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William Shakespeare's Coriolanus

By Doc Sherwood

By Doc SherwoodPublished 4 months ago 6 min read
Top Story - December 2023

Written around 1608, Coriolanus was possibly William Shakespeare’s last tragedy. He wrote four such plays set in Ancient Rome, and coincidentally his first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, is also one of these. However, while Titus is not very accurate historically, for Coriolanus (as well as Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra) Shakespeare made extensive use of Plutarch’s Lives of the Most Noble Grecians and Romans which had been translated into English by Thomas North in 1579. Coriolanus does not appear to have seen print in Shakespeare’s lifetime, and the earliest text is from the posthumously-published First Folio of 1623.

The tragic hero, Caius Martius, is a soldier in the Roman army. Unlike most Shakespearean heroes he is also a family man, and lives with his mother Volumina, his wife Virgilia, and their son Martius Junior. Early in the play Caius battles the Volscians, enemies to Rome. Defeating General Tullus Aufidius, he turns the tide and the Romans conquer the city of Corioli. In honour of his great victory Caius is renamed Coriolanus, meaning literally “of Corioli.” Aufidius meanwhile escapes with his life, vowing vengeance on Rome, and we’ll hear more of him before the story is through.

Coriolanus returns home amid much celebration, and in recognition of his deeds is offered a Consulship, a high-ranking political position on the government of Rome. The play is set in the early days of the Roman Republic, and in this ultimately ill-fated attempt at a democratic society the common people (known as plebeians) were represented by elected officials called Tribunes. Two of these, Brutus and Sicinius, are distrustful of Coriolanus because they fear he does not have the people’s interests at heart. They begin plotting in secret to prevent his appointment as Consul.

It’s established early in the play that Coriolanus is no friend to the common man, and is considered proud and arrogant by many. Brutus and Sicinius plan to exploit this. The custom in the Roman Republic was for any man seeking a Consulship to put on a “gown of humility” and walk among the people, asking their approval for his taking up government office. Through this ritual, some kind of respect was shown to the voice of the citizenry. Coriolanus, who dislikes the idea of lowering himself in this manner, asks to be excused but is told he must go through with it. He has no choice therefore but to face the humiliation before him.

Although Coriolanus passes the trial, winning the people’s permission to become Consul, he is then betrayed by the two Tribunes who make cunning use of his refusal to show his battle-scars. Public opinion turns against Coriolanus, and the decision to promote him is reversed. Thus does a man of war prove unready for the political scheming of peacetime.

Coriolanus’s violent anger at the Roman State results in his banishment, whereat he declares in a furious riposte that he is the one banishing Rome, not the other way around. Tears however are shed on all sides when he must part from his beloved mother, wife and son, with no prospect of ever seeing them again.

Then, turning his back on Rome, our hero heads off in search of his old enemy, the Volscian General he defeated at Corioli, Tullus Aufidius.

Aufidius seems nothing short of delighted to see his nemesis again. Indeed, what follows is an astonishing speech in which he announces that facing Coriolanus on the battlefield was more exciting than when his wife came to him on their wedding night. He adds that he has since had twelve dreams of fighting Coriolanus again, all of them strikingly homoerotic. “We have been down together in my sleep,” he declares, each apparently tearing off the other’s armour as they lock in a fatal warlike embrace. If Shakespeare was what we now call gay, as many scholars believe, these lines may be of interest to students of his personal life.

Coriolanus, siding with Aufidius and his army, renews the Volscian hostilities against Rome and wreaks terrible revenge on his homeland. Now upon the conniving Tribunes Brutus and Sicinius is heaped the blame they richly deserve. When in desperation they plead that they cannot understand how a Roman hero could change so much in so short a time, wise old Menenius replies with perhaps the greatest line in the play:

“There is differency between a grub and a butterfly, but your butterfly was a grub. This Martius is grown from man to dragon! He has wings, he’s more than a creeping thing!”

Soon Rome lies in ruins, and Volscian conquest is certain. Coriolanus refuses to heed any and all pleas for peace, even from Menenius himself, though the old man was like a father to him. All seems lost, but in the end it’s neither soldiers nor politicians who finally persuade Coriolanus to show mercy. Rather, the Roman Republic is saved by his family, the mother and wife and son who are the only ones Coriolanus never ceased to love.

Aufidius sees opportunity even as his army relinquishes Rome, for now he has the perfect excuse to seize absolute power once and for all. So Coriolanus, returning in shameful surrender to Volscia, finds his fate waiting for him. After leading the soldiers in mocking laughter at this “boy of tears” who wept and capitulated when his mother told him to, Aufidius lives out his dream at last and savagely slays Coriolanus.

The interrogation of Classical Roman values is a theme running throughout Shakespeare’s four plays of Ancient Rome, and one he returned to in the late comedy Cymbeline. In Coriolanus, it’s tempting to conclude that much blame rests on the plebeians, and the Tribunes who represent them. Shakespeare’s later plays often give us the impression he lost something of his common touch once he had made his money and his name.

However, and although Coriolanus was never grouped among the so-called Four Great Tragedies, it functions as these plays do. A psychological flaw in the hero is ultimately responsible for the blood-soaked outcome. More than any ostensible villain of the piece, whether Brutus or Sicinius or even Aufidius himself, it’s surely Coriolanus’s pride that undoes him – just as Hamlet’s doubt, Othello’s jealousy and Macbeth’s guilt are likewise their ruin. Eric Rasmussen and Jonathan Bate go further, supplying their own conclusion to this much-neglected masterpiece of the great William Shakespeare:

“…by a lovely irony, Rome is saved by the words of an old woman, not the actions of a young man. No wonder Caius Martius is so angry when Aufidius calls him ‘boy’: Coriolanus is Peter Pan in full body armour, a boy who refuses to grow up.”

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Doc Sherwood

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Comments (8)

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  • marcia regina miranda de oliveira2 months ago

    I didn't know this Shakespeare play, my favorite story is Othello, and it struck me that the character's weakness led to his downfall. Excellent work!

  • Ray N.4 months ago

    Captivating summary and also explores some really key themes! It's even more interesting considering that in the Hunger Games, the main villain is called Coriolanus and I now suspect that it's directly inspired by this Shakespearean tragedy. Many interesting parallels between the play itself and the 2020 book Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes - like how Coriolanus's mentor is also called Volumnia, and how he is banished after the Hunger Games. My brain just got bigger! Thank you :)

  • Celia in Underland4 months ago

    I really enjoyed the overview an summary. I haven't read Coriolanus but thanks to you, it is now on my list! I can never quite decide whether I prefer Hamlet or Othello. But for some reason I tend to teach Macbeth because, of the tragedies, its the one that seems to resonate the most with young adults.

  • Test4 months ago

    Remarkable job! Maintain the fantastic work—congrats!

  • Babs Iverson4 months ago

    Captivating summary and loved it!!! 💕❤️❤️ Congratulations on Top Story too!°

  • Gerard DiLeo4 months ago


  • Staringale4 months ago

    This offers a comprehensive overview of the story and its historical background. With this article you have effectively dived into the plot, describing the main character's journey, his relationships, and the political intrigue that shapes the narrative. It provides a balanced blend of storytelling and historical context, shedding light on the political and societal dynamics of the Roman Republic, which enriches the reader's understanding of the play. The insightful analysis of the protagonist’s struggles and inner conflict, capturing the complexity of Coriolanus' character and the challenges he faces as a warrior navigating the political landscape, effectively conveys the tensions between Coriolanus and the common people, as well as the political manipulation that ultimately leads to his banishment, framing the story within the wider social and political context. Moreover, the detailed exploration of Coriolanus' emotional journey and his pursuit of vengeance against his former enemy creates a sense of anticipation and drama, making the review engaging and insightful. Doc! With this post you have effectively conveyed the play's significance and offered readers a compelling glimpse into the world of Shakespearean tragedy.

  • Rachel Deeming4 months ago

    Great summary and discussion, Doc! I will check this out in its Shakespearean finery at some point.

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