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Coriolanus

William Shakespeare

Act V, scenes ii-vi

Act IV, scenes v-vii; Act V, scene i

Analysis

Summary

At the Volscian camp, Menenius is halted by the sentries, who refuse to allow him to see their generals. Eventually Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius emerge, but Menenius' pleas fall on deaf ears, and he is sent away, after enduring the mockery of the guards. When he is gone, Aufidius remarks that he is impressed with Coriolanus's fortitude in ignoring the pleas of his oldest friends; the exiled soldier replies that henceforth he will accept no more embassies from Rome.

At that moment, however, a shout is raised, and Virgilia, Volumnia, Valeria, and Young Martius, Coriolanus's son, arrive from Rome. Coriolanus vows to steel his heart against them but allows them to approach, and his mother kneels before him and begs him to make peace. She tells him that she will block his path to Rome: "thou shalt no sooner / March to assault thy country than to tread... on they mother's womb that brought thee to this world (V.iii.122-25)." Meanwhile, his son pledges that when he has grown older, he will fight against his father. Coriolanus, moved, starts to leave, but his mother stops him and asks him again to make an honorable peace, one that rewards Romans and Volscians alike, rather than destroy his native city. When he does not reply, she makes ready to return to Rome and "die among our neighbors (V.iii.73)." But Coriolanus has been won over; he pledges to make peace immediately. Seeing this, Aufidius tells the audience that he now has an opportunity to eliminate the Roman general.

In Rome, a resigned Menenius, unaware of what has just happened, tells Sicinius that all is lost and that the tribunes have doomed their city with their folly. Just then a messenger arrives, with news that the women have succeeded in their mission and that Rome is saved. The Romans burst into celebration and welcome Volumnia home as the savior of her city.

In the Volscian city of Antium, meanwhile, Aufidius and a band of conspirators prepare to dispose of the returning Coriolanus, who is being given a hero's welcome by the people of the city. When the general arrives and is greeted by Antium's Senators, Aufidius denounces him, accusing him of betraying the Volscian army by giving in to the Roman women and failing to take Rome. Coriolanus, predictably, loses his temper and curses Aufidius, whose conspirators are now stirring up the people against the Roman, reminding them of how he once led Roman armies against them. As Aufidius shouts at him and the Senators try to intervene, the conspirators stab Coriolanus, and he falls dead. Declaring that he was a great and noble man, the Senate orders a hero's burial. Now remorseful, Aufidius joins his men in carrying the body through the city.

Commentary

Menenius' humiliating failure to win over Coriolanus creates a pitiable spectacle. "You shall know that I am in estimation," he tells the insolent guards, "you shall perceive that a Jack guardant cannot office me from my son Coriolanus (V.ii.59-61)." But Coriolanus is not, in fact, his son; he is Volumnia's son, and only Volumnia can persuade him to show mercy. Sent away, Menenius must endure the taunts of the guards: "Now, sir, is your name Menenius? ...'Tis a spell, you see, of much power. You know the way home again (V.ii.91- 93)."

Coriolanus has stood firm against his friends, and Aufidius admits to being impressed by his steadfastness. But Aufidius does not realize, as the audience does, that the great Roman warrior will be no match for his mother; indeed, the presence of the other women, and even of his son, is purely incidental. It is Volumnia who does all the talking, playing on Coriolanus's love for her and for his family, describing the terrible position in which he has placed them. She asks, "how can we, / Alas, how can we for our country pray, / Whereto we are bound, together with thy victory, / Whereto we are bound? Alack, or we must lose / The country, our dear nurse, or else thy person, / Our comfort in the country (V.iii.109-113)." Then, she cleverly offers him a way out--an honorable peace, in which "the Volsces / May say 'This mercy we showed,' the Romans, 'This we received,' and each in either side / Give the all-hail to thee and cry, 'Be blest / For making up this peace!'(V.iii.136-140)."

In other words, she declares that he can be a hero to both sides. But, in the end, it is Volumnia who becomes the hero, acclaimed as the savior of Rome and cheered by all the city, while Coriolanus must slink back to Antium and explain himself. "Each in either side (will) give the all-hail to thee," she promises, as if he will be the victor, but, in fact, the real struggle is not between the Romans and the Volscians but between Coriolanus and his mother. Although the audience does not want Coriolanus to destroy Rome, we are nonetheless pained to see the great hero, dominated by his mother all his life, give in to her for the last time. Coriolanus himself recognizes the disgrace of his surrender to her, and he cries out "O mother, mother! / What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope, / The gods look down, and this unnatural scene / They laugh at. / O my mother, mother! O! You have won a happy victory to Rome: / But for your son, believe it, O believe it, / Most dangerously you have with him prevail'd / If not most mortal to him. But let it come (V.iii.182-89)." The hero's strength crumbles--Volumnia has mastered him.

In the final scene, in Antium, Coriolanus has recovered enough of his old confidence to mount a defense of his behavior, but Aufidius takes center stage as we watch the final working out of his jealousy. Aufidius knows exactly how to taunt his former adversary, calling him "thou boy of tears (V.vi.100)"--which, indeed, Coriolanus is--and then, after Coriolanus's death, Shakespeare offers a telling stage direction: "Aufidius stands on him"--having endured so much defeat in the past, the man finds the gesture irresistible now. This done, Aufidius can say honestly, "my rage is gone, / And I am struck with sorrow (V.vi.145-46)." With Coriolanus lying dead at his feet, he is finally able to bury his jealousy with his oldest adversary.

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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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