Coriolanus is a difficult, masterful, historically unpopular play. The easiest way into this confusing play is politics, and for this reason journalists often cite the “Coriolanus effect” to describe the difficulties of a military figure turned politician. And indeed, in many ways Coriolanus is eerily modern, and it reads almost like a 21st-century political tragedy. At the same time, the play is just as much about ancient Roman politics as it is proto-modern. Shakespeare wrote three Roman plays in addition to Coriolanus: Julius Caesar, set at the end of the Roman Republic, Anthony and Cleopatra, set immediately following Caesar at the dawn of the Roman Empire, and Titus Andronicus, set in the late Roman Empire. Coriolanus, despite being the last written of the four (and among Shakespeare’s last plays) takes place before the other three, during the early days of the Roman Republic. Rather than the large, metropolitan Rome at the center of a growing empire (like in Caesar and Antony), Rome in Coriolanus is simply a town in the center of Italy. The population of this smaller Rome consists mostly of two classes: the poor, hungry masses (plebeians – the lower class), and the ruling, wealthy few (patricians – aristocrats).
The inequality and the struggle for balance between these classes creates a power vacuum and the play’s political landscape. The play begins amidst plebeian riots over a grain shortage. Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus harness the power of the mob, often characterized as one multitude, and the two men are named tribunes (elected authorities) of the people. Menenius, a patrician, tries to calm the Roman citizens during the riots. He explains the proper relationship between the government and governed by discussing the “body politic,” a classic analogy in which a king is a ruler and the subjects are different body parts. In Menenius’s fable of the belly, the senate is the belly which takes all the food in order to properly distribute it to the other limbs, which he says are made up of commoners. But the military hero (and therefore patrician) Caius Martius, later surnamed “Coriolanus” for an impressive achievement on the battlefield, views the common people with contempt, deflates Menenius’s speech, and opposes the tribunes of the people.
After returning from war, Coriolanus seeks to be named a Roman Consul, and though he has support from Senators and other patricians, he needs to gain the voices and the votes of the common people he so despises. In the grooming of Coriolanus as a political candidate we see the early representations of campaign managers, handlers, stump speeches, and pandering that make the play read so much like a modern political drama. Coriolanus, though, cannot properly enter the political sphere. He cannot act like a politician—he considers this to be theatrical and dishonest—and therefore he cannot win votes. The other, more politically adept figures in the play outmaneuver him in the political arena, since they could not hope to in the arena of war. First the two tribunes have Coriolanus banished, and later Tullus Aufidius, Coriolanus’s longtime-enemy, uses his political prowess to get Coriolanus killed.
We can draw comparisons between Coriolanus and Roman history, Shakespeare’s contemporary government, and our own times, and the play can be used in arguments from both the political left and right, but it is extremely difficult to say (or argue) with any kind of certainty what Shakespeare’s own political views on imperialism, the political process, absolute power, and the class struggle might have been. Regardless of the playwright’s specific views, the play offers insight and deep questions into both the righteousness and the surreptitious nature of politics—asking how power should be balanced and how material goods should be controlled, and examining both the plight of the common people and the fickle, ever changing nature of their opinions.
Politics, Class, and Rome ThemeTracker
Politics, Class, and Rome Quotes in Coriolanus
If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us.
There was a time when all the body’s members
Rebelled against the belly, thus accused it:
That only like a gulf it did remain
I’ th’ midst o’ th’ body, idle and unactive,
Still cupboarding the viand, never bearing
Like labor with the rest, where th’ other instruments
Did see and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel,
And, mutually participate, did minister
Unto the appetite and affection common
Of the whole body.
The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members. For examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o’ th’ common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you
And no way from yourselves.
I shall lack voice. The deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be uttered feebly.
At sixteen years,
When Tarquin made a head for Rome, he fought
Beyond the mark of others. Our then dictator,
Whom with all praise I point at, saw him fight
When with his Amazonian chin he drove
The bristled lips before him. He bestrid
An o’erpressed Roman and i’ th’ Consul’s view
Slew three opposers. Tarquin’s self he met
And struck him on his knee. In that day’s feats,
When he might act the woman in the scene,
He proved best man i’ th’ field and for his meed
Was brow-bound with the oak. His pupil age
Man-entered thus, he waxèd like a sea,
And in the brunt of seventeen battles since
He lurched all swords of the garland.
Before and in Corioles, let me say,
I cannot speak him home. He stopped the flyers
And by his rare example made the coward
Turn terror into sport. As weeds before
A vessel under sail, so men obeyed
And fell below his stem. His sword, Death’s stamp,
Where it did mark, it took; from face to foot
He was a thing of blood, whose every motion
Was timed with dying cries. Alone he entered
The mortal gate o’ th’ city, which he painted
With shunless destiny; aidless came off
And with a sudden reinforcement struck
Corioles like a planet.
We have power in ourselves to do it, but
it is a power that we have no power to do; for, if
he show us his wounds and tell us his deeds, we
are to put our tongues into those wounds and
speak for them. So, if he tell us his noble deeds, we
must also tell him our noble acceptance of them.
Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to
be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude,
of the which, we being members, should
bring ourselves to be monstrous members.
The mutable, rank-scented meiny, let them
Regard me, as I do not flatter, and
Therein behold themselves. I say again,
In soothing them, we nourish ’gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plowed for, sowed, and
By mingling them with us, the honored number,
Who lack not virtue, no, nor power, but that
Which they have given to beggars.
His nature is too noble for the world.
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident
Or Jove for ’s power to thunder. His heart’s his
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent,
And, being angry, does forget that ever
He heard the name of death.
SICINIUS: He’s a disease that must be cut away.
MENENIUS: O, he’s a limb that has but a disease—
Mortal to cut it off; to cure it easy.
What has he done to Rome that’s worthy death?
Killing our enemies, the blood he hath lost—
Which I dare vouch is more than that he hath
By many an ounce—he dropped it for his country;
And what is left, to lose it by his country
Were to us all that do ’t and suffer it
A brand to th’ end o’ th’ world.
MENENIUS: Return to th’ Tribunes.
CORIOLANUS: Well, what then? What then?
MENENIUS: Repent what you have spoke.
CORIOLANUS: For them? I cannot do it to the gods.
Must I then do ’t to them?
VOLUMNIA: You are too absolute,
Though therein you can never be too noble
But when extremities speak.
For in such business
Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th’ ignorant
More learnèd than the ears—waving thy head,
Which often thus correcting thy stout heart,
Now humble as the ripest mulberry
That will not hold the handling. Or say to them
Thou art their soldier and, being bred in broils,
Hast not the soft way, which thou dost confess
Were fit for thee to use as they to claim,
In asking their good loves; but thou wilt frame
Thyself, forsooth, hereafter theirs, so far
As thou hast power and person.
To beg of thee, it is my more dishonor
Than thou of them. Come all to ruin. Let
Thy mother rather feel thy pride than fear
Thy dangerous stoutness, for I mock at death
With as big heart as thou. Do as thou list.
Thy valiantness was mine; thou suck’st it from me,
But owe thy pride thyself.
The fires i’ th’ lowest hell fold in the people!
Call me their traitor? Thou injurious tribune!
Within thine eyes sat twenty thousand deaths,
In thy hands clutched as many millions, in
Thy lying tongue both numbers, I would say
“Thou liest” unto thee with a voice as free
As I do pray the gods.
You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty;
Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts;
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders, till at length
Your ignorance—which finds not till it feels,
Making but reservation of yourselves,
Still your own foes—deliver you
As most abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising
For you the city, thus I turn my back.
There is a world elsewhere.
My name is Caius Martius, who hath done
To thee particularly and to all the Volsces
Great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may
My surname Coriolanus. The painful service,
The extreme dangers, and the drops of blood
Shed for my thankless country are requited
But with that surname, a good memory
And witness of the malice and displeasure
Which thou shouldst bear me. Only that name
O Martius, Martius,
Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart
A root of ancient envy.
Let me twine
Mine arms about that body, whereagainst
My grainèd ash an hundred times hath broke
And scarred the moon with splinters.
Know thou first,
I loved the maid I married; never man
Sighed truer breath. But that I see thee here,
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart
Than when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
Yet one time he did call me by my name.
I urged our old acquaintance, and the drops
That we have bled together. “Coriolanus”
He would not answer to, forbade all names.
He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
Till he had forged himself a name o’ th’ fire
Of burning Rome.
There’s no man in the world
More bound to ’s mother, yet here he lets me prate
Like one i’ th’ stocks. Thou hast never in thy life
Showed thy dear mother any courtesy
When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood,
Has clucked thee to the wars and safely home,
Loaden with honor. Say my request’s unjust
And spurn me back; but if it be not so,
Thou art not honest, and the gods will plague thee
That thou restrain’st from me the duty which
To a mother’s part belongs.
Volumnia: This fellow had a Volscian to his mother,
His wife is in Corioles, and his child
Like him by chance.—Yet give us our dispatch.
I am hushed until our city be afire,
And then I’ll speak a little.
(He holds her by the hand, silent.)
CORIOLANUS: O mother, mother!
What have you done?
There is differency between a grub and a
butterfly, yet your butterfly was a grub. This Martius
is grown from man to dragon. He has wings;
he’s more than a creeping thing.
When he walks, he moves like an engine, and the ground
shrinks before his treading. He is able to pierce a
corslet with his eye, talks like a knell, and his hum
is a battery. He sits in his state as a thing made for
Alexander. What he bids be done is finished with
his bidding. He wants nothing of a god but eternity
and a heaven to throne in.
AUFIDIUS: Tell the traitor in the highest degree
He hath abused your powers.
CORIOLANUS: “Traitor”? How now?
AUFIDIUS: Ay, traitor, Martius.
AUFIDIUS: Ay, Martius, Caius Martius. Dost thou think
I’ll grace thee with that robbery, thy stol’n name
Coriolanus, in Corioles?
You lords and heads o’ th’ state, perfidiously
He has betrayed your business and given up
For certain drops of salt your city Rome—
I say your city—to his wife and mother,
Breaking his oath and resolution like
A twist of rotten silk, never admitting
Counsel o’ th’ war, but at his nurse’s tears
He whined and roared away your victory,
That pages blushed at him and men of heart
Looked wond’ring each at other.
CORIOLANUS: Hear’st thou, Mars?
AUFIDIUS: Name not the god, thou boy of tears.
Cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads,
Stain all your edges on me. “Boy”? False hound!
If you have writ your annals true, ’tis there
That like an eagle in a dovecote, I
Fluttered your Volscians in Corioles,
Alone I did it. “Boy”!