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.
Yet Martius, who later receives the name ‘Coriolanus’ for his victory over Aufidius and the Volscians at the battle of Coriole, does little to convince the gathered citizens that he is undeserving of the citizens’ violent anger. In his first appearance on stage, Martius dismisses their complaints as unwarranted and mocks them: “Hang ‘em! They said they were an-hungry, sighed forth proverbs / That hunger broke stone walls… that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only.” (1.1.221-227). We should not be surprised when the citizens later banish him from Rome. Shakespeare’s tragedy has left many audiences and critics wondering if Coriolanus is hero or villain. Are the citizens right to take up arms and demand food? What is the real tragedy here?
Early modern sermon culture gives insight into how Shakespeare’s original audience might have felt. The pulpit was sometimes a stage for the poor to fight corn-hoarders. The 1590s and early 1600s might have been a time of great scarcity of food, but preachers found no scarcity of scripture on the matter. Genesis, Amos, Ezekiel, Ruth, and the Gospels all provided inspiration for preachers, who like actors in the theater, hoped their lively performance-driven sermons on charity and hospitality would persuade congregants to avoid covetous behavior during famine. According to the Folger’s copy of Robert Wakeman’s The Poore-mans Preacher (1607), people took note, quite literally.
Proverbs 11:26 lent itself particularly well in the combat against food hoarders and those who profited from penury: “He that withholdeth corn, the people shall curse him: / but blessing shall be upon the head of him that selleth it” (Authorized Version, 1611). For instance, William Woodwall’s printed sermon on Ezekiel 14:12-14 aimed to explain the “causes of every dearth and famine, and especially of this dearth in England, now in 1608 and 1609.” This sermon was accompanied by two texts on Proverbs 11:26. The first begins with a lengthy alliterative title: “A proverb pronounced to all the cruel, covetous, and hard hearted Corn-masters, Cloth-masters, and all other old Pinching penny-fathers…”
In this sermon, Woodwall rewrites scripture to address the covetous rich. He even uses the story of “Dives [the name traditionally given to the wealthy man in Luke 16] that rich withdrawer of Corn and bread (for by Corn here, you may understand bread, drink, cloth, coin, or any such like thing)” who deprived poor Lazarus as a “special…warning to all with-drawers of Corn, Coin, Cloth, or comfort from their brethren in time of necessity and distress” (55). Woodwall’s second sermon on Proverbs 11:26, The Poore-mans Plea, revises Christ’s famous hospitality parable (Matthew 25:35-40). In Woodwall’s version, Christ blesses charitable disciples with these words: “when I was naked ye cloathed me, when I was hungry ye fed me…when I was sick and diseased ye visited and refreshed me with Corn, coin, cloth, and all other comforts” (68). Woodwall, like Wakeman, would clearly be on the side of the hungry citizens in Coriolanus.
The most lively contender for combatting the covetous Coriolanus is Charles Fitz-Geffrey and his vociferous sermon, The Curse of the Corne-horders (1631). A poet-turned-preacher, Fitz-Geffrey (c. 1575-1638) was educated at Oxford, published a collection of Latin epigrams and epitaphs that included an epitaph on Edmund Spenser, and published a celebratory poem on Sir Francis Drake, which Francis Meres praised in Palladis Tamia: Wits Treasury (1598)–the same publication where Meres lauds Shakespeare’s ‘sugared sonnets.’ In The Curse of the Corn-horders, Fitz-Geffrey breaks Proverbs 11:26 into three sermons: 1) those who withhold corn, 2) the curses of the people, and 3), the blessings on those who sell to the poor. While Fitz-Geffrey does briefly chastise the poor for seeking revenge via curses that draw forth God’s wrath, he spends pages upon pages condemning greedy farmers, cunning hucksters, and covetous merchants (11). Fitz-Geffrey pulls no punches in his acerbic sermon. These “avaritious hoarders or hucksters…pinch the guts of the poore, to fill and extend their own purses” (4). They are “Man-haters, opposite to the Common good,” who act “as if the world were made only for them” (7); they are “Cankars of the Common-wealth” (9) who “famish English…to feed French or Spanish” (14). Worse still, they “pinch the members of Christ, to preserve the limbs of Antichrist” (14). In short, these corn-hoarders are enemies of commoners, England, and Christ, an unforgivable trinity of sins in a period where a person’s spiritual health was thought to have direct influence on a nation’s security.
Fitz-Geffrey’s fiery rhetoric appropriately matches the flames that decorate the title-page. The frontispiece depicts a story from Fitz-Geffrey’s second sermon on the divine havoc that “the curses of the poor” can bring down upon “such covetous Corn-hoarders” (24). The frontispiece makes visible the tale of Walter Grey, Archbishop of York in the year 1234, who hoarded corn for 5 years (3 of which were years of severe famine), and would not help the hungry poor, hoping to profit from a price increase. When the Archbishop learns that mice nibble away at his corn (and profit), he asks that it be sold to local husbandman but at the price of “new Wheat” (23). Upon harvest, the husbandman behold a shocking sight: “the heads of many Snakes, and Toads, and other venomous creatures peering out at the end of the sheaves.” This being reported to the Archbishop, he
enforced…certain poor men to go up to the top with ladders. They were scarce up, when they saw a great smoke arising out of the corn, and felt withall a loathsome stink, which compelled them with all haste possible to hye them down again: moreover, they heard an unknown voice saying to them, “Let the corn alone, for the Archbishop and all that he hath, belongeth to the devil. … they were feign to build a wall about the corn, and then to set it on fire, fearing lest such an huge number of venomous creatures should empoison, at least annoy the whole Country (23-24)
Fitz-Geffry seems content to let readers make of the story what they will. He offers no commentary; instead, he runs quickly to another story. This time a greedy, malicious German bishop refuses to relieve the poor during a time of dearth. He calls the poor “Rats and Mice which devoured his Corn.” God’s punishment of this bishop is nothing short of poetic justice: “he himself was soon after devoured alive by Rats and Mice” (24).
Such tales of divine retribution against corn-hoarding resonate with Coriolanus. Remember, the proverbs that the citizens “sighed forth,” one of which is that “the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only” (1.1.221, 226-27). Coriolanus, like the German bishop above, calls the poor citizens rats: “The Volsces have much corn; take these rats thither / To gnaw their garners” (1.1.283-284). The citizens’ curses seem to work. After being banished from Rome, Coriolanus seeks refuge with Aufidius and is forced to eat at the table with his enemies, but promises the Volscians conquest of Rome. Then, at the behest of his family, Coriolanus denounces his vengeful plot and is killed by Aufidius for it. Coriolanus’s revenge fails. The citizens’ “revenge…for bread” seems to win out.