Livy, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

Anne Barton, “Livy, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,” in Essays, Mainly Shakespearean (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 13660


In writing Coriolanus, Shakespeare depended primarily upon Plutarch, as he had for Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Once again, North’s translation provided him with the dramatic skeleton, and even some of the actual words, of his play. But this time, he also had recourse so Livy, the chronicler of Coriolanus, Marcus Curtius, and the fortunes of republican Rome. It has long been recognized that lines 134 to 139 in Menenius’s fable of the belly, those concerned with the distribution of the nourishment through the blood, derive from Livy’s, not Plutarch’s version of the tale. Those six lines are important in that they provide tangible evidence that Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita was in Shakespeare’s mind when he was meditating Coriolanus. But they matter far less than a series of overall attitudes, attitudes peculiar to this play, which I believe Shakespeare owed not to any one, particular passage in Livy, but to his history as a whole–in itself, and also as it had been interpreted by another, celebrated Renaissance reader.

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