Coriolanus Summary

Coriolanus is a play by William Shakespeare in which warrior Caius Marcius, who is named Coriolanus after emerging victorious in battle, is expelled from Rome after being betrayed by his countrymen.

  • Caius Marcius defeats the Volscians at Corioli, earning him the name Coriolanus.

  • Coriolanus is loved by the people. The Roman Senators grow jealous, and he's cast out of Rome.

  • Coriolanus joins forces with Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians. They plan to take Rome for themselves, but Coriolanus has a change of heart after his wife pleads with him to stop.
  • When Coriolanus attempts to broker a treaty, Aufidius betrays and kills him.

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Probably written in 1607 or 1608, Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's mature tragedies, composed at a time when the playwright was at the apex of his creative power. Traditional and at least some modern literary critics have ranked Coriolanus a notch below the four great tragedies (Hamlet, King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello) that Shakespeare wrote before he came to his story of the prideful Roman general. Nevertheless T. S. Eliot considered Coriolanus to be Shakespeare's finest achievement in tragedy. This mixed appraisal of the play is due chiefly to the character of Coriolanus himself, who is widely acknowledged to be the least sympathetic protagonist among Shakespeare's tragic figures. Coriolanus was, in fact, a military and political leader of ancient Rome, Shakespeare relying upon an account of his career presented by the historian Plutarch in his Lives.

Not only is Coriolanus a Roman history play in addition to being a tragedy, it is a decidedly political work that embodies a debate or treatise concerning the relative merits of patrician autocracy versus plebian democracy. One of the play's central figurative motifs is the analogy of the body politic spelled out by the patrician (rich and conservative) senator Menenius in the opening scene's famous belly speech. It pivots on the notion of the state (here the city-state) being an organic body in which different classes or vocations of citizens are parts or members, the aristocrats being the "belly" and the lower-class plebians being the "toe." It is the arm of the Roman state, the fierce, noble, and proud military leader Coriolanus with which the play is centrally concerned.

On one level, Coriolanus more closely approximates the tragic heroes of an ancient Greek drama than that of any of Shakespeare's other characters. He is a Great Man who is brought low by his flaw of excessive pride or hubris. But Shakespeare adds a deeper flaw to his central character, for the pride of Coriolanus is accompanied by a dependency upon his mother, Volumnia. As she reminds him in two pivotal scenes (Act III, scene iii and Act V, scene iii), she is her son's creator. In the end, Coriolanus cannot simply sever himself from the body politic of his motherland, for his identity depends upon Volumnia's esteem.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Caius Marcius, a brilliant soldier, is attempting to subdue a mob in Rome when he is summoned to lead his troops against the Volscians from Corioli. The Volscians are headed by Tullus Aufidius, also a great soldier and perennial foe of Marcius. The hatred the two leaders have for each other fires their military ambitions. Marcius’s daring as a warrior, known by all since he was sixteen, leads him to pursue the enemy inside the very gates of Corioli. Locked inside the city, he and his troops fight so valiantly that they overcome the Volscians. Twice wounded, the victorious general is garlanded and hailed as Caius Marcius Coriolanus.

On his return to Rome, Coriolanus is further proclaimed by patricians, consuls, and senators, and he is recommended for the office of consul, an appointment wholeheartedly approved by the nobles. Because the citizens, too, have to vote on his appointment, Coriolanus, accompanied by Menenius Agrippa, goes to Sicinius and Brutus, the plebeian tribunes, to seek their approval.

The people long held only contempt for Coriolanus because of his arrogance and...

(The entire section is 1,614 words.)