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Coriolanus Theme of Power

The ruling class has all the power, the plebeians are rioting in the street, and a brooding hero is about to swoop in to save the day. (Maybe.) Nope, it's not Dark Knight Rises: it's Shakespeare's Coriolanus, set in 491 B.C.E., when early Republican Rome has just transitioned from being ruled by a monarch to a government run by elected officials. With the last tyrant king (that would be Tarquin) tossed out on his rear end, there's a power vacuum and everyone is scrambling for, well, power. Shakespeare uses the struggle for social and political power in ancient Rome in order to ask some pretty timeless questions, like:

  • What factors should determine how power is distributed in society?
  • Should everyone get an equal say in how a government is run?
  • Are violent demonstrations a legitimate form of protest?

Coriolanus doesn't actually give us definitive answers. But Shakespeare does show us that aristocrats like Coriolanus are completely unfit to be political leaders: they have absolutely no clue that they have a social, political, and moral obligation to care about the powerless, the poor, and the hungry.

Questions About Power

  1. Why do the plebeians have a beef with the patricians in this play? Is the riot in Act 1, scene 1 justified?
  2. Why do the plebs zero in on Caius Martius Coriolanus in particular as the "chief enemy to the people"?
  3. What role do the tribunes (Sicinius and Brutus) play in the struggle for power between the patrician and the plebeians?
  4. Do you think the play is sympathetic toward the lower classes' struggle to gain power? Why or why not?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Although the tribunes are elected officials who are supposed to look out for the peoples' best interests, they seem more interested in talking advantage of tensions between the patricians and plebeians in order to gain personal power.

The social and political struggle for power in Coriolanus is just as relevant today as it was in ancient Rome and in Shakespeare's England.

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