After the exotic eroticism of Antony and Cleopatra, Shakespeare returned to Rome for one of his final tragedies, and the change could not have been more dramatic. Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s harshest and most challenging studies of power, politics and masculinity, based around the life of Caius Marcius.
Based on the Roman chronicles of Plutarch’s Lives and Livy’s History of Rome, the play is set in the early years of the Roman Republic. Its famous opening scene, particularly admired by Bertolt Brecht, portrays its citizens as starving and rebellious, and horrified by the arrogant and dismissive attitude of Caius Marcius, one of Rome’s most valiant but also political naive soldiers. Spurred on by his ambitious mother Volumnia, Caius takes the city of Corioles, is renamed Coriolanus in honour of his victory, and is encouraged to run for senate. However, his contempt for the citizens, who he calls “scabs” and “musty superfluity” ultimately leads to his exile and destructive alliance with his deadly foe, Aufidius. Despite its relative unpopularity, Coriolanus is a fascinating study of both public and personal life. Its language is dense and complex, as its representation of the tensions built into the fabric of Roman political life. Yet it also contains extraordinarily intimate scenes between Coriolanus and both his mother, who ultimately proves “most mortal” to her own son, and his enemy Aufidius, whose “rapt heart” is happier to see Coriolanus than his own wife. One of Shakespeare’s darker and more disturbing plays. —Jerry Brotton