Several Roman citizens enter the Roman Forum, a public marketplace and meeting space. One citizen says that if Coriolanus requires their voices they should not deny him. Another says that the citizens have the power to deny votes, but at the same time they don’t really have the power to do so, since if Coriolanus shows his wounds and tells of his deeds, the citizens must “put [their] tongues into those wounds and speak for them.” If he recounts his noble deeds, they need to nobly accept them, since “ingratitude is monstrous,” and “for the multitude to be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude,” thereby making all of the citizens “monstrous members.”
With the visceral image of licking wounds, a citizen explains that if Coriolanus follows tradition and invokes his bloody deeds, the citizens will be forced to vote for him. This conversation between the citizens brings back the idea expressed by Roman Officers that at a certain point, violence and military deeds transcend questions of character or temperament. The citizens recognize their own potential to be characterized and to really become a monstrous multitude, showing that they understand the fears and criticisms others have of their class. “Monstrous members” also invokes the body politic.
Such behavior, says the first citizen, would make them look bad, for even though they revolted over corn, Coriolanus didn’t call them the “many-headed multitude,” as the citizens have been called by so many different people. No one recognizes their diversity and their various, conflicting opinions – if they agreed to go one direction they’d end up moving in all directions of the compass at once. One citizen makes an obscene joke, playing on the figurative language about directions, and the citizens agree to give Coriolanus their votes. If Coriolanus would “incline to the people,” there would never be a worthier man for consul.
The image of the many-headed multitude is a distorted body politic. With many heads (many contrasting opinions) there is no leader, and rather than acting as a unified body, the people act as a disjointed, confused monster. This characterization of the public could also be seen as Shakespeare’s response to the difficulties of trying to please a demanding, wide ranging audience.
Coriolanus then enters the public Forum in a gown of humility, along with Menenius. One citizen notes that Coriolanus is approaching in this gown, and instructs the other citizens to watch Coriolanus. The citizens are to meet him only one or two at a time, not all at once, since he is supposed to make his requests for votes personally, and the citizens are supposed to each get the honor of “giving him [their] own voices with [their] own tongues.” The citizens exit and prepare to meet with Coriolanus individually.
The citizens meet the candidates in small groups to receive the pleasure of personally voting, showing that in most cases the voting process is just a formality, a concession made to the common people to placate them or compromise in place of granting some other demand.
Menenius, meanwhile, is coaxing and prepping Coriolanus to meet with the citizens. He says that the worthiest men have participated in the custom of asking for the citizens’ votes. Coriolanus, though, doesn’t know what to say. He believes he cannot even force his tongue to beg, or to say “Look, sir, my wounds! I got them in my country’s service when some certain of your brethren roared and ran from th’ noise of our own drums.”
In coaching Coriolanus, Menenius is playing the part of a campaign manager. He attempts to assure Coriolanus that participating in this custom doesn’t go against his ideals, but Coriolanus can’t even attempt to ask for votes without being reminded of his fury at the cowardice of the common Roman soldiers in Corioles.
Menenius warns him not to talk about that, since it would insult the citizens; Coriolanus should instead try and make them think well of him. But Coriolanus says he would rather they forget him like they have forgotten their classic Roman virtues. Menenius warns him not to ruin everything, and prays that Coriolanus will speak to the citizens “in wholesome manner.” He then leaves Coriolanus alone. In his moment alone onstage, Coriolanus hopes the citizens wash their faces and keep their teeth clean.
Coriolanus’ character is defined by classic Roman values, so his criticism of the common people is that they ignore those values. In war, he asked for soldiers who loved Rome more than themselves, and likewise in politics he loves his values more than his own best interest. He is so filled with hate of the common people that in the moments before he meets them all he can think about is that they are dirty.
Three citizens then enter, and Coriolanus greets them, saying they know why he is there. They say they do, and ask what has brought him to stand for the position of consul. He responds, simply, that he is deserving of it. One citizen asks him to clarify, and Coriolanus repeats that he is deserving, though he did not desire the position, since he never wanted to “trouble the poor with begging.” The citizens say Coriolanus must know that they will only give him the consulship if they expect to gain something from him, so Coriolanus asks what the price is. One citizen responds that the price is asking nicely. Nicely, then, Coriolanus asks for the consulship and their voices, saying he has wounds to show in private. The citizens find the situation odd, but they agree to give Coriolanus their votes, and exit.
As Menenius mentioned in glee when he learned where Coriolanus was injured, traditionally the wounds were shown publicly, suggesting that the wounds (and the deeds) belong not just to the hero but to Rome as well. Coriolanus is more than glad to attribute his deeds to the city, but he doesn’t want to share them with the cowardly common people themselves. The interactions here border on awkward and reinforce the fact that Coriolanus has no political acumen, no eloquence, and no qualms being extremely direct with the citizens.
Two more citizens enter, and Coriolanus asks for their voices. One responds that Coriolanus has been both noble and not noble. He clarifies that Coriolanus has been a scourge to both the enemies and the common people of Rome. Coriolanus, though, believes he is more virtuous because he does not give his love easily. At the same time, he agrees to flatter the common people to earn a better reputation, since this is considered friendly and traditional. Since the people want this flattery instead of genuine love, he says he will play the part and act like someone well loved by the people, even though everyone knows it is just an act. The citizens agree to give Coriolanus their voices and exit.
Coriolanus’ argument that he is virtuous because he doesn’t flatter points to his classic Roman ideals: he hates dishonesty. He won’t pretend to flatter, but he will give the customary disingenuous praise overtly in the hopes of remaining honest while fulfilling the tradition. These citizens seem content with openly fake love, but the abnormality of the exchange seems to suggest that the citizens’ minds might easily be changed.
Alone, Coriolanus says it’s better to die or to starve then to desire and beg for the reward he has already proved he deserves. Why, he asks, should he stand in a toga and beg every random citizen for their unnecessary votes? It’s customary, but he wonders if customs should always be followed, thinking nothing would ever change and mistakes would constantly be made if so. Rather than playing the fool and only obeying custom, Coriolanus would prefer to let the honor and the position go to someone else who would follow custom and beg for votes. At the same time, he recognizes that he is halfway through the task, and since he has come this far, he will suffer through the rest.
Coriolanus outlines the principles that the tribunes have been accusing him of holding: he thinks the citizens should not have the power to vote for consul, he thinks asking for their votes goes against his values, and he thinks that the custom is stupid and bad for Rome. While he claims that he’ll continue with the process and suffer through, based on his ideology and his stubborn adherence to his values it seems likely even here that he will not.
Three more citizens enter, and Coriolanus asks for their voices. He says he has fought for them, stood watch for them, and received dozens of wounds for them. He asks to be consul, and the citizens answer that any honest man could not refuse Coriolanus in this request. The citizens exit, and Menenius, Brutus, and Sicinius enter. Menenius says that Coriolanus has fulfilled his customary obligation to the people; the tribunes grant him the people’s vote, and all that remains is for the senate to officially grant him the position. Coriolanus makes sure that he is done asking for voices, and he asks if he is allowed to change out of his candidate’s robe. He plans to change and then appear before the senate as has been requested. Menenius and Coriolanus exit, while Brutus and Sicinius stay behind.
Coriolanus breaks from his earlier desire not to attach his deeds to the people in saying that he received his wounds for them. Momentarily, he’s able to play the part required of him, and it is enough to force the tribunes to grant him the people’s vote. As soon as this is over, though, Coriolanus wants to cease his political posturing, showing that he believes his challenges are over. His discomfort in the candidate’s robe mirrors his discomfort acting in the political sphere.
The plebeian citizens enter, and Sicinius asks them how they have chosen Coriolanus. While he has won their votes, Brutus prays that Coriolanus deserves their love. The citizens argue about whether or not Coriolanus was mocking them when asking for their votes, or if it was just his way of speaking. One complains that Coriolanus did not show them his wounds, and all the citizens agree that no one saw the wounds. He said he had wounds which he could show in private, but other than that he simply raved about their voices and dismissed them once they agreed.
Coriolanus lacks the subtle skills of language that Menenius and Cominius have, so the people couldn’t tell if he was being honest, if he was being rude, or if he was outright mocking them. His choice to forgo the traditional public display of his wounds plays a large role in his undoing, since his credibility for the position of consul is based entirely on his military prowess, and the wounds are the physical evidence of his military campaigns.
Brutus and Sicinius question why the people were so childish and granted Coriolanus their voices. Why didn’t they do as they were taught? When Coriolanus had no power, he was the enemy of the people and constantly spoke against their freedom. Now that he is about to win a place in the government, if he remains so opposed to the needs of commoners, the citizens’ voices might be “curses” to themselves. They should have gotten him to promise to be kinder to the common people (as they were instructed by the tribunes), or enraged him and therefore made him unelectable. If he expressed open contempt while campaigning, why wouldn’t he continue to be hateful once he has power? Have they ever denied anyone their votes?
Brutus and Sicinius reveal that they instructed the people not to vote for Coriolanus, but the fickle mob disobeyed, even though Coriolanus cursed them out during the riots. The tribunes point out how Coriolanus’ well-known views will hurt the common people, expressed in the comment that the citizens are cursing themselves with their votes. The tribunes’ assessment of the common falsehood that hateful campaign rhetoric will cease once a candidate is elected is one of the moments where the play feels eerily modern in its political viewpoint.
One citizen notes that Coriolanus has not yet been officially confirmed; they can still deny him. Another citizen chimes in that the people will deny him. The citizens say they have hundreds of voices who all will speak to deny Coriolanus. Brutus instructs them to leave immediately and to tell their friends that they have chosen a consul who will strip them of liberties and ignore their voices. Therefore, they should assemble and undo this mistaken election. They must remember Coriolanus’s pride and how much he hates them, and not continue to let his noble deeds distract them from these qualities.
Just after the play seems to criticize hate as a campaign tool and absolute power, it shows the citizens fulfilling the common stereotype that they are fickle and easily swayed into changing their opinion. The citizens also reinforce this stereotype by calling themselves “voices” instead of people. It’s this kind of back-and-forth that makes the general political argument of the play so hard to pin down, and makes it open to readings from both sides of the aisle.
The people can even blame the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus say, as long as they take back their votes. The citizens exit for the capitol, repenting their election of Coriolanus. Brutus believes that causing the citizens to rise up like this is a risk worth taking. If Coriolanus becomes enraged by their retracted votes, they’ll capitalize on his anger. By waiting behind, the tribunes hope to make it seem like it is the citizens’ own idea to revoke their support of Coriolanus.
This bold gesture is a risk worth taking, since if Coriolanus becomes consul he’ll likely render the tribunes powerless. With their plan to wait behind and to capitalize on Coriolanus’ anger, the tribunes show that while Coriolanus is superior in the realm of violence, they are far more skilled at politics than he is.