Menenius and the two Roman tribunes Brutus and Sicinius enter a public place in Rome. A soothsayer (seer) has told Menenius that news of the war is on its way. Menenius comments that the common people do not like Martius, saying that they want to “devour him.” The three men discuss whether Martius is more like a wolf or lamb or bear, and Menenius asks the tribunes what vice Martius has that the tribunes do not possess themselves. They claim he’s prideful, to which Menenius responds that the tribunes utterly lack self-awareness. Not only are they feeble and “infantlike” without the support of the common people, but they are also “unmeriting, proud, violent, testy magistrates,” and “fools.”
The presence of a soothsayer might remind readers of another Roman play of Shakespeare’s – Julius Caesar, in which a soothsayer famously tells Caesar to “beware the ides of March.” While the common people once feared they would be devoured by war or by the patricians, they’re now emboldened and empowered, and so threaten to devour Coriolanus (still called Martius by Menenius, because news of his renaming hasn’t reached Rome yet). The tribunes continue suggesting that Martius is prideful as opposed to a genuine Roman hero. Menenius is known as a friend to the common people, but he realizes the way the tribunes have harnessed the power of the common people for political gain.
Sicinius says that Menenius is also notorious, but Menenius launches into a description of his own character: he is known as a whimsical patrician who loves wine, stays up late, and says exactly what he thinks. If he sips a drink he doesn’t like, it immediately shows on his face. Though he’ll be patient with anyone who calls the tribunes great or respected men, he’ll call them liars if they say the tribunes have good faces. Everything he thinks, he says, is visible on his face. He then asks the tribunes what harm they see in his completely transparent character.
Menenius describes himself as utterly straight-forward, honest, and direct, opposing the two-faced political maneuvering he might see in the tribunes. His line about the tribunes’ faces is a bit confusing grammatically, but he is essentially just insulting them by calling them ugly. The open-book mentality he describes is what gets Coriolanus into trouble, suggesting that Menenius isn’t actually as transparent as he says he is.
When Brutus says he knows Menenius, Menenius responds that the tribunes don’t know him, themselves, or anything at all. They are only ambitious for the support of the people, and they are terrible at their jobs, allowing their personal whims to influence their decisions. They make peace between two parties, while calling both knaves. Brutus responds that people believe Menenius is more of a dinner-table wit than an important Roman statesman, but Menenius replies that even priests would make fun of the tribunes. He finds it ironic that they call Martius proud, since Martius is worth more than them and all of their combined ancestors since the “Flood.” He tells them goodnight, since any more conversation with them would “infect [his] brain.” Menenius begins to exit, but then Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria enter.
Again, Menenius recognizes that the tribunes are just clamoring for political power. Though they represent the people, they just want to take advantage of them and use them for their support. The comment in response that Menenius is a dinner-table wit is meant to suggest that Menenius is smart but without real power, further highlighting how power-hungry the tribunes are. The “Flood” reference is to an ancient Greek flood myth, not the biblical Flood of Noah. The series of insults between Menenius and the Tribunes are all based on the question of whether Martius is prideful or a genuine Roman hero. The notion that conversation could infect Menenius hints at the physical power that language has within the play.
Menenius greets the ladies, and Volumnia reports that Martius is coming home. Menenius celebrates this news, and Volumnia says that there have been many letters from the battle front, including one for Menenius. Menenius jokes about his health and asks if Martius is wounded (which he thinks is preferable). Virgilia hopes he isn’t wounded, but Volumnia thanks the gods that he is wounded, as does Menenius (as long as Martius isn’t too wounded). For the third time, Volumnia says, Martius is returning with victory on his brows and an oaken garland.
Again, the oaken garland was a mark of a war hero, received by someone who saved a fellow Roman soldier. The discussion of Martius’ wounds highlights different family roles and different interpretations of violence. Virgilia, Martius’ wife, sees wounds as threats to his life and cares only for his safety. Volumnia, his mother, sees wounds as a political commodity, and (as long as he isn’t dead) hopes that he has suffered based on her political aspirations for him.
Menenius wonders if Martius has fought with Aufidius, and Volumnia tells him that Lartius reported they fought indeed, but Aufidius escaped. Menenius remarks that he would not want to be treated like Martius would treat Aufidius (had he not escaped) for all the gold in the city of Corioles. Letters from Cominius have been delivered to the Roman Senate, and they say that Martius has outdone, and even doubled his former military triumphs. Menenius taunts the tribunes, saying that Martius is returning with even more reason to be proud, and he repeatedly asks where Martius has been wounded.
Menenius’ confusing phrase highlights the intense hatred and potential for violence between Martius and Aufidius. Martius already had a reputation of military excellence, and his new deeds (and wounds) cement him as both a hero and a public figure in Rome. Menenius is obsessed with the wounds, even wanting to know their precise location to maximize their political potential.
Volumnia says that Martius has been wounded in the shoulder and the left arm, noting that he will be able to show his large scars to the people when standing as a candidate for Consul. In the battle to expel Tarquin, he received seven wounds, and Menenius counts nine that he knows of. Volumnia produces the true number of wounds before the latest war: twenty-five. After the battle in Corioles, he has been wounded twenty-seven times. Menenius notes that “every gash was an enemy’s grave,” and trumpets sound in the distance heralding Martius, in whom Volumnia says death itself dwells.
Martius’ military history is further explicated with the strange, mathematical counting of all the wounds and scars he has ever received. The purpose for this wound obsession is now made explicit: the wounds are political capital that will be used by Martius to help become Consul, the highest elected position in the Roman republic. With artful (and alliterative) language, both Menenius and Volumnia use Martius’ wounds to emphasize his military might.
Cominius arrives with Titus Lartius, captains, Roman soldiers, a Roman herald, and Coriolanus, who is crowned with an oaken garland. The herald announces to the city that Martius fought all alone within the gates of Corioles and won, both the battle and the addition of a new name “Coriolanus.” The crowd cheers, but Coriolanus says this offends his heart.
Coriolanus’ new name is introduced and made official within the city at the same time that his heroic deeds are announced, further tying his identity to warfare, but also further isolating him, since he fought the battle by himself and is praised on his own as opposed to with the rest of the soldiers.
Coriolanus greets his mother, who he knows has been praying for his success. He kneels to her, but she tells him to rise and comments on his new name. When Volumnia mentions his wife, who is crying, Coriolanus lauds Virgilia as his “gracious silence,” and jokes that she would laugh if he came home in a coffin, since she cries now that he has come home in triumph. Her tears, he says, belong in the eyes of the new widows and mothers lacking sons in Corioles. He also excitedly greets Menenius and Valeria.
“Gracious silence” essentially describes the ideal wife in Shakespeare’s time. By referencing the wives and mothers of the men he killed, Coriolanus ties war to family. More precisely, he defines war as something that destroys family. Virgilia’s response to Coriolanus’ homecoming and his joke about reversing this response are significant since for Coriolanus, the relationship between family and war is already reversed. He was sent to war by his mother at a very young age, so rather than being destroyed by war, his family creates war and is then defined by it.
Volumnia welcomes everyone home from war, and Menenius echoes her sentiment, saying he could weep or laugh since he is so “light and heavy.” He notes that though there are some “old crab trees’ that might not be excited to see Cominius, Lartius, and Coriolanus, he believes the three men should be doted on by Rome.
Menenius’ instinct to both weep and laugh echoes Coriolanus’ comment about Virgilia’s response to their homecoming, suggesting that war is at once glorious and horrifying. The “old crab trees” Menenius refers to are the Tribunes of the people.
Coriolanus takes the hands of his wife and mother and says that before he returns to his own home, he needs to visit the good patricians to thank them for the promotion he has received. Volumnia boasts that she has lived to see all her desires for him come true, excepting one thing (the Consulship for Coriolanus) that she is certain Rome will give him. Coriolanus reminds his mother that he would rather serve the patricians in his own way than in theirs. They all exit for the Capitol, leaving the two tribunes alone on stage.
Part of the heroic Roman ideal that Coriolanus adheres to is placing his class (patricians) and the Roman senate above his own needs. At the same time, he expresses his individualism (which is also solitude) and his preference of military service over politics. Volumnia reveals herself to be like a stage mother, pushing Coriolanus into politics (like she did into war) and claiming ownership over him and his accomplishments.
Brutus laments how everyone is completely obsessed with Coriolanus, clamoring for the chance to even look at him, acting like he has become a god instead of human. Sicinius believes that Coriolanus will be named consul, which Brutus notes will make their positions as tribunes powerless. They take comfort, though, in the fact that they think Coriolanus cannot hold his new honors with good temperament and will surely lose them.
Brutus chronicles part of Coriolanus’ transformation from a mere human to a god-like hero, but he does so with a negative tone, seeking either to delegitimize this transformation or characterize it as a bad thing. As always, the Tribunes’ primary interest is their own political power, and they continue assuming that Coriolanus is arrogant and prideful.
The tribunes say that the common people, too, will be quick to forget these new honors when they remember their longtime hostility towards Coriolanus, something Sicinius can spark by just asking Coriolanus about his pride. Coriolanus has sworn that he would not stand in public and show the people his wounds according to tradition, nor “beg their stinking breath” (voices, meaning votes). The tribunes decide that in order to preserve their power, they must destroy Coriolanus by reminding the common people that Coriolanus hates them, and that as consul he will restrict their freedoms. Setting the common people against him will be as easy as setting dogs on sheep, and it will permanently ruin his reputation.
Whether Coriolanus is prideful or a genuine hero, Sicinius is right when he says that Coriolanus’ entire identity is attached to Roman ideals, and an attack claiming otherwise will infuriate him. In a political formality, the common people must vote and agree on a Consul. Like Coriolanus and other patricians, even the tribunes think of the people only as votes, as disembodied voices. By comparing the people’s opinions to “stinking breath” and comparing the people themselves to dogs, the tribunes show that they, too, dehumanize the citizens, disrespect them, and use them only for their own gain – ironically exactly what they’ll accuse Coriolanus of.
A messenger enters, saying that the tribunes are called for at the Capitol. He reports that it’s thought Martius will be consul, and he has seen “the dumb men throng to see him, and the blind to hear him speak,” and everyone showering him with praise like he’s a god. They head to the Capitol to try and prevent Martius from becoming consul.
The messenger continues the pattern of comparing Coriolanus to something more than human, and he suggests that the people view this change as an awe inspiring, positive one, not with the same distrust (and disgust) that the tribunes expressed earlier in the scene.