The Tragedy of Coriolanus is, you guessed it, a tragedy. Shock! But what does that mean, exactly? Let's break it down:
What Makes it a (Shakespearean) Tragedy?
Dramatic work: Check. Coriolanus is a play.
Serious or somber theme: Hmm. Warfare, political manipulation, class conflict, and screwed up family relationships … yeah, that's a check.
Hero's got a major flaw of character or conflict with some overpowering force: Check. Coriolanus has got some serious flaws. He's got way too much "pride," he's a plebian-hating snob, he can't ever say anything nice, and he often doesn't even seem like a human being. Did we mention that his mom raised him to be a war-mongering, killing machine?
Hero is destined for destruction and downfall: Check. The genre of tragedy is all about tracing the dramatic rise and downfall of its "hero" and Coriolanus is no different. The play shows us a military hero who kicks butt on the battlefield (that's the "dramatic rise" part) but who just can't hack it back home as a politician. He's so lousy at politics that he gets booted out of Rome and joins forces with the Volscians, but even they turn against him.
Hero dies: Check. Shakespeare's tragic heroes never make it out of the play alive, no matter how much we want them to. Coriolanus is killed in the play's final act when a group of Volscian Conspirators, led by Tullus Aufidius, accuse him of being a traitor. They're not happy about him showing mercy to Rome so they hack him down in public.
The Play Promises to Restore Political Order: Check. On the one hand, Coriolanus gets himself killed for saving Rome from a serious beat-down at the hands of the Volscians. That's a bummer for Coriolanus but a major bonus for Rome, right? As Shmoopy students of history, we know that the Roman Republic we see in the play will go on to become one of the greatest empires of all time. (Check out "What's Up With The Ending" for more on this.)
Why Coriolanus is NOT a (Shakespearean) History Play
We don't blame you if you're wondering why Coriolanus isn't grouped with Shakespeare's "history plays", we don't blame you.
Sure. But here's how we define a Shakespearean history play: a drama portraying English historical events that resonate with current political issues, including matters of kingship, constitution, and rebellion. Coriolanus does portrays historical events that resonate with early 17th century political matters (like the question of whether or not ordinary citizens should have a say in politics), but it's still a play about Roman history. That's why it's sometimes called one of Shakespeare's "Roman" plays, along with Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra.