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The Tragedy of Coriolanus is a tragedy by William Shakespeare, based on the life of the legendary Roman leader. This is one of Shakespeare's later plays, appearing circa 1607, following on the heels of landmark tragedies such as King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra [see: Chronology of Shakespeare plays]. However, like many of Shakespeare's "later plays", its date of composition is under debate (see Chronology of Shakespeare's Plays - Oxfordian). The play was largely based on the Life of Coriolanus as it was described in Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans and Livy's Ab Urbe condita. The tragic hero is Caius Martius Coriolanus, a Roman soldier.
Performance and Publication
The initial publication of Coriolanus was in the First Folio (1623).
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. The first known performance involved Nahum Tate's bloody 1682 adaptation at Drury Lane. A later adaptation, John Dennis' The Invader of His Country, or The Fatal Resentment, was booed off the stage after three performances in 1719. David Garrick returned to Shakespeare's text in a 1754 Drury Lane production.
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, a brilliant Roman general whom they blame for the grain 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 with 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 sally 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 incredible bravery, Cominius gives Martius the honorific surname 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 him 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, and tells them that he will lead their army to victory against Rome. 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 and child, and another lady. 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.
Text of the play
Coriolanus was first published in the First Folio of 1623. Details of the text, such as the uncommonly detailed stage directions, lead some Shakespeare scholars to believe the text was prepared from a theatrical promptbook.
- Caius Martius, later surnamed Coriolanus
- Menenius Agrippa, Senator of Rome
- Cominus, Titus Lartius, generals
- Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother
- Virgilia, Coriolanus' wife
- Young Martius, Coriolanus' 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' Lieutenant
- Audidius' Servingmen
- Conspirators with Aufidius
- Volscian Lords
- Volscian Citizens
- Soldiers in the Volscian army
- Adrian, a Volscian
- Nicanor, a Roman
- A Roman Herald
- A gentlewoman, an usher, Roman and Volscian senators and nobles, captains in the Roman army, officers, lictors
A.C. Bradley described this play as "built on the grand scale," , 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 effervescent, 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.)
The political overtones in Coriolanus are rich and nuanced. The drama especially and thoroughly examines the divide between plebeian democracy (favored in the play by the villains Brutus and Sicinius) and the proponents of autocracy (represented by the Coriolanus and the consulship itself).
As in Hamlet, an important relationship of the play is between a mother and her son, but in Coriolanus, this relationship is both less fractured and devoid of the sexual tension that exists between Gertrude and the Danish prince. Indeed, the most intriguing tension resides, not in the hero's relationship with any woman, but in that which he maintains with his nemesis (and eventual ally) Aufidius. Marital and romantic concerns, so prominent in Antony and Cleopatra, are almost wholly absent. The play maintains a serious tone throughout, without any of the familiar comic scenes, fools, or other stock devices commonly used by Shakespeare to lighten his tragedies. What comedy there is in the play may reside in Shakespeare's tart portrayal of the hypocrisy, cowardice, and fickleness of the plebeians
T.S. Eliot famously proclaimed Coriolanus' superior to Hamlet in his The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism, in which he calls the former play, along with Antony and Cleopatra, the Bard's greatest tragic achievement. Eliot alludes to Coriolanus in a passage from his own The Waste Land.
Bertolt Brecht also adapted Shakespeare's play in 1952-5, as Coriolan, to make it a tragedy of the workers, not the individual, and introduce the alienation effect, but he had second thoughts over it and in the end preferred Shakespeare's original, feeling that it had these elements already.
Coriolanus has the singular distinction of being the only Shakespeare play banned in a democracy in modern times.  It was briefly suppressed in France in the late 1930s due to its possible attraction to the far right. 
- ^ F. E. Halliday, A Shakespeare Companion 1564-1964, Baltimore, Penguin, 1964; p. 116.
- ^ Bradley, Shakespearean Tragedy
- Text of the play by Shakespeare:
- http://www-tech.mit.edu/Shakespeare/coriolanus/ -- Full text of Shakespeare's play
- The Tragedie of Coriolanus - HTML version of this title.
- http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/1535  - plain vanilla text from Project Gutenberg
- Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus :
- Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus - 17th century English translation by John Dryden
- Plutarch's Life of Coriolanus - 19th century English translation by Aubrey Stewart and George Long