Death before starvation
The central character of Shakespeare’s last Roman play, usually dated 1608, is the semi-mythic Roman general Caius Martius, who took the name Coriolanus after his siege of the Volscian city of Corioli. Coriolanus is a warrior who tries and fails to forge a political career, and is banished from Rome.
Shakespeare took his story from the Greek historian Plutarch, but deviated from his source to write a play obsessed with food, starvation, blood and bodies. The reasons for this were closer to home than ancient Rome. In spring 1607, with rocketing corn prices, the fear of famine and the escalating enclosure of common land, more than 5,000 protestors rioted across the Midlands, including Shakespeare’s home county, Warwickshire.
King James brutally crushed the rebellion, hanging its ringleaders, but the Midlands Rising – just one of the more significant rural rebellions throughout the late Elizabethan and Jacobean period – exposed a faultline running throughout English society that found its expression in Coriolanus. The first act opens with mutinous armed citizens “resolved rather to die than to famish”. When the patricians enter, the citizens protest they “ne’er cared for us yet; suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain”.
One of the senators tries to calm the citizens with the famous ‘belly fable’, arguing that all parts of the body need to work together. When Coriolanus enters he condemns the rebels as “fragments” of uneaten food.
Such class conflict would only intensify throughout the Jacobean and Caroline period, and came to define the battles between royalists and republicans in the 1640s.
Romans attempt to make peace with the famously authoritarian Coriolanus in a 14th-century illumination