Things to consider while reading Coriolanus
This is one of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies, along with Julius Caesar and Titus Andronicus. It’s based on an incident in the legendary early history of Rome — a narrative of loosely documented historical fact, almost certainly better established than the story of Titus Andronicus (which is chiefly Shakespeare’s own fiction, based on the mythological story of Procne and Philomela) and far less accurate than Julius Caesar. It is not considered a history play — that term is normally reserved for the unfolding sequence of plays relating to English history.
Coriolanus is thought to have been written around 1607 — after the death of Elizabeth — and is one of the few plays for which we cannot verify that it was ever performed. This does not necessarily mean that it was not: sources of all sorts for this period are somewhat sketchy.
To understand the setting of the play, it is important to realize that it takes place in about 490 B.C., long before Rome was an imperial city. It is still fighting for survival with other cities and tribes of Italy, among the the Corioli and Volscians. The office of tribune has recently been established to uphold the political rights of the lower classes (generally the plebeians) against the patrician and Senatorial aristocracy.
Here is a link to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s page on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production history of the play.
Here is a link to the Royal Shakespeare Company’s page on their production history of the play.
Here’s a summary of Coriolanus on film.
Coriolanus and what has come before
- It would be hard to find a play more unlike The Comedy of Errors than this one. It is relentlessly grim, and, unlike most of Shakespeare’s later tragedies, has only minimal intrusion of comedy.
- Compared to the situational impetus that drives The Comedy of Errors, how is the plot of this play carried forward?
Shakespeare’s Sources and Other Versions of the Story
- The story of Coriolanus is mostly based on the version in the Parallel Lives of the ancient Roman historian Plutarch (actually a Greek, writing in Greek, but on Greek and Roman topics), which you can find linked at the University of Chicago here.
- The story also served as the basis for a play entitled Coriolan by Heinrich Joseph von Collin, whose work inspired Beethoven’s overture by the same name.
Themes that emerge in the play (only a few of the many)
- What issues of loyalty are raised by this play?
- What do the Romans owe Coriolanus? What does he owe to the Romans?
Symmetries in the play
- What parallels are set up between Coriolanus and Aufidius?
- What parallels and echoes are set up between Coriolanus and Menenius? What does Coriolanus’ rejection of Menenius signify and accomplish?
Problems in the play
- Do you find Coriolanus at all admirable or likeable?
- Is the resolution of the play satisfactory? That is, is it commensurate with the way it has begun?
- Some theories of tragedy hold that the tragic hero is inevitably marked by some kind of tragic flaw. Does Coriolanus have such a flaw? If so, what is it? In his book Greek Tragedy, the classical scholar H. D. F. Kitto specifically argues that it is not a tragedy on the Aristotelian model, for what it’s worth. Whether that’s a particularly useful metric is a different question too: do any of Shakespeare’s tragedies really correspond to the Aristotelian model? Even many Greek tragedies are an awkward fit at best: perhaps the Aristotelian template is not a particularly useful one for literary criticism.
- The emotional content of Coriolanus is minimal: chiefly the plot turns on offended pride and the call of civic duty against the demands of an almost primitive, heroic-age heroism in which Coriolanus is bent on assuring his own honor and station. To what extent (if at all) does this weaken the play for you as a reader or viewer?
- The play is poised between an abstract exploration of military and political ideals and the personal tragedy of the hero. Where do you find the balance here?
- Does Volumnia have a higher purpose, or is she primarily a cold opportunist, manipulating Coriolanus for her own ends?
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