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.
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 vanity as a capable political leader and to his responsibility as a father and a husband.
Coriolanus’s persistence in deriding and mocking the citizens leads to an uprising against him. Drawing his sword, he would have stood alone against the mob, but Menenius and Cominius, fearing that the demonstration might result in an overthrow of the government, prevail upon him to withdraw to his house before the crowd assembles. Coriolanus misinterprets the requests of his friends and family that he yield to the common people, and he displays such arrogance that he is banished from Rome. Tullus Aufidius, learning of these events, prepares his armies to take advantage of the civil unrest in Rome.
Coriolanus, in disguise to protect himself against those who want to avenge the deaths of the many he killed, goes to Antium to offer his services to Aufidius against Rome. When Coriolanus removes his disguise, Aufidius, who knows the Roman’s ability as a military leader, willingly accepts his offer to aid in the Volscian campaign. Aufidius divides his army in order that he and Coriolanus each can lead a unit, thereby broadening the scope of his efforts against the Romans. In this plan, Aufidius sees the possibility of avenging Coriolanus’s earlier victories over him; once they take Rome, Aufidius thinks, the Romans’ hatred for Coriolanus will make possible his dominance over the arrogant patrician.
The Romans hear with dismay of Coriolanus’s affiliation with Aufidius; their only hope, some think, is to appeal to Coriolanus to spare the city. Although Menenius and Cominius blame the tribunes for Coriolanus’s banishment, they go as messengers to the great general in his camp outside the gates of Rome. They are unsuccessful, and Cominius returns to inform the citizens that, in spite of old friendships, Coriolanus will not be swayed in his intentions to annihilate the city. Cominius reports that Coriolanus refuses to take the time to find the few grains who are his friends among the chaff he intends to burn.
Menenius, sent to appeal again to Coriolanus, meets with the same failure. Coriolanus maintains that his ears are stronger against the pleas than the city gates are against his might. Calling the attention of Aufidius to his firm stand against the Romans, he asks him to report his conduct to the Volscian lords. Aufidius promises to do so and praises the general for his stalwartness. While Coriolanus vows not to hear the pleas of any other Romans, he is interrupted by women’s voices calling his name. The petitioners are Volumnia, Virgilia, and young Marcius, his son. Telling them that he will not be moved, he again urges Aufidius to observe his unyielding spirit. Then Volumnia speaks, saying that their requests for leniency and mercy are in vain, since he already proclaimed against kindliness, and that they will therefore not appeal to him. He also makes it impossible for them to appeal to the gods: They cannot pray for victory for Rome because such supplication will be against him, and they cannot pray for his success in the campaign because that would betray their country. Volumnia proclaims that she does not seek advantage for either the Romans or the Volscians but asks only for reconciliation. She predicts that Coriolanus will be a hero to both sides if he can arrange an honorable peace between them.
Finally moved by his mother’s reasoning, Coriolanus announces to Aufidius that he will frame a peace agreeable to the two forces. Aufidius declares that he, too, is moved by Volumnia’s solemn pleas and wise words. Volumnia, Virgilia, and young Marcius return to Rome, there to be welcomed for the success of their intercession with Coriolanus. Aufidius withdraws to Antium to await the return of Coriolanus and their meeting with the Roman ambassadors, but as he reviews the situation, he realizes that peace will nullify his plan for revenge against Coriolanus. Moreover, knowing of the favorable regard the Volscians have for Coriolanus, he believes he has to remove the man who was his conqueror in war and who might become his subduer in peace. At a meeting of the Volscian lords, Aufidius announces that Coriolanus betrayed the Volscians by depriving them of victory. In the ensuing confusion, he stabs Coriolanus to death. Regretting his deed, he then eulogizes Coriolanus and says that he will live forever in men’s memories. One of the Volscian lords pronounces Coriolanus the most noble corpse ever followed to the grave.