The Tragedy of Coriolanus is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, based on the life of the legendary Roman leader. This is one of Shakespeare's later plays, appearing circa 1607, following on the heels of landmark tragedies such as King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra. Shakespeare's play was largely based on the Life of Coriolanus as it was described in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans and Livy's Ab Urbe condita. The tragic hero is Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman soldier.
The play opens in Rome, shortly after the expulsion of the Tarquin kings. There are riots in progress, after stores of grain were withheld from ordinary citizens. The rioters are particularly angry at Caius Martius, a brilliant Roman general whom they blame for the grain being taken away. The rioters encounter a patrician named Menenius Agrippa, as well as Caius Martius himself. Menenius tries to calm the rioters, while Martius is openly contemptuous, and says that the plebeians were not worthy of the grain because of their lack of military service. Two of the tribunes of Rome, Brutus and Sicinius, privately denounce Martius. He leaves Rome after news arrives that a Volscian army is in the field.
The commander of the Volscian army, Tullus Aufidius, has fought with Martius on several occasions, and considers him a blood enemy. The Roman army is commanded by Cominius, with Martius as his deputy. While Cominius takes his soldiers to meet Aufidius' army, Martius leads a sally against the Volscian city of Corioles. The siege of Corioles is initially unsuccessful, but Martius is able to force open the gates of the city, and the Romans conquer it. Even though he is exhausted from the fighting, Martius marches quickly to join Cominius and fight the other Volscian force. Martius and Aufidius meet in single combat, which only ends when Aufidius' own soldiers drag him away from the battle.
In recognition of his incredible bravery, Cominius gives Martius the honorific surname of "Coriolanus". When they return to Rome, Coriolanus' mother Volumnia encourages her son to run for consul. Coriolanus is hesitant to do this, but he bows to his mother's wishes. He effortlessly wins the support of the Roman Senate, and seems at first to have won over the commoners as well. However, Brutus and Sicinius scheme to undo Coriolanus, and whip up another riot in opposition to him becoming consul. Faced with this opposition, Coriolanus flies into a rage, and rails against the concept of popular rule. He compares allowing plebeians to have power over the patricians to allowing "crows to peck the eagles". The two tribunes condemn Coriolanus as a traitor for his words, and order him to be banished.
After being exiled from Rome, Coriolanus seeks out Aufidius in the Volscian capital, and tells them that he will lead their army to victory against Rome. Aufidius and his superiors embrace Coriolanus, and allow him to lead a new assault on the city.
Rome, in its panic, tries desperately to persuade Coriolanus to halt his crusade for vengeance, but both Cominius and Menenius fail. Finally, Volumnia is sent to meet with her son, along with Coriolanus' wife and child, and another lady. Volumnia succeeds in dissuading her son from destroying Rome, and Coriolanus instead concludes a peace treaty between the Volscians and the Romans. When Coriolanus returns to the Volscian capital, conspirators organised by Aufidius kill him for his betrayal.
Text of the play
Coriolanus was first published in the First Folio of 1623. Details of the text, such as the uncommonly detailed stage directions, lead some Shakespeare scholars to believe the text was prepared from a theatrical promptbook.
Coriolanus is perhaps the most opaque of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, rarely pausing to soliloquize or reveal the motives behind his prideful isolation from Roman society. In this way, he is less like effervescent, reflective Shakespearean heroes/heroines Hamlet, Lear and Cleopatra and more like ancients Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas, as well as the Marlovian conqueror Tamburlaine, whose militaristic pride finds a descendant in Coriolanus. Readers have often found him an unsympathetic character, although his caustic pride is strangely, almost delicately balanced at times by a reluctance to be praised by his compatriots and an unwillingness to exploit and slander for political gain.
The political overtones in Coriolanus are rich and nuanced. The drama especially and thoroughly examines the divide between plebeian democracy (favored in the play by villains Brutus and Sicinius) and the autocracy represented by the Coriolanus and the consulship.
The play maintains a serious tone throughout, without any comic scenes, fools, or other devices commonly used by Shakespeare to lighten his tragedies.
T.S. Eliot famously proclaimed Coriolanus' superiority to Hamlet in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, in which he calls the former play, along with Antony and Cleopatra, the Bard's greatest tragic achievement. Eliot alludes to Coriolanus in a passage from his own The Waste Land.
Bertolt Brecht also adapted Shakespeare's play in 1952-5, as Coriolan, to make it a tragedy of the workers not the individual and introduce the alienation effect, but he had second thoughts over it and in the end preferred Shakespeare's original, feeling it had these elements already.