Act 4, Scenes 1–7 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on September 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 824
Before the city gates of Rome, Coriolanus prepares to leave, and he tells his family and friends to stop crying for his departure. Even Volumnia is distraught, and Cominius offers to go with him, an offer Coriolanus refuses.
Now that Coriolanus has gone, Sicinius and Brutus order the aediles to dismiss the crowd. They then encounter Volumnia, Virgilia, and Menenius on their way back from bidding farewell to Coriolanus. Menenius, as ever, tries to make peace, but the women greet the tribunes scornfully. Volumnia tells them that her son exceeds their worth as much as the capitol surpasses the meanest house in Rome. The tribunes hurry off, and Volumnia wishes that she could meet them every day to unburden herself of her curses.
A Roman and a Volscian meet on a highway between Rome and Antium. They establish that they have met before, and that the Volscian is named Adrian and the Roman Nicanor. Nicanor tells Adrian that there have been “strange insurrections” in Rome, with the plebeians protesting against the patricians. The nobles are angry at the banishment of Coriolanus and seem ready to deprive the tribunes of their power. Adrian says that, having heard this, he no longer needs to go to Rome, and the two of them proceed towards Antium together.
In Antium, Coriolanus accosts a Volscian and asks where he can find Tullus Aufidius. The man tells him that he is standing in front of the general’s house. Coriolanus resolves to go in an attempt to befriend his former enemy, telling himself that it is “fair justice” if Aufidius kills him. If Aufidius refrains, Coriolanus will serve the Volscians from now on.
Inside Aufidius’s house, Coriolanus’s shabby clothes make the servants think him a person of no consequence, and they attempt to turn him away. One of them fetches Aufidius himself, who fails to recognize his old enemy. Coriolanus tells his story as he reveals his name. He tells Aufidius that he may cut his throat if he wishes. If he chooses not to, Coriolanus will serve him. Aufidius embraces Coriolanus and accepts him as a friend and an ally against Rome.
Menenius comes upon Sicinius and Brutus in a public place in Rome. The tribunes are remarking on how much more peaceful the city is without Coriolanus when an aedile enters with news that a Volscian army has entered Roman territory. The tribunes refuse to believe this, but Menenius says that the Volscians must have heard that Rome has lost its most talented general. Other messengers then enter, confirming the aedile’s report and adding that Coriolanus is with Aufidius at the head of the Volscian army. Cominius enters and says that the Volscians are confident of victory with Coriolanus in command. He blames the tribunes for bringing this doom upon the city. The tribunes dispute this blame but are nonetheless worried by the news.
In the Volscian camp, a short distance from Rome, Aufidius consults with his lieutenant. The lieutenant says that the soldiers regard Coriolanus as having an almost godlike power. Aufidius understands that the presence of the Roman lessens his own prestige, but there is nothing he can do about this now. He believes that Coriolanus will capture Rome with ease.
At the point of his departure from Rome, Coriolanus appears more human than at any previous time in the play. Like King Lear, he has finally learned to consider other people, and his speeches are aimed at calming and comforting his friends and family rather than on venting his own anger. Indeed, given that he has spent so much of the play furiously cursing at the plebeians and their tribunes, he regards his exile with remarkable equanimity. It appears to be a relief to him to leave Rome. One curious note is that he speaks to his mother a great deal but barely says anything to his wife. Virgilia is a minor character, and Shakespeare does not trouble to give her much of a role beyond her devotion to Coriolanus and concern for his safety. Volumnia is clearly a much more powerful presence in Coriolanus’s life.
In going to Antium and entering the house of Aufidius, Coriolanus is essentially throwing himself on the mercy of the Volscian general. He does not frame his situation in such terms, but he does say that Aufidius has a perfect right to cut his throat if he likes. Aufidius suddenly abandons all his old animosity, demonstrating that despite their feud, he was less an enemy to Coriolanus than to the tribunes and the plebeians of Rome. Paradoxically, given his antipathy to the common people, Coriolanus is clearly a charismatic leader of men, and soon has the Volscians worshipping him. Aufidius is torn between his delight at the prospect of defeating Rome and his alarm at the idea that he is no longer in command of his own army.