Not well-known and infrequently performed, Coriolanus is considered Shakespeare's farewell to the tragic genre, and is often viewed as a disappointing departure. In this most political of plays, the warrior-hero Coriolanus is noted for his personal integrity, his military ambition and devotion to Rome's martial reputation, and his disdain for the Roman plebeians. In assessing the play's nonsuccess as tragedy, many critics point to Coriolanus's shortcomings as a tragic hero. Some commentators suggest that his attitudes and ambitions are such that he deserves his fate—murder at the hands of his lifelong enemy and rival Aufidius. Other examinations of character focus on Coriolanus's relationship to his mother, Volumnia, who successfully pleads with her son to spare Rome, even at the cost of his own life. The conflicted relationship between the ruling class in Rome and the city's plebeians is often compared to the political situation in Shakespeare's own time, when landless and poor workers violently protested their growing economic disenfranchisement. Like the play's plebeians, whose major complaint is hunger, the laboring class participating in the Midlands Insurrection of 1607 feared starvation as a result of being economically disempowered. The extent to which the play’s language and imagery address such political issues is also a focus of critical analyses.
In addressing questions surrounding the genre of the play, Richard C. Crowley (1974) demonstrates the way in which Coriolanus relies on the epic form as well as the dramatic genre of tragedy. The critic examines a study of sixteenth-century literary theory and suggests that the practice of melding elements of drama and epic was not unheard of. Furthermore, Crowley explores the ways in which the play's imagery supports the comparison of Coriolanus to epic heroes, and argues that the nature of the conflict between love and honor further supports the play's epic qualities. Paul Dean (1991) highlights what he argues are the truly tragic elements of the play, stressing that the tragedy lies in the fact that the political forces at work in the play cannot be extracted from the very human characters who must manage and direct these forces. According to the critic, Coriolanus's emotions and his political awareness are permanently intertwined. Like Dean, Robin Headlam Wells (2000) does not question Coriolanus's tragic nature, commenting that like the rest of Shakespeare's tragic heroes Coriolanus serves as a warning of the “seductive charm of the charismatic hero.” Wells additionally comments on the parallel relationship between the play's treatment of such issues as heroism, chivalry, war and peace, and the views of Jacobean England on these topics.
Coriolanus's character and motivation serve as the subject of a variety of critical analyses. Robert N. Watson (1984) touches upon the psychology at work in the play, commenting upon the oedipal implications of Coriolanus's relationship with his mother, and on the play's suggestion that the Roman citizens fill the place of Coriolanus's absent father. Watson focuses in particular on the transformation of Coriolanus's ambition from the attainment of his “familial identity” to a doomed defiance of this identity. In an effort to explain the lack of sympathy for Coriolanus that the play inspires, Pradip K. Datta (1994) comments that in the absence of a full-length soliloquy there is little insight into Coriolanus's thinking. The paradox at the heart of Coriolanus's character, argues Datta, is the warrior's loathing of, and effort to accept, the political pragmatism practiced by the Roman elite. Returning to Volumnia and Coriolanus's relationship with her, Christina Luckyj (1991) reviews the critical opinions expressed about Coriolanus's mother, noting that Volumnia is accused of failing to nurture her son, and is often blamed for Coriolanus's masculine aggression and for his eventual murder by the Volscians. The critic, however, finds that Shakespeare presents Volumnia's motivation as both “complex and open-ended.” In defense of Volumnia, Luckyj argues that Coriolanus's death should be blamed on politics, not on his mother.
The military grandeur presented in Coriolanus often leads to spectacular productions, while directors attempt to elicit a strong reaction to Coriolanus's character. Miranda Johnson-Haddad (1992) commends director William Gaskill on his decision to stage a deliberately minimalistic production of the play, but comments that the production lacked a strong main cast, as well as a unified vision for the play. In his review of David Thacker's production, Russell Jackson (1995) discusses the way in which the atmosphere of the French Revolution was evoked but not historically specified. Additionally, Jackson comments that some of the liberties Thacker took with the text were effectively staged. William T. Liston (1997) offers a favorable review of Tony Taccone's 1996 production of Coriolanus, which is set in a feudalistic future. Robert Shore (2000) approves of Jonathan Kent's staging of the play, starring Ralph Fiennes in the title role, praising in particular the psychological treatment of the characters. The critic also comments on the production's effective handling of costuming and the staging of battle scenes. In Kent's decision to ignore the issue of class conflict, Shore finds that the play “emerges whole, and very nearly a great play.” In another review of Kent's production, Peter J. Smith applauds the efforts of the principal actors, except for Ralph Fiennes's portrayal of Coriolanus. For Smith, the production as a whole was unable to dramatize “a performative equivalent for martial superiority.”
Coriolanus's language and imagery are heavily charged with political implications, and also yield insights regarding characterization. Jean MacIntyre (1984) explores the significance of the language and imagery in the play pertaining to clothing, examining as well the staging and costuming directions. This visual language and the images it evokes aid in the audience's understanding of the play's characters, MacIntyre argues, discussing, for example, the social importance attached to the various types and fabrics of head garments worn and referred to in the play. Zvi Jagendorf (1990) is concerned with the political dialogue related to wholeness and fragmentation found in Coriolanus. Discourses in which the body is referred to are prevalent in the play, Jagendorf observes, and finds that the aristocratic class is associated with wholeness and fullness, compared to the fragmentation and emptiness which characterizes references to the Roman citizenry. Analyzing one element of the play's imagery, Janet Adelman (see Further Reading) asserts that the play's central, defining image is that of a mother who has not properly nourished her children. According to the critic, Volumnia and Rome are associated with the maternal image, whereas Coriolanus and Rome's citizens represent the children. Furthermore, Adelman contends that Coriolanus's sense of self arises from his being able to view himself as self-sufficient, and his masculinity is dependent on warfare. In an analysis of the play's treatment of political representation, Tetsuya Motohashi (see Further Reading) observes, like Adelman, that Coriolanus possesses a strict ideology of self-sufficiency. This ideology, Motohashi demonstrates, stands in stark contrast to the requirement of others in the play on mutual dependency and exchange.