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Class struggle between the Patricians and the Plebeians

Class struggle between the Patricians and the Plebeians

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Against the backdrop of the crucial issue of class politics in the society, this paper examines and discusses William Shakespeare’s portrayal of class struggle via his play Coriolanus which represents the continued effort of the oppressive class to perpetuate its dominance and the resistant effort of the oppressed to destroy the reign of oppression. As a historical tragedy, the play hints at what may become the fate of the oppressed if they shed their false consciousness and also foretells the death of capitalist oppression due to the internal contradiction in its structure.

William Shakespeare

William Shakespeare, the world acclaimed greatest playwright, and poet in the English language, was born on April 23, 1564, in Stratford-Upon-Avon, a small country in England. His father was the town Mayor while his mother the daughter of a local land owner. Shakespeare was most likely educated at Stratford Grammar School. At the age of 18, he married Anne Hathaway, a local woman with whom he had three children. Overall, William Shakespeare was recorded to have authored 37 plays and 154 sonnets. The legacy of his work is immense as a number of his works seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, and becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

Coriolanus was the next-to-last tragedy written by Shakespeare. It follows Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Anthony and Cleopatra. It was written around 1607-08 and first performed around 1609-10 at the Blackfriars Theatre in London. The source for Coriolanus is likely the ‘Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus’ written in the first decade A.D. by the celebrated biographer Plutarch and translated into English in 1957 by sir Thomas North(and other likely sources which include  Livy’s The History of Rome). Coriolanus was considered by many scholars as a play of politics which was motivated by the politics of England in the early 17th century which was haunted by urban radicalism and the intense and on-going struggle between King James and House of Parliament.

Conceptual clarifications

In our quest to do critical justice to the topic of discussion, we shall attempt to unravel the semantic significance of the two key words entrenched in the topic. These are ‘politics’ and ‘class.’ Politics, according to Encarta Dictionary is the theory and practice of government, especially the activities associated with governing, with obtaining legislative and executive power, or with forming and running organizations connected with government. Chijioke Uwasomba (2006: 95), quoting A. Appadoria, defines politics as ‘the science concerned with the state and of the contributions essential to its existence and development.’ Uwasomba (2006: 96) goes further to explain that ‘there could be two forms of politics: a politics that holds back the advance of humanity and the one that enhances it for the benefit and improvement of humanity.’

Class, on the other hand, from the linguistic point of view connotes the structure of divisions in a society as determined by the social or economic groupings of its members. In other words, it consists of a group of people within a society who share the same social or economic status. From a sociological position, Vladimir Lenin defined class as ‘large group of people differing from each other by the place they occupy in a historically determined system of social production, by their relation (in most cases fixed and formulated in law) to the means of production, by their role in the social organisation of labour and consequently by the dimensions of the share of social wealth of which they dispose and the mode of acquiring it.’ Karl Marx also sees class as a social phenomenon. The primitive period (the first human society) was a classless society—a mainly pre-agricultural society where there were no classes. Class formation emerged as a result of the rise of sufficient surplus products occasioned by technological advancement.

Thus, there emerged two basic classes—the class that controls the means of production (the upper class) and the class that carries out the production (the lower class). Each class fights for its own interest. The interest of the upper class is to perpetuate their dominance by exploiting the potentials of the lower class while the interest of the lower class is to loose the chain of oppression, to liberate themselves. Connecting politics and class together, we can therefore say that while the upper class plays up the politics that ‘holds back the advance of humanity’ due to its own selfish interest, the lower class plays up the politics that ‘enhances’ society ‘for the benefit and improvement of humanity’—as they constitute the majority.

Meanwhile, in the described struggle between politics and class, literature is fully involved. Ngugi Wa Thiongo says:

Literature cannot escape from the class power structures that shape everyday life. Here a writer has no choice…his work reflects one or more aspects of the intense economy, political….struggle in a society. What he or she cannot do is to remain neutral. Every writer is a writer in politics. The only question is whose politics.(quoted in Kelvin Ngong Toh, 4)

In fact, the drama genre of literature, which incidentally serves as the primary data for this essay, is more effective in politics. Kelvin Ngong Toh (2004) says:

Drama is one genre of literature whose functionality in the society cannot be underestimated. It is an active and political genre because there is harmony and a practical relationship between the audience and the dramatis personae. It imitates society at its best. (2)

It is against the background of the foregoing that William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus becomes very important in understanding the politics of class formation in the society. Having done this, our focus now shifts to the two opposing classes as represented in the play and subsequently, to how the class politics is realized.

The Patricians and the Plebeians: A struggle between two classes

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.

(Karl Marx)

The peasants are the vibrant labour force of the traditional society. And in the industrialized capitalist society, they are the most exploited. This usually fires their revolutionary zeal when they are sufficiently aware and are mobilized (quoted in Leon Onwuchi Osu, 2011:161)

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is a politics of two classes—the patricians and the plebeians. The patricians are the members of the Roman aristocracy, while the plebeians are the common Roman masses. Put differently, the patricians can be seen as the contemporary bourgeois class (the upper class) while the plebeians can be regarded as the proletariat (the lower class). The conflict in the play revolves around the patricians represented in the play by the Senate, Menenius, Volumnia, Coriolanus (the eponymous hero) and others and the plebeians represented by the tribunes (Brutus and Cicilius) and other Roman masses. The two classes are in a struggle because their interests are on the warpath with each other.

The patricians want to continue the ‘peazantisation’ of the masses by hoarding the grain and setting it at high and unaffordable prices thereby making excessive profit. In their effort to maintain this status quo, they try as much as possible to naturalize the situation and ‘ideologise’ the masses into seeing the situation as normal. A typical instance of this ideological process is rooted in the great metaphor of ‘belly’ employed by the brilliant Menenius to obscure the reality from the plebeians. According to Menenius, the role of the patricians is comparable to the role of the stomach in the human body. The stomach serves as the storehouse and collection place for all the nutrients and then dispenses them throughout the rest of the body just as the Roman patricians collect and dispense grain to the entire city.  Menenius says ‘The senators of Rome are this good belly, /And you the mutinous members; for examine/ Their counsels and their cares, digest things roughly, / Touching the weal o’ the common, you shall find/ No public benefit which you receive/ But it proceeds or comes from them to you/ And no way from yourselves—what do you think, / You the great foe of this assembly?’ (Coriolanus, Act 1. 1.150).

This is how Menenius has been able to present or rather obscure the reality from the rioting plebeians and calms them down. And so they see him as being honest—even though he is not. They say ‘he’s one honest enough! Would all the rest were so! (Coriolanus, Act 1. 1.50)’. This situation would have remained the same if not for the intervention of the tribunes. However, Caius Martius is arrogant and hates the plebeians with passion. He says of the plebeians, ‘you curs, / That like nor peace nor war (Coriolanus, Act 1. 1.170)’. He is not supportive of the Senate’s agreement to elect five tribunes or representatives that will be advocating for the interest of the plebeian masses. Consequently, the plebeians also hate Martius. They refer to him as ‘a very dog to the community (Coriolanus, Act 1.1. 30)’. They are sufficiently aware of the exploitative policies of their leaders. They say: ‘They ne’er care for us yet./ Suffer us to famish, and their storehouses cramm’d with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.’ (Coriolanus, Act 1. 1.78). Being aware of the oppression, they revolt by causing riot.

Besides, nemesis catches up with Coriolanus when after a brilliant display of valour in the Volscian war he needs the consent of the masses to bag the position of the consulship. The masses in their eclectic awareness/false consciousness consent to his request until the tribunes awaken their consciousness and they revoke their decision. Thus, Coriolanus could not get this esteemed position. Through the conspiracy of the tribunes and the unbending ego of Coriolanus, Coriolanus is banished from Rome. His immoral affiliation with Aufidius (his arch enemy in the Volscian war), to exert revenge on Romans leads to his eventual death.

The emergence of class politics in Coriolanus

Mankind lived in condition of natural simplicity, one in which human   relationships were unforced and uncoercive, in which morality sprang from what is ingrained in us by nature…but ‘the discovery of private property…when a single man first laid claim to a portion of the earth declaring ‘This is mine’ and thus driving other men to like behaviour…the world has been filled with strife, envy, jealousy, conflict, and exploitation. (Leon Onwuchi Osu, 2011:159)

How is the politics of class realized in the play—Coriolanus? To know how the politics of class is realized in the play, it is expedient to first consider how the politics of class is even realized in the real society. According to Karl Marx, the first human society (the primitive society) was classless. The prerequisite for the realization of the class was the rise of sufficient surplus products aided by industrial development when people began to lay claim to individual ownership of property. This created polarisation in the society, while some continue to have, others perpetuate in poverty. The haves do not want to shift ground, the have-nots (possessing the awareness that they are marginalized by the haves) want to subvert the status quo, hence the emergence of class struggle.

The same way the politics of class emerged in the society so it does in Coriolanus. From the historical perspective, the play opens in Rome shortly after the expulsion of the last king (Tarquin) in Monarchical Rome. The plebeians are rioting against the patricians, whom they accuse of hoarding grain while they (the common people) starve. So in the context of this play, the possession of grain could be seen as what distinguishes the patricians (the haves) from the plebeians (the have-nots). However, the grain should not be seen as a mere grain but a symbolic connotation of economic production which partitions the society along the classes of the upper and the lower. Therefore, one can opine without running into any forms of fallacy that the politics of class in the play is realized through the possession of grain—a metaphor for economic production.

The patricians, Rome having been turned into a republic, are the rulers while the plebeians are the ruled. What gives the patricians edge is the power of economic production which they use to formulate rules in favour of their class and to the disadvantage of the plebeians. Through this, the plebeians begin to see themselves as constituting another social class different from that of the haves (the patricians). The awareness of this class bifurcation and oppression leads to class struggle which is depicted in the play by the plebeian riot. They become aware that they are being oppressed and so they turn rioting and demand the right to set the price of grain, rather than a price imposed by the senate (the governing body run by the patricians). In fact, they make the point clear that the cause of the riot is the hoarding of grain which subjects them into unending starvation. They say:

We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good. The leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is an inventory to particularise their abundance; our sufferance/ is again to them—let us revenge this with our pikes pie/ we became rakes, for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge. (Coriolanus, Act 1. 1. 14)

Tracking back our earlier definition of politics, it could now be inferred that it is the patricians that play up the politics of destruction while the patricians are concerned with the politics of improving humanity.

Shakespeare as a revolutionary writer

Coriolanus has been regarded as William Shakespeare’s ‘most exclusively political play’ (quoted in Filling, 2) and his ‘only great political play’ (quoted in Filling, 2). As earlier observed, it dramatizes the conflict between the plebeians and the patricians during and after the First secession in Rome, in 494 BC. There is a shortage of grain and the starving plebeians engage in an open revolt against the patricians. Some scholars have considered this play as a pro-capitalist play, perhaps given the fact that Shakespeare is traditionally regarded as a conservative writer, a writer that writes in support of the status quo. They substantiate their arguments with some instances in the play. The first instance is the derogatory portrayal of the plebeians as the ‘curs/ that like nor peace nor war, the ones whose ‘affections’ are ‘a sick man’s appetite,’ the one that ‘lack discretion ’e. t. c. The second instance is encoded in the metaphor of belly presented by Menenius. According to Menenius, the patricians are like belly distributing whatever they have acquired to the plebeians who are also like other parts of the body. So by fighting against these ‘selfless’ patricians, the plebeians could be seen as ‘dissentious rogues’ (562) as Martius refers to them.

Our contention in this paper is nonetheless different. Our position is that Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is a revolutionary drama, that is, a play written not in support of the status quo but in support of the masses to destroy the status quo. Our premise for this assertion is also the same metaphor of ‘belly’. Looking at it from a materialist’s perspective, the metaphor of belly is a pure ideology. It is an intellectual way of obscuring the reality from the plebeians so that they see the patricians as selfless leaders who take the interest of the plebeians as their utmost concern. Because if we may ask, what kind of belly are the patricians? What kind of food are they distributing to the plebeians?—when the plebs are still starving. This is nothing but a proliferation of false consciousness.

So, with the help of the tribunes, the plebeians shed this false consciousness and revolt against the leadership of the oppressive patricians, having come to the awareness that the Roman patricians ruin and pauperize them and subject them to staunch starvation. To a large extent, the plebeian protest is successful. It forces the Senate into granting them five tribunes—the decision that provokes the ire of the proud choleric patrician soldier Caius Martius. Moreover, when Caius was on the verge of becoming the consul of Rome, it is the ideological awareness of the plebeians (thanks to the role played by the tribunes) that make them reject the consulship of Coriolanus. If such a person should get into power, the plebeians will suffer the worst form of oppression because he hates them and does not believe in an administration that allows them (the plebeians) to have a share in Rome’s governance.

With this, one can safely opine that what Shakespeare does in this play is to subtly awaken the consciousness of the oppressed plebeians to the possibility of change if they could revolt. In the same vein, the death of Coriolanus can also be seen as symbolic. According to Karl Marx, capitalism as an economic system possesses in its internal structure what will destroy it—and that is the proletariat. Equally, there is no doubt that Coriolanus is the main symbol of capitalism in the play who has no sympathy whatsoever for the plebeians, so his choleric and proud nature can be seen as his internal contradiction which leads to his eventual death. Hence, his death is symbolic of the death of capitalism.

Thus,  with the success of the plebeians on being granted representatives in the Roman governance (which foretells a better future), their successful rejection of the consulship of Coriolanus, a position he could have used to subject them to greater oppression, and the consequent death of Coriolanus, we want to conclude at this juncture that contrary to the pro-capitalist reading of Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is a revolutionary drama written in support of the cause of the Roman masses—the plebeians. Through Coriolanus, William Shakespeare has been able to ‘…lead the people to the top of the mountain and point out the Promised Land; … (and) also show them how to get there.’(Osundare, 2007:12)


Encyclopaedia Encarta Premium 2009

Filling, John. “The Body, the Belly and Blood in Coriolanus: From Shakespeare to Brecht through Marx.” Oxford: PSA Conference, 2009

Ngong Toh, Kelvin. “Drama and Politics: A Study of Bate Beasong’s Beasts of Nation

Onyewuch Osu, Leon. “A Dance on Contrasting Platforms: African Tradition and Revolutionary Aesthetics in Esiaba Irobi’s Plays.” In TYDSKR IF LETTERKUNDE.   48 (1), 2011. 151-166

Osundare, Niyi. The Writer as Righter. Ibadan: Hope Publications Ltd, 2007

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. Scotland: Geddes and Grosset, 2008

Uwasomba, Chijioke. “The Politics of Resistance and Liberation in Ngugi Wa Thiongo’s   Petals of Blood and Devil on the Cross.” In The Journal of Pan African Studies. 1(6),   2006. 94-108

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