Another of William Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays, Coriolanus is essentially a dramatisation of Plutarch’s biography of Caius Martius, and was probably written in 1608. As a political tragedy it had contemporary relevance, and given recent events is perhaps due for a revival.
This play would have been almost unknown in visual art, apart from a set of engravings made for Boydell’s Shakespeare Gallery, were it not for a single scene. As this is common to both Plutarch’s and Shakespeare’s accounts, it’s hard to know which version inspired each artist, but the list includes even Nicolas Poussin.
The starving citizens of Rome are rebellious, and want the blood of the patrician Caius Martius. When he arrives, he harangues them, wishing that he could be allowed to have them killed, instead of them being given two tribunes as their representatives. They then hear of the approach of the Volscian army under the leadership of Martius’ enemy Tullus Aufidius. Cominius appoints Martius as his second in command, and leads the Roman army against the Volscians.
Martius’ mother Volumnia, and his wife Virgilia are sewing together, the latter expressing her fears for her husband’s safety, when their friend Valeria arrives to ask them out. Virgilia refuses to leave the house while Martius is away, but Valeria reveals that Martius and Titus Lartius are besieging the Volscian city of Corioles, while Cominius leads the other half of their army against the Volscian army.
Unlike other famous Romans, there don’t appear to be many adulatory portraits of Martius. Instead, Lawrence Alma-Tadema painted this reconstructed view of the Interior of Caius Martius’ House in 1907. Fascinating though it is, it seems a strange memorial to a military man.
Martius has rallied his soldiers and leads them into the city. Although wounded, he then takes his men to help Cominius defeat the Volscian army. Martius fights with his enemy Aufidius and beats him and his men back. For his role in the Roman victory, Cominius dubs Martius Coriolanus in honour. However, Aufidius is disgusted by the terms of his defeat, and resolves to destroy Martius, by fair means or foul.
Coriolanus, with his commander Cominius, Lartius, and their army, enter Rome in triumph and make their way towards the Capitol. But the tribunes try to stop Coriolanus by provoking him into angering the citizens. Cominius gives an oration praising Coriolanus, to his embarrassment, and the Senate names him as consul. Coriolanus isn’t happy with that, as it requires him to appeal to the people for their acceptance.
Coriolanus is taken to the market place, where he reluctantly asks for the people’s approval, which he obtains. But once he has gone, the tribunes convince the mob to change their minds. The tribunes then stop Coriolanus as he’s on his way to his investiture, and tell him the approval has been withdrawn. That throws Coriolanus into a rage against the people, and the tribunes try to arrest him for treason. He’s persuaded to withdraw, and the citizens are promised that he’ll return to address them in the market place.
His mother Volumnia and senators persuade Coriolanus to moderate his talk to win over the citizens, and so save his consulship. Once he stands in front of the mob in the market place, though, the tribunes quickly anger him, and he is banished as a result. He parts from his mother, wife, and fellow patricians, and donning disguise he arrives in the Volscian city of Antium, where he seeks out Aufidius.
Coriolanus tells his old enemy that he wants to defect to the Volscians so he can avenge himself on Rome, to which Aufidius agrees happily.
News reaches Rome of the approach of the Volscian army with Coriolanus in command. Aufidius tells his lieutenant that he’s only waiting for Coriolanus to defeat Rome or to refuse to attack before he gets his vengeance on the Roman.
Cominius is the first of a series of Romans who try to dissuade Coriolanus from attacking the city, but he isn’t moved. However, the last to meet him are his wife Virgilia, mother Volumnia, Valeria and his son. After Volumnia’s impassioned speech to him, the group kneels before him, and he holds his wife’s hand. Coriolanus, crying, then concedes and promises to make peace with Rome.
It was perhaps Poussin who was the first to recognise the visual narrative in this scene, in his Coriolanus Begged by his Family from about 1652-53. Under the shadow of the massive walls of the city, Coriolanus is symbolically drawing his sword, to show his intent to attack Rome. To the left are Volumnia, Virgilia with at least two of their children, Valeria (standing, in ultramarine blue), and four other women (with a Roman soldier escort) all reaching out to the warrior. Just in case there is any doubt, Poussin provides an inscribed tablet in the foreground.
Only a decade later, Gerbrand van den Eeckhout’s Coriolanus’ Wife and Mother Beg Him to Spare Rome (1662) elaborated this further. Although Volumnia looks directly at Coriolanus, he avoids making eye contact.
A century later, Angelica Kaufmann’s more intimate Coriolanus, his Mother Veturia and his Wife Volumnia, Belittling him to Give up War (1765) has both mother and wife looking straight at Coriolanus, their hands also speaking eloquently.
This story attained peak popularity in the late eighteenth century, when Heinrich Friedrich Füger, for instance, drew Coriolanus Implored by his Family to Spare Rome.
At some time after 1771, Joseph-Marie Vien added a young infant, in The Family of Coriolanus, suggesting that at the time of his banishment, the wife of Coriolanus was pregnant.
I presume that this painting by Franz Anton Maulbertsch, Coriolanus at the Gates of Rome from about 1795, was an oil sketch for a finished work which I’ve been unable to locate. Although it includes a subtle reference to an earlier award to Coriolanus of a horse, and there is impending drama in its sky, I’m not sure that many would recognise the gates or walls of the city of Rome.
Richard Westall’s Volumnia Pleading with Coriolanus Not to Destroy Rome (1800) is another account which makes excellent use of direction of gaze to tell the story: all eyes are fixed on Coriolanus, who is looking away to the heavens in the hope of a divine solution. I suspect this painting was intended for Boydell’s gallery.
The last painting I have found showing this scene is Soma Orlai Petrich’s Coriolanus from 1869. This draws sharp contrast between the central group of women and children, huddled together and pleading, with the Volscians to the right who are drawing their weapons. Coriolanus sits between them, pondering his decision, his sword shown prominently still in its scabbard.
The Roman women are welcomed back into the city. Coriolanus returns to the Volscian city of Corioles, where he tells Aufidius that he has obtained peace from Rome. Aufidius accuses him of treachery, then calls him a boy. The Volscians cry for the death of Coriolanus, and he is stabbed and his body trampled on. Although Aufidius tries to justify this, he agrees that the Roman should be buried with full military honours.
Michael Dobson and Stanley Wells (eds) (2015) The Oxford Companion to Shakespeare, 2nd edn, Oxford UP. ISBN 978 0 19 870873 5.