This is one of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies, along with Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Titus Andronicus. It’s based on an incident in the legendary early history of Rome — a narrative of loosely documented historical fact, almost certainly better established than the story of Titus Andronicus (which is chiefly Shakespeare’s own fiction, based on the mythological story of Procne and Philomela) and far less accurate than Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra. Despite their historical settings, these plays are not considered history plays — that term is normally reserved for the unfolding sequence of plays relating to English history.
Coriolanus is thought to have been written around 1607 — after the death of Elizabeth — and is one of those few plays for which we can not verify a production during its author’s lifetime. This does not necessarily mean that it was not performed: sources are somewhat sketchy, and historical arguments from silence are notoriously problematic.
To understand the setting of the play, it is important to realize that it takes place in about 490 B.C., long before Rome was an imperial city. It is still fighting for survival with other cities and tribes of Italy, among them the Volscians. The siege of Corioli was (at our best estimates) in 493 B.C.; the office of tribune has only very recently (494 B.C.) been established to uphold the political rights of the lower classes (generally the plebeians) against the patrician and Senatorial aristocracy. The mechanics whereby all this plays out are not yet entirely resolved.
Even the historicity of C. Martius Coriolanus is open to question. We have an account of his actions in Plutarch, and he is also mentioned in Livy and Dionysius of Halicarnassus. Shakespeare’s handling of the historical material of the play, moreover, is a bit uncertain: for example, Menenius notes that Corilanus “sits in his state, as a thing made for / Alexander.”, on the apparent assumption that Greece comes before Rome — but the events of 493 B. C. are in fact long before the career of Alexander the Great, who died in 323 B.C.
It is equally important to realize that the play echoes, however obliquely, some of the political and economic discourse of its own time. There are a number of abstract or figurative discussions that qualify as inset parables or philosophical dialogues as much as drama. Its utility in that way has not abated: the issues the play raises are many: of particular relevance to our own time is the nature of democracy and class conflict; perhaps more deeply still, the perennial conflict between inner moral strength and principle against the cynical need to compromise oneself, in order to make oneself acceptable to the fickle throng. Coriolanus is principled but humorless, unbending in his principles, and aligned with the patricians. The tribunes are political opportunists whose cynical skills seem shockingly contemporary.
Taken simply as human drama, however, there is a certain disappointing quality about the play, I think: at least in many productions, Coriolanus himself is almost wholly lacking in warmth and appeal. There are exceptions, however. Irrespective of those shortcomings, the play also contains a number of remarkably brilliant scenes that deserve to be savored. Some of them are disturbingly familiar. The mock “trial” of Coriolanus in Act III is a masterpiece of dramatic tension and eerily reminiscent of contemporary political discourse, where catch-phrases and glib reductions of positions substitute for nuanced thought. The smug self-satisfaction of the tribunes after Coriolanus’s banishment echoes the worst of today’s Facebook “bubbles”; the unwillingness to look or think beyond a narrow “window” of acceptable opinion leads them to congratulate themselves on how well everything hasw turned out even as the messengers arrive reporting Rome’s imminent peril.
The play also raises the questions of what loyalty a person owes to his country when one’s country has disavowed him in turn. What are the limits or the presuppositions of patriotism? The fact that Coriolanus’ final capitulation to Rome (at the cost of his own life) is brought about not by a political reversal, but by the personal pleas his mother, is, I think, critical. Some of those claims transcend the terms of ideology or policy.
Much of this political and philosophical discourse remains somewhat difficult and obscure even after multiple readings or viewings; Coriolanus has never been one of the most popular of Shakespeare’s plays, but there are certainly those who have liked it throughout the years. Productions of it are fairly rare, and there are not many versions easily available on film.