Shakespeare’s primary source for Coriolanus was Plutarch’s Lives, which was translated by Thomas North in 1579 and was popular enough to reach its third printing in 1603. This enormous work by the Greek philosopher and biographer was the principal source for several of Shakespeare’s plays, including Antony and Cleopatra, Timon of Athens, and Julius Caesar. Unlike some of the other history plays, Shakespeare followed his source very closely while developing Coriolanus, including over 550 lines of North’s prose interspersed throughout the play. Shakespeare relied on North particularly for Coriolanus’ confrontation with the mob in Act III, Scene I and the speech Coriolanus gives at Aufidius’ house in Act IV, Scene V. One can see the striking similarities in the following brief passage from North’s Lives which corresponds to Coriolanus’ aforementioned speech in the play:
I am Caius Martius, who hath done to thyself particularly, and to all the Volsces generally, great hurt and mischief, which I cannot deny for my surname of Coriolanus that I bear. For I never had other bebefit nor recompense of all the true and painful service I have done, and the extreme dangers I have been in, but this only surname: a good memory and witness of the malice and displeasure thou shouldst bear me. Indeed the name only remaineth with me: for the rest envy and cruelty of the people of Rome have taken from me, by the sufferance of the dastardly nobility and magistrates, who have forsaken me, and let me be banished by the people.
Plutarch’s account of the Roman warrior remains intact but for a minor few inventions by Shakespeare, such as the psychological turmoil of the hero, and the powerful role of his mother, Volumnia. Shakespeare expands on the character Virgilia, who is mentioned only once in passing in Plutarch’s work, and on the character Menenius Agrippa, who, in the play, is given greater depth and an important role as the close friend and advisor of Coriolanus.