Legendary figure and title character of Coriolanus, a famed Roman
warrior whose excessive pride leads him to dishonor and death. His pride
is part of his sense of himself as a warrior and aristocrat, a self-image
that he has acquired from a rigorous upbringing by his extraordinary
mother, Volumnia. When the changing political world of Rome—represented by
the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius—demands compromises that his pride will
not accept, Coriolanus is driven from Rome and joins the city's enemies,
the Volscians. Finally, when his mother persuades him to spare Rome, he is
killed by the Volscian leader, his archrival Aufidius.
Like Othello and
Macbeth, Coriolanus is a successful warrior who finds himself in a
situation—here, the political world of Rome—to which he is temperamentally
unsuited and in which he can be manipulated by others. Politically
unsophisticated and emotionally immature, he can neither strike political
deals with the tribunes nor resist his mother's insistence that he do so.
He is reduced to blind vengeance, but she blocks him in that direction as
well. Under these pressures, his great strength can only destroy him. His
fate contains the irony found in all Shakespeare's tragedies: with
greatness comes great weakness. Coriolanus' pride makes him great, but it
also brings about his downfall.
relationship with his mother makes him one of the most psychologically
interesting of Shakespeare's protagonists. He is entirely Volumnia's
creation, and thus Coriolanus is psychologically dependent on her good
opinion, as is demonstrated in both of their crucial scenes. In 3.2 she
bullies him into political compromise as his resistance collapses under
her disdain: 'Thy valiantness was mine .. . but owe thy pride thyself
(3.2.129-130). In 5.3 he cannot withstand another personal denial—'This
fellow had a Volscian to his mother' (5.3.178)—and he abandons his life
rather than suffer his mother's disapproval. She can manipulate him
because when she created him she deprived him of all motives but one, his
pride, which depends on her continuing approval. Though he avoids the
psychological trauma of her rejection and saves his honor as a Roman
warrior, by giving in to her he must accept an ignominious death at the
hands of his enemy Aufidius.
Coriolanus is brave and ready to go beyond his duty as a soldier; he is
clearly a noble figure. His name reminds us of this: he is known as
Martius through the first eight scenes, and is renamed in honour of his
military exploits at Corioles. The hero's nobility is made clear
throughout the play, in the opinions of both the Romans—friends like
Menenius all but worship him, and even the tribunes concede that he has
'served well for Rome' (3.3.84)—and of his enemy Aufidius, who calls him
'all-noble Martius' (4.5.107). Moreover, the play's final statement is
that Coriolanus 'shall have a noble memory' (5.6.153). However, he lacks a
genuine sense of himself, and Volumnia's inflexible creation becomes
increasingly dehumanized under the pressure of developments. He is
isolated from others—significantly, Shakespeare used the word 'alone' more
often in this play than in any other. Strikingly, he characterizes himself
as a 'lonely dragon' (4.1.30). By the time he has joined the Volscians, he
is chillingly described as 'a kind of nothing, titleless, / Till he had
forg'd himself a name o'th'fire / Of burning Rome' (5.1.13-15). He
wilfully sheds his connection with humanity. 'Wife, mother, child, I know
not' (5.2.80), he cries. However, he cannot distance his weakness. As he
anticipates his fall, he cries out, 'I melt, and am not / Of stronger
earth than others' (5.3.28-29), and he attempts to find strength by
imagining himself to be parentless: 'I'll. . . stand / As if a man were
author of himself / And knew no other kin' (5.3.35-37).
In the final moments
of the play, Shakespeare deftly reminds us of his protagonist's ultimate
weakness. Coriolanus protests against being called a 'boy of tears'
(5.6.101), and he cites his triumph at Corioles. 'Alone I did it'
(5.6.116) he cries, and this 'Alone' only makes clearer the nature of his
failure. His perverse dependence on his mother has made him unable to
recognize and accept his need for involvement with others—first the people
of Rome, and now the Volscians. The result is that his truly noble
elements—his bravery and his warrior's achievements—are negated. It is
because he has indeed remained a boy, emotionally, that he has been unable
to avoid his final calamity.
Shakespeare had long
been interested in Coriolanus' tale, as we know from his use of it as a
metaphor for revenge in Titus Andronicus 4.4.67-68, but in Coriolanus the
playwright made a subtle but important change in the character he found in
his source, Plutarch Lives. The ancient historian stated that Coriolanus'
pride was the consequence of his father's early death and his resulting
lack of guidance. Shakespeare, however, does not present his hero's
failings as a function of neglect, but rather as the product of a Roman
aristocratic ideal that is applied excessively. The commentary on the
potential harm in this situation is strongly made and is one of the play's
important themes. Though both Shakespeare and Plutarch believed
Coriolanus' story to be historically accurate, modern historians realize
that it was based on a pre Roman fable, probably Volscian, that may have
told originally of the local deity who gave his name to Corioles.
Lartius, Titus is a
Roman general. Lartius is a brave and capable officer who, despite earlier
wounds, campaigns with Coriolanus against the town of Corioles, and leads
the forces that join the heroic Martius after he has entered the city
alone. After the victory, 'busied about decrees' (1.6.34), he commands
the occupied town. He delivers a brief elegy when Martius is believed
dead, and an even briefer compliment after the hero has triumphed. He is
inconsequential thereafter, a minor member of Coriolanus' entourage who
disappears entirely after 3.1. Lartius helps establish our sense of the
Roman military establishment; he represents the solid virtues of the Roman
aristocracy in a play where the weaknesses of the class are more often
Lartius appears at
Corioles in Shakespeare's source, Plutarch’s Lives, but much less
prominently. Shakespeare invented his praises of Coriolanus, and, perhaps
to make the praiser a more vivid figure, endowed him with the crutches he
uses in 1.1.241. His spirited wager with Martius in 1.4.1-7 is also an
addition, probably to the same end. Thus, Lartius offers an interesting
example of the playwright's manipulation of a minor figure to develop the
Cominius is a Roman
general and the commander of the Roman troops fighting against the
Volscians at Corioles, and his friend Martius, is a general under him.
Cominius is a discreet general who contrasts with the hero. He executes a
sensible withdrawal in 1.6, before he is joined by Coriolanus who goads
him on to a successful counterattack. In the same scene we see Cominius as
the subject of Martius' bizarre enthusiasm. Excited by the fighting,
Martius embraces him with the fervor, he says, of his wedding night. The
commander accepts this as normal battlefield comradeship, however, and in
1.9 he praises Martius and proposes that he take the honorable name
Coriolanus. In 2.2 he nominates Coriolanus to the consulate. However, in
Act 3 he cannot prevent Coriolanus' obstinate pride from bringing about
his own banishment, and in 5.1 he reports that he has been unable to
persuade Coriolanus—now fighting for the Volscians—from his campaign
against Rome. Cominius is a representative of the ineffectual aristocracy
who cannot control events.
Cominius from his source, Plutarch’s Lives, but added the intimacy
of his relationship with Coriolanus, and thereby established him as a foil
to the protagonist. As Coriolanus' friend, Cominius helps us see
Coriolanus at his problematical best, early in the play. We recognize his
value to his fellows while we acknowledge that he is excessive in his
enthusiasm for combat.
Menenius is a friend
and adviser of the title character. Menenius is an elderly aristocrat who
is distinguished by his canny political sense in a time of popular
discontent in Rome. In 1.1 he defuses a riot with his clever speech, and
he establishes a rapport with the people's tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius.
Nonetheless, he cannot prevent Coriolanus from destroying himself
politically by refusing to compromise his stern aristocratic ideals. In
this respect, Menenius' actions are as futile as those of all the
aristocrats. Their failure to control Coriolanus is fatal to the hero
himself and almost to all of Rome.
capacity for compromise makes him stand out, and a Citizen calls him 'one
that hath always loved the people' (1.1.50-51), he nonetheless shares the
aristocracy's disdain for the common people. He thereby contributes to the
sense of a disturbed society that is one of the play's important themes.
He cleverly deflects the mob with his 'belly speech' (1.1.95-153), an
elaborate comparison of the body politic to the human anatomy that
justifies the hierarchy of Roman society. This was an ancient political
fable when it appeared in Shakespeare's source, Plutarch’s Lives,
and it was still current in the playwright's time. However, Menenius goes
on to dismiss the intelligent remarks of the First Citizen. He calls him
the 'great toe' of society (1.1.154), and he insults the tribunes as 'the
herdsmen of the beastly plebeians' (2.1.94-95). Like the other
aristocrats, Menenius is too proud to contribute to the welfare of the
entire city, and instead he contributes to the play's disasters.
After 1.1 Menenius is
merely a mildly amusing figure, in his own words a 'humorous patrician,
and one that loves a cup of hot wine' (2.1.46-47) ('humorous' here meaning
'temperamental'). He idolizes the much younger Coriolanus and greets him
with 'A hundred thousand welcomes. I could weep, / And I could laugh, I am
light and heavy. Welcome!' (2.1.182-183). He rejoices girlishly over a
letter from his hero, and fumes angrily when the tribunes belittle him.
However, after Coriolanus has joined the Volscians and is besieging Rome,
he goes to plead with him to spare the city. His rejection yields a moment
of genuine pathos and stoic dignity as the elderly gentleman, heartbroken,
turns away and says 'He that hath a will to die by himself, fears it not
from another' (5.2.102-103).
speaks his 'belly speech' in Plutarch but is otherwise unimportant.
Shakespeare made him a paternal friend of his protagonist to lend pathos
to the story. Despite Menenius' appearance in Plutarch and other ancient
histories, modern scholars recognize him to be entirely legendary.
Junius Brutus is a
tribune of Rome. Brutus shares power with Sicinius Velutus, another
legendary tribune, but since they are very similar characters who always
appear together (except for a brief final appearance by Sicinius in 5.4),
they are both covered here. The tribunes represent the common people's
share in political power, and they reject their foe, the aristocratic
Roman warrior Coriolanus. By orchestrating mob violence—and aided by
Coriolanus’ foolish actions—they succeed in having him banished from Rome.
They enjoy their triumph, but when the exiled Coriolanus attacks Rome, the
tribunes deny their responsibility; 'Say not we brought it' (4.6.121),
they retort, and insist that the aristocrats resolve the crisis The
tribunes are stereotypes of scurvy politicians and are scarcely
distinguishable from each other, but Shakespeare does vary their functions
somewhat, with Brutus dominant in the first half of the play.
of the tribunes' campaign against Coriolanus certainly threatens the city.
They are an example of the dangers that result when power is accorded to
the common people an important theme of the play. At the same time,'
however, they are concerned with the health of the city. Their offices
were created as a result of the corn riots that open the play. The riots
are attributed to the arrogance of Coriolanus and the other aristocrats in
the face of the common people's hunger. As Sicinius observes in the wake
of Coriolanus' banishment Rome enjoys 'peace / and quietness' as a result
of their victory, while the aristocrats 'blush that the world goes well'
(4.6.2-3, 5). When Coriolanus contemptuously asks Brutus, 'What do you
prate of service?' the tribune replies with dignity, 'I talk of that, that
know it' (3.3.84-85). Indeed, he seems to attempt more service for his
people than does the foolish and treacherous warrior for his fellow
aristocrats. Nevertheless the tribunes have a chiefly negative
significance in'the play's political world, for in a properly run
society—as Shakespeare conceived it—the common people would follow the
leadership of their social superiors, and have no tribunes. However,
Coriolanus' pride has promoted social disruption, of which the tribunes
are a result.
The social conflict
enacted in Coriolanus— taken by Shakespeare from his source, Plutarch’s
Lives—is representative of several such episodes that occured in the late
6th century B.C. as the Roman republic came into being. Though the story
of Coriolanus is entirely legendary, Brutus may have been a real person.
He appears as Junius Brutus in Shakespeare's The Rape of Lucrece, though
as a very different character. Shakespeare followed Thomas North’s
translation of Plutarch and erroneously transcribed Sicinius' second name
as Velutus, which Plutarch renders as Bellutus. In any case, Plutarch's
Sicinius is otherwise unknown in Roman legend, unless he is identifiable
with Lucius Sicinius Dentatus, who appears in other sources and is said to
have represented the plebeians, though at a somewhat later period.
Young Martius is the
son of the title character. After Corionanus has been banished, he joins
the Volscians and threatens Rome with destruction. His mother and wife go
to beg him to desist, and they bring the Boy with them. Coriolanus
addresses his son with a brief homily of the warrior's honor that he
himself has lost: 'The god of soldiers . . . inform / Thy thoughts with
nobleness, that thou mayst prove / To shame unvulnerable' (5.3.70-73). The
Boy speaks only once. With both courage and good sense, he declares that
his father 'shall not tread on me. / I'll run away till I am bigger, but
then I'll fight' (5.3.127-128). Coriolanus is clearly touched and insists
that he must listen no more to his family or he'll give in. Eventually—at
the play's climactic turning point—he does indeed surrender to their
influence, to which the Boy has added his share.
The Boy is described
in 1.3.55-68 as an energetic lad who would rather play at war than go to
school and who has a temper like his father's, which leads him to kill a
butterfly with his teeth. This image is effectively reprised when Menenius
describes the fearful approach of the Volscians—led by Coriolanus—who
advance confidently, like 'boys pursuing summer butterflies' (4.6.95). The
image contributes to the anti-war theme that runs through the play.
In 2.1 the Herald
accompanies the army's return into Rome, and formally announces that Caius
Martius has been awarded a new name. In honour of his extraordinary
bravery in taking the city of Corioles, he is to be known henceforth as
Coriolanus. The Herald speaks five grandiose lines and concludes with the
cry, 'Welcome to Rome, renowned Coriolanus!' (2.1.165), that is repeated
by the assembled crowd. Shakespeare provided the Herald to lend an air of
pomp and circumstance to Coriolanus' reception. This heightens the
dramatic irony when this same reception turns ugly later in the same act.
Tullus Aufidius is
the leader of the Volscians and the murderer of Coriolanus. Aufidius is
the oft-defeated rival of Coriolanus, and he vows that he will overcome
him by dishonorable means, since he cannot win in com- bat. Therefore,
when Coriolanus deserts Rome and joins the Volscians, Aufidius schemes to
kill him. After Coriolanus is dissuaded by Volumnia from sacking Rome,
Aufidius accuses him of treachery, and the Conspirators stab the Roman to
death in the play's final scene.
Aufidius in his source, Plutarch’s Lives, but from a single brief
mention of then rivalry he constructed the charged relationship of the
play. The playwright's villain is a warped mirror image of his
protagonist. Aufidius focusses directly on Coriolanus throughout the play,
and neither man can forget the other for long. Like Coriolanus—though
without his political difficulties—Aufidius is first and foremost a
charismatic warrior, motivated by wholly personal, indeed, egotistical
drives, and obsessively concerned with his own achievements. When
Coriolanus joins the Volscians, the fellowship of warriors leads Aufidius
to welcome his rival with the warmth of a lover. 'Let me twine / Mine arms
about that body' (4.5.107-108), he says, and compares their encounter with
his wedding night. The extraordinary sensuality of this passage offers
bizarre evidence of the misplaced emotional thrust engendered by warrior
decides to defeat Coriolanus dishonouably, and his grandeur becomes that
of a villain rather than a great warrior. He undergoes this change in Act
1, after the siege of Corioles and he admits that his effort 'Hath not
that honour m't it had' (1.10.13). In this respect he is a foil to
Coriolanus, whose failing is that his pride will not permit him to
sacrifice any aspect of his warrior's persona. Also, when compared with
the treachery of Aufidius, Coriolanus' betrayal of Rome seems the lesser
villainy. However, after he has killed Coriolanus, Aufidius resumes
something of his earlier nobility when he acknowledges his enemy's
greatness. He grants him a warrior's funeral and declares, 'he shall have
a noble memory' (5.6.153), in the play's final statement
Lieutenant is a Roman
officer. In 1.7 the Lieutenant receives orders from Lartius to maintain
control of Corioles, which the Romans have captured from the Volscians. He
speaks only half a line in reply, in a episode whose purpose is to tell
that the town has been captured.
Lieutenant is a
follower of Aufidius. In 4.7 the Lieutenant tells Aufidius that
Coriolanus, who has deserted from the Romans, is growing in popularity
among the Volscians. He regrets that Aufidius has permitted Coriolanus to
command troops, because Aufidius is becoming overshadowed. The Lieutenant
furthers the play's development with these remarks, for they inform us of
Coriolanus' successes and spark Aufidius' hostile replies, which
foreshadow the play's concluding episode.
followers of Aufidius. In 5.6 the Conspirators affirm that they will help
Aufidius take revenge on Coriolanus. They encourage him in his anger and
point out that Coriolanus is overshadowing him. When Aufidius accuses his
enemy of treason, they lead the mob in demanding Coriolanus' death, a
demand they then fulfill by killing him with their swords. Though the
conspirators are designated First, Second, and Third, they are
indistinguishable from each other, and their speeches are divisions of a
single voice. The Conspirators help to illuminate one of the play's
principal themes: the common people are susceptible to manipulation, and
are thus an unstable and unreliable component of society. On the other
hand, because they encourage—even goad—Aufidius to kill Coriolanus in such
an ignominious fashion, they also help demonstrate the inadequacies of the
Citizen is a resident of Antium. In three
brief lines the Citizen directs Coriolanus to the home of Aufidius. He serves
merely to advance the plot.
Volumnia is the
mother of the title character. Volumnia an aristocratic Roman matron, has
raised her son to be a proud warrior above all else. She dominates her son
for she has so thoroughly bred her own values in him that he is
psychologically dependent on her approval and cannot oppose her. As she
claims, -There's no man in the world / More bound to's mother' (5 3
158-159). Desiring that Coriolanus receive the consulate Rome’s highest
honor, Volumnia bullies him until he agrees to sacrifice his pride and
solicit the approval of the common people. This is one of Shakespeare's
most Machiavellian passages—3.2.41-86. However because Coriolanus is what
Volumnia has made him' he cannot restrain his proud contempt, with the
result that he is banished from Rome. When he joins the Volscians, Rome's
enemy, and threatens to sack the city, Volumnia again uses her influence
over him with an elaborate appeal in 5.3, a virtuoso passage that is the
high point of the play, dramatically. She convinces him to withdraw his
forces, though he knows this means he will be killed by the Volscians.
Volumnia controls her
son by withdrawing her approval: in both 3.2 and 5.3 she disdainfully
disowns him— Thy valiantness was mine ... but owe thy pride thyself
(3.2.129-130), and -This fellow had a Volscian to his mother' (5.3.178).
While her advice to him is sound it is only necessary because her
influence has made him incapable of functioning sensibly. Because he has
only the rigorous pride she has developed in him, he goes to his
destruction. He is a tragic hero precisely because his greatness is
mingled with his weakness. He is incapable of being anything except what
his mother has made him. The influence of Volumnia is thus central to the
Volumnia is correct
when she boasts to Coriolanus Thou art my warrior: / I holp to frame thee'
(5.3 62-63). Her upbringing of him has made him both the charismatic
warrior who becomes a great Roman hero and the inflexible aristocrat who
sparks the hatred of the Roman people. Her rigorous martial code is
revealed on her first appearance, in 1.3, where she delights in
Coriolanus' return to combat. She sternly rejects the concern for his
safety displayed by his wife Virgilia, and rejoices in the prospect of her
son's wounds, or even his death, for the sufferings of war are badges of
honor to her mind.
code—and thus that of Coriolanus —is seriously flawed, and this is made
clear in Shakespeare's depiction other warped sense of maternal love. In
1.3 her thirst for glory leads her to equate her joy at Coriolanus' birth
with her pleasure in his highlighting and she compares the beauty of a
mother's breast to that of a head wound. This obviously pathological
attitude helps demonstrate the unhealthiness of the rigorous aristocratic
ideal that Volumnia upholds, and it is part of the play's critique of the
aristocracy. We are not surprised when the results of Coriolanus'
upbringing prove catastrophic.
all of Volumnia's appearances save that in 5.3—her dramatic appeal to save
Rome—which occurs in the play's source, Plutarch’s Lives. When he
devised a powerful mother-son relationship to account for Coriolanus'
submission, Shakespeare not only added psychological weight to his
protagonist's sudden reversal, he found a basic component of his tragedy.
Virgilia is the wife
of Coriolanus. When we first see her in 1.3, Virgilia makes her strongest
impression, as she worries over her husband's return to war. She can only
respond feebly to the martial enthusiasm of her powerful mother-in-law,
Volumnia, who calls her weak because she fears for her husband's safety.
Virgilia has the inner strength, however, to refuse to continue her social
life. She speaks very little in the remainder of the play—Coriolanus calls
her his 'gracious silence' (2.1.174)—but though her role is small, her
modesty offers a distinct and significant emotional note that contrasts
with and emphasises the more strident tone of her husband and her
Virgilia acts as a
foil to Volumnia and makes clear that her mother-in-law's war-loving,
masculine nature is not the only one possible for a Roman matron—rather,
we see that Volumnia is not normal. Virgilia is also a foil to Coriolanus:
in contrast with her, he seems crude. This is especially obvious when he
returns from combat in 2.1 and he jokes with her about coffins and death.
He is clearly not aware of her sensibilities, which we have been exposed
to just a few scenes earlier.
Her presence also
sheds light on her husband in a subtler fashion. He doesn't understand her
or perhaps even perceive her clearly, but his recollection of their
farewell kiss, 'Long as my exile, sweet as my revenge' (5.3.44-45), is
touching, if also twisted. That his demure wife inspires such affection
suggests to us a softer, undeveloped aspect of Coriolanus' nature.
Virgilia stands for a world that might have been, and the latent presence
of that world makes the dramatic reality of the tragedy more wrenching.
Valeria is a friend
of Virgilia. Valeria is a cheerful, but somewhat insensitive young
noblewoman who visits Virgilia in 1.3. Her bland acceptance of the Roman
aristocratic ideal, combined with her charming vivacity, contrasts
forcefully with the melancholy of her friend, who is distressed by the
martial fervor of her mother-in-law, Volumnia. Valeria describes the Boy,
son of Coriolanus and Virgilia, in 1.3.57-65, and she is not aware that
she presents a disturbing picture of the Boy killing a butterfly with his
teeth. She does not speak in the three remaining scenes in which she
appears, having served her function as a foil for Virgilia.
Volumnia and Virgilia on their crucial mission to dissuade Coriolanus from
invading Rome, and though she does not speak, she is described in
5.3.64-67 as a particularly noble Roman woman. This allusion reflects the
greater role that Valeria plays in Shakespeare's source, Plutarch’s
Lives, where she stirs Volumnia to action. However, the playwright
preferred to have Volumnia stand alone, and Valeria's role remains minor.
Gentlewoman is an attendant to Virgilia
and Volumnia. In 1.3 the Gentlewoman announces the arrival of Valeria and
then escorts her on stage. She speaks only a single line and serves to
indicate the prestige and wealth of the ladies she serves.
Senator Any of
several characters in Coriolanus, lawmakers of Rome. The Senators appear
in 1.1 to summon Coriolanus to fight for the city against the Volscians,
and in 2.2 they honor him by nominating ; him to be a consul. In all three
scenes of Act 3 they fruitlessly attempt to calm Coriolanus in his
encounter with the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus. After Coriolanus is
banished, takes arms against Rome, and is dissuaded from destroying the
city by the arguments of his wife and mother, two of the Senators welcome
the women back from their successful intercession, in 5.5. These lawmakers
are ineffectual aristocrats, and their presence in the play serves to
illustrate the weakness of authority in a disordered society.
In the First Folio
edition of the play, the stage entrance at 2.2.36 designates the Senators
as 'the Patricians', and speech headings for a Senator at 3.1.252 and 259
specify 'Patri'. 'Noble' also appears in 3.2. Shakespeare knew the terms
were not interchangeable—they are used separately in 4.3.14 and 5.4.54-so
this minor carelessness simply indicates his aware-ness that the Roman
Senators were aristocrats.
Senator lawmakers of
the Volscians, enemies of Rome. In 1.2 the Senators confer with the
general Aufidius; two of them, designated First and Second Senator, do
most of the talking. They agree that Aufidius should command the field
army, while they govern the besieged Corioles, their capital. In 1.4 the
Senators ineffectually defy the Romans. The presence of the Senators makes
clear that the Volscians have a viable state, rather like that of Rome,
and their role as Aufidius' nominal superiors helps establish the
general's position as Coriolanus' opposite.
In 1.1, 1.4, and 1.6,
Messengers who are apparently military men (or perhaps the same man each
time), bring reports on the advancing Volscians to Coriolanus or Cominius.
In 2.1, 4.6, and 5.4, other Messengers who are apparently civilians (or,
again, perhaps a single person), bring news of events in Rometo the
tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius. The Messengers serve to announce plot
Noblemen of Antium.
In 5.6 Aufidius presents the Lords of the City, as they are designated in
the stage directions, with his evidence that Coriolanus has betrayed the
Volscian army, which he had joined when he was banished from Rome.
Aufidius' inflammatory speech rouses the crowd into a lynch mob, while
various Lords—designated as First, Second, and Third Lord—attempt to keep
order without effect. Like MENENIUS in Rome, the Lords are peaceable men
whose efforts to control the mob are ineffective when faced with a leader
who can manipulate the shifting moods of the common people. Thus, they
help demonstrate an important point of the play: that the common people
are unreliable participants in political life.
Serving-man In 4.5
when Coriolanus arrives at Aufidius' home disguised as a poor man, the
Serving-men—designated as First, Second, and Third—attempt to throw him
out. He beats one of them, who runs out of the room before Aufidius
arrives and the other two Serving-men withdraw. At the close of the scene,
two of them reappear to discuss the stranger. They pretend to have
recognized Coriolanus' worth from the beginning, and, comically, they
hesitate to speak before sounding each other's opinion. The Third
Serving-man reappears with news of Coriolanus' identity and of his
defection to the Volscians, for whom he will fight against Rome. The
Serving-men are pleased with the prospect of an easy triumph and welcome
the coming war. They make humorously greedy predictions of excitement and
In the opening of 4.5
the Serving-men fill an ancient role of foolish servants who emphasize the
nobility of their social betters when they mishandle a situation. The
episode may have seemed more humorous to its original audiences than it
does today, for the beating of servants was a traditional comic routine,
dating back to Roman Drama. At the close of the scene the Serving-men's
comical nature is more evident. Their pleasure at the prospect of war is a
sharp piece of social satire that keeps our attention on the political
themes of the play.
Citizen are residents
of Rome. The Citizens are chiefly important for their fickleness, as their
opinions of Coriolanus change repeatedly under the influence of various
other characters. In this they symbolize a political doctrine that
Shakespeare espoused in a number of plays: the common people, however
sympathetic as individuals, are politically irresponsible as a class.
The Citizens are most
distinguishable as individuals in 1.1. Amid a riot, the First Citizen
introduces the play's most important motif: the excessive pride of
Coriolanus. He recommends killing him, but the Second Citizen opposes this
suggestion, and points out the great services that Coriolanus has
performed as the military genius of Rome. He thereby introduces the
counter-theme and prepares us for the tragedy that will constitute the
main plot, as the noble hero falls victim to his own pride. The riot is
halted as the Citizens listen to the aristocrat Menenius justify the
powers of the aristocracy with a simplistic fable—his famed 'belly speech'
(1.1.95-153)—and though the First Citizen offers sensible objections, the
crowd as a whole is diverted from its original intentions. The arrival of
Coriolanus cows them altogether, and they depart in an initial
demonstration of their malleability.
Citizens serve chiefly to further the same point. They are manipulated by
the aristocrats, who influence them to vote for Coriolanus in Act 2, and
by their own representatives—the tribunes Brutus) and Sicinius—who
organize them as a mob in Act 3, and bring about the banishment of
Coriolanus. Lastly, in 4.6 some Citizens thank the tribunes for getting
rid of their enemy, but when word arrives that the banished Coriolanus is
marching on Rome with the army of the Volscians, they reappear to declare
that they had had misgivings about the banishment all along. With the
exception of the First Citizen in 1.1, the Citizens are not portrayed as
individuals and serve only as pawns, both of the tribunes and the
Aedile are subordinates of the Roman
tribunes Sicinius and Brutus. The Aediles serve chiefly as messengers for
the tribunes. They summon the crowds to rally against Coriolanus in 3.1;
they announce Conolanus' approach and are instructed in coaching the crowd
in 3.3; and an Aedile brings the tribunes the first report of the
Volscians advance against Rome in 4.6. They demonstrate the institutional
power that the tribunes command.
Either of two minor
characters that are petty officials who prepare for a meeting at which
Coriolanus is to be honored. They speak of Coriolanus' nomination to the
post of consul, and remark on the possibility that the general may be
rejected by the commoners of Rome because of his aristocratic disdain for
them. As the First Officer puts it, 'he's vengeance proud, and loves not
the common people' (2.2.5-6). They remark on the fickleness of the crowd
and on the obstinacy of Coriolanus, but they agree that the warrior hero's
long record of extraordinary service makes him more worthy of the post
than the politicians who achieve the office by currying favour with the
Like a Chorus, the
Officers are anonymous and outside the action of the play. They interrupt
the progress of the plot to provide a commentary on the merits and faults
of Coriolanus and on the Roman political situation. Their interruption
breaks the intensity of the political developments and thereby promotes a
more objective attitude in the audience, permitting us to see both sides
of the issue.
Volsce is a spy who
receives information for his tribe, the Volscians, from a Roman. In 4.3
the Volsce, named Adrian, meets the Roman, named Nicanor, from whom he has
gathered intelligence before. He learns of the banishment of Coriolanus.
The episode emphasizes the atmosphere of intrigue that pervades
Coriolanus' world, and prepares us for his defection in the next scenes.
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