Sicinius, Brutus, and an aedile enter a street in Rome. Sicinius instructs the aedile to tell the citizens to go home, since Coriolanus is gone, and the nobility who have sided with him are now upset. Since they have shown their power, they now must seem humble; the aedile should tell the people that “their great enemy is gone.” The aedile exits, and Volumnia, Virgilia, and Menenius enter the street. Sicinius wants to avoid them, since Volumnia is apparently mad, but she notices the tribunes. She shouts that she hopes the gods reward their love with praise, and asks the tribunes to leave. Virgilia says that they’ll probably stay, which she wishes she could say about her husband.
The savvy tribunes recognize how the nobility side with Coriolanus. For this reason, they banished him instead of killing him, and it’s for this reason that they must be careful after the banishment not to push the patricians too far. The tribunes show they are masters of acting, which is what is required in the political sphere, by pretending to be humble. Virgilia seems emboldened by her husband’s exile, cursing the tribunes for their obstinacy.
Sicinius asks Volumnia “are you mankind?” to which she responds that her father was a man. She calls Sicinius a fool and asks if he had the cunning to banish a man that “struck more blows for Rome” than Sicinius has spoken words. She says she wishes her son were in Arabia with a sword in hand and Sicinius’s family in front of him. Sicinius asks what then, and Virgilia responds that Coriolanus would “make an end of [Sicinius’s] posterity.”
Sicinius seems to question Volumnia’s legitimacy by pointing out her womanhood, but she responds by saying that even the feminine comes from and has traces of the masculine. While Coriolanus failed in the realm of language, Volumnia reminds the tribunes that Coriolanus is far more skilled in the field of war than they are in the field of politics. Virgilia continues showing new confidence in threatening Sicinius’ family. Despite Sicinius’ sexist remark, Shakespeare’s women here show extreme power and boldness in their femininity.
Volumnia laments the banishment of her son, especially given the wounds that he received for Rome. Menenius tries to calm her down, and Sicinius says he wishes that Coriolanus had continued being noble rather than undoing his own career. Brutus echoes this wish, but Volumnia calls them out, saying it was the tribunes who “incensed the rabble.” She tells the tribunes they have banished someone who is far better than they are, and the tribunes decide to leave, saying that they don’t want to be berated by someone who has lost her wits.
A common sexist criticism of women in Shakespeare’s time (and still today) is that they lose their wits and have no control over their emotions. The tribunes use this stereotype to dismiss Volumnia, but they seem foolish in doing so since audiences (and everyone onstage) know that the tribunes really “incensed the rabble” as she suggests.
After they exit, Volumnia prays that the gods have nothing to do but enact her curses, and she wishes she could meet the tribunes once a day to “unclog [her] heart” and yell at them. Menenius asks if she will eat dinner with him, but she responds “Anger’s my meat. I sup upon myself.” She tells Virgilia to follow her and to stop crying. Instead, Volumnia says, Virgilia should lament in anger like the goddess Juno. They all exit.
While Coriolanus’ heart is his mouth, Volumnia knows how to edit what she says, thereby clogging her heart up. Volumnia takes eating imagery to the cannibalistic level in saying that she subsides on anger and is so angry that she will eat herself. Invoking the goddess Juno is a perfect inversion of the stereotype of the hysterical woman, suggesting a theme of female empowerment.