In his house, Coriolanus speaks with a Roman noble. Coriolanus says that no matter how the tribunes and common people torture or kill him, he will always think of them and act towards them in the same way. He wonders what his mother will think of his behavior, since she usually called the common people underlings and “things” created to buy and sell, to gather in congregations, to yawn, and to look up in silent awe when someone of a higher class (like Coriolanus himself) speaks about peace or war. Volumnia then enters, and Coriolanus says he was just talking about her. He asks why she wishes he would have been milder, and if she would have wanted him to be false to his own nature. He says he’d rather “play the man I am.”
Coriolanus reinforces the idea that he is unshakable in his values. Volumnia, like her son, dehumanizes the lower class and thinks of them like a mob whose purpose is to defer to the patricians. To Coriolanus, playing politics means acting like something he is not, which is therefore lying. That he would rather “play the man” he is, though, suggests the theatricality even behind being a hero or being one’s true self. Even when he is sticking to his steadfast Roman values, he’s still only acting, an irony given an extra level by the fact that Coriolanus is a character played by an actor on stage.
Volumnia says she would have had her son assume his position of power smoothly by hiding his true views about the common people until he was officially named consul. Coriolanus says “let them hang” in reference to the people, and Volumnia agrees, adding “and burn too.” Menenius and Roman Senators then enter Coriolanus’s house, and Menenius immediately begins scolding Coriolanus for being too rough; he must return to the people and fix everything. One senator, though, says that there is no remedy, though not fixing the situation might cleave Rome and create a civil war.
It’s clear that both mother and son have contempt for the common people, but in the political sphere Volumnia is more pragmatic. Though Menenius has skillfully prevented Coriolanus from facing execution at the hands of the mob (by evoking a possible civil war in Rome), he seems overly optimistic about salvaging Coriolanus’ political career. Again, the danger of Rome fracturing into civil war is brought up to heighten drama.
Volumnia counsels her son, saying she has the same grievances with the common people that he has, but she also uses her anger to her advantage. Menenius says that Rome requires the medicine of Coriolanus stooping to the “herd.” He must return to the tribunes and repent what he has spoken, but Coriolanus says cannot repent. Volumnia then tells him “you are too absolute.” Usually one cannot be too noble, she says, but in certain dire circumstances Coriolanus can be.
Rome is once more described as a diseased body in need of healing, but instead of an amputation, Rome requires Coriolanus to do the only things he cannot do: change in his values, act like something he is not, bend to the will of the common people, and apologize. In saying Coriolanus is “too absolute” and too noble, Volumnia echoes Menenius’ comment that Coriolanus is “too noble to the world.” They admire his idealist adherence to Roman virtues, but find that too strict an adherence is politically impractical.
Volumnia reminds Coriolanus of his philosophy that honor and strategy grow together in war. Why, then, does he refuse to combine honor and strategy during a time of peace? In war Coriolanus often uses deception, seeming like he is something he is not, for the benefit of his strategy. Volumnia questions why he cannot do the same thing and deceive others during peace just like he does in war?
Volumnia’s criticism points to some of the irony in Coriolanus “playing” himself, suggesting that he simply prefers war to politics. She reasons that he might use deceptive military tactics, which she equates to political posturing. A possible way to save Coriolanus’ virtue might be to argue that in war, even while being deceptive, one’s intentions are always genuine and clear: to win and to kill. Even deceptive violence is honest in that way, but politics requires outright lying and concealed intentions.
Coriolanus asks why Volumnia is forcing this point, to which she responds that Coriolanus must now speak to the people. He must not speak his own words or from his own heart, but rather with memorized words he will be given that have absolutely no relation to what he truly thinks and feels. Such politicking, she says, is no more dishonorable than taking a town with gentle words instead of risking his life in a bloody battle. Volumnia herself would conceal her true nature (“dissemble”) if her friends and her success were at stake and she could do so while remaining honorable. She says that she speaks for his wife, his son, the senators, and all the nobles, while Coriolanus would rather frown and curse the citizens than flatter them in order to gain power and therefore gain a position to keep Rome safe.
Like a campaign manager or stage mother, Volumnia wants to feed words directly to her son. She doesn’t want him to speak from his heart, but Menenius has already said that Coriolanus’ mouth is his heart, suggesting already that Coriolanus will fail. Again, she takes the pragmatic approach and appeals to Coriolanus’ sense of duty to Rome. Not only can Coriolanus maintain his honor (which he values above his life), but he can also gain a position to keep Rome safe. In contrast, he’s already been told (and seen) that the city is fragmenting, and without a solution it might fall to civil war.
Menenius continues prompting Coriolanus to “speak fair” to the citizens, which, he believes, might still calm the rabble and restore Coriolanus’s hopes of becoming consul. Volumnia hands Coriolanus a cap and gives him detailed instructions about how to hold it and wave it and how to deliver a proper speech. He should tell the common people that he is their soldier, and that, having grown up in wars, he lacks “the soft way” of language, which he should admit would be a good skill for him to have. He must “frame [himself]” a man of the people forever. Menenius confirms that if Coriolanus does as Volumnia instructs, he will surely win the people’s hearts, pardons, and voices. Volumnia tells Coriolanus to listen to them, even though she knows he would rather follow his enemy into a fiery pit than flatter him.
Still acting as campaign managers and advisors, Menenius and Volumnia tell Coriolanus almost exactly how to speak and act. He needs to alter (“frame”) or present himself as something that he is not: a soft-spoken admirer of the common people who is sorry for everything else he has said. They want him to admit he lacks the “soft way” of language, but, ironically, since he does lack that skill, he won’t be able to apologize for it or communicate how they instruct him. Volumnia has the political acumen to be a politician, but her desires and ambitions are foisted upon her son.
Cominius enters Coriolanus’s house and reports that he has been to the marketplace. He says Coriolanus needs to gather supporters and defend himself calmly, or not show up at all, since the people are extremely angry. Menenius, Cominius, and Volumnia all agree that Coriolanus will be fine if he can speak fairly and “frame his spirit.” Coriolanus questions whether he must really speak a lie that his heart cannot bear. He agrees to do it, but he notes that if he only had his body and his life to lose – “this mold of Martius” – the people would grind him to dust and throw him into the wind. He agrees to go to the market place, saying they’ve instructed him to play a part that he’ll never be able to act convincingly.
The key words here are “calmly” and “fairly.” Coriolanus must defend himself, but also reform (“frame”) himself into something he is not – a politician instead of a soldier. In agreeing to do what the others want and conceding that being deceptive in battle is the same thing as dishonest politicking, Coriolanus becomes shaken and defeated, but also humanized. He seems for a moment to lose his heroism and his new title, referring to himself only as “this mold of Martius,” a fragile human. “Mold” refers to body, but also recalls the framing imagery used by Menenius and Volumnia.
Cominius reassures Coriolanus that he will be prompted on what to say. Just like Volumnia first made her son a soldier years ago, she now hopes to make him perform a new part. He agrees he must do it, and he calls out for his disposition to be replaced with the spirit of a harlot and for multiple body parts to be replaced. He’ll let his “throat of war” be turned into a pipe with a voice like a “eunuch.” “The smiles of knaves” will enter his cheeks and “schoolboy’s tears” will cloud his vision. His tongue will be replaced with a beggar’s and his embattled knees will bend as he bows to beg. After all of this, he says that he will not do it, since he doesn’t want to stop honoring his own truth and, by acting badly, make himself base.
In order to play this role, Coriolanus must cease being Coriolanus, so he describes his own body being torn apart and replaced with that of someone else. In saying his “throat of war” will be replaced with a eunuch’s vocal chords, Coriolanus shows how he views the transition from warfare to politics to be emasculating. This point is reinforced when he says that he’ll have the tears of a “schoolboy,” showing him reverting from man to boy. After figuratively mutilating himself and posturing like he’s instructed, he shows that he can’t keep up such a ruse for long by immediately going back on his decision.
Volumnia responds that it’s Coriolanus’s choice, and that to beg him would be more dishonorable than for him to beg the people. She welcomes the ruin that will come to everything, and says she’ll “feel” (suffer for) his pride, but will not fear the danger he causes by being so obstinate, since she mocks death just as well as he does. He can do whatever he wants. She reminds him, though, that his bravery came from her: he “suck’st it from [her].” His pride, on the other hand, is his own.
Volumnia shows herself to be just as bold and formidable as her son. Her intense maternal image, which recalls her comment about Hecuba breastfeeding the Trojan warrior Hector, shows her taking ownership over Coriolanus and his bravery. However, she only takes ownership and responsibility over his good accomplishments.
Coriolanus tells his mother to be content, agreeing to play the part, speak the people into loving him, and return beloved by everyone in Rome. He tells Volumnia to commend him to his wife, and promises to return as consul, or else they should never trust his ability to flatter again. Volumnia exits, and Cominius warns Coriolanus to answer mildly, as the tribunes have prepared even harsher accusations than before. Coriolanus says even if they invent accusations against him, he’ll respond in honor, but Cominius stresses that he must do so mildly. Everyone departs for the public marketplace.
Coriolanus finally agrees to use political speech as a tool to manipulate the common people, but he doesn’t seem to trust what everyone stresses to him: that he has to speak “fair,” “soft,” and “mild.” He agrees to respond with honor and attempt to flatter, but he has already shown that he cannot flatter, that he lacks the “soft way” of language, and that he cannot obscure his true feelings for very long.