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.
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Caius Marcius, a brilliant soldier, is attempting to subdue a mob in Rome when he is summoned to lead his troops against the Volscians from Corioli. The Volscians are headed by Tullus Aufidius, also a great soldier and perennial foe of Marcius. The hatred the two leaders have for each other fires their military ambitions. Marcius’s daring as a warrior, known by all since he was sixteen, leads him to pursue the enemy inside the very gates of Corioli. Locked inside the city, he and his troops fight so valiantly that they overcome the Volscians. Twice wounded, the victorious general is garlanded and hailed as Caius Marcius Coriolanus.
On his return to Rome, Coriolanus is further proclaimed by patricians, consuls, and senators, and he is recommended for the office of consul, an appointment wholeheartedly approved by the nobles. Because the citizens, too, have to vote on his appointment, Coriolanus, accompanied by Menenius Agrippa, goes to Sicinius and Brutus, the plebeian tribunes, to seek their approval.
The people long held only contempt for Coriolanus because of his arrogance and inhumane attitude toward all commoners. Although coached and prompted by Menenius to make his appeal as a wound-scarred soldier of many wars, Coriolanus cannot bring himself to solicit the citizens’ support but instead demands it. He is successful in this with individuals he approaches at random on the streets, but Brutus and Sicinius, who represent the common people, are not willing to endorse the elevation of Coriolanus to office. They voice the opinions of many citizens when they accuse Coriolanus of insolence and of abuses such as denying the people food from the public storehouses. Urging those citizens who voted for him to rescind their votes, Brutus and Sicinius point out that his military prowess is not to be denied but that this very attribute will result in further suppression and misery for the people. Coriolanus’s ambitions, they predict, will lead to his complete domination of the government and to the destruction of their democracy.
Menenius, Cominius, and the senators repeatedly plead with Coriolanus to approach the tribunes civilly, and Volumnia admonishes him that if he wants to realize his political ambitions he must follow their advice. Appealing to his responsibility as a Roman, Volumnia points out that service to one’s country is not shown on the battlefield alone and that Coriolanus must use certain strategies and tactics for victory in peace as well as in war.
Coriolanus misconstrues his mother’s suggestions. She taught him arrogance, nurtured his desires in military matters, and boasted of his strength and of her part in developing his dominating personality. Coriolanus now infers that his mother in her older years is asking for submissiveness and compliance. Although he promises Volumnia that he will deal kindly with the people, it is impossible for him to relent, even when his wife, Virgilia, who never condoned his soldiership, lends her pleas to those of the group and appeals to his...
(The entire section is 1243 words.)
Act and Scene Summary
Act I Summary
Scene i: The play opens in a street of ancient Rome as a mob of citizens (or plebians) express their anger toward Maritus (soon dubbed "Coriolanus"), whom they hold most responsible for a shortage of food. As they ready to seize Maritus, one of his friends the patrician Senator Menenius arrives. Popular with the plebian masses, he tells the riotous commoners a story about the rebellion against the belly by the other members of the body, and this (momentarily) calms them down. Just then, the play's main character, Maritus, enters and expresses his wrath and disdain with the mob, calling these lowly citizens "scabs" and declaring that if it were up to him, he'd use his sword against the rabble. He tells his friend Menenius that the Roman Senate has granted concessions to the lower-class plebians, notably the right to elect tribunes (judges) including Brutus and Sicinius (who will eventually scheme against Coriolanus). Word then arrives that Rome's perennial enemy the neighboring Volscians have taken to the field. Maritus says that he is glad war lies ahead, for that is his natural domain. More particularly, he relishes the prospect of once again fighting with the leader of the Volsces, Aufidius, whom Maritus respects as his only equal in martial nobility. Coriolanus agrees to lead the Roman army against the Volscian invaders, but when he and the members of the Senate exit, the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius plot against him.
Scene ii: The scene now shifts to the enemy's side. At their capitol city of Corioles, the Volscian General Aufidius tells his country's senators that their army is in the field, that the Roman's will fight them, and that he too spoils for a one-on-one combat with their leader, Maritus.
Scene iii: At the house of Maritus (soon Coriolanus), we see his mother, Volumnia, and his wife, Virgilia. Volumnia chastises Coriolanus's wife for failing to rejoice in her husband's...
(The entire section is 777 words.)
Act II Summary
Scene i: Now in the city of Rome, the pro-Corolainus Senator Menenius stands alongside the anti-Corolanius tribunes Brutus and Sicinius as they await the hero's triumphant return. Menenius chides the tribunes for their past hostility toward the man who has won the day for Rome as a garlanded Coriolanus enters and goes to his waiting family. He embraces his mother and then his wife. We learn through the resentful tribunes that Coriolanus is now the hero of the common people. They take solace in the fickleness of the mob, saying that they will eventually remember past wrongs and turn upon the prideful, autocratic Coriolanus.
Scene ii: At the Capitol of Rome, Coriolanus withdraws when the general Cominius begins to recount his heroic deeds to the assembled nobles. Coriolanus is summoned back and told that the Senate will elevate him to the highest post in the Roman government, that of consul. But they also indicate that Coriolanus must appear before the common people in a humble posture as custom (and current politics) dictates. Coriolanus asked to be excused from this ritual, and the scheming tribunes see an opportunity to bring him down by exploiting his excessive pride and snobbery toward the masses.
Scene iii: At the Roman forum, some common citizens speak about Coriolanus and observe that he cannot become consul without their approval. As required by custom, Coriolanus enters in a humble robe and asks the citizens to support him. Although he has difficulty keeping his temper, with a mixture of resentment and confusion he submits to the indignity of being interviewed by the citizens. But when Coriolanus departs, Brutus and Sicinius address the crowd and scold them for their support of this proud tyrant; the citizens change their minds and will now withhold their final approval of Coriolanus as counsel.
Act III Summary
Scene i: On a street in Rome, Coriolanus is told that the Volscian Aufidius plans to make war against Rome again, and Coriolanus is again gladdened by the prospect of matching swords with his arch-rival in glory. He then learns from Brutus and Sicinius that the people have turned against him. Although his allies, including the patrician Menenius, advise Coriolanus to resolve his issues with the mob diplomatically, he is enraged and asserts that the common people should have no say in choosing Rome's consul. At this, "a rabble of Plebians" arrives and the tribunes declare Coriolanus to be a traitor. He offers to fight the lot of them but is led away by Menenius and other senators of the aristocratic faction. The...
(The entire section is 394 words.)
Act IV Summary
Scene i: In front of Rome's gates, Coriolanus exchanges farewells with his mother, wife, and child, Volumnia cursing the common people and their tribunes.
Scene ii: On a street near the same gate, Sicinius and Brutus encounter Volumnia and the other members of Coriolanus's family. The matriarch says that she wished the gods had nothing other to do than to inflict her curses upon them.
Scene iii: This scene takes place on a highway between Rome and Antium, the home city of Aufidius, as an exchange between two unnamed characters, one a Roman and the other a Volsce. The Roman tells his friend that Coriolanus has been banished, and the Volscian realizes that...
(The entire section is 380 words.)
Act V Summary
Scene i: Back in Rome, the General Cominius says that he has tried to meet with Coriolanus at his camp but that he has been refused entry. The tribunes entreat Menenius, who has been like a father to Coriolanus, to see if he can persuade his son to spare Rome from the torch. Menenius is reluctant to undertake the mission; Cominius predicts that he too will be turned away; the tribunes say that only Coriolanus's family, notably his mother, may have the power to persuade him to make peace with Rome.
Scene ii: Menenius arrives at the camp of Coriolanus and is turned away by the guards. He does speak with Coriolanus (accompanied by Aufidius), but the banished general refuses to talk at...
(The entire section is 443 words.)