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Shakespeare & Beyond

Cursing Coriolanus and combating cornhoarders

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Coriolanus at the Lyceum [graphic] / Cyrus C. Cuneo. 1901. Folger ART Box C972 no.1 (size XL)

In 1608, famine plagued England. Preachers responded with sermons begging the gentry to show compassion for the poor, King James I responded with royal proclamations against grain hoarding, and Shakespeare responded with Coriolanus, a Roman revenge-tragedy.

Likely composed in 1608 and staged c. 1609-1610, Coriolanus opens with starving citizens storming the stage with rakes, pikes, and clubs, demanding that the Roman government release corn (a catch-all term for grain) to them. Within the first 20 lines, the citizens plan to “kill” Caius Martius, the play’s hero, whom they deem the “chief enemy to the people.” They believe Martius has been hoarding corn and that killing him would secure “corn at [their] own price” (1.1.7-11). The citizens also target the Roman government. They believe that their “leanness,” “misery,” and “sufferance” benefits both Martius and the Roman elite. “Let us revenge this,” exclaims one citizen, “with our pikes ere we become rakes; for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge” (1.1.19-24). The citizens are a dangerous bunch. For an early modern audience, revolt against the government and threatened murder of Rome’s famed warrior Martius are treasonous acts.

Yet Martius, who later receives the name ‘Coriolanus’ for his victory over Aufidius and the Volscians at the battle of Coriole, does little to convince the gathered citizens that he is undeserving of the citizens’ violent anger. In his first appearance on stage, Martius dismisses their complaints as unwarranted and mocks them: “Hang ‘em! They said they were an-hungry, sighed forth proverbs / That hunger broke stone walls… that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only.” (1.1.221-227). We should not be surprised when the citizens later banish him from Rome. Shakespeare’s tragedy has left many audiences and critics wondering if Coriolanus is hero or villain. Are the citizens right to take up arms and demand food? What is the real tragedy here?


Wonderful!! Best, Betty and Belphoebe

Elizabeh Hageman — January 7, 2020

Brilliant- and brava,

wondrous writing, interesting information and lovely alliterations.
thanks V. much to Ms. Shook.
We saw an appurtenant production at Dartmouth College last November. what a raucous treat that I won’t soon forget. lively!


cindy coble — January 8, 2020

Well, less violently we could impose a tax on the income of today’s “cornhogers”.

Sonia Conly — January 8, 2020