Coriolanus Summary

Coriolanus by William Shakespeare is a tragic play about Roman warrior Coriolanus, who is expelled from Rome for his patrician pride.

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

  • Coriolanus is to be named consul, but he refuses to honor the public and is thus cast out of Rome by its citizens and tribunes.

  • 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 mother pleads with him to change course.

  • When Coriolanus attempts to broker a peace treaty, Aufidius kills him.

Summary

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Last Updated on September 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 776

A mob of Roman plebeians is on the point of rioting over the shortage of grain, which they accuse the patricians, their rulers, of hoarding. Menenius Agrippa, a good-natured member of the patrician class who is popular with the plebeians, attempts to pacify them. But he is soon joined by his friend Caius Marcius, who detests the common people and treats them with contempt. The people grow angry, but they are interrupted by a messenger who comes to tell Caius Marcius that the Volscians, enemies of the Romans, have put an army in the field, and so he must prepare for battle.

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While the senior general, Cominius, meets the Volscian army in battle, Caius Marcius is tasked with capturing the city of Corioli. He does so, fighting heroically, and then immediately rides to the aid of Cominius and his troops, who are in retreat. The reinforced Roman army attacks the Volscians again and this time defeats them, with Caius Marcius fighting courageously. He encounters his sworn enemy, the Volscian general Tullus Aufidius, in the field, but some of the Volscian troops rescue Aufidius and drag him away from the battle, to his grave chagrin. Cominius honors Caius Marcius with the agnomen, or title, of Coriolanus, to commemorate his capture of Corioli.

In Rome, Caius Marcius, now called Coriolanus, has achieved such heroic status that the patricians, and even many of the plebeians, cry out for him to be elected consul. His selection by the senate is a mere formality, but he cannot bring himself to be polite to the plebeian delegates who must confirm his appointment. The plebeians are going to select him as consul despite his insults, but they are stirred to anger by the two tribunes, Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus, who hate and fear Coriolanus. When the plebeians change their minds about accepting Coriolanus, he furiously denounces the tribunes and says they should be stripped of their powers, since plebeians should not wield such power over patricians.

Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus say that Coriolanus’s words amount to treason, and they demand that he be executed in the traditional manner: by being hurled from the top of the Tarpeian Rock. Coriolanus’s friends, Menenius and Cominius, and even his formidable mother, Volumnia, exhort him to speak mildly to the tribunes and make peace. Coriolanus cannot bring himself to do so, and once again he addresses both tribunes and plebeians with bitter contempt. He is not executed, but he is banished from Rome. He embraces his fate, saying, “There is a world elsewhere.”

After the fall of Corioli to the Romans, the Volscian general, Tullus Aufidius, has retired to the city of Antium. Coriolanus goes there and enters Aufidius’s house. He says that the Volscian can cut his throat if he wishes. If he chooses not to do so, however, Coriolanus will serve him and help him to conquer Rome. Aufidius instantly abandons his personal enmity and hails Coriolanus as a friend. Together, they put an army on the field.

The Volscians set up camp close to Rome, ready to attack the city. The Romans send Coriolanus’s two closest friends, Cominius and Menenius, to reason with him, but he will not listen to either of them. Finally, they send an embassy of women, including Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother, and Virgilia, his wife. Volumnia points out that Coriolanus need not turn against the Volscians and fight for Rome again. He can negotiate a peace treaty between the two sides. Moved by his mother’s appeals, Coriolanus agrees to do this, taking no notice of Aufidius, who is infuriated by this new development.

In Rome, Volumnia and her party receive a heroes’ welcome. However, in Antium, Aufidius has started a conspiracy to kill Coriolanus. When Coriolanus returns, he says that he still serves the Volscians and has negotiated peace with Rome on their behalf. Aufidius calls him a traitor, referring to him contemptuously as a “boy of tears.” Coriolanus loses his temper and points out how many Volscians he has killed in his military career. The Volscians recall all the family and friends they have lost in battles with Rome and call for Coriolanus’s death. The conspirators stab him, and Aufidius stands on his dead body, saying that he will answer to the lords of the city for his part in this affair, but they should rejoice that a man who was a danger to them all is dead. As the body of Coriolanus is carried away, Aufidius reflects that his anger is gone and that he feels only sorrow. Despite his slaughter of many Volscians, Coriolanus “shall have a noble memory.”

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