Generally considered the last of Shakespeare's tragedies, dating in composition to the period 1605-1609, Coriolanus has received mixed critical reception, with debate centering on its view of history, politics, and power, the development of its characters, and its concept of tragedy. Eighteenth-century readers were often critical of the play's uncomplimentary depiction of the Roman plebeians and its transgression of Neoclassical dramatic rules, considering it particularly egregious that Aufidius and the tribunes go unpunished. Samuel Johnson, however, thought highly of the play, praising in particular its characterization and its depiction of the protagonist's declining fortunes. Nineteenth-century critics, including such luminaries as August Wilhelm Schlegel and William Hazlitt, also took a generally favorable view of the play, praising both its characterization and its unified structure.
The nineteenth century saw the beginning of a discussion of the play's politics that has continued to the present day, with critics debating the attitudes it manifests towards both patricians and plebes as well as its possible relationships to Jacobean political concerns. Among recent twentieth-century critics, A. P. Rossiter (1952) considered Coriolanus to be "the greatest of the Histories" for its realistic depiction of the ironies of political interaction. Norman Rabkin (1966) interpreted Coriolanus as an indictment of both of the extreme political convictions illustrated in the play: anarchy and absolutism. Lisa Lowe (1986) examined ways in which issues of gender and sexuality raised in the play relate to its treatment of political conflicts. Others, such as David George Hale (1971) and Stanley Cavell (1984), have examined various key political metaphors in the play.
Another consistent critical concern has been the character of the protagonist, with critics often focusing on Coriolanus's pride, his contempt for the Roman masses, or his lack of self-perception as the reasons for his downfall. For H. J. Oliver (1959), John Bayley (1981), and Nicholas Grene (1992), the protagonist's tragedy lies in unresolvable contradictions between his sense of self and the political and social demands of his culture. Recent analyses of Coriolanus' character often focus on his relationship with his mother, Volumnia. In a psychoanalytic perspective of the central character, Madelon Sprengnether (1986) placed the play in the context of the general patterns of gender relationships in Shakespearean tragedy. Sprengnether argued that in Coriolanus, as well as in other Shakespearean tragedies, the protagonist's ambivalence towards qualities considered "feminine" and his anxieties about his masculinity have tragic consequences. Bruce King (1989) suggested that Coriolanus' "strong ties to his family, especially to his mother, … undermine his claim to selfhood," while Coppélia Kahn (1992) examined the interrelationship between the roles of motherhood and war-making in the play.
D. J. Gordon (essay date 1964)
SOURCE: "Name and Fame: Shakespeare's Coriolanus," in Papers Mainly Shakespearean, Oliver and Boyd, 1964, pp. 40-57.
[In the following essay, Gordon examines the acts of naming in Coriolanus as a means to exploring the play's social commentary and its approach to the concept of honor.]
Name is Fame, is Honour, and is won by deeds; in Rome, by deeds in war.
Now in those days, valliantnes [so North renders Plutarch (in Plutarch's Lives, 1895)] was honoured in Rome above all other vertues: which they called Virtus, by the name of vertue selfe, as including in that generali name all other speciali vertues besides.
So Cominius the General in his formal encomium, his laus of Caius Marcius, begins:
It is held
That valour is the chiefest virtue and
Most dignifies the haver.
We are shown the deeds of Coriolanus, and their rewarding in the field: the garland, the horse, the name with the consenting acclamations. Cominius proclaims:
Therefore be it known,
(The entire section is 87,111 words.)