Coriolanus, the last of Shakespeare's tragedies, follows the career of Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman warrior-hero. After a hard-won military victory, Coriolanus is nominated for the consulate, the highest office in Rome, but his excessive pride and disdain for the commoners cause him to be rejected by the citizens, and he is eventually exiled. After being driven from his homeland, Coriolanus joins the city's enemies—the Volscians—and leads the fight against Rome. His mother persuades him to spare Rome, however, and he is murdered by the Volscian leader Aufidius. The play's setting—Shakespeare's ancient Rome—is socially and politically tumultuous, mirroring the social, economic, and political unrest in England during the early 1600s. Modern critics frequently center their studies on either Coriolanus, who is often considered an unsympathetic hero, or the play's political topicality.
In his study of recent critical commentary on Coriolanus, W. Hutchings (see Further Reading) finds that scholars typically purport that the play is either mainly concerned with politics or with the character of Coriolanus. Hutchings maintains that character and politics are complementary rather than conflicting elements in the play's structure, and finds that these topics are linked through the play's language. Eugene M. Waith (1962) concentrates on the character of Coriolanus, contending that his most salient characteristics are his superhuman presence and his opposition to Rome. Waith points out that Coriolanus is proud and prone to anger but is consistently motivated by his sense of personal honor. According to Waith, Coriolanus's decision to spare Rome, which ultimately leads to his demise, is his most human moment. In contrast to Waith's respectful and generally positive assessment of Coriolanus's character, Jane Carducci (1987) focuses on his psychological flaws. Carducci explains that Shakespeare used various conventions, rhetoric, and staging devices to underscore Coriolanus's isolation from society. In studying his key relationships with family and peers, Carducci claims that Coriolanus is not only psychologically damaged by his mother, but that he distances himself from his son and fails to experience the camaraderie typically afforded by a male society.
Many critics have noted the parallels between the social, economic, and political unrest of Shakespeare's Coriolanus and that of England during the early 1600s. Marc Geisler (1997) maintains that Coriolanus's disdain for the plebeians and their needs mirrors the conflicts leading up to the English Civil War of 1642, and that the breakdown of political communication in Shakespeare's play is similar to events in England prior to and during the Civil War. In particular, Geisler identifies the way in which the common people of Shakespeare's England effectively used petitioning to threaten the monarchy, just as the plebeians' petitioning of the Roman leadership in Coriolanus endangered the power of the elite. Like Geisler, Alex Garganigo (2002) fleshes out the relationship between the political world of the play and Jacobean England. Garganigo demonstrates the ways in which Shakespeare used the physical body and the notion of the body politic in Coriolanus to indirectly criticize both James I's plan to unite England and Scotland, and the royal patronage system.
Although considered one of Shakespeare's less popular plays, there has been a continued interest in theatrical stagings of Coriolanus in the twentieth century. Jonathan Kent's 2000 production of the play featured stage and film star Ralph Fiennes in the title role. Robert Shore (2000) notes that Kent's production at London's Almeida Theater focused heavily on the personal over the political. Rather than exploring the conflict between the plebeians and patricians, Shore contends, Kent explored—almost exclusively—the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother. Shore states that Fiennes's portrayal of Coriolanus offered a psychological portrait in step with the approach of the production as a whole. Ben Brantley (2000) reviews the same production staged in New York. Brantley finds that the production was accessible and the performances of the supporting cast were excellent, but faults both the production and Fiennes with failing to dig below the surface and explore the play's deeper issues. John Lahr (2000) also evaluates the New York staging of Kent's production, and contends that Fiennes did not play his role with any sense of humor or heroism. Lahr also faults Kent's direction for lacking a point of view, and finds that the director failed to risk a psychological interpretation of the relationship between Coriolanus and his mother. In her review of the Kent production in London, Heidi Holder (2001) discusses the importance of the setting to the success of the production, describing the way the imposing set emphasized the psychological and physical violence of the play. Holder praises Fiennes's performance, finding it both subtle and emotionally complex.