Act I Summary

Scene i: The play opens in a street of ancient Rome as a mob of citizens (or plebians) express their anger toward Maritus (soon dubbed "Coriolanus"), whom they hold most responsible for a shortage of food. As they ready to seize Maritus, one of his friends the patrician Senator Menenius arrives. Popular with the plebian masses, he tells the riotous commoners a story about the rebellion against the belly by the other members of the body, and this (momentarily) calms them down. Just then, the play's main character, Maritus, enters and expresses his wrath and disdain with the mob, calling these lowly citizens "scabs" and declaring that if it were up to him, he'd use his sword against the rabble. He tells his friend...

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Act II Summary

Scene i: Now in the city of Rome, the pro-Corolainus Senator Menenius stands alongside the anti-Corolanius tribunes Brutus and Sicinius as they await the hero's triumphant return. Menenius chides the tribunes for their past hostility toward the man who has won the day for Rome as a garlanded Coriolanus enters and goes to his waiting family. He embraces his mother and then his wife. We learn through the resentful tribunes that Coriolanus is now the hero of the common people. They take solace in the fickleness of the mob, saying that they will eventually remember past wrongs and turn upon the prideful, autocratic Coriolanus.

Scene ii: At the Capitol of Rome, Coriolanus withdraws when the general Cominius begins to recount his heroic deeds to the assembled nobles. Coriolanus is summoned back and told that the Senate will elevate him to the highest post in the Roman government, that of consul. But they also indicate that Coriolanus must appear before the common people in a humble posture as custom (and current politics) dictates. Coriolanus asked to be excused from this ritual, and the scheming tribunes see an opportunity to bring him down by exploiting his excessive pride and snobbery toward the masses.

Scene iii: At the Roman forum, some common citizens speak about Coriolanus and observe that he cannot become consul without their approval. As required by custom, Coriolanus enters in a humble robe and asks the citizens to support him. Although he has difficulty keeping his temper, with a mixture of resentment and confusion he submits to the indignity of being interviewed by the citizens. But when Coriolanus departs, Brutus and Sicinius address the crowd and scold them for their support of this proud tyrant; the citizens change their minds and will now withhold their final approval of Coriolanus as counsel.

Act III Summary

Scene i: On a street in Rome, Coriolanus is told that the Volscian Aufidius plans to make war against Rome again, and Coriolanus is again gladdened by the prospect of matching swords with his arch-rival in glory. He then learns from Brutus and Sicinius that the people have turned against him. Although his allies, including the patrician Menenius, advise Coriolanus to resolve his issues with the mob diplomatically, he is enraged and asserts that the common people should have no say in choosing Rome's consul. At this, "a rabble of Plebians" arrives and the tribunes declare Coriolanus to be a traitor. He offers to fight the lot of them but is led away by Menenius and other senators of the aristocratic faction. The tribunes stir up the mob's frenzy for the execution of Coriolanus, but Menenius returns and steers the crowd toward the proper legal procedures: a trial will be held at which Coriolanus will answer to the charges and objections of the people.

Scene ii: Set at the house of Coriolanus, this is the pivotal scene in the play. Volumnia appears and tries to redirect Coriolanus toward a more flexible assessment of the situation. She tells him that deception is an acceptable tactic of warfare and that he can therefore act a false humility to the people to attain his objective. She asks him to go to the people with "bonnet in hand." Coriolanus initially refuses, but Volumnia then asserts that he received his military courage from her as an infant and that his rash pride will bring her and all of Coriolanus's family to ruin.

Scene iii: At the Roman forum, Sicinius and Brutus plan their trial strategy against Coriolanus; it consists of prearranged cries of "guilty" and "death" from some of the common citizens. Coriolanus arrives and is interrogated by the tribunes, but he maintains his composure for a while. When Sicinius calls him a traitor, however, Coriolanus reacts angrily and challenges the right of the rabble and their tribunes to question his loyalty. The tribunes pronounce him guilty of treason to the state and the popular will, and they banish him from Rome. He haughtily accepts their decree, turns his back on Rome, and says that he now despises his home city. The crowd cheers and force Coriolanus toward the city's gates and into what he calls "a world elsewhere."

Act IV Summary

Scene i: In front of Rome's gates, Coriolanus exchanges farewells with his mother, wife, and child, Volumnia cursing the common people and their tribunes.

Scene ii: On a street near the same gate, Sicinius and Brutus encounter Volumnia and the other members of Coriolanus's family. The matriarch says that she wished the gods had nothing other to do than to inflict her curses upon them.

Scene iii: This scene takes place on a highway between Rome and Antium, the home city of Aufidius, as an exchange between two unnamed characters, one a Roman and the other a Volsce. The Roman tells his friend that Coriolanus has been banished, and the Volscian realizes that this is an important piece of military intelligence for Aufidius.

Scene iv: In Antium, a humbly attired Coriolanus searches for the house of Aufidius. He plans to present himself to the enemy general and offer to join the Volsces in war against Rome. He allows that Aufidius may decide to simply slay him instead, an act of revenge that Coriolanus deems to be fair and honorable.

Scene v: Having found the house of Aufidius, Coriolanus sheds his humble clothes, identifies himself to the Volscian general and tells him how he was banished by the rabble from his own city. His offer to fight for the Volsces is heartily accepted by Aufidius. When the members of his household learn that the stranger in tatters was Coriolanus and that he will now fight against Rome on their side, they are overjoyed.

Scene vi: Back in Rome, the tribunes Brutus and Sicinius are told that a powerful Volscian army is marching toward their city again and that Coriolanus has become an enemy general. They are stunned by this news. Cominius gloats that because they banished Coriolanus, their city will be sacked and their daughters raped by the army he now leads. A mob of citizens arrive and express their regret at having turned Coriolanus against Rome.

Scene vii: At the camp of Aufidius near Rome, one of his lieutenants says to the Volscian general that Coriolanus may outshine him in battle and gain the personal loyalty of his troops. Aufidius, however, is not worried; he is confident that he can use Coriolanus's pride against him when the right moment comes.

Act V Summary

Scene i: Back in Rome, the General Cominius says that he has tried to meet with Coriolanus at his camp but that he has been refused entry. The tribunes entreat Menenius, who has been like a father to Coriolanus, to see if he can persuade his son to spare Rome from the torch. Menenius is reluctant to undertake the mission; Cominius predicts that he too will be turned away; the tribunes say that only Coriolanus's family, notably his mother, may have the power to persuade him to make peace with Rome.

Scene ii: Menenius arrives at the camp of Coriolanus and is turned away by the guards. He does speak with Coriolanus (accompanied by Aufidius), but the banished general refuses to talk at length with his one-time mentor and ally.

Scene iii: The climatic scene of the play occurs in the tent of Coriolanus at the Volsces camp. This time Volumnia leads a delegation to sue for peace, along with Virgilia, and Coriolanus's own young son. Knowing what his mother's purpose is, Coriolanus tries to steel himself against the bonds of nature. But Volumnia pulls out all the stops, and in a prolonged speech, she evokes and manipulates her son's dependency upon her and then falls to her knees. This is too much for Coriolanus: he agrees to spare Rome, but he realizes that this could prove dangerous, even fatal, to him once Aufidius and the other Volsces learn that he has betrayed them through this convenient peace.

Scenes iv-v: In Rome, Menenius and the tribunes learn that Volumnia has been successful; the senators and Coriolanus's family rejoice that Rome will not be sacked.

Scene vi: The final scene of the play is set in Corioles. Aufidius is on stage with a group of conspirators, and their plan is to turn the Volscian people against Coriolanus. We learn that Coriolanus is still a hero in the eyes of an enthusiastic crowd. But Aufidius says that Coriolanus sold the labors of their blood for his mother's tears, that he is not a victor but a traitor. In a sharp exchange, Aufidius is able to provoke the wrath of Coriolanus by calling him a boy of tears. Predictably, Coriolanus seizes on the word boy, and his rage provides Aufidius with an opportunity to incite the Volsces to violence against their former hero. After they mob and kill Coriolanus, Aufidius stands on his dead body. But when he is reminded of the respect that Coriolanus deserves as a noble military hero, Aufidius says that his rage is gone and that he is struck with sorrow by the death of a man who deserves a noble memory.