Brutus and Sicinius enter the Roman Forum, planning how they will keep Coriolanus out of power. Their plan is to claim that he wants the power of a tyrant, and if that doesn’t work, they will press him about his hatred of the people and question why the spoils from war have not been distributed. A Roman Aedile enters, reporting that Coriolanus is on his way, accompanied by Menenius and the supporting Roman senators.
The main concern of the tribunes remains their own power, not the best interests of the common people. They will go to any lengths to discredit and enrage Coriolanus.
The aedile, as instructed by the tribunes, has catalogued all of the voices against Coriolanus. He’s now instructed to tell the people to yell out in agreement with whatever sentence Sicinius ultimately gives Coriolanus, be it a fine, banishment, or death. The people are to keep shouting until the sentence is executed. The aedile then exits to prepare the citizens. Brutus plans to enrage Coriolanus, who he thinks is not used to being contradicted and is unable to rein himself in once “chafed.” Coriolanus “speaks what’s in his heart,” and what he really thinks is exactly what the tribunes need in order to get rid of him.
The common people are depicted as being without opinions of their own; their only role is to yell as a mob in agreement with the tribunes meant to represent them. The tribunes rightly predict that Coriolanus is easily enraged, and he lacks the ability to control himself once his true opinion has been unleashed. They know exactly what Menenius has previously said: Coriolanus’ mouth is his heart, and he lacks the ability to conceal his hatred of the commoners.
Coriolanus, Menenius, Cominius, and other Senators enter. Aside, Menenius reminds Coriolanus to be calm, and Coriolanus begrudgingly agrees. Out loud, he calls for the gods to protect Rome and keep the peace. The aedile reenters with the citizens, whom he instructs to listen to the tribunes. Coriolanus asks if this public sentencing will put an end to the situation, and Sicinius demands that he must submit to the people’s voices, obey the officers, and agree to whatever punishment they see fit for him. Coriolanus says he is content, and Menenius makes sure that the people notice, reminding them that Coriolanus has done military service and has received wounds for his country. Humbly, Coriolanus calls the wounds “scratches.”
This scene is a political spectacle for the common people, but Menenius doesn’t realize that they have already been instructed to agree with the tribunes and that Coriolanus’ cause is hopeless. Coriolanus at first does play the part and agrees to listen to the people’s opinions, something he has dismissed all along. Once again, wounds are used as political currency and as Coriolanus’ qualifications for office.
Menenius continues reminding the citizens that Coriolanus speaks like a soldier, not a citizen. Therefore, they should not take his “rougher accents” as anything malicious or filled with hatred; it’s just the way that soldiers speak. Coriolanus asks why people who earlier gave “full voice” to name him consul have now revoked the approval, but Sicinius says that the tribunes will be asking the questions, not him. Coriolanus agrees to answer, and Sicinius accuses him of contriving to take tyrannical power, for which he is “a traitor to the people.” Coriolanus, furious, responds “How Traitor?” and Menenius reminds him of his promise to be mild, but Coriolanus immediately shouts for the common people to burn in hell. He curses Sicinius for calling him a traitor, and he says that even if the tribune were supported by millions, Coriolanus would still call him a liar.
When Menenius speaks for Coriolanus it goes smoothly, but as soon as Coriolanus begins to speak himself, the tribunes are able to best him. The tribunes don’t even need to turn to their fallback plan of mentioning the spoils of war, since by simply calling Coriolanus “traitor” they attack his Roman values and immediately trigger an outraged response. Even if Coriolanus truly intended to speak mildly as instructed, he is far too committed to his ideals to stand for being called a traitor, and he’s unable to curb his language to reveal anything but his deep hate for the tribunes and their supporters.
Sicinius asks the people if they’re paying attention, and they all cry out “to the rock!” Sicinius quiets them, and he says that they’ve seen and heard Coriolanus enough to sentence him to death. Brutus cuts in to say that since Coriolanus has done good service for Rome – at which point Coriolanus chides him for knowing nothing of service. Menenius reminds Coriolanus that he promised Volumnia to be mild, and Cominius tries to calm him, but he will not be calmed. He says that even if the tribunes order his death, exile, or any kind of torture, he will not buy their mercy with even a single word.
Menenius tries to invoke Coriolanus’ family bonds and the promise Coriolanus made to his mother, but at this point his passion for an idealized Rome and refusal to be characterized as a traitor is much greater than any obligation he feels to his mother. He also continues to demonstrate his hatred of language. Just like he loves Rome more than himself, he hates words more than he loves his own life.
Sicinius continues his sentencing, saying that since Coriolanus has often hated the people and tried to revoke their power, he will be banished from Rome on pain of death. The people all cry out in support for the banishment. Cominius tries to speak, reminding the tribunes that he himself was once consul and can show the wounds he has received for Rome. He intends to plead for Coriolanus, but Brutus and Sicinius interrupt, saying that Coriolanus has already been sentenced. The people all shout that “it shall be so!”
Cominius’ wounds are not enough to counteract Coriolanus’ sentence, but it’s possible that Coriolanus’ own wounds (and the threat of civil war upon his execution) are what lead the tribunes to decide on banishment instead of death. As instructed, the citizens simply echo the opinions of the tribunes by yelling them out, perfectly fitting the role of “voices.” This is ironic, since the tribunes are supposed to voice the opinions of the people, not provide them.
Coriolanus responds, calling the people a “common cry of curs.” He says he hates their breath (voices) like the stench of “rotten fens,” and he cares for their love like he cares for rotting, unburied carcasses. He cries out that he banishes the people and their uncertainty. He hopes that they are shaken by every rumor and that their enemies are empowered, and he’s glad that they’ll keep the power to banish those who would defend them, so that their own ignorance will lead them to become captives to some other nation that takes over Rome.
Ironically, Coriolanus’ characterization of the citizens’ breath as “rotten fens” (swamps) is reminiscent of the tribunes, who called the voices of the citizens “stinking breath.” Coriolanus points out the ungratefulness and the foolishness of the people by pointing out that in addition to the threat of civil war, Rome also faces external threats, and he is their number one defender.
Hating Rome because of the people, Coriolanus turns his back on the city. He says “there is a world elsewhere,” and he exits along with Cominius, Menenius, and the other Roman senators. The people and tribunes rejoice that their enemy has been banished, and they decide to follow Coriolanus out of the city and curse him as he begins his exile.
The constant references to Coriolanus’ aloneness have culminated in his exile from the city of Rome. “There is a world elsewhere” is a final rejection of the city from the ultimate idealist Roman, showing how far he has been alienated.