In Coriolanus by Shakespeare, is Coriolanus's death an assertion of his role as a heroic Roman warrior, or is it a death of a traitorous villain?

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Noelle Matteson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

There is no straightforward answer to this intriguing question. Like many of Shakespeare’s heroes, Coriolanus is both a victim and a villain. He is the definition of a tragic hero whose flaws bring about his destruction. He certainly does not die in battle, the usual death of a heroic Roman warrior. Instead, a group of conspirators stab him to death. The crowd cries, “Tear him to pieces,” and the conspirators chant, “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” Even Coriolanus directs, “Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads, / Stain all your edges on me.”

It is possible that Coriolanus dies in a blaze of glory, fighting his way through the conspirators until they slay him. Another interpretation is that he simply gives up or is taken by surprise. There is not enough evidence in the text to know exactly how he dies. The Volsces murder Coriolanus because he has helped and hurt both them and the Romans. It is interesting that the Romans do not kill him for betraying them. Instead, the Volsces stab him because he not only failed to take Rome, but he needs to pay for his past violence against them when he was loyal to Rome.

Ultimately, Coriolanus dies as a traitor to both Rome and the Volsces, and as a hero to both sides. Aufidius commemorates him as a destructive but honorable warrior:

Though in this city he
Hath widow'd and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury,
Yet he shall have a noble memory.

Coriolanus threatened Rome, but eventually saved it from himself. He also advanced the Volsces, but did not deliver them Rome. Coriolanus dies as both traitor and hero.

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Coriolanus

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