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Coriolanus /

Further Reading: Coriolanus

Abbreviations: Ant. = Antony and Cleopatra; Cym. = Cymbeline; JC = Julius Caesar; Lear = King Lear; Luc. = Lucrece; Mac. = Macbeth; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; Titus = Titus Andronicus


Adelman, Janet. “ ‘Anger’s My Meat’: Feeding, Dependency, and Aggression in Coriolanus.” In Shakespeare, Pattern of Excelling Nature, edited by David Bevington and Jay L. Halio, pp. 108–24. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses; Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1978. [Reprinted in Representing Shakespeare: New Psychoanalytic Essays, edited by Murray M. Schwartz and Coppélia Kahn, pp. 129–49 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980); and in Shakespeare: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory, 1945–2000, edited by Russ McDonald, pp. 323–37 (Oxford: Blackwell, 2004). Revised and incorporated in Janet Adelman, Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare’s Plays, “Hamlet” to “The Tempest,” chapter 6 (pp. 130–64, esp. 146–64) (New York: Routledge, 1991).]

In this frequently cited feminist/psychoanalytic reading, Adelman argues that the image of phallic Oedipal aggression suggested by the uprising of the hungry crowd in 1.1 operates in “not only the political but also the intrapsychic world” of Coriolanus—especially in the titular figure, a man whose life is a “kind of phallic exhibitionism,” committed to disproving any suggestion of human vulnerability and to fulfilling a desire to be the “author of himself” (5.3.40). Just as Mother Rome has failed to nurture her children, so Volumnia, who equates the need for food with weakness, has failed to nourish her son. Her contempt for feeding and dependence is reflected in Coriolanus’s self-sufficiency, in his view of food as poisonous (1.1.189–90; 3.1.198–99), and in his belief that “the only thing he can imagine nourishing is rebellion” (see 3.1.91–92, 151). For both mother and son, masculine identity “depends on [the] transformation of . . . vulnerability [the oral neediness of the infant’s feeding mouth] into an instrument of attack [the phallic aggression of the honorable warrior’s bleeding wound],” a transformation graphically imaged in Volumnia’s disturbing linkage of Hecuba’s lactating breasts and Hector’s forehead spitting blood (1.3.43–46). In turning his back on Rome, Coriolanus turns against his mother to seek in the camp of Aufidius a safe male world where hunger can be openly felt and satisfied with needed food. The supplication scene (5.3), however, places the hero in the presence of his mother and his own child, with the result that he becomes a child again, admitting his own neediness. The play’s conclusion leaves us feeling uneasy because of the divided response prompted by the final confrontation between mother and son. On one hand, we want Coriolanus to acquiesce and save Rome; on the other, we desire him not to submit to Volumnia, thus allowing us to maintain our own fantasies of “omnipotence and independence.” Neither solution is satisfactory. Whereas dependency registers the fullness of our humanity in Lear and Ant., it “brings only the total collapse of the self” in Coriolanus, whose central image is of a woman who has not fed her son enough.

In the revised book chapter titled “Escaping the Matrix: The Construction of Masculinity in Macbeth and Coriolanus,” Adelman discerns a “heroic masculinity” in both titular figures that “turns on leaving the mother behind. . . . [B]oth plays enact the paradox through which the son is never more the mother’s creature than when he attempts to escape her.” In Coriolanus, “maternal malevolence” is less “horrific” than in Mac. because it is “localize[d] and domesticate[d] . . . in the literal relation of mother and son.” Nevertheless, Volumnia’s “equation of starvation and masculinity” emerges as the “psychic equivalent” of the more melodramatic “disruptions of the feeding situation” associated with the witches and Lady Macbeth.

Barton, Anne. “Livy, Machiavelli, and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus.Shakespeare Survey 38 (1985): 115–29.

While Thomas North’s 1579 translation of Plutarch’s Lives provided the basic narrative of Shakespeare’s play, Livy’s The Romane Historie (translated by Philemon Holland in 1600) shaped its overall attitude, one skeptical toward Coriolanus’s virtue as a warrior and more receptive to the need for political compromise and diplomacy. Unlike the biographer Plutarch, the historian Livy focused on the city of Rome and its development as a republic; consequently, Coriolanus’s life became important not for underscoring valor as the chief virtue (Plutarch’s take on the story) but rather for showing how Rome, through the efforts of her women, escaped destruction and how the struggle between patricians and plebeians, with right on both sides, reached a new stage. Livy’s communal emphasis is seen in Shakespeare’s treatment of the Roman people, who, in contrast to the mob in JC, come across as individuals capable of intelligent opinion: “In fact, [Coriolanus] is unique in the canon for the tolerance and respect it accords an urban citizenry.” Menenius, Cominius, Volumnia, and the senators eventually recognize that governmental change is inevitable and that the city belongs to patricians and plebeians alike. Only Coriolanus refuses to accept this change. For Livy, men like Coriolanus, “[h]owever useful in time of war, . . . are a threat to the balance of the state, to an evolving republic which must try to take them with it but, if it cannot, has no option but to discard them by the way.” Barton connects Livy’s view of Coriolanus with that of the sixteenth-century political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli, whose Discorsi, a commentary on the first ten books of Livy, was available to Shakespeare and his contemporaries in Italian and in translated manuscript versions. For Machiavelli, who distinguished between dissension and factionalism, the tension between plebeian and patrician was a positive development, and the expulsion of the rigid Roman aristocrat, whom he treats more harshly than Livy and more dismissively than Shakespeare, was “fit and useful.” Barton devotes the final pages of the essay to Coriolanus’s life in exile, where the hero finds “a world elsewhere” (3.3.165) in the martial habitat of the Volscians. There, Coriolanus “becomes genuinely popular,” but no fundamental change in his character occurs. Although he recognizes his common humanity and the importance of family bonds in the supplication scene (5.3), the communal rapport suggested in the stage direction at 5.6.83 abruptly disappears and the old antiplebeian Coriolanus resurfaces at Aufidius’s inflammatory accusation of “traitor.” The play is a tragedy in that the truths Coriolanus learns about his changing world come too late for him to make use of them; when read in light of Livy’s history and Machiavelli’s commentary, however, Coriolanus becomes “predominantly a history—indeed, Shakespeare’s most political play, the only one specifically about the polis.

Cavell, Stanley. “Coriolanus and Interpretations of Politics (Who Does the Wolf Love?).” In Themes out of School, pp. 60–96. San Francisco: North Point Press, 1984. [Reprinted under the title “ ‘Who Does the Wolf Love?’: Coriolanus and Interpretations of Politics,” in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, edited by Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, pp. 245–72 (New York: Methuen, 1985); and in Stanley Cavell, Disowning Knowledge in Six Plays of Shakespeare, pp. 143–77 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).]

Distinguishing between the political and politics per se, Cavell explores the play’s iterative food and cannibal imagery to argue that Coriolanus is essentially about the formation of the political. In its depiction of a protagonist who refuses to acknowledge “his participation in finite human existence,” the play illustrates “skepticism as a form of [incestuous] narcissism.” Volumnia and Coriolanus are portrayed as starvers and hungerers caught in the “paradox [and reciprocity] of hungering not to hunger, of wanting not to want, of asking not to ask.” Their starving suggests the “infiniteness of desire” not as the cause of “human insatiability” but as its effect, a fact that underscores “their sense of being cannibalized.” This cannibalistic motif pervades the dramatic action from the opening sequence with the people imaged as lambs for patrician wolves to the closing scenes in which Rome is imaged as devouring itself. Detecting parallels between Coriolanus (as a kind of sacrificial lamb butchered for the salvation of the city) and Christ, the author emphasizes the play’s concern with sacrificial feasts, particularly the Christian ritual of Communion. In the end, however, because he is sacrificed by his mother instead of his father—a mother, moreover, who does not believe that he is a god—Coriolanus’s sacrifice is not redemptive: “He can provide spiritual food but he cannot make himself into food[;] . . . hence one may say his tragedy is that he cannot achieve tragedy.” Cavell concludes that the play imagines the “creation of the political as the overcoming of narcissism, incestuousness, and cannibalism”—i.e., as a “beneficial, mutual consumption.” In contrast to the essay’s focus on the play’s “orality,” a postscript included in the two reprints addresses its “anality.”

Doran, Madeleine. “ ‘All’s in anger’: The Language of Contention in Coriolanus.” In Shakespeare’s Dramatic Language, pp. 182–217. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976.

Doran explores how Shakespeare uses “the language of contention to give life to his contentious plot.” Whereas hyperbole, “the language of largesse,” is the appropriate figurative device for the “magnificence, sensuousness, and openness” of Ant., the dominant “figures of opposition or contrariety” (e.g., antithesis, synoeciosis, paradox, and dilemma) are perfectly suited to the “closeness, hardness, and harshness” of Coriolanus, a play built upon a “scheme of conflicts” and designed to assault the ear with the noise of trumpets, battles, and shouting voices. Doran praises Shakespeare’s flexible and fluid use of figures of opposition, claiming that “while the whole tissue of Coriolanus is antithetical, [the] contraries are managed with such variety and freedom that they never grow stale”; she attributes this stylistic felicity to the playwright’s refusal to allow antithetical pairs to settle into the “stultifying formality” of rigid and steady patterns of repetition, perfectly balanced members, and parallel syntax. In Coriolanus’s speech urging the senators to abolish the office of the tribunes (3.1.129–36), for example, the antithetical pairs are kept from perfectly matching by the uneven members, by a shift of metaphor, and by the change from “unmetaphoric comparison” to “metaphoric action.” In the scenes following Martius’s victory at Corioles, Shakespeare combines a narrowly focused hyperbole (the praise heaped on the hero) with “its opposite figure of extenuation” (the meiosis of the hero’s own self-belittling) to create an “adjunct to the dominant figures of opposition.” Finally, turning to Coriolanus’s “two points of stress”—the obligation imposed on him to sue for the consulship and the maternal appeal to spare Rome—the author discusses how in both instances choices are presented “in the form of dilemmas of action”: i.e., as the paradox of “a right choice [being] a wrong choice.” With joyous shouts and the sounds of drums quickly changing to discord and accusations of treason, Coriolanus’s entry into the Volscian city in 5.6 provides an antithetic and ironic parallel to his earlier triumphant entry into Rome. In his final lines, the hero repeats the antithetical images of hardness and fracture that run throughout the play, and “we sense below the rational, reflective level, the ruin of Coriolanus as a jolting fracture.” Contending that “Mars alone, not entangled with Venus, requires harsher music,” Doran finds the language of Coriolanus no “less masterly” than the hyperbolic and sensuous style of Ant. The realm of experience dramatized may be less sympathetic but Shakespeare “penetrates [it] no less profoundly.”

George, David, ed. Coriolanus, Shakespeare: The Critical Tradition. London: Thoemmes Continuum, 2004.

The volume excerpts important and representative criticism, mostly in English, selected from the years 1682 to 1940. Performance-related studies are generally excluded. Among the seventy-nine entries are passages from the following critics: Samuel Johnson (on “the petty cavils of petty minds”), Thomas Davies (on “the good sense and shrewd wit of Menenius”), Francis Gentleman (on the play’s savage kind of heroism), William Hazlitt (on “pretensions, arrogance, and absurdity”), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (on the “wonderfully philosophic impartiality” of Shakespeare’s politics), Charles Knight (on “the stuff of a great general”), H. N. Hudson (on Coriolanus’s “great virtues as well as great faults”), John Ruskin (on Virgilia as the “perfect type of wife and mother”), F. J. Furnivall (on Volumnia as “the grandest woman” in Shakespeare), Kenneth Deighton (on Coriolanus’s Titanic pride), Frederick Boas (on “war as a gigantic duel”), Edmund K. Chambers (on “the subtle sin of egoism”), George Bernard Shaw (on the play as the “greatest” of Shakespeare’s comedies), A. C. Bradley (on Coriolanus as “a noble, even a lovable, being”), John Middleton Murry (on the “golden silence of Virgilia”), Agnes Mure Mackenzie (on Volumnia’s “false idea of greatness”), D. A. Traversi (on Coriolanus’s “rather absurd and ironic death”), and Peter Alexander (on “heroic fidelity to an ideal”). An introductory overview of the play’s scholarship from 1682 to 1940 is treated under seven headings: “Adaptation and Neoclassicism” (1682–1775), “Revolution and Romanticism” (1784–1824), “Conservative Morality” (1833–73), “Academic Criticism” (1873–98), “Scholars and Socialists” (1896–1918), “Cynicism and Specialization” (1918–30), and “New Beginnings, Old Reprises” (1931–40). Along with headnotes to excerpted passages, the editor provides a select bibliography and an index.

Kahn, Coppélia. “Mother of Battles: Volumnia and Her Son in Coriolanus.” Chapter 6 in Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and Women, pp. 144–59. Feminist Readings of Shakespeare. London: Routledge, 1997. [The chapter incorporates the similarly titled article that first appeared in Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 4 (1992): 154–70.]

Kahn “interrogates the gender ideologies that uphold ‘Roman virtue’ ” by examining “the wound as a fetish of Roman masculinity” in Luc., Titus, JC, Ant., Coriolanus, and Cym. In the chapter on Coriolanus, she explores the relationship between the hero and his mother to argue that the play “offers a troubling, richly problematic treatment of the cultural nexus between bearing children and bearing arms.” By moving the feminine from the margins of JC to center stage in Coriolanus’s Volumnia, Shakespeare makes “mother” a term that cannot be placed securely on either side of a “male/female, public/private, war-making/mothering binarism.” While Cicero differentiates the physical nurturing provided by the mother from the ideological indoctrination performed by her, Shakespeare conflates these duties in Volumnia, whose authority issues “equally from her social identity as a mother and from her identification with the masculinist, militarist ideology of Rome.” The linked imagery of Hecuba’s maternal breasts and Hector’s bleeding forehead (1.3.43–46) provides a “striking paradigm for the social and psychological structures that bind [Volumnia’s] performance as a mother to [her son’s] performance as Rome’s champion fighter.” Significantly, the instrument of aggression in the passage is “not a sword but a wound . . . that behaves like a sword,” spewing forth blood against an armed opponent. When Coriolanus moves from the battlefield to the forum, he is required to use words to dissemble his feelings and to reveal his wounds to the people. “Both words and wounds are linked problematically to gender difference”: the wounds sought by the man of martial prowess “assert . . . the impregnability of the male body,” whereas the woman’s “wound [with which she is born] . . . implies pregnability—her capacity to bear sons.” Volumnia’s identification of her son’s planned invasion of Rome with treading on her womb (5.3.140–43) underscores the value of women to Rome as the way the state reproduces itself. Ironically, it is her maternal power that “lock[s Coriolanus] into the fatal contradiction of his manhood and turn[s] him into an enemy of the state.” The absence of a closing pietà image makes clear that Coriolanus’s death changes nothing: “As long as Roman mothers ‘frame’ their sons, ‘the Roman state . . . will on / The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs’ ” (1.1.71–72).

King, Bruce. Coriolanus. Critics Debate. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1989.

The volume, divided into two parts, provides a summary and evaluation of critical studies of Coriolanus. Part 1 surveys critical approaches under the headings “Contextual,” “Textual and Formal,” “Religious, Sociological and Anthropological,” “Interdisciplinary,” and “Theatrical.” Part 2 offers an appraisal of interpretive issues relating to such matters as staging, treatment of the crowd, the character of Coriolanus, warfare, sexuality, power, and notions of the heroic. A select bibliography and index round out the volume. Finding that no single interpretation is adequate, the author draws on both the conventions of Jacobean theater and studies concerned with imagery, psychoanalysis, and the epic genre in order to place Coriolanus in its Jacobean political and social context. King argues that in its use of alienation and distancing techniques, Coriolanus is Shakespeare’s “most modern play.”

Luckyj, Christina. “Volumnia’s Silence.” Studies in English Literature 31 (1991): 327–42.

Drawing on both the critical and performance histories of Coriolanus, Luckyj examines Volumnia’s silent “passing over the stage” (5.5.0 SD) to argue for a reevaluation of the character and her relationship to her son and to the play as a whole. While literary critics and some directors (e.g., Terry Hands, RSC, 1978 and 1989–90) see a Volumnia who basks in the welcoming praise heaped on her as “our patroness, the life of Rome” (5.5.1)—i.e., a triumphant, delighted woman who shows no recognition of being the cause of her son’s imminent death—a theatrical conception has developed since the 1950s that portrays a mother acutely aware of and visibly distressed at the prospect of the human cost of her political success (5.3.210–12). As evidence, Luckyj cites Irene Worth’s widely praised 1984 interpretation at the National Theatre in which the character’s silence was “rendered . . . as mute devastation”; included in this “venerable modern tradition” are productions at the Old Vic (1951), the RSC (1972), and Stratford, Ontario (1961 and 1981). Luckyj takes issue with the emphasis of recent feminist criticism on the character’s military method of mothering (see Adelman and Kahn, above); instead, she focuses on the “vulnerability underlying [her] maternal self-denial,” for in Volumnia, as in Lear and Coriolanus, Shakespeare presents us with a character “both enormous in will and profoundly self-ignorant.” Arguing for a figure of psychological depth who, like her son, changes, the author charts an evolution from the “formidable virago” of Act 1 through the “near-comic bourgeois matriarch” of Act 2, the “dissembler” of Act 3, and “the angry, devastated mother” of Act 4 to the “powerful advocate” of Act 5. To view her as capable of change allows for ways of reading and performing Volumnia’s silences (both immediately after her successful supplication [5.3] and moments later in her celebrated return to Rome [5.5]) that depart from the common conception of her as the “mother-destroyer” of her son. “That Shakespeare knew and exploited the ambiguities of feminine silence should make critics wary of too hastily judging Volumnia’s.”

Marshall, Cynthia. “Coriolanus and the Politics of Theatrical Pleasure.” In Companion to Shakespeare’s Works, edited by Richard Dutton and Jean E. Howard, 4 vols., 1:452–72. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003.

In her examination of the critical and modern theatrical afterlife of Coriolanus, Marshall contends that Shakespeare’s “act of turning a violent political history to the uses of theatrical pleasure . . . help[ed] to inaugurate a modern culture of entertainment in which political questions of social discord and harmony are subordinated to individual questions of autonomy and pleasure.” As evidenced by the 1933 Comédie Française production that provoked supporters of both left and right ideologies to riot in the streets, Coriolanus does not attempt to indoctrinate viewers into a particular political perspective or nationalistic cause. Instead, by establishing “the gap between subjective identity and shaping ideological codes . . . as a site of pleasure,” Coriolanus “works the rift opened by the performance of politics” and “anticipates modern debates about the theatrical dimension of political life and about the political valency of entertainment.” As an early example of dramatizing politics for theatrical delight, the play heralds a process that would come to include the work of Sade and Masoch. Marshall relates Kenneth Burke’s interest in the “cathartic pleasure of painful emotion” (Coriolanus—and the Delights of Faction,” in Language as Symbolic Action [1966]) to her argument that Coriolanus “accords with an aesthetic of masochism,” not as self-punishment but as “a way of elaborating and interpreting the pleasurable tensions of violence, toward which viewers are inevitably drawn.” Choosing to “foreground . . . the performative aspects of the [titular] role as a theatrical event,” Laurence Olivier (RSC, 1959) made clear the play’s movement in the direction of sadomasochism. As an example, the author cites Olivier’s death leap: hurling himself backward from a high rock only to be caught at the last second by his ankles, “the actor br[ought] his audience to heel, and then submitt[ed] the character’s integration and his own physical safety to a cruelly punishing ordeal, enact[ing] a profoundly sadomasochistic rhythm.” Olivier had intuited what the play encourages: namely, the spectator’s response to character and spectacle rather than to ideology. In Coriolanus, Shakespeare showed that he clearly understood “the pleasure audiences would derive from the theatrical dissolution of established norms and identities.”

Parker, R. B. “Coriolanus and ‘th’interpretation of the time.’ ” In Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, edited by J. C. Gray, pp. 261–76. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Parker begins his study of the play with “one of Shakespeare’s bleakest comments on human history”: the “pragmatic cynicism” of Aufidius’s lines on the impermanence of human values and the transitory nature of political power (4.7.52–59). In order to grasp what Shakespeare poses as an alternative to the historical relativism of the Volscian leader (a view that Coriolanus also articulates at 4.4.17–23), Parker examines the play’s two main political issues—the class conflict between patricians and plebeians and the “more basic question of patriotism”—in light of Shakespeare’s developing political thought, his departures from Plutarch (the main source), and the drama’s topical reflection of sensitive matters in the early 1600s (e.g., bad harvests, escalating food prices, outbreaks of rioting in northern and midland counties, and the growing “arrogance of the gentry,” two of whom, the second earl of Essex and Sir Walter Raleigh, “stand out” as possible models for Shakespeare’s titular character). By the time Shakespeare wrote Coriolanus, his understanding of the “political” had widened from the narrower meaning of the early plays—i.e., the struggle for power and the determination of the best institutions for authority—to the broader, anthropological sense of culture: i.e., a “triple interaction” involving the individual, institutions (including the basic institution of the family), and society at large. Parker claims that Shakespeare tests two clichés in the play: that of the “body politic ideal” and that of the mother country as a nurturing force. By assigning the parable of the belly to the “voluptuary” Menenius and by making clear that in this version there is no head, only members and the “sovereign belly,” Shakespeare exposes the reality behind the “body politic” as static, inflexible, and “dehumanizing” (1.1.68–74). With Rome (like Shakespeare’s England) in transition from an “apparently benign political state” to a society caught up in factional strife, Coriolanus pledges his loyalty not to mother Rome but to his own mother. Parker locates “both the psychological and the political heart” of the play in the term “boy” (5.6.120), because “clearly Coriolanus is Volumnia’s creation as Volumnia is Rome’s.” The play achieves “genuine tragedy . . . because though . . . it will not last, and nothing can be built upon it,” Coriolanus’s selfless decision in 5.3, “made not as a Roman but a son,” affirms the familial bond “on which a healthy society has to be built and which Shakespeare had come to see as the truly political core of human society set against the constant flux of history.”

Paster, Gail Kern. “To Starve with Feeding: The City in Coriolanus.” Shakespeare Studies 11 (1978): 123–44.

In Coriolanus, Shakespeare italicizes the idea of the “city” as “the symbol of human community” by opening and closing the action with two angry groups of citizens: the first from Rome wishes for the hero’s death; the second from a Volscian city carries out that wish. This framing technique suggests “that the tragic outcome of what happens to [Coriolanus] in the forum has as much to do with the nature of the forum as with the nature of [the protagonist himself].” Paster notes the iteration of “Rome” and “Capitol” (each word occurs more frequently than in JC and Ant.), the class division between plebeians and patricians (which results in contrasting views of the city), the importance of ceremony, and the absence of private moments and settings (even the ostensibly domestic sewing episode in 1.3 is charged with public, civic meaning). In a play which leaves no room for a “private realm,” our understanding of Coriolanus’s tragedy is entwined with the value we place on the city that survives him, a value “compounded of paradox”: “Rome . . . is at once the source of life and the instrument of death, the agent of immortality and the exactor of a sacrifice which diminishes the city’s existence in preserving it. . . . Indeed the city in Coriolanus . . . represents collectively held ideals of individual aspirations and creates possibilities for achieving them even as it moves with a compulsive, predatory savagery to destroy the heroic man who manifests the very qualities it holds up to emulation.” Volumnia, who views motherhood as a civic duty, embodies this paradox of Rome as both nurturer and destroyer. Through her, the vocabulary of kinship and the predatory imagery of body parts, animals, and food fuse in “a final image of the city which . . . shapes our response to the death of Coriolanus.” For Volumnia and Rome, the play ends on a comic note in that the community survives (5.5). For both the audience and the titular figure, however, the penultimate scene acquires a “heavily ironic cast,” because the play is not over and the audience recognizes that “tragedy will follow comedy”: “Coriolanus’s decision to spare Rome and die—in a way, to starve with feeding—reveals the community to be in truth the mother who eats her own children.”

Patterson, Annabel. Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History. Durham: Duke University Press, 1991.

Chapter 4 of Patterson’s book is titled “Body Fables” and includes a section on Coriolanus (pp. 118–26), a play that Shakespeare saw “as a medium for the discussion of contemporary sociopolitical and socioeconomic issues.” The author focuses on the fable of “The Belly and the Members” and compares Shakespeare’s telling (1.1.91–169) to the account found in Edward Forset’s Comparative Discourse of the Bodies Naturall and Politique (1606), the “official version of the Belly fable for the early Jacobean state.” Whereas Forset used the digestive metaphor abstractly in order to address economic questions and achieve “political consensus as to how and by whom the financial resources of the state should be controlled,” Shakespeare shifted the fable “back toward its literal, bodily content.” As evidence of this shift, Patterson cites the oft-noted topical importance of the Midlands Rising (1607) to the play and Shakespeare’s condensing into one scene of popular unrest two distinct insurrections found in Plutarch (one occasioned by usury and the other by famine). Choosing to make famine the pretext for Menenius’s telling of the belly fable, Shakespeare (as Philip Brockbank noted in the 1976 Arden edition) “made visible the essential flaw in its argument”: namely, that food in the Rome of Coriolanus is not being distributed to the people. Unlike most critics, who view the play as antidemocratic, the citizens as rabble, and the belly fable as illustrating the fatal consequences of allowing the populace their will, Patterson contends that Shakespeare used the fable to showcase economic injustice and to portray the people as skeptical and articulate. The citizens understand why the food that could relieve the famine is instead being wasted on the patricians: the patricians “need the dearth as a physical demonstration of their own wealth” (i.e., their hierarchical authority) (1.1.19–21). The belly fable, which the citizens discredit before Menenius’s delivery of it (1.1.81–88), not only fails to pacify the plebeians but is also shown to be irrelevant, since, while it is being told, their “petition” for formal representation is being approved by the Senate (1.1.227–38). In Patterson’s reading, the opening scenes of Coriolanus serve as “a damning indictment of socioeconomic inequality, focused as they are on the primal issue of hunger”: in his treatment of the fable, Shakespeare “transformed a metaphorical rebellion against the Belly (the original plot of The Belly and the Members) into a literal rebellion of the Belly—the hungry plebeians,” who “appeal to a ‘moral economy.’ ”

Phillips, James E., ed. Twentieth Century Interpretations of “Coriolanus.” Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1970.

This collection of important earlier twentieth-century criticism reprints abridged versions of the following commentaries: G. Wilson Knight, “The Royal Occupation: An Essay on Coriolanus(from The Imperial Theme: Further Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Tragedies Including the Roman Plays [1931]); Oscar James Campbell, “Coriolanus(from Shakespeare’s Satire [1943]); Harley Granville-Barker, “Coriolanus(from Prefaces to Shakespeare, vol. 2 [1947]); Donald A. Stauffer, “Roads to Freedom: Coriolanus(from Shakespeare’s World of Images: The Development of His Moral Ideas [1949]); Willard Farnham, “Coriolanus(from Shakespeare’s Tragic Frontier: The World of His Final Tragedies [1950]); A. P. Rossiter, “Coriolanus(from Angel with Horns, edited by Graham Storey [1961]); Maurice Charney, “The Dramatic Use of Imagery in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus(ELH 23 [1956]: 183–93); and Charles K. Hofling, M.D., “An Interpretation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus(American Imago 14 [1957]: 407–35). Also represented are excerpted viewpoints relating to theme and structure (Kenneth Burke, “Coriolanus—and the Delights of Faction” [Hudson Review 19 (1966): 185–202]) and to specific characters: Coriolanus (T. S. Eliot, Coriolan II: Difficulties of a Statesman [1932], and Paul A. Jorgensen: “Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: Elizabethan Soldier” [PMLA 64 (1949): 221–35]); Volumnia (Rufus Putney, “Coriolanus and His Mother” [Psychoanalytic Quarterly 31 (1962): 364–81]); the Citizens (A. A. Smirnov, Shakespeare: A Marxist Interpretation [1936], and Brents Stirling, The Populace in Shakespeare [1949]); Menenius (Derek Traversi, “Coriolanus” [Scrutiny 6 (1937): 43–58]); the Tribunes (John Palmer, Political Characters of Shakespeare [1945]); Virgilia (John Middleton Murry, “A Neglected Heroine of Shakespeare,” in Countries of the Mind: Essays in Literary Criticism [1922]); and Aufidius (Eugene M. Waith, The Herculean Hero in Marlowe, Chapman, Shakespeare and Dryden [1962]). In the introductory essay, Phillips situates Coriolanus in relation to Shakespeare’s personal and professional life in 1608 (the year often assigned to the play’s composition); comments on its critical and theatrical afterlife, observing that it wasn’t until shortly before World War II that Shakespeare’s “last tragedy” and “last dramatization of Roman history” began to enjoy success both in the study and on the stage; addresses the character of Coriolanus; and discusses the significance of the belly fable (1.1.91–169) for the “imagery of a diseased body that dominates the play as all parties violate the natural order.” Phillips credits T. S. Eliot with recognizing in his Coriolan poems the play’s relevance to the twentieth century in terms of both the psychological dilemma posed by a domineering mother and the political dilemma of a “brilliant military leader . . . forced, against his own nature and temperament, into a position of governmental leadership for which he is hopelessly unqualified.”

Ripley, John. “Coriolanus” on Stage in England and America, 1609–1994. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press; London: Associated University Presses, 1998.

Following an introductory overview of the play’s critical afterlife from Restoration commentators to modern critics, Ripley provides an extensive and detailed performance history of Coriolanus under the following headings: “The Jacobean and Caroline Era,” “From Tate to Thomson: The Age of Propaganda (1681–1749),” “From Sheridan to Kemble: The Making of a Production Tradition (1752–1817),” “The Kemble Tradition Challenged: Elliston-Kean (1820),” “The Kemble Tradition in England (1819–1915),” “The Kemble Tradition in America (1796–1885),” “Modernism and Elizabethan Methodism (1920–1938),” “From Olivier to Olivier: A Romantic Interlude (1938–1959),” and “Psychoanalysis, Politics, and Postmodernity (1961–1994).” The volume includes a chronological list of performances in London; Stratford-upon-Avon; New York; Stratford, Ontario; and Stratford, Connecticut, spanning the years 1609 to 1994. The play’s stage history is “driven by the theater’s conviction that [Coriolanus] is the product not of aesthetic strategy but defective craft.” While the theater’s assessment may be right, Ripley nevertheless asks what an experiment based on “a calculated aesthetic, however unconventional,” and undertaken by a major acting company, might yield. His afterword attempts to answer that question. For Ripley, the “aesthetics of the play privilege uncertainty.” He urges resistance to the modern impulse to impose a “tight-knit” unity on the script and calls on directors to balance the mother-son theme (the dominant focus of most of the play’s stage history) against the “crucial resonance of battlefield and Forum,” without which the “tortured attachment” of Coriolanus and Volumnia “is at best the stuff of Tennessee Williams melodrama or at worst Freudian analysis.”

Ripley, John. “Coriolanus’s Stage Imagery on Stage, 1754–1901.” Shakespeare Quarterly 38 (1987): 338–50. (Reprinted in Wheeler, below.)

Operating on the assumption that the working dynamics of Shakespeare’s presentational images are best demonstrated in performance, Ripley examines how eighteenth- and nineteenth-century productions staged three scenes in Coriolanus: the titular figure’s triumphal return from Corioles (2.1), the opening of the pleading scene (5.3), and Coriolanus’s assassination (5.6). What emerges from this examination of entrances, groupings, gestures, sounds, and costumes is “largely a recital of mutilations and distortions” of Shakespeare’s economical and precise visual eloquence; Ripley attributes this wide-scale mutilation to “audience tastes, managerial ambitions, and financial exigency.” Using the stage directions found in the First Folio and verbal clues embedded in the dialogue, he notes how Shakespeare sets up Coriolanus’s entrance in 2.1 on a barish stage with the protagonist flanked by his generals; later, when he sees his mother downstage, Coriolanus crosses and kneels to her. In contrast to this simplicity and blurring the clarity of Coriolanus’s movement from a military group to a domestic one in the Folio text, Thomas Sheridan (1754), John Philip Kemble (1811), Charles Macready (1838), and Henry Irving (1901) had Volumnia exit before her son entered; she, along with her companions, later returned as part of a massive downstage procession, which, in the case of Macready, included 300 people. A similar bias toward spectacle and sheer numbers is found in the pleading scene, where—unlike the Folio, which indicates only a few people onstage—Kemble showed Coriolanus and Aufidius on thrones, with 240 people onstage, a choice that deprived the episode of its poignant intimacy. Finally, in contrast to Shakespeare’s use of only a few soldiers to assist Aufidius in killing Coriolanus, Edwin Forrest (1855) had a large group surround him, hiding the murder from the squeamish and robbing the audience of “the transcendent instant when the lonely dragon passes from titanic rage to dispassionate death.” Although such flagrant departures from Shakespeare’s “minimalist design” occur less frequently today, “visual philistinism” still remains a problem in staging Coriolanus. The reason, Ripley contends, is the failure of theater artists to recognize an indisputable fact: “Where Shakespeare’s stagecraft is concerned, less is often more.”

Shrank, Cathy. “Civility and the City in Coriolanus.Shakespeare Quarterly 54 (2003): 406–23.

Shrank examines the interplay of language and politics, the two recurrent concerns of criticism on Coriolanus, within the context of Elizabethan monarchical government and the “ideology—with its rhetoric of civility and iconography of the city—that informed local civil government life” in early modern England. Analysis of the play’s politics demands consideration of more localized contexts in order to reconcile its political nature and republican setting with the monarchical society surrounding its production. While awareness of “monarchical republicanism” remained alive among those close to the workings of power in seventeenth-century England, a form of republican thought and a belief in active political participation were particularly strong in the “civic politics” of the 204 English towns and cities that had been incorporated by 1610, and that, because of their “limited self-government,” were compared by visiting dignitaries to “republics.” The centrality of this civic culture to the English political system was “underpinned” by the humanist curriculum promoted in English grammar schools, where schoolboys were taught not only to “emulate and admire Roman ideals of civic duty” but also to master the Ciceronian argument that language is both a sign of civility and the means by which it is achieved. Emphasizing the “link between civil and civic,” Shrank places politics at the center of the play to argue that the protagonist’s “uncivil language is a natural extension of his antipathy to the civic community”: through Coriolanus’s “indecorous speech,” which derives from both his being a professional soldier (one meaning of “civil” at the time was “nonmilitary”) and his having been deprived of the kind of education that early modern conceptions of civility and civil language encompassed, Shakespeare “signals his protagonist’s inability to live within the urban community and, beyond that, his ultimately detrimental effect on civic society.” Fittingly, Shakespeare builds the play’s two crises—the titular figure’s failure to participate decorously in the election rituals and his threat to invade the city with an enemy force—around Coriolanus’s strong aversion to the civic body. Shrank concludes that an understanding of the linkage between civil and civic in early modern England can help to “unravel some of the problems of interpretation that have dogged the play with its complex—yet confusing—politics and uncompromising, alienating protagonist.”

Walker, Jarrett. “Voiceless Bodies and Bodiless Voices: The Drama of Human Perception in Coriolanus.Shakespeare Quarterly 43 (1992): 170–85.

Concerned with the “ontological differences between speech and the body” as manifested in the theater, Walker observes that in moments of violence, such as the mutilation of Lavinia in Titus, the body, when divorced from speech, attests not to the linear time insisted on by the latter but to “time bifurcated into before and after by a single violent moment.” Similarly, dead bodies onstage at the end of many tragedies “testify to a time that has stopped,” notwithstanding the voices that go on speaking, “unconvincingly marking time toward a peaceful, linear future.” In Coriolanus, the Shakespearean tragedy “most obsessed” with the “body/voice polarity,” Walker argues that the titular figure’s disdain for the spoken word reveals “a contempt for linear time and a desire to live in a single transcendent moment such as the moment of violence.” Even the names Caius Martius and Coriolanus signify the tension between “the realm of the voice” (where the linear time of birth and death prevails) and “the realm of the body” (where one act of violence—i.e., the conquest of Corioles—“can overwhelm time and record itself in eternity”). The linear realm of the play’s strong narrators—Cominius, Menenius, and Volumnia—for whom the conversion of bodily action into spoken narrative implies that the body exists for the purpose of the voice contrasts with the hero’s “alternate universe in which there are only bodies, active or still, violent or sexual, but never needing words.” For Walker, the interplay of temporal speech and atemporal presence informs the crisis at the gates of Rome (5.3). After Volumnia begs her son not to attack the city of his birth and Coriolanus recognizes that all further speech and action are denied him, the Folio has the only stage direction in Shakespeare that “specifically demands a total stop to both speech and action”: “Holds her by the hand, silent” (5.3.204 SD). The question that follows—“What have you done?”—indicates a change in the mind of the protagonist. What precipitates the change, Walker argues, is not the temporality of Volumnia’s narrative but the “atemporal level” of Coriolanus’s “ongoing perceptions” of the bodies of his “two erotic objects,” Aufidius and Virgilia. The complete silence at the moment of choice “contains nothing but presence, but it is created out of speech, by the speaker’s decision to fall silent.” The conflict between the body and the voice that pervades Coriolanus “evokes a world where there are only . . . bodies seen and voices heard—all struggling in vain to become persons.”

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

Designed to collect the “most influential historical criticism, the most significant contemporary interpretations, and reviews of the most influential productions,” this anthology devoted to Coriolanus reprints twenty-two critical extracts and essays spanning the years 1682–1994, and eighteen reviews of eight productions between 1901 and 1988. Extracts are taken from Tyrone Guthrie, In Various Directions: A View of the Theatre (1955); Lawrence Danson, Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare’s Drama of Language (1974); and Kristina Bedford, Coriolanus at the National (1992). Reprinted essays include the following: A. C. Bradley, “Coriolanus(1912); Paul A. Jorgensen, “Shakespeare’s Coriolanus: Elizabethan Soldier” (1949); James L. Calderwood, “Coriolanus: Wordless Meanings and Meaningless Words” (1966); Emmett Wilson, “Coriolanus: The Anxious Bridegroom” (1968); J. L. Simmons, “Antony and Cleopatra and Coriolanus, Shakespeare’s Heroic Tragedies: A Jacobean Adjustment” (1973); Patricia K. Meszaros, “ ‘There is a world elsewhere’: Tragedy and History in Coriolanus(1976); Felicia Hardison Londre, “Coriolanus and Stavisky: The Interpenetration of Art and Politics” (1986); Madelon Sprengnether, “Annihilating Intimacy in Coriolanus(1986); John Ripley, “Coriolanus’s Stage Imagery on Stage, 1754–1901” (1987); Zvi Jagendorf, “Coriolanus: Body Politic and Private Parts” (1990); and Martin Scofield, “Drama, Politics and the Hero: Coriolanus, Brecht, and Grass” (1990). The collection also provides two new essays: Karen Aubry, “Shifting Masks, Roles, and Satiric Personae: Suggestions for Exploring the Edge of Genre in Coriolanus,” and David Wheeler, “To Their Own Purpose: The Treatment of Coriolanus in the Restoration and Eighteenth Century.” Theatrical reviews are reprinted for productions in London (Sir Henry Irving, 1901, and Peter Hall, 1985), Paris (La Comédie-Française, 1933), Stratford-upon-Avon (Peter Hall, 1959), and New York (John Houseman, 1954, and the New York Shakespeare Festival, 1965, 1979, and 1988). Wheeler focuses his introductory essay on the “conflict between the intellectual engagement the play offers those who study it, and the absence of emotional engagement for the general audiences who view it.”