Scene 1 Summary:
Menenius speaks to Cominius and the two tribunes; they are asking him to go and plead with Coriolanus, though Menenius knows that if Coriolanus had previously ignored Cominius' pleas, he will be of no use to them. Menenius says that the tribunes, who arranged for him to get thrown out of the city, should be the ones to beg Coriolanus to stop his attack on Rome. Menenius scolds the tribunes for making such a mess, since Coriolanus seems unlikely to show Rome any mercy in this case. However, the tribunes finally persuade Menenius to confront Coriolanus.
Coriolanus seems absolutely determined to destroy Rome at this phase. He even says that he cannot leave "one poor grain or twounburnt" while the rest of Rome is "musty chaff" that needs destruction; this metaphor shows that Coriolanus' mercy, even for his wife, child, and mother, is far outburdened by his great wrath. Menenius, for all his wisdom, misjudges Coriolanus' resolve as well; he figures that once he has eaten and is relaxed, it will be possible to dissuade him from battle.
However, Coriolanus is hardly a man who can be defeated by food and drink; Menenius will be very lucky to make any headway with him at all. However, Cominius is right; if anyone will be able to turn him, it will be his mother. Since his mother is the person with whom he seems to share the strongest bond, she will turn him, if he is able to be turned at all.
Scene 2 Summary:
Menenius finally goes to find Coriolanus; he asks the two watchmen of Coriolanus' tent if he may be admitted to see him. They are adamant that Coriolanus will admit no one to see him, despite Menenius' assertions that he knows Coriolanus, and Coriolanus will definitely want to see him. He thinks he is being clever when he asks if Coriolanus has already dined; but this knowledge will do him absolutely no good if he cannot be admitted to see him. Menenius is lucky when Coriolanus and Aufidius come upon him. Menenius is confident now that he has seen Coriolanus, and scolds the watchmen for trying to keep him away, and denying that he knew Coriolanus. Menenius calls Coriolanus "my son," and tries to connect with him emotionally with his pleas. However, Coriolanus does not even listen; he simply tells Menenius that he did care for him, and to leave immediately. Menenius says that he believes Coriolanus will destroy himself through his own folly, and exchanges a few more hostile words with the watchmen.
Coriolanus' words certainly prove that he is resolved to be Rome's destroyer. "Wife, mother, child, I know not," he says; he is genuinely lacking in mercy, which has been devoured by anger. His rage and temper have taken him over at this time; however, Coriolanus' anger has proved not to be too long-lived in the play, so it is possible that it might be broken down. But, Menenius knows what the end of Coriolanus' stubbornness will be. "He that hath a will to die by himself fears it not from another," he says of Coriolanus; Menenius' words foreshadow Coriolanus' own undoing, and carelessness on his own part that will be the cause.
Scene 3 Summary:
Coriolanus and Aufidius are planning their battle; they will lay siege to Rome tomorrow, settling outside the city walls. Coriolanus also asks Aufidius to testify to his steadfastness against entreaties from Rome, which Aufidius says he will definitely do. But, his mother, wife and child have come to him; he says that he will still be resolute, and relays his feelings upon seeing each of them to Aufidius, so that Aufidius knows exactly what is going on in the mind of his ally.
Coriolanus is moved by the sight of his wife, mother, and child standing before them; he betrays tenderness at seeing them, but tries his best to hold this back, and be resolute in his decision. His mother kneels before him, which seems to be a reversal of the suitable situation, so he pulls her to her feet. Volumnia impresses upon him how an attack on Rome would be like an attack on his wife and children; she presses her position as his mother, and his affection for her. Finally, he caves in; he asks Aufidius to tell him if he was weak or if he did the right thing, and Aufidius backs him up. Aufidius is glad that Coriolanus has fallen from grace, so that he may reclaim his preeminence with his people. Coriolanus asks his mother and wife to stay for a while, although he says he is going to stay with Aufidius, rather than go back to Rome with them.
"Shall I be tempted to infringe my vow in the same time 'tis made," Coriolanus says, of his promise to not cave to any Roman please for mercy; Coriolanus's words foreshadow his fall, and his undoing, in this scene. He attempts to deny his emotions at seeing his family there, before him; his tone becomes removed, and he attempts to be emotionally neutral in this trying situation. However, his diction betrays his real feelings; he lingers on his wife's "dove's eyes," how he seems to "melt" when he sees her. He says that his mother bowing to him is like "Olympus [bowing] to a molehill," which shows his great respect for her, which he has not forsaken. These statements show that Coriolanus is indeed vulnerable, although he tries his best not to cave in to them.
Volumnia bowing to Coriolanus is ironic not only because she is his mother, but because it is she who holds the true power in this situation. Pretending to be a supplicant only strengthens her position, as it plays for his sympathy as well as his love and sense of duty. "Let the pebbles on the hungry beach fillip the stars," Coriolanus says, when his mother bows; this continues his metaphor of her greatness versus his humbleness, associating himself with the pebbles, and herself with the stars.
In this scene, Coriolanus actually says a few words to his wife, though she remains a remote, chaste woman in her characterization in the play. The "moon" and an "icicle" are symbols that represent Valeria's chastity; Coriolanus is the opposite of these cold symbols, having a fiery temper, and being a warrior like he is. As Coriolanus says, he is full of "rages and revenges," while his mother and Valeria are possessed of "colder reasons"; his emotions contrast with his mother's collected rationality, though they will not be able to stand up to her strong reasoning.
Volumnia's language, as she tries to persuade Coriolanus to back down, is sprinkled with words and images of violence, and reminders that he is her son. She says that they will have to watch him "tearing his country's bowels out" if he attacks, the diction conveying the violence and unnaturalness of this action. He will "shed [his] wife and children's blood" through the attack, and also "treadon [his] mother's womb." Volumnia is testing her son's mercy, a theme which is the biggest consideration in the question of whether he will attack Rome or not. Words like these pose Coriolanus' attack as a personal attack on his loved ones; it is a clever rhetorical strategy to use on a man with such personal unions at stake.
"O mother! Mother! What have you done?" Coriolanus cries after his mother's please have succeeded with him, though Coriolanus admits this might be "most mortal to him." Some critics have argued that Volumnia is responsible for the death and undoing of her son, since she forces him to take the step that will lead to his death, namely turning against his alliance with Aufidius. Also, she forced him to take the first step that got him into trouble, which was running for the office of consul. Had Volumnia not pushed her son into the political arena, he would never be in the position of an enemy of Rome. However, if Coriolanus had not been so proud, and so dependent upon his mother, she would never have succeeded with him. Is Volumnia responsible for her son's undoing? She plays a definite part in it, and is definitely guilty of manipulating him against his better sense; however, how much responsibility she bears is debatable.
Aufidius' intent with regards to Coriolanus becomes clear in this scene. He is glad that Coriolanus has backed down so that he can regain his former position; although he was quick to embrace Coriolanus as a friend, still, he never trusted him fully. Now that Coriolanus' will has been broken, he becomes dependent upon Aufidius; his diction and tone are that of a child when he tells Aufidius that he will not go with his mother, he would like to stay with the Volscians. Coriolanus' insecurity, another theme that becomes apparent in his interactions with his mother, comes through when he begs Aufidius to say that he was not weak, and did the right thing. Coriolanus attempts to speak with dignity after he caves in, but he is already compromised; with a mother as strong as his own, it is unlikely he will ever really be able to defy her.
Scene 4 Summary:
Menenius believes that Volumnia and Valeria have no hope of prevailing with Coriolanus, as he tells Sicinius. Sicinius believes that there is no way that Coriolanus has grown so strong and resistant to his mother in that time, but Menenius thinks that banishment has made Coriolanus a much harder man. A messenger reports to them that Brutus, the other tribune, is being held by the people; and if peace cannot be made with Coriolanus, they threaten to kill him. But, another messenger enters, and says that Coriolanus has decided to make peace. Menenius is glad, though he is surprised that this has happened; he tells Sicinius to be thankful that he has gotten so lucky, and awaits Volumnia and Virgilia's return.
Menenius says the difference between the Coriolanus of old and the Coriolanus that is allied with the Volscians is that of "a grub and a butterfly"; the metaphor shows how Coriolanus has grown into his glory, and finally seems to be a true leader of men. Menenius also says that he has "grown from man to dragon"; Menenius thinks he is a real force to be stopped, rather than the vulnerable man he was before.
Coriolanus, he thinks, has turned into the "engine," or machine of war, that he was always able to become, and alludes to Alexander the Great in trying to explain the change in him. But, Menenius underestimates the power that Volumnia still has on Coriolanus; he certainly remembers her, and his fondness for her will mean his collapse."There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger," Menenius continues to protest; this metaphor is meant to convince others of Coriolanus' hardness, but, ironically, this war machine that Coriolanus really has become finally has mercy where he did not before.
"This is good news," Menenius says, when he hears of Coriolanus' surrender. This statement is very ironic, since it only heralds the beginning of troubles for Rome. This means that Rome is safe from Coriolanus, but it doesn't mean that it is safe from the Volscians; now, not only have they lost their best military leader, they have lost a leader in their enemy army from whom they were safe. And, the fact that there is no war means that the tribunes are still in power, and can continue to meddle with the state. Not all is well now that Coriolanus has surrendered, and Coriolanus' banishment will likely continue to have consequences for Rome.
Scene 5 Summary:
Volumnia and Virgilia return, and Volumnia is praised by a senator for talking Coriolanus down. The senator calls for sacrifices to be made, and celebration that they will not be attacked; also, he believes that Coriolanus should now be recalled from banishment.
Scene 6 Summary:
Aufidius meets with some conspirators, and speaks to them of the situation with Coriolanus. Aufidius knows that his kindness and trust in Coriolanus has cost him; he wants to go with the people's will, but knows that Coriolanus is still a rival for power. Finally, he decides that it is his duty to kill Coriolanus, and assume his full power once again. The conspirators remind him that Coriolanus was shortly a great enemy of the people, and he can easily use this to justify killing him. The lords of the city do not know of Aufidius' plan of murder, but they are upset at Coriolanus for calling off the entire production, and taking all authority upon himself in the decision.
When Coriolanus comes to them with the treaty that has been arranged with Rome, Aufidius immediately accuses him of treason for giving up the entire war because his wife and mother cried before him. Coriolanus explodes at this charge; he boasts that he is greater than Aufidius by far, and he was able to tear that state apart not too long ago.
Coriolanus stirs the lords and Aufidius into a rage with his angry boasts, and they are so enraged by his words that Aufidius kills him, cheered on by all but one lord. That one lord says that Coriolanus is too noble to have been killed; but, Aufidius insists that he was far too dangerous to be left alive. Still, there is sorrow that he is dead; even Aufidius admits that he is struck with sadness. They decide to honor Martius Coriolanus' memory, and give him a hero's funeral.
Aufidius declares that he is "by his own alms impoisoned, and with his charity slain"; these words are a paradox, but it is true that Aufidius' generosity with Coriolanus has set him back. Aufidius' concern foreshadows Coriolanus' coming fall; for Aufidius knows Coriolanus' flaws and failings, which he will be able to capitalize on in order to gain control once again. Although Coriolanus took his own backing down as a personal decision, Aufidius knows that he cannot ignore the consequences that this decision had on his entire army. This situation shows how much more perceptive Aufidius is of the big picture, and the lack of foresight and care for consequences that Coriolanus has.
Coriolanus gets himself into trouble through the issue and theme of authority, once again; he does not have an official position in the Volscian ranks, yet he assumes that he has ultimate control, especially about calling off the war and making a hasty treaty with Rome. Coriolanus' tendency to act as an autonomous being, and assume authority for his actions, will go over worse with the Volscians than with the Romans; at least in Rome, he had a position and a reputation as a servant of the state, whereas he has no such reputation there.
Coriolanus, in the end, is killed by his own flaws and vices. Not even in Volscia was he able to learn to compromise, and lead in cooperation with others; and overall, it doesn't seem like he was able to learn much from being banished from Rome. He is still proud, angry, vengeful, and inflammatory when he dies; his tone and words are very much the same as they were when he got angry at the people, and was banished. He even draws his own sword before he is stabbed, indicating that he was not at all passive in this situation. Coriolanus' aggression, pride, etc. are as responsible for his downfall as any treachery or mistrust on Aufidius' part.
Although Coriolanus ends up being a victim of his own flaws, and also of his own military prowess (which allowed him to almost destroy the city of Corioles), he did have redeeming qualities, as the Volscians recognize immediately after his death. He was a heroic individual, with great strength and great abilities on the battlefield. He was a man who could inspire like-minded people as well, as shown by his interactions with the war-hungry Volscians. He was also a man of honor and integrity, despite his many flaws.
The ending of the play is abrupt; Aufidius only takes a few moments to get over killing Coriolanus, and profess that he feels sad. The ending is akin to the one in Hamlet, where the main character is killed through treachery, and then immediately declared noble and to be remembered as a good person. However, this ending is not as elegant as the one from Hamlet because it is all too sudden; it just seems unbelievable that Aufidius and the others could be so intent upon killing Coriolanus, and then completely repent of this action only moments after they carry it out.
Is Coriolanus fated to death? The best answer is yes, he was. He was a man unsuited to the time and place that he was living in. He might have succeeded as a sole ruler in a time and place when tyranny was allowed, but as he was, in a republican city, answering to others, and not appreciated for his triumphs in war, he could only be a dangerous individual. His flaws were too deeply ingrained for him to be able to simply shake them off, and he was crippled by his mother's strong will as well. One of the points of Shakespeare's play is that Coriolanus is simply outside of his own time; he is doomed from the start, which makes his failure an even more tragic one.