Scene 1 Summary:
Lartius informs Coriolanus that Tullus Aufidius and the Volscians have raised a new army against them; but Cominius thinks that they are still too weak to make an attack on Rome. Aufidius is at Antium, they tell Coriolanus, and Coriolanus expresses desire to see him there so that they can fight once again. Then, the tribunes enter, and Coriolanus greets them with words of displeasure. The tribunes announce that the people have changed their mind, and that Coriolanus now does not have the consent he needs in order to become consul. Coriolanus knows that this is a play for power, and warns the senate that if they allow this to succeed, they will never be able to truly rule the people again.
Brutus and Sicinius continue to attack Coriolanus' character, which gets him thoroughly angry; although Cominius, Menenius, and the other senators beg him not to get angry and react out of this anger, Coriolanus is not able to hold his tongue. He tells them that the people have been allowed too much freedom, and that by allowing them some of the privileges of the nobles, they have become insolent and spoiled. He also chides the senators for allowing the tribunes to take the floor and assume power in the manner they are doing. He says that the people do not deserve corn for sitting in the city while it was in danger, or for trying to disrupt the state; they need to contribute in order to receive, Coriolanus believes. After Coriolanus also condemns the tribunes for their bad leadership and the people for believing in them, the two tribunes call the people to confront Coriolanus, so that they might throw him out of the city.
The people and the aediles rush in, while the senators rush to Coriolanus' side, and Menenius calls for everyone to stay calm during this confrontation. Sicinius speaks to the people, trying to stir them up rather than calm them down; the senators allow him to speak, and to assume far more authority than he was ever given, or should have in his position. Brutus and Sicinius say that Coriolanus has committed treason through his remarks, and should be taken to the Tarpeian rock and hurled off, which is the traditional punishment for traitors. Coriolanus resists, though; he says he'd prefer to die fighting them, and will not let them just drag him off. Menenius and Cominius manage to talk him down, and convince him to go home while they try to patch things up. The senators say that Coriolanus has messed things up for himself, but Menenius knows that he is just too noble to be a politician.
Menenius confronts the tribunes, who are still calling for Coriolanus to pay through a traitor's death. Menenius says that this is nonsense, Rome should not kill any who have given noble service; he tries to convince them that Coriolanus is merely flawed, but to throw him out might mean internal war for Rome. Menenius is now supposed to fetch Coriolanus and meet the tribunes and the people at the marketplace, so some kind of judgment can be pronounced for Coriolanus.
Coriolanus' remark that he would like to face Aufidius again is clearly foreshadowing, and this mention of Aufidius means that he will doubtless show up later in the play. The contrast between Coriolanus' fierce response to the tribunes and his expression of longing to see Aufidius truly shows where Coriolanus' interest lies. Again, this change in subject shows Coriolanus speaking with interest, and a tone of honor and longing, and then changing abruptly to a tone full of scorn, when the tribunes come.
Although Coriolanus pronounces the tribunes "the tongues o' th' common mouth" out of anger, ironically, he is more right than he knows; he has no idea that they have put words into the people's mouths, and are there to play their part as tongues before the senate. This metaphor of the people as a mouth and the tribunes as tongues continues Coriolanus' discussion of them as voices. By this point, they have truly become little disembodied parts, mouths with other tongues, and voices controlled by others' will.
Coriolanus' declaration that to listen to this attempt to grab away power will mean that the senate will have to relinquish some control is a pronouncement of another theme of the play. The rebellion that is the center of this play represents a shift in politics that will transform Rome; and the more power and autonomy the people gain through this rebellion, the less likely it is that the senate will ever be able to subdue them. The rift between the people and the senate, once made, can never be repaired; Coriolanus knows this, although these events seem almost to be an inevitable consequence of progress.
Coriolanus' argument also lights upon another theme and hotbed issue of the play, that of class structure and privileges. Coriolanus, and the play at large, espouse the idea that the class system is necessary and justified, and that the common people need guidance rather than rights. This idea is very much in keeping with Jacobean ideas about absolutism, that held that the people need discipline and leadership, but were too weak and lacking in wisdom to make decisions for themselves. Coriolanus speaks with pointed, exacting diction about his thoughts on the people; he calls them out for their "rebellion, insolence, sedition," expressing his views with a formal, political tone that seems uncharacteristic of his brash, often inarticulate character. It is ironic that Coriolanus is only able to summon up this clear, authoritative speech only when it is too late for him to help himself; he takes a very convincing stand here as a leader, though unfortunately he is doomed by the will of the people and the devices of the tribunes.
Coriolanus makes several allusions when speaking of the tribunes, and these allusions help to characterize his view of the tribunes and the people as well. Sicinius is a "Triton of the minnows," Coriolanus says; this allusion makes Coriolanus' objections to Sicinius' power very clear. He calls the people "Hydra," the name of a mythical snake with many heads; this figure was sometimes associated with the people, but its mention shows that Coriolanus doesn't think of the people as individuals, or as being as human as he and the patricians are. Coriolanus also calls upon "Jove" to bolster the authority of the senate, and this association makes the power of this body seem more legitimate.
Menenius' pronouncement about Coriolanus' character is intended to be an overall pronouncement that conveys the sentiments of the play. Menenius statement that "his nature is too noble for the world" translates into a theme of the play, the past vs. progress. As a hero figure straight out of Roman myth and legend, Coriolanus is noble, fulfills his duties, and is truly larger than life in his strength and abilities; however, he lives in times that require compromises, politicking, and debates, which Coriolanus is completely unsuitable for. "His heart's his mouth," Menenius also says, which means that Coriolanus cannot feel something without immediately expressing it. These convey how noble but rash Coriolanus is, and how transparent his character can be, though some find it hard to understand.
Sicinius' and Brutus' words, during this encounter, are poisonous, but lacking truth. They call Coriolanus a "viperous traitor," and a "disease"; their diction is clearly inflamed by anger, and guided by dislike rather than truth. "He's a limb that has but a disease," Menenius counters; his metaphor more accurately testifies to the dangers of throwing Coriolanus out of Rome. Menenius' statement here foreshadows Coriolanus' turn against Rome, and the great damage that it threatens to do to the city; it will be nearly "mortal" to throw him out, and probably would have been easier to keep him and reform him. Again, Menenius returns to his metaphor of Rome as a body, and his comparison of Coriolanus to a limb shows how big of a part of this state he truly is.
Scene 2 Summary:
Coriolanus says that he will be how he is, and doesn't want to compromise with the people even if it means death to him. He says he would rather be the man he is, though his mother has a problem with this argument of his. She chides him for messing things up before he could gain his power as a consul. Menenius and his mother ask him to mend things as best he can, though Coriolanus is too proud to apologize or take back his words. Volumnia tells him that it would only be a slight violation of his nature and his pride to mend things, and it would be better for everyone overall.
Coriolanus does not speak, but lets his mother and Menenius say what they will; when they have finished with their proposals, he says he will resign himself to their wills, and will try to ask forgiveness of the people. Still, he is reluctant to actually do what he has to; he says that pretending to be obsequious would be a complete betrayal of himself. His mother then tells him not to be so proud, and that she is ashamed of him. He immediately changes his tune, and says that he will go to the people. Cominius and Menenius beg him to answer "mildly" to the people, and Coriolanus goes off to face them.
This scene shows Volumnia and Coriolanus' relationship more clearly than has been depicted earlier in the work. Although Coriolanus does not want to listen to the better judgements of Menenius, who is a trusted and wise friend, he is obviously close enough with his mother that he would listen to her without interrupting her, and actually consider taking her advice. He acts like an obedient son rather than a strong, independent man in this scene; his mother's presence and advice seems to subdue him when nothing else could.
Volumnia has the political sense that her son lacks; if she were in his place, she would be able to patch things up, but he is just unable to do what she wants. Volumnia and Coriolanus' earlier exchange about him becoming consul, and his statement that he would rather serve the people in his own way, foreshadows this moment of conflict. Remembering back to that moment, it also becomes clear that Volumnia was far more eager for her son to be consul than he was to gain the position himself; she feeds off his glory, but seems to be steering him toward a direction he does not want to take. "My praises made thee first a soldier," Volumnia says; from this line, it is apparent that Volumnia has a tremendous influence on her son, and that he has been guided by her in the past.
Coriolanus' tone and manner are in direct opposition to how they were before. "Must I with my base tongue give to my noble heart a lie that it must bear," he asks himself; "well, I will do't," he answers immediately, seeming much calmer than before. His tone seems purged of anger, and his diction betrays a clarity of thought here; still, his words betray reluctance to act penitent, when he feels that he has done nothing wrong at all. Soon, his distaste for his mission overwhelms his resolve to go to the people; he makes metaphors comparing himself to a beggar, and creates images of knaves and schoolboys' tears making a mockery of his soldier's face. Even after his mother's words override his will once again, his reticence is still apparent; if he goes through with this, he will lose confidence in himself, but if he does not, his mother and the senators will be angry with him.
Scene 3 Summary:
Brutus and Sicinius are preparing to accuse Coriolanus in front of the people. They know that if he gets angry, his case will be ruined and he will not be able to restrain himself, so they resolve to upset him as soon as they can. Coriolanus comes with the senators and Menenius, who advises Coriolanus to stay calm during this encounter. The confrontation takes the form of a trial, with Menenius advocating for Coriolanus to the people, and with Sicinius, Brutus, and the aediles trying to prove Coriolanus guilty of treason. This is not a court of fact, but rather one of opinion, that takes advantage of the people's prejudices and preconceptions to determine whether they will judge Coriolanus guilty or not.
Sicinius' official charge to Coriolanus is that he sought to be a tyrant, and that is the source of his treason. Coriolanus bursts out, with curses against the people; Sicinius immediately uses this to condemn him, and calls for a traitor's death, although Brutus disagrees with this harshness. But Coriolanus has another outburst, and all chances of damage control are dashed. Sicinius finally says that Coriolanus must be banished, and the people back him in this; Coriolanus takes this as a final sentence, and decides he must act upon it, and leave the city. The people, tribunes and aediles rejoice that they are getting rid of "the people's enemy," though Coriolanus has not yet become a true enemy of Rome.
Although the tribunes are full of deceit, they are still very perceptive, and have the necessary cleverness to pull off a plan like their own. They are well aware what Coriolanus' weaknesses are, and how to incriminate him through his own reactions to them. A bit about Roman voting practices becomes clear at this point; the tribunes make an allusion to the custom of voting by tribes, a system that means casting votes by district. This is a precursor to our own system, in which votes are counted in districts; the other Roman method of voting was by class, though this practice ensured that whomever the patricians favored would be elected.
Note Sicinius' charge; it is not based upon actions that Coriolanus actually did take, but on intent and allegations. This charge of attempted tyranny is ironic in several respects; first, because Coriolanus preferred to have no political power, rather than to be consul, as his mother urged him to. Secondly, it is the tribunes who are trying to usurp power that is not their own; the consulship, by law, holds a good deal more power than the position of tribune, and they are trying to do away with this position in order to take power for themselves. The charge that the tribunes level against Coriolanus is one that only they can be counted guilty of.
However, Coriolanus makes a very grave and elementary mistake in assuming that the tribunes actually speak for the people, and that an accusation from Sicinius is tantamount to an accusation by the people. Rather than just get angry at Sicinius for the false charge, he gets mad and curses at the peoplea move which condemns him. His tone is ruled by anger and hate"the fires I'th' lowest hell fold in the people," he declares, showing a great, unwarranted ferocity.
Words vs. actions is a theme that tricks Coriolanus again and again; in battle, he is used to his mighty strokes being victorious, but here he does not realize that he cannot use his words like a sword, stabbing people indiscriminately with them and expecting them, in turn, to be so easily defeated. Coriolanus, when he is angry, is very prone to overstatement; "I would not buy [the people's] mercy with one fair word," he says, his emotions overcoming his rational self. Menenius was completely correct when he said Coriolanus was a man who showed plainly what he feels; this is a very good example of this tendency at work in him.
Sicinius' language in this announcement of banishment is cleverly worded, in order to rally the people against Coriolanus, but also state the sticky truth about the situation. He finally says that Coriolanus attacked the ministers of the state, meaning himself and Brutus, rather than simply stating that he has wronged the people, which is not true. He takes the mantle of justice upon himself, saying he is one of those whose charge is to distribute it; and he also assumes the mantle of the people, saying that he is acting on their will when he banishes Coriolanus.
By assuming all these mantles, Sicinius' maneuvers become more clear; he is usurping the power of the state at large, since the masses and the tribunes hardly count as the whole body of the state. But, when he has the force of the people behind him, stirred up by his incendiary remarks, he is very hard to stop. Still, Cominius and Menenius might have been able to delay the decision, had Coriolanus not taken it as a final pronouncement.
Coriolanus' words foreshadow the people's repentance later in the play; "have the power to banish your defenders," he says, and they will realize later how ignorant they were, which does happen later in the play. "The people's enemy is gone," the aediles and people cry, once this scene has ended. This is ironic, however, because it is only with Coriolanus' banishment that he truly becomes Rome's enemy, and now the people are left with the tribunes, who are can even more aptly be described as enemies of the people than Coriolanus can.