One of Shakespeare's final tragedies, Coriolanus cannot be considered one of his greatest plays, and it has never been one of his more popular. It lacks depth, both metaphysical and psychological; though structurally sound, its characters are not multi-dimensional, and it lacks both the great poetic strength and the capacity to surprise that the best of the tragedies possess. It is, nevertheless, a solid play, united in structure and theme--the playwright is very much in command of his characters, one feels, although this sense of control may actually weaken the play: The dramatis personae never seem able to escape the iron structure that the plot imposes.
Perhaps Shakespeare's most overtly political play, more so even than the histories, Coriolanus takes as its hero a man completely lacking in political gifts--a stubborn soldier, brought down by an overweening pride and an inability to compromise with the forces that seek his downfall. A representative of the patrician class of Rome, Coriolanus' prowess in battle would seem to make him an ideal hero for the masses; however, he utterly lacks the common touch, and his fear of popular rule allows him to be construed as an enemy of the people. Set in the immediate aftermath of Rome's transition from monarchy to republic (indeed, we are told that Coriolanus played a part in the expulsion of the last king, Tarquin), the play portrays its hero as trapped between two worlds--he is a kingly figure, born to command; yet, at the same time he finds himself inhabiting a republican political reality that--though he himself has helped to create it--he cannot endure. Thus, his fate of exile is appropriate; he truly has no place in the new political life of his city.
Though Coriolanus is himself unsubtle, preferring to express himself directly (indeed, this contributes to his downfall), he is surrounded by craftier, more manipulative characters. His close friend, Menenius, serves as the perfect foil; for though he shares Coriolanus's aristocratic sensibilities and suspicion of the plebeian class, Menenius's smooth tongue and talent for compromise enable him to skate through the difficulties that debilitate Coriolanus. Menenius's counterparts on the plebeian side are the two tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, whose talent for demagoguery and manipulation of the masses enable them to turn the people of Rome against Coriolanus--an easy task, given the hero's propensity for violent outbursts. Meanwhile, his Volscian counterpart, the great general Tullus Aufidius, is similar to Coriolanus in temperament but has a resentful streak that leads him to betray Coriolanus when he feels himself to be eclipsed in glory.
The most significant figure in Coriolanus's life, however, is his domineering mother, Volumnia. As a woman, she lacks the ability to achieve power on her own in the male-dominated Roman society; she also lacks a husband through whom she might indirectly enjoy public clout. Thus, Volumnia raises her son to be a great soldier, and it is her ambition, more than his, that puts him on the disastrous track toward the consulship. Moreover, Volumnia's controlling nature constitutes a major cause of Coriolanus's fatal childishness; and while his legendary stubbornness holds sway in every other situation, she alone can overcome it and convince Coriolanus to spare Rome--and, thus, unwittingly set his doom in motion.
Structurally, the play falls into three main divisions, which overlap the five acts. The first shows Coriolanus at his heroic best, in the Volscian war, and culminates in his triumphant return to Rome. The second portion traces his failed attempt at the consulship, his fall from grace and his banishment. The third witnesses Coriolanus's return to Rome at the head of the Volscian army, reaches its climax when Volumnia convinces him to spare Rome, and then follows the great soldier to his death in Antium at the hands of the jealous Aufidius.