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Coriolanus Digital Study Guide

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Study Guide written by Luisa Appolloni, Resident Teaching Artist, Education Department (Stratford Festival)


"Would you have me

False to my nature? Rather say I play

The man I am."

- Coriolanus, Coriolanus, Act III, scene 2

This play holds a certain fascination for today's audience. The main character is a hero, proud and unwilling to change or compromise. However, the story is far more complex than just that of a man and his relationships. War, politics and betrayal are core themes, but contemporary audiences will be fascinated by the nascent ideas of democracy and its inherent fragility. Shakespeare paints a cautionary tale in which freedoms are challenged by growing inequality, extremism, intolerance and authoritarianism. In the struggle between the rule of the elite versus the rule of the people, students will confront many issues to determine if the play is critical or sympathetic to the ideas it raises, and ultimately if there is room for moral ambiguity.

Curriculum Connections

Grades 10 to 12

  • All grades: Language/English (listening to understand, speaking to communicate, reading for meaning)
  • All grades: Drama, Music, Visual Art
  • Grades 10-12: Health and PE (interpersonal skills, conflict resolution harassment, violence and abuse, leadership)
  • Grade 10: Civics [Politics] (civic awareness, civic engagement and action)
  • Grade 11: Introduction to Anthropology, Psychology and Sociology (explaining human behaviour and culture, socialization)
  • Grade 11: World History to the End of the Fifteenth Century (conflict, civilizations, citizenship)
  • Grade 11: Politics in Action: Making Change (foundations of political engagement, policy, politics and democratic change)
  • Grades 11-12: Philosophy (metaphysics, ethics, epistemology, aesthetics)
  • Grade 12: World History Since the Fifteenth Century (conflict, cooperation, citizenship)
  • Grade 12: Adventures in World History (society and community, politics and conflict)
  • Grade 12: Canadian and International Politics (political foundations, civic awareness and responsibility)



  • Who he was, body of work, significance in English drama/literature
  • Dramatists of the Renaissance
  • Early modern drama

Elizabethan/Jacobean England

  • Social and economic structure (class system, playhouses, plays and players)
  • Values and beliefs (four humours, Chain of Being, etc.)
  • Conventions of early English drama (tragedy, five-act structure)


  • Imagery, blank verse, rhetoric

Themes and Motifs

  • Politics, society and self
  • Family
  • Power
  • Language and communication
  • War
  • Pride and honour
  • Arrogance vs. humility
  • Gender roles
  • Class and class privileges
  • Past vs. progress
  • Love
  • Rivalry and envy
  • Reputation
  • Words vs. action
  • Enemy and friend
  • Fortune and fate
  • Service
  • Theatre
  • Virtue, valour and worthiness
  • Poverty vs. wealth and privilege

An Interview with Robert Lepage, Director, Coriolanus

Why have you chosen to work in collaboration with the Stratford Festival?

Ex Machina is into creating new dramaturgical forms and new writing experiences and ways of seeing the theatre; trying things that haven't been done before. But that cannot happen without being grounded in the repertoire. The Festival brings us back to the fundamentals of acting and storytelling. 

We [Lepage and the Festival] have been trying to work together for a long time.  We have radically different ways of working, so it took a while - 12 years, actually.  The kind of work I do - "creation theatre" - usually isn't done with a lot of people. Typically I use smaller casts, rarely on an epic scale. We can do things at the Festival that can't be done anywhere else. We have actors who can perform in a musical in the afternoon and Shakespeare in the evening, and an infrastructure that can support larger work.

Both sides are excited about the idea of working together. I have always been a great admirer of Stratford. Great actors. Many of the company members are adventurous and look to take risks.  There is a lot of freedom to try new things.


Why Coriolanus? What excites you about the play? What can the audience expect from this production?

Coriolanus is a fresco about the pros and cons of democracy.  Coriolanus is an intriguing character; an interesting guy and you also hate him. It's a play that people return to; a debate about the workings of democracy. None of the parties is innocent. Coriolanus represents the military, despises the public; the people are trying to fight against the 1%; and then there are the tribunes who speak for the people. Every part of the democratic system is represented and all are crooked.

It is a political play, but doesn't take one side more than the other. It is a piece where you could have a debate after with your fellow theatregoers. 

Most great playwrights favour unity of space. Shakespeare is epic, cinematic in that sense. He forces us to change locations all the time; creates formal and architectural challenges. Forces the audience's mind to change place and atmosphere, doing close-ups, flashbacks in a cinematic way that today's audience understands. We are ready to read Shakespeare in a contemporary way; to zoom in on things in the play. We will use today's tools to help tell and enhance Shakespeare's story and paradoxes of characters. We will play around with time and space. It will be in modern dress but will not try to find the equivalents for today (no Trumps, for example).



Ask students:

  • What do you expect to see on the stage of the Avon Theatre at the Stratford Festival? Have each student make a list of predictions, and save them. After your Stratford trip, revisit the those predictions to see how they compared to the actual production.
  • What is democracy? What are the benefits of this system? What are its drawbacks?
  • What do you look for in a leader?
  • Should a politician stay true to his/her nature or change to suit the needs of the people?




This exercise provides an opportunity for students to critically analyse Coriolanus's first speech to the citizens of Rome. Students will explore Shakespeare's use of antithesis to intensify dramatic effect and gain insights into his personality.



1. Coriolanus, the patrician (upper class), makes use of antithesis as he scorns the plebeians (ordinary people) of Rome. Have the students look at Act I, scene 1: "What would you have, you curs…feed on one another?"

2. Working in pairs, have the students create a list of the antithetical words and phrases (e.g., peace/war).

3. Then have each pair speak the speech to each other, alternating lines or phrases. Emphasize the insults and play up the antithesis.

Debriefing Questions:

  • Discuss how Shakespeare uses antithesis to intensify dramatic effect and to point out Coriolanus's personality. What did you discover while doing this activity?
  • Imagine you are a citizen of Rome (a plebeian) who has been conscripted into a war against the Volsces (or Volscians). You are led by a Roman patrician, whom you believe has been keeping back food while you are near starvation. What would be your reaction and your reply to Martius's speech?
  • Martius is angered that his class privilege is under attack and expresses nothing but contempt. If you were a journalist, how might you report this? Would you try to remain as unbiased as possible, or would you take issue with some of the points he raises in his speech?




This exercise will enable students to critically assess leadership styles by comparing and contrasting rhetorical devices in Shakespeare's Henry V and Coriolanus. The students will explore and identify techniques used to make convincing arguments.


  • Handouts of two speeches. The first, from Henry V, is King Henry's speech to his soldiers as they advance on the city of Harfleur. The other, from Coriolanus, is spoken by Martius (later named Coriolanus) as he tries to rally his retreating soldiers into fighting their enemy, the Volsces.


1. Hand out copies of the two speeches to the students. Read the speeches aloud, or YouTube them if you prefer to get a sense of the scope and magnitude of what is being said.

2. Working in pairs, have the students read through the speeches together and go over any words or phrases that are new to them for meaning and clarity.

3. Students will then compare and contrast the leadership style in the two speeches.

4.Things to look for:

a. Language of war

b. The power of rhetoric (speechmaking) evokes different emotions. Political leaders use certain techniques to elicit a response. These include (but are not limited to) the following:

i.      Rhythm

ii.      Rhyme

iii.      Alliteration

iv.      Rhetorical questions

v.      Exaggeration

vi.      Antithesis

vii.      Repetition

5. Have the students jot down their findings, paying close attention to how the leadership styles differ and the effects they might have on the soldiers.

6. Next have the students choose passages from each of the speeches and read them aloud to one another, employing a particular vocal style of delivery (e.g., playing it truthfully, sarcastically, humorously, etc.).

7. Then have the teams come together in a round-table discussion to share their findings.

Debriefing Questions:

  • If you were a soldier listening to each leader's call to arms, how would you react? Who is the more persuasive in your opinion and why?
  • What did you notice about the tones of each of the speeches? What tactics did they employ?
  • Martius (Coriolanus) is an impressive war hero, known for his military prowess, but has a temper and suffers no fools. Does that matter when you are fighting a war? What qualities would you look for in a military leader today?



Ask students:

  • Coriolanus is a complex play that touches upon war, politics, family and betrayal and much more. What do you think is the play's central message?
  • Robert Lepage is an internationally renowned actor, playwright, film and stage director. How did his use of multidisciplinary art and media forms contribute to your understanding of the play?
  • Discuss the role of the women in this play and their impact on the male characters, particularly Coriolanus.
  • Shakespeare and his plays have influenced many other writers. Why do you think the dictator in Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games is named Coriolanus Snow? If you've read the trilogy or seen the movies, what traits does he have in common with Shakespeare's Coriolanus?
  • Does this play resonate with today's politics?
  • Did your sympathies shift between the plebeians and patricians at various moments throughout the play? If so, why?



Students will analyse a pivotal speech in Coriolanus to explain and evaluate how they communicate themes and issues. They will use a variety of drama conventions to help identify and incorporate these ideas in the text.



1. Hand out copies of Volumnia's speech from Act V, scene 3, making a plea to her son not to invade Rome.

2. Stand in a circle and read aloud, with each person taking a line each.

3. Review all words and phrases that are unfamiliar and check for understanding.

4. Divide the class into five groups. Each group will be assigned a section of the speech.

5. Have each group go over their section and read aloud the text several times for clarity and meaning.

6. The students will determine the types of persuasive arguments Volumnia is making in their section and stage their portion of the scene. Depending on how many students there are per group, ensure they know who is in the scene while Volumnia is speaking: Coriolanus, Aufidius, Volscian soldiers, Virgilia, Valeria and young Martius.

7. Students may create a choral piece, using many voices (as well as different tones of voices) in their group to be persuasive - or have one play Volumnia while the others play the other characters, reacting to what is being said and done.

8. Rehearse the separate sections of the piece, then have the entire class come together and present their sections in order.

Debriefing Questions:

  • What strategies does Volumnia use to convince her son to change his mind?
  • How does Coriolanus react while listening to his mother's plea?
  • What did you discover when you got the speech up on its feet and staged it? Did your perception of what the text was about shift when you began moving?
  • Do you believe Volumnia is responsible for creating a monster (her son) and ultimately the cause of his death? Give reasons.
  • What are the psychological complexities between this mother-son relationship?
  • After Coriolanus holds his mother's hand, the women say nothing further. Give your reasons for why Shakespeare did this.





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1979 (USA) Coriolanus. Directed by Wilford Leach; starring Morgan Freeman, CCH Pounder and Denzel Washington.

1984 (UK) The Tragedy of Coriolanus. Directed by Elijah Moshinsky; starring Irene Worth, Alan Howard and Joss Ackland.

2011 (UK) Coriolanus. Directed by Ralph Fiennes; starring Ralph Fiennes, Gerard Butler, Jessica Chastain and Vanessa Redgrave.

2014 (UK) The National Theatre Live: Coriolanus. Directed by Tim Van Someren; starring Tom Hiddleston, Mark Gatiss and Deborah Findlay.


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