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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
Revised in 2010.©
Type of Work
.......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 Shakespeare’s “Roman plays,” along with Antony and Cleopatra and
Date Written: About 1608.
First Published: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.
.......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). North’s translation, based in part on a French translation, was published in 1579 under the title The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romanes [Romans].
.......The action takes place in ancient Italy in the 490's BC. Scenes are set in central Italy, in Rome, and in the following coastal locales 30 to 40 miles south of Rome: Corioli, Antium, and fields of battle.
Antagonists: (1) Common People of Rome, (2) the Volscians
Foil of Volumnia:
Coriolanus (Caius Marcius): Roman warrior of quick temper and great pride, who thinks like a lion when he should think a fox . Like protagonists in ancient Greek tragedies,
Coriolanus's arrogance and inflexibility precipitate his downfall. Toward the end, he does bend his iron will away from vengeance against Rome—but it is too late. The die has been cast.
Volumnia: Ambitious, meddlesome mother of Coriolanus who
exercises considerable control over his character formation. She is not unlike the strong-willed mothers in another Shakespeare play, King John. In some historical accounts, Volumnia is identified as Veturia, and Coriolanus's wife as Volumnia.
Virgilia: Gentle and soft-spoken wife of Coriolanus. In her sweetness and delicacy, she
is reminiscent of Desdemona in Othello.
Menenius Agrippa: Sensible patrician politician and friend of Coriolanus.
Titus Lartius, Cominus: Generals against
Sicinius Velutus, Brutus: Tribunes of the people.
Tullus Aufidius: General of the Volscians.
Lieutenant of Aufidius
Conspirators With Aufidius: First conspirator, second conspirator, third conspirator.
Young Marcius: Son of Coriolanus.
Valeria: Friend of Virgilia.
Minor Characters: Citizen of Antium, two Volscian guards, Roman herald, Roman and Volscian senators, patricians, aediles (officials overseeing public buildings and roads, markets, sanitation facilities, and certain public events), lictors (assistants of
magistrates), soldiers, citizens, messengers, servants of Aufidius, other attendants.
.......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.
Plot Summary ........When famine sweeps Rome in the first decade of the Fifth Century BC (between 499 and 490 B.C), the citizens believe the rulers and their friends are to blame, claiming they are hoarding food supplies. One of the citizens singles out the patrician warrior Caius Martius, later to be known as
Coriolanus, as their chief enemy. Martius despises the whining rabble as a drain on the public trough and threatens to wield his sword against them. However, the Senate throws the people a political crumb: They may select five tribunes to represent them. The concession angers Martius.
By Michael J. Cummings...©
.......However, his attention quickly shifts to new villains when he learns an Italian tribe known as the Volscians plans to attack Rome. It is wonderful news to Martius. As a soldier, he likes nothing better than a good war to test his talents. It is good news, too, to his mother, Volumnia. She reared her son to
be a stalwart soldier who brings glory to Rome, himself, and his family—in particular, to Volumnia herself. Now that an opportunity for glory has presented itself, she wants her son to take advantage of it. Marcius’s wife, Virgilia, is not at all like her husband or his mother; she is a gentle creature who hates bloodshed.
.......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 husband’s
.......At Corioli, the Volscians charge out of the city gates, prompting Marcius to shout that
They fear us not, but issue forth their city. But the Volscians drive the Romans back to trenches, causing Marcius to rebuke his men:
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, I’ll take him for a Volsce,
And he shall feel mine edge.2(1. 4. 32-38)
All the contagion of the south light on you, .......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 enemy’s 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.
You shames of Rome! you herd of—Boils and plagues
Plaster you o’er, that you may be abhorr’d
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
that apes would beat! (1. 4. 40-46)
.......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 mother’s 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 people’s 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 soldier’s 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
.......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 warrior—a man deserving of trust, admiration, and love—Aufidius 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.
The worth of an individual
should depend on more than public recognition. Coriolanus has a reputation as an outstanding soldier and military leader, a reputation his mother helped him to cultivate. But both he and she overlook important human qualities that a person must develop, such as compassion, humility, and sympathy for the less fortunate.
Leaders must stay in tune with the
times. Coriolanus supports the old ways of the aristocratic class even though the people clamor for change. Rather than listen to the people, Coriolanus scoffs at them.
Envy can lead to unwise decisions. Aufidius,
jealous of Coriolanus’s popularity with the Volscians, denounces him as a traitor, and the Volscians then kill the Roman. Later, Aufidius regrets his action and praises Coriolanus a true hero.
Rome sorely lacks sound judgment. Patricians and commoners alike lack the wisdom to
bring Rome to its senses. The Third Citizen notes that “our wits are so diversely coloured: 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’ the compass” (2. 3. 7).
Defective ideas may have a long life, passing from one generation to the next. After Volumnia instills her warped value system in Coriolanus, he—with the help of his mother, no doubt—instills them in his son, young Marcius. Shakespeare makes this clear in the following exchange between Volumnia and Valeria about how the boy is
VOLUMNIA He had rather see the swords, and hear a drum, than look upon his school-master. The telling words here occur in Volumnia’s reference to the boy’s preference for swords over school and Valeria’s reference to his destruction of the butterfly.
VALERIA O’ my word, the father’s son; I’ll 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)
Animal imagery—a device Shakespeare relied on in other plays, notably King Lear—abounds 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 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
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
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).
but for our
gentlemen, 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:
The common file—a plague! tribunes for them!—
The mouse ne’er shunn’d the cat as they did
From rascals worse than they. (1. 6. 56-59)
SICINIUS Nature teaches beasts to know their friends. 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):
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 He’s a lamb indeed, that baes like a bear.
MENENIUS He’s a bear indeed, that lives like a lamb. (2. 1. 6-11)
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
Flutter’d your Volscians
Alone I did it. Boy! (5. 5. 143-148)
.......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. Other Figures of Speech
MENENIUS Now, it’s twenty-seven: every gash was an enemy’s grave. (2.1.58-59)
Comparison of gash to grave
We have some old crab-trees here at home that will not
Be grafted to your relish. (2.1.95-96)
Comparison of the opponents of
Coriolanus gash to crab trees
Were he to stand for consul, never would he
Appear i’ the market-place, nor on him put
The napless5vesture of humility (2.1.147-149)
Comparison of humility to a garment
[I]f all our wits were to issue out of one skull, they would fly east, west, north, south (2.3.7)
Comparison of wits (intellectual abilities) to a creature or thing that flies
SICINIUS It is a mind
That shall remain a poison where it is,
Not poison any
CORIOLANUS Shall remain!
Hear you this Triton of the minnows? mark you (3.1.117)
His absolute ‘shall?’
Comparison of a mind to poison; comparison of Sicinius to Triton, the son of Poseidon, god of the sea
. . . will in time break ope
The locks o’ the senate, and bring in the crows
To peck the eagles. (3.1.170-173)
of commoners to crows and senators to eagles
Let the Volsces
Plough Rome, and harrow Italy (5.3.38-39)
Comparison of the Volscian army to farmers
They’ll give him death by inches. (5.4.19)
Comparison of the process of dying to a measurable thing
Following is a sampling of other figures of speech in Coriolanus.
Methinks I hear hither your husband’s drum (1.3.10)
I mean to stride your steed (1.9.80)
We call a nettle but a nettle, and
The faults of fools but folly. (2.1.97-98)
Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to
be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude; of the which, we being members, should bring ourselves to be monstrous members. (2.3.5)
When yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when for a day of kings’ entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering how honour would become such a person, that it was no better than picture-like to hang by the wall, if renown made it not stir, was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like
to find fame. (1.3.3)
If I should tell thee o’er this thy day’s work,
Thou’lt not believe thy deeds: but I’ll report it
Where senators shall mingle tears with smiles,
Where great patricians shall attend and shrug,
I’ the end, admire; where ladies shall be
And, gladly quak’d, hear more; where the dull Tribunes,
That, with the fusty plebeians, hate thine
Shall say, against their hearts,
‘We thank the gods our Rome hath such a soldier!’ (1.9. 3-11)
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people,
The tongues o’ the common mouth. (29-32)
Tongues stands for the
tribunes; mouth stands for the people
The noble sister of Publicola,
The moon of Rome; chaste as the icicle
Comparison of the chastity of Virgilia to the coldness
of an icicle (a compliment)
.......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 Corionlanus
.......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. Virgilia's Role
.......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
- Do people today judge the worth of an individual solely on his or her personal virtues? Or are they more likely to judge a person on his or her social standing, wealth, looks or fame?
- In the ancient Rome of Coriolanus (490s BC), special officers called tribunes protected the rights of the common people against the aristocrats. What organizations or institutions today perform the same function?
- It appears that Coriolanus was a proud, arrogant person. In your opinion, why did the quiet and likable Virgilia marry him?
- Does Volumnia love her son more than the glory that she can achieve through him?
- Assume the role of a psychologist. Then analyze Coriolanus and write a profile explaining his strong points, his weaks points, and the environmental and cultural influences that helped shape him. Use passages from the play to support your observations and opinions.
- In his campaign for election as a consul of Rome, Coriolanus speaks in the Forum. What was the Forum? What activities took place there?
- Will young Martius, the son of Coriolanus, grow up to be like his father?
- What was life like for a typical Roman soldier in ancient Rome?
- Imagine that you are a news reporter in ancient Rome. Write an obituary that you believe accurately sums up the life and his character of Coriolanus.
1. more proof: Stronger. Plays on DVD (or VHS)
2. feel mine edge: Experience my anger; feel the edge of my sword.
3. mammocked: Torn to shreads.
4. dove-cote: Dovecote, a pigeon shelter with compartments.
5. napless: Without surface hairs or fibers. A nap is consists of fibers or hairs rising from the surface of a fabric.
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