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Type of Work Composition and Publication Sources Settings Characters Plot Summary Conflict
Tone Themes Animal Imagery Metaphors Other Figures of Speech Climax The Historical Coriolanus
Virgilia's Role Study Questions and Essay Topics Complete Text of the Play..
Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings...© 2003
Revised in 2010, 2011, 2016.©
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 Julius Caesar.
Date Written: Between 1605
Shakespeare based the plot of 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].
Shakespeare also based a
passage in Coriolanus on “Wise
Speeches,” a chapter in Remaines of a
greater worke, concerning Britaine, by
William Camden (1551-1623). In Camden's work,
Pope Adrian IV tells a story in which he
emphasizes the importance of the stomach as
the receiver of food that nourishes the body
parts. Pope Adrian says the story “is not
unlike that of Menenius Agrippa in . . . Roman
history.” In the Coriolanus passage
(1.1.54-127), Shakespeare uses an analogy
similar to Pope Adrian's when Menenius is
discussing government functions.
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 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. When he emerges from the gates bloodied but still standing, with the enemy pursuing him, his soldiers find courage and take the city. Marcius, bleeding, then rides off to lead an attack against Volscians outside the city, and he again wins the day. The Volscians are defeated. For his stunning feats on the battlefield, his fellow soldiers give him a title, “Coriolanus,” meaning conqueror of Corioli.
When he returns to Rome in triumph, his mother greets him, proud that he has suffered wounds proving his mettle. His wife is also there, weeping for joy that he has survived the battle. To his 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 long.
The tribunes renew their accusations and fan the flames of the feud into a conflagration. When Coriolanus loses his temper, he is banished from Rome. Outside the city gates, he bids farewell to his wife, mother, and friends, then bends his mind toward one goal: revenge not only against the tribunes, but all of Rome.
After Coriolanus finds his way to the camp of the defeated Volscians, who are planning a new attack on Rome, the Volscian leader, Aufidius, sympathizes with Coriolanus. Coriolanus, after all, is a soldier like Aufidius; and brave soldiers should not be treated with ingratitude and ridicule. But when the Volscian regulars receive Coriolanus as a great 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.
Coriolanus 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.Ostensibly, he 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,Tone
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,..
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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.
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.
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,Climax
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 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 Volscians.
The delicate, soft-spoken wife of Coriolanus plays an important role in the play in that she brings out a soft, loving side of Coriolanus. She demonstrates that the fierce warrior has, deep inside him, what it takes to be a caring man capable of tempering his military and political machismo. Unfortunately, except in relations with his wife, he subdues his gentle side.
Study Questions and Essay Topics
1....more proof: Stronger.