22. Volumnia’s Speech to Save Rome (Full Version)

In the post that introduces “Week Four: The Roman Adaptations,” we included a depiction of the opening of Volumnia’s speech to save Rome, but as shown above (and in the table below) the borrowed exchange is actually far more extensive.

In fact, as we will continue to see this week, the question of whether Shakespeare would get full authorial credit for the close (and often verbatim) adaptation of a work by North was answered centuries ago. No one disputes that this is precisely what occurred with Shakespeare’s three Roman tragedies: Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra. Of course, according the traditional view, Shakespeare was borrowing directly from North’s Plutarch’s Lives–while, in the view espoused here, Shakespeare was actually adapting North’s plays on the subject (and it was North who was reusing his own passages). But for the argument that I will make in the posts this week, that distinction is irrelevant. A larger point remains: everyone agrees that with each Roman play, the entire plot, storyline, all of the characters, and all of the scenes have been adopted wholesale from North. And they are in North’s language too. Indeed, the playwright has lifted dozens of passages nearly verbatim from North’s pages and then put them in the mouths of North’s characters.

These plays are not merely “based on” a story of North’s –as Othello was based on a brief tale in Cinthio’s Gli Hecatommithi or Hamlet on the outline of a short-story in Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques. No, the Roman plays are scene-by-scene, and at times, speech-by-speech reproductions.

For a modern analogy, consider the screenplays for film adaptations of The Lord of The Rings, No Country for Old Men, Harry Potter, The Silence of the Lambs, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. These actually do not follow their literary sources as closely as Shakespeare’s Roman plays follow North’s Plutarch. So shouldn’t we really think of Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus in precisely the same way as those screenplays? As adaptations? We don’t refer to No Country For Old Men as having been “written by” the Coen Brothers. Rather, it was written by Cormac McCarthy and adapted by the Coen Brothers. We do not say Peter Jackson, et al., “wrote” The Lord of the Rings, but agree that J.R.R. Tolkein originally wrote it and Jackson helped adapt the screenplay. Likewise, when writer Ted Tally won an Oscar for “The Silence of the Lambs,” it was in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay. Thomas Harris is the one who originally wrote it. Shouldn’t the same hold true for Shakespeare’s Roman plays, which are the closest adaptations of them all?

Again, the fact that Shakespeare really adapted the Roman plays rather than wrote them should not be controversial — and we do not here argue this based on the view that Shakespeare was working from North’s plays. The latter is also true — and we even have evidence that Philip Sidney alluded to North’s original plays of Coriolanus and Antony and Cleopatra in 1581, the year Shakespeare turned 17. But we may ignore that for the moment, for just the demonstrable fidelity with which the playwright has followed North’s Plutarch’s Lives calls for the Roman plays to be classified as adaptations — remarkably faithful adaptations.

Finally, it is, of course, compelling that Antony and Cleopatra, widely considered one of Shakespeare’s greater plays, overflows with passages first written by North. This shocked the first scholars who carefully studied it. And this will be explored in more detail in the posts that follow:

George Wyndham, Introduction to “Plutarch’s Lives.”
North’s Plutarch‘s LivesCoriolanus
Volumnia … spake in this sort…
If we … [were] not to speak, the state of our poor bodies, and … our raiment would easily bewray to thee what life we have led at home, since thy exile … (T)hink now with thyself how much more unfortunately than all the women living we are come hither …  
If I cannot persuade thee
rather to do good unto both parties
than to overthrow and destroy the onetrust unto it—thou shalt no sooner march forward to assault thy country, but thy foot shall tread upon thy mothers womb that brought thee first into this world


Though the end of war be uncertain, yet this…certain:
that if it be thy chanceto conquer, this benefit
shalt thou reap: to be chronicled the plague
and destroyer of thy country…




why dost thou not answer me?
dost thou take it honorable for a nobleman,
to remember wrongs?
No man living is
more bound to show himself thankful …
thou hast not hitherto
showed thy poor mother any courtesy

[Coriolanus:] O mother,
what have you done to me? O mother, …
you have won a happy victory for your country,
but mortal and unhappy for your son (257-8)
Volumnia:
Should we be silent and not speak, our raiment
And state of bodies would bewray what life
We have led since thy exile. Think with thyself
How more unfortunate than all living women
Are we come hither …    
If I cannot persuade thee
Rather to show a noble grace to both parts
Than seek the end of one, thou shalt no sooner
March to assault thy country than to tread—
Trust to ’t, thou shalt not—on thy mother’s womb
That brought thee to this world

The end of war’s uncertain, but this certain:
That if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name,
Whose repetition will be dogged with curses;
Whose chronicle thus writ: “The man was noble,
but with his last attempt he wiped it out,
Destroyed his country

Why dost not speak? …
Think’st thou it honorable for a nobleman
Still to remember wrongs? …
There’s no man in the world
More bound to ’s mother …
Thou hast never in thy life
Showed thy dear mother any courtesy  


Coriolanus: O mother, mother!
What have you done? … /O, my mother, mother! O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But for your son / most mortal to him. (5.3.94-189)

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