Coriolanus Before Shakespeare

Shakespeare’s chief source for his great Roman plays — Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus — was the writings of Plutarch, a Greek of the second century A.D. In the case of Coriolanus, Shakespeare drew solely, or nearly so, from Plutarch’s “Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus.”  (He may also have taken a detail or two from the Roman historian Livy.) Of course he modified what he found in Plutarch to suit his own purposes, and invented a great deal besides.  But there is also another factor distancing Shakespeare’s Coriolanus from Plutarch’s. Not reading Greek, Shakespeare knew Plutarch only in Sir Thomas North’s 1575 English edition of the Lives of Noble Grecians and Romanes. And North himself apparently knew little Greek, relying on Jacques Amyot’s 1559 French translation.

Some sense of the distance separating Shakespeare from Plutarch can be obtained from a look at how Amyot, and after him North, rendered the Greek of one key passage, at the opening of of Plutarch’s “Life of Coriolanus.”  (As in Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus is usually called by his family name, Martius.)  Plutarch sees the clue to Martius’ character in the fact his father died when he was very young, leaving him to be raised by his mother alone. It took Shakespeare to wonder what the mother was like — the strong-willed Volumnia of the play is his own creation.  Plutarch notices only the absent father: he describes Martius’ lot as that of an orphan, deprived of all normal supervision and guidance in his education. Plutarch simply assumes that Martius had no education at all – and attributes his failings to this.  Martius was able to accomplish great things, on account of his natural abilities, but he never learned moderation, and so was insufferable as a result. Plutarch opens the “Life” with some comments on this that are dense and compact in the Greek, and a bit more elaborate in Amyot’s French. It comes out different in North’s  second-hand translation. In the version Shakespeare read, what Martius failed to acquire, for want of education, is not so much moderation, as modesty – or rather,  humility.


The passage begins with Plutarch citing a received opinion that he takes Martius’ case to confirm. Without education, it is believed, a noble nature yields worthy things and worthless ones in mingled profusion −- like rich soil when left without cultivation. In the Greek:

 ὁ δ᾽ αὐτὸς ἀνὴρ ἐμαρτύρησε καὶ τοῖς τὴν φύσιν ἡγουμένοις, ἐὰν οὖσα γενναία καὶ ἀγαθὴ παιδείας ἐνδεὴς γένηται, πολλὰ τοῖς χρηστοῖς ὁμοῦ φαῦλα συναποτίκτειν, ὥσπερ εὐγενῆ χώραν ἐν γεωργίᾳ θεραπείας μὴ τυχοῦσαν.

In Amyot’s French:

Aussy à ce mesme personnage tesmoigné qu’auscuns estiment, qu’une nature forte et vigoureuse, quand elle est destituée de bonne nourriture, produict beaucoup de maulx et de biens tout ensemble, ne plus ne moins qu’une bonne terre grasse produict beaucoup de bonnes et de maulvaises herbes, si elle n’est bien cultivée…

And in North:

This man also is a good proofe to confirme some mens opinions. That a reare and excellent witte untaught, doth bring forth many good and evill things together: like as a fat soile bringeth forth herbes and weedes that lieth unmanured.

“Unmanured” may not sound quite right to our ears – but that’s only because North is using the word in its older sense: manure comes from the old French manoeuvre, which meant, work by hand.  Unmanured soil is untilled, uncultivated. (The word comes from French, but not Amyot’s French: North’s preference for the earthier alternative is characteristic for him.) So far so good.

Plutarch then goes on to explain how this applies in Martius’ case. It goes roughly like this:  Martius’ great mind and strong drive allowed him to accomplish many great things, but his combative, inflexible spirit made him impossible to get along with. Men were amazed at his his unyielding persistence, heedless of comfort, pleasure, or mercenary gain; they called it mastery, valor, and integrity (δικαιοσύνη, in the sense of being incorruptible). But in political affairs (ἐν ταῖς πολιτικαῖς…  ὁμιλίαις) they found this insufferably rigid, graceless, and elitist (ὀλιγαρχική).  In the Greek this is all one dense, complex sentence, expressing a single, continuous thought:

τὸ γὰρ ἰσχυρὸν αὐτοῦ πρὸς ἅπαντα τῆς γνώμης καὶ καρτερὸν ὁρμάς τε μεγάλας καὶ τελεσιουργοὺς τῶν καλῶν ἐξέφερε, θυμοῖς τε αὖ πάλιν χρώμενον ἀκράτοις καὶ φιλονεικίαις ἀτρέπτοις οὐ ῥᾴδιον οὐδ᾽ εὐάρμοστον ἀνθρώποις συνεῖναι παρεῖχεν, ἀλλὰ τὴν ἐν ἡδοναῖς καὶ πόνοις καὶ ὑπὸ χρημάτων ἀπάθειαν αὐτοῦ θαυμάζοντες καὶ ὀνομάζοντες ἐγκράτειαν καὶ δικαιοσύνην καὶ ἀνδρείαν, ἐν ταῖς πολιτικαῖς αὖ πάλιν ὁμιλίαις ὡς ἐπαχθῆ καὶ ἄχαριν καὶ ὀλιγαρχικὴν ἐδυσχέραινον.

In Amyot, it’s a bit more elaborate:

…la naturelle force, constance et perseverance de sa volonté, en ce qu’il avoit une fois entreprins, le poulsoit bien à attenter et executer plusiers belles et grandes choses: mais aussy de l’austre costé, sa cholere qui estoit impatiente, et son obstination inflexible de ne voulouir jamais ceder à personne, le rendroyent mal accointable, et mal propre pour vivre et converser entre les hommes, lesquels avoyent bien en admiration sa fermeté impassible de ne se laisser jaimais vaincre ny au labeur, ny à la volupté, ny à l’avarice, et la nommoyent bien force, temperance et justice: mais au demourant, ils ne s’en pouvoyent approcher ny le frequenter familierement, comme il se faict entre citoyens d’une mesme chose publicque, tant ses façons de faire leur estoyent mal agreables et odieuses, pour une certaine gravité qui leur sembloit trop seigneuriale. 

[The natural strength, constancy, and perseverance of his will, in whatever he once undertook, pushed him to attempt and carry out many beautiful and great things; but also, on the other hand, his temper which was so impatient, and his inflexible obstinacy in never willingly giving ground, made him hard to deal with, and unfit to live and converse among men — who granted their admiration his invincible firmness in never letting himself be conquered, neither by fatigue, nor lust, nor greed — calling it strength, temperance, and justice; but nevertheless, they could neither approach nor converse with him informally, as is done among citizens of the same republic, so disagreeable and odious were his ways of doing things, on account of a certain gravity that that seemed to them too lordly.]

Amyot makes no attempt to reproduce the dense syntactical parallelism in the Greek, and takes the liberty of expanding a bit. Martius’ unyielding drive, in its negative aspect, now becomes partly a matter of “cholere.. impatiente” – his short temper. Whereas Plutarch had said merely that Martius’ inflexibility was found  insufferable in political affairs,  Amyot explains that his manner was so disagreeable that men found it impossible to approach or to deal with him as a  fellow citizen (“ils ne s’en pouvoyent approcher ny le frequenter familierement, comme il se faict entre citoyens d’une mesme chose publicque.”)  That’s not false to Plutarch’s larger story, but it somewhat obscures the immediate point.  In the original, the point is that the same inflexibility that men found so amazing and admirable, in martial contexts, was unsuited to politics. In Amyot, the connection is weakened, with Martius’ failings more closely associated with his temper and his attitude. He is no longer merely inflexible and aloof, but haughty –   seigneuriale.

North follows Amyot fairly closely, if anything putting more stress on Martius’ incivility and hauteur:

For this Martius naturall witt and great harte dyd marvelously sturre up his corage, to doe and attempt notable actes. But on the other side for lacke of education, he was so chollericke and impacient, that he would yeld to no living creature: which made him churlishe, uncivill, and altogether unfit for any mans conversation. Yet men marvelling much at his constancy, that he was never overcome with pleasure, nor money, and howe he would endure easily all manner of paynes & travailles: thereupon they well liked and commended his stowtnes and temperancie.  But for all that, they could not be acquainted with him, as one citizen useth to be with another in the cittie. His behaviour was so unpleasaunt to them, by reason of a certaine insolent and sterne manner he had, which bicause it was to lordly was disliked.

The cause of Martius’ unpleasantness has become “a certain insolent and sterne manner he had” — from Amyot’s “une certaine gravité qui leur sembloit trop seigneuriale.” Both differ from the Greek in that it sounds like this is some further trait, not yet mentioned until now, when for Plutarch it’s that same unyielding persistence, encountered in a different context. In Amyot this was presumably just a way of coping with Greek syntax unmanageable in French. Without the Greek in front of him, North reads it as a separate thought, and draws his own inferences. What had been graceless rigidity is now insolence.

Plutarch then draws a general conclusion regarding the benefit of education. In the Greek, it’s a compressed, gnomic statement, roughly: The outstanding benefit of education is that through it men’s nature is tamed by reason, and excess gives way to moderation.

 οὐδὲν γὰρ ἄλλο Μουσῶν εὐμενείας ἀπολαύουσιν ἄνθρωποι τοσοῦτον ὅσον ἐξημερῶσαι τὴν φύσιν ὑπὸ λόγου καὶ παιδείας, τῷ λόγῳ δεξαμένην τὸ μέτριον καὶ τὸ ἄγαν ἀποβαλοῦσαν.

The thought is typical of Plutarch’s philosophical eclecticism: as in Plato, the roughness of nature is softened through the gifts of the Muses (i.e., music and poetry); as in Aristotle, education enables men to find the virtuous mean, shunning excess.

Amyot accurately captures the gist of Plutarch’s thought, putting it a bit more expansively:

Aussy à dire la verité, le plus grand fruict que les hommes apportent de la doulceur et beningnité des Muses, c’est-à-dire, de la cognoissance des bonnes lettres, c’est qu’ils en domptent et adoulcissent leur nature, qui estoit auparavant sauvage et farouche, trouvants avecques le compas de la raison, le moyen, et rejectants le trop.

[To tell the truth, the greatest fruit that men take from the sweetness and goodness of the Muses — that is to say, the knowledge of literature (bonnes lettres) — is that they tame and sweeten their nature, which had been wild and rude, finding the mean with the compass of reason, and rejecting excess.]

Amyot’s ‘le compas de raison’ is his elegant solution for Plutarch’s elliptical τῷ λόγῳ (an instrumental dative). The opposition of ‘le moyen’ and ‘le trop’ exactly renders Plutarch’s ‘τὸ μέτριον’ and ‘τὸ ἄγαν.’ (The equivalence is more exact than is possible in English – ‘ἄγαν’ is normally an adverb, like the French ‘trop’.)

Now turn to North:

And to saye truely, the greatest benefit that learning bringeth men unto, is this: that it teacheth men that be rude and rough of nature, by compasse and rule of reason, to be civill &. curteous, and to like better the meane state, then the higher. 

 Where Amyot had opposed ‘le moyen’ to ‘le trop’, North opposes ‘the meane state’ to ‘the higher.’ In the French (like the Greek), it’s the contrast between moderation and excess, the mean versus the extreme.  It’s possible that North intended much the same contrast – the O.E.D. lists ‘extreme’ among the various older senses of the word ‘high.’  But on the other hand,  North typically uses ‘meane’ to denote lowliness — in phrases like ‘meane birth,’ and so forth . In the context of North’s translation of the passage as a whole, it seems more to the point that another of O.E.D.’s archaic senses for ‘high’ is insolent.  We’ve already seen North make a leap from Amyot’s ‘seigneurial’  to the quality of insolence.

Plutarch’s remark about the benefits of education simply sums up the line of thinking in the preceding sentences. Martius’ failing is his immoderation, his inability to adapt himself to his circumstances. (There is an implied contrast with Alcibiades — the Greek whose biography Plutarch sets in tandem with Coriolanus’ — who was famously adaptable to whatever company he found himself in.)   If this is the consequence of Martius’ defective education, then it makes sense to say that the benefit of education lies in teaching moderation. In Amyot it’s less clear that Martius’ failing is a matter of immoderation – it also seems to do with his bad temper, irascibility. If this is taken as a separate aspect of his personality, then the assessment overall seems rather miscellaneous, and it becomes less apparent why learning moderation is the salient remedy. If what makes Coriolanus insufferable is not merely brusque inflexibility, but haughty insolence, then a lesson or two in humility might seem more to the point…

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