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Coriolanus
A Study Guide
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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
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Study Guide Prepared by Michael J. Cummings
...© 2003

Revised in 2010, 2011, 2016.©
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 Julius Caesar

Composition and Publication

Date Written: Between 1605 and 1610.
First Published: 1623 as part of the First Folio, the first authorized collection of Shakespeare's plays.

Sources

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.

Settings
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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. 

Characters

Protagonist: Coriolanus
Antagonists: (1) Common People of Rome, (2) the Volscians
Foil of Volumnia: Virgilia
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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 Romebut 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 the Volscians. 
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.
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
...© 2003

When famine sweeps Rome in the first decade of the fifth century BC (between 499 and 490 BC), 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. 

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.
Now put your shields before your hearts, and fight
With hearts more proof1 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.2 (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. 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.

Conflict

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.      
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)    
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,      
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)  
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,      
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)  
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Themes

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, hewith the help of his mother, no doubtinstills 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: 

VOLUMNIA: He had rather see the swords, and hear a drum, than look upon his school-master. 
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)
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. 
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Animal Imagery
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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)
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Metaphors

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.

Alliteration

Verse Passages
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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
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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)

Anaphora
Prose Passage
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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
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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)

Apostrophe
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.
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)
When Conspirators kill Coliolanus, valour weeps (like a person).
Synecdoche
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
Simile
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. 
 

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. 

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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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

  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 his character of Coriolanus. 
Notes

1....more proof: Stronger.
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 consists of fibers or hairs rising from the surface of a fabric.

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