In a public place in Corioles, Aufidius enters with some attendants. He instructs them to tell the lords of the city that he has arrived, and says that they are to gather the patricians and common people in the marketplace to hear him speak. The attendants exit, and some Volscian conspirators of Aufidius’s faction enter. One asks about Coriolanus, and Aufidius describes him as a man poisoned and killed by his own charity. They plan to gauge the mindset of the people before continuing with their plan, knowing that whosever survives will inherit all of the people’s love.
Aufidius demonstrates that though Coriolanus can beat him on the battlefield, he also has oratory and political skills that far outmatch Coriolanus. While Coriolanus hates the people, Aufidius recognizes them as a source of power (and danger). He has already said that the true showcase of power is a public platform. Now that Coriolanus has ended the war, he has lost his advantage to Aufidius.
Aufidius believes he has a good cause to attack Coriolanus. He advocated for Coriolanus, who in turn flattered all the Volscians and Aufidius’s friends, changing in his nature as he was never known to do before. One Volscian conspirator notes how “stout” Coriolanus was when standing for consul, which caused him to lose the position. Aufidius explains that when Coriolanus was banished for this stoutness, he showed up on Aufidius’s doorstep, presented his throat to be slit, then joined Aufidius.
It’s ironic that Coriolanus was banished because he refused to bend, pretend, flatter, or change his nature in Rome, and now he’s being attacked for doing those very things in Antium. It’s possible, though, that Coriolanus didn’t really change his nature, and Aufidius is only saying that he did because he hates Coriolanus so much.
Aufidius says that he then let Coriolanus take on responsibility and gave him whatever he wanted, till ultimately, he treated Aufidius like a follower or a mercenary, not a partner. After all of this, when the army was poised to take Rome, for a few drops of women’s tears (“which are as cheap as lies”) Coriolanus “sold the blood and labor of their great action.” For this, he will die, and Aufidius will renew his glory in Coriolanus’s fall.
Aufidius also values wounds and blood as a commodity, and he is outraged that Coriolanus would exchange something so valuable for valueless tears (women’s opinions, in his view), which he thinks of like Coriolanus thinks of public opinion.
Drums and trumpets sound, signaling that Coriolanus has entered the town. A Volscian conspirator notes that when Aufidius entered his home town he was met with silence, but Coriolanus receives earsplitting noise. Another says that fools whose children Coriolanus killed are now tearing their throats shouting to give him glory. The third conspirator says that Aufidius should strike before Coriolanus has the chance to express himself or move the people. The Volscian lords of the city enter, greeting Aufidius and saying that they received his letter and believe that Coriolanus’s behavior (making peace when the Volscians easily could have defeated Rome) was inexcusable.
While the tribunes wanted Coriolanus to speak to the Roman people to damn himself, the Volscian conspirators worry that if he does speak he’ll be able to get the common people on his side. What Coriolanus really cares about, though, is the opinion of the nobles, who reveal they already agree with Aufidius. The conspirators point to the irony that the Volscian citizens are praising Coriolanus even though he murdered their family and friends, again emphasizing the fickle nature of the public’s opinion.
Coriolanus enters with the Volscian people behind him. Coriolanus hails the Volscian lords, saying that he has returned still hating Rome and still under their command. He led the armies “with bloody passage” all the way to the gates of Rome, and has brought home spoils equaling more than a third of the cost of the war. He has made peace with Rome that is honorable to both sides, and he hands the peace offering to the lords. Aufidius, though, tells the lords not to read it, saying they should tell the “traitor in the highest degree” that he has abused them.
Coriolanus claims he is unchanged, since he still hates Rome and still gives his allegiance to the Volscian nobles, but he demonstrates a waiver in his values by agreeing to peace when, throughout the play, he has repeatedly said he prefers war. Aufidius knows the perfect way to infuriate Coriolanus, and he uses the same word that the tribunes did to set Coriolanus off in Rome: traitor.
Coriolanus is shocked, saying “Traitor? How now?” and Aufidius says, “Ay, traitor, Martius.” Again, Coriolanus responds in brief confusion, just repeating “Martius?” Aufidius then launches into a speech, calling his rival Caius Martius, refusing to grace him with the “stolen name” of “Coriolanus” in the very city of Corioles. Aufidius tells the Volscian lords that Coriolanus betrayed the state for the Roman tears of his wife and his mother, breaking his oath. Coriolanus cries out “Hear’st thou, Mars?” and Aufidius responds “Name not the god, thou boy of tears.” This is enough to set Coriolanus off. Enraged that Aufidius called him “boy,” Coriolanus tells the Volscian lords that Aufidius is a lying cur who bears many wounds inflicted by Coriolanus himself.
Ironically, Coriolanus is a traitor, both to Rome and to Antium, since he fought against Roman armies and killed his own people, but ultimately refused to do the bidding of the Volscian nobles. Aufidius’ refusal to use Coriolanus’ surname shows that Aufidius understands the power of naming. By un-naming Coriolanus, Aufidius emphasizes the humanity and newfound vulnerability of his rival. The two have before now had a mutual respect, and an intense manly and homosocial bond formed their fierce rivalry. Therefore, Aufidius offers the ultimate disrespect and insult in calling Coriolanus “boy.”
A Volscian lord tries to speak, but Coriolanus cries out “cut me to pieces!” He’s still furious that he was called “boy,” and so he brags that “like an eagle in a dovecote” he “fluttered” through all the Volscians in Corioles, capturing the city all alone. Aufidius asks if the lords will be convinced by Coriolanus’s “unholy” bragging about the shameful battle in Corioles that he only won by sheer luck.
Like with the tribunes, this fragmentation – all the different body parts mentioned in the play underscoring the political divide in Rome and Coriolanus’ divided obligations – culminates in words of literal dismemberment. Coriolanus brags about his new name and the heroic deeds behind it, emphasizing both his might and his solitude, but he doesn’t understand that in doing so he’s only giving the Volscians more reason to despise and murder him.
The Volscian conspirators yell that Coriolanus should be killed, and the Volscian people begin crying out in agreement, shouting that he should be torn into pieces for killing their family members. Another Volscian lord tries to calm them, saying that Coriolanus is noble and deserves a judicious hearing for his latest offence, but Coriolanus draws his sword, saying he wishes that he had six versions of Aufidius or Aufidius’s family members there to kill. Aufidius cries out “insolent villain!” and the conspirators shout “Kill, kill, kill, kill, kill him!” The conspirators draw weapons and kill “Martius,” who falls to the ground.
The common people screaming to kill him and a lord calling for justice echoes the scenes in which Coriolanus was nearly executed and finally banished in Rome. Again Coriolanus draws his sword, but the Volscian lord’s words aren’t enough to calm the crowd and the Volscian citizens and conspirators take action where the Romans didn’t. When he dies, the stage direction lists him as “Martius” instead of “Coriolanus,” showing that Aufidius was successful in un-naming Coriolanus, and reinforcing the idea that the godly, heroic Coriolanus became the vulnerable, Roman, Martius once more, which ultimately meant his undoing.
Aufidius stands on Coriolanus’s body and addresses the Volscian people. The Volscian lords, meanwhile, lament the bloody deed, asking Aufidius not to stand on the body. Aufidius assures the lords that when they fully understand what a danger Coriolanus was to them they will rejoice that he has been killed. Aufidius offers to explain himself before the senate and continue as a noble servant of the Volscian state.
Aufidius shows that he possess the deadly blend of language and action. He was able to use language to incense the people and turn them on Coriolanus, but he knew when to act, preferring to ask for forgiveness after the fact instead of asking for permission first.
One Volscian lord says that they should mourn for Coriolanus, whom he calls the most noble corpse ever put into an urn. Another lord says that Coriolanus’s own impatience takes some of the blame of his death away from Aufidius. Aufidius’s rage has now subsided, and he is struck with sorrow. He says that he and three other soldiers will bear the body. Though Coriolanus has made many widows and killed many sons in the city, he will be remembered as noble. Everyone exits, bearing the body of Coriolanus, as a death march plays.
Coriolanus retains his nobility, but not his life, and while he valued honor above life itself, it’s tragic that the great, godly hero ends the play as a corpse bound for an urn. What made Coriolanus vulnerable was his reconnection to his family and Rome, and therefore to his humanity, but it was also his strict adherence to classic values and his refusal to bend or back down that got him banished and ultimately killed in Antium.