Death be­fore star­va­tion

BBC History Magazine - - Shakespeare’s Plays - Class con­flict looms large in the tale of the Ro­man war­rior Co­ri­olanus

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

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