Ben Jonson preferred stately, measured cadences. Between 1601 and 1607, Shakespeare’s verbal choices take on a restless, even frenetic quality. He knows how to unearth them and seems driven to mine deeper linguistic veins. By the time he wrote Coriolanus, around 1607, he had written over 30 plays. He pulls back some, trims his style — almost, but not quite, to a Jonsonian degree — and makes his source carry much of the load.
Caroline Spurgeon, one of his most insightful commentators, says that when Shakespeare wrote with his “imagination at white heat,” his dominating images often sprang uncoaxed from his unconscious. A subject triggered surprises, especially when he was riffing. Like well-trained Stratford grammar-schoolers, he begins a speech with a topic sentence; then he ad libs for several lines, sometimes with excessive verbiage — Jonson did have a point — but often with brilliance.
Although penned at less than “white hot” speed, Coriolanus has a touch that must have come from deep within. After the victory that gave him his name, Coriolanus asks a favor of the Consul Cominius. A wealthy old Volscian friend has been taken prisoner. North: “It would do me great pleasure if I could save him from this one danger, to keep him from being a slave.” When his comrades hear this sentiment — one of the few he displays — they praise Coriolanus all the more, and the man goes free.
Shakespeare makes two changes. The wealthy friend becomes a poor man. When Cominius assents to the request, he asks the man’s name, Coriolanus stops, responds: “By Jupiter! forgot!/I am weary; yea, my memory is tired./Have you no wine here?” And they stroll off-stage.
How he performed this alchemy, how he stored and tapped into his inner lexicon — and kept his inner editor muzzled — are what made him Shakespeare.