The Tragedy of Coriolanus (1608/09) is Shakespeare’s last political play with a strong background in the contemporary political and economic issues of Shakespeare’s time. With the reign of the new king, James I, the once stable political status quo was questioned by all classes, which sought to assert themselves against each other. Hard winters and poor harvests resulted in a famine, which culminated in the Midland Uprising of the peasants in 1607/08. While it is easy to draw a parallel to our reality, especially in the terms of political change and the current recession, I interpret the play to be negotiating issues that are always ongoing.
The political aspect is discussed first and foremost as the contest between the individual and the society. Shakespeare’s text explicates that the personal and the social are always intertwined: they are linked in a complex fashion, causing each other and being effected by each other. Thus, we are faced with a dialectic, visible in both word and gesture, that speak both to the responsibility of the individual toward society as well as the power society has on the individual.
The economical context is not only installed by the grand opening scene of the uprising citizens, who fight for their survival, but also through the language of the text itself. Shakespeare favors short lines and blunt retorts, especially in the case of Coriolanus himself. Action itself is seen as an economy to attain a certain objective and is thus in contest to rhetoric and public debate. In this way, the play confronts us with the process of decision-making and its economy: what must we invest in order to come out with profits? The dialectic between the word and the body is of course nothing less than the dialectic of theater per se, which has to make something out of something.
Both dimensions, the political as well as the economic, find their resonance in the image of the belly: as part of the “body politic” and the recipient of food. The belly of the text, identified by one character as the “Roman state,” can also be interpreted as the “theater machine,” which needs to be fed with words and actions and will in time disclose its members as well as itself.