Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus is a tale about political manipulation and revenge. It is based on the life of Roman general Gaius Marcius Coriolanus, who is thought to have lived in circa 5 BC. Long accepted as a historical figure and described as such by Livy and Plutarch, more recent scholars have suggested that Coriolanus might have (partly) been a legend.
Set against the backdrop of Roman and Volscian wars, Coriolanus, a feared Roman general, rose to fame while protecting Rome from its enemies. His ambitious mother Volumnia drove him to seek a position as consul and with his reputation he effortlessly won the support of the Roman Senate. He, however, still needed to win votes from the plebeians. Two tribunes, who considered Coriolanus an enemy, overturned their initial positive reaction. This infuriated Coriolanus and he openly spoke out against the concept of popular rule, as a result he was condemned a traitor and exiled from Rome. He then sought out his sworn enemy, the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius, and together they vowed to destroy Rome. After futile attempts to convince Coriolanus to abandon his vengeful plan, his mother, wife Virgilia, son Martius, and friend Valeria were sent to reason with him.
The present lot depicts the moment where Volumnia emotionally appeals to Coriolanus, who is clearly affected by her speech. Aufidius in the foreground stares in disbelief and Volcian soldiers behind him look away in disgust. Volumnia’s words convince Coriolanus and he relents. He returns to the Volscian capital with the army, where Aufidius’ men assassinate him for his betrayal.
The popular actor John Kemble (1757-1823) played Coriolanus, one of his most famous roles. Hamilton painted Kemble as Richard Shakespeare’s Richard III, c.1788, in the Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Other Shakespearean subjects painted by Hamilton are The Revelation of Olivia’s Betrothal from ‘Twelfth Night’, in the Yale Centre for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection, and Prospero and Ariel from ‘The Tempest’ in the Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin.