Coriolanus #

Chronologically, this is a 450 year prequel to Julius Caesar becoming part of a trilogy of Roman plays; the sequel - Antony and Cleopatra. Julius Caesar was written in the late 1590’s with the former and latter, Jacobean Plays written sometime in 1607/08 – they could not be more different in language textural concerns or sentiment.

By the time of the Renaissance, Rome was considered the epitome of what a civilisation could achieve through empire building, controlling the entire Mediterranean surrounds, and if you consider Constantinople, lasting just short of two thousand years. Egypt’s empire lasted longer, but historically accurate information about it would have to wait until the 19th C. Ghenghis Khan had a larger empire, but it only lasted 70 years.

Shakespeare was well grounded in Roman literature and history. Titus Andronicus owes a lot to Ovid. Shakespeare’s sources for his Roman plays are Plutarch’s Parallel Lives and Machiavelli’s The Prince, the Discourses on Livy, and The Art of War. What is telling is what Shakespeare chooses to use holus bolus from Plutarch and what he uses his discretion to cut out. Plutarch mentions Priests and soothsayers in Coriolanus, yet Shakespeare cuts them out here but uses them in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Why?

Plutarch is a Greek historian comparing the lives of great Greek leaders with Roman ones. His Lives of Coriolanus is juxtaposed to that of Alcibades, an Athenian General who sides with the Spartans, and later defects to the Athenian side and so is dispised by both. He too is assasinated. Plutarch shows a bias towards his Greek heroes.

Plutarch is writing more than a hundred years after the events he records and Shakespeare is working from a translation by North, recently published, that had serious translation problems.

Coriolanus appears more like a tendentious political and economic manifesto, with one dimensional characters rather than a richly layered drama with self-aware scripts, and ornately nuanced characters seen in plays like Hamlet or Antony and Cleopatra Yet Shakespeare seldom appears to take sides, rather presents a balanced picture of each side with some good and some bad for each.

Shakespeare obviously suffered an obsessive compulsive condition as most of his plays are fixated on legitimate order, subverted by the folly of pompous pretentions of vaunted powermongers. Without the benefit of modern sedation, he just couldn’t stop exposing the risk of tyranny.

There have been many conflicting views and interpretations of Shakespeare over the last 430 years. He tends to play to both sides of historical interpretations. His English chronicles are highly patriotic and certainly aligned to show the Tudors in a more favorable light than the Yorkists. In Richard III he appears to overplay his hand.

As a popular dramatist Shakespeare can hardly afford to alienate his audience so using his dramatic skills, most plays are sttuctured with dramatic ambiguities. While Shakespeare seldom reveals his positions didactically, it is possible to discern patterns of meaning through recurring motifs. The most frequent one is usurpation of power, reulting in disorder, and forms of betrayal in almost every play. Deception, self deception together with appearance and reality are other recurring motifs. Supceptability to flattery is often ridiculed.

While undoubtedly Shakespeare sets out to entertain his audience, many plays inform an illiterate audience about past and current history, some set overseas as a thinly veiled effort to avoid censure.

Midland Revolt 1607 #

In Coriolanus it is likely Shakespeare was motivated by the Midland Revolt of 1607 - 1608 agitating against shortages of food (corn represented all grains) for the peasants, while the rich luxuriated in plenty.

Other historical revolts can be found here:

The previous three years in England had seen steep hikes in the price of wheat and barley, famine, and food riots. Shakespeare adapts his source, Plutarch’s Life of Coriolanus, a Greek biography composed in about 100 AD, to make the political crisis it portrays resemble closely the recent English experience.

James I, had become more authoritarian, claiming more authority, but wielding less. Insurrection and conspiracy were underlying threats from undergroud Catholics, evidenced by the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Sir Walter Ralegh was being held in The Tower on charges of conspiracy.

In Plutarch’s text, the Roman populace are angry with the ruling class over a crisis caused by usury—unscrupulous lending of money by the rich to the poor at extortionate rates and with enslavement of debtors. But in Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus faces a mob which is primarily protesting for another, additional reason, and it is exactly the same one as the Midlanders contemporary with the dramatist—unfair grain prices, the failure of the government to ensure adequate systems of food distribution, unregulated hoarding and widespread hunger. As the citizen says in the opening scene, the rich:

‘ne’er cared for us / yet: suffer us to famish, and their store-houses / crammed with grain.’

This new grievance of Shakespeare’s Roman mob was a direct response to the events of May and early June 1608. Several thousand peasants gathered at meetings in the Midlands, especially in Leicestershire, Northamptonshire, and Warwickshire, of which Shakespeare was a native. The disturbances, collectively known as ‘The Midland Revolt’ (1607), were led by and for peasants. The unofficial leader was a Northamptonshire tinker named ‘Captain Pouch’, or John Reynolds, who tried to organize a resistance by men, women and children to recent land enclosures. The response of the authorities, under orders from James I, was to impose curfews, erect gibbets, and send in the Deputy Lieutenants of Leicestershire to quell the rioters. After a pitched battle at Newton, near Kettering, in which about fifty people died, Captain Pouch and the others leaders of the rebellion were hanged and quartered. The figure of the autocratic Coriolanus, absolutely deaf to the pleas of his hungry populace, will have meant something all too familiar in the first decade of the 17th century. (Arts and Humanities Research Council)

It is frequently clear that the National Interest is the interest of the ruling elite; the real interests of rank and file citizens is never a factor in the equation. Private interests argue that their interests are one and the same as the public interest.

The Public Interest is not the same as what the public may be interested in. Up to 90% of the public is not interested in politics.

This gives the governing classes lots of rope. As long as they use lots of three word slogans to convince apathetic voters that they are responsible.

Introduction #

Coriolanus is set in the very early days of the Republic, circa 494 BCE and shows the Plebeians asserting their political rights to have a say in how Rome is governed. The Patricians are dominant due to their millitary prowess, their nobility, wealth, hygiene, and clothing. Their hiighest virtue is military bravery, glory and honour.

Shakespeare engages in intellectual archaeology, looking back to the origins of the Roman Republic. It is a small confined walled city (polis) surrounded and threatened by enemy states. Martial prowess is essential for security and survival. Coriolanus learns he needs the polis to survive and it learns it needs him as well. From polis, we get the terms policies, politics.

Shakespeare is aware of fundamental differences in social norms, ethical values and codes of living in pagan times compared to his own Christian era. Therefore he depicts early Rome in severe, austere and hard mentalities.

Commodius claims “Valour is the chiefist virtue”. What are our normative virtues?

Volumnia, mother of Corialanus claims if she had 12 sons, she would rather have the all come home dead, than turned cowardly and run. This echoes the Spartan mothers who told their sons to “come home with your shield or on it”. The family generates a warrior culture where the country is continually at war to keep the Plebeians fearful and obedient.

Family life also appears cold and austere as there is little romance or warmth between Corilanus and his mother, Volumnia (big) or his wife, Virgilia (virgin?) no, they have a son. 1984 offers a similar austere society devoid of romance.

Though pagans believed in an afterlife, it was not idealised. Achilles tells Odysseus that he would “rather be a slave. than a king in the Underworld”. The preferred way to gain immortality was Kleos, heroism, your reputation.

The Plebeians are depicted as base, dirty with bad breath, labourers, fickle and easily maniputlated. Their legitimate complaints are for basic needs, food, and dignity. The language between the two groups is crude, insulting and abusive.

Later, Brecht, Gunter Glass and Orwell would place their hope in the Plebs.

There is little poetic language in the play as Shakespeare captures the austerity of Republican Rome. When the Romans first encountered Greek Art, Archeteture and culture, they recognised how inferior they were. Rome had political and military might, but were overwhelmed with Greek advances in artistic and culture matters. It is not until after the Empire emerges in 31 BCE that the Hellenisation of Rome begins.

There are many contradictions in the play. Coriolanus claims he deserves to be a Consul to represent the Plebeians, yet he will not stoop to appeal to them by flattery. He is aware of his superiority as a warrior, but realises he is a poor politician. He fights alone against in the wall of Coriles, claims he can take on 40 of the Plebeians and defeat them, yet in the end he is assassinated by 4 Volscian conspirators.

The early Republic consisted of three classes: Patricians, Plebeians and slaves. Here the Plebeians are called Citizens, which suggests they are demanding active engagement and agency. They do succeed in establishing Tribunes to speak for them, initially two, and eventually ten.

The history of the Roman Empire can be divided into four distinct periods:

  1. The Period of Kings (625-510 BCE),
  2. Republican Rome (510-31 BCE), and
  3. Imperial Rome (31 BC – AD 476).
  4. Eastern Empire Constantinople (AD 338 - 1453)

Like most states, Rome manufactured a mythical history, from Romuous and Remus and later, Virgil’s Aeniad

Initially Italy was ruled by the Etruscans from Tuscany until 509. Tarquin won major battles to subjugate them and established a Rebublic, in 509 BCE, run by a Senate of wealthy, landed, noble families (Patricians) - an Oligarchy or some would call it a Plutocracy. Eventually it was run by a virtual military Junta.

The Rape of Lucretia, a legendary heroine of ancient Rome, , the quintessence of virtue, is memorialised by many artists including Shakespeare. It is questioningly credited with the expulsion of the Etruscans.

Rome created the most comprehensive and systematic code of goveranace with checks and balances to curb the power of one leader. The Senate nominated two Consuls, who were limited to a term of one year (due to fear of one-man arbitrary rule), to act as executive rulers. Eventually Tribunes were appointed to represent the needs of the Plebeians (people). About 10% Patricians, 65% Plebeians, 25% Slaves.

Roman Republic (509 - 31? BCE)

Year Event
494 BC First secessio plebis: the plebs abandoned Rome for the nearby Monte Sacro.
471 BC The Plebeian Council was reorganized by tribes.
459 BC Under popular pressure, the Senate increased the tribunes of the plebs from two to ten.
449 BC Resolutions of the Plebeian Council were given the full force of law subject to Senate veto. The second of two decemviri, specially-elected ten man commissions, issued the last of the Twelve Tables, the fundamental laws of the Republic.
447 BC The Tribal Assembly was established, and granted the right to elect quaestors.
445 BC Lex Canuleia: Marriage between patricians and plebeians was legalized.
443 BC The offices of the Tribuni militum consulari potestate were established. A collegium of three patrician or plebeian tribunes, one each from specific Roman tribes would hold the power of the consuls from year to year, subject to the Senate.

With the expansion of the empire, due to longer travel times, the length of the Consuls terms were extended up to five year terms. This prolongation led to the development of loyalty of armies to their Generals, many of whom became extremeley wealthy due to spoils of war and the imposition of taxation on territories conquered. Power gravitated to successful military Generals. Some failed to make the transition from successful warlords to peace time leaders.

The early Republic recognised the need for codified laws which were inscribed on twelve tablets for all to see.

Later Tacitus warned:

When the state is most corrupt, then the laws are most multiplied.

Revolts #

History records many peasant uprisings including the Spartan Heliots, Wat Tyler in the 1380’s following the Black Death, all the way through to European uprings in 1848 which virutally eliminated unlimited Monarchial rule.

For more:


The first major slave revolt was Spartacus in 73 BCE. At his high point he commanded 40,000 troops, fellow slaves and disaffected workers, controlling most of southern Italy. He won many battles against poorly organised Roman battalions, but was finally crushed by the might of an army led by Crassus in the spring of 71 BCE. He was killed in battle and his body never identified.

Recurring Motifs: #

flattery #

This is a frequent issue in Shakespeare’s plays, especially in King Richard II, Hamlet and King Lear

Tacitus comments on the erosion of the “pretences of freedom” when people fawn on their leaders.

“It was a tainted, meanly obsequious age. The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.

Fulsome praise - obsequious civility?

CORIOLANUS taling about the Pebleians

My nobler friends, I crave their pardons. For
The mutable, rank-scented meiny, let them (retinue)
Regard me, as I do not flatter, and
Therein behold themselves.
III. 1. 87 - 90

Roof - The city appears to have a canopy over it?


The rabble should have first ⌜unroofed⌝ the city
Ere so prevailed with me.
I. 1. 240 – 241


That is the way to lay the city flat,
To bring the roof to the foundation
And bury all which yet distinctly ranges
In heaps and piles of ruin.
I. 4 256 – 259.

Is this a precurcor of “Chicken Little’s the sky is falling in?” It reflects more likely the pwoermongers great fear that hierarchies are under threat. Coriolanus believes his eminence comes from his military strength:

On fair ground
I could beat forty of them.

Or when questioned about what brings your here he asserts:

My deserts, not my desires>


There appears to be a class divide caused by birth, nobility and valour in fighting as well as a disparity in access to food. Modern politicians disparage this as class envy.


What authority surfeits on would
relieve us. If they would yield us but the superfluity
while it were wholesome, we might guess they
relieved us humanely. But they think we are too
dear. The leanness that afflicts us, the object of our
misery, is as an inventory to particularize their
abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them. Let
us revenge this with our pikes ere we become
rakes; for the gods know I speak this in hunger for
bread, not in thirst for revenge.

SECOND CITIZEN usually a more reasonable and accomodating one.

Care for us? True, indeed! They ne’er
cared for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their
storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for
usury to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome
act established against the rich, and provide
more piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain
the poor.

Shakespeare could be quoting a verse in the Bible - Book of Acts St. Paul, describing the practice of the early Church:

“Wee must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other’s necessities.”

It was later paraphrased by Karl Marx in 1848 as:

“from each according to his ability to each according to his needs.”

Virtues #


I shall lack voice. The deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be uttered feebly. It is held
That valor is the chiefest virtue

AUFIDIUS claims “So our ⌜virtues⌝ Lie in th’ interpretation of the time, V. (Machiavelli?)

The seven heavenly virtues combine the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude with the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity.

The seven deadly sins: Pride, Envy, Wrath, Anger, Sloth, Avarice, Gluttony, Lust.

When Coriolanus addresses the Plebians He is asked why he came:


We do, sir. Tell us what hath brought you to ’t.

CORIOLANUS Mine own desert.

Ay, but ⌜not⌝ mine own desire.

Justice #


I minded him how royal ’twas to pardon
When it was less expected.

MENENIUS chiding Sinicus and Brutus He is accusing them of them of being an ass, prolonging court cases for more money and truncating cases for personal reasons.

Why, then you should discover a brace of
unmeriting, proud, violent, testy magistrates, alias
fools, as any in Rome.
II.1.43 - 45

I ⌜cannot⌝
say your Worships have delivered the matter
well when I find the ass in compound with the
major part of your syllables.
II. 1. 50 - 53 … You wear out a good wholesome forenoon
in hearing a cause between an orange-wife
and a faucet-seller, and then rejourn the controversy
of threepence to a second day of audience.
When you are hearing a matter between party and
party, if you chance to be pinched with the colic,
you make faces like mummers, set up the bloody
flag against all patience, and, in roaring for a
chamber pot, dismiss the controversy bleeding,
the more entangled by your hearing. All the peace
you make in their cause is calling both the parties
knaves. You are a pair of strange ones.
II. 1. 71 - 82


Come, come. You are well understood to be a
perfecter giber for the table than a necessary (accuser)
bencher in the Capitol.
II. 1. 83 - 85

Good e’en to your Worships. More of
your conversation would infect my brain, being
the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians. I will be
bold to take my leave of you.

Excerpts from: #

Act I. #

When the play Coriolanus begins, two Roman patricians, Menenius and Martius, calm a revolt by the city’s famished plebeians.

Menenius attempts to placate them. Martius announces that the plebeians, whom he hates, have been granted tribunes to represent them in government. Then news arrives of a Volscian army, led by Aufidius, threatening Rome.

As usual in Shakespeare, we hear about the hero before we meet him.

Citizens - rather than subjects - they appear to have agency and influence - lacking in future plays.


You are all resolved rather to die than to famish?

ALL: Resolved, resolved!


First, you know Caius Martius is chief enemy to the people. (Briefly called Coriolanus for annihilating that city)

ALL: We know ’t, we know ’t!


Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price. Is ’t a verdict?

ALL: No more talking on ’t; let it be done. Away, away!

SECOND CITIZEN: One word, good citizens.


We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good.
What authority surfeits on would relieve us.
If they would yield us but the superfluity
while it were wholesome, we might guess they
relieved us humanely. But they think we are too
dear. The leanness that afflicts us, the object of our
misery, is as an inventory to particularize their
abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them.
Let us revenge this with our pikes ere we become
rakes; for the gods know I speak this in hunger for
bread, not in thirst for revenge.


Would you proceed especially against Caius Martius?


Against him first. He’s a very dog to the commonalty.

MARTIUS, (Coriolanus) is abrasive having little tact and speaks with great contumely:

What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you;
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese

MENENIUS one of the more understanding and respectful Consuls, attempts to appease the citizens:

I tell you, friends, most charitable care
Have the patricians of you. For your wants,
Your suffering in this dearth, you may as well
Strike at the heaven with your staves as lift them
Against the Roman state, whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs
Of more strong link asunder than can ever
Appear in your impediment. For the dearth,
The gods, not the patricians, make it, and
Your knees to them, not arms, must help. Alack,
You are transported by calamity
Thither where more attends you, and you slander
The helms o’ th’ state, who care for you like fathers,
When you curse them as enemies.
I.1. 67 - 80

Body Parts become an analogy to explain how the body corporate is meant to serve the greater community. A metaphor from Livy - the body politics. It is as contrived as any other rationalisation for capitalism.

In Julius Caesar, tells us that Antony is but a limb of Caesar (II.1.160) and later:

For he can do no more than Caesar’s arm
When Caesar’s head is off.
I.1. 182 - 3


They say poor suitors have strong breaths;
they shall know we have strong arms too.

MENENIUS (Patrician)

For the dearth,
The gods, not the patricians, make it, and
Your knees to them, not arms, must help.

MENENIUS (only patrician that talks to plebeians on their level)

There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ th’ midst o’ th’ body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing (item of food)
Like labor with the rest, where th’ other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
105 And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body. The belly answered—


Well, sir, what answer made the belly?


Sir, I shall tell you. With a kind of smile,
Which ne’er came from the lungs, but even thus—
For, look you, I may make the belly smile
As well as speak—it ⌜tauntingly⌝ replied
To th’ discontented members, the mutinous parts
That envied his receipt; even so most fitly
As you malign our senators for that
They are not such as you.


Your belly’s answer—what?
The kingly crownèd head, the vigilant eye,
The counselor heart, the arm our soldier,
Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter,
With other muniments and petty helps
In this our fabric, if that they—


The former agents, if they did complain,
What could the belly answer?


Note me this, good friend;
Your most grave belly was deliberate,
Not rash like his accusers, and thus answered:
“True is it, my incorporate friends,” quoth he,
“That I receive the general food at first
Which you do live upon; and fit it is,
Because I am the storehouse and the shop
Of the whole body. But, if you do remember,
I send it through the rivers of your blood
Even to the court, the heart, to th’ seat o’ th’ brain;
And, through the cranks and offices of man,
The strongest nerves and small inferior veins
From me receive that natural competency
Whereby they live. And though that all at once,
You, my good friends”—this says the belly, mark me—

Act I, 1, 109 - 148

The SECOND CITIZEN counters this with the other parts of the body needing sustenance as well:

Your belly’s answer—what?
The kingly crownèd head, the vigilant eye,
The counselor heart, the arm our soldier,
Our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter
, I. 1. 117 - 120

Other analogies consist of disease, battles as harvesting, and frequent references to dogs (curs) and cats.

Later MARTIUS (on hearing the Volsces are in arms)

I am glad on ’t. Then we shall ha’ means to vent
Our musty superfluity.
I.1.249 – 50. (war chest)

Before the Romans can besiege Corioles, the Volscians attack them. Martius rallies the troops with abusive language, to beat the Volscians back through their city gates. His troops retreat. He then goes through the gates to fight them alone. Covered in blood, he reopens the gates and admits the Romans to celebrate his victory.

scene 2 Aufidius and Volscian senators discuss the Roman preparations for war.

scene 3 Volumnia, Martius’s mother, and Virgilia, his wife, are visited by Valeria, who brings news of Martius at Corioles.

scene 4 Before the Romans can besiege Corioles, the Volscians emerge to attack them. Martius rallies the troops to beat the Volscians back through their city gates. He then goes through the gates with them and is shut in to fight them alone. Covered in blood, he reopens the gates and admits the Romans.

scene 5 Leaving Lartius to secure Corioles, Martius goes to the aid of the Roman general Cominius on the battlefield near the city.

scene 6 Martius joins Cominius and inspires the Roman troops to further combat.

scene 7 Having secured Corioles, Lartius leaves to join Cominius.

scene 8 Martius defeats Aufidius and his Volscian supporters.

scene 9 Cominius awards Martius the name Coriolanus for his service at Corioles.

scene 10 Aufidius vows to destroy Coriolanus by any means possible.

Later Coriolanus brags to Menenius:

On fair ground
I could beat forty of them.

Act II #

Coriolanus is welcomed back to Rome, expecting to be elected consul. The Senate meets to hear Cominius praise Coriolanus in a formal oration and then to choose Coriolanus as its nominee for consul.

Martius, (briefly named Coriolanus) who despises the plebians, announces that their petition to be represented by tribunes has been granted.

Coriolanus asks the plebeians for their votes, but instead of appealing to them, he mocks them, but still they consent to his election. Later the plebeians reflect on Coriolanus’s mockery and decide, with the tribunes’ encouragement, to revoke their votes for him.

Learning that the plebeians have revoked their votes, Coriolanus publicly attacks the decision that had given the people tribunes. Accusing him of treason, the tribunes attempt to have him arrested and executed, but he is rescued by his fellow patricians, who, to avoid civil war with the plebeians, agree to bring him to the marketplace to face the tribunes.

Some candidates are not at ease in public settings among ordinary voters. (Richard Nixon and George H. W. Bush come to mind.)

Martius “is a heroic soldier but socially awkward introvert, a nerd who did not enjoy people—which was a problem since voters whos ratified th Consuls were the people.”


He’s poor in no one fault, but stored with all.


Especially in pride.

Coriolanus Insists he does not seek or want the approval of the masses:

Know, good mother,
I had rather be their servant in my way
Than sway with them in theirs.

Brutus indicates that Coriolanus is not interested in pretending or appealing to popularity:

Were he to stand for consul, never would he
Appear i’ th’ marketplace nor on him put
The napless vesture of humility,

SICINIUS warns us that the people will react to his arrogance:

This, as you say, suggested
At some time when his soaring insolence
Shall ⌜touch⌝ the people
sc. 1. 284 -6

COMINIUS - reveals that Martius is not greedy, as opposed to later Generals who enriched themselves and gained power by ammassing the spoils and booty of conquest.

Our spoils he kicked at
And looked upon things precious as they were
The common muck of the world. He covets less
Than misery itself would give, rewards
His deeds with doing them,
II.2. 142 – 146

CORIOLANUS when asked to appeal to the citizens

I do beseech you,
Let me o’erleap that custom, for I cannot
Put on the gown, stand naked, and entreat them
For my wounds’ sake to give their suffrage.
Please you
That I may pass this doing.

Act III #

scene 1 Learning that the plebeians have revoked their votes, Coriolanus publicly attacks the decision that had given the people tribunes. Accusing him of treason, the tribunes attempt to have him arrested and executed, but he is rescued by his fellow patricians, who, to avoid civil war with the plebeians, agree to bring him to the marketplace to face the tribunes.

scene 2 The patricians and Volumnia persuade Coriolanus to pretend to tolerate the plebeians and their tribunes.

scene 3 When the tribunes call Coriolanus a traitor, he angrily insults them, and they first impose a death sentence and then commute that to banishment.

CORIOLANUS warns that giving more power to the commoners will weaken the empire:

Though there the people had more absolute power,
I say they nourished disobedience, fed
The ruin of the state.
III. 1. 150 - 53

He further claims they do little for the state, are cowardly in battle, but only resort to revolt:

They ne’er did service for ’t. Being pressed to th’ war,
Even when the navel of the state was touched,
They would not thread the gates.
This kind of service
Did not deserve corn gratis. Being i’ th’ war,
Their mutinies and revolts, wherein they showed
Most valor, spoke not for them.
IV. 1.

His final argument is that the populice does not deserve to have a voice, leading the Tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius to declare him a traitor:

—at once pluck out
The multitudinous tongue; let them not lick
The sweet which is their poison. Your dishonor
Mangles true judgment and bereaves the state
Of that integrity which should become ’t,


Go, call the people; ⌜Aedile exits.⌝ in whose name myself
Attach thee as a traitorous innovator,
A foe to th’ public weal. Obey, I charge thee, (coinage – welfare)
And follow to thine answer.
III. 1, 1. 219 - 22

MENENIUS tries to defend Coriolanus by showing them the folly of destroying their only defender:

O, he’s a limb that has but a disease—
Mortal to cut it off; to cure it easy.
What has he done to Rome that’s worthy death?
Killing our enemies, the blood he hath lost—
Which I dare vouch is more than that he hath
By many an ounce—he dropped it for his country;


Consider this: he has been bred i’ th’ wars
Since he could draw a sword, and is ill schooled
In bolted language; meal and bran together
He throws without distinction.

VOLUMNIA , attempts to restrain her son’s rash temper:

Pray be counseled.
I have a heart as little apt as yours,
But yet a brain that leads my use of anger
To better vantage.


Well said, noble woman.
Before he should thus stoop to th’ ⌜herd⌝—but that
The violent fit o’ th’ time craves it as physic
For the whole state—I would put mine armor on,
Which I can scarcely bear.
III.2. 40 - 44

VOLUMNIA advises diplomacy rather than conflict

You are too absolute,
Though therein you can never be too noble
But when extremities speak. I have heard you say
Honor and policy, like unsevered friends,
I’ th’ war do grow together. Grant that, and tell me
In peace what each of them by th’ other lose
That they combine not there?
2. 40

VOLUMNIA countering Coriolanus’ argument he cannot use guile or deception in speech:

If it be honor in your wars to seem
The same you are not, which for your best ends (Machiavellian)
You adopt your policy, how is it less or worse
That it shall hold companionship in peace
65 With honor as in war, since that to both
It stands in like request?
III. 2. 61 - 66

Scene 3

MENENIUS tries to mollify the Plebeians by showing him that Coriolanus is a soldier, not a smooth politician:

Consider further,
That when he speaks not like a citizen,
You find him like a soldier. Do not take
His rougher ⌜accents⌝ for malicious sounds,
But, as I say, such as become a soldier
75 Rather than envy you.
III.3. 70 - 75

Despite all attempts to control his temper Coriolanus cannot do so:


Nay, temperately! Your promise.


The fires i’ th’ lowest hell fold in the people!
Call me their traitor? Thou injurious tribune!
Within thine eyes sat twenty thousand deaths,
In thy hands clutched as many millions, in
Thy lying tongue both numbers, I would say
“Thou liest” unto thee with a voice as free
As I do pray the gods.
III. 3. 89 - 96

SICINIUS finally banishing Coriolanus from the city of Rome:

Go see him out at gates, and follow him,
As he hath followed you, with all despite.

AEDILE Military Guards

The people’s enemy is gone, is gone.


Our enemy is banished; he is gone. Hoo, hoo!

They all shout and throw up their caps.


After saying farewell to his mother Volumina,, his wife Virgilia and the noble Patricians friends, Coriolanus seeks out his former enemy, Audifidus in Antium.

scene 1 Coriolanus says goodbye to his family and closest supporters.

scene 2 Meeting the tribunes, Volumnia and Virgilia curse them.

scene 3 A Roman informer tells a Volscian spy of Coriolanus’s banishment.

scene 4 Coriolanus comes to the Volscian city of Antium in search of Aufidius.

scene 5 Coriolanus offers to join Aufidius in making war on Rome.

scene 6 The tribunes’ delight in Coriolanus’s banishment is interrupted by news that an army led by him and Aufidius has invaded Rome’s territories.

scene 7 Aufidius, offended by the Volscian soldiers’ preference for Coriolanus, begins plotting against him.

VOLUMNIA accuses the Tribunes of inciting the Plebeians to banish her son:

“I would he had”? ’Twas you incensed the rabble.
Cats, that can judge as fitly of his worth…
IV. 2. 45 - 46

By scene 4, the Romans learn that Coriolanus has allied with the Volces and Audifidus and plan to attack Rome. This alarms all and they attempt to negotioate a truce thhrough the Consuls, whch fails.

The rest of the Act dramatises the alliance of Coriolanus and Audifdus

Act V. #

scene 1 After Cominius fails to persuade Coriolanus not to destroy Rome, Menenius agrees to try.

scene 2 Menenius fails to shake Coriolanus’s determination to destroy Rome.

scene 3 Volumnia, accompanied by Virgilia, Valeria, and young Martius, persuades Coriolanus to spare Rome.

scene 4 News arrives in Rome of Volumnia’s success.

scene 5 The Romans honor Volumnia as she returns.

scene 6 Aufidius and his fellow conspirators, on their return to Corioles, publicly assassinate Coriolanus.

MENENIUS appeals to the gods:

⌜(To Coriolanus.)⌝

The glorious gods sit in hourly synod about thy particular
prosperity and love thee no worse than thy old
father Menenius does! O my son, my son! ⌜(He
weeps.)⌝ Thou art preparing fire for us; look thee,
here’s water to quench it. I was hardly moved to
come to thee; but being assured none but myself
could move thee, I have been blown out of your
gates with sighs, and conjure thee to pardon Rome
and thy petitionary countrymen. The good gods
assuage thy wrath and turn the dregs of it upon
this varlet here, this, who, like a block, hath denied
my access to thee.
V. 2. 74 - 85

CORIOLANUS asserting his right to go it alone.

I’ll never Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand As if a man were author of himself, And knew no other kin. V. 3. 38 – 41

Colonel Cargill was a self-made man who owed his lack of success to nobody. Heller, Catch-22

CORIOLANUS after meeting his wife sees his mother kneeling before him:

You gods! I ⌜prate⌝
And the most noble mother of the world
Leave unsaluted. Sink, my knee, i’ th’ earth; Kneels.
Of thy deep duty more impression show
Than that of common sons.


O, stand up blest,

⌜He rises.⌝

Whilst with no softer cushion than the flint
I kneel before thee and unproperly
Show duty, as mistaken all this while
Between the child and parent.⌜She kneels.⌝


What’s this?
Your knees to me? To your corrected son?
⌜He raises her up.⌝
Then let the pebbles on the hungry beach
Fillip the stars! Then let the mutinous winds
Strike the proud cedars ’gainst the fiery sun,
70 Murdering impossibility to make
What cannot be slight work.
V. 3. 55 - 71.

Let the Volsces
Plow Rome and harrow Italy, I’ll never
Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself,
And knew no other kin.
ll 37 - 41

VOLUMNIA argues that by attacking his city he is attacking his very identity, his family and all his honour or reputation: She needs his honour for her own status.

Should we be silent and not speak, our raiment
And state of bodies would bewray what life
We have led since thy exile. Think with thyself
How more unfortunate than all living women
Are we come hither; since that thy sight, which should
Make our eyes flow with joy, hearts dance with comforts,
Constrains them weep and shake with fear and sorrow,
Making the mother, wife, and child to see
The son, the husband, and the father tearing
His country’s bowels out. And to poor we
Thine enmity’s most capital. Thou barr’st us
Our prayers to the gods, which is a comfort
That all but we enjoy. For how can we—
Alas, how can we—for our country pray,
Whereto we are bound, together with thy victory,
Whereto we are bound? Alack, or we must lose
The country, our dear nurse, or else thy person,
Our comfort in the country. We must find
An evident calamity, though we had
Our wish, which side should win, for either thou
Must as a foreign recreant be led
With manacles through our streets, or else
Triumphantly tread on thy country’s ruin
And bear the palm for having bravely shed
Thy wife and children’s blood. For myself, son,
I purpose not to wait on fortune till
These wars determine. If I cannot persuade thee
Rather to show a noble grace to both parts
Than seek the end of one, thou shalt no sooner
March to assault thy country than to tread—
Trust to ’t, thou shalt not—on thy mother’s womb
That brought thee to this world.

AUFIDIUS, ⌜aside⌝ sees this could be to his own advantage: The matrernal figure, who gave birth to a great General, now manages to emasculate him. Reversal of our values that mercy is lower than hnonour.

I am glad thou hast set thy mercy and thy honor
At difference in thee. Out of that I’ll work
Myself a former fortune.

Later Aufidius accuses him of weakness:

AUFIDIUS Name not the god, thou boy of tears.

Questioning his manhood another instance of weeping - Lear, MacDuff…

Then four conspirators attack and assassinate Coriolanus, despite the fact that previously he had faced many more. Does Coriolanus ever develop self-knowledge?


Another brutally dismissive epitaph – “Let’s make the best of it” – is uttered over the corpse of Coriolanus, the most single-minded, professional soldier in Shakespeare’s canon. “Chief enemy to the people”, he is a sociopath and prey to violent outbursts of anger. More machine than man, his role resembles the modern arms industry, owing allegiance to no national state and selling weapons indiscriminately to either side of conflicts.

Having turned against Rome and then against his new associates in arms, Coriolanus is finally hacked to death unceremoniously by Volscians baying:

“kill, kill, kill…”

He is remembered by the Volces as one who,

“in this city [Rome] …
Hath widow’d and unchilded many a one,
Which to this hour bewail the injury”.

Audifus on time could be taken out of Machiavelli:

So our virtues
Lie in th’ interpretation of the time,
And power, unto itself most commendable,
Hath not a tomb so evident as a chair
T’ extol what it hath done.
One fire drives out one fire, one nail one nail;
Rights by rights falter; strengths by strengths do fail.
52 - 58

Characters in the Play #

Caius Martius, later Caius Martius Coriolanus

Renown for his dominant martial skills and valour; not his articulate or social graces. He fights the Volscis single-handedly and claims he could take on 40 of the Plebeians, yet he is finally killed by four Volscis.

Despises the people as fickle sycophantic brainless spawn. He proves to be a valiant defender of Rome but his contemptuous attitude to all leads to his banishment. His military prowess fails to give him any political power or legitimate authority.

Eventually persuaded by his mother, not to destroy his own city of Rome because it would destroy his own legacy and his progeny, Audifus calls him a tearful boy and he is assassinated.

Coriolanus is an abrasive, one-dimensional character with little self-awareness - none of the complexities of Hamlet or Lear. He has little self - reflection and fails to experience any understanding of himself.

Volumnia, his mother – a powerful influential woman who sees her destiny in terms of an heroic son. She views her legacy through the prism of her son’s valour. When he claims he cannot use platitudinous speeches, she questions why he can use deception in battle, but not in civil life. She eventually convinces him not to attack his own city of Rome because it will destroy his own honor and reputation and the immortality of his family.

Virgilia, his wife – submissive and compliant

Young Martius, their son – catches butterflies and releases them.

Menenius Agrippa, patrician – Though he has more charisma, he is condescending and patronizing to the citizens. He acts as a mediator between the Patricians and the Plebeians and advised Coriolanus to exercise more restraint with his temperament. He continually advises Coriolanus to keep his cool - be calm. When both sides fail to reach agreement, he urges: On both sides more respect! III. 1. 330. Totally ignored.

Cominius, patrician and general - loyal to Martius and his city.

Titus Lartius, patrician and military officer - dutiful

Sicinius Velutus, and Junius Brutus, tribunes who should speak for the people but incite them to banish Coriolanus because they resent his arrogance.

Patricians the noble elite of the city distinguished by their noble birth. and valour. (about 20%)

Roman Citizens or Plebeians – Revolt and demand adequate food, respect and a voice. They respresent demos - cratas - power to the people, or consent of the governed. They succeed in gaining ten Tribunes but are manipulated by their own Tribunes. Their naivety and good intentions almost allow the city to be overthrown by the Volsci’s. Democracy depends on well-informed and aware citizens. City states require military protection.

Mencken on Democracy #

H.L. Mencken, American journalist and essayist, (1880 - 1956) declared, In a presidential election:

• ‘all the odds were on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre’.

• It was the logic of democracy, he said, that the people would one day get their heart’s desire and put a ‘downright moron’ in the White House.

While understandable, the widespread belief that George W Bush fulfilled Mencken’s prophecy has proved premature.” The Shortlest Daily.

• The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.

• The most dangerous man to any government is the man who is able to think things out… without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane, intolerable.

• If a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner.

• Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.

• Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey cage.

• Democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.

• Every election is a sort of advance auction sale of stolen goods.

• For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

• The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.

• It is inaccurate to say that I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for public office.