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Royal Shakespeare Company, 1989

Coriolanus

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 resentful of their rulers. Menenius Agrippa, a popular aristocrat, succeeds in calming them down, when an arrogant young general called Caius Martius enters. Showing his disdain for the common people, he criticises the fact that tribunes (representatives), including Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus, have been appointed to speak for the plebeians (common people). In the midst of this class struggle, an invading Italian army, called the Volscians, threaten Rome. The Senate sends Martius along with the army to oppose the Volscian forces, who are led by Tullus Aufidius, Martius's sworn enemy.

benson as coriolanus
Frank Benson as Coriolanus, 1893

Act II

Meanwhile, Martius's mother, Volumnia, glories in her son's valour and discusses the importance of military prowess with his gentle wife Virgilia. Martius almost single-handedly defeats the Volscians in their city of Corioli and thereby 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, eager to accept the position, nevertheless recoils at the thought of going before the people. He is persuaded to carry out the duty, and despite their doubts, the people initially ratify the election. Shortly afterwards, however, they determine to reverse the decision, urged on by Sicinius and Brutus.

They lie deadly that tell you have good faces

— Coriolanus, Act 2 Scene 1

Act III

In the ensuing public argument, Coriolanus displays his contempt for both the people and the idea of popular rule, and 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, where he is welcomed by Aufidius, who admires and respects his former enemy. Together they plan to attack Rome. 

Henry Irving (left) and Ellen Terry (right) as Coriolanus and Volumnia in Coriolanus, 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, but all are rejected. 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 to take part in the funeral of a worthy warrior.

Coriolanus and Aufidius, RSC, 2007
Coriolanus and Aufidius, RSC, 2007

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