Shakespeare’s Sources – Coriolanus

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Beautiful old editions of North's Translation of Plutarch's Lives

This week I turn my attention to Coriolanus, for two reasons. Firstly because of the current film of the play which you may be able to catch at your local cinema, and secondly because it is the Chinese New Year on January the 23rd and 2012 will be the year of the dragon. If you wonder what that has to do with Coriolanus read on…

Shakespeare’s main source for this play was Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans . Indeed Shakespeare borrowed some quite large pieces of North’s 1579 translation, as the following comparison shows

 

From North’s book

 

“I am Caius Martius, who hath done to thyself particularly, and to all the Volsces generally, great hurt and mischief, which I cannot deny for my surname of Coriolanus that I bear. For I never had other bebefit nor recompense of all the true and painful service I have done, and the extreme dangers I have been in, but this only surname: a good memory and witness of the malice and displeasure thou shouldst bear me. Indeed the name only remaineth with me: for the rest 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.”

 

And from William Shakespeare’s play (1607-08):

 

CORIOLANUS

My name is Caius Marcius, who hath done
To thee particularly and to all the Volsces
Great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may
My surname, Coriolanus: the painful service,
The extreme dangers and the drops of blood
Shed for my thankless country are requited
But with that surname; a good memory,
And witness of the malice and displeasure
Which thou shouldst bear me: only that name remains;
The cruelty and envy of the people,
Permitted by our dastard nobles, who
Have all forsook me, hath devour’d the rest;

And suffer’d me by the voice of slaves to be
Whoop’d out of Rome.  (act 4, scene 5)

Just in case this leads you to feel that Shakespeare was being a little uncreative here (he did use over 550 words from North’s popular translation) you might be reassured to know that he did expand a few things too for instance he explored the characters of Volumnia and Virgilia, Coriolanus’s mother and wife. He also examines in more depth the troubled psychology of the hero and in so doing was the first to put in print a word now common in our language, “lonley”. The word lone was common but Shakespeare was the first to describe the feeling of ‘lonely’. Coriolanus describes himself as “Like to a lonely dragon, that his fen Makes fear’d and talk’d of more than seen”  and that beautiful, haunting image is our connection to the Chinese new year – the year of the dragon (I hope for you all it is not a lonely one)

 

 

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT
  • Anonymous

    Thanks for this insight into the source of this play. The parallel between North’s English translation and Shakespeare of the speech when Coriolanus goes to Aufidius is very striking.                    

  • Linda Theil

    It is equally possible that the author of Shakespeare’s works used Amyot’s French translation of Plutarch’s Lives.

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