Coriolanus | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Coriolanus | Themes



War was ever present in ancient Rome, and this play revolves partly around the theme of war. However, brutal conflict is not just with an enemy city, it is also within Roman society. War during this period, as in most periods of history, advanced a country's political and ideological influence. It helped sustain a country through tributes or payments made by the conquered area to the victor, natural resources, slavery, and access to trade routes.

Within the first act of the play, we see two different conflicts arise. The plebeians and the patricians clash over a grain shortage. The plebeians, or commoners, are filled with anger and resentment for not being treated fairly. They consider wealthy members of the society, the patricians, their enemy. Later in the act old enemies of Rome, the Volscians, are preparing an attack against Rome. No matter which direction the action of the play moves there is a warlike situation with death as the final solution.


This term is of Greek origin and relates to being overly prideful. The Greeks viewed hubris as defying the gods, since it placed a person's will and importance above the divine. The person committing a hubristic act or living such a life would suffer nemesis, which is downfall or destruction. Caius Martius (Coriolanus) is the embodiment of hubris. Menenius points out Coriolanus's self-exaltation in Act 5, Scene 4 when he says "He wants nothing of a god but eternity and a heaven to throne in." The literary critic Marilyn French says that "aiming for the superhuman, he [Coriolanus] finds humans subhuman." It is his self-absorption that pits him against his own people. It fuels his presumption he can ally himself with a former enemy in order to launch a vengeful attack against Rome.

Due to his arrogance and his self-exaltation over all others, he is punished twice. First, he faces death but is exiled. This begins the separation of him from the home he has known—his immediate world. Second, he faces death and is executed. In both instances treason is the crime. Coriolanus's hubristic actions place him—in his own mind—above Rome and its virtues and above his alliance with the Volscian society.


Ancient Rome regarded honor very highly—particularly for males from prominent families. Honor was a key element of a man's character since it could help elevate him to society's highest positions, such as the Senate. Honor, of course, is undeniably a positive quality, but the actions that are associated with achieving honor can be questionable or clearly negative. This is the case with Coriolanus and his mother. Sacrifice in battle is the highest honor a male can hope for. Coriolanus has repeatedly attained honor from battle, but he has achieved none in his diplomacy or treatment of the lower class (plebeians). Therefore, he receives the highest and lowest estimations from the public, depending on who is judging. The patricians and Senate adore him for the most part since he is valorous and plain spoken. But the average citizen only sees haughtiness and disregard for his or her own needs.

An important irony in the play is the much more honorable Aufidius, who is Coriolanus's sworn enemy. Coriolanus has no qualms ingratiating himself into Aufidius's confidence. Coriolanus is even willing to say he is still in allegiance with Aufidius after allowing his wife and mother to persuade him not to attack Rome. Aufidius, on the other hand, has understandable anger at having been used by Coriolanus as a vehicle for a battle of vengeance against Rome. He has commendable heartache at having lost what he thought could have been a relationship with a powerful equal. Aufidius is even willing to accept punishment from his Volscian citizens in Act 5, but his lords place the blame on Coriolanus. Readers see honorable characteristics in Aufidius that Coriolanus either did not display or did so only for personal gain.

Gender Roles

Women in ancient Rome held no political positions, had no military status, and could not have businesses. Their primary purpose was homemaking, childrearing, and making sure their offspring possessed Roman virtues such as perseverance, love of Rome, and nobility. In Shakespeare's Division of Experience, critic Marilyn French addresses the subject of gender roles. She says over time the divisions of labor according to gender in a society become "expressions of natural law embracing not only the world but the cosmos." She also states Shakespeare in his early work had negative feelings about the feminine aspect and the sexual power of women. In his later work he came to have serious misgivings about the male abuse of power and the "idealized feminine aspects."

There is a distinct line between the roles of men and women in this play, but Shakespeare cleverly blurs that line at critical times. Volumnia may be headstrong and passionate about her role as the mother of and driving force behind her son Coriolanus. She is just as headstrong about this as he is about warfare and rising himself above being merely human. In Act 1, Scene 3 she says, "The breasts of Hecuba / When she did suckle Hector, looked not lovelier / Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood / At Grecian sword, contemning." This indicates the praise given to aggression. Volumnia's overriding purpose is to exalt Coriolanus and see him rise to prominence in Roman society. Coriolanus admires no one more than his mother. The climax of Act 5 occurs when Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria successfully convince Coriolanus to spare Rome. Shakespeare blurs gender lines, with female characters rising to the level of saviors of Rome, undermining the male destructiveness and duplicity that has governed the play up to that point.

Even from the minor character of Valeria, evidence of the pride a woman can have witnessing aggressive male qualities is made clear. She recounts seeing young Martius chase and capture a butterfly only to finally gnash it with his teeth after becoming frustrated. Valeria serves no vital role in the play, but that observation alone helps to define the play's gender roles.

Interestingly, one can view Menenius as possessing traditionally feminine qualities, perhaps making him a sort of transitional figure between the two genders. His character always seeks peace and reconciliation. His professed love of Coriolanus in Act 5 when he pleads with him to spare Rome is equal in spirit to the appeal made by the women. But only Coriolanus's mother possesses the bond that is required to change her son's mind. In Act 5, Scene 3 he tells his mother, "I melt and am not / Of stronger earth than others."

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