Coriolanus (Vol. 75)



Coriolanus, the last of Shakespeare's tragedies, follows the career of Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman warrior-hero. After a hard-won military victory, Coriolanus is nominated for the consulate, the highest office in Rome, but his excessive pride and disdain for the commoners cause him to be rejected by the citizens, and he is eventually exiled. After being driven from his homeland, Coriolanus joins the city's enemies—the Volscians—and leads the fight against Rome. His mother persuades him to spare Rome, however, and he is murdered by the Volscian leader Aufidius. The play's setting—Shakespeare's ancient Rome—is socially and politically tumultuous, mirroring the social, economic, and political unrest in England during the early 1600s. Modern critics frequently center their studies on either Coriolanus, who is often considered an unsympathetic hero, or the play's political topicality.

In his study of recent critical commentary on Coriolanus, W. Hutchings (see Further Reading) finds that scholars typically purport that the play is either mainly concerned with politics or with the character of Coriolanus. Hutchings maintains that character and politics are complementary rather than conflicting elements in the play's structure, and finds that these topics are linked through the play's language. Eugene M. Waith (1962) concentrates on the character of Coriolanus, contending that his most salient characteristics are his superhuman presence and his opposition to Rome. Waith points out that Coriolanus is proud and prone to anger but is consistently motivated by his sense of personal honor. According to Waith, Coriolanus's decision to spare Rome, which ultimately leads to his demise, is his most human moment. In contrast to Waith's respectful and generally positive assessment of Coriolanus's character, Jane Carducci (1987) focuses on his psychological flaws. Carducci explains that Shakespeare used various conventions, rhetoric, and staging devices to underscore Coriolanus's isolation from society. In studying his key relationships with family and peers, Carducci claims that Coriolanus is not only psychologically damaged by his mother, but that he distances himself from his son and fails to experience the camaraderie typically afforded by a male society.

Many critics have noted the parallels between the social, economic, and political unrest of Shakespeare's Coriolanus and that of England during the early 1600s. Marc Geisler (1997) maintains that Coriolanus's disdain for the plebeians and their needs mirrors the conflicts leading up to the English Civil War of 1642, and that the breakdown of political communication in Shakespeare's play is similar to events in England prior to and during the Civil War. In particular, Geisler identifies the way in which the common people of Shakespeare's England effectively used petitioning to threaten the monarchy, just as the plebeians' petitioning of the Roman leadership in Coriolanus endangered the power of the elite. Like Geisler, Alex Garganigo (2002) fleshes out the relationship between the political world of the play and Jacobean England. Garganigo demonstrates the ways in which Shakespeare used the physical body and the notion of the body politic in Coriolanus to indirectly criticize both James I's plan to unite England and Scotland, and the royal patronage system.

Although considered one of Shakespeare's less popular plays, there has been a continued interest in theatrical stagings of Coriolanus in the twentieth century. Jonathan Kent's 2000 production of the play featured stage and film star Ralph Fiennes in the title role. Robert Shore (2000) notes that Kent's production at London's Almeida Theater focused heavily on the personal over the political. Rather than exploring the conflict between the plebeians and patricians, Shore contends, Kent explored—almost exclusively—the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother. Shore states that Fiennes's portrayal of Coriolanus offered a psychological portrait in step with the approach of the production as a whole. Ben Brantley (2000) reviews the same production staged in New York. Brantley finds that the production was accessible and the performances of the supporting cast were excellent, but faults both the production and Fiennes with failing to dig below the surface and explore the play's deeper issues. John Lahr (2000) also evaluates the New York staging of Kent's production, and contends that Fiennes did not play his role with any sense of humor or heroism. Lahr also faults Kent's direction for lacking a point of view, and finds that the director failed to risk a psychological interpretation of the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother. In her review of the Kent production in London, Heidi Holder (2001) discusses the importance of the setting to the success of the production, describing the way the imposing set emphasized the psychological and physical violence of the play. Holder praises Fiennes's performance, finding it both subtle and emotionally complex.

Criticism: Character Studies

Eugene M. Waith (essay date 1962)

SOURCE: Waith, Eugene M. “The Herculean Hero.” In William Shakespeare's Coriolanus, edited by Harold Bloom, pp. 9-31. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1988.

[In the following essay, originally published in 1962, Waith dissects Coriolanus's character, finding him to be a praiseworthy, though flawed, hero. Waith maintains that Coriolanus's greatness may be observed in his valor, generosity, and his faithfulness to his personal honor.]

As Coriolanus marches on Rome at the head of a Volscian army, the Roman general, Cominius, describes him thus to his old enemies, the tribunes:

He is their god. He leads them like a thing
Made by some other deity than...

(The entire section is 8226 words.)

Jane Carducci (essay date 1987)

SOURCE: Carducci, Jane. “Shakespeare's Coriolanus: ‘Could I Find Out / The Woman's Part in Me.’” Literature and Psychology 33, no. 2 (1987): 11-20.

[In the following essay, Carducci asserts that Coriolanus is a psychologically unbalanced character, and that Shakespeare used various conventions, rhetoric, and staging devices to underscore Coriolanus's isolation from society.]

Shakespeare, coming of age during the Renaissance, would have studied the authors of antiquity in school and would have understood the Roman hero as first and finally a soldier. Because the ideal Renaissance gentleman was a courtier, scholar, and soldier, it is likely that...

(The entire section is 4185 words.)

Criticism: Production Reviews

Robert Shore (review date 30 June 2000)

SOURCE: Shore, Robert. “Masked Combat.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 5074 (30 June 2000): 19.

[In the following review, Shore assesses Jonathan Kent's production of Coriolanus for London's Almeida Theater. Shore notes that Kent's production focused on the personal aspects of the play rather than on the social and political elements.]

In the opening moments of the Almeida's production of Coriolanus, it is sometimes difficult to make out what the citizens gathered deep upstage are so upset about. In the hangar-like acoustic of the Gainsborough Studios, a number of early lines are lost—until, that is, Paul Moriarty as the First Citizen clears his...

(The entire section is 1031 words.)

Ben Brantley (review date 11 September 2000)

SOURCE: Brantley, Ben. “Uneasy Leaders Whose Downfall Lay Within Themselves.” New York Times (11 September 2000): E1, E5.

[In the following review, Brantley evaluates the New York staging of Jonathan Kent's production of Coriolanus, starring Ralph Fiennes. Brantley observes that Fiennes's performance was accomplished but lacked depth, and that the production as a whole was engaging but failed to offer a deep investigation of the play's issues.]

If anyone could elevate petulance to the status of tragic flaw, Ralph Fiennes would seem to be the man. Throughout his fertile career in movies as the bluestocking's hearthrob, he has consistently found the...

(The entire section is 1642 words.)

John Lahr (review date 18 September 2000)

SOURCE: Lahr, John. “The Death of Kings.” New Yorker 76, no. 27 (18 September 2000): 150-52.

[In the following review of Jonathan Kent's New York staging of Coriolanus, Lahr contends that Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus lacked a sense of heroism and that Kent's direction failed to establish a point of view.]

“The higher the monkey climb the tree, the more you see of his behind.” This cautionary folk adage perfectly sums up the appeal of Shakespeare's “Richard II” and “Coriolanus,” two contrasting studies in political meltdown, which arrive from London's vivacious Almeida Theatre for a limited engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (until October...

(The entire section is 1477 words.)

Heidi Holder (review date May 2001)

SOURCE: Holder, Heidi. Review of Coriolanus. Theatre Journal 53, no. 2 (May 2001): 344-45.

[In the following review of Jonathan Kent's London production of Coriolanus, Holder remarks that the formidable setting complemented the play's themes of psychic and physical violence. Holder applauds Ralph Fiennes's portrayal of Coriolanus as subtle and emotionally deep.]

Not since the nineteenth century have London theatregoers congregated in large numbers in the unfashionable East End district of Shoreditch. However, the Almeida company, in one of their more notable experiments, put Shoreditch briefly back on the theatrical map this past summer, staging two of...

(The entire section is 808 words.)

Criticism: Themes

Marc Geisler (essay date 1997)

SOURCE: Geisler, Marc. “Collecting a National Voice: Shakespeare's Coriolanus and the People's Grievances.” Journal of Theatre and Drama 3 (1997): 17-44.

[In the following essay, Geisler examines the ways in which Coriolanus seems to presage the English Civil War of 1642, arguing that the play accurately dramatizes the way that political petitioning may be used against a monarchy.]


In a striking scene of calculated manipulation, the tribune Sicinius prepares to assemble the voices of the people in order to foment a popular protest against Coriolanus' election as a consul:

Have you a...

(The entire section is 10956 words.)

Alex Garganigo (essay date 2002)

SOURCE: Garganigo, Alex. “Coriolanus, the Union Controversy, and Access to the Royal Person.” Studies in English Literature 1500-1900 42, no. 2 (2002): 335-59.

[In the following essay, Garganigo demonstrates the ways in which Shakespeare used the physical body and the notion of the body politic in Coriolanus to indirectly criticize both James I's plan to unite England and Scotland, and the royal patronage system.]

While the metaphor of the body politic preoccupied Shakespeare throughout his career, only Coriolanus (1608) with its fable of the belly subjects the body politic to explicit scrutiny as a theoretical problem, and as a discourse...

(The entire section is 10363 words.)

Further Reading


Bruce, Yvonne. “The Pathology of Rhetoric in Coriolanus.Upstart Crow 20 (2000): 93-115.

Challenges critics who contend that words and their meanings are disjoined in Coriolanus.

Brustein, Robert. Review of Coriolanus. The New Republic 200, no. 1 (2 January 1989): 26-28.

Assesses the “radical” production of Coriolanus directed by Steven Berkoff, which featured Christopher Walken as Coriolanus, and finds that both the production and Walken's performance were turbulent.

Cefalu, Paul. “‘The End of Absolutism’: Shakespeare's Coriolanus and the Consensual...

(The entire section is 343 words.)