By William Shakespeare

Language and Structure

The principal medium Shakespeare deployed in Coriolanus was the standard of his time, the blank verse; however, it is notable that prose, almost a quarter of the text, also serves as an important medium in the play. This puts Coriolanus in contrast with Shakespeare's other prominent Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar, in which prose is mostly insignificant as a medium. The greater volume of prose is partly explained by his interest in developing the citizens as individual characters at times, allowing his audience greater access to their various opinions, aspirations, and thought processes. The citizens in Coriolanus are not a monolithic group; they have different thoughts and outlooks on the world in which they inhabit.

Furthermore, Shakespeare reveals flexibility to move between prose and verse. In his position as a figure between the plebeians and patricians Menenius shows fluid movement between prose and verse. Frequently, characters begin speeches mid-line, effectively dissecting the verse structure. In the text this metrical discord has been taken to symbolise and enhance awareness of divisions in the social and political world of Rome. An example of this is the dispute between Coriolanus and the Tribunes:

'Coriolanus: I say they nourish'd disobedience, fed
The ruin of the state.
Brutus: Why shall the people give
One that speaks thus their voice?
Coriolanus: I'll give my reasons
More worthier than their voices.'

Social dislocation and incompatibility are woven into the texture of Shakespeare's language. Images of Coriolanus are delineated by means of acute oppositions or balanced contrasts: 'He's poor in no one fault, but stored with all' (II.i.17); and 'Before him he carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears;' (II.ii.87- 8). In his plays Shakespeare is always concerned with the nature of language. The Shakespearean anti-heroes are always adept at crafting words to reinforce their political machinations. Whereas Richard III or Iago are in part based on the traditional vice character, in Coriolanus there is nothing of the devil incarnate. The Tribunes, the nobles, Aufidius, are all driven by noticeably human ambitions - megalomania, envy or fear. Critics have observed that in this Shakespeare addresses how language, particularly the deceptive art of political rhetoric, might be morally dangerous. In stark contrast to Menenius, Coriolanus is distinct in that he cannot lie - his words may provoke hatred or incite violence, but it is the truth, there are no veiled ambitions. Coriolanus is no exception to the fact that in his plays, Shakespeare tests the boundaries of the English language. The playwright revels in the composition of words, exhuming antiquated and forgotten, coining new, and bringing old to new definitions.

Physical gestures are richly expressed in speech by Shakespeare:

'the nobles bended / As to Jove's statue' (II.i.263-4)

'Let me twine / Mine arms about that body' (IV.v.107-8)

'Where great patricians shall attend, and shrug' (I.ix.4)

Classical influences are evident in the structure of many of Shakespeare's plays, such as Othello and The Tempest. Superficially Coriolanus lacks classical structure. Against the precepts of Aristotelian unity in tragedy, Shakespeare changes locations and covers a greater duration of time than allowed by the rules of tragedy in the Poetics. However, the classical 'feel' to the play derives from the focus on Coriolanus and his obsession with virtue. This obsession and the fact that it destroys him were ultimately derived from Aristotle - it is an adaptation of an element of ancient Greek tragedy: that is, a characteristic taken to the extreme and finally causing tragedy. Coriolanus' tragedy is his lack of moderation - he adheres too vehemently to the Roman ideals of valour, honour and bravery. Further, the play does not have a secondary plot; rather there are sub-plots of secondary characters that are all related to, and engaged with, Coriolanus.