Coriolanus is a tragedy following the fortunes of Caius Martius: a Roman general distinguished in the field of battle, but proud, impolitic and full of contempt for the common man. The setting is the early days of the Roman republic, a time of political conflict between the aristocratic patricians and the plebians or common citizens of Rome. Armed and hungry, the citizens are angry that the city’s superfluous food stores are being witheld from them. They particularly blame Martius. The patrician, Menenius, tries to placate them, but Martius delivers a disdainful verbal attack against the people, describing them as fickle and, as non-combatants, undeserving of the stores. Martius returns to the war and, enraged by the cowardice of his flagging troops, single-handedly attacks the city of Corioles and confronts Aufidius, the leader of the Volscians. Martius is celebrated for his victory and is given the name Coriolanus.
On his return to Rome, Volumnia (Coriolanus’s mother, who is full of ambition for her son) encourages Coriolanus to run for consul of the senate. He initially wins the approval of the senate and even the voices of the people, but the tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius (elected representatives of the people), easily whip up popular dislike of the general, leading the people to revoke their voices. When Coriolanus publicly rages against democracy, the people banish him from Rome. Coriolanus rejects his Roman identity and joins forces with the Volscians to lead an attack on Rome. Cominius (head of the Roman army) and Menenius both fail to dissuade Coriolanus from the attack. Finally Volumnia, attended by Coriolanus’s wife (Virginia) and son, moves Coriolanus to arrange a peace treaty between the two sides. The Volscians kill Coriolanus for breaking his oath.
- Article by:
- Andrew Dickson
- Tragedies, Global Shakespeare
Andrew Dickson discusses the influence of classical civilisation and literature on Shakespeare, and the playwright's critique of Roman values in Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus and Julius Caesar.
- Article by:
- Michael Dobson
Michael Dobson describes the political context in which Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus, and how the play has resonated with later generations of playwrights, directors and actors.
- Article by:
- Kiernan Ryan
Despite their dazzling diversity, the tragedies of Shakespeare gain their enduring power from a shared dramatic vision, argues Kiernan Ryan.
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