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Coriolanus

William Shakespeare

Act II, scenes i-ii

Act I, scenes ii-x

Act II, scene iii; Act III, scene i

Summary

In Rome, Brutus and Sicinius converse with Menenius as they await news from the battlefield. The two tribunes criticize Caius Martius, calling him overly proud and an enemy to the common people of Rome; in reply, Menenius tells them that they should look to their own faults before they criticize others, since they are "unmeriting, proud, violent, testy, magistrates, alias fools, as any in Rome (II.i.41-43)." While he attacks them, Brutus and Sicinius point out that he is hardly a perfect public servant either; indeed, he is better known as a wit and a gossip than as a great politician.

The two tribunes stand aside as Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria arrive with news of Martius' victory. While Volumnia describes the wounds her son received in this campaign, Menenius gives thanks, both that his friend is alive and that Rome is victorious over the Volscians.

Surrounded by his soldiers, Martius--now Coriolanus--enters Rome and greets his wife and mother. Then, accompanied by Cominius, Titus Lartius, and Menenius, he makes his way to the Capitol to greet the Senate. Left alone, Brutus and Sicinius worry that Coriolanus will be made consul in gratitude for his victories; they fear that, once in power, he will eliminate their office. However, they comfort themselves with the knowledge that the proud general is unlikely to go out in the marketplace and gain the votes of the common people-- votes that he must have in order to be consul. Indeed, his contempt for the lower classes will likely destroy the popularity that his battlefield exploits have won him.

With these thoughts in mind, the two tribunes make their way to the Capitol, where two officers are setting down cushions for the Senators and discussing the likelihood of Coriolanus becoming consul. The Senators come in and seat themselves, and Cominius rises to recount Coriolanus's exploits against the Volscians; the subject of his praise, embarrassed by the adulation, leaves the chamber while Cominius describes the battle and Coriolanus's great feats. Amazed by the account of his valor, the Senators recall the war hero and declare that they are eager to make him consul. They advise him to dress himself in the toga of candidacy and go at once to the marketplace, where he must describe his exploits and show his scars to the people and thereby gain their votes. Coriolanus begs to be allowed to avoid this custom, since he finds the entire practice demeaning, but they insist that he must do it. Observing his reluctance and disdain for the common people, Brutus and Sicinius plot to stir up resentment against him.

Commentary

The debate between the tribunes and Menenius is dominated by the latter, who aptly points out that Brutus and Sicinius share a number of Coriolanus's faults. Nevertheless, a number of Brutus' barbs hit home: "Come, come," he tells Menenius, "you are well understood to be a perfecter giber for the table than a necessary bencher in the Capitol (II.i.79)," a valid criticism of the silken-tongued patrician. But then, news comes of Coriolanus's victory and imminent return, and the patrician-plebeian conflict slips into the background; the tribunes stop their stream of comments in their adversary's moment of triumph. Their time will come later, and, for now, they must listen to the gibes of Menenius: "God save your worships! Martius is coming home. He has more cause to be proud (II.i.140-42)." So, too, must they endure the unbridled joy of Coriolanus's women and the general acclaim for the victorious general.

Again in this scene we are struck by Volumnia's somewhat disturbing delight in her son's wounds. While Virgilia hopes that her husband is not badly hurt, Coriolanus's mother says of her son, "O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for't ...I' th' shoulder and i' th' left arm. There will be large cicatrices to show the people, when he shall stand for his place (II.i.118; 143-47)." This is a peculiar attitude, to say the least, but the key to Volumnia's delight lies in her reference to "when he shall stand for his place." By "place" she means the office of consulship, of course, the highest political post in Rome, and her point of view entails an appalling ruthlessness: Her ambitions for her son (which are really her own ambitions) are so strong that she welcomes wounds because they will be useful in effecting his rise to the pinnacle of political power. Moreover, Volumnia's controlling nature has made her son dependent upon her: He returns to Rome a hero but kneels to her until she bids him rise, saying, with obvious delight in his new title, "Coriolanus must I call thee? (II.i.270)."

Even the tribunes admit Coriolanus's triumph, bitter though they remain: "On the sudden," Sicinius says curtly, "I warrant him consul (II.i.216-217)." But they remain hopeful that his faults will bring about his downfall. The two officers who place the cushions in the Capitol offer us a hint of the popular mood; they express a continuing suspicion of Coriolanus, combined with a sense that they must give him the consulship out of gratitude for his services. But the scene with the Senators exposes his political weaknesses--weaknesses that will prove his downfall. First, we see his terrible self-consciousness, which drives him from the Capitol while Cominius is extolling his virtues. Then, with the consulship nearly in hand, he cannot bring himself to take the necessary final step of going to the people for their approval: "I do beseech you," he begs, "let me o'erleap that custom (II.ii.134-35)," but the tribunes remain firm, and he reluctantly agrees. His words of agreement spell his doom, however: He says, "It is a part / That I shall blush in acting, and might well / Be taken from the people (II.ii.143-45)." And might well be taken from the people--words heavy with the promise of tyranny, to the ears of Brutus and Sicinius. It is the populace's fear of such a tyranny that they will use to defeat Coriolanus.

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A 21st Century Political Tragedy Set in Rome

by ReadingShakespeareby450th, September 04, 2013

In reading all Shakespeare by 4/14, I just finished my blog on this surprising favorite. In case you're interested in seeing my take:

http://ow.ly/oz1oI

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