(Lauren Shook’s article appeared in Shakespeare and Beyond, 1/7; via Pam Green.)
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.