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Plutarch's influence on Shakespeare's tragic play: What Shakesepare did with Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus in his own work

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Introduction Edit

Shakespeare attempts to condense Plutarch’s, Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus, throughout his play, The Tragedy of Coriolanus. He purposefully leaves out much of Plutarch’s informational bits and pieces that serve little purpose, as he brings in more of the conflicting aspects of the biography to create tension within the play. Nevertheless, without Plutarch’s biography on Caius Martius Coriolanus the play would not have been as significant, nor is it likely that Shakespeare would have been able to come up with the story in its present form. The descriptive, psychological background that Plutarch portrays in his biography is similar to that of Shakespeare’s writing. Shakespeare’s work gives examples of ways in which he used Plutarch’s work, along with illustrating and adding in new parts to Coriolanus’ life to create a tragedy out of the biography.


Throughout our course, we have read many biographies in which the author tells a story of someone significant. The story of Coriolanus is very interesting as Plutarch approaches it differently than in other biographies of his. The scenes are constructed through chronological events, beginning with his birth, explaining his banishment, and ending in his death. In my opinion, Plutarch includes a more psychological approach to illustrating Coriolanus’ life as he analyzes Coriolanus's success along with his relationships that tie in with his exile from Rome. “After the Roman general had won the day, he crowned Marcius, among the first, with a garland of oak leaves” (3:7). Plutarch includes Coriolanus’ success in the military and how he was thanked. His illustration and insight about Coriolanus’ relationship with his mother also is important in Shakespeare’s work, as well. Plutrach writes that Coriolanus, “could not get his fill of gladdening and honouring Volumnia, nay, he even married according to her wish and request, and continued to live in the same house with his mother after children were born to him” (4:4). These words describe how close of a relationship Coriolanus had with his mother. This is important as it gives insight to where Plutarch believed Coriolanius got his motivations from.

Plutarch's Influence on Shakespeare's PlayEdit

Shakespeare builds Coriolanus’ life up to a culmination of a tragedy using Plutarch’s work at the same time. Shakespeare begins his play with Romans discussing the riots. This comes from Plutarch as he writes about the riots, but he writes about the background of Coriolanus’ family at first including the first outbreaks of rebellions made by the Roman citizens. “That on a time all the members of man’s body did rebel against thlly, complaining, that it only remained in the midst of the body, without doing anything” (6:3). Plutarch includes in his narrative a tale about the belly being a part of the body that is resented by the rest. This is a metaphor for Rome, as the Romans were in similar dispute. Shakespeare uses this metaphor in his first scene, “There was a time when all the body’s members/Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it” (1.1.79-80). This parallel is extremely compelling, and  Shakespeare has taken this imagery and used it in his play to illustrate the tone and state in which Rome was in during the time.

There are five acts within the tragic play. Plutarch’s work emphasizes the role of Volumnia, Coriolanus’ mother. Starting from his introduction he includes her as an important figure that Coriolanus looks up to and infers that he is always trying to impress her. Plutarch writes, “But whereas other men found in glory the chief end of valour, he found the chief end of glory in his mother's gladness. That she should hear him praised and see him crowned and embrace him with tears of joy, this was what gave him, as he thought, the highest honour and felicity” (4.3). Throughout Act 1, Coriolanus’ relationship with his mother is not seen as emphasized. It is more so that Volumnia is portrayed to show a great love for her son, that she cares about him a lot. Volumnia, “was please to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him” (1.3.10-11). It seems that Shakespeare used Coriolanus’ relationship with his mother in the opposite way, as to say that his mother wanted fame and loved him for his military acts. He uses Volumnia to create drama as Coriolanus must make decisions during the play similar to the ones in Plutarch’s biography that are greatly influenced by her beliefs.

Throughout Act 1, Coriolanus fights and discusses military strategy, along with his hatred towards Aufidius. To conclude the act, Shakespeare adds progressive conflict in the play as Aufidius finally admits his jealously towards Coriolanus. The envy expressed by Aufidius provides potential problems for the future as Aufidius says he will defeat Coriolanus by, “wrath or craft” (1.10.16). This scene of Aufidius is certainly extreme and creates additional tension within the play. He says, “My hate to Martius. Where I find him, were it/At home, upon my brother’s guard, even there/Against the hospitable canon, would I/Wash my fierce hand in’s heart” (1.10.24-7) It is not seen in Plutarch’s work that Aufidius makes such strong claims as these. However, he does portray Aufidius and the relationship between Coriolanus and him. Plutarch states, “Now there was a certain man of Antium, Tullus Aufidius…By this man Marcius knew himself to be hated as no other Roman was; for they had often exchanged threats and challenges in the battles which they had fought” (22.1) Plutarch describes that Aufidius and Coriolanus have a strong hatred towards each other, yet he does not use it to suggest Coriolanus’ leadership position in Rome is affected. Shakespeare does illustrate this as he exaggerates Plutarch’s biography and uses it to provide a conflict with the protagonist, Coriolanus.

Returning to Rome, Act 2 serves to describe Coriolanus after his military battles and success. Shakespeare illustrates his fame through a procession. This also comes from Plutarch’s work as both authors use the celebration for Coriolanus to emphasize that this event is special and will cause jealousy. Yet, the scenes that are included by Shakespeare that are not in those of Plutarch’s work are the ones in which act against the protagonist, Coriolanius’, and his progression towards success and public acclaim in Rome and eventually with the Volscians. Act 3 continues to explain and lay out the consequences for Coriolanius’ actions. This is portrayed in the middle section of Plutarch’s biography. Plutarch describes how Coriolanus goes through a period where he is indecisive of whether or not to start a civil war. Shakespeare includes his banishment and exile in a dramatic way.

Coriolanus leaves Rome in the beginning of Act 4 as to dramatize the situation and beginning of the next section of the play. Shakespeare includes this, as it is similar to Plutarch’s work where he includes Coriolanus departing his home. Plutarch writes that Coriolanus, “Went home, where his mother and his wife met him with wailings and loud lamentations, and after embracing them and bidding them to bear with equanimity the fate that had come upon them, he straightway departed and went to the city gate. Thither all the patricians in a body escorted him, but without taking anything or asking for anything he departed, having only three or four of his clients with him” (21:5). Plutarch does not describe the feelings in which Coriolanus may have felt, unlike Shakespeare. Coriolanus is angry, and leaves in a rush in Plutarch’s work, however to add tragic and dramatic affect Shakespeare includes emotions. In Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus says, “Come, leave your tears; a brief farewell. The beast/With many heads butts me away. Nay, mother,/Where is your ancient courage?” (4.1.1-3). Shakespeare suggests that Coriolanus is courageous in leaving and accepts his banishment. Plutarch explains that, “In the end, seeing he could resolve no way to take a profitable or honourable course, but only was pricked forward still to be revenged of the Romans, he though to raise up some great wars against them” (159. 21). This is dissimilar to the Coriolanus in Shakespeare’s play, as Plutarch's Coriolanus is not prepared to accept defeat, so is emotionally aloof. In Shakespeare, Coriolanus pours out his feelings which is contrary to Plutarch’s work. When Coriolanus is banished from Rome in Plutarch’s work, Plutarch describes Coriolanus having no feeling, almost not accepting the fact that he is no longer wanted. He feels nothing. Shakespeare gives Coriolanus feeling and emphasises it by withy the words, “I shall be loved when I am lacked…Adieu. Farewell, my wife, my mother./ I’ll do well yet. Thou old and true Menenius,/ Thy tears are salter than a younger man’s/And venomous to thin eyes” (4.1.15-23) This sets the tone of this act, how tragedy is near and parting Rome is extremely difficult for him to do, but he still keeps his pride. He bids farewell around five times in Act 4 Scene 1.

During the next few scenes Plutarch’s work does not seem to influence Shakespeare as he creates different scenarios with Coriolanus’ journey to the Volscians that are not included in the biography. These scenes are merely to lead up to the climax of the tragedy of his death. As the play leads on to more dramatic appeal, the jealous Aufidius comes into action again. Aufidius and Coriolanus’ relationship ruins Coriolanus in the end, as Coriolanus comes back from the Volcsians he is stabbed to death. This is similar to the way in which he dies in Plutarch’s biography as he is stabbed by Tullus due to his envy.


William Shakespeare makes an attempt to use Plutarch’s work as a backbone to his tragic play. Plutarch had a tragic sense that Shakespeare took and made use of. He keeps much of the main points of the biography of Coriolanus. However, he brings in new characteristics to the characters and adds new ideas to scenes to create conflict, along with a more dramatic appeal to the tragedy he is trying to tell of Coriolanus’ life.

On a side note, if Shakespeare had written a play on the tragedy of Alcibiades, he would have incorporated his exile and banishment along with the emotional side Alcibiades would have shown. Shakespeare most likely would have used Plutarch’s biography to discover that Alcibiades life story was similar to that of Coriolanus’ as both characters were banished from the places in which they become heroes, forced to leave distraught, and return to die where they were once praised.

Works CitedEdit

Plutarch, Paul Turner, and Thomas North. Selected Lives from the Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 1963. Print.

Shakespeare, William, and Bliss, Lee. Coriolanus. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print.

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