Scholars believe that Coriolanus, Shakespeare's last tragedy and arguably his most political play, was written and first performed circa 1608. Set in republican Rome, the drama concentrates on the warrior-hero Caius Martius Coriolanus, a figure noted for his personal integrity, military ambition, devotion to martial virtue, and disdain for the Roman plebeians. Scholars believe that Shakespeare drew his basic plot for the drama from the work of the first century a.d. Greek historian Plutarch, whose “Life of Caius Marcius Coriolanus” Shakespeare likely knew through a 1579 translation by Sir Thomas North. According to Shakespeare's version, Martius, after a hard-won military victory at Corioles, earns the moniker Coriolanus and receives a senate nomination to become the Roman consul. Ill-suited to political leadership, Coriolanus treats the common people with derision, and is soon rejected by them. After being driven into exile, he joins his city's enemies, the Volscians, and leads a military campaign against Rome. Coriolanus's mother, Volumnia, persuades him to spare the city, however, and he is subsequently murdered by the followers of the Volscian leader Aufidius. Critics have traditionally maligned Coriolanus, pointing to the shortcomings of its single-minded and unsympathetic tragic hero, atypical plot structure, and rhetorical flatness. Modern scholars, however, have undertaken new critical approaches to the play's character, structure, and language, and have increasingly admired the drama for its rich sociopolitical and psychological significance.
Scholars consider Coriolanus to be one of the most psychologically interesting of Shakespeare's tragic heroes. Joyce Van Dyke (1977) approaches Coriolanus's character through his non-verbal self-expression and use of language, from his enraged outbursts of pride to his almost expressionless exchanges with his domineering mother Volumnia. In Van Dyke's reading, Coriolanus is unable to adequately articulate his thoughts verbally, which leads him to rely on a sequence of easily misinterpreted gestures that ultimately fail to convey his true intentions and contribute to his solitude, banishment, and political failure. Nancy Carolyn Michael (1978) concentrates on Coriolanus as an isolated, tragic figure whose failure involves an inability to assert his own humanity. The critic remarks on the general process of dehumanization that follows Coriolanus throughout the drama, and contends that although he attempts to define himself though his personal integrity, he instead projects an image of overweening pride. Christopher Givan (1979) disagrees with critics who view Coriolanus as having gained a level of diplomacy and maturity by the play's end. Instead, Givan argues that Coriolanus's self-destructive and fragmented personality remain throughout the play and notes that “[b]ecause he has allowed others, especially his mother, to define his identity, his struggle to maintain the integrity he values so highly can only run into defeat.” Offering another perspective on character, John Bligh (1987) highlights Coriolanus's unswerving devotion to a set of aristocratic ideals and an inflexible belief in honor that, by the end of the drama, degrades into an amoral desire for simple vengeance. Presenting an analysis of Coriolanus informed by feminist theory, Page du Bois (see Further Reading) views the play as a critique of matriarchal power embodied in the disturbing psychological presence of Volumnia and her emotional manipulation of Coriolanus.
Although considered to be one of Shakespeare's least popular plays, there has been a continued interest in theatrical stagings of Coriolanus in the twenty-first century. Recent productions of Coriolanus have emphasized the play's compelling hero as well as its political themes. Director Jonathan Kent produced what many critics regard as a finely realized staging of the drama in 2000 at the Almeida Theatre in London, featuring stage and screen star Ralph...
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