Act 5, Scenes 4–6 Summary and Analysis
Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 780
Menenius and Sicinius are speaking in a public place in Rome. Menenius, angered by his own failure to influence his old friend, tells the tribune that the embassy of women has no chance of prevailing with Coriolanus, saying that “there is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger.”
Two messengers enter in quick succession. The first says that the plebeians are in revolt, and this time the tribunes are the objects of their rage. They have captured Brutus and are threatening to kill him if Volumnia’s embassy to Coriolanus is unsuccessful. The second messenger, however, brings the good news that “the ladies have prevailed.” Sicinius and Menenius are both relieved and overjoyed.
Volumnia and her companions are given a heroes’ welcome on their return to Rome. They are honored by the senate and attended with drums and trumpets.
Aufidius is back in Antium. Furious at Coriolanus’s betrayal in making a peace treaty with Rome, he has initiated a conspiracy to kill Coriolanus, which he discusses with three unnamed fellow conspirators. The lords of the city enter, followed by Coriolanus, who says that he remains as much as ever at the service of the Volscians and that he has negotiated the peace treaty on their behalf. He has even brought back spoils that will pay a third of the expense of putting the army in the field. Aufidius denounces Coriolanus as a traitor, who has only sought peace with Rome because the tears of some women have broken his resolve. He calls Coriolanus a “boy of tears,” a phrase which makes Coriolanus fly into a rage and remind them all of how many Volscians he has killed in his career.
Infuriated by this boast, the Volscian people also begin to shout about how many of their families and friends Coriolanus has killed. The conspirators stir up the crowd still further, while the lords of the city try to calm the mob and protect Coriolanus. Their efforts are in vain, and the conspirators draw their swords and kill Coriolanus. Aufidius then stands on his dead body. He says that he will answer to the senate for his part in the killing, but he adds that Coriolanus was a danger to the Volscians and that they should rejoice at his death. Finally, he says that his rage against Coriolanus is gone, and he is “struck with sorrow.” Despite Coriolanus’s slaughter of so many Volscians, now that he is dead, they can remember the nobility of his character.
Coriolanus the play and Coriolanus the man both meet their ends somewhat abruptly. The skeptical reader or audience member might wonder how it is that the man who single-handedly fought against the entire city of Corioli and emerged victorious can now be dispatched so quickly by a few conspirators in Antium. Presumably the element of surprise is critical. The ignominy of Coriolanus’s death is important, however. He is not killed in single combat with Aufidius, a general of his own social standing. It is conspirators emerging from the crowd—and who have stirred up the crowd against him, just as the tribunes did with the Roman mob—who finally kill the veteran warrior. Even the villainous Macbeth, in a tragedy of similar date, is given the honor of dying in battle, fighting a man of his own rank. It is an ironic end to the career of perhaps Shakespeare’s proudest tragic hero that he meets his death through such underhanded and dishonorable means.
Much has been written about the final speeches in Shakespeare’s plays, which often have the function of restoring social order and which are generally delivered by the most authoritative surviving character. In this case, Aufidius delivers a eulogy for Coriolanus, a speech which may remind the audience of Fortinbras’s closing speech in Hamlet, praising the prince he did not know. Even though Aufidius knew Coriolanus all too well, his words are much vaguer than those of Fortinbras, merely saying that Coriolanus “shall have a noble memory.” There is another similarity, however, which makes for an uneasy conclusion to the play. Fortinbras spoke as the conqueror and next king of Denmark. By contrast, Aufidius’s speech restores order only to Antium, not to Rome. The Romans have yet to learn that Coriolanus is dead, and the peace treaty he negotiated is presumably void. The Republic is vulnerable without Coriolanus, and if Aufidius can unify the lords and the people of Antium in a way that still eludes the Romans, it may not be long before they attack again. Indeed, the play concludes on a note of political unease.