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Type of Work      Composition      Publication      Sources     First Performance     Settings      Characters      Plot Summary    
      Tone      Themes      Animal Imagery      Metaphors      Other Figures of Speech      Climax      
Foreshadowing     Denouement     Political Interpretation of the Play    The Historical Coriolanus
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011, 2016, 2017.©
Type of Work

William Shakespeare's Coriolanus is a tragedy based on the life of a Roman military leader, Caius Martius Coriolanus (also referred to in history books as Gaius Marcius and Gnaeus Martius). Scholars often group the work as one of Shakespeare’s “Roman plays,” along with Antony and Cleopatra and Julius Caesar. A tragedy is a literary work in which the main character suffers a downfall or dies, usually because of a flaw in his or her character.


Shakespeare may have begun to write Coriolanus as early as 1605. He completed it no later than 1610. The majority of scholars believe he began and completed the play between 1607 and 1609. The 1605 date has been established as the earliest possible date for beginning the writing because an extended metaphor in the first scene of Act 1 (lines 54-119) appears to have been based on a chapter in a 1605 essay collection, Remaines of a Greater Worke, Concerning Britaine, by William Camden (1551-1623). This chapter, entitled "Wise Speeches," centers on an observation in which Pope Adrian IV (circa 1100-1159) likens a successfully functioning government to a successfully functioning human body. Shakespeare's passage makes a similar comparison. The 1610 date has been established as the latest possible date because references to Shakespeare's play appear in 1610 works by other writers in Shakespeare's time.


Coriolanus was first published in 1623 in a collection with thirty-five other Shakespeare plays. This collection was entitled Mr. William Shakespeare's Comedies, Histories & Tragedies. To what extent the original manuscripts of the plays had been edited is uncertain. John Heminges (1566-1630) and Henry Condell (1576-1627), actors in Shakespeare's plays, compiled and edited the volume. The printer and publisher was William Jaggard (circa 1568-1623), assisted by his son Isaac. This edition became known as the First Folio. A folio was a book consisting of pages nineteen inches high and twelve inches wide. Because of the presumed authenticity of this collection, later publishers used it to print copies of the plays. Other folios were printed in 1632, 1663 and 1685. In 1664, a second printing of the 1663 folio included the first publication of Shakespeare play Pericles, Prince of Tyre.


Shakespeare based the plot of Coriolanus on “The Life of Caius Martius Coriolanus,” by the Greek-born biographer Plutarch (46 AD?-120?), who became a Roman citizen. This biography is part of a larger Plutarch work, Parallel Lives, focusing on famous Greek and Roman government and military leaders. Shakespeare is said to have used an English translation of Parallel Lives 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]. Shakespeare may also have consulted Ab Urbe Condita (Latin for From the Founding of the City, referring to the founding of Rome), by the Roman historian Titus Livius, called Livy (circa 60-17 BC). Finally, Shakespeare may have based the uprising of the Roman commoners, in part, on the Midland Revolt of 1607 in England. In this upheaval, agricultural laborers in England rebelled against a government policy allowing businessmen to seize and privatize public land on which the laborers grew their crops. This policy resulted in unemployment and food shortages among the laborers. They rebelled against the new landowners, just as the ordinary Roman citizens in Coriolanus rebel against the title character, whom they view as a usurper of their rights.

First Performance

No records exist to document a performance of Coriolanus in Shakespeare's time. The first known performance was in 1681 at the Drury Lane theatre in Covent Garden, London. The production was adapted by Irish-born poet Nahum Tate (1652-1715).

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 thirty to forty miles south of Rome: Corioli, Antium, and fields of battle. 


Protagonist: Coriolanus
Antagonists: (1) Common People of Rome, (2) the Volscians
Foil of Volumnia: Virgilia
Coriolanus (Caius Marcius): Roman warrior of quick temper and great pride, who thinks like a lion when he should think like a fox. His birth name is Caius Marcius, but he receives the honorary name of Coriolanus after he conquers the enemy city of Corioli. Like protagonists in ancient Greek tragedies, Coriolanus's arrogance and inflexibility precipitate his downfall. Toward the end of the play, 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 (full historical name: Agrippa Menius Lanatus): Sensible patrician politician and friend of Coriolanus.
Cominius: General in the Roman army in the war against the Volscians.
Titus Lartius: General in the Roman army in the war against the Volscians. 

Sicinius Velutus, Junius Brutus: Tribunes of the people. A tribune was an elected official charged with safeguarding the rights of commoners, called plebeians.
Tullus Aufidius: General of the Volscians, or Volsci, who occupied a valley south of Rome.
Lieutenant of Aufidius
Conspirators Supporting Aufidius Against Coriolanus: First conspirator, second conspirator, third conspirator. 
Young Marcius: Son of Coriolanus.
Valeria: Friend of Virgilia.
Gentlewoman Attending Virgilia
Adrian: Volscian who meets a Roman, Nicanor, on the road between Rome and Antium. Nicanor informs him that the Roman citizens have banished Coriolanus.
Nicanor: Roman citizen. See Adrian.
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.

Plot Summary

By Michael J. Cummings

When famine sweeps Rome in the first decade of the fifth century BC (between 499 and 490), the common citizens (plebeians) believe the rulers and their aristocratic friends (patricians) 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 churls and a drain on the public trough. He threatens to wield his sword against them. However, the Senate throws the people a political crumb: they may select five officers, to be known as tribunes to represent them and defend their rights. The concession angers Martius. Two of the tribunes—Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus—oppose Martius from the outset, thinking him unbearably arrogant and condescending in his attitude toward the commoners. The two men reveal their feelings in the first scene of the first act.
SICINIUS:  Was ever man so proud as is this Marcius?          
BRUTUS:  He has no equal.  
SICINIUS:  When we were chosen tribunes for the people,—  
BRUTUS:  Mark’d you [did you notice] his lip and eyes?  
SICINIUS: Nay, but his taunts.  
BRUTUS:  Being mov’d, he will not spare to gird [jeer] the gods.          
SICINIUS:  Bemock the modest moon. (235-241)  
However, the attention of Marcius quickly shifts to new villains when he learns an Italian tribe known as the Volscians plans to attack Rome. It is wonderful news to him. 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 safety.

At Corioli, the Volscians charge out of the city gates, prompting Marcius to shout that
They fear us not, but issue forth their city.
Now put your shields before your hearts, and fight
With hearts more proof than 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. (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 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
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 enemy’s den. But Marcius holds his own against the overwhelming odds. 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 the 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 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 (a square that was the center of business and politics)  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, the two tribunes who despise the hero, Sicinius and Junius 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, maintaining they seek to undermine authority and destroy the state. In return, the tribunes condemn Coriolanus as an enemy of the state. 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 Forum was a marketplace that was also the political, economic, and religious center of Rome.) 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. Reluctantly, he agrees to the meeting. All is well. But not for long.

The tribunes renew their denigration of Coriolanus as an enemy of the commoners and whip them into a frenzy against him. When Coriolanus reacts angrily, 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 also 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 lead the Volscian army in the overthrow of Rome, Coriolanus decides to make peace with the city. 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 (called conspirators in the play). First, Aufidius brands Coriolanus a traitor who has robbed the Volscians of a victory over Rome as well as the plunder they would reap. 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.


Marcius is in conflict with the common people of Rome, who dislike him for his patrician haughtiness and blame him for the shortage of grain at a price they can afford. Shakespeare establishes this conflict in the following passage in the opening scene of the play:
FIRST CITIZEN:  First, you know Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.      
ALL:  We know’t, we know’t. 
FIRST CITIZEN:  Let us kill him, and we’ll have corn at our own price. Is’t a verdict?      
ALL:  No more talking on’t; let it be done. Away, away!      
SECOND CITIZEN:  One word, good citizens.      
FIRST CITIZEN:  We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians good. What authority surfeits on would relieve us. If they would yield us but the superfluity, while it were wholesome, we might guess they relieved us humanely; but they think we are too dear: the leanness that afflicts us, the object of our misery, is as an inventory to particularise their abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them. Let us revenge this with our pikes, ere we become rakes: for the gods know I speak this in hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge.    
SECOND CITIZEN:  Would you proceed especially against Caius Marcius?      
FIRST CITIZEN:  Against him first: he’s a very dog to the commonalty. (1.1.7-14)    
Marcius is also in conflict with a battlefield enemy, the Volscians. However, he welcomes going to war against them; doing so will enable him to win glory that will feed his already excessive pride. Moreover, he actually admires the Volscian leader, as the following passage indicates.
MARCIUS:  They have a leader,      
Tullus Aufidius, that will put you to ’t. 
I sin in envying his nobility,      
And were I anything but what I am,      
I would wish me only he.      
COMINIUS:  You have fought together.   
MARCIUS:  Were half to half the world by the ears, and he      
Upon my party, I’d revolt, to make      
Only my wars with him: he is a lion      
That I am proud to hunt. (1.1.205-212)  
It can be argued that Marcius is also in conflict with himself. On the one hand, he cannot overcome his pride; on the other he cannot tame his quick and insulting tongue.


The arrogance, spite, and bitterness of Coriolanus dominate the serious tone of the play. He makes known his disdain for the common people in his first appearance in the play.

                      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,      
Than is the coal of fire upon the ice,    
Or hailstone in the sun. (1.1.135-141)  


The delicate, soft-spoken wife of Coriolanus brings out a soft, loving side of Coriolanus, foreshadowing his decision not to attack Rome at the head of the Volscian army. 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. When he returns from war against the Volscians, he says,
My gracious silence [Virgilia], hail!  
Wouldst thou have laugh’d had I come coffin’d home,  
That weep’st to see me triumph? Ah! my dear,  
Such eyes the widows in Corioli wear,  
And mothers that lack sons. (2.1.81-85)


The climax of a play or a 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 Coriolanus's decision to yield to the wishes of his mother not to attack Rome. I


The denouement, or conclusion, of the play is the murder of Coriolanus by the jealous Aufidius and his henchmen, followed by his regret for having killed Coriolanus and the honorable burial he gives him.

Political Interpretation of the Play

Down through the years, performances of Coriolanus have sometimes served the political views of directors. Some directors have depicted Coriolanus as a right-wing hero who protects the patricians and the established order against the rowdy commoners. Other directors have depicted him as a right-wing villain who robs the left-wing commoners of the their rights.

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.

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Excessive pride brings ruin. Marcius (Coriolanus) is so proud and so quick to criticize others, especially the plebeians, that Rome banishes him. After he leaves the city, he defects to the enemy Volscians and leads them in a march on Rome to gain revenge against the city. When his mother, wife, and son plead with him to spare the city, he relents and withdraws. But his withdrawal angers the Volscian leader, Aufidius, whose army had suffered an earlier defeat at the hands of Coriolanus. A proud man in his own right, Aufidius complains that Coriolanus's withdrawal has deprived him and his countrymen of plundering Rome. For this reason—and because he apparently envies Coriolanus—Aufidius and several henchmen kill the Roman.

Class Division

Bitter enmity divides the ordinary citizens of Rome—the carpenters, the shoemakers, the bakers, the bricklayers—from the upper classes. When famine strikes the city, the commoners accuse the aristocrats, or patricians, of hoarding food for themselves and mistreating them in other ways. As one of the commoners says,
    They [the patricians] ne’er cared for us yet: suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, [charging interest at an excessive rate] to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes [burdensome laws] daily to chain up and restrain the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will; and there’s all the love they bear us. (1.1.46)
Marcius mocks the commoners as whining troublemakers. After he leads an army against Rome's perennial rivals, the Volscians—distinguishing himself in battle and suffering wounds—he returns home as a hero and decides to run for consul. To be elected, he must win the hearts of the commoners. At first, he gains their approval. But after the two tribunes who defend the rights of the commoners, Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus, persuade the commoners that Marcius is their enemy, they recant their approval, viewing Marcius as a symbol of the well-fed patricians. He exchanges angry words with the citizens, but to no avail. Ultimately, Rome banishes Marcius.

Mighty Mom

Coriolanus may be the physically strongest character in the play, but Volumnia is probably the mentally strongest. She exerts powerful, seemingly irresistible, influence over her son. From an early age, he does her bidding. Her influence continues in his adulthood. After the city banishes him and he joins Aufidius in a march on Rome, she pleads with him to spare Rome, going down on her knees. Even though he vowed vengeance against Rome at all costs, he yields to her wishes. She proves she can do what no man can do, tame the great warrior. His deference to his mother results in his murder.

War as a Maker of Men

In ancient times, ambitious men often eagerly welcomed the opportunity to go to war. By exhibiting courage and mastery of the military art, a man could earn fame, fortune, and honor. Among the legendary and historical soldiers who indelibly stamped their names in countless books and poems were Achilles and Hector (opposing warriors in the Trojan War and characters in Homer's great epic poem, the Iliad), David (slayer of Goliath), and Darius I, emperor of Persia. Coriolanus no doubt was keenly aware of the benefits—and glory—of military service. At an early age, Coriolanus schooled himself in the military arts and molded his body into hard, battle-ready muscle. All the while, his mother encouraged his activities.

    When yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way [when he was a handsome youth and attracted all gazes to him], 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 [that he was no better than a picture on the way if he did not earn renown], was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him; from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak [he returned, wearing a wreath of oak leaves signifying his great valor in battle], I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man. (1.3.4)

After Marcius wins the respect he sought, he and his mother instill their militaristic ideals in young Marcius, as the following dialogue about the boy indicates:

    VOLUMNIA: He had rather see the swords, and hear a drum, than look upon his school-master.
    VALERIA: On my word, the father’s son; I’ll swear ’tis a very pretty boy. On my troth, I looked upon him on 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 mammocked it [ripped it apart]! (1.3.34)


After returning home from war as a hero, Marcius decides to run for the highest political office in Rome: consul. (Each year, the Roman republic elected two consuls to rule for twelve months. One consul held authority in one month, and the other consul held it in the next month.) One of his objectives is to uphold the authority of the patricians while checking, or even suppressing, the rights of the commoners. But Marcius lacks the tact required of a politician. He is too outspoken and, at times, even insulting. Moreover, he appears to lack the humility to solicit the votes of the commoners. As the tribune Brutus says:

    I heard him swear,  
    Were he to stand for consul, never would he  
    Appear i’ the market-place, nor on him put  
    The napless vesture [threadbare apparel; worn-out toga] of humility;  
    Nor, showing, as the manner is, his wounds         
    To the people, beg their stinking breaths. (2.1.146-151)   

But Marcius does wear the "napless vesture" and does succeed in winning their approval, although they are confused by his language.

    SECOND CITIZEN:  Amen, sir. To my poor unworthy notice,
    He mock’d us when he begg’d our voices [votes].  
    THIRD CITIZEN:  Certainly,  
    He flouted us downright.  
    FIRST CITIZEN:  No, ’tis his kind of speech; he did not mock us. (2.3.115-119)  

Despite the reservations of some commoners, he wins their overall support, thanks to their high opinion of him as a soldier. However, the support is short-lived, for the officious tribunes later persuade them that Marcius will not champion their rights. Consequently, they withdraw their approval. Arguments ensue, but Marcius's quick temper and sharp tongue do nothing to ease the tension. In the end, the city banishes him. He is too much of a proud, uncompromising patrician to to serve as a politician for all the people.

Redemption for Marcius?

Coriolanus is a deadly warrior and an outstanding military leader. But he lacks compassion, humility, and sympathy in his dealings with others, especially the commoners begging for their share of food. However, to his credit, he does yield to the pleas of his mother, wife, and son when they beg him to spare Rome when he is leading a Volscian army against the city. For this act of mercy, he appears to redeem himself. But Aufidius and his henchmen, deprived of looting Rome, kill him.
Animal Imagery
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 ne’er shunn’d the cat as they did budge 
From rascals worse than they. (1.6.56-59) 
In Act 3, 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 2, 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: 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) 
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,4
Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli: 
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. 
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 napless5 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 a mind 
That shall remain a poison where it is, 
Not poison any further. 
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

               [T]he rabble 
. . . will in time break ope 
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

Anger’s my meat; I sup upon myself,  
And so shall starve with feeding. (4.2.68-69)   
Comparison of anger to meat

Let the Volsces 
Plough Rome, and harrow Italy. (5.3.38-39)
Comparison of the Volscian army to farmers

This Marcius is grown from man to dragon: he has wings; he’s more than a creeping thing. (5.4.7)
Comparison of Coriolanus (Marcius) to a dragon

They’ll give him death by inches. (5.4.19)
Comparison of the process of dying to a measurable thing

He water’d his new plants with dews of flattery, 
Seducing so my friends. (5.5.30-31)  
Comparison of flattery to the watering of plants

Other Figures of Speech

Following is a sampling of other figures of speech in Coriolanus. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.


Verse Passages
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)

This is the way to kindle, not to quench (3.1.242)

Prose Passage
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)

Prose Passage
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)

Verse Passage
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 frighted, 
And, gladly quak’d, hear more; where the dull Tribunes, 
That, with the fusty plebeians, hate thine honours, 
Shall say, against their hearts, 
‘We thank the gods our Rome hath such a soldier!’ (1.9.3-11)

A goodly city is this Antium. City,      
’Tis I that made thy widows: many an heir
Of these fair edifices ’fore my wars      
Have I heard groan and drop.
Coriolanus address Antium.
What he bids be done is finished with his bidding (5.4.9)
Unshout the noise that banish’d Marcius. (5.4.54)
Thou hast done a deed whereat valour will weep, (5.5.168)
When Conspirators kill Coliolanus, valour weeps (like a person).
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people, 
The tongues o’ the common mouth.  (3.1.29-30)
Tongues stands for the tribunes; mouth stands for the people
The noble sister of Publicola, 
The moon of Rome; chaste as the icicle (5.3.74-75)
Comparison of the chastity of Virgilia to the coldness of an icicle (a compliment)

When he walks, he moves like an engine (5.4.9)
Comparison of Coriolanus to an engine

[I am] as certain as I know the sun is fire (5.4.28)
Comparison of the speaker's degree of certainty to his knowledge that the sun is fire

At a few drops of women’s rheum, which are 
As cheap as lies, he sold the blood and labour 
Of our great action: therefore shall he die. (5.4.56-58) 
Comparison of the quality of women's tears to the cheapness of lies 

     Like an eagle in a dove-cote, I 
Flutter’d your Volscians in Corioli (5.4.146-147)
Coriolanus compares himself to an eagle among doves. 

Study Questions and Essay Topics

  1. 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? 
  2. 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? 
  3. It appears that Coriolanus was a proud, arrogant person. In your opinion, why did the quiet and likable Virgilia marry him?
  4. Does Volumnia love her son more than the glory that she can achieve through him?
  5. 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. 
  6. In his campaign for election as a consul of Rome, Coriolanus speaks in the Forum. What was the Forum? What activities took place there? 
  7. Will young Martius, the son of Coriolanus, grow up to be like his father? 
  8. What was life like for a typical Roman soldier in ancient Rome?
  9. Imagine that you are a news reporter in ancient Rome. Write an obituary that you believe accurately sums up the life and character of Coriolanus.