Poussin Coriolan Les Andelys

Coriolan by Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665), circa 1652. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

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Coriolanus is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, believed to have been written between 1605 and 1608. The play is based on the life of the legendary Roman leader, Gaius Marcius Coriolanus.


  • Caius Martius, later surnamed Coriolanus
  • Menenius Agrippa, Senator of Rome
  • Cominius, Titus Lartius, generals
  • Volumnia, Coriolanus's mother
  • Virgilia, Coriolanus's wife
  • Young Martius, Coriolanus's son
  • Valeria, a lady of Rome
  • Sicinius Velutus, Junius Brutus, tribunes of Rome
  • Citizens of Rome
  • Soldiers in the Roman Army
  • Tullus Aufidius, general of the Volscian army
  • Aufidius's Lieutenant
  • Aufidius's Servingmen
  • Conspirators with Aufidius
  • Volscian Lords
  • Volscian *A gentlewoman, an usher, Roman and Volscian senators and nobles, captains in the Roman army, officers, lictors


File:Virgilia bewailing the absence of Coriolanus, by Thomas Woolner.jpg

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,[1] a brilliant Roman general whom they blame for the grain's 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 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 rally 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 great courage, Cominius gives Caius Martius the cognomen 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 his 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 of Antium, and offers for Aufidius to kill him in order to spite the country that banished him. Moved by his plight and honored to fight alongside the great general, 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 Virgilia and child, and a chaste gentlewoman Valeria. 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.



Coriolanus is largely based on the "Life of Coriolanus" as it is described in Thomas North's translation of Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (1579). The wording of Menenius's speech about the body politic is derived from William Camden's Remains (1605).[2]

Other sources have been suggested, but are less certain. Shakespeare may also have used Livy's Ab Urbe condita, as translated by Philemon Holland, and possibly a digest of Livy by Lucius Annaeus Florus; both of these were commonly used texts in Elizabethan schools. Machiavelli's discourses on Livy were available in manuscript translations, and could also have been used by Shakespeare.[3]

Date and textEdit

Most scholars date Coriolanus to the period 1605-10, with 1608-9 being considered the most likely, but the available evidence does not permit great certainty.

The earliest date for the play rests on the fact that Menenis's fable of the belly is derived from William Camden's Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine. This book was published in 1605 (although it is possible that Shakespeare could have seen a pre-publication manscript as early as 1603). The later date derives from the fact that several other texts from 1610 or thereabouts seem to allude to Coriolans, including Ben Jonson's Epicoene, Robert Armin's Phantasma and John Fletcher's' The Tamer Tamed.[4]

Some scholars note some evidence that may narrow down the dating to the period 1607-9. One line may be inspired by George Chapman's translation of the Iliad (late 1608).[5] References to "the coal of fire upon the ice" (I.i) and to squabbles over ownership of channels of water (III.i) could be inspired by the Thomas Dekker's description of the freezing of the Thames in 1607-8 and Hugh Myddleton's project to bring water to London by channels in 1608-9 respectively.[6] Another possible connection with 1608 is that the surviving text of the play is divided into acts; this suggests that it could have been written for the indoor Blackfriars Theatre, which Shakespeare's company began to perform at in 1608; however, the act-breaks could instead have been introduced later.[7]

The play's themes of popular discontent with government have been connected by scholars with the Midland Revolt, a series of peasant riots in 1607 that would have impacted Shakespeare as an owner of land in Stratford-upon-Avon; and the debates over the charter for the City of London, which Shakespeare would have been aware of, as it affected the legal status of the area surrounding the Blackfriars Theatre.[8]

For these reasons, R.B. Parker suggests "late 1608 ... to early 1609" as the likeliest date of composition, while Lee Bliss suggests composition by late 1608, and the first public performances in "late December 1609 or February 1610". Parker acknowledges that the evidence is "scanty ... and mostly inferential".[9]

The play was first published in the First Folio of 1623. Elements of the text, such as the uncommonly detailed stage directions, lead some Shakespeare scholars to believe the text was prepared from a theatrical prompt book.

Performance historyEdit

Like some of Shakespeare's other plays (All's Well That Ends Well; Timon of Athens), there is no recorded performance of Coriolanus prior to the Restoration. After 1660, however, its themes made it a natural choice for times of political turmoil. The first known performance was Nahum Tate's bloody 1682 adaptation at Drury Lane. Seemingly undeterred by the earlier suppression of his Richard II, Tate offered a Coriolanus that was faithful to Shakespeare through four acts before becoming a Websterian bloodbath in the fifth act. A later adaptation, John Dennis's The Invader of His Country, or The Fatal Resentment, was booed off the stage after three performances in 1719. The title and date indicate Dennis's intent, a vitriolic attack on the Jacobite 'Fifteen. (Similar intentions motivated James Thomson's 1745 version, though this bears only a very slight resemblance to Shakespeare's play. Its principal connection to Shakespeare is indirect; Thomas Sheridan's 1752 production at Smock Alley used some passages of Thomson's. David Garrick returned to Shakespeare's text in a 1754 Drury Lane production.[10]

The most famous Coriolanus in history is Laurence Olivier, who first played the part triumphantly at the Old Vic Theatre in 1937 and returned to it to even greater acclaim at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in 1959. In that production, he famously performed Coriolanus's death scene by dropping backwards from a high platform and being suspended upside-down (without the aid of wires), being reminiscent of Mussolini.[11] In 1971 the play returned to the Old Vic in a National Theatre production directed by Manfred Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert with stage design by Karl von Appen. Anthony Hopkins played Coriolanus, with Constance Cummings as Volumnia and Anna Carteret as Virgilia.

Another notable Coriolanus of the twentieth century was Richard Burton, who also recorded the complete play for Caedmon Records.

Other famous performances of Coriolanus include Ian McKellen, Toby Stephens, Robert Ryan, Christopher Walken, Morgan Freeman, and Ralph Fiennes. Alan Howard played Coriolanus in the 1984 BBC production.[12] In 2010, Ralph Fiennes is making his debut as a director with a contemporary retelling, with himself in the main role.[13]

Critical appraisalEdit

A. C. Bradley described this play as "built on the grand scale,"[14] like King Lear and Macbeth, but it differs from those two masterpieces in an important way. The warrior 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 the effervescent and reflective Shakespearean heroes/heroines such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Lear and Cleopatra, and more like figures from ancient classical literature such as Achilles, Odysseus, and Aeneas—or, to turn to literary creations from Shakespeare's time, the Marlovian conqueror Tamburlaine, whose militaristic pride finds a descendant in Coriolanus. Readers and playgoers 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 play is less frequently produced than the other tragedies of the later period, and is not so universally regarded as "great." (Bradley, for instance, declined to number it among his famous four in the landmark critical work Shakespearean Tragedy.) In his book Shakespeare's Language, Frank Kermode described Coriolanus as "probably the most fiercely and ingeniously planned and expressed of all the tragedies".[15]

T. S. Eliot famously proclaimed Coriolanus superior to Hamlet in The Sacred Wood, in which he calls the former play, along with Antony and Cleopatra, the Bard's greatest tragic achievement. Eliot wrote a two-part poem about Coriolanus titled "Coriolan" (this name is an alternate spelling of Coriolanus). Eliot also alluded to Coriolanus in a passage from his own The Waste Land when he wrote, "Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus." [16]

Bertolt Brecht adapted Shakespeare's play in 1952–5, as Coriolan for the Berliner Ensemble. He intended to make it a tragedy of the workers, not the individual, and introduce the alienation effect; his journal notes showing that he found many of his own effects already in the text, he considered staging the play with only minimal changes. The adaptation was unfinished at Brecht's death in 1956; it was completed by Manfred Wekwerth and Joachim Tenschert and staged in Frankfurt in 1962.[17]

Coriolanus has the distinction of being among the few Shakespeare plays banned in a democracy in modern times.[18] It was briefly suppressed in France in the late 1930s because of its use by the fascist element.[19]

Coriolanus has fewer familiar characters than either Troilus and Cressida or Antony and Cleopatra. Yet it shares thematic interests with these plays.[20]


While the title character's name's pronunciation in classical Latin has the a prononunced "aː" by the IPA, in English, the a is often prononunced "eɪ." Ken Ludwig's Moon Over Buffalo contains a joke dependent upon this pronunciation, and The Complete Wrks of Wllm Shkspr (Abridged) refers to it as "the anus play". Shakespeare pronunciation guides list both pronunciations as acceptable.

British artist Keith Coventry uses Coriolanus as an inspiration for one of his 'History Paintings'. These are presented in a similar manner to the great historical paintings found in museums, with heavy black frames and hand painted narratives on gold leafed plaques, and play with the idea of how bravery can exist on both high and low moral levels. In one diptych, Coriolanus is cited as single-handedly storming an enemy fortress, while in the accompanying painting a single football hooligan, Harry 'The Mad Dog' Trick, an avid Millwall Football Club supporter, attacks an opposing army of Chelsea fans.'


  • Clark Lunberry In the Name of Coriolanus: The Prompter (Prompted). Comparative Literature 54: 3 (Summer 2002): 229-241.


  1. So spelled in the 1623 Folio, otherwise known as Marcius, i.e., a member of the gens Marcia.
  2. R.B. Parker, ed. Coriolanus (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 17-21.
  3. Parker, 18-19
  4. Lee Bliss, ed. Coriolanus (Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 1-2; R.B. Parker, Coriolanus (Oxford University Press, 1994), 2-3.
  5. Parker, 4-5; Bliss, 6-7.
  6. Parker, 5-6; Bliss,3-4.
  7. Bliss, 4-7.
  8. Parker, 6-7.
  9. Parker, 7, 2; Bliss, 7
  10. F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 116.
  11. Accessed 13 October 2008.
  12. "Coriolanus". The British Theatre Guide. 
  13. Brooks, Xan (2010-03-11). "Ralph Fiennes takes the reins on Coriolanus". London: Guardian. 
  14. Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy
  15. Kermode, Shakespeare's Language (Penguin Books 2001, p254).
  16. Eliot, T. S. Collected Poems.Orlando: Harcourt, 1963. 125-129, 69.
  17. Brown, Langdon, ed. Shakespeare Around the Globe: A Guide to Notable Postwar Revivals (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986): 82.
  18. Maurois, Andre. The Miracle of France. Henri Lorin Binsse, trans. New York: Harpers, 1948: 432
  19. Parker 123
  20. Coriolanus, William Shakespeare and Lee Bliss, Cambridge University Press, 2000, pg. 32.

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