Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Coriolanus (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 969-1056).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, what perspectives are we offered by the ordinary citizens and by the patrician (nobleman) Menenius on social class and politics? How does Menenius’ analogy of the “body politic” help him to advance his case?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, what can we infer about Caius Martius (later called Coriolanus) from his comportment and words towards the plebeians (common citizens) of Rome? If his state of error or flawed quality is becoming apparent, what is it?

3. In Act 1, Scene 3, Caius Martius’ mother Volumnia and his wife Virgilia discuss him and his young son. What insights do these two women provide us about Caius Martius and about the temperament and bearing of a Roman matron ?

4. In Act 1, Scenes 4-10, how does Caius Martius manage his battle duties, and how does he handle the praise that comes his way in the struggle’s aftermath?

5. In Act 1, Scenes 2, 9, and 11, we catch glimpses of Caius Martius’ Volscian opponent, Tullus Aufidius. How does he size up his Roman enemy Caius, and what does Aufidius tell us will be his strategy for defeating Caius? To what extent does Aufidius delineated an ethic or set of values to set against those of the Romans?


6. In Act 2, Scenes 1-2, what reception does Caius Martius (from 1.10 onwards given the honorary name “Coriolanus”) get when he returns to Rome along with his fellow Romans Cominius and Lartius? How does he at first react to the news that he is to be made consul?

7. In Act 2, Scenes 1-2, what role do Tribunes of the People Brutus and Sicinius play in setting up Caius Martius Coriolanus for failure? What is their plan to bring him down, and what principle or ethos seems to underlie their determination to do so?

8. In Act 2, Scenes 2-3, how does Caius Martius Coriolanus process and deal with his task of standing exposed before the people to seek the consulship? Why must he undergo this ordeal in the first place? What turns the people against him even after they seem to have accepted his suit?


9. In Act 3, Scene 1, what complaints does Caius Martius Coriolanus rehearse against the plebeians and their representatives, the tribunes? What principles of statecraft does he set forth in denouncing them? What is the result of this lashing out?

10. In Act 3, Scene 2, how do Volumnia and Menenius somewhat expand the narrow definition of “Romanness” that Caius Martius Coriolanus has apparently held all his life? In other words, what arguments do they use to fight his intransigence when it comes to the common people and his own honor?

11. In Act 3, Scene 3, how and why does Caius Martius Coriolanus fail in his attempt to temporize with the plebeians (common people) now that he has lost their favor? What do Brutus and Sicinius have to do with Caius’ failure?


12. In Act 4, Scenes 4-5, describe Caius Martius Coriolanus’ entry into the Volscian city Antium (4.4) and then his meeting with Aufidius (4.5). What does Caius expect will happen, and why? And in what regard does the Volscian Aufidius hold his old enemy Caius, now that the man has turned his back on Rome?

13. In Act 4, Scene 6, in what state of affairs do we find Rome and Roman public opinion once it becomes known that Caius Martius Coriolanus and Aufidius are marching there at the head of powerful armies? (If you are presenting in class on this question, tell us a bit about warfare in Roman times: what would have been the typical way of taking down an enemy army and city?)

14. In Act 4, Scene 7, What becomes still clearer about Aufidius’ estimation of and plans for his former enemy Caius Martius Coriolanus? How does he analyze the career of Caius thus far, and what future does he project for him? Characterize Aufidius’ motivation with regard to this way of perceiving and treating Caius.


15. In Act 5, Scenes 1-2, Cominius and Menenius get a chilly reception from Caius Martius Coriolanus, but in Act 5, Scene 3 the embittered warrior relents. By what process does this change come about: how do Volumnia and Virgilia succeed where the men failed?

16. In Act 5, Scenes 5-6, how does Aufidius work Caius Martius Coriolanus’ personal destruction? What political principle does Aufidius embody as opposed to Caius himself? In what sense has the latter, while ostensibly the noblest of Romans, failed to show sufficient self-awareness of Roman values; to what error or flaw, that is, does Caius owe his status as the play’s tragic figure?

17. General question: T.S. Eliot remarked in his essay collection The Sacred Wood that while Coriolanus is by no means among Shakespeare’s most appreciated plays, it is nonetheless among the most properly “classical” dramas that the playwright composed, far more so than, say, Hamlet. What, then, constitutes the classical quality and design of this play? Consider the representation of the protagonist Caius Martius Coriolanus as well as the play’s basic structure and action.

Edition: Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake