A Study Guide
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010.©
.......Coriolanus is a tragedy based on a historical character, Caius Martius Coriolanus (also referred to as Gaius Marcius and Gnaeus Martius). Scholars also sometimes group the work as one of Shakespeares Roman plays, along with Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar.
Date Written: About 1608.
.......Shakespeare based Coriolanus on The Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus, by Plutarch (46 AD?-120?). This biography is part of a larger Plutarch work, Parallel Lives, focusing mainly on famous Greek and Roman government and military leaders. Shakespeare used the English translation of Parallel Lives, prepared by Sir Thomas North (1535-1601). Norths translation, based in part on a French translation, was published in 1579 under the title The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes [Romans].
.......Coriolanus is in conflict with (1) the common people of Rome, who dislike him for his patrician haughtiness and blame him for withholding food from them at a time of famine; and (2) the attacking Volscians.
.......After Marcius marches off to attack the Volscian city of Corioli (south of Rome, within one to three days of foot travel) Virgilia cannot go about business as usual like other Roman women. Instead, she can only sit at home and fret for her husbands safety.
.......At Corioli, the Volscians charge out of the city gates, prompting Marcius to shout thatThey fear us not, but issue forth their city.
Now put your shields before your hearts, and fight
With hearts more proof1than shields. Advance, brave Titus:
They do disdain us much beyond our thoughts,
Which makes me sweat with wrath. Come on, my fellows:
He that retires, Ill take him for a Volsce,
And he shall feel mine edge.2(1. 4. 32-38)But the Volscians drive the Romans back to trenches, causing Marcius to rebuke his men:All the contagion of the south light on you,
You shames of Rome! you herd ofBoils and plagues
Plaster you oer, that you may be abhorrd
Further than seen, and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese,
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! (1. 4. 40-46).......After the fighting resumes, the Volscians withdraw to their walled city. Marcius follows them through the gates, but his compatriots remain behind, thinking it foolhardy to enter the enemys den. But Marcius holds his own. When he emerges from the gates bloodied but still standing, with the enemy pursuing him, his soldiers find courage and take the city.Marcius, bleeding, then rides off to lead an attack against Volscians outside the city, and he again wins the day. The Volscians are defeated. For his stunning feats on the battlefield, his fellow soldiers give him a title, Coriolanus, meaning conqueror of Corioli.
.......When he returns to Rome in triumph, his mother greets him, proud that he has suffered wounds proving his mettle. His wife is also there, weeping for joy that he has survived the battle. To his mothers delight, the Senate nominates him to be a consul (in ancient Rome, one of two chief magistrates who exercised supreme executive power).
.......However, if he is to win the office, he must follow custom and go to the Forum to ask the common people directly for their backing. With the greatest reluctance, the proud warrior agrees to humble himself before the rabble he despises to beg for votes. Out of gratitude for his service to Rome, the people approve him as consul-elect.
.......Meanwhile, two of the tribunes elected to represent the people, Sicinius and Brutus, persuade the people that they have made a bad choice. The august Coriolanus, the tribunes say, does not have the peoples interests at heart; he will only rob them of their liberties. The people then decide to recant; Coriolanus shall not be consul after all. Enraged, Coriolanus condemns the fickle mob, suspecting they seek to undermine authority and destroy the state. In return, the tribunes accuse Coriolanus of treason. When Coriolanus draws a sword, his friends escort him away to prevent further upheaval. Menenius Agrippa, an old friend of Coriolanus, then intervenes on the great soldiers behalf, proposing a peace-making meeting at the Forum. The tribunes agree to attend the meeting. The contentious Coriolanus, however, refuses to participate. His mother, Volumnia, then speaks in favor of the meeting, advising Coriolanus that everyone must compromise from time to time. What motivates her is not conciliation; it is ambition. She wants her son to rise to the consulship. The friends of Coriolanus also importune him to attend the meeting, for the sake of Rome. After being much plied with silver tongues, Coriolanus agrees to the meeting. All is well. But not for long.
.......The tribunes renew their accusations and fan the flames of the feud into a conflagration. When Coriolanus loses his temper, he is banished from Rome. Outside the city gates, he bids farewell to his wife, mother, and friends, then bends his mind toward one goal: revenge not only against the tribunes, but all of Rome.
.......After Coriolanus finds his way to the camp of the defeated Volscians, who are planning a new attack on Rome, the Volscian leader, Aufidius, sympathizes with Coriolanus. Coriolanus, after all, is a soldier like Aufidius; and brave soldiers should not be treated with ingratitude and ridicule. But when the Volscian regulars receive Coriolanus as a great warriora man deserving of trust, admiration, and loveAufidius has second thoughts about his guest. Aufidius and Coriolanus then march on Rome as co-commanders. Fear grips all of Rome, and the citizens regret their harsh judgment of Coriolanus. When his old Roman friends go to his camp to plead for mercy, he refuses to listen to their entreaties. Then his mother, wife, and little boy go out to his camp to soften his heart. His domineering mother even kneels before him as she presents her case.
.......Torn between his love for his family and his sworn duty to the Volscian army, Coriolanus decides to make peace with the city, and he and the Volscians withdraw to Corioli. The Roman citizens rejoice, and they hail Volumnia as the savior of the city. At Corioli, Aufidius cannot brook the popularity that Coriolanus enjoys with his troops, so he decides to assassinate him with the help of three henchmen. First, Aufidius brands Coriolanus a traitor who has robbed the Volscians of a victory over Rome. Then he and the henchmen surround and kill Coriolanus. But in his death, Coriolanus wins another victory: Aufidius, realizing that he has taken the life a noble and worthy friend and adversary, vows to honor the memory of Coriolanus. He says, My rage is gone; and I am struck with sorrow (5. 5. 185). Coriolanus is to be given a dignified burial, and he is to be remembered as a man of greatness whose legend will live on in Rome.
Excessive pride brings ruin. Coriolanus is so proud that he defects to the enemy and refuses to return to Rome. Even his wife, mother, and son are unable to persuade him to return to the city.
VALERIA O my word, the fathers son; Ill swear tis a very pretty boy. O my troth, I looked upon him o Wednesday half an hour together: he has such a confirmed countenance. I saw him run after a gilded butterfly; and when he caught it, he let it go again; and after it again; and over and over he comes, and up again; catched it again: or whether his fall enraged him, or how twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it; O! I warrant, how he mammocked3it! (1. 3. 34)The telling words here occur in Volumnias reference to the boys preference for swords over school and Valerias reference to his destruction of the butterfly.
Animal imagerya device Shakespeare relied on in other plays, notably King Learabounds in Coriolanus. Not infrequently, such imagery reflects the condescending attitude of Coriolanus toward plebeians, foot soldiers, and other commoners. Addressing disgruntled Roman citizens, he says: He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? the one affrights you,
The other makes you proud. He that trusts to you,
Where he should find you lions, finds you hares;
Where foxes, geese: you are no surer, no. (1. 1. 134-139). After the Volscians repel a Roman attack, Coriolanus rallies his infantrymen by shaming them, referring to them as a "herd" (1. 4. 41) and as "souls of geese" (1. 4. 44). A short while later, Coriolanus praises the performance of gentlemen soldiers (aristocratic volunteers) but ridicules the performance of common recruits by comparing them to mice. He says that but for our gentlemen,
The common filea plague! tribunes for them!
The mouse neer shunnd the cat as they did budge
From rascals worse than they. (1. 6. 56-59) In Act III, Coriolanus labels Sicinius Velutus, a tribune representing the common people, as a Triton [sea god] of the minnows (3. 1. 117). Moments later, he characterizes commoners as crows (3. 1. 172). Not to be outdone, the Roman commoners and their representatives also use animal imagery to refer to Coriolanus. For example, the citizens call Coriolanus a very dog to the commonality (1. 1. 15). The leader of the Volscians, Aufidius, also uses animal imagery to refer to Coriolanus. When the two men meet on the field of battle between the Volscian and Roman camps, Aufidius compares Coriolanus to a snake, telling him: Not Afric owns a serpent I abhor / More than thy fame and envy (1. 8. 6-7). Near the opening of Act II, the tribune Sicinius and the patrician politician Menenius compare the common people to wolves and Coriolanus (Caius Marcius) to a lamb and a bear:SICINIUS Nature teaches beasts to know their friends.
MENENIUS Pray you, who does the wolf love?
SICINIUS The lamb.
MENENIUS Ay, to devour him; as the hungry plebeians would the noble Marcius.
BRUTUS Hes a lamb indeed, that baes like a bear.
MENENIUS Hes a bear indeed, that lives like a lamb. (2. 1. 6-11) When Coriolanus defects to the Volscians, he takes care to avoid inflammatory language when describing himself as a former foe. However, after the Volscians betray him, he defiantly refers to himself as an eagle and the Volscians as mere doves in a cote (shelter): Cut me to pieces, Volsces; men and lads,
Stain all your edges on me. Boy! false hound!
If you have writ your annals true, tis there,
That, like an eagle in a dove-cote,4I
Flutterd your Volscians in Corioli:
Alone I did it. Boy! (5. 5. 143-148)Metaphors
.......Although Coriolanus lacks the poetic musicality of The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet and other Shakespeare plays, it does make extensive use of the metaphor for descriptions, insults, and observations. Following are examples.VOLUMNIA He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him.
MENENIUS Now, its twenty-seven: every gash was an enemys grave. (2.1.58-59)
Comparison of gash to grave
We have some old crab-trees here at home that will not
Were he to stand for consul, never would he
[I]f all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south (2.3.7)
SICINIUS It is a mind
Let the Volsces
Theyll give him death by inches. (5.4.19)
Following is a sampling of other figures of speech in Coriolanus.Alliteration
We call a nettle but a nettle, and
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people,
The noble sister of Publicola,
.......The climax of a play or another narrative work, such as a short story or a novel, can be defined as (1) the turning point at which the conflict begins to resolve itself for better or worse, or as (2) the final and most exciting event in a series of events. The climax of Coriolanus occurs, according to the first definition, when Rome banishes Coriolanus, leading to his defection to the Volscians and his murder at their hands. According to the second definition, the climax is the murder itself. It can be argued that there is only one climax: Coriolanus's reluctant agreement to a peace plan that saves Rome. However, this view suggests that the fate of Rome is the central focus of the play. Clearly, this was not Shakespeare's intention.
.......The historical Coriolanus was a patrician (member of the upper class) who fought with great valor in a battle against the Volscians in 493 BC at the city of Corioli. Said to be a haughty man, he looked down on the plebeians (common people of Rome). In a move that aroused their wrath, he withheld grain from them
during a famine in order to force the elimination of the office of tribunate, which had been established to preserve the rights of the plebeians. The tribunate's magistrates, called tribunes, responded by exiling Coriolanus. After receiving sanctuary among the Volscians, Coriolanus led them in a march against Rome. He called off the attack, however, after his mother and wife begged him to spare
the city. He later died among the Volscians.
.......The delicate, soft-spoken wife of Coriolanus plays an important role in the play in that she brings out a soft, loving side of Coriolanus. She demonstrates that the fierce warrior has, deep inside him, what it takes to be a caring man capable of tempering his military and political machismo. Unfortunately, except in relations with his wife, he subdues his gentle side.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1. more proof: Stronger.
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