the illustrated shakespeare
The last of the so-called political and published in the First Folio of 1623 from an authorial fair copy, edited for the printer, the five-act play, based on the life of Gnaeus Marcius Coriolanus, a legendary Roman hero of the late 6th and early 5th centuries BC, is essentially an expansion of the Plutarchan biography. Though it is Elizabethan in structure, it is sharply classical in tone.

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 is 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. It embodies a debate or treatise concerning the relative merits of patrician autocracy versus plebeian 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 citizen are parts or members, the aristocrats being the "belly" and the lower-class plebeians 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 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 severe himself from the body politic of his motherland, for his identity depends upon Volumnia's esteem.

The action of the play follows Caius Marcius (afterwards Caius Marcius Coriolanus) through several phases of his career. He is shown as an arrogant young nobleman in peacetime, as a bloodstained and valiant warrior against the city of Corioli, and as a modest victor and candidate for consul. When he refuses to flatter the Roman citizens, for whom he feels contempt, or to show them his wounds to win their vote, they turn on him and banish him. Bitterly he joins forces with his enemy Aufidius, a Volscian, against Rome. Leading the enemy to the edge of the city, Coriolanus is ultimately persuaded by his mother, Volumnia--who brings with her Coriolanus' wife, Virgilia, and his son--to make peace with Rome, and in the end he is killed.

The setting is ancient Italy in the years before the rise of the Roman Empire. The citizens of Rome are disgruntled and mistrustful of the patrician Senate

In ancient Rome, in the aftermath of a famine, the common people, or plebeians, demand the right to set their own price for the city's grain supply. In response to their protests, the ruling aristocracy, or patricians, grant the plebeians five representatives, or tribunes--a decision that provokes the ire of the proud patrician soldier Caius Martius, who has nothing but contempt for the lower classes. For the most part, and draws the ire of the plebes by calling them cowards. However, Marcius is Rome's best general, and at this time, war breaks out with a neighbouring Italian tribe, the Volscians, who are led by Martius' great rival, Tullus Aufidius. In the campaign that follows, the Volscians are defeated, and the Rome takes the Italian city of Corioles, thanks to the heroism of Martius. In recognition of his great deeds, he is granted the name Coriolanus. Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian general, vows to avenge the defeat.

Upon his return to Rome, Coriolanus is given a hero's welcome, and the Senate offers to make him consul. In order to gain this office, however he must have popular support to be elected to this position, and two tribunes, plead for the votes of the plebeians, a task that he undertakes reluctantly. At first, the common people agree to give him their votes, but they later Brutus and Sicinius, conspire to reverse the plebes' opinion on him and they reverse their decision at the prodding of two clever tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, who consider Coriolanus an enemy of the people. This drives the proud Coriolanus into a fury, and he speaks out intemperately against the very idea of popular rule. denouncing the tribunes, even saying that the office itself should be abolished. Volumnia, his mother, attempts to soothe him, but when confronted with the tribunes in front of the people, their insults and accusations are too much for the proud warrior. ; Brutus and Sicinius, seizing on his words, declare him a traitor to the Roman state and drive him into exile. Coriolanus angrily travels to Antium.

There Coriolanus meets with Aufidius. He offers himself as a war leader, for Aufidius either to accept or to slay. Aufidius grants him the leadership of half the Volscian army. Though Aufidius chafes under Coriolanus's arrogance, although he soon feels himself to be falling into his new ally's shadow the two generals invade Roman territory, advancing to the very gates of Rome itself. Throwing the city into a panic--Rome's armies are helpless to stop the advance, and soon Aufidius and Coriolanus are encamped outside the city walls. All of Coriolanus's previous friends and allies try to reason with him. However, when his mother, Volumnia, to whom he is devoted, begs him to make peace, he relents, and the Romans hail Volumnia the saviour of the city. When Coriolanus returns to the Volscians, Meanwhile, Coriolanus and the Volscians return to Antium, where the residents hail Coriolanus as a hero. Aufidius, feeling slighted, declares that Coriolanus's failure to take Rome amounts to treachery; he explains that Rome will not be conquered-only to be dragged before the Volscian senators, accused of treason by Aufidius, and unceremoniously stabbed to death.

Coriolanus is in many ways unusual for Shakespearean drama: it has a single narrative line, its images are compact, and sharply effective, the characterisation of the most effective moments made by understatement or silence. When the banished Coriolanus returns at the head of the opposing army, he says little to Menenius, the trusted family friend and politician, or to Volumnia, who have come to plead for Rome. His mother's argument is long and sustained, and for more than 50 lines he listens, until his resolution is broken from within: then, as a stage direction in the original edition testifies, he "holds her by the hand, silent." In his own words, he has "obeyed instinct" and betrayed his dependence; he cannot "stand / As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin." Thus is his desire for revenge defeated. While his mother is hailed as "patroness, the life of Rome," Coriolanus returns to the enemy city, where he is accused of treachery and meets his fate at the hands of a mob.