Characters Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Caius Marcius, afterward Caius Marcius Coriolanus (KAY-yuhs MAHR-shuhs kohr-ee-oh-LAY-nuhs), a great warrior of the Roman Republic, a man of immense valor and equally great pride. He does not desire public acclaim for his achievements; his own knowledge of their worth is sufficient. He violently resents having to beg for the voices of the common people, whom he has watched flee from the battlefield in fear, and he is ultimately unable to stifle his contempt long enough to win the consulship. For his arrogance, he is banished from Rome. His alliance with Aufidius to avenge the wrongs he has received from Rome is a manifestation of his fierce pride. The dominant force in his life is the personality of his mother, who has shaped him into the confident, arrogant, and single-minded man he is. Although he cannot obey her injunction to betray himself to win the favor of the people, he is ultimately broken by her will and agrees to make peace between the Volscians and the Romans. There is, after this submission, no course for him but death, and he perishes, branded a traitor by both nations and taunted as “boy” by the Volscians.
Volumnia (vohl-LUHM-nee-uh), his mother, a noble Roman matron who has instilled in her son a strong sense of personal pride, integrity, and a streak of...
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Aufidius (Character Analysis)
He is the Volsces' preeminent military hero. Like Coriolanus, his identity is closely tied to his fame as a warrior. The two men share a long-standing rivalry; their personal combat in I.viii represents the fifth time they have met on a battlefield. Though their hatred of each other is intense, so is their mutual admiration. As many commentators have pointed out, Aufidius's speech at IV.v.101-35—when he discovers that his uninvited guest is Coriolanus—has strong elements of homoeroticism. "Let me twine / Mine arms about that body" (IV.v.106-07), cries Aufidius. The sight of Coriolanus makes him happier, Aufidius says, than he was when he saw his bride crossing the threshold on their wedding day.
Though Aufidius's attitude changes when Coriolanus becomes the popular favorite of the Volscian soldiers, he shows profound insight into Coriolanus's character. In a conversation with his lieutenant in IV.vii, he notes that Coriolanus is uncomfortable when people praise him—that it makes him uneasy. Aufidius suggests several reasons to explain what led to Coriolanus's banishment: his pride, a "defect of judgment" (IV.vii.39), or his temperament that served him supremely well as a warrior but that would be fatal in a political leader. Commentators have suggested that the reason Aufidius understands Coriolanus so well is because they are so much alike.
In many ways, however, Aufidius is very different from his rival. He's a pragmatist and a clever...
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Cominius (Character Analysis)
He is a consul and the commander of the Roman army. A sensible man, he generally speaks in a deliberate, cautious manner, though sometimes he shows a fondness for extravagant language. He is practical rather than idealistic, yet he is devoted to Rome and to his friend Coriolanus. When conflict develops between his country and his friend, Cominius is caught in the middle. His efforts to act as a mediator between them are unsuccessful.
Like the other patricians in the play, Cominius constantly fears that the delicate balance between social classes will collapse and that Rome will be plunged into civil war. When an ugly brawl erupts in the marketplace in III.i, Cominius scolds the tribunes and the plebeians. "That is the way to lay the city flat, / To bring the roof to the foundation" (III.i.203-04), he warns them. Cominius recognizes that the senate cannot impose its choice for consul on the common people; they must be wooed and won over. At III.ii.93-95, he tells Coriolanus that unless he's prepared to remain calm when he goes back to the marketplace, he shouldn't go at all. When Coriolanus says that he can't possibly play the part of a humble, contrite man, Cominius responds, "Come, come, we'll prompt you" (III.ii.106). Cominius believes that there are times when a politician must compromise in order to be effective and that given the structure of the Roman republic, the power of the common citizens must be respected.
Cominius's tendency to...
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Coriolanus (Character Analysis)
Caius Marcius Coriolanus dominates the play. He is loud and boisterous, a man of action. His physical strength and courage are almost superhuman. Coriolanus is the greatest warrior of his age. His personal heroism inspires other soldiers, and the men who willingly follow him into battle worship him almost as a god. But the play does not portray him as a natural leader, at ease with his subordinates or respecting them. When the Romans are beaten back to their trenches outside the walls of Corioles, he turns the situation around by cursing his men. He roars for "boils and plagues" to cover their bodies, calls them "souls of geese / That bear the shapes of men," and threatens to turn his sword against them if they don't "stand fast" (I.iv.31, 34-35, 41).
The qualities that make him Rome's most celebrated soldier are not the ones necessary for effective political leadership. He seems to understand this himself, though he is not an introspective man. Coriolanus's mother appears to be the impulse behind his decision to seek the office of consul. He himself is not adept at campaigning. He uses language as a blunt instrument, as in the passage cited above, not as a means of persuasion or cajoling. It goes against his nature, he says, to have to ask people for their votes: "It is a part / That I shall blush in acting" (II.ii.144-45). Menenius tries to coach his performance and reminds him that "the worthiest men" in Rome have had to put on the robe of humility and...
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Menenius (Character Analysis)
A Roman senator, he is a close friend to Coriolanus. He sees himself as Coriolanus's mentor and adviser. Menenius is constantly urging his friend to hold his temper in check, to appear humble in front of the people, and to moderate his harsh language. In part, Menenius does so because he understands the need for tact and the effectiveness of mild words. He also wants desperately to avoid an uprising by the people. He believes that "the violent fit o' the time" (III.ii.33) may lead to civil war unless Coriolanus answers the charges against him respectfully. Menenius knows the value of conciliatory language and frequently employs it himself.
His retelling of "the fable of the belly" (I.i.96-163) is intended to calm the angry citizens and persuade them to accept their subordinate role in society. As many commentators have noted, the speech is ambiguous. On the surface, it is an allegory of a well-ordered state, in which each social group carries out its assigned function so that the welfare of the entire body politic is ensured. To some readers it appears patronizing—a trite old tale to which Menenius applies his own, self-interested interpretation. His reading of the allegory seems to suggest that the Roman aristocracy is determined to preserve the present order of society and that the country will go on with or without its common citizens. It also may imply that Menenius sees the body politic only in terms of the satisfaction of physical needs and...
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Messengers (Character Analysis)
Roman messengers appear in six scenes throughout the play, sometimes bringing news of events and sometimes confirming or contradicting earlier reports by other messengers. The first messenger comes into the marketplace as Coriolanus is complaining bitterly about the government having granted the plebeians five tribunes "to defend their vulgar wisdoms" (I.i.215). Coriolanus is pleased to hear the messenger's news that the Volscian army is on the march. In I.iv, another messenger appears as Coriolanus and Lartius are preparing to attack the city of Corioles; he tells them that Cominius and his forces have the enemy in view but that the battle has not yet begun. In I.vi, a messenger reaches Cominius with incomplete information: he witnessed the Roman troops at Corioles being driven back to their trenches by the Volscians. Because he left immediately after the event, he's unaware that the Romans captured the city.
Brutus and Sicinius receive news from messengers on several occasions. In II.i, a messenger tells them they've been summoned to the Capitol, where the senators are about to meet. The messenger also reports that as he passed through the streets, he saw people from every rank and station paying tribute to Coriolanus, the hero of the hour. In IV.vi, a messenger brings the tribunes another piece of unwanted news: an earlier report about the Volscian army making inroads into Roman territory has been confirmed. Furthermore, he tells them, there's a rumor...
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Roman Citizens (Character Analysis)
A number of citizens who are partially individualized characters, but none of them is given a name. Their speech headings are first citizen, second citizen, and so on. These headings refer to the order in which the citizens speak within a specific scene. Thus the first citizen in I.i is not necessarily the same individual as the first citizen in II.iii, for example.
The Roman citizens have drawn a variety of reactions from readers and commentators. Many believe that they have genuine grievances. The citizens' charge about the shortage of corn—that the government has a sufficient supply in storage but refuses to distribute it at prices ordinary people can afford—is never denied by either Menenius or Coriolanus. The citizens also complain that the senate passes laws that favor the rich rather than the poor and that it holds them in low regard. Though senators in the play acknowledge the right of citizens to participate in elections and sometimes grant them special dispensations, they generally do so only when a citizen uprising looks as if it might erupt into civil war.
Individual citizens frequently demonstrate political insight and understanding of the issues at stake. In I.i, the first citizen sees the flaws in Menenius's interpretation of "the fable of the belly," pointing out that several significant parts of the body are missing in his version of the allegory: the head for judgment, the eye for vision, and the heart for compassion. In...
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Roman Senators (Character Analysis)
They serve as advisers to the consuls, whom they have the power to appoint. These appointments, however, must be confirmed by a vote of the citizens. The senators are all wealthy patricians, members of Rome's most prominent families. Their attitude toward the common citizens is ambiguous, yet they generally seem to recognize the limits of their own authority and to acknowledge the rights of the plebeians. One citizen, however, claims that the senators have so little concern for the populace that they will allow them to starve to death rather than reduce the price of grain. Further, he charges that they've passed laws encouraging usury, repealed statutes that placed restraints on wealthy people, and consistently enacted legislation that makes life difficult for the poor. Menenius, on the other hand—who is himself a senator—says that the senate is the source of everything that benefits the common citizens. And Coriolanus declares that if it weren't for the vigilance of "the noble Senate" (I.i.186), the plebeians would constantly be at each other's throats.
In II.ii, the senators address the tribunes—the people's representatives—with deference. However, they apparently intend to appoint Coriolanus to the consulship, and they do. In III.i, they escort him to the marketplace. As he becomes increasingly impatient with the tribunes, the senators urge him to moderate his words. When the mob arrives, the senators are caught up in the tumult. They draw...
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Tribunes (Character Analysis)
Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus are two of the tribunes chosen near the beginning of the play to act on behalf of the Roman citizens. Their principal function is to protect the people's rights by keeping them informed of what is happening in the senate and summoning them together to solicit their opinions. As the citizens' representatives, they are justified in regarding Coriolanus's hatred of the plebeians as a reason to reject him for the consulship. They may honestly feel, as Brutus says at II.iii.256-57, that the small mutiny they are encouraging will ease political pressures and prevent a more widespread civil war in the future. As politicians, they show a clear understanding of effective electioneering. They have a good sense of organization, and they make sure—through the aediles—that people turn out to vote.
But Sicinius and Brutus far exceed their duties. Most commentators judge that they corrupt the office of tribune. They seem much less concerned about service to the people than with maintaining their own power. Coriolanus is their enemy, as well as the citizen's, and they recognize this. If he were to be elected, their positions would be in peril, and this seems to be their principal motivation. They recognize that Coriolanus's arrogance is a political weakness, and they cleverly trap him into exposing it before the people. They appear jealous of the enthusiastic welcome he receives when he returns from Corioles, and this may contribute...
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Volumnia (Character Analysis)
She is Coriolanus's mother and the most complex female character in the play. From one perspective, she may be seen as the ideal Roman matron: a fiercely patriotic woman who has raised her only son to seek honor in the service of his country. Indeed, Volumnia proudly acknowledges that she would be willing to see her son Coriolanus killed in battle if it would contribute to his glory and Rome's welfare. However, her warlike ferocity and bloodthirstiness make many modern readers uneasy. Her preference for the image of blood spurting from a hero's brow over that of a mother nursing her child seems shocking and unnatural. She repeatedly expresses contempt for her daughter-in-law Virgilia's tenderheartedness. When Virgilia asks her how she would feel if Coriolanus were to die in battle, Volumnia responds that she would regard the noble reputation that lived after him as a substitute for her son.
Volumnia's relationship with Coriolanus has raised many questions among readers and commentators. Some believe that her determination to see him wreathed with military honors reflects her own desire to be a warrior—a role that Roman society would not allow her to assume. She is the first one to suggest after his glorious victory at Corioles that now there is only "one thing wanting" (II.i.201), that is, the consulship. Whether this is a suitable position for him is a question that does not arise: it would be the culmination of her ambitions for him. There are also...
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Other Characters (Descriptions)
He appears in IV.iii, where the designation for his speeches is the anonymous "Volscian." While traveling from Antium to Rome, Adrian unexpectedly meets Nicanor, a Roman spy. Adrian welcomes the news that Nicanor is bringing to Antium: Coriolanus has been banished, the Roman nobles are irate, and the political situation is unstable.
They are minor public officials who serve as assistants to the tribunes. In III.i, after Brutus and Sicinius declare that Coriolanus is a traitor, the aediles are instructed to seize him. Coriolanus resists arrest and strikes the aediles. In III.iii, following orders from the tribunes, an aedile assembles a crowd of plebeians and tells them what to say and do when Coriolanus returns to the marketplace to answer the charges against him. The aedile helps inflame the mob against Coriolanus. In IV.vi, a report about the Volscian army's renewed attack on Roman territories is relayed to the tribunes by an aedile. The tribunes scoff at the news and dismiss it as a rumor.
See Roman Citizens and Volscian Citizens
Allies of Aufidius, they appear in the final scene of the play. The conspirators point out to Aufidius that Coriolanus is more popular with the Volscian army...
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