Study Guide

Coriolanus Warfare

By William Shakespeare


Would you proceed especially against
Caius Martius?
Against him first. He's a very dog to the
Consider you what services he has
done for his country? (1.1.25-30)

From the very beginning, this play asks us to think about whether or not being a military hero automatically makes someone a good civic leader or politician. (Spoiler alert: it doesn't.) On the one hand, Coriolanus has served Rome by defending it against its enemies, so people feel obligated to vote for him when he runs for public office. But he doesn't exactly look out for their best interests once he's back in the city. When the play opens, we find out that he's partially responsible for the high grain prices, which means he's partially responsible for the fact that the plebeians are starving. Maybe he thinks their lives are only worth preserving on the battlefield.

What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you;
The other makes you proud. (1.1.179-181)

Okay. It's obvious that Coriolanus can't stand the plebs and thinks they're a bunch of cowards when it comes to warfare. But is he right? After all, the plebeians really are cowards in this play. Notice how they're always running away in fear and doing their best to avoid battle? And how all the skillful and brave warriors are aristocrats? Maybe the lower classes really are inferior to the patricians. (Then again, maybe they just haven't been trained in warfare from birth.)

The news is, sir, the Volsces are in arms.
I am glad on 't. Then we shall ha' means to vent
Our musty superfluity.
                                     See, our best elders. (1.1.248-251)

Here, Coriolanus says war with the Volscians might not be such a bad idea—it's a good chance for Rome to get rid of a bunch of "musty" plebeians by letting them die in battle. How efficient.

They have a leader,
Tullus Aufidius, that will put you to 't.
I sin in envying his nobility,
And, were I any thing but what I am,
I would wish me only he.
You have fought together?
Were half to half the world by the ears and he,
Upon my party, I'd revolt, to make
Only my wars with him. He is a lion
That I am proud to hunt. (1.1.254-263)

Hmm. Why is Coriolanus giving an enemy soldier (Tullus Aufidius) such serious praise? Because the dude is an awesome soldier. Coriolanus respects his enemy a whole lot more than he respects his own people. That's how important military achievement is in this play.

yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of
my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked
all gaze his way, when for a day of kings' entreaties
a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding,
I, considering how honor would become
such a person—that it was no better than picture-like
to hang by the wall, if renown made it not
stir—was  pleased to let him seek danger where he
was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him,
from whence he returned, his brows bound with
oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy
at first hearing he was a man-child than now in
first seeing he had proved himself a man. (1.3.6-18)

Ah, motherly love. Here, Volumnia brags about how she raised her son to be the most deadly warrior in Rome. She sent him off to war when most moms were insisting that their sons stay at home. According to Volumnia, the only way for Coriolanus to prove "himself a man" was for him to become a warrior. Hm. Between that and our mom telling us that if we didn't get into Princeton we'd end up living in van down by the river … we'd almost take the battlefield.

Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus:
'Come on, you cowards! You were got in fear,
Though you were born in Rome.' His bloody brow
With his mailed hand then wiping, forth he goes
Like to a harvestman that's tasked to mow
Or all or lose his hire.
His bloody brow? O Jupiter, no blood! (1.3.35-40)

Mothers and their daughters-in-law, right? Here, Volumnia fantasizes about her son's military exploits and describes how awesome Coriolanus' "bloody brow" must look on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Virgilia (Coriolanus' wife) is horrified at the idea of her hubby being wounded in battle. Basically, Virgilia is the only person in the play who doesn't think warfare is awesome. But does that make her a big ol' wuss, or the only person we actually like?

All the contagion of the south light on you,
You shames of Rome! You herd of—Boils and
Plaster you o'er, that you may be abhorred
Further than seen and one infect another
Against the wind a mile! You souls of geese,
That bear the shapes of men, how have you run
From slaves that apes would beat! Pluto and hell!
All hurt behind. Backs red, and faces pale
With flight and agued fear! Mend and charge home,
Or, by the fires of heaven, I'll leave the foe
And make my wars on you. (1.4.41-52)

"Shames of Rome"? "Boils and plagues"? "Souls of geese"? (Add those to our list of insults for people who text while driving.) Here, Coriolanus berates his (plebian) soldiers and threatens to kill them himself if they don't start kicking some enemy soldier butt. Then he rushes into the gates of Corioles by himself and takes down a bunch of enemy soldiers, singlehandedly. This works great for the battlefield—but not so great back in Rome.

O, let me clip [hug] you
In arms as sound as when I wooed, in heart
As merry as when our nuptial day was done
And tapers burnt bedward! (1.6.29-32)

When Coriolanus returns from battle, his friend Cominius gets all hot and bothered, saying that seeing Coriolanus is just as thrilling as his sexual relationship with his own wife. Ooh, steamy! In a war-like culture, the relationships forged between men in times of war are way more important than the relationship between man and wife.

And from this time,
For what he did before Corioles, call him,
With all t' applause and clamor of the host,
Martius Caius Coriolanus! (1.8.68-72)

After defeating the city of Corioles, Martius earns himself a new nickname: Coriolanus. Rome obviously values the military exploits of its leaders above all else. Gee, there's nothing like being reminded of your mass slaughter every time someone calls your name, right?

I shall lack voice. The deeds of Coriolanus
Should not be uttered feebly. It is held
That valor is the chiefest virtue and
Most dignifies the haver; if it be,
The man I speak of cannot in the world
Be singly counterpoised. (2.2.98-103)

According to the Romans, "valour" is the most important virtue in the world. Since "valour" is something that can only be demonstrated on the battlefield, the only way to be considered virtuous and honorable is to become a military hero—and that's something plebeians and female characters can never do. Turns out "virtue" is something that's reserved for aristocratic men in Coriolanus.

When he
walks, he moves like an engine, and the ground
shrinks before his treading. He is able to pierce a
corslet with his eye, talks like a knell, and his hum
is a battery. (5.4.18-22)

Here, Menenius describes Coriolanus as though he's not even human. When he walks, he's like an instrument of war (an "engine") and his "hum" sounds like an artillery bombardment ("battery"). Who needs drones when you have this guy, right?