Last Updated on September 22, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 512
A Roman senator, he is a close friend to Coriolanus. He sees himself as Coriolanus's mentor and adviser. Menenius is constantly urging his friend to hold his temper in check, to appear humble in front of the people, and to moderate his harsh language. In part, Menenius does so because he understands the need for tact and the effectiveness of mild words. He also wants desperately to avoid an uprising by the people. He believes that "the violent fit o' the time" (III.ii.33) may lead to civil war unless Coriolanus answers the charges against him respectfully. Menenius knows the value of conciliatory language and frequently employs it himself.
His retelling of "the fable of the belly" (I.i.96-163) is intended to calm the angry citizens and persuade them to accept their subordinate role in society. As many commentators have noted, the speech is ambiguous. On the surface, it is an allegory of a well-ordered state, in which each social group carries out its assigned function so that the welfare of the entire body politic is ensured. To some readers it appears patronizing—a trite old tale to which Menenius applies his own, self-interested interpretation. His reading of the allegory seems to suggest that the Roman aristocracy is determined to preserve the present order of society and that the country will go on with or without its common citizens. It also may imply that Menenius sees the body politic only in terms of the satisfaction of physical needs and desires. One citizen in his audience points out to him that his retelling of the tale omits mention of the higher operations of the body: intellect, imagination, and benevolence.
Menenius likes to describe himself as a genial old man who is fond of eating and drinking and telling stories. The tribunes seem to regard him as a charming, harmless fellow with a reputation for good-natured teasing. They fail to see that his insults are genuine; when he calls them asses and hypocritics and makes fun of their official duties, they brush his remarks aside as the usual jokes of a man who doesn't take himself or others too seriously. Other people, including some citizens, sense that his jokes have a darker meaning. In I.i, Menenius tries to downplay the shrewdness of one citizen's commentary on the fable of the belly by mocking the man as "the great toe" (I.i.155) of the body politic; his true estimation of the people becomes clear a moment later when he refers to them as the rats of Rome.
Menenius is a pitiful figure by the close of the play. Volscian guardsmen sneer at his claims that he's Coriolanus's dearest friend and mock his repeated attempts to persuade them he's a very important man. Coriolanus sends him away and refuses to listen to any more of his advice. This is the kind of treatment Cominius had warned Menenius to expect if he went to the Volscian camp. Perhaps it is to his credit that he endured this abuse and humiliation for the sake of Rome.
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