Last Updated on May 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768
Cominius has just returned from the Volscian camp, where he asked Coriolanus not to attack Rome. Cominius is telling Sicinius, Brutus, and Menenius about how Corioloanus refused to listen to him. The tribunes persuade Menenius to go to the camp and approach Coriolanus as an old friend, but Cominius believes that he has no chance of success.
When Menenius arrives at the Volscian camp, the sentinels will not allow him to see Coriolanus. He is still arguing with them when Coriolanus himself enters with Aufidius. Menenius greets Coriolanus warmly, but Coriolanus refuses to listen to him. He gives him a letter, which he says he wrote out of his former affection for Menenius and almost tore up again. Then he departs with Aufidius. The sentinels mock Menenius for his assumption that Coriolanus would want to see him, and he departs in anger.
Coriolanus is in his tent with Aufidius. Coriolanus asks Aufidius to bear witness to how steadfast he has been in the Volscian cause. Aufidius agrees that Coriolanus has been scrupulous in refusing even to speak to his former friends from Rome. At this point, Volumnia, Virgilia, and Coriolanus’s son, young Marcius, enter the tent, with Valeria and other women in attendance. Coriolanus is moved by their presence and kneels before his mother and wife. Volumnia kneels before him in turn, telling him that she does not know what outcome she should hope for in the battle. She will either see her son led through the streets in chains as a captive or watch him trample on the city of his birth. She therefore begs him not to march against Rome. Virgilia adds her voice to Volumnia’s, as does young Marcius, though he does not appear to fully understand the context of the situation.
Coriolanus turns to go, but Volumnia continues, saying that she understands it would be dishonorable for Coriolanus to turn against the Volscians now. She is not asking him to turn against his new allies but rather to make peace between the two sides. Without consulting Aufidius, Coriolanus agrees to this with remarkable suddenness and enthusiasm, finally remarking:
Ladies, you deserveTo have a temple built you: all the swordsIn Italy, and her confederate arms,Could not have made this peace.
Coriolanus can be said to resemble Achilles in his pride and his anger, as well as his military preeminence. In these three scenes, a further resemblance is established when Coriolanus, like Achilles, receives three ambassadors. In the Iliad, Odysseus, Phoenix, and Ajax all visit Achilles together and make their speeches in turn. Shakespeare handles the three expeditions to the Volscian camp somewhat differently. First, Cominius reports his failure back in Rome, then Menenius is turned away in a peremptory manner. Finally, the successful embassy of women is allowed plenty of space for argument and entreaty.
Although Volumnia says that young Marcius, “your wife, this lady, and myself” are the “suitors” to Coriolanus, she does the majority of the talking. It is not clear what Valeria’s role is in this scene. Her main attribute appears to be her modesty, as Coriolanus pays her a questionable compliment by calling her “chaste as the icicle.” In line with this modesty, she is silent. Virgilia and young Marcius say almost nothing, and the entire burden of the Roman case falls on Volumnia’s shoulders.
Even Volumnia’s eloquent emotional appeal initially falls on deaf ears, and Coriolanus seems to be on the verge of leaving or dismissing his family permanently. Volumnia then proposes a solution to his dilemma in a long and...
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rhetorically skillful speech. Much of this speech consists of emotional appeal as well, but it begins with a practical proposal for a peace treaty between Volscians and Romans. This emphasizes a curious point: no one before has told Coriolanus exactly what they want him to do. They have asked him, in the vague terms employed by Menenius, to “pardon Rome.” Men of the Roman nobility spent much of their adult lives in politics, but neither Cominius, who has been consul, nor Menenius proves to be such a skillful politician as Volumnia.
Even when giving up his obduracy, Coriolanus exhibits a solipsistic arrogance that is almost comic. In front of Aufidius, he tells Volumnia, “You have won a happy victory to Rome.” It does not seem to occur to him that Aufidius might not share his feelings. The Volscian general’s terse reply to Coriolanus’s inquiry as to whether he would not have done the same does not warn Coriolanus of the danger in which he has placed himself.