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The Georgicks of Virgil, with an English Translation and Notes Virgil, John Martyn Ipsi in defossis specubus secura sub alta Otia agunt terra, congestaque robora, Pierius says it is confecto in the Roman manuscript. And Tacitus also says the Germans used to make caves to defend them from the severity of winter, .

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But his contempt prompts us to discuss dilemmas still facing leadership studies that assess relationships between leaders and the led in republican governments. And his contempt will eventually tempt us to enroll him among other disgraced yet discerning prophets in the history of political dissent. Machiavelli hunted for tangible truths about republican Rome in Titus Livy's history, which circulated in the first century CE. Reportedly, at the time, plebeians and patricians were at odds — the former extorting concessions from a senatorial elite.

But the apparent success of their efforts may indicate that they were led by affluent landowners and citizen soldiers able to afford the equipment necessary for military services and eager to check the patricians' power. Hence, historians ought to approach all Roman sources for that stretch very cautiously, molto prudenti. Besides, Livy's story of Coriolanus's insolence and of the plebeians' reactions was too good to be untrue, which is to say that it fit Machiavelli's preconceptions and purposes.

Livy had retrieved the political tensions that led, through the Roman tribunes' robust interventions, to the city's defensible verdict against Coriolanus — and to the restoration of order in Rome. In effect, Livy substantiated Machiavelli's claims that mistrust among the elites enabled commoners and their representatives to stabilize republican government. The context was significant.

Livy explained that quarrels between plebeians and patricians were resolved after Rome's last king had been deposed and when commoners were granted the right to select tribunes to protect their interests. But crop failures in local fields, the arrival of corn from patricians' Sicilian estates, and prices charged by the patricians prompted Rome's commoners to demand price controls. According to Livy, Coriolanus proposed to use the crisis to cancel the concessions that, in his estimation, the plebeians had extorted from the senate. If they wanted to return to the prices that pertained when corn was plentiful, commoners, he submitted, must relinquish their newly acquired prerogatives and return full authority to the patricians.

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Coriolanus's blunt ultimatum and exploitation of the famine is thrown into greater relief in Livy's story by his description of another patrician's tact and tactics; his Menenius Agrippa reassured commoners that the patrician senate and moneyed interests it represented were vitally concerned with plebeians' wellbeing. The elites were comparable to a body's belly, Menenius explained; although more conspicuously industrious members of the body politic may suspect that the stationary stomach was idle, it was not; the belly, much as Rome's affluent elite, was busy, wisely distributing nourishment.

Livy mentions that the commoners were fond of Menenius; however, his analogy was not an unqualified success. Plebeians' anger somewhat abated, yet they consented only to negotiations, the result of which were the concessions that Coriolanus deplored. Livy's sympathies are with the commoners, and that obviously appealed to Machiavelli. They had protested peacefully.

They forced the senate to negotiate by leaving the city, settling provisionally several miles away.

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They gave no other provocation, yet the suspense, Livy says, was paralysing. Plebeians and patricians alike were tormented by the prospect that a Rome so divided, fear-filled, and, in effect, immobilized, might fall prey to its enemies. The senate concluded that reconciliation was required for Rome's defense. Livy's sympathies are not easy to locate. Coriolanus, as we just discovered, was unpopular for having proposed that grain be withheld until the plebeians were prepared to give up the authority they and their tribunes had lately acquired.

Predictably, the plebeians were furious; had they rioted, Coriolanus would have been slaughtered, patricians would have taken precautions for self-defense, partisans of both sides, driven by fear or indignation, would have turned an incident into a feud, destabilizing Rome's new republic. Unlike officials in the Republic of Florence, who provided their citizens no forum in which to vent their anger sfogare , the tribunes in Rome found an effective way to spare their city the turmoil suffered by Machiavelli's. Livy's Coriolanus was an exemplary soldier.

He and a small squadron not only repelled a Volscian attack but carried the battle to his enemies, capturing the city of Corioli — and capturing, for Caius Martius, his cognomen. Machiavelli admired the strategy. Commanders should sow dissension among enemies, he averred, coupling Hannibal with Coriolanus, two adepts waging psychological as well as bloody wars. That observation, as it applies to Petrarch's Coriolanus, is Christopher Pelling's, with whom Machiavelli would have disagreed. The new regime in Rome, having expelled the city's king and just begun to program an emerging republic, was neither tricky nor treacherous.

It was heading in the right direction. Two consuls were elected annually. Candidates were candid, not deceptive. Leaders were virtuous and resourceful. Machiavelli was heartened by the results attributing everything good about Roman government to the plebeians' discontent and tribunes' interventions. But the office had survived for centuries in Rome, and Machiavelli lamented that fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century Florence had nothing comparable. Plebeians were ambitious, susceptible to temptations to improve their lot, economically and politically, but, conceding as much, Machiavelli nevertheless trusted that they were a safer bet than their patrician neighbors to be discerning and prudent.

Non essere dominati ; liberation, not domination, was the plebeians' foremost concern, and, for Machiavelli, that priority was the factor that would keep the fabric of republics from being ripped by factions and greed. Here, Machiavelli was staking out an anomalous, if not also an awkward, position.

To be sure, there was no sixteenth-century groundswell of opinion favoring Coriolanus, but Francesco Guicciardini, for one, suggested political tensions were unhealthy, that governments galloped toward disaster when influential theorists countenanced discord between the multitude and the moguls. Laudare le disunione , to praise friction was ludicrous. He deplored the sectarian spirit among early modern patricians. Few if any adaptations or interpretations of Shakespeare's Coriolanus cast the protagonist as a redeemer or reformer. But the play's plebeians and emergent Roman republicanism often get good press.

At best, Coriolanus comes across as morally ambiguous; at worst, a crude, impudent bigot. Even when performances understate what social reformers consider the play's reformist or populist sympathies, Coriolanus is not credited as a perceptive critic. Could Shakespeare have known of it? He was an avid reader, but Machiavelli's Discorsi did not appear in English until After his abortive coup, Robert Devereaux, earl of Essex, was associated with Machiavelli by enemies who variously emphasized his belligerence, scurrility, and social radicalism, yet the accusations leveled before and after his execution in cannot convincingly be connected with either Machiavelli's republican sentiments or Shakespeare's play that was first performed 7 or 8 years later.

Indeed, Shakespeare and Machiavelli have been paired as advocates of participatory regimes, and the implication is that Coriolanus, the character, was an occasion for each to put plebeian interests in a favorable light. Machiavelli's commoners are so shrewd that they are hardly ever deceived quasi mai s'inganni. Commoners' competence was an issue in the s — and again in the s — as the religiously reformed debated the role of the laity in parish government.


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Tudor magistrates and ministers encountered lay refugees from the Continent who were accustomed to broadly participatory parish regimes. They hired and fired pastors. When Shakespeare was still in Stratford-upon-Avon in the s, and into the s when he was settling in London, discussions of popular participation in policy-making were generally contained within discussions of church staffing and liturgy.

What risks would attach if congregational decisions required commoners' consent? He evoked the disturbances on the Continent during the s that followed and, he alleged, had been occasioned by the religious radicals' experiments with participatory parish regimes. But Coriolanus is politically imprecise. The protagonist's opposition to the early republic is, after all, near fanatical. Nominated consul by the senate, he nonetheless disdained its ritual celebration of his heroism.

He only reluctantly agreed to display his wounds in the market to rally popular support for the nomination, then rapidly repented turning his scars into a sales pitch. His mother and Menenius, his mentor, would have had him stoop to conquer — that is, to win the plebeians' affection — but he held that pose poorly and for only a short time. Coriolanus will not conform to expectations.

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We cannot confidently infer what Shakespeare thought about personal authenticity from his Coriolanus's transparency and impetuosity. But we may say with certainty that protagonist and possibly the playwright would not have endorsed Machiavelli's classification of citizens' street demonstrations and secession, which forced patricians' concessions as bargaining tactics that stabilized the government.

In Machiavelli's narrative, Rome's plebeians were ready to attack the recklessly candid Coriolanus; the tribunes save him from them. Then and subsequently, the queen expressed her displeasure whenever her courtships became subjects for parliamentary debate. King James I was hostile to members of Parliament whose seemingly interminable debates were, in his estimation, stunts to avoid enacting what he most desired, a more perfect union between his two kingdoms, England and Scotland.

Local elites controlled the elections to the House of Commons. The possibilities for genuinely participatory regimes almost exclusively aired in debates about parishioners' prerogatives. Arnold may be correct ranking Shakespeare among political radicals determined to speak out about commoners' lack of voice. But Machiavelli, for his part, was unworried about such potential popular usurpers.

From what he learned about the Roman republic, he concluded that, in hundreds of elections during its hundreds of years, the citizens chose no more than four wicked tribunes or consuls. Shakespeare approached the problem of representation from a different angle. Prophets' disaffiliation means that they can never be at home in their homelands.

SparkNotes: Coriolanus: Suggested Essay Topics

He does not vanish from the stage. The final two acts have him in the company of his former enemies, the Volscians, leading them to the gates of Rome. But a delegation dissuades him from attacking. His mother, wife, and young son shame him for having turned on the city that turned on him. The tribunes wrongly and wickedly accuse him of ambition, and, although his actions during the final acts could be construed as corroboration, neither Shakespeare nor Plutarch would give Coriolanus's self-interest and ambition much play.

Historian Robert Ormsby imagines that dramatists who were also entrepreneurs may have been restless. On these matters, however, we traffic in guesses rather than certainties. But of one thing we can be sure. We know what some ordinary people, in Southwark, just outside the Globe Theater, were talking about when Shakespeare contemplated Coriolanus.

Parishioners had asked Parliament to inquire why representatives from the congregation were systematically excluded from deliberations. There are few traces of parishioner resistance elsewhere. Those parishioners-turned-plaintiffs may have played no part in Shakespeare's retrieval of republican Rome's plebeians. Leaders could be trusted to channel commoners' concerns, and commoners could be trusted to realize that their corruptible reason had to be trained to make accurate assessments of the predicaments facing their congregations and their kingdom.

Selfless, trusted leaders training and representing self-aware and discerning commoners: Shakespeare's Coriolanus could not imagine that scene. Machiavelli did. Can we, knowing what we know about the influence of faction and flattery? Its leaders polarize political conversation to retain the loyalties of followers who oblige by letting their leaders' self-interest determine their own.

Rights and Permissions. This chapter traces the development of the Bertolt Brecht-related Coriolanuses from the playwright's adaptation to its later German and English productions to Gunter Grass's adaptation of the adaptation in relation to the evolving contexts. Shortly after the tremendous early successes Brecht achieved with the state-subsidized Berliner Ensemble, he began the drawn-out process of working on Coriolanus.

Manfred Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert described the Coriolanus as a compromise between Brechtian principles and a certain understanding of Shakespearean performance, though they positioned themselves closer to William Shakespeare than they had in Plebeians incorporates very little of Shakespeare's or Brecht's scripts directly. In the spring of Christopher Plummer withdrew from rehearsals as the lead in the National Theatre's Coriolanus , apparently over artistic differences with Wekwerth and Tenschert.

The visual analogies were enhanced by the metatheatricality of placing the fictional Berlin performance space within the actual Aldwych Theatre. This chapter explains how Shakespeare marshalled St.

Suggested Essay Topics

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