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“Our Wits Are So Diversely Colored”: The Factiousness of the Citizens in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus


In his 2011 film adaptation of Coriolanus, director Ralph Fiennes (see Figure 1) explores the role of the people as citizens of Rome and, by doing so, calls into question the criticism that these citizens are fickle. It is common, in studies and criticisms that focus on the citizens of the play, to refer to them as fickle, changeable, and a mob. The film, set in “A Place Calling Itself Rome” (0:02:32), was shot in Belgrade, Serbia. Fiennes’s film places Coriolanus in a modern world of twenty-four hours news, pundits, and spin-doctors. It evokes many of the conflicts of its time, such as the Balkan War, the Arab Spring, and Occupy Wall Street. Fiennes, who directed and stars in the film, makes directorial decisions, including casting and changes to the text, that explore the possibility that the citizens of Coriolanus are factious rather than fickle.

“Our Wits Are So Diversely Colored”:
The Factiousness of the Citizens in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus
Scott Repass,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Ralph Fiennes in Coriolanus.

This possibility is clearly present in the original play. Shakespeare’s play Coriolanus begins with the stage direction, “Enter a company of mutinous Citizens with staves, clubs, and other weapons” (1.1). This stage direction reveals that these are citizens, and citizens, by definition, have political agency and rights conferred on them by their status within the state.1 These citizens are also in “a company,” which implies a group with organization and a purpose. (Menenius later refers to a group of citizens as “the other troop” (1.1.194), which suggests organization and implies that the citizens are factioned.) The citizens in Coriolanus are mutinous, which is “suggestive or expressive of discontent to the point of rebellion” (“citizen” def. A.1.a), and they are a “company of mutinous Citizens” (italics added). These are not all the citizens – they are a subset of the larger group of Roman citizens as a whole. This is, therefore, an organized group of citizens, endowed with political agency, planning to rebel against the state that rules them. Compare this opening to the opening of Julius Caesar, which opens with the stage direction “Enter Flavius, Murellus, and certain Commoners over the stage” (JC 1.1). In Julius Caesar, the people are Commoners, defined simply by their class. And they are “certain Commoners,” with “certain” making the group amorphous and without a purpose. As Jeffrey S, Doty explains, in early modern England, the terms “the people” and “the commons” referred to “those who worked, which also means those who lacked rank” (163).

Coriolanus is perhaps Shakespeare’s most overtly political play. It is set at the very beginning of Rome’s republican, representative government. (Julius Caesar, on the other hand, is set at the very end of five centuries of Roman republican government. The class of people Shakespeare calls Commoners in Julius Caesar have, in fact, been citizens for five hundred years.) The creation of tribunes – representatives of the citizens in Rome’s government – is central to the tragedy. The plot, the setting, and even the fate of the protagonist are deeply entwined with the political fate of Rome. Rome is just beginning its transition to republicanism and Martius’s obstinate opposition to that transition is, in part, responsible for his downfall. According to Annabel Patterson’s Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, Shakespeare was writing Coriolanus from his “most radical position: a belief that Jacobean England desperately needed to borrow from the strengths, as well as learn from the difficulties, of republican political theory” (122). At the heart of that theory is the question of how the citizens should be represented.

Criticism of the play has often necessarily revolved around its politics, and a recurrent concern of that criticism has been Shakespeare’s depiction of the citizens of Rome. If there is one rule governing these reviews and criticisms, it would seem to be that, when discussing the citizens of the play, they must be referred to as a “mob” and, if possible, that mob should be described as “fickle.”  A mob is, by definition, “a disorderly or riotous crowd, a rabble.”2 It is also singular – that is, calling a group a mob implies that it is homogeneous and that it acts en masse. According to various critics, Martius confronts a “rebellious mob” (Littlewood 1967, 342), an “irate, uncontrollable mob” (Datta 103), or “a mob of hungry children” (Barron 1962,178). Some critics go so far as to deliberately conflate the citizens of Coriolanus into a mob – Clifford Chalmers Huffman, for example, in his 1971 book Coriolanus in Context, begins his close reading of the play by ascribing to “the mob” lines Shakespeare gave to the First Citizen (172).

The frequently used modifier, “fickle,” means that the mob is “changeable, changeful, inconstant, uncertain, unreliable”3 and it is a decidedly negative trait.4 Martius describes the citizens as fickle several times. For example, he complains to them that “with every minute you do change a mind” (1.1.173) and later calls them “the mutable, rank-scented meine” (3.1.63-64). Critics and commentators have taken up this depiction as well. “The populace is consistently presented as unstable, fickle, anarchical, deficient in vision,” Norman Rabkin said in “Coriolanus: The Tragedy of Politics” (197). In a blog about the production of Ralph Fiennes’s 2011 film adaptation, Andrew Wiseman describes why he believes Coriolanus might be relevant to a contemporary audience. Modern audiences, he said, would see that “despite the fickleness … of ‘the people,’ we recognize their voices as politically important” (Wiseman, 2010). And Edward Dowden says, of the representation of the people across Shakespeare’s plays, that “it cannot be denied, however, that when the people are seen in masses … they are nearly always shown as factious, fickle, and irrational” (319-320).

But factious and fickle are not the same thing. Fickle is, in terms of democracy, a negative trait, whereas factiousness is an integral part of democracy. A crowd that is fickle is changeable and too easily swayed, whereas a crowd that is factious has within it competing groups and competing voices. Viewing the citizens of Coriolanus as a fickle mob, as both Martius and an influential strand of the critical tradition do, does not allow for a diversity of opinions within that “mob.” What critics have called fickleness of the citizens can be seen, instead, as the presence of divergent opinions held by factions within the group known as the citizens. Another way of thinking about this is to envision the citizens as a “whole,” rather than as “one” monolithic entity. Turning to modern political thought for a useful lens, political theorist Danielle S. Allen writes that citizens

must imagine themselves part of a “whole” they cannot see. ‘The people’ is the name for that “whole,” and, in fact, wholeness, not oneness, is the master term in the history of the production of democratic peoples. [. . .] A speaker cannot use the word “one” to mean multiplicity, but the word “whole” entails just that. The effort to make the people “one” cultivates in the Citizenry a desire for homogeneity, for that is the aspiration taught to Citizens by the meaning of the word “one,” itself. In contrast, an effort to make the people ‘whole’ might cultivate an aspiration to the coherence and integrity of a consolidated but complex, intricate, and differentiated body. (17)

Shakespeare allows the citizens in Coriolanus to be such a “whole.” When they are alone among themselves, away from Martius, tribunes and senators, the citizens engage in political dialogue and debate differing political views. Such debate is crucial to their roles as citizens. As Robert S. Miola points out in Shakespeare’s Rome, “For Shakespeare, apparently, a Roman exercised his citizenship in deeds on the battlefield, in words within city walls” (181). These new citizens are debating and such oratory “was the means by which the individual partook in the life of the city, resolved its problems, and shaped its future” (Miola 1983, 181).

Factions in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus

Fiennes, in his 2011 adaptation of Coriolanus for the screen, emphasizes the factiousness of the citizens through changes to dialogue, staging, and the race and ethnicity of the characters. Any film adaptation of a Shakespearean play is likely to have cuts because of the sheer length of the plays. A theatrical performance of Coriolanus would likely take over three hours. While cuts to the script for a film have a practical purpose, those cuts are also artistic decisions. The director, by choosing what to cut, is showing us his interpretation of the play. Fiennes was clearly aware of the effect of such cuts, as he reveals in an interview:

I think Shakespeare benefits from cuts. Something is released if you cut smartly, judiciously, because on film you're left with one line, which, bang! [slaps hands together], has such a great effect. I don't know how much we cut, I haven't done a line count, but overall maybe we cut two-thirds of the text. We took liberties. We changed it where words were clearly a problem. In a handful of places we fiddled with something to make it work (Crowdus 2012, 21).

Those “fiddlings” are apparent right from the start and they show the citizens as a whole consisting of different factions, each with different political beliefs.

We first encounter the citizens in the opening scene of Fiennes’s film when we follow Tamora (Lubna Azabal, see Figure 2) through the graffiti-covered streets of “A Place Calling Itself Rome.”  She enters a building and arrives in a small room at a meeting that is just beginning, led by Cassius (Ashraf Barhom, see Figure 3). A group of citizens is present – going forward, I will refer to this group as the Company of Citizens, as it relates relatively well with the “Company of Mutinous Citizens” in opening scene of the play. Only Tamora and Cassius, roughly and respectively equivalent to the First Citizen and the Second Citizen of the play, speak as individuals, delivering many of the play characters’ lines. Other citizens are present but when they speak, they speak as a chorus.

“Our Wits Are So Diversely Colored”:
The Factiousness of the Citizens in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus
Scott Repass,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Lubna Azabal as Tamora.
“Our Wits Are So Diversely Colored”:
The Factiousness of the Citizens in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus
Scott Repass,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Ashraf Barhom as Cassius

“Before we proceed any further, hear me speak,” Cassius says, adhering to the play’s script. Then, however, the second line of the play is cut. In Shakespeare’s version, the citizens respond with, “Speak, speak.”  In the film, unlike in the play, all the citizens present in this meeting agree, and the dissent expressed by the Second Citizen in the play is gone. The meeting leads directly to an armed attack (0:04:30) on the Central Grain Depot (an attack that never happens in the play, where the term “storehouse” is used (1.1.73)). The Company of Citizens – those who were present at the initial meeting – are all visible in the crowd that storms the depot. The citizens here are still all in agreement, act in unity, and express almost as much disdain for Martius (Fiennes) as he does for them.

This does not mean that dissent is absent from the film, however. In the play, the citizens often debate among themselves when left alone, without tribunes or senators (see 2.3.1-35, for example). Fiennes’s Company of Citizens, on the other hand, generally expresses unanimity. Removing the dissent from within the Company of Citizens allows Fiennes to portray the common population of Rome – that is, the citizens as a whole – as consisting of different factions with different political opinions. There are those that oppose Martius from the beginning and those who support him with their voices.

Is it in the scene in the marketplace (0:43:06), based on 2.3 of the play, where Martius has come to humble himself before the citizenry and ask for their votes, when we begin to see dissent. Certain citizens in the market openly support Martius’s bid for consul. These citizens that support Martius, portrayed by actors we have not previously seen, were not present either in the opening meeting or at the riots. The War Vet5 (Slobodan Boba Nincovik, see Figure4) applauds Martius as having “done nobly.” Jamaican Woman (Mona Hammond) challenges Martius at first, by saying, “You’ve deserved nobly of your country, and you’ve not deserved nobly.”  Young Man at Market (Slobodan Pavelkic) behind her says, “We hope to find you our friend, and therefore give you our voices heartily.”  Jamaican Woman then seems to concur and says, “Gods give you joy, sir, heartily.”  At the end of this scene, Martius reluctantly gives a speech (based on 2.3.119-124 of the play), explaining the sacrifices he has made for Rome and asking for the people’s voices. When he finishes, the crowd is at first quiet. Then, War Vet calls out to the crowd, “He has done nobly and cannot go without any honest man’s voice.”  Young Man at Market shouts, “Therefore, let him be consul!”  Other young men (notably white men with crew cuts, see Figure 5) yell “Amen!” and many in the crowd begin to chant with them (0:46:20-41). (The crew cuts differentiate the majority of Martius’s supporters from the rest of the crowd and give them a decidedly military look. Fiennes returns to this image later, when the soldiers in the Volscian army shave their heads to show their solidarity with Martius (1:25:45).)

“Our Wits Are So Diversely Colored”:
The Factiousness of the Citizens in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus
Scott Repass,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: Slobodan Boba Nincovik as The War Vet.
“Our Wits Are So Diversely Colored”:
The Factiousness of the Citizens in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus
Scott Repass,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 5: Slobodan Pavelkic as Young Man at Market.

However, the Company of Citizens remains steadfastly against Martius. After Martius leaves, the Tribunes address the crowd. War Vet, Jamaican Woman, and Young Man at Market are no longer present, but all of the original Company of Citizens remains. The Tribunes begin to question the crowd’s decision and Tamora joins them, saying, “To my poor unworthy notice, he mocked us when he begged our voices.”   The others from the Company of Citizens angrily agree. (The one notable exception is Cassius. At first, he seems somewhat swayed by the crowd’s support of Martius. Then, grabbing his head in despair, he comes to the realization that Martius was mocking them. “Was this mockery?” he asks (0:48:45).)

The Company of Citizens decides that they can and will stop Martius’s confirmation and that, to do so, they will gather more voices in opposition to him. Thereafter in the film, none of the citizens who expressed support for Martius is seen. At the riot outside the Senate when Martius has been denied his consulship (0:52:52)6, at the meeting between the Tribunes and Menenius (Brian Cox) (54:40), and at the talk show where Martius is banished (1:01:26), the Company of Citizens are all visible while none of the citizens who supported Martius at the market is present. The play’s final depiction of the citizens, when the people of Rome have learned that Martius will attack Rome (4.6) and the citizens deny they wished Martius banished, has been cut from the movie entirely, thus eliminating a moment where the citizens truly seem to be fickle. From the beginning to the end, in every scene they are in, the Company of Citizens are steadfast in their opposition to Martius. They are a faction of the population with its own political beliefs.

Factions are further demarcated in the film by the race and ethnicity of the actors. Although the senate is presided over by Cominius (John Kani, who is Black South African), the senators are overwhelmingly white (see Figure 6). Martius, Menenius, Volumnia, Virgilia, and are white. The representatives of the government, the patricians, like Volumnia and Virgilia, and the senators, are overwhelmingly white. Belgian-Moroccan actress Azabel, who plays Tamora, has dark hair and eyes. Barhom, who plays Cassius, identifies as “Israeli, of Arab heritage” (Ashraf) and also has dark hair and eyes. There is diversity within the Company of Citizens, including a blonde woman, an Asian woman, and a Black man, but the vocal supporters of Martius in the market are all white. Fiennes highlights the parallel between racial and ethnic divisions in Rome and political divisions, between those who support Martius and those who do not, with the casting of political television pundits. A political-affairs, “Crossfire”-type show (33:30), features a TV Anchorman (played by real-life BBC news presenter Jon Snow) and a TV Pundit (David Yelland), who are both aging white men. Yelland’s character speaks in support of Martius. The other TV Pundit (Nikki Amuka-Bird), who does not support Martius, is Black.7

“Our Wits Are So Diversely Colored”:
The Factiousness of the Citizens in Ralph Fiennes’s Coriolanus
Scott Repass,
 Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 6: The Senate.

Fiennes was creating this film at a time when racial and ethnic divisions were at the forefront of European political discourse. In the Arab Spring in 2010 and 2011, pro-democracy protests erupted all over North Africa and the Middle East. These uprisings were met with often fierce retaliation by governments, resulting in refugee crises throughout Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The Syrian government’s crackdown on protests and armed opposition forces alone forcibly displaced at least 13.5 million Syrians, with about half of those seeking refuge abroad (The Week 2021). Whereas Shakespeare’s audience would have seen Coriolanus as a discussion of class conflict and Shakespeare as addressing “another [early modern] stage of crisis brought to the public attention by the Midlands uprising of 1607” (Patterson 1990, 123), Fiennes’s audience would also necessarily see, reflected in the film, contemporary struggles around ethnicity and the rights of refugees.

Fiennes further emphasizes the factiousness of the citizens through their accents. For simplicity, I will refer to English, Irish, and Scottish accents as British, although Aufidius (Gerard Butler) speaks with a Scottish accent and Sicinius (James Nesbitt) has an Irish accent. All of the characters speak Shakespearean English, but those who oppose Martius and those who support him speak with different accents. Cassius (Barhom) and Tamora (Azabel) speak with strong, non-British accents. The War Vet and the Young Man in Market who rally support for Martius in the Market Scene, as well as the crew-cropped men in the crowd who yell in agreement, all speak with British accents. The Jamaican Woman who challenges Martius in the Market but gives her “Amen” to his election, speaks, to my ear, with a British accent, or at least not a conspicuously non-British accent. Martius, Menenius, Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave), and Virgilia (Jessica Chastain) all speak with British accents.8

The result of all of these directorial decisions is that Fiennes presents the Company of Citizens as unwavering in its political convictions. He uses casting and rearranging – in his words, “fiddling” – to exploit something that was already present in Shakespeare – the idea that the citizens of Rome can be seen as consisting of factions, and that those factions can differ in their political opinions and desires. This is not a mindless rabble of “fragments,” as Martius calls them (0:07:17) but an organized, politically engaged Company of Citizens.

Fickleness and Factiousness in the Play

While Fiennes used directorial decisions to present the citizens of his film as factious rather than fickle, that distinction is also well-defined in the original play itself. While the citizens of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus are undoubtedly fickle at certain points, Shakespeare makes it clear that they are mostly doing what citizens are supposed to do – they are engaging in real political debate among political factions. When the mutinous company first enters, the First Citizen and the Second Citizen9 deliberate over the appropriateness of attacking Martius, when the Second Citizen asks, “Consider you what services [Martius] has done for his country?” (1.1) The First Citizen replies, “Very well, and could be content to give him good report for’t, but that he pays himself with being proud” (1.1.25-28) 10. This discussion transpires when the citizens are alone among themselves, before the arrival of Menenius Agrippa, confidant of Martius and his family and firm supporter of the elite of Rome. It is in this scene, as Annabel Patterson points, that Shakespeare “allows the people to speak for themselves as a political entity, with legitimate grievances, and with a considerable degree of political self-consciousness” (127). The citizens are not changing their minds – they are openly discussing different opinions. When Menenius arrives to dissuade the citizens from violence, it is the Second Citizen who debates with him. It is also the Second Citizen who confronts Martius – “We have ever your good word” (1.1.158) – when Martius arrives to berate them. The Second Citizen has not changed his mind. Rather, this encounter shows that the company has closed ranks when confronted with its adversary.

The division of the citizens as a whole into factions is especially clear when they first gather in the marketplace to hear Martius speak in 2.3. This scene shows that their disagreements are distinct opinions rather than the fickleness of a changeable mob. Martius’s bid for the position of consul had been approved by the senate. Tradition now requires that he appear before the citizens, wearing a “gown of humility” (a plain white toga), show them his battle scars, and ask for their voices, or votes. The stage direction as the citizens convene at the marketplace reads “Enter Seven or Eight Citizens,” implying again, as in the opening scene, that these citizens are part of a larger whole. As in the opening of the play, the citizens appear with no patricians or tribunes around them. Unlike the opening, however, the stage direction does not imply that this is an organized group. This is no “company.” This is an imprecise group of “seven or eight.”  As in the opening scene, the citizens deliberate, this time on their civic responsibilities as citizens and on the worthiness of Martius to be consul. And, as in the opening scene, they do not all agree. “Once, if he do require our voices,” says the First Citizen, “we ought not to deny him.” The Second Citizen disagrees, saying, “We may, sir, if we will” (2.3.1-3). The Third Citizen then lays out what he considers to be the terms of Martius’s election – “if he shows us his wounds and tells us his deeds, we are to put our tongues into those wounds and speak for them” (2.3.5-8). The Third Citizen also makes clear that the citizens do not speak with one unvarying voice. In response to the First Citizen’s comment that Martius did not hesitate to call them “the many-headed multitude,” (2.3.15), the Third Citizen says

We have been called so of many, not that our heads are some brown, some black, some abram, some bald, but that our wits are so diversely colored. And, truly, I think if all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south, and their consent of one direct way should be at once to all the points o’th’ compass. (2.3.16-21)

It is important to note that the text makes clear that these are the same First, Second and Third Citizens throughout this scene. That is, each is a distinct and consistent character with his or her own political opinions. When the citizens gather to meet with Martius, it is the Third Citizen who speaks first (2.3.59). If these character tags were simply for ordination or were just placeholders for “A Citizen,” there would be no need for this conversation to begin with the Third Citizen. We are to understand that this is the same character who expressed his doubts earlier and who laid out what he believed Martius was required to do to win their votes.

The citizens deliberately faction into smaller sets to meet with Martius. They do this purposefully and at their own discretion, led by the Third Citizen. “We are not to stay altogether,” the Third Citizen directs, “but to come to him where he stands by ones, by twos, and by threes … therefore follow me, and I’ll direct you how you shall go by him” (2.3.37-42). The citizens divide themselves into three groups that I label Group One, Group Two and Group Three. These three groups react differently to Martius and reach different decisions about whether they will pledge him their voices. An examination of the composition of these three groups and a summary of their interactions with Martius reveals that these are three distinct factions, each with its own expectations and opinions. This is no mob.

Group One consists of the First Citizen, the Second Citizen and the Third Citizen. Here, the Third Citizen demands that Martius explain why he is appearing before them despite Martius’s assumption, “You know the cause, sir, of my standing here” (2.3.58). “Tell us what hath brought you to’t” (2.3.59), the Third Citizen demands, to which, Martius responds unhumbly, “Mine own desert” (2.3.60). All three of these citizens engage with Martius. Martius says he will show his wounds, but only in private, and then asks the Second Citizen for his voice. The Second Citizen responds, “You shall ha’t, worthy sir” (2.3.73) At the end of this encounter with Group One, the First Citizen seems to have pledged his voice, the Second Citizen has done so outright, and the Third Citizen has not pledged his voice. (Martius acknowledges that the Third Citizen has not conceded his voice when he says, “There’s in all two worthy voices begged” (2.3.74-75)). The Third Citizen notes that the interaction has not gone the way he (the Third Citizen) expected it. “But this is something odd,” he says as they depart (2.3.76-77). The Second Citizen immediately expresses regret over his vote. “An ‘twere to give again – but ‘tis no matter” (2.3.78). In the end, Group One seems displeased by Martius’s performance.

Group Two, consisting of the Fourth and Fifth Citizens, also expresses skepticism about Martius fitness to be a senator. Unlike Group One, however, Group Two collectively decides to support Martius after each of them talk to him. At first, they express doubt about Martius. For example, the Fourth Citizen equivocates: “You have deserved nobly of your country, and you have not deserved nobly” (2.3.82-83). Martius answers by saying that they “should account me the more virtuous that I have not been common in my love” (2.3.88-89). Fourth and Fifth Citizens are eventually convinced and give their voices “heartily” (2.3.98). The citizens of Group Two entered skeptical of Martius’s worthiness but were persuaded to support him and are in agreement among themselves.

Next, Group Three then enters. Once again, this group reacts differently to Martius than did the previous groups. Group Three consists of Sixth and Seventh Citizens (as well as one unnamed, unenumerated citizen who doesn’t speak.) After Martius curtly explains his military deeds and wounds to them, the Sixth and Seventh Citizens immediately agree to support Martius. The Sixth Citizen concludes that it is necessary to support Martius. “He has done nobly and cannot go without any honest man’s voice,” he says, to which the Seventh Citizen proclaims, “Therefore let him be consul” (2.3.125-128). At no point does Group Three express doubt about Martius and this group enthusiastically gives Martius its support. Thus, in the first half of this scene, Martius has interacted with three distinct factions of citizens. Each faction, consisting of distinct individual characters, has reached its own conclusion about Martius’s worthiness to be consul.

The characteristics of these groups do not change throughout this scene. When the citizens return later in the scene to discuss the vote with the tribunes, it is the members of Group One who eventually call for the election’s confirmation to be stopped. Recall that Group One, consisting of the First, Second, and Third Citizens, has remained steadfast in their doubts about Martius’s worthiness to be elected. The Third Citizen says that Martius has not fulfilled the requirements he (the Third Citizen) set out earlier to earn their voices, when the Third Citizen said that Martius must show the citizens his wounds and tell them of his military deeds (2.3.5-8). Here, Martius has only promised to show one citizen his wounds “in private” (2.3.71). And, when Coriolanus has the opportunity to speak about his deeds, he speaks in generalities.

CORIOLANUS. Your voices? For your voices I have fought,
Watched for your voices; for your voices bear
Of wounds two dozen odd. Battles thrice six
I have seen and heard of. For your voices
Have done many things, some less, some more.
Your voices? Indeed I would be consul. (2.3.119-124)

The Third Citizen’s demands – that Martius show his wounds and tell them of his deeds – have not been fulfilled. The Group One faction says that Martius’s election is not final and may still be stopped. “He’s not confirmed,” says the Third Citizen. “We may Deny him yet” (2.3.200-201). “And we will deny him: I’ll have five hundred voices of that sound,” the Second Citizen responds (2.3.202-203). So, Group One, the group that was always most skeptical of Martius, resolves to gather more voices and stop the election. The members of Groups Two and Three are not heard from in the second half of the scene. The decision by Group One to stop the election of Martius could only be viewed as fickleness if this Group and these particular individuals had enthusiastically supported Martius in the first half of the scene. Instead, they were always uncertain of Martius, become convinced of his unworthiness when he doesn’t fulfill his traditional obligations, and then use their political agency to stop his election.

The consistency of Group One’s behavior towards Martius’s potential consulship contrasts with fickleness demonstrated by the citizens elsewhere in the play. For example, when Martius has joined Aufidius in marching on Rome (4.6) and there seems no way to stop him from destroying the city, First, Second and Third Citizen (presumably the same members of Group One) cravenly claim that they never wanted Martius to be banished. The First Citizen claims he said “twas a pity” when he called for Martius’s banishment and the Third Citizen goes so far as to say, “though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will” (4.6.139-145). This, clearly, is fickleness. But the citizens are under extreme duress. Martius, the fearsome warrior who defeated Corioles singlehandedly, is now marching toward Rome with a foreign army, intent on revenge. The citizens’ fear is justified. Moreover, they are not wrong to feel that they had been manipulated. At the point when they initially left the market to go to the senate in 2.3, they had not decided to punish Martius. They were determined instead only to stop him from being elected consul. It is the Tribunes who raise the idea of punishment by death, fine, or banishment and then formally call for Martius’s banishment (3.3.98). The Tribunes privately acknowledge their desire to manipulate the citizens, as is apparent in Brutus’s admission that “it must fall out to [Martius], or our authority’s for an end. We must suggest the people in what hatred he still hath held them” (2.1.232-235).11 There is no denying that the citizens have let themselves be swayed by the Tribunes and this is fickleness. Had the citizens stayed the course and simply renounced their voices and prevented Martius from becoming consul, Martius might not have been banished and Rome would be safe. However, there is no indication that the citizens have changed their minds about Martius’s guilt. No one says, “I did not say he should be banished,” or, “I said he should be consul.” In their fear of brutal and violent retaliation, they regret the punishment Martius received but they still do not deny his guilt.


“Habits of citizenship,” says political theorist Danielle S. Allen, “begin with how citizens imagine their political world” (4). The citizens of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus are living in a moment of political creation and their political imaginations are helping to shape the Roman republic. The citizens of “A Place Calling Itself Rome” in Ralph Fiennes’s 2011 film adaptation are living in a moment of political unrest and are protesting to establish their right to fair governmental representation. In both cases, the citizens are “many-headed,” in that they are individuals, and they are willing to debate differing, sometimes opposing opinions. Open debate of differing political ideas is essential to a representative government and Shakespeare and Fiennes both show these citizens, at this crucial moment in their history, participating in a political dialogue that will help form a republican government that will last for five hundred years. To classify them as “unstable, fickle, anarchical” (Rabkin 1966, 197) is to overlook their political agency, their willingness to engage in political discourse, and, importantly, their individuality. These citizens are not a fickle mob. They are citizens in the full sense of the word.


1  “An inhabitant of a city or town; esp. one possessing civic rights and privileges, a burgess or freeman of a city.” (OED)

2  OED Online, s.v. “mob,” Oxford University Press, March 2022, www.oed.com/view/Entry/120464. Accessed 3 May 2022.

3  OED Online, s.v. "fickle," Oxford University Press, March 2022, www.oed.com/view/Entry/69809. Accessed 4 May 2022.

4  Compare, again, to Julius Caesar, where characters tout their immutability as proof of their worth. “I have made strong proof of my constancy,” Portia says when trying to convince Brutus to trust her (JC 2.1.299). And Caesar himself brags, “I am constant as the Northern Star, of whose true-fixed and resting quality there is no fellow in the firmament” (JC 3.1.61-62).

5  All character names for this section come from the movie credits (Coriolanus IMDB)

6  Based on 3.1 of the play

7  This scene is an amalgamation of two separate scenes in the original play where political debate takes place (1.1 and 2.2) and the TV Pundits are given lines from the First and Second Citizens and the First and Second Officers.

8  The divide is not completely clean. The Tribunes, Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (Nesbitt), speak with British accents, enhancing, perhaps, their status as distinct from the citizens. And General Cominius (Kani), who supports Martius, speaks with a non-British accent (Kani is South African.)

9  Shakespeare does not give the individual citizens names, but he does individuate some of them, from First Citizen through Seventh Citizen. This could be seen as dehumanizing – the citizens don’t rate individual identities – except that Shakespeare does the same with many other groups in the play – Senators, Officers, Servingmen, Soldiers, Messengers, and Watchmen. This is significant in this play, where the main character’s tag is changed in the course of the play from Martius to Coriolanus because of the events of the play.

10 This is the dialogue, noted earlier, that Huffman attributes to “the mob.”

11 Martius, of course, does himself no favors when he responds to Sicinius’s charge of treason by exclaiming, “The fires i’th’ lowest hell fold in the people!” (3.3.66).

Works Cited

Allen, Danielle S. Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2006.

“Ashraf Barhom.” IMDb. IMDb.com. Accessed December 15, 2022. https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1678557/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0.

Barron, David B. “‘Coriolanus’: Portrait of the Artist as Infant.” American Imago 19, no. 2 (1962): 171–93. http://www.jstor.org/stable/26301862.

“Coriolanus.” IMDb. IMDb.com, January 20, 2012. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt1372686/?ref_=nv_sr_srsg_0.

Crowdus, Gary, Richard Porton, and Ralph Fiennes. “Shakespeare’s Perennial Political Thriller An Interview with Ralph Fiennes.” Cinéaste 37, no. 2 (2012): 18–23. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41691120.

Datta, Pradip K. “The Paradox of Greatness and the Limits of Pragmatism in Shakespeare’s ‘Coriolanus.’” CLA Journal 38, no. 1 (1994): 97–107. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44324950.

Doty, Jeffrey S. “Shakespeare and Popular Politics.” Literature Compass, vol. 10, no. 2, 2013, pp. 162–174., https://doi.org/10.1111/lic3.12022.

Dowden, Edward. Shakspere: A Critical Study of His Mind and Art. 18. Ed. London, 1926.

Fiennes, Ralph, director. Coriolanus, written by William Shakespeare, screenplay by John Logan, Icon, 2011.

“From the Arab Spring to a Refugee Crisis: Exploring Syria's Decade of Civil War.” The Week UK. The Week, October 7, 2021. https://www.theweek.co.uk/news/world-news/middle-east/954368/from-the-arab-spring-to-a-refugee-crisis-exploring-syrias-decade.

Huffman, Clifford Chalmers. Coriolanus in Context, 1971.

Littlewood, J. C. F. “Coriolanus (II).” The Cambridge Quarterly 3, no. 1 (1967): 28–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42965053.

Miola, Robert S. Shakespeare' s Rome. Cambridge u.a.: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 1983.

Patterson, Annabel M. “Chapter 6: ‘Speak, Speak!’ The Popular Voice and the Jacobean State.” Shakespeare and the Popular Voice, B. Blackwell, Oxford, UK, 1990.

Rabkin, Norman. “Coriolanus: The Tragedy of Politics.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 17, no. 3, 1966, pp. 195–212, https://doi.org/10.2307/2867716. Accessed 29 Apr. 2022.

Shakespeare, William, et al. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies. W.W. Norton & Company, 2016.

Wikipedia contributors. "Lubna Azabal." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 7 Mar. 2022. Web. 3 May. 2022.

Wiseman, Andreas. “Ralph Fiennes' Coriolanus Blog - Why Coriolanus Matters " 30ninjas RSS, 31 Mar. 2010.

Works Consulted

Altschuler, Bruce E., and Michael A. Genovese. “Chapter 1: On Shakespeare's Commanders and Kings: Leadership, Politics, and Hubris.” Shakespeare and Politics: What a Sixteenth-Century Playwright Can Tell Us about Twenty-First-Century Politics, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, CO, 2014.

Barton, Anne. “Chapter 7: Livy, Machiavelli and Shakespeare's Coriolanus.” Essays, Mainly Shakespearean, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2006.

Crowl, Samuel, et al. Shakespeare Bulletin, vol. 30, no. 2, 2012, pp. 145–47, http://www. jstor.org/stable/26354855. Accessed 16 Apr. 2022.

Pipolo, Tony. “Coriolanus.” Film Comment, vol. 47, no. 6, Temporary Publisher, 2011, pp. 68–69, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43458001.

Savlov, Marc. “Movie Review: Coriolanus.” Movie Review - The Austin Chronicle, 2 Mar. 2012, https://www.austinchronicle.com/events/film/2012-03-02/coriolanus/.

Shrank, Cathy. “Civility and the City in ‘Coriolanus.’” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 54, no. 4, 2003, pp. 406–23, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3844056. Accessed 16 Apr. 2022.

Wilson, Emmett. “Coriolanus: The Anxious Bridegroom.” American Imago, vol. 25, no. 3, 1968, pp. 224–41, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26302344. Accessed 30 Apr. 2022.


One of the great joys of scholarship for me is the sense that I am part of an ongoing conversation and I am very grateful to be in that conversation with people I respect and admire. I am especially indebted to Ann C. Christensen of the University of Houston for her support, her insight, her keen eye for revision and her unending enthusiasm.