Coriolanus: Plutarch's And William Shakespeare's Versions

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Two of the greatest contributors to the “Struggle of the Orders” between Plebeians and Patricians were the Patricians’ fears of Plebeian power overshadowing their influence on Roman politics, as well as the issues of grain pricing and distribution. Plutarch’s “Coriolanus” within his Parallel Lives work arguably vilifies Coriolanus more than in Ralph Fiennes’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Coriolanus”. Fiennes’s version of “Coriolanus” shows Martius (or Marcius) oppose the Plebeians’ calls for food simply out of hatred for public demand and focuses more on his heroism in his battle against the Volscians; Plutarch’s version shows Martius in a more sinister light, denying Plebeians access to abundant amounts of grain out of spite and serving his own self-interests during his campaign against the Volscians.

In Fiennes’s “Coriolanus”, one of the early scenes shows Martius retaliating against a group of Plebeians protesting for bread at a grain distribution center. He chastises them for their demands, saying that,“You [the Plebeians] cry against the noble Senate, who, / Under the gods, keep you in awe, which / Would feed on one another…”.

This pales in comparison to Martius’s comments in Plutarch’s version. Grain supplies had arrived from Italy and Syracuse, and while some Senators had debated whether to lower grain prices and distribute the gifted grain as concessions, Martius calls them “...flatterers of the rabble, traitors to the nobility…” and states that “...if we [the Patricians] have any wisdom and resolution at all, we shall, on the contrary, never rest till we have recovered from them [the Plebeians] that tribunician power they have extorted from us…”. In Fiennes’s version, there was no information hinting that the Patricians actually had any abundance of grain to distribute to Plebeians. Even in the earliest scene of the movie, the news reports that food riots had begun in Rome.

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It very well may have been the fact that in this version, Rome was struggling to supply enough grain to all of its citizens. While it is known that Martius held resentment for Plebeian rule and influence, his statement against the protesters may have been made in desperation, not purely malice. This is supported by the fact that in the 5th and 4th centuries BCE, Rome was indeed struggling with high prices and debt.

Martius, known to many powerful Patricians in Roman politics and born into nobility, may have reflected the worries of the Patricians in handling civil discontent over food shortages in his speech. Knowing this, Martius was no more evil towards Plebeians and Plebeian rule than any of the other Patricians at Rome at that time.

In Plutarch’s version, Regardless of whether grain was in abundance beforehand or not, Martius makes it clear that he would rather let the Plebeians starve before submitting to their demands. This is in spite of the fact that some Senators, who are Patricians themselves, had even suggested making concessions and lowering grain prices, possibly to reduce discontent which would have arguably left both Plebeians and Patricians better off. Easing tensions by allowing access to this abundance of grain would have been the strategically wiser opinion, considering that Plebeians would have made up a large part of Rome’s military strength and would be the ones contributing the most to trade and commerce1. With this in mind, there would be no other reason for his opposition other than to take advantage of this critical moment in order to severely weaken the determination of the common people to gain political strength. His statement regarding this situation makes him out to be more extreme than most Patrician counterparts, refusing to give worse-off Patricians food out of spite rather than due to desperation as suggested in Fiennes’s version.

Fiennes’s adaptation of Shakespeares’s “Coriolanus” never mentions his actions regarding supplies found during his campaign against the Volscians. Instead, a battle within the city of Corioli is depicted, in which his courageousness and valor in battle is shown as, even though he appears wounded and bloodied, he calls out to his men to fight on, saying that “If any think brave death outweighs bad life, / And that his country’s dearer than himself; /Let him alone, or so many so minded, / Wave thus, to express his disposition, / And follow Martius!”

In Plutarch’s version, his attack on Corioli is only briefly mentioned. Instead, what is focused on is the fact that even though Coriolanus never took any of the spoils for himself, while his clients who followed him into battle, found a “...considerable quantity of corn…” and “...of much booty, both of cattle and prisoners…”.

Regarding Plutarch’s version, one could make the claim that Martius is fulfilling his role in the patron-client relationship so essential to Roman society, and shows virtue by taking with him the merits of victory instead of material goods. However, the abundant amounts of grain found by his clients could have been instead used to reduce grain prices and ease class tensions, incurring minimal anger from both Patricians (who no doubt would have welcomed anything that would ease Plebeian unrest) and Plebeians (who would have preferred concessions but would have welcomed any reduction in grain prices). He instead decides to leave it all for his own supporters, which shows that despite his courage and valor in warfare, he is ultimately motivated by self-interests, preferring to benefit only those that would support his rise to power and leaving nothing for the commoners who in his view are worth very little.

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