King James’s Attempts to Assert Absolute and Unitary Power
In Shakespeare’s time, some members of the nobility believed that King James was attempting to assert his absolute power as governing monarch and was determined to undermine their rights, such as had been won in 1215 through the Magna Carta, in which King John surrendered some of his power to the Barons. They asserted that England was made up of three forces, king, nobles, and commons, and that each had rights, and that Parliament functioned as a defense against tyranny. James was aware of this opposition to his ambition, and believed that it was grounded in admiration for republican Rome. In 1606, he condemned, according to Anne Barton, in ‘‘Livy, Machiavelli, and Coriolanus, the ‘‘tribunes of the people whose mouths could not be stopped.’’ He meant those in parliament who opposed him.
The Midland Riots of 1607 in England
During the famine of 1607, poor peasants, farmers, and laborers in England protested their condition by rioting for food and against the enclosure of common lands by aristocrats, the practice of which removed farm land from the poor. Significantly, the cause of the plebeian revolt in Coriolanus is lack of food. In Plutarch, Shakespeare’s source, the actual historical cause was the high rate of interest charged the plebeians for their debts.
Until the fifth century before the birth of Christ, Rome was ruled by kings. The last of the kings, Tarquin Superbus, was overthrown and a republic established around 500 B.C.E. The king was replaced by two praetors or, as they are called in Coriolanus, consuls. The consuls had the same power as the kings except that they did not rule for life but were elected for a term of one year.
Under the old kings, an aristocracy of old families grew up. They were called ‘‘patricians,’’ and the elders of the patricians formed an advisory body to the king, with no governing or legislative power, called a senate. (The word for an elder, in Latin is ‘‘senex.’’) A socially and economically inferior group of people, immigrants and people captured in wars grew up in the kingdom, too. They were called ‘‘plebeians.’’ After the defeat of the kings, which was accomplished by an alliance between patricians and plebeians, and the establishment of the republic, the patricians assumed governing power and the plebeians were granted some of the rights of citizens, with voting power and representatives. Yet they were denied the power and authority that the patricians exercised. Rome was an aristocratic republic, not a democratic republic.
Roman Plebeian Uprising
The patricians were landed, wealthy, and lived within the gates of Rome. The plebeians were poor, lived outside the gates, and eked out a poor living as farmers on land that lay unprotected, especially in times of war when they were off fighting and their farms lay neglected or were ravaged by enemies. Public lands, which in theory belonged to the entire Roman people, in fact were occupied by the patricians. The consequence of economic inequality was that the plebeians were often forced to borrow money, fell into debt, and were subject to usurious interest rates.
Having no legal recourse, in 494 B.C.E., the plebeians refused to fight in the army in the defense of a Rome which exploited rather than supported them; they attempted to secede from Rome and form their own state. Fearing the loss of the army, the patricians capitulated, canceled debts, released prisoners jailed for debt, and created, in 474 B.C.E. a plebeian assembly and the office of tribune of the people. In addition, the patricians granted the plebeians the right to elect two tribunes with veto powers from among themselves to protect their rights. In Coriolanus, these tribunes are Brutus and Sicinius.
Volscians, Antium, and Corioles
At the same time as the domestic strife between the Roman patricians and plebeians was occurring, Rome was under attack by a neighboring people called the Volscians. The Volscians lived in Antium, now called Anzio, a seaport city to the southeast of Rome. In 338 B.C.E., it was conquered by Rome. It became a resort spot for wealthy Romans. The Roman emperors Nero and Caligula were born there. In 1944, it was the scene of an amphibious Allied landing. Corioles was the capitol city of Antium.
Shakespeare for Students:Critical Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Plays & Poetry, Second Edition, Volume 1, authored by Anne Marie Hacht & Cynthia Burnstein, published by Thomson-Gale, 2007