by Griffin Phelan
The life of the ancient Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus is depicted in the “Life of Coriolanus” written by the notable historiographer Plutarch. Coriolanus rose through the ranks of the military through his conquests against the Volscians and was to be appointed consul. However, in order for that to happen he had to be appointed by the plebeians and therefore had to win their favor. Coriolanus believed in hard work and honest values and disliked the common people so that during his attempts to curry votes he made many quick enemies with his strong will. Due to this, he was banished from Rome and spent the majority of the rest of his life trying to get revenge upon the Roman people out of spite. The life of Coriolanus was also examined by the distinguished William Shakespeare in his tragedy Coriolanus, a play that depicts the life of the character from his early war against the Volsces up until his largely tragic death. Shakespeare displays the events of Coriolanus’ life found in Plutarch’s biography through dialogue he created for other characters and his interpretation of what the words of Coriolanus himself may have been. The tragic play Coriolanus by William Shakespeare helps to give more insight into the examination of Coriolanus through the use of character dialogue to display the descriptions established by Plutarch, although some of the additions by Shakespeare are only helpful in the creation of an interesting story rather than maintaining the accuracy toward the Plutarch biography.
Plutarch’s portrayal of Coriolanus does hint towards some of character traits that Shakespeare demonstrates in his work, the subtleties of which are further expunged in his “Comparison of Alcibiades with Coriolanus,” however it is evident that Shakespeare made his own additions to the character of Coriolanus that were not apparent in Plutarch. Plutarch depicts the life of Coriolanus much like many of his other lives; a chronological transgression of events in which Plutarch displays the motivations of his subjects through examination of events in their lives. Some of the messages that Plutarch conveys in his work are slightly obscure, but can definitely be sensed and are further explained in “Comparison of Alcibiades with Coriolanus.” The motivations he describes in the comparison are shadowed throughout the original “Life of Coriolanus.” This is evident in the following passage in which he describes Coriolanus’ reasons for his revenge on Rome, “But the cause why he did it, made the fact so much more foul and wicked. For it was not done for any civil dissension, nor for any jealousy and contention in matters of government…but only following his choleric mood, that would be pleased with no thing” (Plutarch 180). It is important to examine what inferences Plutarch made toward Coriolanus that Shakespeare may have then used in his version of Coriolanus.
Shakespeare, in contrast to Plutarch, gives insight into the character through an attempt to explain the characters internal motivations through dialogue. It is interesting to note though, that while Shakespeare may add more to the character of Coriolanus, he similarly used Plutarch as his main source of information ergo much of the addition is the author effectively putting his own flair to the character in his depiction. Plutarch begins the life of Coriolanus by stating that the largest component to his personality was his honest and virtuous drive which he gained from young fame, “esteem not to receive reward for service done, but rather take it for a remembrance and encouragement, to make them do better in time to come…this desire bred in Martius” (Plutarch 139). This drove him because he was a valiant and honest man and Shakespeare congruently continues this theme when he also revolves his story upon this being largely important to the character of Coriolanus. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is not simply a translation of Plutarch into script, but rather takes the life and converts it into a story to be preformed.
The most revealing portions of the tragic play as to what Shakespeare adapted from Plutarch are the times when Coriolanus himself is speaking, much of the other dialogue in the book is there simply to recount necessary parts of the overall story. Shakespeare does often echo the sentiments of his source, as is the case when he establishes the character of Martius Coriolanus in the first act, “If any think brave death outweighs bad life/ And that his country’s dearer than himself/ Let him alone, or so many so minded…Follow Marcius” (Coriolanus, Shakespeare Act 1, Scene 6). Additionally, Shakespeare can be seen following the outlook of Plutarch again in regards to the revenge motivations of Coriolanus in the following speech he gives to his former enemy Aufidius,
I had fear'd death, of all the men i' the worldfound late in the fifth scene of the fourth act. However, there are also many instances within Coriolanus in which Shakespeare diverts from the character analysis found in Plutarch depiction and adds his own elements Coriolanus in order to enrich the story. This is exemplified when Shakespeare depicts the second time that Coriolanus was named a traitor, this instance at the hands of Aufidius late in the play, “Measureless liar, thou hast made my heart/ Too great for what contains it. Boy! O slave!/ Pardon me, lords, 'tis the first time that ever/ I was forced to scold” (Coriolanus, Shakespeare, Act 5, Scene 6). Coriolanus’ response to being accused of treason does not quite fit with how Plutarch has previously described Coriolanus; Shakespeare makes Coriolanus out to be a character that views himself far better than any other man, this is not evident in his original biography. Although Shakespeare had many moments in which he stuck closely to the intent of Plutarch’s biography, the instances in which he made additions to the personality of Coriolanus are plenty and they only falsely alter the perception of the character.I would have 'voided thee, but in mere spite, To be full quit of those my banishers, Stand I before thee here. Then if thou hast A heart of wreak in thee, that wilt revenge Thine own particular wrongs and stop those maims Of shame seen through thy country, speed thee straight, And make my misery serve thy turn: so use it That my revengeful services may prove As benefits to thee, for I will fight Against my canker'd country with the spleen Of all the under fiends.
The adaptation of “Life of Coriolanus” into the tragic play Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is moderately useful in gaining further insight into the subject in that it allows the reader, or audience, to imagine what some of the important conversations Coriolanus had may have looked like. Despite this, there are also many instances in which Shakespeare was focused more on the creation of an entertaining play/story and therefore distorted both the perception of Coriolanus and some of the events in his life. During the portion of Coriolanus when the general was first accused of treason at the hands of the Roman public, Shakespeare takes some liberties in his rendition in that Plutarch says, “But where they thought to have heard very humble and lowly words come from him, he began not only to use his wonted boldness of speaking,” (Plutarch 155). Shakespeare uses this wording to the advantage of the tragedy, and has Coriolanus spouting off at both members of the plebeians and the senate to seemingly no end. Additionally, in the “Life of Coriolanus” Coriolanus eventually willingly allows himself to be tried on one of his charges, where in Coriolanus he continues to shameless insult senate members until the masses start calling for his downfall, “Hence, old goat!/ Senators, & C We'll surety him” and “Hence, rotten thing! or I shall shake thy bones/ Out of thy garments” (Shakespeare Act 3, Scene 1). This is in stark opposition to Plutarch, “The tribunes answered him, that they would show how he did aspire to be king, and would prove that all his actions tended to usurp tyrannical power over Rome. Martius with that, rising up on his feet, said that thereupon he did willingly offer himself to the people, to be tried upon that accusation” (Plutarch 157). Shakespeare was able to reinvent an ancient Roman biography in the form of a popular tragic play, Coriolanus. With that said, the overall value of the work in terms of gaining any additional insight into the subject of Coriolanus is quite low; the conversations Coriolanus has and the other dialogue in the play distort the image of Coriolanus more than they maintain it. Upon re-reading Plutarch’s “Life of Coriolanus” what can be gained from also having read Coriolanus is that the reader is then able to imagine what some of the events that unfolded would be like had they been there, in that they can imagine the types of dialogue that may have occurred. Are fictitious works and biographies, even ones that only slightly vary from nonfiction, relevant to the study of ancient notables? Often times it is more insightful to determine why these works became popular, than the information that they contain.