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Shakespeare's Works
• The Plays

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Hear you this Triton of the minnows? Mark you
His absolute "shall"?

Act 3, scene 1, lines 119–120

The beast
With many heads butts me away.

Act 4, scene 1, lines 1–2

Set in the earliest days of the Roman Republic, Coriolanus begins with the common people, or plebeians, in armed revolt against the patricians. The people win the right to be represented by tribunes. Meanwhile, there are foreign enemies near the gates of Rome.

The play explores one reason that Rome prevailed over such vulnerabilities: its reverence for family bonds. Coriolanus so esteems his mother, Volumnia, that he risks his life to win her approval. Even the value of family, however, is subordinate to loyalty to the Roman state. When the two obligations align, the combination is irresistible.

Coriolanus is so devoted to his family and to Rome that he finds the decision to grant the plebians representation intolerable. To him, it elevates plebeians to a status equal with his family and class, to Rome's great disadvantage. He risks his political career to have the tribunate abolished—and is banished from Rome. Coriolanus then displays an apparently insatiable vengefulness against the state he idolized, opening a tragic divide within himself, pitting him against his mother and family, and threatening Rome’s very existence.

Coriolanus may have been written in 1607–08; the text alludes to "coal of fire upon the ice," a likely reference to the Great Frost of that winter, during which the Thames froze and coal was burned on the ice in containers. It was published in the 1623 First Folio. Sources include North's translation of Plutarch's Lives, William Averell's A Marvelous Combat of Contrarieties, Sir Philip Sidney's An Apology for Poetry, William Camden's Remains of a Greater Work, Concerning Britain, and others.

Adapted from the Folger Library Shakespeare edition, edited by Barbara A. Mowat and Paul Werstine. © 2009 Folger Shakespeare Library


Further reading
Stanley Cavell. Disowning Knowledge in Seven Plays of Shakespeare. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Warren Chernaik. The Myth of Rome in Shakespeare and His Contemporaries. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

David Daniell. Coriolanus in Europe. London: Athlone Press, 1980.

Coppelia Kahn. Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women. New York: Routledge, 1997

John Ripley. Coriolanus on Stage in England and America, 1609–1994. Madison, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1998.

David Wheeler, ed. Coriolanus: Critical Essays. New York: Garland, 1995.

Coriolanus (2011, Icon Entertainment International and BBC Films). Directed by Ralph Fiennes. Cast includes Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Vanessa Redgrave, Brian Cox, Jessica Chastain, Paul Jesson.
San Francisco, California Theatre. Coriolanus. Newspaper playbill, 4 April 1873

Mr. Quin. in the character of Coriolanus. Engraving, mid-18th century


Past Exhibitions: Old vs New Acting Style (Coriolanus)

Inside the Collection

Folios from the Collection: Coriolanus

Teacher Resources

Lesson Plan: "I Banish You": Using Visual and Auditory Images

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