Coriolanus, Menenius, Cominius, Lartius, Roman Senators, and other patricians enter a street in Rome. Coriolanus asks Lartius if it’s true that Aufidius has gathered a new army, and Lartius confirms that it is. Coriolanus believes they are waiting to attack Rome again, but Cominius (who calls Coriolanus “lord consul”) says that the Volscians are too tired from the previous battle to attack any time soon. Coriolanus wants to know about his rival, and Lartius reports that he met with Aufidius, who cursed the Volscians for surrendering Corioles so easily. Aufidius is now in Antium, the Volscian capital, and he told Lartius about how often he has clashed with Coriolanus, whom he hates above all things. Coriolanus wishes he had a reason to go to Antium to fight with Aufidius once more.
Part of the tension in this scene is driven by dramatic irony; the characters on stage all assume that Coriolanus will become consul, and Cominius even calls him by that title. Coriolanus is thrilled to move from politics back to war. Immediately upon return from battle he is looking for a reason to go back to it, and part of his heroism seems to be his unending hunger for violence. He’s a terrible politician since he has no interest in peace or governing. As always, he’s curious about Aufidius, the rival that he loves to hate.
Brutus and Sicinius enter, and Coriolanus greets them as “the tongues o’ th’ common mouth.” He despises them since they are trying to amass power, which he believes is detrimental to Rome’s nobility. The tribunes vaguely warn Coriolanus, and finally reveal that he no longer has the support of the people, who have become “incensed against him.” Coriolanus calls the people a herd of the tribunes, and he asserts that Brutus and Sicinius control the people and have turned them against him. Menenius tries to calm him, but Coriolanus claims that the tribunes are intentionally plotting against him in order to resist the power of Rome’s nobility. If the nobles allow this, he warns, they will completely lose the ability to rule.
Coriolanus invokes the body politic to describe the tribunes’ roles of expressing the opinions of the people. Coriolanus is right that the tribunes are power hungry and are plotting against him, but he wrongly attributes this to a crusade against the whole patrician class rather than the personal vendetta they have against him. His political philosophy amounts to the idea that the more power given to the people, the less effectively (authoritatively and efficiently) the nobles of the Roman government can lead.
Brutus, though, says that it’s no plot; Coriolanus mocked the people, and when they were given free corn during the famine, he called them “foes to nobleness.” Coriolanus replies that they knew this when they elected him, but Brutus claims they did not, prompting Coriolanus to ask if Brutus told the people in order to undercut him. Brutus denies it and claims he would make a better consul than Coriolanus, who responds, enraged, that maybe he deserves the terrible position of being made tribune.
Brutus brings the debate back to corn and to the disparity of material resources that first enraged the people. To Coriolanus, being named tribune would be an insult and a dishonor, since he believes the position is superfluous and even detrimental to the Roman government.
Sicinius takes Coriolanus’s rage as an opportunity, saying that he is demonstrating exactly what makes the people not want him as consul. If Coriolanus hopes to be consul, he must cooperate and exhibit a calmer, “gentler spirit.” Menenius and a senator try to calm Coriolanus, and Cominius says that the people have been deceived and manipulated by the tribunes, but Coriolanus remains furious. He refuses to apologize for what he said about the people receiving free corn. He calls the people “the mutable, rank-scented many,” and says that conceding anything to the people sows the seeds for “rebellion, insolence,” and “sedition.” The common people should not mingle with the nobles, who have virtue and power as long as they don’t give it away to “beggars.”
Sicinius knows that Coriolanus cannot exhibit a gentler spirit, because it would require him to act like a politician, which he can’t do because of his lack of language ability, and which he won’t do because it’s so contrary to his values. Coriolanus finally uses the type of imagery that the citizens hate most, calling them a fickle, disgusting multitude. His understanding of the power structure in Rome is that nobles need to maintain their power by keeping as separate as possible from the powerless masses. In his eyes, ceding to any of the citizens’ demands threatens the existence of Rome itself.
Menenius and a Roman senator try to silence Coriolanus, saying “no more words,” but Coriolanus continues. He says he has shed blood for his country without fear of any outside force, and likewise he will speak words against the common people, who he characterizes as a leprosy that the nobles have set themselves up to contract. Brutus comments that Coriolanus speaks of the people as if he was “a god to punish, not a man of their infirmity,” and Sicinius says they had better report this to the citizens, but Menenius tries to dismiss Coriolanus’s rantings as mere “choler.” Coriolanus, though, refuses this excuse, saying that even if he were as calm and patient as he is sleeping at midnight, his opinion would be the same.
Usually Coriolanus avoids language in favor of action, so it’s ironic that this single deluge of words brings his downfall. Again he is compared to a god instead of human, but Brutus makes this comparison to highlight Coriolanus’ arrogance and elitism, not his heroism. Renaissance medicine held that bodily “humors” were responsible for emotions; “choler” was the humor responsible for anger. By blaming it on choler, Menenius hopes Coriolanus will not be held accountable for his rant against the plebeians and their tribunes.
Sicinius responds that this opinion “shall remain a poison where it is, not a poison any further.” Coriolanus lashes out, furious at the audacity of Sicinius to say “shall remain.” He calls the tribune a “Triton of the minnows,” and makes sure his fellow nobles noticed Sicinius’s use of the absolute “shall.” Cominius remarks that Sicinius was out of line, and Coriolanus launches into a furious speech. He asks why the patricians and senators have given this “hydra” an official position, when he is so audacious and outright with his duplicity.
Though Coriolanus prefers action, violence, and wounds to words, here he lashes out due to a single insulting word. In Greek mythology Triton is the messenger of the sea, and in Coriolanus’ analogy the common people are minnows, at once insulting the people and suggesting that the tribune is virtually powerless. The hydra is a mythical multi-headed monster, the perfect metaphor to describe the worst view of the common people.
Coriolanus continues his rant: if the tribunes really have power, then the senators should be ashamed; if not, then they should wake up and cease being so mild. If the senators are smart, they should stop acting like fools; if they are foolish, then they should allow the tribunes to sit with them in the senate. Senators are made plebeians if the tribunes are made senators. When the voices of the senators and the people are blended, it favors the people. The people chose for their tribune someone like Sicinius, who has popular approval but speaks arrogantly to the great Roman senate. Such a man debases the very role of consul itself. Coriolanus’s soul aches, he says, witnessing the struggle between the senate and the tribunes, a struggle that leaves a power vacuum filled with confusion and chaos.
In one of his only long speeches in the play, Coriolanus makes a straightforward plea for the senators to either revoke power from the tribunes, or just allow Rome to collapse into chaos. The structure of this speech is fairly simple, showing again that Coriolanus is no master rhetorician. Coriolanus’ criticism is both impassioned and practical. As a classic Roman idealist, he is offended to his soul by the concessions made to the common people. But in a practical sense, he sees a power vacuum which makes it extremely difficult to rule and threatens to throw Rome into chaos.
Cominius tries to cut Coriolanus off, saying that they should all go to the marketplace to meet the people, but Coriolanus continues ranting. He says that whoever had the idea to give the people state-owned corn for free only fed the people’s disobedience and “fed the ruin of the state.” Brutus prods Coriolanus, asking why the people should give their voices to someone with that opinion, and Coriolanus launches into yet another speech.
Coriolanus makes a food pun, saying that feeding the people only works to feed rebellion and the ruin of Rome. He’s of the belief that granting requests teaches the people that they can get their way by asking, and thus teaches them to continue asking for more and more, which will eventually lead the state into destruction.
Coriolanus claims that the reasons behind his opinions are much more meaningful than the voices of the people. The people know the corn was not given to them as a reward, since they did nothing to earn it. When the common people were conscripted to war, they refused to enter the gates of Corioles; for this they surely did not deserve free corn. In the war, they mutinied, revolted, and disobeyed, showing no valor whatsoever. Their fury at the senate is completely undeserved and unjustified, especially since the senate granted their wishes and donated corn.
Coriolanus reiterates the idea that the people’s opinions are subject to change without rhyme or reason. The corn represents the broader desires of the people, and their anti-Roman cowardice in the most recent war gives Coriolanus even more reason to despise them. These are topics that Menenius and Volumnia explicitly told Coriolanus not to mention in front of the common people for the sake of his political career.
How did the “bosom multiplied digest” the senate’s kindness, Coriolanus asks? They decided that they got what they want since they asked for it and since they have the greater numbers, believing that the senate accepted their demands out of fear. By giving in and allowing this type of thinking, Coriolanus believes the senate has debased itself and made itself extremely vulnerable. Menenius tells Coriolanus “enough,” and Brutus agrees, but Coriolanus offers even more words.
In calling the common people the “bosom multiplied,” Coriolanus finally uses the many-headed multitude language that the people hate. “Digest” is meant literally, since they ate the corn, and figuratively as “understand.” Since the people know that they do not deserve the corn (in Coriolanus’ mind), he reasons that they must recognize their power in numbers. It’s ironic that Coriolanus hates words but finds himself unable to stop speaking (and thereby stop killing his political career).
Coriolanus swears by divine and human powers in his final speech. He claims that power is divided in Rome. One side hates the other (for good reason) and the other insults the first without cause. The senators and patricians currently cannot make decisions without looking to the approval or disapproval of the ignorant masses. This situation and division of power, Coriolanus claims, prevents important decisions from being made and leaves the government extremely fragile. Planning is made impossible, so nothing happens according to plan.
Though Coriolanus is unable to make an argument without insulting the common people – as in the “for good reason” comment – his argument (and his hatred) seems derived from a legitimate threat to Rome. He describes a power vacuum and the impracticality of governing while constantly looking to the common people (who admit to having many opinions) for approval. Coriolanus seems to hate the commoners insofar as their demand for a voice threatens the stability of the city he loves more than himself.
Therefore, Coriolanus continues, anyone who will be wiser than he is afraid, anyone who loves the essence of Rome more than he fears the recent changes in the city, anyone who prefers a noble life to a long life, and anyone willing to risk a dangerous medical treatment without which the body of Rome would surely die, should rip out “the multitudinous tongue.” The senators must not allow the people to get away with flattery, or allow their dishonor to cloud their judgment. They must claim the power they require to do good for the people they control.
Coriolanus’ list of “anyone who” characteristics echoes his battle speech given outside of Corioles. Attempting to use a battle speech in a political debate perfectly captures Coriolanus’ inability to transition from soldier to politician. He uses the body politic and a medical analogy to suggest the people be stripped of their new tribunes, whom he has already called “tongues of the common mouth.”
At the end of this speech, Brutus simply responds that Coriolanus “has said enough.” Sicinius proclaims Coriolanus a traitor who must face punishment. At this accusation, Coriolanus becomes overwhelmed by rage. He questions why the people should have tribunes at all, since they were only granted power during a revolt. Now that the revolt is over, the correct thing to do is strip the tribunes of their power.
The tribunes have been waiting for Coriolanus to incriminate himself enough to take action. Though he’s already “said enough,” Coriolanus might be said to have shown some ounce of restraint up until he is called a traitor. After that point, his love for Rome and his adherence to his ideals are so strong that all attempts to play the part are abandoned, along with metaphors and analogies, and he directly says that he thinks the tribunes should be stripped of their power.
Brutus and Sicinius cry out, continuing to call Coriolanus a traitor. They call in a Roman Aedile, whom they instruct to gather the people. Sicinius then formally accuses Coriolanus of being a traitor and enemy of the public. The patricians say that they’ll defend Coriolanus, who threatens to shake Sicinius’s bones out of his body. Sicinius cries out for help, and a rabble of citizens and the Aediles enter. Menenius calls for more respect from both sides, but Sicinius shouts to the people that Coriolanus is the one who wants to take away all their power. The citizens yell “down with him!” and in a chaos, everyone surrounds Coriolanus. Menenius doesn’t know what is about to happen – he’s confused, out of breath, and he cannot speak. He tries to calm Coriolanus, and tells Sicinius to calm the people.
An Aedile was a Roman officer under control of the people’s tribunes. While Sicinius and Brutus are playing a careful political game, Coriolanus is quick to resort to physical violence. Though he loves Rome more than himself, the tribunes are able to accuse him of being a traitor since he’s against part of the city’s government structure. In the chaos, even a master orator like Menenius is rendered speechless. Menenius tries to keep the peace, but the tribunes don’t want peace, as they are intentionally creating an uproar in order to seize power and oust Coriolanus.
Sicinius, though, tells the people that they are about to lose their liberties, since “Martius” wants to remove them. Menenius is furious, recognizing that Sicinius is stoking the flames rather than calming the people. A senator says Sicinius is going to destroy the city, but Sicinius responds that the people are the city. Brutus reminds him that the tribunes were named the magistrates of the people through consensus, and the citizens cry out that the tribunes must remain in power. Coriolanus says the real way to destroy the city is to collapse the social hierarchy—but this, Sicinius says, “deserves death.” Brutus says he will either exhort his power or tribune or lose it; he demands that “Martius” be put to death. Sicinius calls for officers to throw Coriolanus from the Tarpeian rock – a steep cliff near the Roman Forum used as a place for public execution.
As mentioned above, Sicinius doesn’t want to calm the people, since he is using their anger to get rid of his political competition. Calling Coriolanus by his original name is an insult and a rejection of the most recent military deeds that qualified Coriolanus to be a politician, another subtle way for Sicinius to undercut and infuriate Coriolanus. The arguments here make up two major political viewpoints of what makes Rome great. For the tribunes (and those reading through a leftist or Marxist lens) the greatness and power of the city comes from the common people. From the other perspective, Rome is strong because of the firm social hierarchy in place. Threats to this social order (which in some ways mirrors the social order of Shakespeare’s England) are to Coriolanus threats with the potential to destroy the city he loves.
The citizens cry out in agreement, but Menenius speaks out, trying to dissuade the tribunes and the people from killing Coriolanus. Brutus, though, will not acquiesce, and he calls for the mob to take Coriolanus to the rock. At this point, Coriolanus draws his sword, saying he’d rather die on the spot. Some people present have seen him in battle, he says, and anyone is welcome to experience it for themselves. Menenius tells him to put the sword away, and Brutus continues stoking the mob, but Menenius calls for the nobles to help Coriolanus. In the chaos the tribunes, citizens, and officers are pushed away.
Again, in drawing his sword Coriolanus cannot contain his inner soldier. He’d rather die on the spot, both because he’d die in battle and because dying by formal execution would mean he died as a traitor to Rome. Menenius is concerned with saving Coriolanus’ political career, not with saving the common people.
Menenius tells Coriolanus to go home, or all will be lost. Coriolanus wants to stay where he is, since they have “as many friends as enemies,” but Menenius hopes it will not come to an all-out civil war. The Roman senators and Menenius continue encouraging Coriolanus to go home, and they compare his loss of approval to a wound that he himself cannot cure.
Coriolanus is war-minded again, hoping to fulfill his earlier wish of slaughtering the common citizens. Somehow Menenius doesn’t believe that all is already lost for Coriolanus. Menenius must compare the political failure to a wound so that Coriolanus can understand it, which is ironic since the wounds he received in battle were his original qualification and political currency.
Coriolanus says he wishes that the common people were barbarians, not Romans, so he could kill them, bragging that he could take on forty of them at once. Menenius says he wishes he could fight with the two tribunes, but Cominius says the situation has already gotten too far out of hand. He explains that it’s foolish, not manly, to fight when the odds are so terrible, and tells Coriolanus to leave before the wild crowd returns. Menenius plans to use his wit to settle the people and salvage Coriolanus’s political career, and Coriolanus and Cominius exit.
Even though Coriolanus hates the common people, he still recognizes them as civilized Romans and therefore will not kill them, suggesting that Roman-ness might come before class distinctions. Cominius explains an important distinction between masculinity and violence, suggesting that being violent alone doesn’t make one manly. Instead, one must fight a righteous and winnable battle to be manly.
As soon as Coriolanus walks out, a patrician says that he has ruined his fortune. Menenius explains that Coriolanus’s “nature is too noble for the world.” He would not even flatter the gods to be granted their powers, let alone the people. “His heart’s his mouth”: whatever he feels or thinks he immediately must say, and when he’s enraged, he expresses himself without any fear of death. A noise indicates that the rabble is going to reenter, and Menenius questions what went wrong and why Coriolanus could not “speak [the people] fair.”
Coriolanus’ stubbornness can be viewed as the utmost nobility and an adherence to strict, classic Roman values. This trait makes Coriolanus heroic, but also un-relatable, and it is possible that this is one of the reasons he is so often disliked by audiences. Menenius perfectly captures Coriolanus’ lack of language ability with the “heart’s his mouth” analogy and the comment that he couldn’t “speak” the people into agreement. Coriolanus’ only use of language is brutal honesty. He’s incapable of editing his speech to reflect something not in his character, and he cannot use language as a tool.
Brutus, Sicinius, and the mob reenter, looking for Coriolanus, whom Sicinius calls a “viper that would depopulate the city and be every man himself.” Menenius tries to begin a speech, but Sicinius cuts him off, insisting that Coriolanus will executed at the Tarpeian rock, a deed which he says will be done with “rigorous hands.” Coriolanus has resisted the force of the law, and therefore will be subjected to the harsh law of the public power which he denies. A citizen calls out that Coriolanus will learn that the “tribunes are the people’s mouths” and the people are the tribunes’ “hands.”
Sicinius’ comment suggests that Coriolanus wants to kill all of the citizens and be the only person in Rome. Menenius has already demonstrated his ability to calm the crowd with words at the beginning of the play, but here the tribunes prevent him by speaking over him. The citizens reinforce their power dynamic with the tribunes (and the city) by reiterating the body politic analogy in which the tribunes are mouths – they voice the opinions of the people – and the citizens are hands – they carry out the will of the tribunes.
Menenius is finally able to get a word in, asking the tribunes and the people not to call for slaughter when they should only seek a moderate punishment. He says that he knows the Consul’s worthiness as well as his faults. Sicinius responds in shock that Menenius still thinks that Coriolanus will be made consul, and the people all cry out “no!” Menenius begs for a few words, and a little bit of time to speak. Sicinius agrees, but he tells Menenius to “speak briefly,” since they are in a hurry to kill the traitorous Coriolanus. To banish him would be dangerous, and to keep him in Rome would bring the death of the tribunes and the people, so the only solution is to kill him.
Menenius tries to subtly save Coriolanus’ career by calling him Consul, but the tribunes are too attuned to the language-based political game, so they refuse to let this comment slip by unnoticed and make sure to limit how much Menenius is allowed to speak. The people’s outcries reinforce the way that the tribunes harness the power and (literal) voices of the people for their own political power.
Menenius, though, takes the position that it would be extremely un-Roman for the city to be so ungrateful to one of her deserving citizens. Sicinius responds that Coriolanus is a “disease that must be cut away,” but Menenius runs with this analogy, saying that Coriolanus is a limb that has a disease. Cutting off this limb would be deadly to the body, and curing the disease within the limb would be simple. Furthermore, he maintains that Coriolanus has done nothing to Rome to warrant death. He’s killed Rome’s enemies and lost his own blood, all for his country. Killing Coriolanus would permanently mark Rome with shame. Sicinius disagrees, and Brutus claims that Coriolanus only loved his country enough to receive the benefits of its honor.
Sicinius inverts the analogy used by Coriolanus in which the tribunes are a diseased, “multitudinous tongue” that must be ripped from the body of Rome to save it. In Sicinius’ analogy, Coriolanus is the diseased limb that must be cut off from the body (killed).The dismemberment imagery – breaking off of body parts – reflects the fragmentation in Rome itself. Menenius’ counterargument is based on the ideals of Rome and the idea – one that the citizens themselves admitted – that it’s wrong to be ungrateful to someone who has done such a great service and received so many wounds for the city.
They continue speaking of Coriolanus metaphorically as a limb, calling him a foot that no longer functions and must be cut off from the body to prevent infection from spreading. Menenius interjects, asking for one more word. He says that acting too swiftly in rage often leads to mistakes being made. Coriolanus must be given due process of law, or a faction that loves Coriolanus might revolt and create civil war in Rome.
While the rioting people were once the foot (“toe”) of Rome, now Coriolanus is characterized as the mutinous, diseased foot. Both sides disagree on who is really infected, but they agree that the fragmentation in the city could legitimately cause civil war and the destruction of Rome, heightening the stakes of the political drama.
The tribunes aren’t yet convinced, but Menenius reminds them that Coriolanus was “bred [in the] wars since he could draw a sword,” and he is poorly educated when it comes to language. Menenius offers to get Coriolanus and bring him to somewhere where he can face legal justice. A senator urges the tribunes to agree to this, since otherwise bloody infighting in Rome is highly likely. The tribunes agree to meet Menenius and Coriolanus at the public marketplace, though if Coriolanus doesn’t show up, they’ll continue hunting him with the mob.
Menenius’ “one more word,” namely mentioning the fact that without justice war will break out, is enough to spare Coriolanus and buy him another chance. This ability to use language so effectively in such a short amount of time highlights Coriolanus’ contrasting inability to use language, even in his lengthy impassioned speeches. Menenius also reinforces the idea that Coriolanus was raised in war, and uses his language ineptitude as an excuse for the outrage Coriolanus just caused.