In a public place in Rome, Sicinius and Brutus discuss Coriolanus. Sicinius says that they haven’t heard anything of him, so they need not fear him. There is little likelihood of his banishment being revoked, since things have calmed down and gone so well since his exile began. Menenius enters and is greeted by the tribunes, who comment that Coriolanus isn’t missed much in the city. Menenius says that all is well, but it could have been better if only Coriolanus were willing to compromise. He has no idea where Coriolanus is, and neither do Volumnia or Virgilia.
The dramatic irony here is that the tribunes (and everyone else in Rome) have no idea that Coriolanus has just joined forces with the Volscians, but the audience does. Menenius seems to grant the notion that things are better now that the tension has settled, though he still wishes that Coriolanus could have shaken a little in his values.
Some citizens enter, and they praise the tribunes, who respond that they wish Coriolanus had loved the people as well as they do. The citizens then leave, and Sicinius notes that it is a much happier time now that citizens aren’t running in the streets in confusion. Brutus believes Caius Martius was an excellent officer in war, but also overcome with pride and too ambitious for tyrannical power. Menenius disagrees, but Sicinius thinks that if Coriolanus had been named consul he’d already be a dictator by now. Brutus believes Rome is safer without Coriolanus around.
Rome seems more stable with Coriolanus gone and the citizens currently satisfied. While Brutus once planned to accuse Coriolanus of tyranny as a political tactic, he now seems to really believe that Coriolanus wanted to be a dictator. The belief that Rome is safer without Coriolanus is dramatic irony, since the audience knows that Coriolanus is about to invade Rome.
An aedile enters and announces that there is a slave (who’s now imprisoned) who reports that the Volscians have gathered two armies and entered Roman territory with the intent of starting another war. Menenius guesses that Aufidius has heard of Coriolanus’s banishment and been emboldened to attack by it. The tribunes think the report cannot be true, assuming that the slave is spreading a rumor, but Menenius says it’s very likely that the Volscians have indeed gathered new armies. A messenger then enters, saying that the nobles are gathering in the senate house. Menenius urges the tribunes to be reasonable before passing judgment, but they believe the report to be impossible and tell the messenger to whip the slave in front of the people.
While the tribunes are expert politicians, they know little of war. At the same time, they know that a looming war just after Coriolanus’ exit would make them look bad, so they are less inclined to believe that the reports are true. In ordering the slave to be publicly whipped, the tribunes demonstrate the selfish, rash decision-making for which Coriolanus criticized them before his banishment. The dramatic irony is still palpable, since the audience knows the reports are true.
The messenger, though, says that the slave’s report has been confirmed, with the addition of even more terrifying information: Coriolanus has joined with Aufidius, and the exiled Roman now leads an army against Rome seeking revenge. Sicinius and Brutus believe the news at once, but Menenius says it’s unlikely, since Coriolanus and Aufidius are mortal enemies. A second messenger then enters and calls Menenius to the senate. He reports that Coriolanus’s army is associated with Aufidius, and has ravaged all Roman territories in its path.
Now that Coriolanus is involved, the tribunes and Menenius switch sides, each wanting to believe what fits his preconceived notions. Finally the dramatic irony is settled, as the characters receive the information that the audience has known for the entire scene. Given Coriolanus’ military excellence, it’s unsurprising that his Volscian army has been so successful in the Roman territories.
Cominius enters, and sarcastically tells the tribunes that they have done good work, helping to “ravish [their] own daughters.” Menenius repeatedly asks for news, but Cominius keeps berating the tribunes. Menenius asks Cominius if Coriolanus is really fighting alongside the Volscians, and Cominius responds that Coriolanus “is their god; he leads them like a thing made by some other deity than nature.” Menenius then echoes Cominius’s sarcastic comment, telling the tribunes they have done good work in creating this situation. Menenius and Cominius fear that Coriolanus will destroy Rome. Roman territories are revolting or perishing in Coriolanus’s wake.
Cominius’ sarcastic remark (and its intense familial imagery) suggests that the tribunes have brought about their own (and Rome’s) downfall by banishing Coriolanus. Cominius describes how fully Coriolanus has transformed from human to something more, as he is now a “god” or an unnatural “thing.” He is so powerful that he threatens to destroy the entire city.
Menenius thinks they are “all undone,” unless Coriolanus shows mercy. Cominius wonders who will ask for this mercy, since the tribunes and the people certainly cannot, and even his close friends will seem like enemies if they beg for mercy, since they will ask just like enemies would. Menenius agrees, and continues chiding the tribunes, who Cominius says have brought a “trembling” beyond help to Rome, the likes of which has never been seen before.
Cominius points out some limitations of language: context and desperation. There is little that any of Coriolanus’ friends could say in begging for mercy that would sound different than what his mortal enemies would say. Again, Coriolanus is described as a force of nature with “trembling.”
The tribunes try to avoid blame, but Menenius says that the nobles loved Coriolanus, but, cowardly, they gave way to the tribunes and the common people, who shouted Coriolanus out of the city. Cominius fears they’ll soon shout him back in, since Aufidius is acting as an officer to Coriolanus. Rome needs to mount a desperate defense. A mob of citizens enters, and Menenius chides them for banishing Coriolanus, who is now coming in a fury. He calls them fools, and says that if Coriolanus burns the city into one coal, the Romans will have deserved it.
Menenius here echoes Coriolanus’ notion that the nobles were cowardly to acquiesce to the demands of the common people. As voices, the citizens both literally shouted Coriolanus out and used their votes to banish him. Menenius believes that Rome will deserve its destruction because it will be self-inflicted—the result of both stupidity and un-Roman ingratitude to its most noble, heroic citizen.
The citizens all claim that when they banished Coriolanus, they thought it was a pity, and they only did it because they thought it best. They say that Coriolanus consented to the banishment, but the people didn’t really want it to happen. Cominius cries out, “you’re goodly things, you voices!” Menenius again says they have done good work, and they exit. The tribunes tell the citizens to go home and not to fear, since Menenius and Cominius stand to profit from believing the reports that Coriolanus is returning. A citizen cries out that he always said they were in the wrong when they banished Coriolanus, and another agrees. The citizens exit. The tribunes are unhappy with the news they have learned, and they pray it is not true. They head for the Capitol and exit.
The citizens once again live up to the stereotype that they are extremely fickle. First they voted for Coriolaus, then they retracted those votes and banished him, and now they are claiming that they didn’t really want to banish him at all. Enraged and terrified of the threat to Rome, Cominius takes up some of Coriolanus’ language and calls the common people “things” and “voices.” The tribunes try to calm the people by saying that the reports might be false, but Menenius and Cominius certainly do not profit because of the reports, since they are also in danger.