Coriolanus Roman Citizens
by William Shakespeare

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Roman Citizens

(Shakespeare for Students)

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A number of citizens who are partially individualized characters, but none of them is given a name. Their speech headings are first citizen, second citizen, and so on. These headings refer to the order in which the citizens speak within a specific scene. Thus the first citizen in I.i is not necessarily the same individual as the first citizen in II.iii, for example.

The Roman citizens have drawn a variety of reactions from readers and commentators. Many believe that they have genuine grievances. The citizens' charge about the shortage of corn—that the government has a sufficient supply in storage but refuses to distribute it at prices ordinary people can afford—is never denied by either Menenius or Coriolanus. The citizens also complain that the senate passes laws that favor the rich rather than the poor and that it holds them in low regard. Though senators in the play acknowledge the right of citizens to participate in elections and sometimes grant them special dispensations, they generally do so only when a citizen uprising looks as if it might erupt into civil war.

Individual citizens frequently demonstrate political insight and understanding of the issues at stake. In I.i, the first citizen sees the flaws in Menenius's interpretation of "the fable of the belly," pointing out that several significant parts of the body are missing in his version of the allegory: the head for judgment, the eye for vision, and the heart for compassion. In II.iii, before Coriolanus's first appearance in the marketplace to solicit their votes, a group of citizens thoughtfully discuss whether they are obligated to support him. In a series of interviews with him, they are honest and direct, and they raise important issues. For example, the first citizen is realistic; he reminds Coriolanus that he should be aware that "if we give you anything, we hope to gain by you" (II.iii.71-72). When Coriolanus asks what is the "price o' the consulship?", the first citizen replies reasonably: "The price is to ask it kindly" (II.iii.73-74, 75).

The citizens' hesitations about electing Coriolanus to the consulship are understandable. They know he despises them and has consistently opposed government policies that would benefit them. To their faces he has called them untrustworthy dogs, incapable of appreciating the fine points of political issues. The citizens also recognize that Coriolanus's temperament makes him unsuitable for the role of a national leader who must put aside his biases and govern on behalf of all the people. As soon as they've given him their votes, they...

(The entire section is 642 words.)