The Play: Composition and Sources
In just 14 months, during his 43rd and 44th years, William Shakespeare wrote the tragedies King Lear, Macbeth, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Of these, the last is the most experimental, suggests critic Harold Bloom, because its protagonist, the greatest killing machine in all of Shakespeare, has the least developed consciousness. And yet, Bloom writes, That Coriolanus is not totally unsympathetic (whatever ones politics) is a Shakespearean triumph.
Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus, his last tragedy and noisiest play (owing to its many musical flourishes), sometime after 1605 and before 1610, between Anthony and Cleopatra and the unfinished Timon of Athens.
As he had with Anthony and Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, and Timon of Athens, Shakespeare took the basic story of Coriolanus from Plutarch, who had paired the life of the Roman general Caius Martius Coriolanus with that of the Greek Alcibiades (who appears in Timon). Many believe Shakespeare saw in the rise and fall of the valiant Coriolanus a means of exploring Romes nascent politics in light of an English present, as Shakespeare biographer Park Honan phrases it. Lately at a time of feeble harvests and high prices, new rioting had erupted in the English Midlands, and on a scale not matched in 10 years. By this reasoning, its no coincidence that Coriolanus opens with a riot over the price of grain. Shakespeare further demonstrates his grasp of Roman history by expounding on the significance of the forum and of the Roman state itselfan entity the character Menenius famously compares to a smoothly functioning digestive tract.
Shakespeare knew Plutarch through Sir Thomas Norths 1579 translation, The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans. He may also have drawn on Livy (in translation by Philemon Holland) and on Plutarchs original source, the Roman Antiquities of Dionysius of Halicarnassus, as well as on his own grammar-school knowledge of Roman custom and law. For the well-known belly fable delivered by Menenius in Act I, Shakespeare clearly borrowed from William Camdens Remaines (1605), where Pope Adrian IV compares a well-run government to a body in which all parts performed their functions, only the stomach lay idle and consumed all. The fable is alluded to in Hollands Livy and also turns up in John of Salisburys Policraticus (Camdens source) and William Averells A Marvailous Combat of Contrarieties (1588).
But Coriolanus is ultimately Shakespeares own: he individualizes Martius enemies, amplifies and darkens the figure of Volumnia, redefines Martius as a compulsive loner, and reworks Plutarchs original story to reflect and examine events in Jacobean England. As Coleridge said of the play, Coriolanus shows the wonderful philosophic impartiality of Shakespeares politics.