By William Shakespeare


Whether our opinions about the mid-nineteenth century critic Charles Knight that in Shakespeare's trilogy of Roman plays the 'hero' is the city itself, in Coriolanus the immediacy and importance of the urban setting is unavoidable. Shakespeare's imagery is rich and typically is at its strongest when emphasising key issues in the course of the play.

Firstly imagery that plays on food has been long observed by critics. The plebeians in Act one, deprived of grain at affordable prices by the patricians, are addressed by Menenius with the belly fable. This serves multiple purposes as it also forms an important part of political language, but in the context of the citizens' plight heightens our focus on their grievance - grain prices. Later Volumnia describes battle as if it were harvest (I.iii.35-7).

Perhaps Shakespeare's most potent imagery in the context of reinforcing the bitter class divisions of Rome and the political problems of the state is that of disease. This is hardly surprising considering it was usual for contemporaries to view the state and society organically, making anatomical allusions. Thus when the state or society experiences difficulties or problems, contemporaries made comparisons with diseases that need to be cured or limbs hacked away. Coriolanus likens the disaffected plebeians to a 'sore'; he is derogatory in stating they rub the itch of their opinions and make a scab (I.i.164-5). Essentially Coriolanus is dismissing the political importance of the plebeians' opinions and actions - that they make a scab alluding to their peripheral position in the body politic. Coriolanus himself however is thus a vital limb or organ, and later the Tribunes describe him as 'a disease that must be cut away' (III.i.292- 4). This articulates their superficial conviction that Coriolanus is jeopardising the citizens' liberties (though merely a pretext to protect and consolidate their own political power). Menenius has some notion of the problem; he believes that a show of humility by Coriolanus might provide 'physic / For the whole state' (III.ii.33- 4).

In support of the imminent shift in power to the Tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus reverse the disease imagery hitherto applied to the lower orders. Now it is Coriolanus, lingering in disgrace, who is described as a disease to Rome. Brutus now describes him 'Sir, those cold ways, / That seem like prudent helps, are very poisonous / Where the disease is violent' (ll.218-220) and Sicinius remarks, 'He's a disease that must be cut away.' (l.292). Menenius attempts to defend Coriolanus in the same terms: 'Oh, he's a limb that has but a disease: / Mortal, to cut it off; to cure it, easy.' (ll.293-4) Menenius' language is ambivalent - does he mean to cure Coriolanus for the state, or to cure the state of Coriolanus?

Animal imagery is also prominent in the play and reinforces expressions of social and political prejudice. Among the earliest references to Caius Martius, we are told by the citizens 'He's a very dog to the commonalty' (I.i.27). The citizens are not always compared with feeble, cowardly or lowly creatures, and Coriolanus is. The use of animal imagery fluctuates between classes; for example whereas the plebeians describe Coriolanus as the 'dog' to the people, to the patricians he is held in highest regard. Further, Coriolanus enjoys hunting allusions, portraying himself as a bird of prey and the citizens as his 'game'. Similarly, he views the plebeians as almost subhuman, mere 'cannon fodder' in warfare. The citizens are cast as the many- headed hydra at several points (II.iii.16; III.i.92; IV.i.1), while in exile Coriolanus is spoken of as a dragon (IV.i.30; IV.vii.23; V.iv.13). The interlocking of these different spheres of imagery and their emphasis on principal issues of the play is one aspect of Shakespeare's structural mastery of the play.