When the play opens, the Roman citizens—also called the plebs or plebeians—are rioting on the streets of Rome because they're starving and they're sick and tired of having zero political power. We can't say we blame them for going into full on riot mode, either. If our government officials were literally and figuratively getting fat while we starved … well, let's just say we sympathize.
So, does this mean the play thinks the violent uprising is justifiable? Some people think that Shakespeare is totally on the side of the common man. (That's why so many productions of Coriolanus use the riot scenes to make political statements about social inequality.
But we're not so convinced.
See, Shakespeare doesn't actually give any of these people individual names. Instead, he just calls them Citizen 1, Citizen 2, and so on. Sure, maybe he's too busy dreaming up insulting names for Coriolanus to hurl at them--"scabs," "rogues," "curs," and so on.
But maybe he just can't be bothered to them names because they're lower class characters. And, just maybe, he doesn't want them to have individual identities. After all, the play often portrays the plebs as one, big, collective mob that is threatening to destroy Rome and "lay the city flat" (3.1.203). In fact, they're often referred to as simply the "rabble," and not just by the snobby patrician characters. The play's very own stage directions use this derogatory term (3.1.179.Stage Directions). Sometimes it seems like Coriolanus portrays the plebeians as nothing more than a dangerous mob.
Coriolanus also manages to convey the impression that the Citizens don't actually deserve to have any political power because they are fickle and easy to manipulate. In the middle of the first riot, Menenius comes along and tells the plebeians a little fable, which completely distracts them and makes them seem like a bunch of little kids (1.1). Later, when Coriolanus runs for consul, they agree to give him their votes or, "voices" … you know, until the tribunes show up and convince them to take their votes back (2.3.213-217).
Of course, the plebs are all for banishing Coriolanus from Rome because they think he's a tyrant. (Actually, they want him dead and suggest tossing him off the Tarpeian rock.) But, when he returns to Rome with a giant army, they act all innocent and say they didn't really want him banished (4.6.149-151). Then they run home in fear to avoid any kind of confrontation, which brings us to our next point. They also slink off or "steal away" when they hear the news that Rome is about to go to war with the Volscians (1.1.251.Stage Directions) and then avoid the fray while Coriolanus goes it alone in battle (1.4.146-147).
So, is Shakespeare pointing out how voters are always being manipulated during election campaigns? Is the play suggesting that the common people are too stupid to be making any important political decisions and that aristocrats are the only ones smart and brave enough to have any real power?
Not exactly a flattering portrait, is it?