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Coriolanus

William Shakespeare

Study Questions

Analysis

Review Quiz

Analyze the character of Coriolanus.

The play's eponymous hero is a difficult man with whom to sympathize. His virtues include his military prowess (amply displayed in the play's battle scenes) and his sense of honor--but his honor easily lapses into unpleasant pigheadedness. Among his primary enemies lurk two clever schemers, Brutus and Sicinius, but, as Coriolanus is incapable of scheming himself, he is at a disadvantage from the beginning. Yet the two tribunes are hardly Edmunds or Iagos; Coriolanus' difficulties are less their fault than the fault of his own stubbornness and lack of self-control. Convinced that humility and compromise clash with his own nature, he simply cannot make the gestures necessary to win the plebeians' respect, and his inability to control his unruly tongue only facilitates his adversaries' plans to bring him down. Ultimately, his chief fault is childishness, a failing reflected in his submissiveness to his mother, Volumnia. It is her ambition and bloodlust, more than anything else, that have shaped his character.

Discuss the play's political stance.

The plot centers around a class conflict, between the political and economic elite, or patricians, and the poorer but more numerous plebeians. The recent expulsion of Rome's kings has created a power vacuum, and the two classes now fight over whether elite opinion or the popular will should hold sway in the Roman polity. As a number of critics have pointed out, these same issues of class conflict and the question of oligarchic vs. popular rule similarly plagued Shakespeare's own time, as tensions rose between King James and the English Parliament. However, the playwright veils his own point of view on such issues with deliberate ambiguity. On the one hand, Coriolanus's expulsion seems to be a clear warning about the dangerous volatility of the popular will; the plebeians quickly bend under the tribunes' manipulation instead of considering Coriolanus' service to his country. However, while his exile seems unjust, Coriolanus remains manifestly unsuited for the consulship, in both character and temperament; his angry contempt for the plebeians seems to stem less from political principle than from self-interest and pride. Thus, the play vividly presents political issues while refraining from taking sides.

Discuss the role of women in Coriolanus.

The world of the play is a man's world; the two chief arenas in which one can gain power--politics and war--exclude women. The female characters seem confined to the domestic sphere: We see them sewing, gossiping, welcoming their heroic husbands home from war, and engaging in other appropriately female activities. However, the character of Volumnia, Coriolanus' mother, shows how a strong-willed woman can have an impact in a male-dominated society: Volumnia lives through her son, raising him to be a warrior, delighting in his victories, and, ultimately, hoping to see him reach the peak of political power, the consulship. Through it all, he remains dependant upon her, so much so that she is able, at the end of the play, to succeed where all his male friends have failed--in convincing him to forgive the Romans and spare Rome from destruction. For this feat, she is hailed as her city's savior, while he, the great warrior, slinks off to die in Antium--an ironic reversal and a triumph for maternal and female strength.

Discuss the relationship between Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius.

Analyze the characters of the tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, and discuss their roles in the play. Are they villains? Why or why not?

Analyze the crowds of plebeians. How does Shakespeare portray them?

Discuss the character of Menenius. What role does he play in the tragedy?

Compare and contrast the way the play portrays war: the display of brute force but also honor and politics--the display of subtle wits and diplomacy but also manipulation and role-playing.

What are the primary reasons for Coriolanus' failing to become consul? Can his adversaries take credit? Is he prevented by the rising self-awareness of the plebeians, their realization that they need not settle for a ruler who will not listen to them? Are Coriolanus' own character flaws to blame? Defend your answer.

Why does Coriolanus spare Rome at the end of play? Defend your answer.

More Help

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A 21st Century Political Tragedy Set in Rome

by ReadingShakespeareby450th, September 04, 2013

In reading all Shakespeare by 4/14, I just finished my blog on this surprising favorite. In case you're interested in seeing my take:

http://ow.ly/oz1oI

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