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Coriolanus | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Coriolanus | Context


Shakespeare's World

Around the time Coriolanus was written, England experienced many significant changes. The Age of Discovery—an era of increased exploration, trade, and cultural interaction with other parts of the world—was underway, and England was heavily involved in both trade with the Middle East and Asia and colonization and slavery in Africa and the New World. Jamestown, Virginia, was established as the first English colony in America in 1607. At the same time, Europe as a whole was undergoing a scientific revolution, with new discoveries in astronomy, anatomy, and physical science rapidly changing the way people understood the world around them. However, despite this growth, Europe was also experiencing immense tension between Catholics and Protestants (Christians who rebelled against Catholic practices) and was on the verge of the Thirty Years' War (1618–48). The Thirty Years' War was a Protestant rebellion against the Catholics fought mainly in Germany.

Although the ancient Greek and Roman classics were revered as links to the past, and any educated person would have instantly recognized the classical source that inspired a play like Coriolanus, the critic John Ripley thinks Shakespeare's purpose in staging Coriolanus may have been more political than nostalgic. He states in his book Coriolanus on Stage in England and America, 1609–1994 (1998) that Shakespeare's interpretation of the story of Coriolanus may have had less to do with bringing ancient Rome to life than it did in bringing the Jacobean era (1603–25) of London to life. The Jacobean era came after the reign of Elizabeth when King James ruled England. Londoners of the time would have recognized the theme of warring factions taking place in their own country as royal absolutist King James struggled against an assertive Parliament.

Coriolanus is considered Shakespeare's most political play. It pits the main character against the governing bodies he claims to support. And it shows the stark contrast between the wealthy (patricians) and the commoners (plebeians). Shakespeare's inspiration and plotting for the play came from the Greek biographer Plutarch (46–120 CE). Plutarch's book Parallel Lives (75 BCE) gives a full account of Coriolanus's social and political struggles and his eventual death. An English translation of this work had been published about 30 years before Shakespeare created Coriolanus.

The Roman World

Coriolanus is set in the early years of the Roman republic after the death of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus or Tarquin the Proud (d. 495 BCE), a brutal leader who was the last of the Roman kings. It is about a hundred years before the action in Shakespeare's Timon of Athens (1605–08), and almost three hundred years before the events in Antony and Cleopatra (1606–07) and Julius Caesar (c. 1599–1600), which are set in the first century BCE. Therefore, Coriolanus is set in a Rome that was not yet a republic, and where there was continued fighting between Roman city-states.

Ancient Rome throughout most of its existence was either in a perpetual state of war or actively prepared for it. Although the Italian peninsula was difficult to invade, there was an enormous fighting force ready for battles abroad at any time, so that Rome could either acquire new territories or defend existing ones. War provided natural resources and monetary tributes from outlying countries. The more battles Rome won, the more allies it created. These allies were important sources of any resource that Rome might lack, such as grain or corn. The distribution of corn is the source of conflict early in Coriolanus.

Warfare also aided Rome in spreading its cultural influence. Although not all of Rome's ventures were successful, multiple victories bolstered the reputation of the wealthy senators who declared the wars.

At the time of Coriolanus, the establishment of tribunes (elected officials) was in its infancy. Tribunes who represented the plebeians (commoners) began to actively participate in the social and political fabric of Rome in 494 BCE. Those holding tribunal positions, such as Sicinius and Brutus in Shakespeare's play, were likely still working out their relationship between the people and the military and senatorial leadership.

Home life and the rearing of children were difficult, even for the wealthy. The infant mortality rate was at times as high as 60 percent. With three out of four children dying, any surviving child was treated with extreme care and devotion. Male children were particularly valued because they could become warriors or political leaders. Many women also died in childbirth. This meant that many children never knew their biological mothers. They grew up being attended to by wet nurses or stepmothers. Therefore, Caius Martius and Volumnia have a very special bond.

Mothering in ancient Rome was a highly praised responsibility. Mothers of prominent families were devoted to advancing their families politically. Mothers were also expected to instill conventional Roman virtues like love of the gods, family devotion, self-control, and duty to Rome. All these virtues are distorted or lacking in Coriolanus. Oddly enough, as important as child-rearing was, mothers had no legal jurisdiction over their own children. For instance, in a divorce the mother would lose the children to the father. Roman women held no public positions and could not vote or serve in the military. However, the story of Coriolanus in both Shakespeare's and Plutarch's versions shows the importance of women to the security of the Roman state.

Roman Social Classes

Ancient Rome was a socially stratified society that recognized the rights of birth but allowed for some social movement:

  • Patricians: included privileged aristocratic class who inherited this position
  • Senatorial class: included the men who served in the Senate and their families
  • Equestrian class: included men who proved a sizeable amount of wealth and their families
  • Plebeians: included other free Roman citizens
  • Slaves: included those born into or sold into slavery; freedom could be purchased or granted in some cases

Contemporary Views

The Tragic Hero

Many of Shakespeare's tragic heroes, such as Hamlet, Othello, and Macbeth, share common traits:

  • The hero holds some high office or position of respect.
  • The hero is sympathetic to the audience.
  • The hero possesses a character trait (a flaw) that brings about his downfall.
  • The hero understands he has been his own worst enemy and has brought about his own destruction.
  • The hero dies in the end.

While Coriolanus (Caius Martius) shares some of these qualities, he does not possess them all. The American literary critic Marilyn French equates the tragic character of Coriolanus with the metaphor of the beast-god. This equation alludes to Greek philosopher Aristotle's quotation in his Politics (350 BCE): "He that is incapable of living in society is either a god or a beast." Coriolanus is reckless, self-centered, and separated from the people. Shakespearian scholar Harold Bloom, in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human (1998), argues that Coriolanus is self-absorbed and unable to exist in a communal context, "whether among the Volscians or Romans."

French compares Coriolanus not to the hero Othello but to the villain Iago in Othello (1603–04), as Coriolanus is pathologically obsessed with fame and honor. This obsession dictates that his conflict is more inward than outward. He is, in short, his own worst enemy. However, Coriolanus never admits to fault. Bloom also says Coriolanus has the most "limited consciousness." To balance the great weight of Coriolanus's shortcomings, Volumnia's character is the embodiment of conventional Roman virtues. French says that Volumnia portrays "the most moral, dignified, forceful―Roman cultural values."

Political Connections across Time

Coriolanus, with its focus on a leader who has only contempt for the populace, has been often adapted to criticize antipopulist governments―those governments that fail to be concerned with the needs of the populace.

  • German playwright Bertolt Brecht saw Coriolanus as a play about the loss of a working class to a numb leadership.
  • The play was viewed as either pro-communist or pro-fascist in Europe in the 1930s. Both of these groups were on the rise at that time in Europe. The communists viewed the workers or commoners as being unfairly controlled by the minority of wealthy elites. The fascists believed that democracy was ineffectual and that the preferred government would be totalitarian, in which a single leader or party would dictate the running of a society. At the Comédie-Française in Paris in the 1930s there was a famous riot between these two groups, since each thought the play was an insult from the other, the communists criticizing the fascists and vice versa.
  • After World War II (1939–45), the U.S. government banned performances of the play in American-occupied Germany due to its fascist main character. The Nazis, who held such contempt for many citizens, including the Jews and the poor, viewed the same character as a role model for leadership in the 1930s and 40s.
  • English actor and director Ralph Fiennes created a film adaptation of the play in 2011. This adaptation establishes the parallels between the character Coriolanus and brutal contemporary military leaders, such as German dictator Adolf Hitler, Italian fascist Benito Mussolini, Spanish military dictator Francisco Franco, and even Russian president Vladimir Putin. The fictional, tyrannical character of Coriolanus Snow in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games series (2008) is named in part after Shakespeare's character.
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