In Coriolanus, Shakespeare tells us over and over again that if you want to get elected to public office, you've got to have serious acting chops—because winning over voters involves a lot of lying and pretending. In fact, this play shows us that running a political campaign is a lot like producing a stage play. Coriolanus' political advisors come off as nothing more than stage directors trying to guide an actor's speeches and actions. When Coriolanus campaigns for votes, we get the sense that winning over voters is more like winning over a tough theater crowd than anything else.
In Shakespeare's day, actors couldn't actually become politicians. (There were some social class issues involved.) But we get the feeling he wouldn't have been surprised by list.
Questions About Art and Culture (and Politics)
- What are some key moments of self-conscious reference to the theater and acting? Why do you think Shakespeare includes these? What impact does it have on our understanding of the play?
- Why does Menenius tell the plebeians the "fable of the belly"? Why do you think the story is so successful when it comes to calming down the angry plebs?
- What does Coriolanus mean when he says that going before the plebeians and begging for votes is "a part / That [he] shall blush in acting" (2.3.144-145)? What does this tell us about Coriolanus' attitude toward politics?
- Why do you think it is so hard for Coriolanus to pretend that he cares for his voters when he begs them for their voters?
Chew on This
If politicians are like actors in this play, then Volumnia is the ultimate "stage mom" who spends all her time trying to manage and direct her son's career.
The plebeian voters behave a lot like a fickle theater audience. When Coriolanus appears before them to beg for their votes, they want to be entertained and demand a good performance from their candidate. By comparing them to a theater audience, Shakespeare suggests that they don't deserve the vote.