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In this play, the narration of Plutarch, in the Life of Coriolanus, is very exactly followed; and it has been observed that the Poet shows consummate skill in knowing how to seize the true poetical point of view of the historical circumstances, without changing them in the least degree. His noble Roman is indeed worthy of the name, and his mob such as a Roman mob doubtless were; such as every great city has possessed, from the time of the polished Athenians to that of modern Paris, where such scenes have been exhibited by a people collectively considered the politest on earth, as shows that "the many-headed multitude" have the same turbulent spirit, when there is an exciting cause, in all ages.
Shakspeare has extracted amusement from this popular humor, and, with the aid of the pleasant satirical vein of Menenius, has relieved the serious part of the play with some mirthful scenes, in which it is certain the people's folly is not spared.
The character of Coriolanus, as drawn by Plutarch, was happily suited to the drama, and in the hands of Shakspeare could not fail of exciting the highest interest and sympathy in the spectator. He is made of that stern, unbending stuff, which usually enters into the composition of a hero. Accustomed to conquest and triumph, his inflexible spirit could not stoop to solicit, by flattering condescension, what it felt that its worthy services ought to command:
He hated flattery; and his sovereign contempt for the people arose from having witnessed their pusillanimity: though he loved "the bubble reputation," and would have grappled with fate for honor, he hated the breath of vulgar applause as "the reek o' the rotten fens."
He knew that his actions must command the good opinion of men; but his modesty shrunk from their open declaration of it; he could not bear to hear "his nothings monstered.”
-Pray you, no more; my mother,
When she does praise me, grieves me."
But yet his pride was his greatest characteristic
"Which out of daily fortune ever taints
The happy man."
This it was that made him seek distinction from the ordinary herd of popular heroes; his honor must be won by difficult and daring enterprise, and worn in silence. It was this pride which was his overthrow, and from which the moral of the piece is to be drawn. He had thrown himself, with the noble and confiding magnanimity of a hero, into the hands of an enemy, knowing that the truly brave are ever generous; but two suns could not shine in one hemisphere; Tullus Aufidius found he was darkened by his light, and he exclaims
He bears himself more proudlier,
Even to my person, than I thought he would
When I did first embrace him. Yet his nature
In that's no changeling."
The closeness with which Shakspeare has followed his original, sir Thomas North's translation of Plutarch, will be observed upon comparison of the following passage with the parallel scene in the play, describing Coriolanus's flight to Antium, and his reception by Aufidius:-"It was even twilight when he entered the city of Antium, and many people met him in the streets, but no man knew him. So he went immediately to Tullus Aufidius' house; and when he came thither he got him up straight to the chimney hearth, and sat him down, and spake not a word to any man, his face all muffled over. They of the house spying him, wondered what he should be, and yet they durst not bid him rise; for, ill-favoredly muffled and disguised as he was, yet there appeared a certain majesty in his countenance and in his silence: whereupon they went to Tullus, who was at supper, to tell him of the strange disguising of this man. Tullus rose presently from the board, and, coming towards him, asked him what he was and wherefore he came. Then Martius unmuffled himself, and, after he had paused awhile, making no answer, he said unto him, ‘If thou knowest me not yet, Tullus, and, seeing me, dost not perhaps believe me to be the man I am indeed, I must of necessity discover myself to be that I am. I am Caius Martius, who hath done to thyself particularly, and to all the Volces generally, great hurt and mischief, which I cannot deny, for my surname of Coriolanus that I bear. For I never had other benefit
of the true and painful service I have done, and the extreme dangers I have been in, but this surname; a good memory and witness of the malice and displeasure thou shouldest bear me. Indeed, the name only remaineth with me; for the rest, the envy and cruelty of the people of Rome have taken from me, by the sufferance of the dastardly nobility and magistrates, who have forsaken me, and let me be banished by the people. This extremity hath now driven me to come as a poor suitor, to take thy chimneyhearth, not of any hope I have to save my life thereby. For if I feared death, I would not have come hither to put myself in hazard; but pricked forward with desire to be revenged of them that have thus banished me, which now I do begin, by putting my person in the hands of their enemies. Wherefore, if thou hast any heart to be wreaked of the injuries thy enemies have done thee, speed thee now, and let my misery serve thy turn, and so use it as my service may be a benefit to the Volces; promising thee that I will fight with better good-will for all you, than I did when I was against you, knowing that they fight more valiantly who know the force of the enemy, than such as have never proved it. And if it be so that thou dare not, and that thou art weary to prove fortune any more, then am I also weary to live any longer. And it were no wisdom in thee to save the life of him who hath been heretofore thy mortal enemy, and whose service now can nothing help or pleasure thee.'-Tullus, hearing what he said, was a marvellous glad man, and, taking him by the hand, he said to him, 'Stand up, O Martius, and be of good cheer; for in proffering thyself unto us, thou doest us great honor: and by this means thou mayest hope also of greater things at all Volces' hands.' So he feasted him for that time, and entertained him in the honorablest manner he could, talking with him of no other matter at that present; but within a few days after they fell to consultation together in what sort they should begin their wars."
In the scene of the meeting of Coriolanus with his wife and mother, when they come to supplicate him to spare Rome, Shakspeare has adhered very closely to his original. He felt that it was sufficient to give it merely a dramatic form. The speech of Volumnia, as we have observed in a note, is almost in the very words of the old translator of Plutarch.
The time comprehended in the play is about four years; commencing with the secession to the Mons Sacer, in the year of Rome 262, and ending with the death of Coriolanus, A. U. C. 266.
Malone conjectures it to have been written in the year 1610.
CAIUS MARCIUS CORIOLANUS, a noble Roman.
TITUS LARTIUS,} Generals against the Volcians.
MENENIUS AGRIPPA, Friend to Coriolanus.
Young MARCIUS, Son to Coriolanus.
TULLUS AUFIDIUS, General of the Volcians.
Conspirators with Aufidius.
A Citizen of Antium.
Two Volcian Guards.
VOLUMNIA, Mother to Coriolanus.
VALERIA, Friend to Virgilia.
Gentlewoman, attending Virgilia.
Roman and Volcian Senators, Patricians, Ediles, Lictors, Soldiers, Citizens, Messenger, Servants to Aufidius, and other Attendants.
SCENE, partly in Rome, and partly in the Territories of the Volcians and Antiates.
SCENE 1. Rome. A Street.
Enter a Company of mutinous Citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons.
1 Citizen. BEFORE we proceed any further, hear me speak.
Cit. Speak, speak.
[Several speaking at once. 1 Cit. You are all resolved rather to die, than to famish?
Cit. Resolved, resolved.
1 Cit. First, you know, Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.
Cit. We know't, we know't.
1 Cit. Let us kill him, and we'll have corn at our own price. Is't a verdict?
Cit. No more talking on't; let it be done. Away,
2 Cit. One word, good citizens.
1 Cit. We are accounted poor citizens; the patricians, good. What authority surfeits on, would relieve us. If they would yield us but the superfluity, while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us humanely; but they think we are too dear: the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularize their abundance: our sufferance is a gain to them.-Let us revenge this with our
1 Good, in a commercial sense.