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"The hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world".   Such goes the old adage describing how the people we become depends on those who, from the beginning, influenced us.  At the height of writing his "Great Tragedies" and exploring the depths of human nature in Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear, Shakespeare turned his attention to what would become the "Nature vs. Nurture" debate set against the highest levels of a corrupt society in the Tragedy of Coriolanus.  In the days before emperors, Rome threw off its king and struggled to become a democratic republic.  In the aftermath of war, there emerged two groups struggling to dominate this new society, the Patricians (nobility) and the Plebeians (the commoners).  Caius Marcius, a Patrician and the greatest hero of the civil war, seeks to adjust to life in peace time and is nominated as a representative of the Plebeians.  Bred only to be a great warrior by his ambitious mother Volumia, Marcius struggles in his new role dealing with people whom he openly despises and considers inferior to his class.  He finds his direct style that won him success and admiration on the battlefield won't fly in polite society.  The very people who he know represents despise him and Marcius has mutual loathing for them.  Political back stabbing, spin control, puppet candidates, class inequity, bigotry are covered as well in what has become known as Shakespeare's most politically charged play.

As the show first appeared in print in the 1623 First Folio.

The citizens of Rome are disgruntled and mistrustful of the patrician Senate. Famine grips the populace and after years of war they seek representation to set a fair price for the limited food supply.  Marcius holds the rabble in contempt and considers them beneath him and his class.  He draws the ire of the plebes by calling them cowards. However, Marcius is Rome's best general, and when the neighboring Volscians  wage war upon Rome, Marcius takes their capital, Corioli, single-handedly.  In honor of his accomplishment he is given the new name of Coriolanus; Tullus Aufidius, the Volscian general, vows to avenge the defeat.  Marcius is given a great welcome back in Rome for his victory, and the Senate wishes to make him a consul.  Volumnia, his mother, is the most significant figure in Marcius' life.  As a woman, she lacks the ability to achieve power on her own in the male-dominated Roman society; she also lacks a husband through whom she might indirectly enjoy public clout. Thus, Volumnia raises her son to be a great soldier, and it is her ambition, more than his, that puts him on the disastrous track toward the consulship.   However, he must have popular support to be elected to this position, and two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, conspire to reverse the plebes' opinion on him.  In turn, Marcius denounces the tribunes, even saying that the office itself should be abolished.  Though Volumnia attempts to soothe him, but when confronted with the tribunes in front of the people, their insults and accusations are too much for the proud warrior. His temper earns him banishment.  Marcius angrily travels to Antium and to his enemy Aufidius.

A surprised Aufidius takes him in and promises to help him get revenge against his former city, but Aufidius uses his enemy for his own imperial ends.  Aufidius is planning a new campaign against the Romans, and he welcomes Marcius'  assistance, although he soon feels himself to be falling into his new ally's shadow. Their army proceeds to march on Rome, throwing the city into a panic--Rome's armies are helpless to stop the advance, and soon Aufidius and Marcius are encamped outside the city walls. Two of his oldest friends come pleading for mercy, but Marcius refuses to hear him. It is only when Volumnia, a woman who he has only seen spout war and duty asks him pleadingly to spare the city does Marcius begin to let go of his anger.  Once again he follows example and seeks a treaty with Rome instead of conquest.  The city hails Volumnia the savior of the city. Meanwhile, Marcius and the Volscians return to Antium, where the residents hail Marcius as a hero. Aufidius, disgusted with the failed campaign and growing jealous of this man who he propped up, declares that Marcius's a traitor.  His failure to take Rome amounts to treachery; in the ensuing argument, some of Aufidius' men assassinate Marcius.   Marcius realized too late to think outside of the political leanings of either the Romans or Volscians and it costs him his life.

Based on Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes which featured biographies on its famous citizens such as Coriolanus, Shakespeare followed his tragic model  examining class, race and the ins and outs of politica set against a familial framework.  Though considered in the same league as the other "high tragedies" such as King Lear and Macbeth, the play is not performed very often today, however has found an interesting history in the last century.  At times various groups have held this play up to support their struggle.  Early Communist movements in Europe routinely staged the play identifying with the Plebeians and was often seen as sedition to put on a production.  Similar movements that involved ground swells of popular support like civil and gay rights have used the play to expound either oppression or vindication of their positions.  In a reverse sentiment, Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia routinely taught the play in their schools identifying Marcius as having the attributes of their respective leaders, usually his warlike stance and his dislike of commoners.  Given its commentaries on party politics, disregard of the masses, and political opportunism, Coriolanus remains a popular and relevant title for making political or social statements.  Equally resonant is Marcius' own struggle with finding who he is?  In the Nature vs. Nurture debate or in times when we define ourselves by our jobs, this play begs the question "What or who defines who we really are and how did we get to be this way?          


Click here to see our production of Coriolanus.


To view other Coriolanus sections:

Main Play Page      Play Text     Scene by Scene Synopsis     Character Directory     Commentary  


To view the other Plays click below:

By  Comedies    Histories    Romances    Tragedies

All's Well the Ends Well Antony & Cleopatra As You Like It Cardenio Comedy of Errors Coriolanus
Cymbeline Edward III Hamlet Henry IV, Part 1 Henry IV, Part 2 Henry V
Henry VI, Part 1 Henry VI, Part 2 Henry VI, Part 3 Henry VIII Julius Caesar King John
King Lear Love's Labours Lost Love's Labours Wonne Macbeth Measure for Measure Merchant of Venice
The Merry Wives of Windsor A Mid Summer Night's Dream  Much Ado About Nothing Othello Pericles Richard II
Richard III Romeo & Juliet Sir Thomas More Taming of the Shrew The Tempest Timon of Athens
Titus Andronicus Troilus & Cressida Twelfth Night Two Gentlemen of Verona The Two Noble Kinsman The Winter's Tale


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