In Rome, Menenius Agrippa is speaking to the two tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus. The tribunes complain of Caius Marcius’s pride, but Menenius retorts that the two of them are “unmeriting, proud, violent, testy magistrates, alias fools.” He continues with his insults and then takes his leave of the tribunes, at which point Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria enter. They give him the news that Caius Marcius is coming home, at which Menenius is delighted. As they talk of his triumph, they hear the sound of trumpets, and a herald announces the hero’s approach. Marcius enters, crowned with a garland of oak, and attended by Cominius, Titus Lartius, and an escort of soldiers. From this point onwards, Marcius is identified in the text as Coriolanus.
Coriolanus greets Volumnia, Virgilia, Valeria and Menenius, and they welcome him back to Rome. They leave, together with Coriolanus’s escort, to go to the Capitol. At this point, the two tribunes come forward. They speculate on what use Coriolanus will make of his new heroic status, wondering whether he will stand for the consulship, the highest political office in Rome. If he does, they predict, both they and the common people will suffer. A messenger then enters and confirms their fears. Coriolanus has received such public adulation at the Capitol that it is widely believed he will be chosen as consul.
At the Capitol, two officers discuss Coriolanus’s chances of obtaining the consulship. They both believe that he is likely to secure it, and one says that this will create difficulties, as Coriolanus does not love the common people. The other retorts that most politicians do not love the common people; they merely flatter them. Coriolanus is at least honest in his contempt.
The senators and tribunes enter with Cominius, Menenius, and Coriolanus. Cominius makes a speech praising the heroic deeds of Coriolanus from the age of sixteen onwards. The senate enthusiastically agrees with his proposal that Coriolanus should be consul, and Menenius says that it remains only for him to speak to the people. Coriolanus asks to be excused from this duty, but the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, insist that he must observe this custom.
In the forum, a group of representative citizens agree, with some reservations, that Coriolanus should be elected to the consulship. Coriolanus enters, still reluctant to address the people, attended by Menenius, who is begging him to behave tactfully. Coriolanus receives the representatives of the people with the bare minimum of courtesy, becoming more visibly irritated with each deputation that speaks to him until he is openly hostile. They confirm his consulship anyway, and he goes with Menenius to the senate house to be invested.
When Coriolanus has gone, the tribunes speak to the people’s representatives, who complain of how scornfully he treated them. The tribunes provoke the citizens to greater anger, leading them to recognize that Coriolanus has not yet been confirmed in his consulship. The tribunes then urge the citizens to go and revoke their approval of Coriolanus, even suggesting that they should blame the tribunes for influencing them in his favor. The citizens leave to do so, and the tribunes follow at a distance to observe the effect of their words on the proceedings.
In purely temporal terms, Shakespeare was as far removed from Coriolanus as a contemporary writer is from Julius Caesar. The events he describes happened two millennia before, if they happened at all. Nonetheless, in cultural terms, there are some parallels between Republican Rome and Jacobean England which are not always obvious from a modern perspective. The Roman mob,...
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like the London mob, was a source of terror to respectable people. Neither state had anything resembling a regular police force, so that when the mob rioted, there was no solution between locking yourself in the house and calling out the army. The mob was notorious for its fickleness. In these scenes, as inJulius Caesar, Shakespeare represents the mob as easily manipulated by rhetoric—even more easily than in Julius Caesar,given that the oratorical powers of Sicinius and Brutus do not equal those of Mark Antony.
As in earlier sections, the good-humored Menenius Agrippa represents the voice of reason. He is happy to treat the tribunes with the contempt he thinks they deserve, but he cautions Coriolanus from taking the same tone with the common people. Coriolanus’s worst flaw is not his pride, but his inability to conceal it. He is almost solipsistic in his refusal to accommodate those around him to the slightest degree. He detests the praise of others as much as their censure—perhaps more—and has to absent himself when Cominius delivers a speech on his accomplishments to the senators. His pride is pride in the purest form, completely untouched by vanity.