Coriolanus is set in the earliest days of the Roman Republic. When the play opens, Rome’s kings, the Tarquins, have only recently been expelled, and its citizens are negotiating, sometimes violently, about how Rome is to be ruled. The common people or plebeians are up in armed revolt against the patricians, in whom all power rests and whom they accuse of starving them. The people—represented by Shakespeare as perceptive and articulate, if sometimes irresolute, easily swayed, and cowardly in battle—win the right to be represented in government by tribunes, who will themselves foment more unrest. Nor is this civil dissension the sole threat to Rome, which also has foreign enemies close to its gates. Historically, centuries will pass before the Roman empire of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra will range across continents. In Coriolanus, Rome’s territories can be crossed on foot in a matter of days, and thus assaults on the city itself can be swiftly mounted by its Italian neighbors. The patrician Menenius is convinced that the Roman state, which he identifies with his own noble class, will prevail over all opposition, both within and without—“you may as well / Strike at the heaven . . . as . . . / Against the Roman state, whose course will on / The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs”—and history will prove him right; at the moment of the play, however, Rome is vulnerable.
The play explores in its treatment of the Roman family one of the reasons why the state will achieve such spectacular success. Family bonds inspire reverence from the characters. Cominius, the Roman general, speaks of his “dear wife’s” reputation and of his children as the “treasure of [his] loins.” Coriolanus’s esteem for his mother, Volumnia, so dominates him that he almost obsessively puts his life at risk in bids to win her approval. Yet even the value of family is subordinate to loyalty to the Roman state. As Cominius asserts, “I do love / My country’s good with a respect more tender, / More holy and profound, than” life or family. When a Roman’s obligation to the city becomes aligned with duty toward family, the combined pressure is simply irresistible.
Coriolanus himself has been so thoroughly imbued by Volumnia with devotion to his patrician family and to Rome that he finds intolerable his fellow patricians’ decision to cede some of their power to the plebeians by granting them representation in government. In the eyes of Coriolanus, the creation of the tribunes’ office—especially as its power is exercised by the two tribunes Sicinius and Brutus—elevates unworthy plebeians to a status equal with his own family and class, to the great disadvantage of his ideal of Rome. His principled decision to sacrifice his own political career, if necessary, in his attempt to have the tribunate abolished drives him into irresolvable conflict with the plebeians. When he loses this struggle and is banished from Rome, his disgust with both his fellow patricians and the lowly populace ignites in him an apparently insatiable vengefulness against the state that he has been raised to idealize; it also opens up a tragic divide within himself, pitting him against his own mother and family. Threatened in the action of the play is Rome’s very existence: it seems that Rome will never fulfill the destiny that Menenius has foreseen for it, but will be consumed in the fire of Coriolanus’s revenge.