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Plutarch's Biography of Coriolanus and Shakespeare's Coriolanus Play

By Bingley www.suite101.com/article.cfm/18302/114216

Shakespeare's play Coriolanus is mainly based on Sir Thomas North's 1579 translation of a French translation of Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus by Jacques Amyot. The last of Shakespeare's plays with a Roman theme, it was most probably first staged 1607-08.

Following Sir Thomas, Shakespeare refers to Coriolanus as Caius Martius rather than Caius Marcius. Sir Thomas calls the Volscians Volsces, while Shakespeare makes them Volces. However, many modern texts of Shakespeare use the "correct" forms Caius Marcius and Volsces. Sometimes Shakespeare uses the very words of Sir Thomas' translation in the play.

In what follows, I have given a summary of each scene in normal type, plus some comments in italics.

Act 1, Scene 1

A group of discontented and hungry citizens blame Caius Martius for the famine and plan to march on the Capitol but are dissuaded by Menenius Agrippa, who tells the fable of the uprising of the parts of the body against the stomach to dissuade them. Caius Martius enters and gives a speech expressing his contempt for the crowd. Caius Martius informs Menenius that the senate has decided to grant the common people five tribunes to represent them. He names two of the tribunes: Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus. He then exits on being told by senators that the Volces under Tullus Aufidius have taken up arms. Brutus and Sicinius discuss this turn of events.

The famous secession of the plebs took place in 494 to 493 BC. The plebs, oppressed by the rigid enforcement of debts by the patricians, left the city and took up residence across the Anio. Menenius Agrippa was sent by the senate to negotiate with the plebs and he told the story of the revolt of the parts of the body against the stomach. Much to Coriolanus' disgust, the plebs were granted five tribunes to represent them. Two of the tribunes were Junius Brutus and Sicinius Veletus who had led the plebs in the secession. See the North translation section 6 and section 7

Act 1, Scene 2

Aufidius and Volcian senators discuss the countermeasures being taken by the Romans against the Volcian raids. The Roman commanders mentioned are: Comminius, Caius Martius, and Titus Lartius. Aufidius will take the mobile forces while the Volscian senators will stay in Corioles (Shakespeare sometimes refers to the place as Corioles and sometimes as Coriolus).

Cominius was consul for the year 493 and Titus Lartius was put in charge of the siege of Corioli.See the North translation, section 8

Act 1, Scene 3

A domestic scene between Volumnia (Caius Martius' mother) and Vergilia (Caius Martius' wife). They are brought news that Caius is besieging Corioli with Titus Lartius.

Plutarch tells us that Coriolanus was devoted to his mother and that pleasing her was one of his primary motives in achieving success. Shakespeare shows us this from Volumnia's point of view. See the North translation, section 4

Act 1, Scene 4

At the siege the Volces make a sortie and the Romans are beaten back. Martius repels the Volcian sortie and chases them back into the city.

Shakespeare has Martius chase the Volsces into Corioles by himself, but Plutarch does have a few Romans follow him. See the North translation, section 8

Act 1 Scene 5 and Scene 6

Martius shows his disdain for the soldiers who are more interested in looting than fighting. Despite his wounds, Martius goes off to help Cominius against Aufidius who is bringing up troops to relieve the city. Martius finds Cominius and his men in retreat. Seeing the small number of men with Martius, Cominius assumes that the sortie from Corioles has successfully repulsed the Romans until Martius tells him that the city has in fact been captured. Martius insists on fighting against the Antiates (the people of Antium), the best and strongest Volsces forces, where he knows Aufidius will be fighting. He gives the Romans new hope.

In Plutarch's account Martius reaches Cominius and his men before their battle against the relief force even begins. Aufidius is not mentioned in connection with this battle. See the North translation, section 9

Act 1 Scene 7and Scene 8

Titus Lartius prepares to leave Corioles to help Cominius and his men. A duel between Martius and Aufidius.

Neither scene is in Plutarch.

Act 1 Scene 9

The battle is over. Martius refuses to accept a tenth share of the booty, as being a worthy reward only for a mercenary rather than a patriot. He does however accept a horse and freedom for a Coriolan who had once given him hospitality, but whose name Martius cannot remember. Cominius bestows the name Coriolanus on Martius.

Plutarch does not mention Coriolanus' former host's name, but does not say Coriolanus cannot remember it. See the North translation, section 10 and section 11

Act 1 Scene 10

Aufidius' rage at having been beaten by Coriolanus again.

Plutarch does not mention Aufidius at all in connection with the battle of Corioli.

The above article is slightly adapted from a series of three articles that first appeared at the Suite101.com website (pages www.suite101.com/article.cfm/18302/114216, www.suite101.com/article.cfm/18302/114267, and www.suite101.com/article.cfm/18302/114282) on 25 February, 14 March, and 28 March 2005, respectively.

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