Coriolanus Themes

The main themes in Coriolanus are nobility and pride, roman political life, and the power of the plebeians.

  • Nobility and pride: Nobility is considered a matter of both lineage and character, and the prideful Coriolanus embodies both senses of the trait.
  • Roman political life: The play explores the dynamics of Roman politics, which hinge on the often tense relations between the patrician and plebeian classes.
  • The power of the plebeians: The play shows the importance of the public's favor, but it also depicts the public as mindless and thus manipulable.


Nobility and Pride

For both the Romans and the Jacobeans, nobility was a dual concept, based on both birth and character. To a modern audience, this duality may seem counterintuitive, but to someone raised in a feudal society with a hereditary aristocracy, it generally seemed natural that the education and background as well as the heredity—the actual bloodline—of an aristocrat would make his character more noble than that of a commoner. Whether Shakespeare endorses this perspective is a matter for debate, but within the framework of Coriolanus, this conventional view of nobility holds. The tribunes are powerful, but they are plebeians, and this shows in their relative lack of honor. Coriolanus and the other patricians, including the temperate and good-humored Menenius, look down on the tribunes and on the plebeians they represent.

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It is generally agreed by the other characters that Coriolanus has a noble character as well as a noble birth. It is the last thing anyone says about him, as Aufidius cites his nobility in the last line of the play. However, none of the other noble characters share Coriolanus’s extreme pride in his position. Cominius has already served as consul, the highest political office in Rome, which Coriolanus seeks with some reluctance. In order to stand for the consulship, the candidate must receive the backing of the senate, which Coriolanus achieves with ease, and must be questioned and endorsed by representatives of the people. All the previous consuls, each from a noble background, have been through this ritual, and many have curried favor with the people, showing their war wounds and describing their military service in florid language. Coriolanus, a patriotic and decorated soldier in his own right, cannot manage to maintain even a frigid courtesy for long. This demonstrates the extent to which his pride in his noble status exceeds that of anyone else in the Roman aristocracy. When Coriolanus fails to secure the public’s favor, the cost of his noble pride becomes clear.

Roman Political Life

Coriolanus explores the structures and tensions of political life in the Roman Republic. The play is set in the earliest years of the Roman Republic, and many of the characters still remember the rule of Tarquinius Superbus (Tarquin the Proud). Coriolanus is also excessively proud, and the combination of his pride and his superior abilities renders him dangerous. Five centuries later, Julius Caesar, another man who combined pride and military genius and who also marched against Rome, was to be assassinated as a threat to the Roman Republic. Coriolanus is also threatening but in a somewhat different way. Clearly he does not want to be king. He does not even particularly want to be consul. He despises the common people too completely to want to rule them. However, his pride is a danger to the delicate political balance between the patrician and plebeian classes upon which the Republic rests.

The historical figure on whom the character of Menenius Agrippa is based was responsible for negotiating with the plebeians during the secession of 494 BCE. His diplomacy resulted in the creation of a new political office: the tribune of the plebeians. The tribunes were two plebeians who were selected to represent the people as a whole. The office of tribune was one of the most powerful in Rome. They were considered sacrosanct, meaning that any use of violence against them was...

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