The People vs. Caius Martius Coriolanus

Just some random notes on Coriolanus, and the people, plebeians, and citizens…

Words are the basis for what we’re discussing here. But there are two levels of words. There are character lists and stage directions, which can vary wildly between editions; and there are the lines of dialog themselves. Now, these, too, can vary, but less wildly.

So, for now, let’s ignore the non-dialog…and that–at least within the confines of the texts we’re using for the project (the Pelican Shakespeare)–the body politic in Coriolanus is known as the “citizens of Rome” as opposed to in Julius Caesar, where they’re known as “plebeians.”

Let’s look at dialog word usage…and you–long-time readers of the blog–know what that means: it’s CONCORDANCE time! A concordance (as review for you first-timers) is a reference that contains and counts word usage for any given collection of texts; I like to take a look at words that are important or tend to pop up seemingly frequently in my reading [and as per usual: like all our discussions for concordances, we owe a great debt to OpenSource Shakespeare].

The phrase “the people” (as opposed to just plain “people”) is used–again excluding stage directions–92 times in the 36 plays we cover in this project; it appears in just over half of them (19). But nearly two thirds of that usage count, a whopping 59 usages, are found in our play here, Coriolanus (the other three Roman plays–Julius Caesar, Titus Andronicus, and Antony and Cleopatra–are in second, third, and fourth place WAY back with seven, four and three usages, respectively). That’s fascinating, in my opinion; this makes the use of “the people” feel more purposeful, even more specific than I had originally thought when starting this blog post. On the other hand, the more (seemingly) politically specific phrase “citizens” appears 45 times in 19 plays, eight times in Coriolanus (Richard III is the only play with more usages–11–and no other play has more than three).

In my mind, there are two additional words that are of note here–these are more specific to the historical times of Roman plays: “plebeian” and “patrician”. “Plebeian” is used eight times in four plays, five in Coriolanus (with one each in its Roman brethren Antony and Cleopatra and Titus Andronicus, and an additional reference in Henry V). “Patrician” is used 16 times in two plays–twice in Titus and the other 12 in–you guessed it–Coriolanus.

Before we delve into what–if anything–this all means, let’s take a look at what those last two words mean. “Patrician” referred to the aristocratic ruling class in ancient Rome. And we’re in ancient Rome in this play (interestingly, the only other play that uses the word, Titus, is [most likely] set in the fourth or fifth century AD, in the latter days of emperors, at which point the word had lost pretty much all of its power, status and cache). “Plebeian”–again, in ancient Rome–referred to the non-patrician, non-slave Roman citizenry…the commoners, the people.

So, what?

Here’s where (at least to my historically geeky mind) it gets interesting. When did the patricians’ status begin to decline? Around the time of the the beginning of the so-called “Conflict of the Orders.” Now, this long-lasting political conflict lasted from roughly 494 BCE to 287 BCE. During this period, the plebeians would occasionally go out on general strikes. The first one resulted in the creation of plebeian tribunes and aediles. If those two titles sound familiar, and they should, it’s because both play a role in Coriolanus (especially the former, which are created just before the play begins). After this happens, the plebeians were granted more and more political equity, until they were allowed to hold political office, including the Senate, culminating in the creation of the Roman Republic.

Remember, that there is some historical basis for Coriolanus. According to what sketchy history we do have, Caius Martius supposedly defeated the Volscians at Corioles (or Corioli) in 493 BCE, just one year after the “Conflict of the Orders” began. Two years after Martius becoming Coriolanus, a grain shortage hits Rome, forcing the city-state to import supplies from Sicily. Coriolanus put forth the proposition that the patricians share the grain with the plebeians under the condition that the the pro-plebeian measures put into place during the past few years be rescinded. For this, the tribunes put Coriolanus on trial, and when he didn’t attend the trial, they convicted him, and he left in exile.

So, Shakespeare obviously made some changes from the real history. In the play, the victory at Corioles occurs after the grain shortage incident. Dramatically, it makes sense. To have Martius be victorious before his dismissal of the plebeians’ plight, might give him more audience support; to have him immediately ridicule them, on the other hand, makes his arrogance apparent and more repellent.

And for the director (or even student), this change of history tends to put into focus the seeming sympathies of the play: with the people.