Probably written in 1607 or 1608, Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's mature tragedies, composed at a time when the playwright was at the apex of his creative power. Traditional and at least some modern literary critics have ranked Coriolanus a notch below the four great tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello) that Shakespeare wrote before he came to his story of the prideful Roman general. Nevertheless T. S. Eliot considered Coriolanus to be Shakespeare's finest achievement in tragedy. This mixed appraisal of the play is due chiefly to the character of Coriolanus himself, who is widely acknowledged to be the least sympathetic protagonist among Shakespeare's tragic figures. Coriolanus was, in fact, a military and political leader of ancient Rome, Shakespeare relying upon an account of his career presented by the historian Plutarch in his Lives.
Not only is Coriolanus a Roman history play in addition to being a tragedy, it is a decidedly political work that embodies a debate or treatise concerning the relative merits of patrician autocracy versus plebian democracy. One of the play's central figurative motifs is the analogy of the body politic spelled out by the patrician (rich and conservative) senator Menenius in the opening scene's famous belly speech. It pivots on the notion of the state (here the city-state) being an organic body in which different classes or vocations of citizens are parts or members, the aristocrats being the "belly" and the lower-class plebians being the "toe." It is the arm of the Roman state, the fierce, noble, and proud military leader Coriolanus with which the play is centrally concerned.
On one level, Coriolanus more closely approximates the tragic heroes of an ancient Greek drama than that of any of Shakespeare's other characters. He is a Great Man who is brought low by his flaw of excessive pride or hubris. But Shakespeare adds a deeper flaw to his central character, for the pride of Coriolanus is accompanied by a dependency upon his mother, Volumnia. As she reminds him in two pivotal scenes (Act III, scene iii and Act V, scene iii), she is her son's creator. In the end, Coriolanus cannot simply sever himself from the body politic of his motherland, for his identity depends upon Volumnia's esteem.