The last of Shakespeare's major tragedies, Coriolanus is generally regarded by critics as a flawed work, and is one of the least known and least performed of Shakespeare's plays. It seems to fail as a tragedy as it evokes neither fear nor pity, since audiences are unlikely to identify with the motivations of the would-be tragic hero, Coriolanus. Furthermore, the play is marred by an unusual plot structure in which the tragic hero undergoes an initial rise and fall—Coriolanus' military victory and subsequent election to Consul, followed by his exile—only to achieve fame through military victory again before his murder. Yet, since its first production, Coriolanus has been explored by a number of critics as a text rich with sociopolitical commentary and has repeatedly been performed as an act of political expression: the play was staged several times from the 1680s until the mid-eighteenth century as a critique of contemporary English politics, was used in the Restoration and in the eighteenth century to advance competing political stances, incited riots during the 1933-34 production by La Comédie Française, and was adapted by Bertolt Brecht for post-World War II audiences.
Given that Coriolanus has severe shortcomings as a tragedy, however, recent Shakespearean critics, in an effort to explore fully the centrality of the play in modern public discourses, have focused almost exclusively on its sociopolitical themes, particularly its treatment of class conflict. Although commentators such as John W. Velz (1983) note that Shakespeare used ancient sources, primarily Plutarch and Virgil, critics Andrew Gurr (1975) and Shannon Miller (1992) emphasize the significance of Coriolanus' plot for Shakespeare's contemporaries. During Shakespeare's time, a growing class of landless and poor laborers protested their economic disenfranchisement through riots and mob violence, including the so-called Midlands Insurrection of 1607. His concern with these events—the desperation of the lower classes coupled with a widespread concern with maintaining order—reveals itself in Coriolanus in the conflict between the plebeians and the patricians: Shakespeare alters Plutarch and foregrounds the protest against the shortage of corn, the immediate cause of the Midlands Insurrection. Along with the growth of the working class, however, came increased social mobility, which threatened the status of the aristocracy and provoked a bitter reaction in government: the patricians of Coriolanus strike out at the Tribunes and the larger populace in an effort to maintain their status. Similarly, Shakespeare's time saw the rise of Parliament as a political force that could oppose the wishes of the King on such issues as taxation and new legislation; the House of Commons increasingly asserted its power to influence national policy, and its conflicts with the 'Court' party fractured the social stability of England. According to critics Clifford Davidson (1968) and Zvi Jagendorf (1990), the class war between the plebeians and the patricians reflects Shakespeare's distaste for a class conflict that he believed would destroy the body politic. But, interpreters of Coriolanus disagree on where Shakespeare's sympathies lie: J. L. Simmons (1973) places the plebeians at the moral center of the play, but Tetsuya Motohashi (1994) sees in the figure of Coriolanus the death of the heroic individual within a heteronomous social order.
Critics also contend that Coriolanus reflects Shakespeare's political allegiances, particularly as they impact and are impacted by his social criticism. Complementing his views on class conflict, Coriolanus expresses Shakespeare's concerns regarding the political squabbles that threatened the English state, according to such scholars as W. Gordon Zeeveld (1962). But, Shakespeare's responses to this instability have been variously interpreted. R. B. Parker (1984) detects in Coriolanus a commitment to "the familial link" that serves as the unifying structure through which political and social stability would be possible. By contrast, some consider Coriolanus to be a critique of the very ideal of order: Cynthia Marshall (1996) claims that the social tensions of the play are internalized in an effort to problematize bodily integrity itself, while Richard Wilson (1991) reads the play as implicitly critiquing not simply the social disturbances of the period, but the ground of those instabilities in the market economy. More recent criticism on Coriolanus thus recognizes the play to be Shakespeare's most political and topical work, such that a number of scholars now wish to reconsider Coriolanus' classification; for such readers as Patrick Murray (1972), the play is less a tragedy than "a drama of ideas after the Shavian kind."