Scholars believe that Coriolanus, Shakespeare's last tragedy and arguably his most political play, was written and first performed circa 1608. Set in republican Rome, the drama concentrates on the warrior-hero Caius Martius Coriolanus, a figure noted for his personal integrity, military ambition, devotion to martial virtue, and disdain for the Roman plebeians. Scholars believe that Shakespeare drew his basic plot for the drama from the work of the first century a.d. Greek historian Plutarch, whose “Life of Caius Marcius Coriolanus” Shakespeare likely knew through a 1579 translation by Sir Thomas North. According to Shakespeare's version, Martius, after a hard-won military victory at Corioles, earns the moniker Coriolanus and receives a senate nomination to become the Roman consul. Ill-suited to political leadership, Coriolanus treats the common people with derision, and is soon rejected by them. After being driven into exile, he joins his city's enemies, the Volscians, and leads a military campaign against Rome. Coriolanus's mother, Volumnia, persuades him to spare the city, however, and he is subsequently murdered by the followers of the Volscian leader Aufidius. Critics have traditionally maligned Coriolanus, pointing to the shortcomings of its single-minded and unsympathetic tragic hero, atypical plot structure, and rhetorical flatness. Modern scholars, however, have undertaken new critical approaches to the play's character, structure, and language, and have increasingly admired the drama for its rich sociopolitical and psychological significance.
Scholars consider Coriolanus to be one of the most psychologically interesting of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Joyce Van Dyke (1977) approaches Coriolanus's character through his non-verbal self-expression and use of language, from his enraged outbursts of pride to his almost expressionless exchanges with his domineering mother Volumnia. In Van Dyke's reading, Coriolanus is unable to adequately articulate his thoughts verbally, which leads him to rely on a sequence of easily misinterpreted gestures that ultimately fail to convey his true intentions and contribute to his solitude, banishment, and political failure. Nancy Carolyn Michael (1978) concentrates on Coriolanus as an isolated, tragic figure whose failure involves an inability to assert his own humanity. The critic remarks on the general process of dehumanization that follows Coriolanus throughout the drama, and contends that although he attempts to define himself though his personal integrity, he instead projects an image of overweening pride. Christopher Givan (1979) disagrees with critics who view Coriolanus as having gained a level of diplomacy and maturity by the play's end. Instead, Givan argues that Coriolanus's self-destructive and fragmented personality remain throughout the play and notes that “[b]ecause he has allowed others, especially his mother, to define his identity, his struggle to maintain the integrity he values so highly can only run into defeat.” Offering another perspective on character, John Bligh (1987) highlights Coriolanus's unswerving devotion to a set of aristocratic ideals and an inflexible belief in honor that, by the end of the drama, degrades into an amoral desire for simple vengeance. Presenting an analysis of Coriolanus informed by feminist theory, Page du Bois (see Further Reading) views the play as a critique of matriarchal power embodied in the disturbing psychological presence of Volumnia and her emotional manipulation of Coriolanus.
Although considered to be one of Shakespeare's least popular plays, there has been a continued interest in theatrical stagings of Coriolanus in the twenty-first century. Recent productions of Coriolanus have emphasized the play's compelling hero as well as its political themes. Director Jonathan Kent produced what many critics regard as a finely realized staging of the drama in 2000 at the Almeida Theatre in London, featuring stage and screen star Ralph Fiennes in the title role. David Rosenberg (see Further Reading) admires Fiennes's emotionally-charged Coriolanus and Barbara Jefford's Volumnia and notes that this production rejected reconciliation and withheld dramatic catharsis. Also reviewing Kent's staging, Charles Isherwood (2000) praises the scope of Fiennes's energetic and “mesmerizing” performance as the Roman warrior and Jefford's “fire-breathing” Volumnia. The critic notes that the production delved deep into the psychological persona of Shakespeare's dehumanized protagonist. Reviewers have also praised the Royal Shakespeare Company's forceful 2002 to 2003 staging of Coriolanus directed by David Farr. Set in feudal Japan, the production featured Greg Hicks as Coriolanus. Reviewer Patrick Carnegy (2002) finds the exotic setting visually appealing and describes the compelling performance of Hicks as a haughty and aloof Coriolanus. Reviewing the same production, William T. Liston (2003) remarks on the ritualistic, stylized atmosphere and Hicks's fascinating, contemptuous Coriolanus. Russell Jackson (2003) comments favorably on the Farr's staging as well, regarding Hicks's Coriolanus and Alison Fiske's Volumnia as superb characterizations. Overall, Jackson praises the production's powerful evocation of the drama's themes of family pride and political strife.
Critics are interested in the predominance of political and power-related issues in Coriolanus as well as the play's depiction of psychological tensions, especially those involving the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother. R. B. Parker (1994) surveys political, psychological, and existential approaches to theme and character in Coriolanus, including Shakespeare's analysis of the body politic, his insight into the psychological dominance of Volumnia as an emblematic overbearing mother, and his depiction of Coriolanus's self-destructive intensity. Vivian Thomas (1989) contrasts Shakespeare's dramatic presentation of Coriolanus with Plutarch's historical assessment of the figure, comparing the two authors' divergent handling of character, story, and theme. Thomas traces the ways in which Shakespeare manipulated material from Plutarch in order to contrast Coriolanus's victory in war with his defeat in the political arena. According to the critic, Shakespeare demonstrated that although Coriolanus's personal characteristics—his courage, integrity, and unbending will—prove valuable on the field of battle, these same characteristics have a contrary effect on his domestic role as Roman consul. Anne Barton (1985) considers the influence of the Roman historian Livy on Shakespeare's dramatization of republican Rome in Coriolanus and acknowledges the presence of a Machiavellian system of realpolitik operating in the clash between Coriolanus and the plebeians. Adrian Poole (1988) likewise explores political themes in the drama, centering on the moblike mentality of the mutinous Roman people and the strategies used by Menenius and Coriolanus to pacify them. According to Poole, the compelling power of shame becomes a thematic touchstone in the early portions of Coriolanus as these leaders attempt to sway the body politic. Later in the play, Poole asserts, Volumnia turns the tactics of shame on her son as a means of coercing him into action.
SOURCE: Thomas, Vivian. “Sounds, Words, Gestures and Deeds in Coriolanus.” In Shakespeare's Roman Worlds, pp. 154-219. London: Routledge, 1989.
[In the following excerpt, Thomas contrasts Shakespeare's dramatic presentation of Coriolanus with Plutarch's historical assessment of the figure, comparing the two authors' divergent handling of character, story, and theme.]
from face to foot He was a thing of blood, whose every motion Was tim'd with dying cries …
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SOURCE: Parker, R. B., ed. Introduction to The Oxford Shakespeare: The Tragedy of Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, pp. 1-148. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
[In the following excerpt, Parker surveys political, psychological, and existential approaches to theme and character in Coriolanus.]
The special brilliance of Coriolanus is its insight into the mutual influence of psychology and politics. There are two distinct political levels in the play. The obvious one is the class conflict between patricians and plebeians, which is complicated by external war against the Volsces and raises the problems of right government. But there is also the more basic...
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