Scene 1 Summary:
Menenius is talking with the two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius; he knows that they and the people dislike Coriolanus, despite his triumphs and distinguished service. But Menenius also tells them that Coriolanus is a good man, and leads a blameless life; still, they do not seem to change their view of him. They still chide him for his pride, although Menenius counters this claim by telling to look at themselves, and see if they are not proud and flawed as well, and perhaps even more so than Coriolanus is. Menenius points out that their argument is not sound and that their view of Coriolanus is clearly soiled by their self-interest, and then leaves the tribunes as Virgilia, Volumnia, and Valeria enter with the good news that Martius is headed home. Menenius is glad for this news, and hopes that Martius Coriolanus has returned with some wounds, to mark his victory.
Finally, Coriolanus enters, and is greeted by his mother Volumnia, wife Virgilia, and Menenius, among others. His new name is explained and pronounced to the crowd, as Coriolanus is officially welcomed back to Rome. Volumnia is glad to see her son back, and says that she hopes he will now be able to become consul; however, Coriolanus betrays some reluctance and unwillingness to be a political creature.
All leave Brutus and Sicinius, who conspire to make Coriolanus unpopular with the people, so that he will not be named consul. They know that his pride and his unwillingness to talk about his triumphs will land him in trouble, and they will use these failings to make him seem unappealing to the people. Their plan is cunning and clever, though it is not driven by interest for the people of Rome, but for their own thirst for power, which will be sated by usurping Coriolanus' power in the city.
Menenius and the tribunes compare Coriolanus to different animals, to convey their different views of him. Menenius believes that Coriolanus is a lamb, that the people will threaten to tear apart like a wolf; though the tribunes believe he is too loud and warlike to be a lamb, Menenius sticks to this symbol to represent Coriolanus, because he lives an honorable life. Indeed, Coriolanus is well symbolized by the lamb, because he is unable to deceive, does the service that is required of him, and lacks the ability to manipulate people. The irony is that Coriolanus is regarded as a tricky, deceptive person by the tribunes, when he is all too honest and plain for their politics. Another irony is that Coriolanus is being regarded suspiciously by the tribunes, who aren't exactly upstanding men; they would cite Coriolanus' flaws, but are not willing to admit their own when Menenius points them out. Coriolanus is not a villain at all, as the tribunes would make him out to be, though Menenius' speech doesn't seem to change their minds at all.
Reputation is a theme in the work that determines how people, like Menenius and Coriolanus, are viewed by others, although their reputations do not always tell the truth about who they are. Menenius is known to be a wise, reasonable man, as the tribunes point out in this scene, and Coriolanus is known by the people as a proud, scornful man, and little else. Menenius says that there is more to him than his reputation indicates, and that this is true of Coriolanus as well. However, the skewed reputation of Coriolanus that the tribunes have gotten the people to believe is the one that the people will continue to believe in, though it holds a minimum of truth.
Menenius continues a motif from earlier in the play, by calling these representatives of the people parts of the body, emphasizing that they are not whole or vital. They are "poor knaves' caps and legs," Menenius says, his metaphor conveying how they lack substance, and are disconnected from the body of the state.
Volumnia and Menenius' discussion of Coriolanus' wounds shows them to be symbols of his glory and his feats in war. Each one of them is a mark of pride and bravery, which is becoming to him. Virgilia cringes at the thought of her husband wounded, showing reticence about her husband's profession; but Volumnia and Menenius know that Coriolanus will need these wounds to testify to his services, if he is to be elected consul.
During this welcome scene, it is telling that Coriolanus greets his mother first, and speaks only briefly to his wife, who does not respond. It almost seems like Virgilia is an afterthought to him; he only speaks to her after Volumnia remarks, "but o, thy wife," and even after that, his attention is immediately turned back to his mother. Coriolanus' mother already seems to have a very prominent position in Coriolanus' life, though the extent of her hold upon him is not yet clear. A conflict between the interests of the two of them is already foreshadowed, however, when Volumnia professes her hopes that he become consul, and he tells her he would "rather be their servant in my way than sway with them in theirs." This statement of stubborn reluctance on Coriolanus' part indicates that he will not simply be able to assume the consulship, nor are his plans and his mother's the same.
The overstatement of the messenger at the end of this scene speaks of Coriolanus' popularity as a great soldier and a hero. The nobles of Rome regard him well, though they are not blind to his failings either; but with the power and magnetism that Coriolanus wields, the metaphor about him being like "Jove's statue" is particularly fitting. However, what the tribunes are going to go after is not Coriolanus' popularity as a hero, but his unfitness as a politician and unwillingness to be a pawn of the people. If they make him look bad enough to the plebeians, then their plan of throwing Coriolanus out of Rome might just work.
Scene 2 Summary:
Two officers are talking of Coriolanus' bid to be consul; although they both know that he might fail in this bid because he is proud and doesn't like the people, they put things into perspective by noting that other leaders have merely flattered the people. They also say that a refusal to recognize his contributions would be ungrateful and wrong of them. The senate enters, to consider Coriolanus' qualifications to be consul; the tribunes state that they do not support them if he doesn't support the people, but Menenius is displeased by their lack of foresight. Cominius talks of Coriolanus' deeds, and his triumphs in battle, though Coriolanus again protests that he doesn't want to hear his deeds praised.
The senate decides that Coriolanus is certainly worthy of the position because of his years of service for Rome; now, all Coriolanus has to do to gain the position is go through a traditional ritual of asking the people. This seems like an easy task, but Coriolanus knows that he is ill-equipped to go through with it. He stubbornly asks to be kept from this tradition, which the tribunes interpret as scorn for the people. The tribunes do not want to see him as a consul, and will conspire to block his confirmation by the people.
The beginning of this scene is purely political in content, and explains not only Coriolanus's views, but also where Shakespeare is coming from in regard to the political sentiments expressed in this play. The two officers say that Coriolanus is at least honest in his feelings toward the people, and that his indifference toward them is a wise attitude considering the flightiness of the people. The picture Shakespeare paints of the common, plebeian class in this play is certainly not positive or flattering; but this is a view informed by the monarchist society in which he lived, where the people were often considered a poor, unruly mob that didn't have enough sense to govern themselves. Any other view would have been dangerous to express, since these were the days before democracy. And, also considering that Shakespeare's plays were often performed before a royal or noble audience, and sponsored by the upper class, a contrary opinion might risk this sponsorship and get Shakespeare in trouble as an author. The view of the common people expressed in this play seems anachronistic and incorrect, but it was perfectly in keeping with the views of the time and the powerful audience that plays like this one were able to reach.
The officers serve as explication of the play's leanings away from the common people, and the play's view that ignoring Coriolanus' good deeds and proclaiming him unworthy is a very unfair act. They know the arguments for and against Coriolanus that are expressed in the play, but the conclusion that they reach, that Coriolanus is worthy though flawed, but still should be respected for his deeds, is one that is shared by the play as a whole.
Cominius' language, when he speaks of Coriolanus' achievements, betrays the heroic light in which the nobles view Coriolanus. "As weeds before a vessel under sail, so men obeyed and fell below his stem," Cominius says of Coriolanus; this metaphor portrays Coriolanus as a man of great prowess, a singular hero who is able to conquer through his own merits only. Cominius' tone is complimentary and dignified; it betrays the respect that the leaders of the city have for Coriolanus, which is in direct conflict with the scorn which the tribunes have for him.
Coriolanus' nervousness at having to ask the people for his position foreshadows his downfall; he knows as well as Menenius does that he lacks the boastfulness and political skill to flatter the people, which will mean a tough time gaining their position for the consulship. Ironically, Sicinius and Brutus take his reticence as outright scorn; they seem to interpret all of Coriolanus' actions according to their very negative view of him, which is not an accurate picture of him at all.
Scene 3 Summary:
The citizens debate among themselves whether they should confirm Coriolanus or not; one of them says it would be ingratitude to deny his good deeds, but others think that they have a right to deny him the consulship because he does not love the people. The third citizen tries to reason with the other two, voicing many of the concerns and issues of the play in the process. Coriolanus comes at last, in a gown of humility, to beg their consent; the third citizen begs them all to go, and since the majority seems to approve of Coriolanus, he also says that they should approve him.
Coriolanus engages the citizens in conversation as they come by in groups; he does not hide his pride, nor does he hide his lack of love for the people he is speaking to. He is actually rather short with them, and sarcastic as well; but, five citizens manage to give him consent, despite his tone and bearing. Two more give him consent, and declare that he is done with his duty; Menenius returns and congratulates him on passing this last hurdle for the consulship.
Then, the two tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, come and ask the people if they approved Coriolanus; they seek to reverse this approval by asking them how Coriolanus acted, and reminding them of how he has scorned them in the past. Soon, the citizens are stirred up against Coriolanus, and have decided to reverse the decision they had just made. The citizens then decide to confront Coriolanus, and the tribunes will take advantage of the situation to gain power for themselves.
The third citizen, in this scene, serves as a voice of conscience among the other citizens, who are portrayed as selfish and unwise in their judgment of Coriolanus. They do have the power to deny Coriolanus, he says, "but it is a power that we have no power to do"; this paradox communicates the fact that they have no pressing reasons to keep him from being consul, and that it would be an abuse of their civic power to do so. "For the multitude to be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude," he continues, this metaphor voicing an important issue of the play. Indeed, the citizens lack of appreciation for what Coriolanus has done is a terrible thing, and one that leads to a great man's turn against Rome, and his later destruction.
Coriolanus' pride is fully exhibited in this scene, along with his corresponding, but equally perverse sense of modesty. These two paradoxical qualities determine Coriolanus' behavior toward the people in this scene; not only is he too proud to have to perform such a ritual, he is also shy about having to boast of what he has done. Again, the symbol of the wounds come into play; Coriolanus is supposed to show them in order to testify to the service he has done the state, as they are visual reminders of his feats and bravery.
The ritual that Coriolanus is a part of is a strange one; it is an outward show of democracy, though this ritual does not necessarily give them the power to keep him out of office. The cap and gown that Coriolanus wears as he begs the people's support is meant to symbolize his humility and his service to the people; however, Coriolanus clearly shows that he isn't humble, and he has no favor for the people at all. His tone is often tinged with sarcasm during this episode; "I will practice the insinuating nod and be off to them most counterfeitly," he says, showing little regard for the people as he runs through this ritual.
That Coriolanus calls the people "voices" is significant; this instance of synecdoche continues an important motif in the play. From the first scene, the people have been called "fragments" and parts, and dismembered bits; calling them "voices" makes them seem disembodied, and somewhat ghostlike as well. The common people do not seem to be real, autonomous people the way that the patricians in this play are; this is another example of the theme of class in this work, and how it creates prejudice in how the common people are regarded and portrayed in this work. Also, this is important because it shows that Coriolanus really does not care for the people in any significant way; he just wants their "voices" and approval, but does not want to really speak with them at all.
Brutus and Sicinius use rhetoric to turn the people against Coriolanus; they ask whether the people could support a man who had mocked them, and in what manner he asked permission of them. "Why, had your bodies no heart among you," Brutus asks, making their approval sound like an act of cowardice on their part. Their tone is disapproving, and slightly chiding; their speech is meant to get the people to reverse their judgment, and feel that this is the right thing to do. The people seem like children here, easily convinced by Coriolanus, and then as easily manipulated by the tribunes. They truly show themselves to be fragments, not whole beings with their own autonomous powers of thought. Meanwhile, Brutus and Sicinius are doing all of this for their desire for power, and care little or nothing for the well-being of the state, or for Coriolanus' worthiness.