The Changing Faces of Virtue: Plutarch, Machiavelli and Shakespeare's Coriolanus

Patrick Thomas Ashby


Arguably Shakespeare’s most political drama, Coriolanus takes place in the early years of the Roman Republic. It explores the relationship between a traditional ruling elite and a plebeian population with growing political power. Using Plutarch’s Lives as his principal narrative source, Shakespeare dramatises the rise and fall of a Roman warrior-hero unfit for political life. In engaging with his source, Shakespeare was struck by Plutarch’s discussion of the word ‘virtue’ as determined by military accomplishment. The Senator Cominius describes martial valour as ‘the chiefest virtue’ (II. 2. 76), in accordance with Plutarch’s description. The tragedy interrogates the implications of such a definition of virtue, stressing its dangerous limitations. The unscrupulous (or pragmatic) political manoeuvres of the wider dramatis personae indicate a contrast between this Plutarchan etymology and the comparatively recent definition of virtù embodied in the doctrines of Machiavelli. Where all around him demonstrate their talents for dissimulation, Coriolanus is unable to adapt to the times. Shakespeare altered the narrative he found in Plutarch in order test the integrity of competing systems of virtue. Coriolanus may be read as a contest of idealism and policy. Its hero is a non-Machiavellian in an increasingly Machiavellian world.


Shakespeare; Plutarch; Machiavelli; republics; democracy

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