7. Coriolanus’s Belly-Fable Conflates 3 Fables, All Written by North

In an earlier example, we noted that the playwright of Julius Caesar was able to recall passages from North’s Dial while copying passages from North’s Plutarch. In this example, he intertwines stories from three of North’s translations.

As is well known, in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Menenius’s fable, in which “all the body’s members / Rebelled against the belly” (1.1.94-95), derives from the chapter on the titular Roman warrior in North’s Plutarch’s Lives in which Menenius tells a fable, “That on a time all the members of man’s body did rebel against the belly.” This is the same chapter that also provided the plot, characters, and many of the speeches for the Roman tragedy. But in 1928, Shakespeare-editor Horace Howard Furness Jr. became the first to notice that North also wrote about this fable in his Moral Philosophy of Doni –and that, remarkably, its retelling in the play echoes this latter work too:

North’s DoniShakespeare’s Coriolanus
that noble Roman that sought and laboured to bring the people and commonalty to love their magistrates and superiors told them a pretty tale… how the hands were angry with the body and thus at variance would not for malice give meat to the mouth: as those that thought themselves inferior to no other member… refraining to do their office in giving meat to the belly… 22r All: he’s a very dog to the commonalty
1st Citizen: Soft! who comes here?
2nd Citizen. Worthy Menenius Agrippa; one that hath always loved the people
Agrippa: I shall tell you A pretty tale
There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it …
… never bearing/ Like labour with the rest…
 through the cranks and offices of man
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins –1.26, 45-6, 84-5, 91-2, 95-6, 132-3
That noble Roman…told them a pretty taleI shall tell you/ A pretty tale
bring the people and commonalty to lovethe commonalty … hath always loved the people
the body, the belly, member, laboured, inferior, officethe body, the belly, members, labour, inferior, offices

Furness, was particularly struck by the shared description of the fable as a pretty tale, observing that the repetition of this phrase in this same context “would seem to indicate at least a recollection of this translation by North.”[i] EEBO confirms the validity of Furness’s claim; the parallel is unique.[ii] In other words, Furness discovered the remarkable fact that the playwright even borrowed from North while borrowing from North.

Yet, perhaps even more astoundingly, in his Dial, North described another related metaphor comparing the members of the body to different parts of the commonwealth – with the head as the prince, the heart as counsellor, the hands and arms as soldiers, etc., referring also to “the heart, which with the brain, is the seat of the soul. And in the telling of the fable, the playwright reproduces this description too. As shown below, the playwright is borrowing from both North’s Plutarch (yellow, tan, orange) and North’s Dial (green.)

Below is a table of correspondences exclusively taken from North’s Dial — which is shaded in green above:

North’s DialShakespeare’s Coriolanus
the head which is above all is the Prince, the eyes whereby we seeThe kingly-crowned head,
 the vigilant eye
the hands and arms are the knights, which resist the enemies, the feet which sustaineth the membersthe arm our soldier,
Our steed the leg
the hearts …are the privy counsellorsThe counsellor heart …
 the heart, which with the brain, is the seat of the soulthe heart, to the seat o’ the brain
body, members, tonguebody, members, tongue
Isolated Correspondences Just Involving Noth’s Dial

Clearly, the playwright has North’s Plutarch open in front of him and is copying the story of Menenius’s fable of the belly, often verbatim. But just as clearly, the playwright was able to recall two other versions of the fable from two other works of North, and he echoed those as well.


[i] The Tragedie of Coriolanus, ed. Horace Howard Furness, A New Variorum Edition of Shakespeare (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1928), 20:33n92.

[ii] EEBO-ProQuest confirms that “pretty tale” appears within 100 words of body and belly only in North and Shakespeare. Specifically, a search for pretty PRE/0 tale NEAR/100 body NEAR/100 belly results in three works: North’s Doni, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, and Nahum Tate’s The Ingratitude of a Commonwealth, a 1682 adaptation of Coriolanus

Leave a Reply