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Coriolanus | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Coriolanus | Symbols



In ancient Rome, the butterfly symbolized the soul and the very essence of a human being. The butterfly symbolized transformation. The Romans believed the soul lived in the mouth, and sculptures even depicted a butterfly emerging from a man's mouth. Butterflies were so revered they appeared on coinage to represent marriage and weddings. This view of the butterfly adds considerable importance to the scene in which Valeria recounts seeing young Martius repeatedly catch and release a butterfly. After he stumbles Martius is angered, and the next instant he catches the butterfly and crushes it with his teeth. Valeria views that moment as a sign of strength and resolve in the boy. But perhaps by killing it using his mouth, Martius is devouring his own soul.

Beast with Many Heads

Coriolanus refers to the general public as "the beast with many heads" in Act 4, Scene 1. This is a reference to the Hydra, a beast that could devour men. Cutting off one of its heads was useless since another would grow in its place. This is a fitting representation of the public from Coriolanus's point of view. There would always be someone present to judge him and remind him of his humanity.

Other Animals

Coriolanus refers to Aufidius as a lion he is proud to hunt in Act 1, Scene 1. The Romans viewed the lion as powerful and associated it with the Greek god Hercules, who wore a lion skin. This reference to a symbol of power indicates Coriolanus's respect for Aufidius. This admiration will manifest again in Act 4 when Coriolanus seeks out Aufidius to join with him in launching an attack against Rome.

Coriolanus also indicates his hostility toward the commoners by referring to them as "curs" in Act 3, Scene 3. He is effectively dismissing their criticism of him and reducing the people to the level of mongrels. Though Romans could have a domesticated dog, it was still seen as primarily a beast for hunting or protection—in other words, most of the time a dog was a necessity but little else. And Coriolanus's reference to curs is equal to a beast of little use that only exists on the scraps it can find.

Robe of Humility

This article of clothing only appears briefly in Act 2. It is an important symbol of Coriolanus's discomfort with anything that equates him with other men. He feels he is above their judgment and rituals and can stand most nobly when allowed to follow his own ethics. There was a custom in ancient Rome for a man considered for consul to humble himself by wearing only a toga. This was to show any injuries received in battle and to indicate there was nothing to hide, such as money from bribery. Plutarch mentions this approach in the book Plutarch's Lives.

In Plutarch's account, the toga is briefly mentioned. In Coriolanus it is given a different term: the robe of humility. Shakespeare likely borrowed this term from the biblical reference in 1 Peter. Being "clothed in humility" is a sign of faith and a willingness to serve a higher power. This is particularly important since humility is the one Roman virtue Coriolanus sorely lacks. He grumbles about the prospect of wearing the robe in Act 2, Scene 2 and even tries to dismiss the longstanding ritual. Eventually he dons the robe in Act 2, Scene 3 and stands before citizens for their judgment. However, he cannot bring himself to control his arrogance and lashes out at the citizenry verbally. This is an important moment: the symbolism of the robe is disrespected and Coriolanus's action foreshadows more trouble ahead for his relationship with the public.

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