A group of mutinous Roman citizens floods a street in Rome. One calls out to make sure that his fellow people are prepared to die instead of go hungry. He names Caius Martius as “chief enemy of the people,” and says that the people should kill him so that they can set their own price for corn. The mob shouts out in agreement, but a second citizen speaks out. The first citizen decries the fact that the patricians (aristocrats) are considered substantial while the rest of the citizens are forced to be poor.
The citizens’ emphasis on hunger and food is a departure from Shakespeare’s source material, and it can be seen in parallel with food-based riots in Shakespeare’s own time. The mob introduces the tense class divide in Rome. Part of the difference between classes is in resources: the rich have more and the poor have less. But in addition to wanting access to more resources, the citizens also desire a more respected position in society.
The first Roman citizen says that the surplus food that the ruling class “surfeits” on would be more than enough to humanely feed the common people and relieve the famine, but the aristocrats find this plan to be too expensive. What’s more, the famine that afflicts the lower-class, the citizen argues, is the very means of profit for the aristocrats. Therefore, the citizens should take revenge with pitchforks before they become as lean as rakes. The citizen clarifies that he speaks in hunger for bread, not thirst for revenge.
The word “surfeit” (excess) adds sentiments of gluttony and sin to the tactics of the ruling class, suggesting that the play’s moral stance might side with the citizens. The clarification about literal hunger vs. hunger for revenge indicates how hunger will be used in the play to represent both literal and figurative (but often violent) desires.
The second citizen asks if the mob is intent on getting revenge specifically on Caius Martius, even considering the service he has done for Rome. The mob says that they want revenge against Caius Martius first and foremost, since he is an enemy of the common people. The first citizen believes that all Caius Martius’s deeds were done for fame. While weak-minded people think Caius Martius served his country, the citizen says, really he only serves his mother and his pride. The second citizen protests that what the first citizen calls “vice” is merely Caius Martius’s nature, which is not self-serving in the slightest.
The citizens’ political views and fury about the class division are pitted against their respect for honor and heroism. While some would condone Martius’ elitism since he is an accomplished Roman soldier, others question if his violent deeds are truly genuine. One point of view holds that Martius is not a hero, since his Roman patriotism is just a ruse to cover pride and vanity, as well as an obligation to his family. His heroism is tied to his masculinity, and the citizen’s dig about Martius’ mother is another suggestion that he isn’t a genuine hero. In this perspective, a hero is defined not just by their deeds, but also by their true motivations (which ought to be service to Rome alone).
Shouts indicate that the other side of the city has risen up in revolt, and the Roman citizens prepare to make for the capitol. Before they can continue, however, the “worthy” Menenius Agrippa, a patrician recognized as a friend to the common people, enters the street. Menenius addresses the citizens as his countrymen and asks them what’s the matter and why they are carrying weapons. The second citizen explains that the Roman Senate knows full well what they have been planning and what they are now enacting. The Senate thinks that poor protesters have strong voices, and now they’ll see that they have strong arms as well.
Menenius is one of the few aristocrats trusted by the common people, attempting here to bridge the class divide. The citizens are becoming violent since they are viewed as only having voices, meaning that they are just opinions without substance, and that they are all talk. The use of “arms” is a pun, meaning both weapons and literal arms. The play is filled with references to different body parts, invoking the idea of the “body politic” that Menenius will soon use to pacify the violent citizens.
Speaking colloquially and emphasizing that he is a friend to the common people, Menenius asks why the citizens are undoing themselves. The citizens, though, believe they are already undone. Menenius tries to calm the crowd, saying that the patricians have only the best intentions for the citizens. They should direct all complaints about desires and their suffering in the famine to heaven, since it’s the gods causing everything, not the Roman state. The common people should take to their knees (i.e. pray to the gods) instead of taking up arms against the state. The people, Menenius says, have become carried away, causing them to slander the Roman leaders that are like fathers to the common people, not enemies.
Menenius’ colloquial language is carefully chosen to avoid seeming elitist and to reinforce the image of himself as a friend to the citizens. He then shifts the blame for the famine from the ruling class to the gods, relating to the citizens by looking upward to the ultimate ruling class above all humans. He continues to characterize the citizens with reference to body parts (knees) to reinforce his point. He also tries to redefine the political dynamic between the ruling and the ruled as a parental relationship.
The second Roman citizen, though, remains convinced that the patricians are causing the famine, that they support usury (illegally lending money at high interest), and that they prop up themselves and keep the poor suppressed. If the wars don’t “eat [the common people] up,” the citizen claims, the patricians will. Menenius responds that the citizens are either being extremely malicious or foolish, and he offers to better explain the situation with a “pretty tale.” On behalf of the mob, the second citizen agrees to listen to the tale, though he tells Menenius that a mere story will not get rid of the people’s hardships.
While the common people are hungry for food, they are also afraid that they in turn will be devoured by war. Consumption now refers to literal hunger, to figurative desires like revenge, to dying in war, and to the exploitive relationship of the governors to the governed. Menenius prepares to use words and a “tale” against action, showing how deft political maneuvering in the play is accomplished through language.
Menenius begins his tale of the belly: once there was a time when all of the different body parts rebelled against the belly, accusing it of being only a “gulf” in the middle of the body, lying idle and doing nothing. The mutinous body parts claimed that the belly stored all the food without doing any of the labor, like walking, seeing, hearing, feeling, or thinking. The second citizen asks for the belly’s response, but Menenius drags out the story, characterizing the belly as smiling and taunting. The second citizen presses Menenius for the belly’s answer to the mutinous parts, outlining a traditional idea of the “body politic” with “the kingly crownèd head, the vigilant eye, the counselor heart, the arm our soldier, our steed the leg, the tongue our trumpeter,” and he asks Menenius what the belly could possibly say if these other parts complained.
Menenius’ tale of the belly invokes the body politic, an analogy used to describe the relationship between ruler and ruled in which the king is the head of the body and the citizens and different aspects of society are different body parts. Menenius’ list of body parts shows that there are various roles to play in a functioning society. The body rebelling against itself is then an analogy for the fractured, divided city of Rome. While the rulers are usually the head of the body, Menenius places emphasis on the belly due to the citizens’ desire for food. He also carefully keeps them engaged in conversation rather than just orating at them.
After telling the second citizen to be patient, Menenius explains that the belly was deliberate in his answer. The belly responded that it’s true that he receives the food that the whole body lives on first, since he is the storehouse of the body, but he reminds the other parts that he is also responsible for sending that food through the blood to all of the different body parts. Even though it isn’t always apparent what the belly is doing, everyone lives on the substance he provides to them, while saving only the scraps for himself. The second citizen then asks Menenius how the common people should interpret the belly’s answer.
Menenius highlights the role that the belly plays, depicting the other limbs of the body as dependent on it. He does so in order to establish the plebeian class’s dependence on the patricians. Any grain surplus of the senate is thus recast as a storehouse that will soon be distributed throughout all of Rome, instead of a hoard of food for the greedy. While part of the political functionality in Rome is below the surface, Menenius insists that it operates in a way that is beneficial to everyone, with the citizens’ needs placed above the needs of senators.
Menenius explains that the senators of Rome are the belly, and the Roman citizens are the mutinous body parts. The senators “digest things rightly” for the common good, and all public benefits come from the senators, not from the citizens themselves. Menenius calls the second citizen a “toe of this assembly” and asks what he thinks. Menenius clarifies that the citizen is a toe because he is one of the “lowest, basest, poorest of the most wise rebellion,” but he leads out in front, hoping to get an advantage.
Menenius explains to the citizens what was outlined in the analysis above, namely that the belly represents the senators, who, he claims, are the sources of all the benefits and goodness in Roman society. Part of the reason this dependence must be established is that the citizens so outnumber the patricians. Calling the rebellion “most wise” is both flattering and sarcastic.
Caius Martius enters and asks what’s the matter, calling the common people “dissentious rogues” that “rubbing the poor itch of [their] opinion[s] make [themselves] scabs.” The second citizen comments that the people always have Caius Martius’s good word, but this sends Caius Martius into a rant. He says that giving good words to the common people is worse than flattery. The common people are dissatisfied with both war and peace, being afraid of war and becoming prideful in peacetime. They cannot be satisfied, and they are extremely fickle and ever changing in their opinions and desires, making them extremely untrustworthy. It’s outrageous, Caius Martius says, that the commoners are rising up against the senators who keep the citizens from devouring each other.
Martius almost immediately undoes Menenius’ work of soothing the people’s anger. Martius compares their opinions to itches and bodily irritation, suggesting that they are merely annoying and destructive. He expresses the elitist view that the plebeians are essentially a fickle, never-satisfied mob. His evocation of war emphasizes his heroic, military prowess while depicting the citizens as cowards. He claims that without the senators, the citizens would devour each other, both emphasizing the plebeian dependence on patricians and adding a new (cannibalistic) meaning to the imagery of food and consumption. Martius believes that without the social structure and the ruling class keeping the peace, the citizens would be consumed by chaos.
Menenius tells Caius Martius that the people want “corn at their own rates,” since they believe the city has a surplus of corn. Martius cries “hang ‘em!” outraged that the common people sit at home presuming to know what’s happening in the capital. He wishes the nobility would set their pity aside and let him slaughter the protesters. Menenius tells him that there’s no need for that, since he has almost persuaded this cowardly group.
While the citizens believe they are not treated humanely by the senators, Martius wishes the senators would be less humane and allow them to exhibit his violent capabilities by killing all the revolting citizens. His criticism of the common people drives at the idea that many form strong opinions without any basis for them.
Menenius asks for the status of the other group of citizens on the other side of the city, and Caius Martius reports that the group has dissolved after saying that they were hungry and listing proverbs and demands, until they were granted a strange resolution. The city has granted “five tribunes to defend their vulgar wisdoms,” and two are named Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus. Martius himself would have sooner allowed the people to destroy the city than grant them tribunes, which he believes will lend more power to their argument and insurrection. He cries out to the people, “Go get you home, you fragments!”
The material demands of the people are leveraged into a political change: they are now granted representation in the form of tribunes. Martius holds the belief that the more power and concession granted to the people, the more likely they are to revolt and upset the social structure in Rome. He’d rather see the city collapse into literal war than grant any political power to the people, whom he characterizes as “fragments,” invoking the imagery of body parts and dismemberment, and again dehumanizing the plebeians.
A messenger enters the street in Rome asking for Caius Martius, whom he informs that the Volsces (Volscians – a neighboring, enemy Italian people) have taken up arms. Martius is thrilled, saying it will give the Romans the opportunity to “vent [their] musty superfluity.” Sicinius Velutus and Junius Brutus (the two new tribunes) enter along with Roman general Cominius, his lieutenant Titus Lartius, and other Roman Senators. One senator affirms what Martius just heard from the messenger, and what the Senator says Martius has been saying all along: “the Volsces are in arms.”
The political dispute at home is interrupted by a foreign threat, setting up the transition to war. Superfluity means surplus, and musty means moldy, suggesting that the patricians do have a surplus they are keeping from the common people for profit alone. Instead of feeding the people, Martius prefers to use the surplus to feed soldiers and support the coming war. As an archetypical Roman hero, he is thrilled to enter battle.
Caius Martius reports that the Volscians have a leader, Tullus Aufidius, whom Martius envies for his nobility. If Martius were anyone but himself, he says, he would wish he were Aufidius. Martius claims that if two halves of the world were divided and fighting against each other and Aufidius were on his side, he would revolt to fight Aufidius, since “he is a lion that [Martius is] proud to hunt.” Martius and Lartius agree to accompany Cominius in the war, and the senators beckon all of the soldiers to return to the capital. They instruct the citizens to go home, but Martius says they should follow, since the Volsces have a lot of corn. The citizens disband anyways, and the soldiers and Roman senators exit, leaving the two tribunes alone in the street.
As soon as this rival is introduced, Caius Martius’ relationship with Tullus Aufidius is depicted as more than just enemies. There is a mutual hated between them, but also a mutual envy and respect, establishing the strange homosocial bond between soldiers (on either side of the battlefield). Although the spoils of war (in addition to the surplus) could end the food crisis, the citizens don’t support Martius on principle, suggesting a stubbornness among the commoners and a tendency to act against their own best interest. In this way, the play establishes arguments both for and against the plight of the common people.
Sicinius asks Brutus if there ever lived a man so proud as Caius Martius, and Brutus responds that “he has no equal.” They reflect on how poorly Martius reacted when they were named tribunes, and hope that the wars devour him. He has become too proud, which they believe is dangerous.
The tribunes hold the view expressed earlier by some of the citizens: that Martius is not a true hero, and that he fights for his tremendous pride instead of for Rome. They hope he is killed in war because they see him as a threat to their newfound power.
Sicinius wonders how someone so insolent can even be commanded on the battle field, but Brutus responds that Caius Martius only fights for fame (which he already has), and that it’s better for his fame to be second in command, since all of the problems will be seen as the general’s fault, which will then cause people to say ‘if only Martius were in command!’ At the same time, if things go well people will say it’s only because of Martius instead of the general. The tribunes the decide to follow Martius and the Roman Senators to the capital to see what new decisions are made as Martius heads off to war.
Even though they represent the common people, the tribunes understand how fickle and easy to manipulate the people can be. They fear that public opinion will automatically favor Martius given his position in the war and his military reputation. Though they think he fights only for his fame, they are forced to acknowledge that already he does have renown and the reputation of a hero.