A Study Guide
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Type of Work Composition Publication Sources First Performance Settings Characters Plot Summary
Conflict Tone Themes Animal Imagery Metaphors Other Figures of Speech Climax
Foreshadowing Denouement Political Interpretation of the Play The Historical Coriolanus
Study Questions and Essay Topics Complete Annotated Text of the Play
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011, 2016, 2017.©
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.
SICINIUS: Was ever man so proud as is this Marcius?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.But the Volscians drive the Romans back to trenches, causing Marcius to rebuke his men:
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 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.
FIRST CITIZEN: First, you know Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.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,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,
My gracious silence [Virgilia], hail!
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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.
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.
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—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 flatterAfter 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,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.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,
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
Following is a sampling of other figures of speech in Coriolanus. For definitions of figures of speech, see Literary Terms.
A goodly city is this Antium. City,Hyperbole
What he bids be done is finished with his bidding (5.4.9)Paradox
Unshout the noise that banish’d Marcius. (5.4.54)Personification
Thou hast done a deed whereat valour will weep, (5.5.168)Synecdoche
Behold! these are the tribunes of the people,Simile
The noble sister of Publicola,