William Shakespeare’s tragedy Coriolanus
, written circa 1605, was inspired by the life of the Roman leader Caius Martius Coriolanus. This play and Antony and Cleopatra
are the last of Shakespeare’s tragedies. After successfully defending Rome against numerous insurgencies,a Roman general earns the name Coriolanus. Following his military service he becomes involved in politics, but is unsuccessful in adapting to a leadership role among the masses and finds himself deposed, setting his future actions into motion.
The first of the play’s five acts opens in ancient Rome, where rioters are calling for the death of general Caius Martius. He is able to calm them and they are granted the ability to select their own judges, or tribunes, among whom are Sicinius and Brutus. Meanwhile, the Volscians are threatening Rome, leading General Cominius and Lartius, along with other officials, to seek the support of Martius to combat them. He is agreeable, especially anxious to fight Aufidius, the opposing general. In Corioles, the Senators of the Volscians and Aufidius plan their attack and defense of Corioles. Martius’wife, Virgilia, is not happy with his decision to go to war and is chastised by his mother, Volumnia, who believes receiving wounds or even meeting his death would result in great honor for her son. News then arrives that the battle has begun. The Romans retreat as Martius charges. They believe he has been killed, but he has not and the Romans then defend him. Corioles is taken and a wounded Martius joins with Cominius against Aufidius. Martius overcomes Aufidius and is praised for his courage. At this point he becomes known as Coriolanus. Aufidius vows revenge.
As Act II begins, Coriolanus returns home to a hero’s welcome. The tribunes resent Coriolanus and the fact that he will be nominated to high office in Rome. They know they have the potential, as representatives of the common people, to keep him from rising to this position. Others feel that his pride will get in the way of his appointment as a consul. He is nominated and asks that he not have to follow tradition and display his battle scars to the commoners. The tribunes reject the request,and the aristocrats urge him to show his scars. He reluctantly agrees to the ceremony. Coriolanus gains the reluctant support of many citizens and of Menenius(a Roman Senator),and the tribunes confirm his appointment. After Coriolanus and Menenius leave, the tribunes convince the citizens to withdraw their support before he is installed as consul.
As Act III opens, Coriolanus learns that Aufidius again wants to go to war. Coriolanus is angered that a mob has risen against him and although the aristocrats attempt to calm him down, he deems the commoners unworthy of having a say in choosing a consul. He is branded a traitor by the tribunes, who turn to the mob. Sicinius, one of the tribunes, encourages the mob to call for the death of Coriolanus. When Coriolanus draws his sword the aristocrats remove him from the scene. Sicinius and Brutus persist in riling up the mob, but at Menenius’ suggestion agree to use legal process to try Coriolanus for treason in court. Volumnia convinces Coriolanus to apologize to the commoners. Brutus and Sicinius plot to provoke Coriolanus’ anger toward the people in order to trump up charges of treasonous hostility against him.Coriolanus is banished from Rome and insults the commoners as he leaves.
In Act IV, Coriolanus leaves his family and friends and begins life in exile. Volumnia directs her anger toward the tribunes. Meanwhile, the Volscians learn of Coriolanus’ exile and see it as an opportune time to attack. Coriolanus, who has disguised himself as an indigent to find his way to the home of Aufidius, tells Aufidius that he has been banished and offers to take up arms with him against Rome. Aufidius eagerly agrees. The tribunes are stunned that the Volscians would attack again, and with Coriolanus as their leader. When one of Aufidius’ lieutenants expresses concern that Coriolanus will overshadow Aufidius as the leader of the Volscians, Aufidius tells him that it is his intent to eventually turn against Coriolanus.
The final act finds the Roman general Cominius reporting that Coriolanus will not meet with him. The tribunes want Menenius to beg for mercy but Cominius says that will not succeed. They then turn to Volumnia and Virgilia. The women, along with Coriolanus’young son, beg Coriolanus to spare Rome. It is a difficult undertaking, but finally they convince him to make peace with the city. Aufidius sees this as a means to inflict his revenge on Coriolanus. Volumnia and her companions are welcomed heartily by the Senators when they return to Rome. Meanwhile, Aufidius meets with a number of conspirators whom he enlists in supporting charges of treason against Coriolanus. When Coriolanus presents his treaty with Rome as a victory, Aufidius attacks his character for having given up the city at a woman’s request. Coriolanus threatens Aufidius but the crowd turns against him and demands that Coriolanus be lynched, which leads a group of conspirators to attack and kill Coriolanus. Aufidius supports the mob’s action as one of patriotism but adds that Coriolanus, a valiant warrior, deserves an honorable funeral.