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But for all that they could not be acquainted with him as one citizen useth to be with another in the city: his behaviour was so unpleasant to them by reason of a certain insolent and stern manner he had, which because he was too lordly, was disliked.”
“ He was a stout man of nature, that never yielded in any respect, thinking that to overcome alwaies, and to have the upper hand in all matters, was a token of magnanimity." +
Shakspeare has displayed much skill in exciting an interest in favour of his hero; a task of difficulty, since to have represented the pride of Coriolanus as less imperious, or his impatience as more under restraint, than history has recorded of these unamiable qualities, would have struck at the very root of his plot. It is indeed on the existence of those characteristics in excess, that the fate of Coriolanus turns : « Of all his misfortune and ill hap, the austeritie of his nature, and his haughty obstinate mind,” says Plutarch, “ was the onely cause.”Compelled, therefore, to give these repulsive features great prominence, the bard has prepared for them an ingenious defence, by directing the arrogance and passion of Marcius against the rabble and their tribunes only; thus
* Life of Coriolanus, p. 221. † Ibid. p. 228. Ibid. p. 244.
justifying the contempt and irritability of a high minded patrician by the senseless inconsistency, unfeeling insolence, and selfish malignity of the Roman multitude. A broad distinction is here to be drawn between the historic and the dramatic Coriolanus. The pride, austerity, and impatience of the former are described by his biographer as universal: the same characteristics, in the latter, are confined to one object only in their operation. Unlike the hero of Plutarch, Shakspeare's Marcius is neither “ churlish,” nor “ altogether unfit for any man's conversation;" but, on the contrary, noble in his nature; of the highest honour; modest, amiable, and affectionate in his social relations; almost adored by his kindred; universally respected by his friends. His “ noble acts and vertues” are displayed with peculiar grace; and not, as described in Plutarch, “so wanting in affability as to become hateful, even to those that received benefite by them, who could not abide his severity and selfe will." * To one class of persons only is he proud, to them only is he cholerick, impatient, and austere; and in opposition to their encroachments, only, is he inflexible and obstinate.
The display of the repulsive part of Corio
* Life of Coriolanus, p. 243.
lanus's character being thus confined to one object, it became Shakspeare's next care, even in this instance, to justify it. In the insurrection of the people on the subject of the usury laws, when they withdrew to Mons-Sacer, and Tribunes were granted to their importunity, Plutarch represents the citizens as in the right : of their subsequent demand for a gratuitous distribution of corn, he does not appear to entertain so favourable an opinion. Shakspeare commences the action of his play by the grant of Tribunes to the people, but he does not ascribe that concession to the insurrection occasioned by the usury laws; and, entirely leaving out the retiring of the plebeians to the holy mount, he makes the dispute respecting the distribution of corn the ground of their sedition, and represents the grant of Tribunes as an extortion, by a seditious mob, from the weakness of the nobility. The change is important, because it gives to the insurrection of the people the distinctive character of an insolent and overbearing interference with the privileges of the patricians, and, consequently, fixes on Coriolanus's hostile resistance of the encroachment the stamp of sound -political wisdom.
Plutarch has assigned to Coriolanus a long argument against the people's claims, which I
shall quote as illustrative of the dexterity with which Shakspeare adapted his materials to his purpose.
“But Martius standing upon his feet, did somewhat sharpely take up those who went about to gratifie the people therein; and called them people pleasers, and traitours to the nobility. Moreover, he said, they nourished against themselves the naughtie seede and cockle of insolencie and sedition, which had bene sowed and scattered abroade amongst the people, which they should have cut off, if they had been wise, in their growth : and not (to their owne destruction) have suffered the people to establish a magistrate for themselves, of so great power and authority, as that man had, to whom they had granted it. Who was also to be feared, because he obtained what he would, and did nothing but what he listed; neither passed for any obedience to the Consuls, but lived in all liberty, acknowledging no superiour to command him, saving the onely heads and authours of their faction, whom he called his magistrats. Therefore, said he, they that gave counsell, and perswaded that the corne should be given out to the common people gratis, as they used to do in the cities of Grece, where the people had more absolute
power, did but only nourish their disobedience, which would breake out in the end, to the utter ruine and overthrow of the whole state. For they will not thinke it is done in recompence of their service past, sithence they know well enough they have so oft refused to go to the warres, when they were commanded: neither for their mutinies when they went with us, whereby they have rebelled and forsaken their country: neither for their accusations which their flatterers have preferred unto them, and they have received, and made good against the senate: but they will rather judge, we give and grant them this, as abasing ourselves, and standing in feare of them, and glad to flatter them every way. By this means, their disobedience will still grow worse and worse: and they will never leave to practise new sedition and up
Therefore it were a great folly for us, me thinks, to do it : yea, shall I say more? we should if we were wise, take from them their Tribuneship, which most manifestly is the embasing of the Consulship, and the cause of the division of their city. The state whereof, as it standeth, is not now as it was wont to be, but becometh dismembered in two factions, which maintaines alwaies civil dissention and discord