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Coriolanus /

A Modern Perspective: Coriolanus

By Heather James

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus labors to establish his reputation as Rome’s most valiant son, but his relentless verbal attacks on his fellow Romans and strenuous defenses of himself cause him to lose respect almost as quickly as he earns it. Though no one doubts his valor, many question the virtue from which his valiant deeds must spring if they are to be entirely admirable. Even before he first appears in the play, one of Rome’s common citizens casts plausible suspicion on him: Coriolanus performs heroics on the battlefield, he says, “to please his mother and to be partly proud” (1.1.38–39). Two acts later, his own mother, exasperated by his reluctance to show his battle wounds to the commons (as political custom dictates), snaps at her son, “Thy valiantness was mine; thou suck’st it from me, / But owe [i.e., own] thy pride thyself” (3.2.157–58). According to Shakespeare’s main historical source, Plutarch’s “Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus,” Coriolanus’s enemies and intimates alike seem to doubt that the warrior possesses the “inner armor” necessary for full respect: “outward he esteemed armour to no purpose, unless one were naturally armed within.”1

The warrior does not fare much better with some literary critics, who feel that any character displaying so much self-righteousness forfeits the benefit of the doubt owed to the flawed protagonists of Shakespeare’s tragedies. For these critics, Coriolanus’s failure to draw sympathy even throws doubt on his status as a tragic hero: some view him as an antihero, set in opposition to Rome and his fellow citizens, while others see him as a grotesquely comic figure, who passes through the tragic machinery of suffering, enlightenment, and loss without any of it touching his mind. For many, Coriolanus is the least self-reflective of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists. It does not help that the play presents him mainly in external views, without employing soliloquies and revealing dialogue. It is true that something happens within the warrior when he goes into exile as a muffled traveler and emerges as a virtual god of war. And something yet more profound takes place within him when he yields to his mother’s appeals and grants mercy to Rome. In both cases, Coriolanus chooses his metamorphoses, first into “a lonely dragon” (4.1.35) breathing wrath on Rome and then, less explicably, into a figure as vulnerable as the butterfly (classically, an image of the mutable soul) that his small son chases and rips to shreds (1.3.63–68). But we do not know why he makes these choices: we are led to the threshold of insight but not taken into his confidence.

The most damaging argument is the one against interiority, which dispels the fascination or charisma associated with the tragic hero. There is no getting to the heart of his mystery if Coriolanus ignores his interior life to pursue martial performances that make even his friends see him, ambivalently, as “a thing of blood” (2.2.125) and “an engine” (5.4.19) of war mowing down all in sight. Indeed, it seems that if we opened up Coriolanus to look inside, we might find yet more armor, his breastplate covering up defensive machinery, not the “inner armor” of Stoic fortitude that protects the self against the insults of worldly experience. But this view presumes too much about the models of selfhood available to Shakespeare and of dramatic interest to him.

In fact, Coriolanus is intensely preoccupied with the analysis and evaluation of his deeds. As Lee Bliss points out, he “never asks ‘Who am I?’ or ‘What have I become?’ ”2 He seems more likely to ask, “Have I done anything today for which I am ashamed?” Coriolanus frustrates the model of selfhood associated with Hamlet, who defines the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s mature plays for modern critics and audiences. Hamlet focuses his entire attention on a single momentous act—the murder of the king—and subordinates every consideration and character to it: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Polonius, and Ophelia are victims and casualties of the tragic plot focused on kings. Whereas the Danish prince takes just one deed with him to the bar of conscience, Coriolanus subjects each daily act, no matter how inconsequential in the eyes of others, to minute scrutiny. Behind his awkward expressions of modesty lies a noisy conscience: “Did I once relax my vigor in battle? Did I slack in my duty to lambaste the cowardly and embolden the good? Was it my fault, or his, that Aufidius and I were separated in combat? Was it wrong to let my praises be read to the populace in ‘acclamations hyperbolical’ (1.9.56)? Will I lose my dignity in pursuit of public office?”

Let us consider the most famous act that Coriolanus submits to the business of self-auditing: his effort to serve convention and show his wounds to the Roman commons. Although he tries to do as he is told, the implications of exchanging a view of his wounds for their voices paralyze him. If he shows his wounds, he must identify his labor and dignity with theirs (a thing he cannot do) and bind his duties as consul to their rights and liberties (a thing he wants to avoid). The people long to show their “noble acceptance” of his “noble deeds” (2.3.8–9) and affirm their voice in Roman politics. While the Roman nobles routinely and insincerely make these connections in their political rhetoric, Coriolanus does not—and for good reason: unlike the other nobles, he would feel obliged to represent the people in his office of consul if he said or implied he was going to do so. The “chief enemy to the people” (1.1.7–8) would have to be their friend and advocate.

When so much rides on his every gesture, it is no wonder that Coriolanus worries about his social performances. In psychoanalytic readings of his anxiety, the warrior comes up short, since the terms of analysis—paranoia and narcissism—allow no room for his deliberative agency. He fares better if his restless self-audits are referred to moral philosophy, particularly the Stoic self-scrutiny that Shakespeare’s contemporaries knew best from Seneca (a philosopher and the counselor of the emperor Nero) and that the philosopher Michel Foucault has revived in modern criticism.3 In Shakespeare’s play, Coriolanus constantly battles temptations to conform to social norms and values.4 To embrace Stoic values and resist the outer world order—a witch’s brew of fiction, coercion, and ideology—Coriolanus must retreat to an inner world, in which his battles are moral, his weapon is his reason, and his goal is the defense of the fortress of himself.

Before exile forces his full retreat into himself, Coriolanus looks to one person for guidance in his constant testing of convention and reality: his mother, whom he reveres for her indomitable will and fortitude of mind. In his eyes, Volumnia is a mirror in which he may confidently view ideals of conduct and review his own shortcomings. As she is the first to say, she took risks with her only son at a tender age, when no mother would wish to “sell him an hour from her beholding”: putting his honor before her desire, she “let him seek danger where he was like to find fame,” sending him to a “cruel war . . . from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak” (1.3.9–16), the honor bestowed on soldiers who save the life of a citizen in battle. These admissions are meant not to inspire admiration in the tenderhearted (like Virgilia) but to explain a way of life based on the defiance of custom, no matter how great the personal risk. This is mother’s milk to Coriolanus, for whom the battlefield is a proving ground of moral as well as martial virtue.

Yet nothing, not even Volumnia, can force Coriolanus to reexamine the act for which history will judge him: he flatly refuses to see his campaign against Rome as treason. In an effort to awaken the conscience of its wrathful son, Rome sends three embassies to Coriolanus, who sits in the Volscian camp like an avenging deity, poised to wreak devastation on the ungrateful city. Coriolanus easily discerns the long arm of the state reaching out to touch him in the persons of his intimate friends, Cominius and Menenius, and he sends both on their way with cold words. He is not, in the end, able to dismiss the third embassy, led by Volumnia. But no change of heart is brought about by anything his mother says in the way of logic: his invasion of Rome divides the loyalties of his household between family and state; his reputation in the historical record hangs in jeopardy; and mercy might be regarded as a worthy alternative to victory. In her lucid and powerful arguments he hears the same unwelcome challenge to his autonomy represented by the first two embassies. Rather than capitulate to Rome, he chooses to test and face down the massive weight of the cultural traditions that claim to shape his identity.

Rome’s embassies to Coriolanus are on a collision course with what we might call the warrior’s experiments in divinity, his effort to shake off the controls of civilization and forge an autonomous self or “I” able to defy the claims of the world. He begins this massive effort when he desperately reverses the terms of his exile: “I banish you!” (3.3.153), he thunders at the Romans who condemn him. His exile further kindles his desire to forge his identity in the fire of Stoic denial. As Paul Veyne puts it, the Stoics of the late Roman Empire aimed to create the impression that

the I is all-powerful, that only it matters, and that it can be sufficient unto itself. In order for unhappiness and death not to matter, it is enough to consider them as nothing; if the world is hostile, it is enough to ignore it. . . . In the face of death, the I, with its capacity for denial, is the only weapon remaining to us.5

Shakespeare’s Coriolanus nearly realizes the Stoic fantasy, according to Cominius’s account of the wrathful warrior:


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.


In Coriolanus’s wishful phrase, he would be “author of himself, / And [know] no other kin” (5.3.40–41).

Tellingly, Coriolanus utters this wish at the first moment he glimpses its impossibility, when Rome’s third embassy arrives in camp: “My wife comes foremost, then the honored mold / Wherein this trunk was framed” (5.3.25–26). For him, the third embassy is something like the last temptation of Christ. He must first deny the protocols of war (Cominius), and then the more endearing face of Roman public life (his surrogate father, Menenius). The ties of blood represent Rome’s last effort. To the claims of family, Coriolanus yields and kneels. The question posed to Shakespeare’s audiences has long vexed and inspired the interpreters of history: why?

Two main explanations circulated in Shakespeare’s day. One account emphasizes the obedience of child to parent and views Coriolanus’s performance of his duties as doubly ennobling: the son redeems himself through his obedience to his parent, while the mother illustrates the moral excellence of women. Volumnia’s story appears, for example, in Cornelius Agrippa’s book Treatise of the nobilitie and excellencye of vvoman kynde, as David Clapham rendered the title in his English translation of 1542. Shakespeare takes a marked interest in Volumnia’s ability to control her son’s acts and compel his obedience. In the confrontation of mother and son, he locates her victory over Coriolanus at the precise moment when she abandons argumentation and turns to coercion. Her success wins her a triumph in Rome. Yet her moment of glory seems, in Shakespeare’s play, to diminish rather than confirm her moral stature.

The second version focuses on Coriolanus, who recognizes his fault, repents, and dies of grief. In the first account, Volumnia proves the capacity of women to rise above historical and social constraints and to achieve moral dignity. In the second, she disappears from the story, leaving her son to discover the meaning of treason on his own. An early English printed commonplace book lists his story under two headings, “Of Grief” (“Coriolanus, finding his offence / For warring gainst his country, dyde with griefe”) and “Of Tears” (“Braue Coriolanus being banisht Rome, / Toucht with his fault, went forth, and dide in teares”).6 From this story, Shakespeare takes Coriolanus’s tears, which he relocates in time, transferring them from the moment of the warrior’s death to the act that precipitates it: his choice to yield to his mother’s demands without believing in her arguments. The tears that Coriolanus sheds express not contrition (the work of grace) but compassion (the labor of moral philosophy): “[I]t is no little thing to make / Mine eyes to sweat compassion” (5.3.219–20), says Rome’s fierce warrior, who has hitherto only “sweat with wrath” (1.4.37).

What leads Shakespeare’s Coriolanus to give up his wrath for mercy and, simultaneously, to enter into a bad-faith relationship with Rome and the social institutions whose lies and limitations he deplores? Why does he submit to demands that he fully believes to be violations of natural and divine law? To date, the most influential reading of his submission is the psychoanalytic one advanced by Janet Adelman just thirty years ago: for all of his violent performances of masculinity on the battlefield, Coriolanus remains, in his eyes and his mother’s, her “warrior,” whom she “holp to frame” (5.3.72–73) and without whom he has no more moral or martial agency than an infant. He cannot be “author of himself” and know “no other kin,” but must be his mother’s “corrected son” (66), with his shame, dependency, and mortality on display for all to see.7 This is Volumnia’s perspective and story.

There is another story to be told about Coriolanus’s encounter with human fragility, however, in which he learns something more terrible, and more common, than his dependency on his mother. That story reveals the growing dependency of Volumnia, once so invulnerable in his eyes, on her adult son and, worse, her incapacity to accept any change in their positions. She brings this lesson home to her son, however inadvertently, when she gives up on persuasion and produces a savagely ironic performance of her weakness. Seeing him turn away, she rallies Virgilia and Valeria to participate in a mock display of feminine submission: “Down, ladies! Let us shame him with our knees” (5.3.191), she cries, and the women fall to their knees in petition. Volumnia intends to shame her son with a charade of their dependence, when she seems to believe that the reverse is true: “There’s no man in the world / More bound to ’s mother, yet here he lets me prate / Like one i’ th’ stocks” (180–82). What brings Coriolanus to his knees in this reading is his slow recognition of her frailty and its consequence to him: he must assume the humbling responsibilities he owes to the members of his household, including his once formidable mother, who depend on him.

Coriolanus knows, as she does not, that she really has mistaken the relationship of parent to child all this while, as she said without meaning it. In the end, he assumes the position of her “corrected son,” in full recognition of the tragic ironies. In what seems to be a private aside, because it is impossible to imagine she is listening, he evokes the gods, who look down at the tragic spectacle, in which both mother and son violate the laws of nature and the gods:

                                     O mother, mother!

What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,

The gods look down, and this unnatural scene

They laugh at. O, my mother, mother, O!

You have won a happy victory to Rome,

But, for your son—believe it, O, believe it!—

Most dangerously you have with him prevailed,

If not most mortal to him. But let it come.


The speech is remarkable for the compassion it shows to his mother, who can see no ill in her actions and cannot take his word on faith. Abandoning the principle of strict justice by which he has striven to live, Coriolanus acts to protect his mother from the knowledge of her dependency on him and, more horrifyingly, on the outer world of determinism and fate that he believes she sent him out to combat. Rather than force on her the unbearable knowledge of her vulnerability and illusions, he gives her what he denied to the people: the right to think well of herself. In doing so, he relaxes his moral labors against the fates: “But let it come.”

As the scene unfolds, it pushes the play’s tragic plot in two directions at once: toward the grand space occupied by moral philosophy and the humble space of domestic life. Coriolanus’s discoveries are in some ways comparable to those made by many citizens of the modern (especially Western) world, who spend the first part of their adult lives observing the biblical injunction to leave their parents’ house and establish financial and domestic autonomy only to discover that the second portion of their adulthood will be spent seeking the means to provide care for aging and failing parents, whose greatest horror is at their own dependency. Without entirely collapsing the differences between the modern world and Shakespeare’s, it seems pertinent to ask if Shakespeare’s Coriolanus shares some of the dilemmas faced by another adult child of a willful parent, King Lear’s Cordelia.

It is cruel of Aufidius to tell Coriolanus, who can brave an armed and hostile city with the rigor of his violence, that he is a “boy of tears” (5.6.120), unworthy of the name of the god of war (the name Martius derives from Mars). By throwing Coriolanus’s tears back in his face, Aufidius denies their status as signs of the moral labor that went into his most heroic act. Left to his own devices, Coriolanus would spend a lifetime sweating with wrath on the battlefield and auditing his performance for minute lapses. What brings him to man’s estate and the threshold of tragedy is his consent to identifying with the members of society who are forced to depend on others. Had he learned these lessons earlier, perhaps he would have revealed his wounds to the people of Rome.

  1. The liues of the noble Grecians and Romanes, translated by Thomas North (1579), p. 238.
  2. Lee Bliss, ed., Coriolanus (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 40.
  3. Of Seneca’s moral essays, “On Anger,” “On Mercy,” and “On the Tranquility of Mind” were among the most important in Shakespeare’s day. Foucault discusses “the care of the self” in volume 3 of The History of Sexuality, translated by Robert Hurley (New York: Pantheon, 1986), and, of more direct interest to the concerns of Shakespeare’s play, in his remarks on truth-telling, Fearless Speech, edited by Joseph Pearson (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2001).
  4. For an account of Seneca’s distinction between the outer world, which is subject to fate, and the inner world, which allows human beings to escape such determinism, see William J. Bouwsma, “The Two Faces of Humanism: Stoicism and Augustinianism in Renaissance Thought,” in A Usable Past: Essays in European Cultural History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 19–73.
  5. Paul Veyne, Seneca: The Life of a Stoic (London: Routledge, 2002), p. ix.
  6. John Bodenham, Bel-vedére, or the Garden of the Muses (1600), pp. 144, 190.
  7. Janet Adelman, “ ‘Anger’s My Meat’: Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus,” in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980), pp. 129–49.