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The main theme of Coriolanus is that pride and arrogance lead to a man’s defeat, as seen in the downfall of Coriolanus. The action of the play chronicles Marcius’ life, from the pinnacle of achievement on the battlefield to his pitiable downfall and murder at the hands of the Volscians. Throughout the play, Coriolanus is seen as an arrogant and inflexible man of action. Although these traits win him victories in battle, they defeat him in the world of politics. Unfortunately, he is so self-absorbed and single-minded that he is not aware of his limitations. Until it is too late, he does not see how his pride and contempt for the commoners cause him to become an enemy of the people in Rome. He is finally banished for his pride and joins forces against Rome with his hated rival, Aufidius. In the end, he is persuaded by his mother to spare Rome, even though it will mean his certain death. Although he is murdered by the Volscians in Antium, it is really his pride, his tragic flaw, which has killed Coriolanus.
Coriolanus is a political tragedy whose purpose was not only to recreate the characters of Coriolanus and his associates but also to interpret the political situation in Rome in terms that were applicable to the England of 1607-08. The subject of the play is a class struggle set in the Rome of 490 BC It presents the conflict between the plebeians and the patricians, the poor and the rich, the weak and the powerful. The subject was of immense interest to Shakespeare, for it reflected a contemporary political situation. In May, 1607, there was a rebellion by the poor in England against the farmers and landlords because of their enclosure of vast stretches of agricultural land for the pasturage of sheep. This resulted in a scarcity of wheat, which made it exorbitantly expensive. Shakespeare presents a similar sort of economic crisis as the cause of the rebellion by the plebeians in the play. The plebeians ignorantly lay the blame for their miseries on the patricians while the real cause of their destitution is a prolonged drought. In any case, the patricians appear to be insensitive to the sufferings of the plebeians and hoard grain in their stores instead of alleviating the distress of the poor. Thus Coriolanus is on one level about the conflict of classes.
The theme of order and degree also pervades the play. There was a widespread belief in the Renaissance that political order on earth was a reflection of cosmic order. The play can be interpreted as an expression of the evils which arise in the State when degree and order is neglected. The tragedy results when the commoners try to take on the functions of the ruler and when excessive pride and overreaching ambition transform Coriolanus -- a great soldier --- into a “limb diseased” of the political body. This theme is sounded at the very beginning of the play when Menenius denounces the First Citizen as the “big toe of this assembly.” The people were violating the Tudor myth of order and allowing “the foot to partake in point of preeminence with the head.” The mob is described as “the mutable rank-scented many”, the “beast with many heads” and “Hydra” which underscores Shakespeare’s fear of the disorder that would result from democracy. As the commoners violate the pattern of order, tragedy is inevitable and political chaos is the outcome.