Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...©
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 Julius Caesar.
Written: About 1608.
Published: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection
of Shakespeare's plays.
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].
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.
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.
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.
Gentle and soft-spoken wife of Coriolanus. In her sweetness and delicacy,
she is reminiscent of Desdemona in Othello.
Sensible patrician politician and friend of Coriolanus.
Titus Lartius, Cominus:
Generals against the Volscians.
Sicinius Velutus, Brutus:
Tribunes of the people.
General of the Volscians.
Lieutenant of Aufidius
Conspirators With Aufidius:
First conspirator, second conspirator, third conspirator.
Young Marcius: Son
Valeria: Friend of
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,
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.
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.
Michael J. Cummings...©
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.
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 safety.
Corioli, the Volscians charge out of the city gates, prompting Marcius
to shout that
fear us not, but issue forth their city.
Volscians drive the Romans back to trenches, causing Marcius to rebuke
put your shields before your hearts, and fight
hearts more proof1
than shields. Advance, brave Titus:
do disdain us much beyond our thoughts,
makes me sweat with wrath. Come on, my fellows:
that retires, I’ll take him for a Volsce,
he shall feel mine edge.2
(1. 4. 32-38)
the contagion of the south light on you,
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.
shames of Rome! you herd of—Boils and plagues
you o’er, that you may be abhorr’d
than seen, and one infect another
the wind a mile! You souls of geese,
bear the shapes of men, how have you run
slaves that apes would beat! (1. 4. 40-46)
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).
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.
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 long.
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.
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.
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.
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 getting along:
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 mammocked3
it! (1. 3. 34)
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 says that
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).
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 budge
From rascals worse than
they. (1. 6. 56-59)
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
you, who does the wolf love?
to devour him; as the hungry plebeians would the noble Marcius.
a lamb indeed, that baes like a bear.
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
Flutter’d your Volscians
Alone I did it. Boy! (5.
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
He had, before this last expedition, twenty-five wounds upon him.
Figures of Speech
it’s twenty-seven: every gash was an enemy’s grave. (2.1.58-59)
Comparison of gash to
We have some old crab-trees
here at home that will not
Be grafted to your relish.
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
vesture 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
That shall remain a poison
where it is,
Not poison any further.
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
. . . will in time break
The locks o’ the senate,
and bring in the crows
To peck the eagles. (3.1.170-173)
Comparison of commoners
to crows and senators to eagles
Let the Volsces
Plough Rome, and harrow
Comparison of the Volscian
army to farmers
They’ll give him death by
Comparison of the process
of dying to a measurable thing
Following is a sampling of
other figures of speech in Coriolanus.
Methinks I hear
your husband’s drum (1.3.10)
I mean to
We call a nettle
but a nettle, and
of fools but folly.
Ingratitude is monstrous,
and for the multitude to be ingrateful
were to make a monster
of the multitude; of the which, we
should bring ourselves to be monstrous
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
If I should tell thee o’er
this thy day’s work,
Thou’lt not believe thy
deeds: but I’ll report it
senators shall mingle tears with smiles,
great patricians shall attend and shrug,
I’ the end, admire; where
ladies shall be frighted,
And, gladly quak’d, hear
more; where the dull Tribunes,
That, with the fusty plebeians,
hate thine honours,
Shall say, against their
‘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
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)
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.
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
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.
Questions and Essay Topics
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?
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?
that Coriolanus was a proud, arrogant person. In your opinion, why did
the quiet and likable Virgilia marry him?
love her son more than the glory that she can achieve through him?
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.
campaign for election as a consul of Rome, Coriolanus speaks in the Forum.
What was the Forum? What activities took place there?
Martius, the son of Coriolanus, grow up to be like his father?
life like for a typical Roman soldier in ancient Rome?
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.
more proof: Stronger.
feel mine edge: Experience my anger; feel the edge of my sword.
mammocked: Torn to shreads.
dove-cote: Dovecote, a pigeon shelter with compartments.
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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