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Welcome to Episode #103 of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that takes you behind the curtain and into the life of William Shakespeare.

As William Shakespeare sat down to write Coriolanus, the Corn Famine of 1608 was in full swing. While the King, James I, took actions to combat the shortage of corn in England, theater seems to have played a role in communicating the citizens unrest and unhappiness over the famine. Not only was Shakespeare writing Coriolanus, where Roman citizens face a similar fate to the Londoners viewing the story at The Globe, but Church pastors all over England were writing, and in some cases performing, dramatic sermons imploring the people to share their corn, and admonishing those who hoarded grain as being evil, or possibly risking their souls. From the pulpits to the stage, theatrical presentations took aim at the poor conditions, loudly protesting the leadership of King James, and in many cases coming dangerously close to treason.

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus is famous today for being a great Roman play. The battles, and as well as the pride, bravery, yet ultimate downfall of the glorious warrior Coriolanus, captivate audiences throughout the centuries. Yet, as our guest this week is here to share, the play was likely not purely a Roman tale for William Shakespeare, as it appears he wrote it intentionally as a direct response to an event which occured in real life.

Lauren Shook is here this week to help us explore this part of Shakespeare’s history, and explain how the corn famine started, what James did specifically to try and combat it, how the Bible played a role in combating the famine, and why Shakespeare wasn’t tried for treason for writing such a direct political commentary in 1608.

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Lauren Shook is Assistant Professor of English at Texas Lutheran University, where she researches and teaches Shakespeare, women’s writing, critical race studies, and community-engaged pedagogy. Her publications include articles on seventeenth-century poet Lucy Hutchinson and on Toni Morrison’s A Mercy , as it relates to seventeenth-century ideas of Christianity, whiteness, and blackness. She spent Fall 2019 at the Folger Shakespeare Library as a Before-Farm-to-Table short-term fellow. There she completed a book chapter on Coriolanus and corn hoarding for her book project, A Place at Shakespeare’s Table.

In this episode, I’ll be asking Lauren Shook about :

  • Coriolanus has a continued theme throughout the play of citizens revolting and uprising over the conditions and lack of corn specifically. Does this parallel with political events happening in London at the time? Were citizens rising up and protesting the lack of corn?
  • James I was well into his 5th year as King of England when he responded to this crisis. Lauren, what was James’ response to the corn famine? 

  • Lauren, was the Bible being used to combat the famine?

  • … and more!

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Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price.
Is’t a verdict?
First Citizen

Coriolanus (I.1)

“Coriolan supplié par sa famille” by Niccolò Possino French painter, draughtsman and decorator (1594-1665). This painting was done between 1652 and 1653. “An illustration depicts a scene from Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, a play that opens with citizens armed with “staves, clubs, and other weapons” in protest against the city fathers they accuse of hoarding grain. In Shakespeare’s day, food shortages tore through England — and the bard himself was fined for grain hoarding.”
Source for quote | Source for Image

Coriolanus Depicting the Corn Famine

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus was first performed between 1608-1609. William Shakespeare based his famous tale on Plutarch’s Coriolanus. In Plutarch’s version, the citizens are also rioting at the start of the play, but for Plutarch, the upset is over over high interest rates.

Instead of high interest rates, Shakepseare opens his play with a citizen’s riot over the price of corn, where starving citizens are threatening to murder the city leaders who their mismanagement of resources and lack of food in the city. The complete re-write Shakespeare gives to the opening of the play is a direct commentary on the events happening for Shakespeare and the city of London in 1608. When the original audiences of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus saw the opening scene, they very likely would have cried out in unison with the citizens since they themsleves were experiencing the same injustices, the same pangs of hunger, and the entire scene playing out on stage would have been very uniquely personal. 

As a result, in hindsight for Shakespeare scholars today, this scene offers a glimpse into that moment of time, like a time capsule, for what it was like in London as Shakespeare was penning his play.

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They said they were an-hungry; sigh’d forth proverbs,
That hunger broke stone walls, that dogs must eat,
That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not Corn for the rich men only
Coriolanus

Coriolanus (I.1)

Sir Hugh Plat (1552–1608),was an English writer on agriculture and inventor, known from his works The Jewell House of Art and Nature (1594) and his major work on gardening Floraes Paradise (1608). Unknown author – 16th century painting. Source

Sir Hugh Platt’s Cookbook

In England, corn was the cheap food. Similar to today, the plant was easy to grow and widely used. When there came a shortage of the food, it created a huge and universal problem for all walks of life in England. As evidence for how embedded into food culture of England corn really was at this time, Lauren points to the work of Sir Hugh Plat. Inside his cookbook from the 1590s, there are recipes itemizing instructions for how to make inexpensive meals using corn. Famine was a recurring problem throughout the 1590s, and when pickings were meager, the populous turned to corn as the food they could use to survive the lean times. As a result, when the corn ran out in 1608, it created a massive and substantial problem as thousands of families went hungry, irrespective of their status or class in society. All of the cheap things like corn and wheat were now gone, and the riots, anger, and violence motivated by hunger were very real.  

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…for once we stood up about the corn, he
himself stuck not to call us the many-headed multitude.

First Citizen

Coriolanus (II.3)

This woodcut, based on the 1515 woodcut by Dürer, is an illustration from the book The history of four-footed beasts and serpents by Edward Topsell, printed by E. Cotes for G. Sawbridge, T. Williams and T. Johnson in London in 1658. Source

 

Edward Topsell and Sermons on Famine

While the citizens were revolting against the situation with corn in 1608, moralists and pastors alike were writing and publishing sermons trying to help the situation by calling upon people’s conscience and religion to drive one another to help their fellow man.

One example of this kind of moralizing is from the work of a man named Edward Topsell. While Topsell is most well known to history for his elaborate records of animals (like the woodcut shown above which you can learn more about in the episode with James Knapp on Elizabethan Woodcuts here) he was also a writer of moral tales. Topsell took to his pen to combat the corn famine in 1608 by writing what stands today as one of the most elaborate sermons every recorded.

He wrote two sermons specifically on famine, one of which offered the “reward of religion” in 200 full pages focused on the biblical book of Ruth. The story of Ruth is, in part, about a woman who is starving and she goes to a nearby field of a man who has great wealth, where she is able to glean from the pieces of grain that dropped on the ground during the harvest season and thereby able to subsist where she might otherwise have starved to death. Topsell’s story uses verses from Ruth to encourage those with corn to share it, and not to hoard it. Throughout 1596-1597 there were at least three more editions of his sermons printed,  two of which were circulating when Shakespeaere’s Coriolanus was written. 

Whoever gave that counsel, to give forth
The corn o’ the storehouse gratis…

Coriolanus

Coriolanus (III.1)

King James I of England. by John de Critz c. 1605

“In this case the portrait shows James I, son of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, and Lord Darnley, born in 1566 and who reached the throne of Edinburgh the following year. In 1603, after the death of Elizabeth I, he was proclaimed King of England, and this work represents him as such. Unlike her predecessor, she tried to reconcile with Spain, ending the confrontations between the two powers. The left hand on the hilt of the sword highlights his status as the kingdom’s military head, clashing with the peaceful nature of his policy. That character seems to be reflected with the lightness with which he holds the weapon against the firmness with which it is generally held by other more warlike monarchs or captains and generals.

The king appears full-length in a room richly decorated with a cushioned chair on which his jeweled hat rests. The Royal Collection Trust has identified it as “The Mirror of Great Britain”, one of the most important in this king’s collection, designed to commemorate the union of the two kingdoms under his rule. Their clothing follows the European fashion of the moment, with a silver doublet with sleeves decorated with rhinestones and a leather, a kind of vest that comes from military clothing, sewn with pearls. Over the shoulders he wears a bohemian, a hooded cape with the turned front edges lined with rich fabric. Beneath the breeches, the white stockings and leggings highlight the garter on his leg, which reads part of the phrase ´´hon i soit qui mal y pense´´ (damn who thinks wrong). This together with the Saint George medal hanging from his chest are ceremonial symbols of the Order of the Garter, of great relevance to the English monarchy, as they had a meaning of great political force.

The excess of detail in the fabrics is in keeping with the taste for the precise representation of the surfaces typical of Flemish painting. The affiliation with that school is evident, despite the doubts that exist about its authorship.”

Source (and more information about the painting, the above quote is translated from Spanish).

James I responds to the famine

James I had been King of England for 5 years by the time he had to face the corn famine of 1608. 

Despite writing and issusing numerous proclamations about the famine, there is very little to suggest James’ efforts were anywhere near effective at helping the situation in any practical way. Lauren explains that “[James] put out lots of proclamations. He didn’t really do anything. [From] 1605-1620s he is putting out declarations on corn, and specifically one of them is a punishment of those who are hoarding grain, specifically those who are hoarding malt to make beer.”

Several elements of Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus, stand out and scream at us as audience members once we take into account the current event of a famine that was happening in London literally as the play was being staged. Lauren suggests that as much as it stands out to us as students of the play, the reaction was equally as visceral for the early 17th century audience as well, who may very well have been moved to participate in the revolt of the opening scene, rising up from the pit of The Globe theater to be engulfed into the riot as participants. 

Books & Resources Lauren Shook recommends:

 

Download this Stratford Upon Avon Watercolor Print

Completed in pen, pencil, and watercolor by Cassidy Cash, this Stratford Upon Avon print features 8 real life properties located in Stratford Upon Avon, England, from the life of William Shakespeare in one beautiful print. Celebrate your love of Shakespeare by downloading your free copy when you sign up for our email newsletter. The newsletter goes out on Mondays with episode notifications, and as a subscriber you get artwork like this one every month, completely free.

Subscribe now and grab your copy!

This illustration is part of our exclusive members library available when you subscribe to That Shakespeare Life. Subscription helps support the podcast and gives you access to the entire library PLUS you get our exclusive Experience Shakespeare digital history activity kits delivered once a month. Learn more and sign up here.


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