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Soma Orlai Petrich Coriolanus 1869

Coriolanus' wife, mother and son plead with him not to attack Rome. 1869 painting by Soma Orlai Petrich.

The Tragedy of Coriolanus (usually referred to simply as Coriolanus) is a historical tragedy play by William Shakespeare. It is believed to have been written between 1609 and 1610 but it did not appear in print until 1623 when it was published in the First Folio, the first collection of the complete works of Shakespeare.

The title character and protagonist, Marcius, who is given the name Coriolanus after he leads the conquest of the city of Corioli, is a Roman from an ancient wealthy family. He is a brave soldier but he is unable to hide his contempt for the common people of Rome. Coriolanus' military success leads to the proposition of his election to the Senate, however, in order to take up a seat in the Senate, Coriolanus has to win the support of the common people. His attempts to do this result in him insulting the people of Rome instead and he is exiled from the city as punishment. To get his revenge on Rome, Coriolanus joins his former enemies, the Volscians commanded by Aufidius, to attack the city. Coriolanus' wife, mother and son beg him not to attack Rome. He eventually agrees to spare the city but is then murdered for betraying the Volscians.

The play is based on the life of Gaius Martius Coriolanus, who Roman historians believed to have lived in the 5th century BCE. However, many modern historians believe that the story is only a legend and that Gaius Martius Coriolanus never existed.

Plot

Act I

The common people of Rome are angry because there is a shortage of food. They complain that they are starving while the wealthy patricians live in luxury and above all they blame Marcius, a descendant of the former kings of Rome, for their misfortune. An angry mob prepares to storm the Capitol but they are calmed down by the patrician Menenius. Through use of a fable, Menenius explains to the mob that the ordinary people and the Senators of Rome are all part of one body and that the people will only be hurting themselves by attacking the Capitol.

Menenius has almost succeded in winning the crowd over when Marcius arrives. He shows how little he cares for the common people and complains that two tribunes have just been appointed to look after their interests. He demands to know the cause of the people's complaint. When the people respond that they want cheaper food, he says that they should join the army because they would then get all the food that they wanted.

Marcius is told that his services are needed because the Volscians, under their commander Aufidius, are preparing to go to war with Rome again. Marcius is happy to have the opportunity to face his old enemy Volscius again, calling him, "a lion that I am proud to hunt". The following scene shows that Aufidius is equally eager to face Marcius again.

Plau-coriolan02

1904 statue of Coriolanus by Wilhelm Wndschneider, in Plau am See, Germany.

At Marcius' home, a visitor, Lady valeria, praises the bravery of Marcius' young son, who is likely to grow up to be just like his father. Although Marcius' wife Virgilia is worried about her husband's safety, his mother Volumina is not. Volumina says that Marcius has always returned victorious from every battle and is proud that her son has faced death so many times.

Marcius leads his troops to attack the Volscian city of Corioli. However, after Marcius enters the city, the city's gates slam behind him, leaving the troops outside and Marcius inside the city alone. The other soldiers believe marcius to be dead but he emerges bleeding but still alive. He urges his troops to enter Corioli again. The Romans eventually conquer the city.

Back in rome, the Consul Cominius honors the wounded Marcius, who is painfully embarassed by the ceremony. For the vital part which he played in securing the capture of Corioli, Marcius is given the new name "Coriolanus".

The act ends with Aufidius vowing that he will either defeat Marcius or die the next time they face each other. Although Aufidius admires Marcius' bravery, he declares that he hates the man so much that he longs to dip his hands in his heart's blood.

Act II

the triumphant Coriolanus is joyfully welcomed back to Rome by Menenius, Lady Virgilia, his wife Valeria and his mother Volumina. Virgilia says that she hopes that her husband will now become a consul.

P. Lastman Coriolanus en de Romeinse afgezanten 1625 detail

Depiction of Coriolanus by Peter Lastman (1583-1625).

The two tribunes who have been appointed to protect the interests of the commmon people express concern about what would happen if Coriolanus, who has never hidden his hatred for the common people, were elected to the Senate. They decide to try to prevent his election.

Cominius names Coriolanus as a candidate for the Senate and the other Senators approve his selection. However, in order to be elected, Coriolanus needs to put on humble clothes, go to the Forum and win votes from the common people by showing them his wounds. Coriolanus grudgingly agrees. He goes to the Forum, accompanied by Menenius. He manages to gain some votes from ordinary Roman citizens but refuses to show his wounds.

After Coriolanus has left the Forum, the two tribunes remind the people that Coriolanus did not follow the correct procedure in order to get votes and that he has always shown disdain for the common people in the past. The people become an angry mob who decide to go to the Capitol and prevent Coriolanus from taking up his office. The two tribunes follow separately because they do not want to be considered responsible for the rebellion.

Act III

Coriolanus and Menenius are approached by the two tribunes who represent the people. Menenius tries to calm them down but an angry confrontation ensues, during which Coriolanus says that the Senate made a mistake by appointing the two tribunes. The tribunes consider the remark to be treasonous and call on a nearby officer to arrest Coriolanus. Some of Coriolanus' friends beat the man off, rather than allowing him to be arrested. Coriolanus is soon surrounded by an angry mob who call for his death. Coriolanus joins with other patricians in fighting the common people, although he holds back to some extent because he is fighting against fellow Roman citizens. Coriolanus wins the fight and returns home.

The two tribunes return at the head of a mob which calls for Coriolanus' execution. Menenius reminds them that, as a consul, Coriolanus cannot be executed and persuades them to allow Coriolanus to apologize in the Forum.

Comic History of Rome p 063 Coriolanus parting from his Wife and Family

Coriolanus parting from his wife and family. 1850s engraving by John Leech from The Comic History of Rome by Gilbert Abbott A. Beckett.

Coriolanus' mother Volumina, Menenius and other patricians persuade Coriolanus to apologize to the people at the Forum. One of the tribunes calls him a traitor. Coriolanus calls the tribune a liar, an insult of which the tribune tells the crowd to take notice. The crowd calls for Coriolanus to be put to death but one of the tribunes says that, although Coriolanus deserves to be put to death for his lack of respect for the laws and the people of Rome, he should be shown some mercy because of his past service to the city.

Taking offense at the tribune's remarks, Coriolanus says that he would rather be executed or banished than continue to serve such ungrateful people. The tribunes declare that Coriolanus is to be banished. Coriolanus remarks that he is happy to leave a place where he is misunderstood but warns the people that they will be defenseless once he has gone.

Act IV

At the gates of Rome, Coriolanus says good-bye to his family and friends. He refuses Cominius' offer of accompanying him for a month and tells his mother not to curse the Romans who have banished him because it is unpatriotic. He assures his family that he will write to them but warns them that he will not be the same man that he was before.

The Volscians hear of Coriolanus' banishmnet and the political division which it has caused in Rome. They plan to take advantage of the situation and attack the city.

Porter-CoriolanusAct4

Meeting of Coriolanus and Aufidius. 1801 engraving by James Porter.

Dressed as a beggar, Coriolanus arrives in the Volscian city of Antium and enters Aufidius' house. He reveals his true identity to Aufidius and anounces that he has come to take revenge on Rome by joining Aufidius in his attack on the city. Aufidius gladly welcomes Coriolanus and says that he can command half of the troops.

In Rome, news spreads that Coriolanus has joined the Volscians and is leading one of the two columns of soldiers that are approaching the city. The people complain that the tribunes have misled them and that they did not really want Coriolanus to be banished.

Aufidius admits that he regrets letting the haughty Roman Coriolanus take control of half of his troops but says that Coriolanus will be completely in his power after they have conquered Rome.

Act V

Cominius having failed to persuade Coriolanus not to attack Rome, Menenius goes to the Volscian camp to try to convince his old friend not to attck the city. Coriolanus tells Menenius that he no longer knows the Romans and proudly points out to Aufidius that he remains firmly in support of the Volscian cause and that attempts to soften his heart have failed.

Coriolanus

Coriolanus' wife and mother beg him not to attack Rome. Painting by Gaspare Landi (1756-1830).

While Coriolanus is in his tent, talking with Aufidius and other commanders, Lady Valeria, his wife Virgilia, his mother Volumina and his son enter. They all beg Coriolanus not to attack Rome. Their pleading eventually persuades Coriolanus to agree to conclude a peace treaty with Rome instead. After they have left, Aufidius admits that he would not have acted differently if he had been in Coriolanus' position.

The women are honored for their heroism and for having succeded where everybody else has failed and having saved Rome.

Aufidius is approached by a group of conspirators who persuade him to join their plot to murder Coriolanus, so that Aufidius can once again be the sole commander of the Volscians.

Coriolanus declares that he is still dedicated to the Volscian cause and says that the peace treaty which he arranged with Rome was in the Volscians' best interest. Aufidius calls Coriolanus a traitor, which naturally makes him angry. He begins to proudly recite his many great deeds, including the capture of Corioli. The Volscians become angry at the mention of the conquest of a city in which so many Volscians died. The conspirators, taking advantage of the anger of those around them, take the opportunity to come forward and stab Coriolanus to death.

Aufidius agrees that Coriolanus' body should be treated with respect, in spite of the many Volscians that he killed.

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