Plot Summary

Famine in Rome is kindling unrest between the common people and the patricians. The people particularly resent the arrogant Caius Martius, son of Volumnia, who makes no secret of the fact that he despises them. The citizens rise up against the patricians, whom they suspect of hoarding corn for themselves. They are rewarded with the creation of two people's representatives, or tribunes, who are given new powers to sit in the Senate. War with the neighbouring Volscians halts the rioting, however, and, in the battle for the town of Corioli, Caius Martius leads the Roman army with such spectacular bravery that he is honoured with the title 'Coriolanus'. Back in Rome, the patricians urge Coriolanus to seek the consulship. Reluctantly, he agrees to submit himself to the necessary public display of humility in order to win the assent of the citizens, but once again his inability to mask his contempt turns them against him. Not only do they refuse their assent but, incited by their tribunes, they banish Coriolanus from Rome. In revenge, he joins the Volscians and his former enemy Tullus Aufidius. Together they march on Rome. Coriolanus refuses all attempts at conciliation by his former comrades and only through the intercession of his mother, wife and son is he finally persuaded to spare the city. He establishes a peace, but is killed by the resentful Volscians.

Characters - Aliases

Coriolanus - Earl of Essex

Relationship to De Vere

The play recites the history, recorded in Plutarch's Lives, of an arrogant, Roman general who leads a victorious force against a foreign uprising. The moral of the play is expressed by Menenius, who in the first scene tells a starving crowd to accept the status quo and digest things rightly.:

MENENIUS: There was at time when all the body's members
Rebell'd against the belly…
The senators of Rome are this good belly,
And you the mutinous members: For examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o'th'common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you,
And no way from yourselves. What do you think,
You, the great toe of the assembly.

For his irreverence toward the people and the government, Coriolanus is eventually banished.

Caius Marcius Coriolanus is a historical Roman general. Audiences find the play disappointing, because Coriolanus is snobbish and unappealing. Audiences are indifferent to whether Coriolanus lives or dies. However, Coriolanus is based on Essex, who de Vere disliked. The play is a darkly comic critique that intentionally strips away all the protagonist's ennobling qualities.

Like Coriolanus, Essex leads an expedition against a foreign uprising. Essex's arrogance and his sense of entitlement without limits are mirrored in Coriolanus.

Like Coriolanus, Essex is eventually banished. For de Vere, Essex on the one hand represented the noble courtier of Castiglione: noble birth, wealth, valor, patronage, courageous service to the prince. On the other hand, Essex was arrogant. His ambition had no limits. He was a megalomaniac who had taken the privileges of rank too far.

In some respects, Essex's life followed de Vere's. In their youth, both had risen from promising youths to powerful young elites to rejected and dejected nobleman.