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Barnish, M. (2014). Portrayals of plebeian characters in William Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Bertolt Brecht's Coriolan and G?nter Grass' The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising. PHILICA.COM Article number 415.

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Portrayals of plebeian characters in William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Bertolt Brecht’s Coriolan and G?nter Grass’ The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising

Maxwell Scott Barnishunconfirmed user (University of Aberdeen)

Published in humani.philica.com

This article compares the portrayal of plebeian characters in William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Bertolt Brecht’s Coriolan and G?nter Grass’ The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising. Shakespeare’s version of the Coriolanus story offers the most balanced portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of the plebeian characters. Grass’ meta-theatrical version of the story generally depicts the plebeian characters as fractious, disharmonious and disorganised, yet committed to a revolutionary cause and capable of astute insight into the motives of the Brecht character. Brecht’s version provides the most favourable portrayal of the plebeians.

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The Coriolanus story has appealed to writers and audiences of differing political persuasions from the seventeenth-century and the Renaissance to the present day.[1] The canonical English version Coriolanus by William Shakespeare[2] is believed to have been written between 1606 and 1609[3] and first performed after December 1609 after the cessation of plague restrictions on English theatres.[4] Coriolanus has been called Shakespeare’s only great political play[5] and both its content and reception have been argued to be influenced by the 1607 Midland Insurrection,[6] which was an agrarian uprising aimed at restoring land seized for enclosure for sheep-grazing to the masses.[7] The relevance of this insurrection for Shakespeare’s portrayal of plebeians and patricians in Coriolanus should be viewed in the context of a social legacy of suppressed uprisings[8] and a literary tradition of works about biblical, Roman and English uprisings.[9] Coriolanus was written for an audience ‘familiar with the notion of a balanced republic but not itself republican, nor experiencing republicanism’.[10]As was customary in the Jacobean period, Shakespeare chose a Roman subject matter to engage in contemporary social debate.[11]

Developing this notion of balance further, it could be argued that Shakespeare’s play had to appeal to both noble and common audiences. Shakespeare’s friend Richard Quiney had been among the opponents of enclosure in Warwickshire in 1601 and, subsequent to this play, in 1614 there was an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to seize some of Shakespeare’s land for enclosure.[12] Therefore, it is likely that Shakespeare would have personally held views supporting the revolting peasants and by extension the Roman plebeians in Coriolanus. However, Coriolanus was first performed at the Blackfriars Theatre[13] and Shakespeare may have been conscious of the need not to alienate the more noble sections of the audience for this theatre, which was considered the premier theatre in London and commanded ticket prices up to five times higher than the Globe Theatre.[14]

Critics disagree with regard to whether they consider Shakespeare to offer a favourable portrayal of the Roman plebeians. In addition to differences in theoretical persuasion, this situation may be partially underpinned by the existence of aspects of Coriolanus that appear to portray the plebeians as a disorganised rabble, whereas, in other sections, Coriolanus appears to be portrayed as the villain, with the plebeians portrayed in a more positive light.

As the play opens, we see the plebeians described as ‘company of mutinous CITIZENS with staves, clubs, and other weapons’,[15] thereby introducing a physical threat that was not present in North’s Plutarch. The plebeians are introduced by number not by name and their trades are not described,[16] which appears to portray the plebeians as an undifferentiated mob.[17] Moreover, during the battle scenes of Act 1, the plebeians do not show spontaneous and intrinsic loyalty to the Roman cause, indulging in looting and only acting courageously when following the example of Coriolanus. For example, Coriolanus exclaims ‘See here these movers that do prize their hours/ At a cracked drachma! Cushions, leaden spoons, / Irons of a droit, doublets that hangmen would/ Bury with those that wore them, these base slaves, /Ere yet the fight be done, pack up. Down with them!’.[18] Coriolanus’ negative view of the plebeians is clearly exemplified in Act 1 Scene 6 when he says, employing the device of metaphor, ‘The common file- a plague! Tribunes for them!- The mouse ne’er shunned the cat as they did bulge/ From rascals worse than they’.[19] Indeed, critics including E.C. Pettet[20] and Clifford Huffman[21] conclude that Shakespeare’s Coriolanus portrays the Roman plebeians in a fundamentally negative light. Gordon Zeefeld describes Coriolanus as ‘the spectacular failure of representative government, in which, at the play’s conclusion, popular representation has ceased to exist, and commonwealth as an ideal is as far away as ever’.[22]

However, as the play begins, we see the plebeians referred to as ‘citizens’,[23] emphasising ‘the type of power and civic jurisdiction enjoyed by citizens in corporate towns and cities- such as London, York and Stratford- in early modern England’.[24] Repeatedly, we see the plebeians portrayed as victims of patrician oppression. For example, Menenius recounts the belly fable to the hungry plebeians who have not been given corn in a time of famine, saying metaphorically ‘There was a time when all the body’s members/ Rebelled against the belly…I am the storehouse and the shop/ Of the whole belly’.[25] Coriolanus says ‘Bid them wash their faces/ And keep their teeth clean’,[26] which is particularly mocking in the context of their hunger and the implication that their teeth may be clean because they have not eaten. Although the plebeians in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus can be seen as disorganised and ineffective politicians,[27] they are evidently committed to the revolutionary cause, answering ‘Resolved, Resolved’[28] to the First Citizen’s rallying call ‘You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?’.[29] Indeed, Annabel Patterson argues that the absence of names foregrounds ‘the collective power, not individuals’.[30] The citizens in Coriolanus are not portrayed as comic figures or incapable of shrewd thought.  The Second Citizen temperately urges that Martius’ pride and contempt for the common people are ingrained character traits, ‘What he cannot help is his nature’, to be offset by the ‘services’ he has done for his country.[31] The plebeians demonstrate an ability to effect change, as demonstrated in the installation of the tribunes[32] and represent ‘something far more radical and a greater threat to established society’.[33]

Bertolt Brecht’s adaptation Coriolan was written between 1951 and 1953 and first staged in Frankfurt in 1962.[34] Brecht died before he could complete his envisaged new Act 1 Scene 3, which has resulted in Dorothea Tieck’s translation of Shakespeare’s corresponding series of shorter scenes to be substituted.[35]  Thereby, the English translation of Brecht’s Coriolan contains an English re-translation of a German translation of Shakespeare’s original text for these scenes.

Strikingly, Brecht’s Coriolan ends with the tribunes refusing any suggestion of mourning for or remembering the service Coriolanus had offered to Rome. For example, Brutus says ‘Let the senate proceed/ With current business’ and, in response to the Consul’s request from Coriolanus’ family for a period of mourning, curtly exclaims ‘Rejected’.[36] Brecht also employs alienation effects in order to prevent audience sympathy with Coriolanus as a noble hero.[37] This is particularly relevant in the reception context of post Second World War Germany, during which time sections of the audience may have fought in the Second World War as National Socialists and could have associated the autocratic figure of Coriolanus with Hitler.[38]

Although Brecht retains Shakespeare’s practice of numbering rather than naming the plebeians,[39] he offers differentiation of their trades,[40] with a presentation of the trades of different plebeians followed by Coriolanus saying ‘I’m studying the trades here’.[41] It has been argued that Brecht offers a more motivated, reasoned and organised portrayal of the plebeians than Shakespeare. For example, Margot Heinemann says ‘The main changes, … are, first, that the plebeians are more consistent and organised…The tribunes, in Shakespeare shabby politicians who envy Marcius and manipulate the people, become their spokesmen and at times genuine leaders’.[42] In Act Two Scene 2 for example, Sicinius says ‘We are here/ Amicably disposed, not disinclined/ To honor and support the object of / This session’.[43] However, the tribunes still lack political acumen, for example riling Coriolanus by accusing him of ‘treason’[44] just when he appeared to be engaging in civil politics. Although Brecht claimed that ‘I don’t let my feelings intrude in my dramatic work…I aim at an extremely classical, cold highly intellectual style of performance’,[45] it would appear that his portrayal of the plebeians in Coriolan is generally favourable.

Günter Grass’s metatheatrical play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising is a riposte to Brecht’s Coriolan and features ‘the Boss’, the Brecht character, rehearsing Coriolan while the uprising of 17 June 1953 is happening outside on the streets of East Berlin.[46] A long-term supporter of the Social Democratic Party in the Germanic Democratic Republic and a critic of left-wing radicalism,[47]Günter Grass ‘intertwined Shakespeare’s play with his own critique of the chicken-livered aestheticism he discerned in Brecht and other left-wing intellectuals’.[48] Whereas in private Brecht supported the workers’ uprising, he was not prepared to do so in public.[49] Grass critiques this gulf between thought and actions and portrays Brecht as focusing on rehearsals and seeing the workers’ delegation as an unwanted distraction.[50]

Grass portrays two sets of plebeian characters: the actors and their plebeian characters in the performance of Coriolan being rehearsed and the contemporary workers taking part in the uprising.[51] There is frequent cross-over and interaction between life and stage, for example the Boss exclaims ‘Here we’re rehearsing the revolution and the plebeians are late’,[52] since their attention was on the revolution taking place outside the theatre. Whereas Brecht portrayed the plebeians as relatively organised, the historian Henry Ashby Turner Jnr says that the crowds in the East German workers uprising ‘lacked any coordinated leadership or practical goals’.[53] Correspondingly, Grass portrays the plebeian characters as fractious and disorganised.[54] The dramatic adviser Erwin calls the plebeians ‘a mob! Plebeians armed with bats and clubs. Hungry because the price of grain is rising. Resolved to kill the enemy of the people’.[55] Moreover, each trade argues for their own norms rather than presenting a united front[56] and there is friction between the Roman plebeian characters and their contemporary counterparts. For example, the Mason calls the Roman plebeians ‘just a bunch of hams’.[57]

 However, unlike in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus and Brecht’s Coriolan, the Roman plebeian characters are given names[58] rather than being numbered. Although the contemporary ‘plebeians’ are not given names, their trades are carefully differentiated.[59] This tempers the portrayal of the two sets of plebeians as a marauding revolutionary rabble. Indeed, the contemporary ‘plebeians’ show wise insight in analysing the motives of ‘the Boss’ in not actively supporting their uprising. For example, the Plasterer says ‘the government’s building him a new theatre’ [60] and the Road Worker adds ‘that’s why he won’t do anything for us’.[61]

In conclusion, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus appears to offer a more balanced portrayal of the strengths and weaknesses of the plebeian and patrician characters. Critics do not agree regarding whether the play offers a more favourable portrayal of the plebeians or the patricians. Indeed, it ends with mourning for the fallen hero Coriolanus.[62] On the other hand, Brecht’s Coriolan adapts the storyline in a relatively subtle way to portray the plebeians in more overtly favourable light. Meanwhile, Günter Grass’ play The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising can be seen as primarily a meta-theatrical critique on the refusal of Bertolt Brecht to actively and publicly support the workers’ uprising in East Berlin in June 1953. Meanwhile, it generally depicts the plebeian characters as fractious, disharmonious and disorganised, yet committed to a revolutionary cause and capable of astute insight into the motives of the Brecht character. It could justifiably be argued that the most favourable portrayal of the plebeians in these three versions of the Coriolanus story is to be found in Coriolan by the Marxist playwright Bertolt Brecht.


At the time of submission of this article, Dr Barnish is employed by the University of Aberdeen. The scholarship presented in this article was conducted outwith this context. References in this article are given using numbered endnotes following MHRA guidelines for articles in this field.


[1] William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, ed. by Lee Bliss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p.13.

[2] Shakespeare, passim.

[3] Shakespeare, p.1.

[4] Shakespeare, p.7.

[5] A.P. Rossiter, Angels with Horns: Fifteen Lectures on Shakespeare (London: Longman, 1989), p.251.

[6] Pettet, E.C., ‘Coriolanus and the Midland Insurrection of 1607’, Shakespeare Survey, 3 (1950), 34-42, passim.

[7] Shakespeare, p.19.

[8] John E. Martin, Feudalism to Capitalism: Peasant Landlord in English Agrarian Development (London: Macmillan, 1983), p.168.

[9] Brents Stirling, The Populace in Shakespeare (New York: Columbia University Press, 1949), pp.131-150.

[10] Patrick Collinson, The Monarchical Republic of Elizabeth I, in The Tudor Monarchy, ed. by John Guy (London: Arnold, 1997), pp.110-135 (p.115).

[11] Annabel Patterson, Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), p.124.

[12]Mark Eccles, Shakespeare in Warwickshire (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1961), pp.97-99.

[13] Shakespeare, p.32.

[14] Blackfriars Theatre: Shakespeare’s Winter Home < http://www.shakespeare-online.com/theatre/blackfriars.html> [Accessed 24 March 2014]

[15] Shakespeare, p.118.

[16] Shakespeare, pp.188-120.

[17] Jerald Spotswood, ‘We are Undone Already: Disarming the Multitude in Julius Caesar and Coriolanus, Texas Studies in Literature, 42 (2000), 61-78, passim.

[18] Shakespeare, p.146

[19] Shakespeare, p.150

[20] Pettet, p.38.

[21] Clifford Huffman, Coriolanus in Context (Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1972), p.22.

[22] W. Gordon Zeefeld, ‘Coriolanus and Jacobean Politics’, Modern Language Review, 57 (1962), pp.321-334 (p.333).

[23] Shakespeare, p.118.

[24] Cathy Shrank, ‘Civility and the City in Coriolanus’, Shakespeare Quarterly, 54 (2003), pp.406-423 (p.415).

[25] Shakespeare, pp.123-124.

[26] Shakespeare, p.185.

[27] Margot Heinemann, How Brecht Read Shakespeare, in Political Shakespeare- New Essays in Cultural Materialism, ed. by Jonathan Dollimore and Alan Sinfield (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1985), pp.201-231 (p.222).

[28] Shakespeare, p.118.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Patterson, p.130.

[31] Shakespeare, pp.42,120.

[32] Shakespeare, p.200.

[33] Patterson, p.135.

[34] John Willett, The Theatre of Bertolt Brecht: A Study from Eight Aspects (London: Methuen, 1959), p.63.

[35] Bertolt Brecht, Coriolanus, in Collected Plays- Volume 9, ed. and trans. by Ralph Manheim and John Willett (New York: Pantheon, 1972), pp.57-146 (p.70).

[36] Brecht, Coriolanus, p.146.

[37] Heinemann, pp.204-215.

[38] Heinemann, p.221, Shakespeare, p.87.

[39] Brecht, Coriolanus, p.59.

[40] Brecht, Coriolanus, p.97.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Heinemann, p.222.

[43] Brecht, Coriolanus, p.91.

[44] Brecht, Coriolanus, p.111.

[45] Bertolt Brecht, Brecht on Theatre- The Development of An Aesthetic, ed. and trans. by John Willett (London: Bloombury Methuen Drama, 2013), p.14.

[46] Patterson, p.121, Günter Grass, The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising, trans. by Ralph Manheim (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972), pp.113-122.

[47] Günter Grass, Aus dem Tagebuch einer Schnecke (Neuwied: Luchterhand, 1972), passim, Günter Grass, Denkzettel: Politische Reden und Aufsätze 1965-1976 (Darmstadt: Luchterhand, 1978), passim.

[48] Patterson, p.121.

[49] Patterson, pp.121-122.

[50] Grass, Plebeians, passim.

[51] Ibid.

[52] Grass, Plebeians, p.45.

[53] Henry A. Turner, Jnr, The Two Germanies since 1945 (London: Yale University Press, 1987), pp.122-123.

[54] Grass, Plebeians, passim.

[55] Grass, Plebeians, p.43.

[56] Grass, Plebeians, p.52.

[57] Grass, Plebeians, p.60.

[58] Grass, Plebeians, p.47.

[59] Grass, Plebeians, p.55.

[60] Grass, Plebeians, p.59.

[61] Ibid.

[62] Shakespeare, p.287.

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Barnish, M. (2014). Portrayals of plebeian characters in William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Bertolt Brecht’s Coriolan and G?nter Grass’ The Plebeians Rehearse the Uprising. PHILICA.COM Article number 415.

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