Garden theatre turned out to have reallocated much of the space formerly occupied by the pit to expensive private boxes. In the face of 67 successive nights of rioting against its new pricing structure, Kemble, seeing himself as a heroic, patriotic enemy of mob rule, played on, but he was eventually forced to capitulate and restore the old rates of admission. But the experience seems only to have confirmed his self-casting as Coriolanus, a role he chose for his farewell performance in 1819, and even for his theatre’s celebration of the 200th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death in 1816.

Annotated playscript from Henry Irving’s Coriolanus

Annotated Playscript from Henry Irving’s Coriolanus

Martius’s banishment at the Forum in Irving’s annotated script from his production of 1901.

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Henry Irving’s printed text: Public Domain
Henry Irving’s annotations: © With permission of the Henry Irving Foundation. Some Rights Reserved

Playscript of A Place Calling Itself Rome by John Osborne

Playscript of A Place Calling Itself Rome by John Osborne

A ‘mob’ scene in Osborne’s adaptation, set in the context of the labour disputes of 1970s Britain.

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Held by © Arvon Foundation (owners of the copyrights in all of John Osborne's works)

  • Michael Dobson
  • Michael Dobson is Director of the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Professor of Shakespeare Studies at the University of Birmingham. His publications include The Making of the National Poet (1992), The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare (with Stanley Wells, 2001, revised edition 2015), England's Elizabeth (with Nicola Watson, 2002), Performing Shakespeare's Tragedies Today (2006) and Shakespeare and Amateur Performance (2011). He is currently researching the role of the Shakespeare canon in the emergence of national theatre institutions worldwide.

The text in this article is available under the Creative Commons License.