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Royal Shakespeare Company, 1989


Synopsis and plot overview of Shakespeare's Coriolanus

TL;DR (may contain spoilers): Coriolanus hates the people, and they banish him from Rome. Coriolanus loves his mother, and she stops him from attacking Rome. He dies.

Coriolanus Summary

Roman general Coriolanus makes his name defeating an enemy army and defending Rome. The Senate nominates him as consul but he cannot win the people's vote, so he is banished from Rome and allies with his old enemy. He comes to attack Rome, his mother persuades him not to, and his new-found ally kills him for the betrayal.

More detail: 2 minute read

Act I

In Rome, a group of mutinous citizens have become incensed over a shortage of food and are resentful of their rulers. Menenius Agrippa, a popular aristocrat, succeeds in calming them down. But then an arrogant young general called Caius Martius enters. He criticises that the tribunes (representatives), Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus, have been appointed to speak for the plebeians. He shows his disdain for the plebeians (common people). In the midst of this class struggle, an invading Italian army known as the Volscians threaten Rome. The Senate sends Martius along with the army to oppose the Volscian forces. Martius's sworn enemy Tullus Aufidius leads the Volscian army.

Sir Frank Benson as Coriolanus. He stands facing the viewer but looking upward to our left. He is wearing traditional Roman costume, with a wide belt from which a sword hangs centrally; he has a chain of office, and his right hand, holds a staff of office
Frank Benson as Coriolanus, 1893

Act II

Meanwhile, Martius's mother, Volumnia, glories in her son's valour. She discusses the importance of military prowess with his gentle wife Virgilia. Martius defeats the Volscians almost single-handedly in their city of Corioli. He earns the title 'Coriolanus'. Upon return to Rome, the aristocracy chooses to appoint Coriolanus as a Consul (another position of authority). Volumnia pressures Coriolanus to accept. According to custom at the time, potential Consuls were expected to seek the vote of the citizens in the marketplace as a mark of humility. Coriolanus, though eager to accept the position, recoils at the thought of going before the people. He is persuaded to carry out the duty. Despite their doubts, the people initially ratify the election. Shortly afterwards Sicinius and Brutus urge them to reverse the decision, and they do. 

They lie deadly that tell you have good faces

— Coriolanus, Act 2 Scene 1


In the ensuing public argument, Coriolanus displays his contempt for both the people and the idea of popular rule. He denies their right to corn supplies. Despite the encouragement of the senators and of his mother, Coriolanus cannot make his peace with the tribunes and the plebeians. He is expelled from Rome in rage and disgust. With nowhere else to turn, he decides to go to the Volscian city of Antium. Aufidius admires and respects his former enemy, so he welcomes Coriolanus. Together they plan to attack Rome. 

Two images from "The Sphere", showing Irving wearing Roman costume with a toga bunched over his left hand, and Terry  in a dark robe and a pointed headdress. Beneath is a dedication to Margaret A signed E T, and dated 1901.
Henry Irving (left) and Ellen Terry (right) as Coriolanus and Volumnia, 1901

Act IV

In Rome itself, the tribunes and people rejoice that Coriolanus is gone until they hear that he has joined forces with Aufidius to challenge the city. They send several embassies, including Cominius and of Menenius, to try and dissuade him. Coriolanus rejects them all. Finally, Volumnia, Virgila, and Coriolanus's young son go to plead for their people. Coriolanus cannot resist his mother's entreaties and ultimately agrees to make peace.

Action is eloquence

— Coriolanus, Act 3 Scene 2

Act V

Aufidius is incensed at this betrayal of trust, and with his chosen soldiers, kills Coriolanus. Once his anger is gone, Aufidius agrees to take part in the funeral of a worthy warrior.

Coriolanus and Aufidius, RSC, 2007. Coriolanus is bent backwards horizontally across the bent knee of the standing Aufidius, who bends his head to look into the face of Coriolanus as he strangles him.
Coriolanus and Aufidius, RSC, 2007

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