Two Roman officers enter the Roman Senate House, laying cushions for senators to sit on. There are three candidates for the consulship, but everyone thinks the position will go to Coriolanus. One officer notes that Coriolanus is brave, but also proud, and he doesn’t love the common people. The second officer responds that many great men have flattered the common people without loving them, and many men have been loved by the common people for no reason; the people hate and love without much legitimate reason. In not caring whether the people love or hate him, Coriolanus thus has “true knowledge” about the people’s disposition; he lets them see that he doesn’t care what they think only out of his “noble carelessness.”
The two officers express both sides of the dispute about Coriolanus’ character: no one doubts his bravery and valiance, but the question is whether he is overly prideful and stubborn, or merely honest and adherent to old Roman principles. They also express the common assessment about the citizens: they constantly change their opinions without much reason. The second officer believes that Coriolanus knows how the common people truly are, and he reframes Coriolanus’ obstinacy as noble carelessness, meaning that Coriolanus is just too noble to flatter the common people or pretend that they aren’t fickle.
The first Roman officer says he would agree if Coriolanus didn’t actively try to get the people to hate him even more than they were willing to; trying to be despised by the commoners is just as bad as flattering them. They ultimately agree that Coriolanus has done much for his country and is worthy, and the second officer goes as far to say that if the people are silent about his greatness it would be a kind of malice and “ingrateful injury.”
Coriolanus’ military deeds (according to the officers) must come before any debate about his character. He is so heroic (and has been injured in battle so many times) that the common people simply cannot refuse him as tribune, or else they will be extremely ungrateful. The debate about the true motivations for Coriolanus’ heroism continue throughout the play, but the officers here suggest that at a certain point, if a person is heroic enough it doesn’t matter how or why.
Roman Senators enter along with the tribunes, Cominius, Menenius, and Coriolanus. Coriolanus stands, and Menenius says it’s time to honor the noble service Coriolanus has done for his country. The current consul, Cominius, will speak on behalf of Coriolanus and chronicle his latest deeds. A senator tells Cominius to tell the story in full, leaving no details out for brevity’s sake, and the senator also asks the tribunes to listen. They say that they will listen, so long as Coriolanus starts valuing the common people more than he has in the past. Menenius says that Coriolanus loves the people, just not an excessive amount. Coriolanus offers to leave the room while Cominius speaks, but the senator tells him to sit down, since it is not shameful to hear someone recount one’s noble deeds.
This is the most political scene so far in the play, and it is immediately evident that Coriolanus is out of place, as most of the characters speak for him and all around him while he says almost nothing. All the talk about loving the people is really just posturing, as Menenius knows Coriolanus hates the people (since he hates them, too), and the tribunes just want to use the people (whom they call “stinking breath”) to preserve their own power.
Coriolanus, though, says he would rather have his wounds heal all over again than hear talk about how he received them. While he would never run away from a fight, he has “fled from words,” and he assures the tribunes that he loves the people “as they weigh.” Coriolanus would rather be idle during battle than hear his deeds, which he calls “nothings,” be “monstered” in a retelling. He exits, and Menenius tells the people that there are a thousand worthless flatterers for every good man, and Coriolanus would rather risk losing all of his limbs in battle than be flattered himself. Menenius tells Cominius to proceed in recounting Coriolanus’s deeds.
Coriolanus hates flattery because it opposes his sense of old Roman virtue, but he also hates it because he sees it as rooted in the realm of language, not as based on the actions he has done, and he literally “[flees] from words” and leaves before his story is told. His comment that he loves the people “as they weigh” means he loves them as much as they are worth. It is a backhanded insult, because he believes they aren’t worthy of any love at all.
Cominius begins humbly, saying “I shall lack voice,” and he notes that Coriolanus’s deeds should not be spoken of lightly. If it’s true that valor is the most important virtue, then Coriolanus is certainly the most virtuous person in the world. At age sixteen, while Tarquin raised an army to conquer Rome, Coriolanus fought better than anyone else. Coriolanus, with his “Amazonian chin,” fought against bristled, bearded men and killed three men. He even fought with Tarquin himself and wounded him in the knee. That day, Cominius says, Coriolanus might have acted “the woman in the scene,” but instead “proved best man” in the battle. For his valor, he was crowned with a garland of oak leaves. At the age of a student, he became a man, grew like a sea, and has fought valiantly in seventeen battles since then.
The first line of Cominius’ speech is a classical rhetorical move known as humility topos, a feigned modesty in which the speaker pretends to lack speaking ability. Mark Antony employs this technique in his famous funeral speech in “Julius Caesar.” “Amazonian” refers to mythical female warriors. Coriolanus’ chin was Amazonian, meaning hairless, because he was still a boy. Though Cominius invokes female warriors, he ultimately equates cowardice to femininity and bravery and war to masculinity. It’s also of note that as soon as Coriolanus grew from boy to man, he also became associated with something more than man – in this case “a sea.”
As for this last battle at Corioles, Cominius claims, he cannot even do Coriolanus justice. Coriolanus stopped soldiers from fleeing, and by his valiant example he inspired cowards to “turn terror into sport.” Everyone obeyed him, and his sword acted as “Death’s stamp,” killing wherever he marked, until Coriolanus became “a thing of blood, whose every motion was timed with dying cries.” Coriolanus entered the gates of the city alone, and without reinforcements he “struck Corioles like a planet.” When he began to tire from the battle, he immediately revitalized himself and joined the battle once more, never stopping fighting or slaughtering until the city was won and the battle was completely over.
While Coriolanus was a man at the age of a boy, in the past war he has become something else entirely. His violent deeds have transformed him into an unfeeling “thing.” He’s elevated by his heroism, but he loses his humanity and is marked once again as alone. By the end of the battle (and Cominius’ speech), Coriolanus has become not a person but an entire planet. He doesn’t even suffer from the human condition of exhaustion, and is able to recharge himself immediately to continue fighting.
Menenius cries out that Coriolanus is a “worthy man,” and a Roman senator says that Coriolanus cannot be honored enough for these deeds. Cominius tells of how Coriolanus denied all the spoils of war he was offered, since for him fighting and serving Rome are rewards in and of themselves. The senators call for Coriolanus, and he reenters. Menenius informs him that the senate wishes to make him consul. All that remains before he is named consul is that he needs to speak to the people.
Coriolanus’ humility and adherence to Roman ideals is on display again with his refusal to accept any gifts for his deeds. After Cominius recounts all of Coriolanus’ spectacular military feats, it seems like the small thing standing in the way of him becoming consul – speaking to the people – will be easily accomplished by such a man. Ironically, this is exactly the one thing Coriolanus can’t do.
Coriolanus asks if he can skip that custom, since he cannot wear the candidate’s robe and stand exposed in front of the people, using his wounds to ask for their votes. But Sicinius responds that the people must have their voices. Menenius tells Coriolanus to follow custom, and Coriolanus agrees, though he says it’s a part that he’ll “blush in acting.” He doesn’t want to brag to them about his deeds and show them his scars, as if he only got them so the people would give him votes.
The word “candidate” comes from Latin, since political candidates wore white robes like the one Coriolanus describes. Coriolanus doesn’t want to speak to the people as is custom both because he lacks language and political skills, and because he doesn’t want it to seem like he fought in Corioles just to win the opinions of the citizens he despises.
But Menenius tells him not to worry—the senators and tribunes are supporting him and want only joy and honor for him. The senators cry out in support, and then everyone exits except Sicinius and Brutus. In private, the two tribunes note how Coriolanus seems to dread asking the people for votes, as if he doesn’t believe they should even have the power to vote at all. The tribunes plan to inform the Roman citizens of what has happened in the Capitol.
The tribunes’ assessment that Coriolanus thinks the people should not have power is accurate, especially since he has said as much literally earlier in the play. If it weren’t for the power of the citizens (and for the newly granted tribunes), Coriolanus would already be consul, as he has the full support of the patricians.