Scene 1 Summary:
Coriolanus is saying farewell to Virgilia, Volumnia, Menenius, Cominius, and other various members of the nobility; he tells them to keep their tears, and tells his mother to keep her strength about her. Coriolanus thinks that Rome will learn to appreciate him when he is gone, though he seems to have no ideas about returning any time soon. He tries to cheer his mother, and reassure Menenius that he will be fine while he is gone; Volumnia urges him to take Cominius with him for a time, which Coriolanus consents to do. Then, taking Cominius with him, Coriolanus leaves the city of Rome.
Coriolanus is unflinching in his distaste for the people; he calls them "the beast with many heads," a good metaphor conveying their seemingly singular views on cases like these, and their status as not-quite-individual beings. Cominius also comes out with another graceful metaphor, conveying the crux of his situation; "fortune's blows when most struck home, being gentle wounded craves a noble cunning," he says, continuing his metaphor of people to ships, and fortune to the sea. Fortune is a theme that has determined Coriolanus' fate thus far, and will continue to steer his course through the rest of the play.
There is one reference to the plague, which appears in this scene; "now the red pestilence strikes," Volumnia says, which seems out of time and out of character with this Roman setting. The plague recurred several times during Shakespeare's career, most notably in the early 1590's, when theaters were closed for months. This singular reference would have been important to the audience, who were in constant fear of the plague, since it recurred often, and took many lives during this period.
Here, Coriolanus shows the bravery that his mother taught him, and even manages to outdo her in decorum. He calls for her to act like the "wife of Hercules," an allusion that shows her steely strength. The amount of regard Coriolanus has for his well-wishers is shown by how long he speaks to each of them during this goodbye scene. Of course, he speaks most to his mother, with only two brief goodbyes to his wife. He also dwells on Menenius, and answers his mother's concerns and protestations, but leaves his wife's cries of grief unanswered. Coriolanus' wife is clearly not of great importance in his life, as seen by his lack of speech to her, and also his smaller amount of concern for her.
Coriolanus certainly seems changed in this scene; his tone is calm and resigned, he shows grace in the face of this new trial, and tries not to fall into anger and blame about what has happened to him. His speech actually becomes eloquent, with the image-laden metaphor about the ship and the sea being the most notable example. Also, he shows care and concern for those he is leaving behind; he is not selfish in this time of trial, but rather wishes for them to be as calm and collected as he is at this moment. Coriolanus' resolve and bravery at this moment are admirable, though it is unclear if this trial has changed him, or how.
Scene 2 Summary:
Sicinius and Brutus decide to get all the patricians gone; they will act more humble now that they have thrown Coriolanus out, and pretend that the senate has all its power back. Volumnia, Virgilia, and Menenius enter; the tribunes want to avoid them, since they know all of them are grieved, but Volumnia finds them and rails at them a little. Volumnia curses them for casting out a man who has done more for Rome than they ever will; she says she wishes they had to face him in battle, because they would surely be defeated then. After she speaks for a while, the tribunes leave to escape her wrath; Volumnia is very angry over what they have done, and admits that this anger threatens to take her over.
Volumnia, although she is a Roman woman steeped in tradition, manages to take on the power and authority of a man here when talking to the tribunes. Only men are supposed to speak in public in Roman society, which is the cause of Sicinius' shocked question, "are you mankind," when she begins to lecture him in public. This kind of outburst would also be uncharacteristic in Shakespeare's time, when women were also supposed to have a very peripheral public role. With her son gone, however, Volumnia assumes the authority and the voice that he had; rather than exhort him to speak and to do the right thing, she is taking all of this upon herself in his absence. This altercation presents a good example of the theme of gender roles and expectations in the work, which Volumnia is definitely defying in her outburst here.
One of the lessons of the play is stated here; "as far as doth the Capitol exceed the meanest house in Rome, so far [Coriolanus]does exceed you all," Volumnia says to the tribunes. This analogy brings attention back to the themes of class and worth expressed in the play; Coriolanus seems to be above the tribunes for his social status as well as his accomplishments, and is more worthy because of his use in battle. Overall, this statement proves true; Coriolanus defended Rome from her enemies, which was a necessary service of the state, whereas the tribunes managed to jumble things up in a selfish quest for power. The overall message of the play is that Coriolanus is indeed flawed, but his virtues and strengths still make him an asset to the city.
Scene 3 Summary:
Nicanor, a Roman, and Adrian, a Volscian, meet to exchange news. They have met before, and seem to be rather cordial with each other, aided by the fact that Nicanor has defected from the Roman state, probably to serve Coriolanus. Nicanor tells Adrian that the Roman state is in unrest, with the people and tribunes fighting the wills of the patricians and nobles. He also tells Adrian that Coriolanus has been banished, which Adrian takes as a good sign, since the Volscians are considering another attack on Rome now that it is in turmoil. The two leave together, with Nicanor promising to tell Adrian strange tales of all that is currently happening in Rome.
As Nicanor says, "the fittest time to corrupt a man's wife is when she's fallen out with her husband"; it will be a feat for Rome to stand against Aufidius, now that Coriolanus has gone, and the state is in such a mess. Already, the mistake of the people and the tribunes becomes very clear, and this conversation foreshadows great dangers to the Roman state, now that her chief defender is gone, and her enemies regrouped and ready.
Scene 4 Summary:
Coriolanus enters, disguised as a man of humble station; he has arrived in Antium, where Aufidius is reported to be. He comes upon a citizen, who confirms that Aufidius is in the town, having a feast at his home. Coriolanus resolves to go and see Aufidius; if Aufidius kills him, that is only honorable, but if not, he decides he will offer his service to the Volscians.
The theme of enemy and friend is crucial in Coriolanus' banishment, and his attempts to join his former enemy. If Aufidius' conception of Coriolanus is so strong that he cannot allow himself to accept him as a friend, then Coriolanus is definitely dead. But, if Aufidius can see how Coriolanus might be better used, then Coriolanus might just become a friend, rather than an enemy. Coriolanus and Aufidius were enemies because they were on opposing sides before; but can a relationship as intense as the one they have morph into an alliance, now that they are both enemies of Rome?
Coriolanus is well aware of the irony of his situation, that his former friends are now his enemy, and his greatest enemy might just become his friend. His assertion that he and Aufidius shall "grow great friends" foreshadows this occurring; for if Coriolanus, in all his anger and rashness, can accept Aufidius as a friend, then likely the more cool-headed and considerate Aufidius will do the same.
Scene 5 Summary:
Three servingmen are rushing about in Aufidius' house; Coriolanus enters, but is immediately stopped by the servingmen, and told to leave. They do their best to convince him to go, but he will not; they fetch Aufidius, to see this business over with. Aufidius comes to see the strange visitor; Coriolanus finally reveals himself, and asks if his old enemy can remember him in his present guise. Aufidius does not recognize him, so Coriolanus tells him that he is Caius Martius, former enemy to the Volscians, and formerly of Rome. He tells Aufidius that he cannot do anything but serve Aufidius, and will be in his service against Rome, if Aufidius decides not to kill him.
Aufidius is touched by this, and accepts Coriolanus' help immediately. They embrace, and Aufidius swears to take him as an ally, and together they will revenge Coriolanus against Rome. Aufidius takes the surprising step of giving Coriolanus half of his troops to command; this means that Aufidius trusts Coriolanus thoroughly, and has a lot of hopes for his ability to triumph. He decides that Coriolanus should make their strategy for attacking Rome, and would be the best judge of how to handle their battle plan.
The servingmen are shocked that Aufidius embraced his enemy so readily, and that he has also given him a great deal of command. They all insist that they thought Coriolanus was better than he appeared in the disguise; they are aware of his reputation, and believe that he must be a truly great warrior. One of the servingmen is a bit alarmed that Aufidius seems to have too much regard for Coriolanus. However, all three welcome war as a cure for the malaise of peace, and approve of Aufidius' plan to join with Coriolanus and have battle with Rome.
Suddenly, Coriolanus is able to formulate a clear and appealing case for himself; if only he had been able to do this before the Roman people, he would have been consul, and not banished. Once he has stepped back into his favored role of lone warrior and rival to Aufidius, he gains all the nobility and honor that was hard to distinguish in him when he was trying to be consul. He surrenders to Aufidius as he could never force himself to surrender to his mother or to the people, and gains a certain dignity in his ability to do this. Coriolanus is a paradox of a man, in terms of qualities and abilities; he is hotheaded and offensive, while at other times he can be calm and persuasive. He has the ability to be a great leader when he gets to act alone and remains unquestioned, but when he is challenged and leads with others, he turns into an unbearable person.
Aufidius' regard for Coriolanus is immediately apparent in his words; "each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart a root of ancient envy," Aufidius tells him, this metaphor conveying the huge effect of Coriolanus' pledge to him. His allusion to Jupiter, and statement that he would trust Coriolanus' words above those spoken by this lofty deity, tell of Aufidius' trust in Coriolanus' honor and honesty. He also says that Coriolanus is the "moon," another metaphor portraying Coriolanus' importance to Aufidius, this time through an image.
Here, again, there is a reappearance of the theme of love vs. battle, as Aufidius speaks of them both in the terms of love. Seeing Coriolanus before him, Aufidius says, "more dances my rapt heart than when I first saw my wedded mistress bestride my threshold"; as with Coriolanus, there is a definite sense that combat and the pursuits of war are more honorable, vital, and pleasurable than what their personal lives can afford them. However, Aufidius' description of dreaming about fighting Coriolanus suggests that there might be an erotic element to this rivalry as well. They have been "unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat," he says, in these desperate dreams he has had; the terms could be harmless, but the intensity and nature of their relationship is definitely something that should be questioned.
Several themes reappear in the servingmen's conversation that follows; one is that of class distinction, as the servingmen seem to be as fickle as the people of Rome in deciding what they think, and being influenced by others in this regard. Once Aufidius proclaims Coriolanus a great man, and his identity are revealed, they are easily swayed by Aufidius' opinion, and insist they suspected he was great from the beginning. Also, the theme of reputation is clearly at work in how they regard Coriolanus; since they have heard great and impressive things about him, they are well prepared to believe that all the rumors about his valor must be true.
The servingmen's alarm about Aufidius' sudden high regard for Coriolanus speaks about the suddenness, and perhaps the rashness of this decision; it also says that Aufidius' love for Coriolanus might be a little too much and too unquestioning in this tricky situation. Aufidius is making Coriolanus out to seem "son and heir to Mars," a metaphor that says that Aufidius might just be prizing him too highly. "Our general himself makes a mistress of him," they say, which again points to the very interesting and complicated dynamic between these two warriors.
The Volscians seem to have a view of war that is more akin to the ideals of ancient Rome than the ancient Romans did. The servingmen, as representatives of the common people, have a certain distaste for peace, which Coriolanus also shares; their belief that it creates idleness and indulgence reflects Coriolanus' past frustration with the fruitless efforts of the tribunes and the people. Their negative views of peace seem manifest in the needless disorder, chaos, and factions that make up Rome; perhaps Coriolanus, as a military hero, is fundamentally more suited to this place that has more respect for warriors and appreciation for war than Rome does.
Scene 6 Summary:
Sicinius and Brutus are discussing Coriolanus, and are glad that his threat is gone now that he has been banished. They claim that Rome is more peaceful and is working better since he left, which should shame his remaining friends and supporters. Menenius enters, and they broach the subject of Coriolanus not being missed by the people, though Menenius still believes it would have been better if he had been allowed to stay. The citizens seem obedient toward the tribunes, and glad for their help, which also makes the tribunes smug in their achievement.
However, an aedile announces that the Volscians have led an army into Roman provinces, and are causing war and destruction. The tribunes do not believe that Aufidius would march against them at such a time, though Menenius assures him that this is entirely possible, given the knowledge of Rome's weakened state. Then, the news that Coriolanus has joined with them comes out; they are surprised, and know that this means serious trouble. Menenius and Cominius then tell the tribunes how wrong they were to throw Coriolanus out. They also berate the citizens, who are gathered, though the citizens deny having spoken out against Coriolanus at all.
In this scene, Sicinius' and Brutus' doubt about their banishment of Coriolanus becomes more plain. They completely contradict their earlier negative claims about his achievements and character, saying that he was a "worthy officer in the war," whereas before they could hardly bring themselves to acknowledge any of his achievements. Their reassurance that he would have usurped all power seems a hollow one; they are clearly worried about what Coriolanus is up to, as their repeated inquiries about his whereabouts attest. However, the servingmen's conversation about the follies of peace foreshadow the decline of Rome without war; and the tribunes' smugness is amply repaid when news of Coriolanus' joint war with the Volscians becomes known.
When Cominius declares that Coriolanus and the Volscians are marching against them "with no less confidence than boys pursuing summer butterflies," it is clear that the Romans are really in danger. This metaphor attributes to the Volscians the same boldness and confidence that Coriolanus has always had; though Roman soldiers were never able to follow his example, it appears that he has finally found an army that can, meaning that they can surely outfight the Romans. The irony of the tribunes' mission has finally hit them, as the thing that they proclaimed would save Rome might prove to be its destruction.
Menenius speaks of the tribunes' foolishness in hanging on the "breath of garlic-eaters"; this is an allusion to the lower-class tradition of eating garlic, since it was very cheap and considered too vile to be consumed by the patrician class. Again, an allusion to Hercules is made in order to communicate Coriolanus' strength. Cominius also declares that "the people deserve such pity of him as the wolf does of the shepherds"; this metaphor continues Menenius' earlier comparison of Coriolanus to a lamb and the people to a wolf, and also conveys the irony that now the lamb, meaning Coriolanus, is the one out to get them.
The voice and dominance of the people is already ended as soon as it had begun, with the message that the people are unfit to make state decisions by themselves, and are too easily led by men like the tribunes, who seek to profit from their ignorance and herd mentality. The people show their weakness when they deny their resolution to throw Coriolanus out in this scene; they clearly lack the integrity and decision-making skill necessary to judge a treacherous situation. Cominius calls them "voices," alluding back to Coriolanus' earlier name for them; also, this emphasizes the idea of the people as fragments and parts, that do not add up to a whole.
Scene 7 Summary:
Aufidius' soldiers tell him of the men's great regard for Coriolanus; they are already very attached to him, and follow him with devotion. One soldier wishes that Aufidius had not given Coriolanus so much power; but Aufidius knows that he has the ultimate power, no matter what the relationship between the two men appears to be. He knows that Coriolanus will be extremely useful in trying to defeat Rome, and their chances of capturing it with him are very good. Coriolanus' merits are greater than his flaws, Aufidius decides; though, when Coriolanus has does his duty, Aufidius is not sure whether he will be kept around.
The contrast between how the Romans used and regarded Coriolanus and how the Volscians do could not be greater; all the comparisons between Coriolanus and a hero or god figure come to a head in this scene, with the assertion that Coriolanus has become some sort of god to the Volscian troops. This great devotion, coupled with the report that he is overshadowing Aufidius, foreshadows Coriolanus' fall; for if Coriolanus makes any of the blunders that he did in Rome, the Volscians will be far more disappointed, and probably will not be merciful. Also, there are hints that Aufidius is becoming jealous of Coriolanus' new stature, which also means that his glory will not last too long. Coriolanus has become "the foot of our design," a necessary part of the Volscians' new plan to conquer Rome.
Aufidius shows his foresight also in his estimation of the Roman people; they 'will be as rash in the repeal as hasty to expel him thence," he says of Coriolanus' banishment, knowing that the people are fickle, and this won't last forever. Aufidius proves himself a true foil to Coriolanus through his abundance of political insight and knowledge of human nature; Coriolanus may be a good warrior, but Aufidius has a far more developed sense of strategy than Coriolanus can claim to own.
"I think he'll be to Rome as is the osprey to the fish," Aufidius also says in this scene. The metaphor highlights Coriolanus' power, and his true dominance over Rome. He even guesses at Coriolanus' faults very accurately; his flaws are "pridedefect of judgment," and trying to control in peacetime as he did in war, which are all flaws that Coriolanus has. "He has a merit to choke it in the utt'rance" is Aufidius' final pronouncement on Coriolanus, meaning, his merits are greater than his flaws, but so bound up with them that he is difficult to praise.