(Shakespearean Criticism)


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.

Richard C. Crowley (essay date 1974)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Coriolanus and the Epic Genre,” in Shakespeare's Late Plays: In Honor of Charles Crow, edited by Richard C. Tobias and Paul G. Zolbrod, Ohio University Press, 1974, pp. 114-30.

[In the essay below, Crowley contends that in Coriolanus Shakespeare was working within the framework of a mixed genre—an amalgamation of tragic and epic form.]

Coriolanus has not been the object of a great deal of critical commentary.1 Furthermore, what little criticism it has elicited in recent years has often been hostile toward the work, denigrating the play on the ground that it is not another Hamlet or Macbeth.2 Caius...

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James Holstun (essay date 1983)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Tragic Superfluity in Coriolanus,” in ELH, Vol. 50, No. 3, Autumn, 1983, pp. 485-507.

[In the essay that follows, Holstun discusses the genre of Coriolanus, and considers the play’s relation to both tragedy and comedy.]

Shakespearean drama provides the history of ideas with no better exposition of the classical, medieval, and Renaissance metaphor of the body politic than Menenius' fable of the belly in the first scene of Coriolanus.1 It is quite possible to put oneself in the position in which Menenius would put the Roman plebeians, taking his organic analogy for a dramatic as well as a political exemplum, and to read...

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Paul Dean (essay date 1991)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Coriolanus—A Tragedy of Love,” in English: The Journal of the English Association, Vol. 40, No. 167, Summer, 1991, pp. 117-34.

[In the essay below, Dean examines the play’s politics, dismissing the ‘ideological’ approach and contending that Coriolanus is a “tragedy of thwarted love.”]

That the story of Coriolanus was known to Shakespeare at the outset of his career is proved by the allusion to it in Titus Andronicus IV.iv.68, which he probably derived from a reading of the 1579 edition of North's Plutarch.1 The whole strand of plot in Titus in which Lucius, banished from Rome, returns at the head of a...

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Robin Headlam Wells (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “‘Manhood and Chevalrie’: Coriolanus, Prince Henry, and the Chivalric Revival,” in Review of English Studies, Vol. 51, No. 203, August, 2000, pp. 395-422.

[In the following essay, Wells reviews the conflict between war and peace in ancient Rome as it is depicted in Coriolanus and examines how these conflicts parallel the political situation of Shakespeare’s own time.]

The Midlands corn riots of 1607, and the arguments in parliament three years earlier over the right of the House of Commons to initiate legislation, form a well-documented part of Coriolanus's political background. But there was another political...

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Robert N. Watson (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Martial Ambition and the Family Romance in Coriolanus,” in Shakespeare and the Hazards of Ambition, Harvard University Press, 1984, pp. 142-221.

[In the following excerpt, Watson views Coriolanus's development in the play as a journey from his “natural self,” as a man with a questionable hereditary identity, to an “artificial self,”—an ideal, even divine, warrior.]

Coriolanus aspires to replace his limited hereditary identity with an ideal martial one, to transform himself from a merely human creature, made of flesh, appetite, and compassion, into a virtually divine warrior, made of steel, honor, and wrath. The story of Coriolanus' journey...

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Michael Goldman (essay date 1985)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Characterizing Coriolanus,” in Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy, Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. 140-68.

[In the essay that follows, Goldman examines the unique way in which Coriolanus is discussed by the other characters in the play, noting that the other characters experience great difficulty in characterizing him.]


Any discussion of acting is inevitably a discussion of characterization, and studies of Shakespearean tragedy, whatever their approach, inevitably concern themselves with Shakespeare's characters and how we are meant to take them. Though we may feel, for example, that we know Antony or Cleopatra...

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Pradip K. Datta (essay date 1994)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Paradox of Greatness and the Limits of Pragmatism in Shakespeare's Coriolanus,” in CLA Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1, September, 1994, pp. 97-107.

[In the essay that follows, Datta states that the central dilemma faced by Coriolanus is his disgust for, and battle to come to terms with, the pragmatism practiced by Rome's leaders and his admirers.]

Coriolanus is the only Shakespearean tragic hero who has failed to evoke ungrudging critical sympathy. Some critics even refuse to recognize him as a tragic hero. The critical apathy stems partly from Shakespeare's unflattering portrayal of a ruthless hero in whom virtues and vices are not easily...

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Miranda Johnson-Haddad (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Shakespeare Theatre, 1991-92,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 4, Winter, 1992, pp. 455-72.

[In the following excerpt, Johnson-Haddad praises director William Gaskill's effort to stage a minimalist Coriolanus, but adds that the production suffered from a weak cast and the absence of a unified vision.]

Halfway through the 1991-92 season, The Shakespeare Theatre at the Folger dropped the second half of its name to become simply “The Shakespeare Theatre,” for the company shifted quarters to the newly renovated Lansburgh Building in downtown Washington. While some felt a twinge of regret at seeing the company leave the charmingly...

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Russell Jackson (essay date 1995)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Shakespeare at Stratford-upon-Avon, 1994-95,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 46, No. 3, Autumn, 1995, pp. 340-57.

[In the following excerpt, Jackson comments on the French Revolutionary setting of David Thacker's production of Coriolanus, and states that the liberties Thacker took with the text were effective.]

If only on a compare-and-contrast basis, Coriolanus made a good stablemate for Henry V, and the Swan Theatre served this Roman play well. The debate scenes benefited from the intimacy of the thrust stage and galleried auditorium, while the space was sufficient to accommodate the battle in the first act or to emphasize the...

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William T. Liston (essay date 1997)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Coriolanus, in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 51, April, 1997, pp. 81-2.

[In the review that follows, Liston offers a generally favorable assessment of Coriolanus, as directed by Tony Taccone. The production, notes Liston, is set in the feudalistic future and features an “eclectic” treatment of costuming and props.]

Director Tony Taccone set Coriolanus in ‘the imminently feudal future’ for the 1996 Oregon Shakespeare Festival production of the always politically relevant play, exploiting all the spatial resources of the large outdoor Elizabethan Theatre to suggest the disorder of the state. For the opening scene, soldiers...

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Peter J. Smith (essay date 2000)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Coriolanus, in Cahiers Élisabéthains, Vol. 58, October, 2000, pp. 95-6.

[In the following review, Smith offers a negative assessment of Ralph Fiennes's Coriolanus, although the critic does praise the efforts of the other principal actors. Smith maintains that the play was unable to effectively dramatize Coriolanus's “martial superiority.”]

Gainsborough Studios started life as an electricity generating plant for the Metropolitan Railway. Subsequently converted into a film studio, it attracted the likes of Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert and Stewart Granger. Most famously, Alfred Hitchcock used it to make The Lady...

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Jean MacIntyre (essay date 1984)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Words, Acts, and Things: Visual Language in Coriolanus,” in English Studies in Canada, Vol. 10, No. 1, March, 1984, pp. 1-10.

[In the essay below, MacIntyre explores the significance of the stage and costume directions in Coriolanus, discussing as well the language related to clothing in the play. The critic demonstrates the way in which these elements, in combination with the play's visual language, support the audience's understanding of the individual characters.]

Coriolanus is not performed as often as other plays of Shakespeare's maturity and often it is cut, and then costumed, without great heed to its explicit directions about...

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Zvi Jagendorf (essay date 1990)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Coriolanus: Body Politic and Private Parts,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 455-69.

[In the following essay, Jagendorf relates the play's rhetoric of war to the fractured nature of the political body in Coriolanus, showing that the aristocratic class is associated with wholeness and fullness, compared to the fragmentation and emptiness which characterizes references to the Roman citizenry.]

Political thinking and, consequently, writing about politics have traditionally made use of certain master tropes that remain constant in principle even when the nature and content of political discourse change. At the...

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Jarrett Walker (essay date 1992)

(Shakespearean Criticism)

SOURCE: “Voiceless Bodies and Bodiless Voices: The Drama of Human Perception in Coriolanus,” in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 43, No. 2, Summer, 1992, pp. 170-85.

[In the essay that follows, Walker studies Coriolanus as a play focused on the battle between “body and speech.” Walker observes that in Coriolanus's derision for speech, a parallel hatred for time is revealed and contends that Coriolanus seeks to live in a single moment that transcends time.]

Critics have long been accustomed to reading Shakespeare's plays as though they were constructed out of speech. Since most scenes create their time and place in spoken text, it has been easy to...

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Further Reading

(Shakespearean Criticism)


Adelman, Janet. “Escaping the Matrix: The Construction of Masculinity in Coriolanus.” In Shakespeare's Tragedies, edited by Susan Zimmerman, pp. 23-45. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

Offers a psychological analysis of the play's image of a mother (Rome, Volumnia) who has not nourished her children (the Roman citizens, Coriolanus).

Bathryo, Dennis. “‘With Himself at War’: Shakespeare's Roman Hero and the Republican Tradition.” In Shakespeare's Political Pageant: Essays in Literature and Politics, edited by Joseph Alulis and Vickie Sullivan, pp. 237-61. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc.,...

(The entire section is 595 words.)