About Shakespeare's "Coriolanus"
"Coriolanus," also known as "The Tragedy of Coriolanus, " was written in the
latter part of William Shakespeare's career and is his last major tragedy. Like
Shakespeare's earlier plays, "Titus Andronicus," "Julius Caesar" and
Cleopatra," this play was set in ancient Rome and based on historical accounts.
The primary source was the "Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus" written in the
late 1st Century by the ancient Greek historian, biographer and essayist
Plutarch. Other possible sources include the Roman historian Livy's
"History of Rome."
Most Shakespearean scholars agree that "Coriolanus" was written directly after
"Antony and Cleopatra." It shares with that play a fascination with the complex
private lives of very public individuals. Screenwriter Logan says, "You can see
Shakespeare turning over certain themes in this period of his career. In a way,
the character of Coriolanus is almost a continuation of the character of Antony:
a career military man who is finally brought low by his own shifting conceptions
of honor and loyalty. Both Antony and Coriolanus betray their countries, and
both are finally undone by their inability to master their intense passions. "
Shakespeare's exploration of this theme -- the isolation and ultimate
excoriation of a seemingly popular public figure -- would continue in his next
play, "Timon of Athens. "
"Coriolanus " is among Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, but it is hardly without
admirers. Poet T.S. Eliot, in his book The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and
Criticism (1922), called it Shakespeare's "most assured artistic success,
with "Antony and Cleopatra. " Critic and Shakespeare scholar Harold Bloom, in his
bestseller Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (Riverhead, 1998) writes,
"'Coriolanus,' even more than 'Julius Caesar' and 'Henry V,' is Shakespeare's
political play. " Citing his fascination with the title character, Bloom
describes Coriolanus as "a battering ram of a soldier, literally a one-man
army, the greatest killing machine in all of Shakespeare. "
"Coriolanus " is set in the early years of the Roman Republic, which began in 509
B.C. when the tyrannical King Tarquin was overthrown and an elected government
took over. Initially, all public offices were open only to the patrician class,
who effectively absorbed the absolute power that had been enjoyed by the
monarchy. In 494 B.C., ordinary Romans (the plebeians) won the right to elect
two representatives, known as Tribunes, to the Roman Senate. But the remainder
of Rome's elected offices - including the most powerful office, Consul -
remained off-limits to all but patricians, and there was considerable resentment
and mistrust between the two classes. Meanwhile, Rome was in ongoing conflict
with the Volsci people, who formed a neighboring city-state; the conflict began
under King Tarquin and lasted for two centuries.
The historical conflict between Rome and the Volsci, and the struggle for
political power, are woven into the narrative of Shakespeare's play. As the play
begins, Rome's plebeians are bearing the brunt of a grain shortage and some
citizens are on the verge of revolt. The focus of their anger is the valiant,
honorable warrior Caius Martius, a patrician who responds to their complaint
with open scorn. Then Rome receives confirmation of an imminent attack by a
Volscian army under the command of Martius' blood enemy, Tullus Aufidius, and
Martius sets out with a small force for the Volscian city of Corioles.
Outnumbered but willing to perish before accepting defeat, Martius conquers the
city virtually single-handedly, quashing the Volscian threat. Upon returning to
Rome, Martius is given a third name, Coriolanus, in recognition of his
achievement. Pressured by his ambitious mother, Volumnia, the newly-dubbed
Coriolanus reluctantly agrees to seek the office of Consul. But he bristles at
the rituals of soliciting plebeian votes, and his political enemies, the
Tribunes Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus, whip up public opposition to his
bid. Rejected and banished from Rome, Coriolanus decides to avenge himself on
the countrymen who betrayed him. He seeks out his enemy, Aufidius, in the
Volscian city of Antium, and offers to join his forces for an attack on Rome. As
their armies begin their assault on Roman territories, Coriolanus' closest
allies -- his friend and political patron, Senator Menenius, and his commanding
general, Cominius -- vainly implore him to spare the city. Finally, Coriolanus'
family -- his wife, Virgilia, and son, Martius, along with Volumnia - arrive to
beg the avenging warrior for mercy. It is the iron-willed Volumnia, who proudly
molded him into a warrior, who has the last word: she wrings from her son the
concession that saves Rome. A peace is reached but Aufidius turns on Coriolanus,
accusing him of treason. Proud as ever, Coriolanus reacts with fury, daring his
enemies to kill him - which they do.
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