Act 1, Scene 1–2 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 904
On a street in Rome, some angry citizens have armed themselves with clubs and sticks. They are rioting because the patrician ruling class, led by the senate, will not give them access to the city’s stores of grain in the midst of a famine. One of them asks the others if they are resolved to die rather than to starve and if they agree that “Caius Marcius is chief enemy to the people.” He receives general assent, except from one citizen, who says that Caius Marcius has served Rome well and without seeking personal reward.
As they are arguing this point, Menenius Agrippa enters. He asks what the citizens are doing carrying these makeshift weapons. He tries to dissuade them from attacking the senate or any of the patricians, saying that the famine which has driven them to desperation has been caused by the gods—not by the patricians, who are doing their best to alleviate the general suffering.
When the citizens refuse to believe Menenius, he tells them a story. He says there was a time when all the other parts of the body rebelled against the belly, accusing it of being idle and unproductive while they worked. The belly replied that it was “the store-house and the shop” of the body, allowing every other part to operate. In Rome, he concludes, the senators are the belly, and the citizens he is addressing are “the mutinous members.” Every benefit they receive comes to them from the senate.
At this point, Caius Marcius enters. He treats the citizens with arrogant disdain, saying the patricians have been too merciful in their dealings with the rabble and that he would prefer to kill them all. As he is telling them to go home, a messenger enters to tell him that the neighboring Volscian tribe is armed for battle, ready to attack Rome.
A group of senators enters, along with the tribunes of the people, Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus. The senators ask Caius Marcius about the Volscians, and he praises their commander, Tullus Aufidius, as a lion that he is “proud to hunt.” The senators ask Caius Marcius to aid Cominius, a consul, in resisting the Volscians. They leave to make preparations for battle, and the citizens disperse, leaving only the two tribunes. They complain of Caius Marcius’s pride and wonder at the fact that he has agreed to serve under the command of another leader, Cominius. However, they decide that if the coming battle goes badly, Cominius will take the blame, whereas if it goes well, Caius Marcius will receive the credit.
In the senate house of the town of Corioli, Tullus Aufidius is discussing the upcoming campaign with some Volscian senators. Aufidius believes that the Romans have learned how the Volscians intend to proceed with their campaign and are well-prepared for them. They agree that Aufidius will go out and join the troops as quickly as possible, while the senators make arrangements for the defense of Corioli. As he leaves, Aufidius mentions that he has a pact with Caius Marcius that the next time the two of them meet, they will fight to the death.
The play is set in the fifth century BCE, during the early days of the Roman Republic. Coriolanus is mentioned in the historical writings of Livy and Plutarch and was accepted in Shakespeare’s time as an historical figure, but very little is known about him, and his existence is now questioned. Like much of the early history of Rome, the story Shakespeare relates is some combination of history and legend. Coriolanus is generally accepted to be one of Shakespeare’s later works, written in 1605 at the earliest.
Like Julius Caesar, Coriolanus begins with the Roman mob, which was notoriously fickle and unruly. In Julius Caesar, the plebeians are rebuked for their show of support for Caesar, but they have precisely the opposite attitude to Caius Marcius, who treats them with open contempt. His fellow patrician, Menenius Agrippa is more sympathetic, but still condescending in his attitude, telling the plebeians to go home and trust their social superiors to take care of them. He even relates the type of moral fable that a nurse might tell a fractious child.
The theory that William Shakespeare was not the true author of the plays attributed to him is now generally regarded as a quaint curiosity. However, in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, hundreds of books and articles were published claiming that Shakespeare’s works were written by Sir Francis Bacon, the Earl of Oxford, or one of Shakespeare’s other contemporaries. Mark Twain, Sigmund Freud, and many other eminent people believed such theories. One of their main arguments was that Shakespeare always seems to have the perspective of an aristocrat. The argument goes that when Shakespeare depicts nobles, of whatever nationality or historical period, interacting with common people, his sympathies always seem to be with the former. Act 1, Scene 1 of Coriolanus is precisely the type of excerpt such critics used to illustrate their point. Caius Marcius treats the plebeians as worthless dross, unworthy of a moment’s consideration, and even the sympathetic Menenius regards them as foolish, disobedient children. This does not, of course, prove that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by some shadowy aristocrat. Nor can it be said for certain whether Shakespeare identified more with the aristocracy or with the working classes.