Act 1, Scene 1–2 Summary and Analysis
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,...
(The entire section is 905 words.)