by William




Discussion Questions

Scene 1: Coriolanus at War
1. What is Coriolanus' (Martius') attitude toward war? What does he mean when he keeps asking if he has come too late?

2.To what concerns or passions does Coriolanus appeal when he urges the soldiers to follow him to battle?

3. What aspects of Roman nobility emerge in Shakespeare's portrait of Coriolanus in this scene? What does Coriolanus value? Why would it be incorrect to describe him simply as a violent man?

Scene 2: Coriolanus in Rome
1. What does Cominius mean when he says that Coriolanus "rewards his deeds with doing them"? Does he mean it as praise? Would there be any dangers in the character that Cominius describes with these words?

2. Why does Coriolanus hesitate to ask the people to approve his becoming consul?

3. Why does the Roman custom require that the man who becomes consul show his wounds to the people n the public square? Why does Coriolanus disdain doing this?

4. What attitudes do the three citizens express? What do they reveal of themselves in this scene?

5. What does this custom that Coriolanus would like to "o'erleap" indicate about Roman politics, and the kind of city Rome is? Who rules Rome?

6. The citizens indicate that Coriolanus has requested that he speak to the people "by ones, by twos, and by threes" rather than "all together." Why does he do so? Would this not simply prolong what he regards as an onerous duty?

7. Why does Coriolanus refuse to say that "desires" to become consul? Does he not desire to hold this office?

8. One of the citizens claims that Coriolanus has not deserved nobly of his country because he does not love the common people. Is there any evidence that Shakespeare is sympathetic to or disdainful of this claim? Do the citizens represent the common people, and how are they presented in this scene?

9. What is the significance of the change of Martius' name to Coriolanus? Who or what is the source of his new name?

Scene 3: Honor and policy
1. Volumnia urges Coriolanus "to seem the same you are not." What does she mean by this? Why is it so difficult for Coriolanus to do so?

2. Responding to his mother's request that he be "milder," Coriolanus asks whether she would have him be "false to my nature," and claims that he would "play the man I am." Does his response manifest his lack of freedom, or is a sign of his freedom? Would Coriolanus be more or less free if he yields to his mother's request?

3. Volumnia implies that Coriolanus "strives" to be the man he is. What does she perceive about her son's character in making this observation?

4. Are honor and policy "unsever'd friends" either in war or in peace? How does the play demonstrate a conflict between the two?

5. Volumnia claims that Coriolanus derived his "valiantness" (his valor) from her, but his pride from himself. Is it possible to separate the two in this way?

6. Volumnia argues that it is honorable to dissemble when fortunes and friends require it. Is this the best argument to make to Coriolanus, or does it make it more difficult for him to appease the people? Can you think of a better argument?

Scene 4: Coriolanus Attacks Rome
1. Coriolanus wishes "to stand as if a man were author of himself and knew no other kin." In what ways is this wish a sign of Coriolanus' nobility?

2. When Coriolanus asks Virgilia to "forgive [his] tyranny," to what might he be referring? Is it consistent for him to ask his wife to forgive his tyranny but for him to refuse to forgive the Romans?

3. Coriolanus seems to take pride in "hear[ing] nought from Rome in private"? What does this reveal about him?

4. Why do Volumnia and Virgilia bring Coriolanus' son, young Martius, along with them to talk to Coriolanus? What effect does his presence have?

5. Why does Coriolanus yield to his mother?

6. Yielding to his mother, Coriolanus proclaims that she has gained "a happy victory" for Rome, but predicts that for him her prevailing has been most dangerous, "if not most mortal to him."Why does he foresee his death?

7. Aufidius thinks that in yielding to his mother, Coriolanus has chosen mercy over honor. Is he correct in thinking that Coriolanus' decision is dishonorable?

8. Why does Coriolanus not accompany his family back to Rome? Why does he remain with the Volscians?

Paper topics
1. Urging Coriolanus to appease the people after he has offended them, a senator claims that this is the only way to prevent their "good city" from cleaving in two and perishing. So too does Menenius urge Coriolanus to appease the people as "physic for the whole state." To what extent does Coriolanus' very presence in Rome cleave the city? Is his death the only physic?

2. Discuss the character of the ruling class in Rome as it is illustrated in the play in such characters as Cominius, Menenius, the patrician who also advises Coriolanus in the "Honor and Policy" scene, Coriolanus' mother Volumnia, and Coriolanus himself. Would this ruling class confirm Jefferson's reservations about the "pseudo-aristoi," or does it have truly good and noble qualities?

3. If Tocqueville had viewed this play, would he have found in it confirmation of his views on equality and ambition, or reason to reconsider them?

4. When Cominius says that Coriolanus "is content to spend the time to end it" (Act II, scene 2), he seems to mean that Coriolanus is content to pass his time in killing time. What does he capture about Coriolanus in this statement? To some extent this statement would also characterize the person whom Rousseau describe who is moved by "self-love" (amour de soi) rather than by selfishness (amour-propre), but Coriolanus seems in most ways come closer to the latter than to the former. Discuss.

5. Echoing Aristotle, Volumnia asks her son whether it is the part of a noble man to remember wrongs. To what extent does Shakespeare' Coriolanus live up the magnanimous individual whom Aristotle describes? To what extent does he illustrate the problems underlying magnanimity?

6. Does Volumnia prevail with Coriolanus in the way that Thetis as Aristotle describes her prevail with Zeus? Discuss the differences. How do Volumnia's pleas illustrate her son's humanity as well as his nobility?

7. Does Coriolanus' nobility and pride have more in common with Rousseau's description of "selfishness" (amour-propre) or Aristotle's description of magnanimity?

first Coriolanus reading

second Coriolanus reading

Guide to unit 2

back to unit 2