Scene 1 Summary:
Coriolanus opens in Rome, with a group of citizens who are considering an uprising against the state because of the high price, and the scarcity, of grain. They believe that Caius Martius, one of the most distinguished generals of the state, is their main enemy; if they kill him, they believe they will get what they want, meaning grain. Menenius, a wise patrician, comes upon this mob; they respect him because of his wit and reason, and he begins to speak to them about their wish for rebellion. He tells them that they receive benefit from the senate, and that without the senate, they will be like a body without a stomach, lacking nutrition and a vital part. He makes some headway, which Martius dashes immediately upon his entrance, and his cursing of these common people.
Martius' insults undo all of Menenius' hard work, and again inflames the wrath of the masses. He clearly does not know what to do in tricky domestic situations like this one; however, he knows exactly what to do in battle, and news that the Volscians have raised an army against Rome is exactly what he wants to hear. Martius has a rivalry with the Volscian leader, Tullus Aufidius, and relishes the chance to go to war. The tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, make their first appearance, and air their dislike for Martius, whom they believe to be a great enemy of the people and of Rome.
The first theme to present itself in this work is one of class; the Rome of Coriolanus is divided very sharply according to class, with the patricians ruling the people and controlling most of the wealth, and the citizens having little money, and much less power. However, as we are to soon find out, the people are beginning to usurp power from the patrician class, and are fighting especially against Caius Martius, later known as Coriolanus. Though the citizens' complaints are definitely valid, still they are depicted as rabble throughout the work; they are driven to desperation, and soon become reckless under the guidance of the tribunes, who are even more hungry for power. Coriolanus as a play is deeply involved in the balance of power between the patrician and the common class, with much of the strife and conflict within the story originating from this source.
Pride is the second theme introduced into the story, through the citizens' discussion of Caius Martius and his shortcomings. Caius Martius is indeed proud, a fact which will prove his undoing. Pride will be one of the main determinants of Caius Martius' fate, and also becomes one of the main shortcomings for which he is hated by the common people.
Note the contrast between the tone and diction of Menenius, and the citizens. The citizens speak angrily and somewhat rashly, and choose strong, sometimes violent words through which to convey their frustration. Menenius, however, expresses himself with a tone marked by reason, calmness, and a genuine desire to reason with the people he is speaking to. He begins by addressing the mob as "my countrymen," a wise move that pulls them in, and makes them feel some kind of connection with this patrician figure. "You may as well strike at the heavens with your staves as lift them against the roman state," Menenius tells them; this metaphor signifies to them the futility of rising up for the sake of grain, when there is none to gain. He counters charges of "usury" and "piercing statutes" with careful logic, and a gentle, reasonable tone; indeed, Menenius is meant as a figure personifying the superiority of the patricians, and their right to govern over the volatile, easily led masses.
Menenius' great wit is demonstrated right away, with his parable of the stomach and the body. His metaphor of the stomach as the state, and the body as the people, helps to take the edge off the very precarious situation. The citizens' interruptions and taunting as he is meticulously spinning this parable shows them to be of an inferior sort. Still, Menenius has a point here, and is able to win some ground with his long, involved story, and his deft use of metaphors, and application of this story to the workings of the Roman state.
Keep in mind that Shakespeare may have been writing these plays for a common audience, but at the time that this play was written, acting companies were heavily funded by the royals and aristocracy, meaning that Shakespeare and other writers had to be very cautious not to offend those who were funding their work. England itself was a country of a strong social hierarchy, and that hierarchy dictated political power; there was little power given to the masses, and probably little respect given to them from the higher-ups as well.
From Martius' entrance, it is clear that Menenius and Martius are dramatic foils. Menenius is old, wise, has a great wit, and skills at negotiating and debating; he is peaceful and reasonable, and a great statesman as well. Martius is young, hot-tempered, full of disdain, proud, and has no skills with which to deal with the common masses. He is a soldier, not a statesmen, and lacks the humility, patience, and other skills he needs to work within the senate and with the people. Note the contrast between Martius' and Menenius' tone and behavior; Martius is rash and angry in every area that Menenius has proven himself calm and wise.
Despite Martius' anger, he is right about the citizens in some respects. His statements foreshadow later events, like how the citizens are easily led to fulfill the wishes of the tribunes, and how he, one of Rome's great leaders, will be unceremoniously tossed out by a mob that doesn't know what is best for itself. He expresses some of the same sentiments as Meneniusthat there is little grain for anyone, and that the people are ungrateful for rising up against a protective statebut he does so with none of the grace or conciliatory ability that Menenius is known for.
The tribunes surface at the end of the scene, and their disdain and bitter comments foreshadow their later revolt against Martius. They are correct in their appraisal of Martius, as an overly proud man, but, ironically, they completely underestimate his value to the state. Martius may be a flawed man, but he is an asset to the militaristic state of Rome; and so it is with great irony that the people and the tribunes cast him as enemy number one of the state, when he is one of the few who can get Rome through the challenges coming directly from the Volscian state.
Scene 2 Summary:
In this scene, we get our first glimpse of Tullus Aufidius, Martius' chief enemy and leader of the Volscians. Aufidius is very canny, taking into account the great distress of the Roman state when he considers their strength, and the condition of their army. He knows that the Romans probably know of their army, which he takes into account in his battle plan; overall, he seems very well prepared, a good general of excellent judgment. He decides to take his army out into the field, and if he finds Martius, he knows that they must fight to the death.
Although Martius at this point seems more bold and bloodthirsty than Aufidius, Aufidius seems to be the general and leader that perhaps Martius should be. Aufidius is a foil to Martius because he is not hot-tempered, is a good strategist, and has all the facts at his disposal before throwing his weight around. Unlike Martius, he knows how to appraise the enemy's strength, whether the enemy is a mob of his own people, or the army of an enemy. Above all, Aufidius seems to know Martius' worth which, ironically, Martius and the commoners of Rome seem not to be aware of.
Another irony is that Aufidius, who is so good at placing the enemy's strength and knowledge, is unable to predict that Corioles will fall under the leadership of the senators and part of the army. Aufidius doesn't seem to be backed up by leaders as able and knowledgeable as those that are behind Coriolanus, and perhaps this means that Coriolanus will win, despite the fact that he is a less-than-stellar leader himself.
The end of this scene further sets up the rivalry between Martius and Aufidius, and foreshadows a duel between them sometime in the near future. If Martius is the main character of the work, and Aufidius is his chief enemy, then surely Aufidius will have a great importance in the plot, and a key role in determining Martius' fate.
Scene 3 Summary:
Volumnia, Martius' mother, and Virgilia, Martius' wife, are at home sewing. Virgilia is sad that her husband is away, though Volumnia tells her it would be more suitable to be cheerful about her husband's triumphs and the glory he can achieve in battle. Volumnia is extremely proud of her son's achievements, and sent him to battle as a boy so that he could gain honor and become a man. Virgilia asks her how she would feel if he had died in battle, and Volumnia says that she would prefer that he died nobly rather than refused to serve and lived. She is extremely preoccupied with her son's occupation and honor, and Roman ideals of military service and valor. Virgilia, however, doesn't want to hear of Martius' exploits, or the possibility that he might have been hurt.
Valeria, another Roman gentlewoman and friend of theirs, comes by to urge them to go out of the house; she notes how adorable Virgilia and Martius' son is, and how much like his father he acts. Virgilia, however, does not want to leave until her husband is back; she seems sad to have him gone, and guilty at the thought of having a good time in his absence. Valeria and Volumnia plead with her to go out, and not just sit and sew; even after Virgilia's mind is eased by good news about her husband's victories, she says she will stay in, while the other women go out. Virgilia may be an ideal, patient Roman wife, but she is too meek and unassuming to compete with Volumnia and her iron will.
Volumnia, from the start of her first speech, shows herself to be war-driven and wrapped up in her son's triumphs. Her diction shows her to be a woman who prizes triumph over personal relations; she would "freelier rejoice" in her son's absence in battle than his loving presence at home, and professes "joy" at his first triumphs in battle. Volumnia introduces one of the key themes of the play, which is warlike virtue vs. real virtue. Volumnia believes that courage and distinction in battle are more important than any other qualities, and that being a hero is more important than anything else; this is a view that was popular in ancient Rome, but one that Shakespeare calls into question in this play. "I had rather had eleven [sons] die nobly," she says, than one return home disgraced; Volumnia clearly believes that military glory is a crucial thing, though not all of Rome shares this belief of hers.
Volumnia's use of images also shows that her mind is with Martius, and that she takes great interest in his pursuits. "I hear hither your husband's drum, see him pluck Aufidius down by the hair"; in these lines, Volumnia uses sound and visual imagery that show she is intent on imagining where her son is, and what he is doing. She also calls her son a "harvest-man," a metaphor that is interesting since Martius only reaps death and destruction, not anything useful like grain. She also alludes to Hector, another ancient hero who is similar to Martius in military achievements, and again expresses her belief that tenderness and shows of love are not as important as military glory.
Virgilia's character is shown to be loving, obedient, and longing in this scene, especially with Valeria's comparison of her to Penelope. This allusion shows that Virgilia is an ideal wife in that she is faithful to her husband, cares very much about him when he is away, and waits patiently for him. However, Valeria and Volumnia believe that too much resignation on Virgilia's part is a bad thing; these two women care about their loved ones, but do not suspend their lives while they are away. She should find a more pleasant diversion than sewing, Valeria's metaphor tells her, though she refuses, and sits at home, sewing, even after her heart has been lightened by good news.
Scene 4 Summary:
Martius, Lartius, and other Roman leaders are at the gates of Coriole, a city of their enemies the Volscians. Martius inquires about his main enemy, Tullus Aufidius, but he is not within the city. The Volscian senators stir up their people, while Martius rallies the Romans against them. Martius tells the soldiers to get ready for the battle, and steel themselves against the enemy they are about to attack; he also says that those who do not fight valiantly are as loathed as the enemy, which will hopefully spur them on.
Martius' language, metaphors, and tone are vastly different than in scene 1, when he cursed the common people, and spoke with great disdain. He alludes to "Mars," and speaks with a grand, stirring tone to his troops; he comes across as far more eloquent on the battlefield than he is in the confines of Rome. "Fight with hearts more proof than shields," he urges his men, his language far more poetic, and his diction more clear and spirited than it was before.
The difference between Martius in this scene and in the encounter with the plebeians highlights a few key themes of the work, including Martius' pride, his lack of skill in matters that are not related to war, and his heroic status. Martius is a leader, as is clearly shown here, rather than a cooperative member of Rome; he is a brave individual, like Hector, and less an able politician of the city. Martius is aware of his bravery, and the status that his achievements give him; however, this gives him an unavoidable sense of pride that the people and the tribunes find offensive.
Scene 5 Summary:
Martius curses the soldiers who retreated from the battle as harshly as he berated the citizens in the first scene of the play. His censure is meant to get the men to follow him back into the battle; but they are convinced that they cannot win, and allow Martius to enter Corioles alone. The gates are shut with Martius inside the enemy city, and the solidiers are convinced he will be slain in there alone; Lartius comes and laments Martius, thinking that even a soldier of his caliber will be unable to defeat so many enemies. But, Martius escapes the city, wounded and bloodied, much to their surprise; this finally gives the men courage, and they rush into the city to fight the battle.
Even as Martius appeared to be more eloquent and leader-like in the previous scene, here he shows that not even soldiers are immune to his wrath and displeasure. Although he means to encourage the men to join him again in battle, he does not have the rhetorical skills necessary to do this through words. Martius leads by example, though it is an example that is very difficult to follow; his heroism and ferocity are unique, and this scene shows that he can achieve well by himself and on his own terms, but he is not an easy person to follow by any means. This scene shows that his men do not have either the strength or the courage to be able to follow him, and he certainly is unable to persuade them that they should.
Lartius' lament is a testament to how good a soldier Martius is, but also how extreme he can be in his daring. Martius is a "carbuncle entire," Lartius says, testifying to Martius' great worth as a soldier; the metaphor is also apt because Martius is a being who stands alone, who cannot be matched by any others. Lartius' allusion to Cato shows how Martius is the ideal of a Roman soldier; his boldness seems to have no limits, and he is completely dedicated to what he does. Martius enters the city alone, but yet, comes out alive; this further proves Martius' worth and strength as a soldier.
Scene 6 Summary:
Romans come out of the city of Corioles with spoils; Martius comes upon them, and curses them for looting rather than fighting. Martius does not pursue the men, though, because he spots Tullus Aufidius, and wishes to make good on his promise to fight him when he sees him. Lartius takes new men to secure the city, while Martius, despite his wounds, decides to approach Tullus and start a fight with him.
Again, Martius speaks with warlike eloquence, mixed with disdain for those who are not dedicated to the fight like he is. But, when his attention turns to Tullus, his tone and language become more poetic; single combat and his rivalries are things that Martius can be enthused about and excel at, but they are more the realm of a legendary hero, than a real, worthwhile leader. Martius does show himself to be valiant, as he is very wounded but still insists on another taxing battle with Tullus. Martius seems to be charmed by "the fair goddess fortune" that Lartius mentions, but only in relation to his luck in battle.
Scene 7 Summary:
Cominius, leader of the Romans, urges the men to rest for a time, but also warns them that the battle is not yet over. A messenger tells him that Lartius and Martius are still at Corioles, and Cominius decides it would be best to march to the city and join them in their fight. But Martius comes upon Cominius before he can move out, and startles Cominius by being covered in blood. Martius says he is glad to see Cominius, and tells him that Lartius is still in Corioles, and holds the city for Rome. Martius inquires about the Volscians' other army, led by Aufidius, which Cominius is going to fight; Martius says that he is very eager to fight Aufidius, and that they should go against that army without delay. Cominius would prefer that Martius rest and tend to his wounds, but declares he cannot deny him this if he wishes it. Finally, Martius' efforts to rally the men succeed, as these soldiers listen to his calls for action, and cheer him for the deeds he has already done in this battle. Martius decides he will get together a group to pursue Aufidius, who he will fight himself; the rest will face the remainder of Aufidius' troops.
In this scene is the first time that terms of battle and marriage are mixed together. Martius tells Cominius that he embraces him as if he were wooing him, which are strange terms for a soldier to say to another soldier. This theme, a confusion of love and battle, shows up repeatedly, and usually in reference to Tullus and Martius, who seem to have a relationship that is different than the usual soldier-to-soldier type. That Martius says he is as happy as the day he got married shows that he too, like his mother, believes that achievements in war are as important, if not more so, than events in one's personal life. His show of strong feelings proves how important war is to him, and how much pleasure he takes in fighting and victory. Indeed, as will be seen once Martius is again back home, he does not take nearly as much pleasure in his personal life as he does in his military service.
The difference between Martius and the ordinary Roman has already been shown in the distinction between his behavior and the behavior of the ordinary soldiers, and this is much the same difference between Martius and the citizens of Rome. This distinction is especially important later, when Martius is thrown into sharper relief with the citizens of Rome; although Martius' condemnation is mean-spirited, many of these common people are rabble compared to him, and all together cannot do as much for Rome in war as he can do by himself.
Scene 8 Summary:
Lartius leaves a lieutenant in control of Corioles, with words about guarding the city. He tells the man to hold his ground, but Lartius will send word if he needs more men down at the field, for if they lose the field they lose the city as well. Lartius then leaves for the Roman camp, and to join forces with Martius and Cominius.
Scene 9 Summary:
Martius and Aufidius finally face each other, with words of hate for one another. But, their rivalry seems to be tinged with a soldier's honor, as they fight hand to hand, without any dirty tricks or cruel insults. They both swear that if either of them flee, they should be cursed for it by the gods; but, before they can conclude their fight, Volscian soldiers find them, and drag Aufidius away, shaming him before his rival.
Martius' and Aufidius' rivalry, an important theme in the novel, is first shown here in the confrontation between these two men. It is a rivalry based on respect for each other as soldiers, mutual envy of each other's strengths, and the honor that each man has. Their hate may be bitter, but they manage to express it in a poetic, intense way that conveys their regard for each other, and almost seems akin to love. And later, this intense rivalry and hatred does turn into something that is close to love, demonstrating how interchangeable these two intense emotions can be.
Aufidius compares Martius' formidable reputation to "a serpent I abhor," a metaphor that seems almost biblical in nature. Aufidius envies Martius' skill and his renown, which he cannot match, although he himself is a great warrior. This metaphor also conveys Aufidius' temptation, which is fulfilled later, to embrace Martius as a friend and ally himself to Martius' bravery. There is also another allusion to the hero Hector in describing Martius, which is a great compliment coming from a great adversary like Aufidius; this comparison again shows Martius' worth and prowess, and confirms his status as a solitary hero figure. Reputation is of great importance to both Martius and Aufidius; it is a theme they rely upon to gain them respect, and frighten their enemies as well.
Scene 10 Summary:
Cominius praises Martius' deeds done that day, saying that it will impress all of Rome, and will show the tribunes and the citizens that they hate a man of great worth and use to Rome. However, Martius does not seek the praise; he doesn't like to be extolled to his face, though Cominius insists that his deeds must be told to the people of Rome, and displayed for what they are. Cominius offers Martius a tenth of the treasure taken that day, though Martius refuses to take it. In token of his service, Martius is given the surname "Coriolanus," to mark his victory over the city of Corioles; Martius accepts this honor, though he still seems leery of any public praise.
Even Cominius admits that the citizens and the tribunes are "dull" and "fusty"; Martius was not incorrect in his appraisal of them as scabs and cowards, if another worthy, wise man is willing to back up this opinion. This statement brings attention to the theme of appraisal of worth; Martius is worthy of Rome because of the great battles he has fought and won for the city, though the tribunes and the citizens seem to believe that Martius has little worth, and do not believe that his military triumphs equal worthiness. It is ironic, though, that Cominius foretells that the plebeians will learn to love Martius because of this recent triumph; in fact, they do exactly the opposite, condemning him for not catering to them, and ignoring his long and distinguished record of service, which none of them can boast.
Martius reveals here a modesty that seems paradoxical when considering his great pride. Although Martius knows his worth and his greatness when dealing with the soldiers and the citizens, when confronted with praise from a superior, he suddenly becomes modest, and refuses to accept the compliments. This is a contradiction in Martius' nature, and not an insignificant one; his later refusal to tout his accomplishments gets him into trouble with the plebeians, though this is also somehow related to his great pride, and his refusal to cheapen his accomplishments by talking of them to a crowd.
Some of Martius' comments in this scene seem to foreshadow his fall, and the change that occurs in Rome to banish him from the city. "When drums and trumpets shall I'th' field prove flatterers, let courts and cities be made all of false-faced soothing," Martius says. In the plebeians' eyes, stories and praises of Martius' achievements are taken as false flattery of him, and the city is soon overrun by the "false-faced soothing" and hypocritical manipulations of the tribunes.
Martius being given the surname "Coriolanus" is definitely a significant event in the play; it foreshadows his rise to power in Rome, and his later undoing at the hands of the Volscians. The fact that Martius is singled out and honored for this battle sets him apart from the other generals of Rome; it shows him to be a more fierce and distinguished warrior than they are, and thus presages his rise to power in the city. Also, whether the Volscians can love a man who is known for having destroyed one of their key cities later comes into question; this achievement of Martius' gains the Volscians' wrath, and is his undoing.
Another side of Martius' character, his sense of fairness, is shown in this scene as he asks for the freedom of a Volscian man who helped him. Martius, despite his flaws, does embody many of the ideal traits of a Roman soldier. Not only is he brave and fierce, he is also just and has some redeeming qualities for all his wrath and killing.
Scene 11 Summary:
Aufidius is informed that the city has been taken, but will be returned on certain conditions; but this offends Aufidius' pride, especially since he has again been beaten by Martius (now Coriolanus). He swears to fight Coriolanus even more fiercely next time they battle, and try to defeat him, even if through unfair means; his hate for Coriolanus has been deepened by this encounter. Aufidius sends a soldier to the Romans, to ask about the state of the city, and how many of their people must be taken as captives.
Aufidius provides one of the most concise but piercing estimations of Coriolanus' character in this scene. One of the men remarks that Coriolanus must be "the devil"; but Aufidius counters this remark by swearing Coriolanus is "bolder, though not so subtle." Indeed, it is this lack of subtlety that ensures that Coriolanus will fail as a political leader, and triumph as a military one; his boldness, and corresponding lack of subtlety, will mean that he will gain the anger of the Roman tribunes and people, and be unable to serve as a consul of the people.
Aufidius and Coriolanus are actually similar in quite a few ways, although they are also intended to be foils. They are both men of the sword, a symbol that expresses their desire and skill in war, their code of honor as soldiers, and their determination to defeat each other in the game that they are playing. They are both possessed by the same intensity of feeling concerning each other, symbolized by the heart and blood imagery that Aufidius uses when talking about a final, much-wanted defeat of his foe. Yet, the symbols of the heart and blood also betray the strange intimacy and intensity of their relationship, and how connected they are by the blood they have shed together as soldiers, locked in battle with one another.