William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

Likely the most influential writer in all of English literature and certainly the most important playwright of the English Renaissance, William Shakespeare was born in 1564 in the town of Stratford-upon-Avon in Warwickshire, England. The son of a successful middle-class glove-maker, Shakespeare attended grammar school, but his formal education proceeded no further. In 1582, he married an older woman, Anne Hathaway, and had three children with her. Around 1590 he left his family behind and traveled to London to work as an actor and playwright. Public and critical success quickly followed, and Shakespeare eventually became the most popular playwright in England and part owner of the Globe Theater. His career bridged the reigns of Elizabeth I (ruled 1558-1603) and James I (ruled 1603-1625); he was a favorite of both monarchs. Indeed, James granted Shakespeare's company the greatest possible compliment by endowing them with the status of king's players. Wealthy and renowned, Shakespeare retired to Stratford, and died in 1616 at the age of fifty-two. At the time of Shakespeare's death, such luminaries as Ben Jonson hailed him as the apogee of Renaissance theatre.

Shakespeare's works were collected and printed in various editions in the century following his death, and by the early eighteenth century his reputation as the greatest poet ever to write in English was well established. The unprecedented admiration garnered by his works led to a fierce curiosity about Shakespeare's life; but the paucity of surviving biographical information has left many details of Shakespeare's personal history shrouded in mystery. Some people have concluded from this fact that Shakespeare's plays in reality were written by someone else–Francis Bacon and the Earl of Oxford are the two most popular candidates–but the evidence for this claim is highly circumstantial, and the theory is not taken seriously by many scholars.

In the absence of definitive proof to the contrary, Shakespeare must be viewed as the author of the 37 plays and 154 sonnets that bear his name. The legacy of this body of work is immense. A number of Shakespeare's plays seem to have transcended even the category of brilliance, becoming so influential as to affect profoundly the course of Western literature and culture ever after.

Background on Coriolanus

Coriolanus was probably written in 1607-08 and first performed in 1609 or 1610 at the Blackfriars Theatre in London, although these dates are uncertain. As the next-to-last tragedy that Shakespeare composed, it follows on the heels of Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra, all of which Shakespeare probably composed between 1604 and 1606. Like Antony and Cleopatra, it is a Roman play, but unlike that play and Julius Caesar, Coriolanus is set not in the Imperial Rome of the first century CE but more than two centuries earlier, when Rome was still just one Italian city among many, fighting for survival. The action, then, is semi-historical, set in the aftermath of the fall of Tarquin, the last king of Rome (who is referred to in the text several times), and focuses on the struggle between the plebeians and patricians during Rome's transition from monarchy to republic.

Shakespeare's interest in Roman history typified the more general Renaissance fascination with the classical world; playwrights and political philosophers alike consistently turned to Greece and Rome for inspiration. The source for Coriolanus's plot is likely the "Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus," written in the first decade CE by the celebrated biographer Plutarch and translated into English in 1579 by Sir Thomas North. (Other sources may include Livy's History of Rome.) However, a number of scholars have drawn connections between the play's plot and the politics of Shakespeare's England: Early 17th century London was haunted by an urban radicalism and witnessed an ongoing struggle between King James and Parliament, which may be reflected in Shakespeare's portrayal of the patrician-plebeian conflict.

Although the limited appeal of its characters, as well as the limited scope of the play as a whole, have prevented Coriolanus from becoming a universal favorite, the play's political messages have provided a lasting source of debate. The play has been adopted by the political Left and Right with equal enthusiasm at various points in history and has been played both as a right-wing and pro-leftist piece, depending upon the director's inclinations. Thus, the work's subtle ambiguities of statement continue to fuel discussion.