Menenius and Sicinius are talking in a street in Rome. Menenius thinks there is only a slight chance that the ladies (especially Volumnia) will be able to save Rome, but he believes it won’t happen. Sicinius doesn’t understand how Coriolanus has changed so quickly, and Menenius compares it to the transformation from a caterpillar to a butterfly, only Coriolanus has “grown from man to dragon.” Sicinius knows that Coriolanus loves his mother dearly, but Menenius reminds the tribune that Coriolanus loved him, too, but still denied him; Coriolanus probably has no memory of his mother now.
This scene is filled with dramatic irony, since the Romans are terrified but the audience knows Coriolanus has agreed to spare the city. Menenius outlines Coriolanus’ transition from a man to a heroic, unfeeling, more-than-human thing, again characterizing Coriolanus as an isolated dragon—but audiences know this transformation has just been undone.
“When he walks, he moves like an engine,” Menenius says about Coriolanus, and he is like a “thing made for Alexander.” He’s even become like a god, lacking only an eternity and a heaven to sit in. Menenius believes there is no more mercy in Coriolanus than there is milk in a male tiger. Menenius thinks that in banishing Coriolanus they disrespected the gods, so the gods disrespect them in turn by bringing Coriolanus back to Rome to break their necks.
It’s ironic that the most complete depiction of Coriolanus as a godly, merciless, machinated hero comes after Coriolanus has been re-humanized by Volumnia and his family. This contrast makes Coriolanus seem more heroic at the height of his powers, and it makes his fall seem all the more tragic.
A messenger enters, telling Sicinius to run home if he wants to live. The plebeians have captured Brutus and swear that if the Roman ladies aren’t successful in convincing Coriolanus to spare the city, they will give Brutus “death by inches.” Another messenger then enters with the good news that the ladies have prevailed, and the Volscians have dropped the attack. Trumpets celebrate the news and signal that the ladies are returning. Menenius comments that Volumnia “is worth of consuls, senators, patricians, a city full.” They all go to meet and praise the Roman women.
“Death by inches” means torn apart piece by piece. Ironically, the ones who took advantage of the fragmented body of Rome and called for the dismemberment of its foot (Coriolanus) are threatened with literal dismemberment. As Coriolanus falls from hero to mere human, Volumnia receives the praise of utmost honor and heroism.