The Play’s the Thing: Some rioting citizens of Rome meet up on a street corner to provide some back story. Essentially the citizens are hungry and are convinced the ruling class are hording grain for themselves and not sharing like they should. They particularly blame Caius Marcius and are convinced if they kill him then they can’t grain at their own price. There’s a bit of a debate over whether Caius Marcius is really such a bad guy; he’s a war hero who’s fought for his country. However, someone else points out that everything he’s done has been to please his mother. Menenius Agrippa then shows up to talk down the plebs. Once he’s calmed them down, Caius Marcius shows up and starts complaining about how quickly the mob change their minds. Menenius asks about what went down on the other side of town and we find out the mob was granted the request of nominating five tribunes to represent them to the senate. Two of the tribunes are Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus. Right after this news has been passed on a messenger shows up tell Marcius that the Volsces are “in arms.” Marcius heads off with Cominius to go fight the Volsces. Sicinius and Brutus stay behind to trash talk Marcius and talk about how proud and conniving he is. In Corioli, Tullus Aufidius talks with the senators about his battle plans and we learn that Aufidius and Marcius have faced off multiple times. Back in Rome, Marcius’ mother, Volumnia, and his wife, Virgilia, are hanging out when their friend, Valeria arrives. Virgilia is worried sick about her husband and doesn’t want to leave home while he’s gone. Volumnia, on the other hand, thinks that whether her son lives or dies, his honour will be greater for the battle. Valeria just wants the girls to come out with her. Eventually she and Volumnia go and Virgilia remains at home. Finally we get many scenes of the battle at Corioli. A lot of things go down but suffice it to say that Marcius wins against all odds and in addition to his battle prizes, is given the honorary name of Coriolanus. Elsewhere, Aufidius vows to eventually defeat his long-time enemy
Menenius is chatting with Sicinius and Brutus about the rumours that there will be news soon. S&B (they are never apart so let’s just call them that from now on) are once again bitching about Coriolanus’ flaws, especially his pride. Menenius defends Coriolanus to them until the three Vs walk by with the news Coriolanus is about to arrive in Rome. Mommy V and Menenius trade some talk about Coriolanus’ battle scars which will go a long way towards winning the hearts of the plebs. Coriolanus then shows up, spends more time talking to Mommy V then Wifey V (there’s a fun home dynamic) and heads off to the Capitol. S&B trash talk him some more and note that they’ll be able to use their influence with the commoners to turn them against him and hold on to their power and prevent him from being made consul. There’s then some prep for Coriolanus standing for consul, Coriolanus then speaks before the Senate who decide to make him a consul. The only catch is he must also get the support of the plebs. This requires him to stand on a street corner and ask people for their support. Coriolanus has a lot of disdain for the plebs and doesn’t want to but Menenius talks him into it. Coriolanus manages to get the support of the people, although he refuses to show off his battle scars (apparently a thing other people have done before). However, after Coriolanus has gone in to the senate, S&B show up and get the citizens to turn on him.
Coriolanus is chatting with his pal, Cominius about the news that Aufidius and the Volsces are ramping up for battle again. They then run into S&B who tell Coriolanus not to go into the marketplace as the citizens are seriously pissed. Coriolanus gets uppity and is all, “Well, screw them. I hate the unwashed masses way more than they hate me.” There’s a lot of political maneuvering with S&B working super hard to make sure Coriolanus gets nowhere near power. S&B maneuver to have Coriolanus executed. Menenius tries to talk them down and is sent to fetch Coriolanus, who is getting a bit of a scolding from Mommy V for not working with others better. Coriolanus gets talked into trying and appeasing the plebs by Mommy V, Menenius, and Cominius. But when he gets to the marketplace, S&B wind him up and Coriolanus ends up insulting the mob. He’s then banished from Rome.
Coriolanus says goodbye to his two friends and the Mommy and Wifey Vs and leaves Rome. Mommy V then verbally attacks S&B and gets seriously worked up. On a random highway a Roman and a Volsce meet up and trade gossip. The Volsce learns Coriolanus is banished and the Roman learns the Volscans are about to attack again. At Aufidius’s house, Coriolanus is the world’s haughtiest party crasher. He comes in and tell everyone that due to his mistreatment by the Romans he’s going to join the Volscans in their attack and lead their army. Back in Rome, S&B are gloating and enjoying being the big men on campus and telling each other how lovely everything is now that Coriolanus is gone. Of course, they then get rumours that the Volscans are about to attack which they try to smother only to have believable news saying the same thing with the added note that Coriolanus is leading the army. Menenius and Cominius tell S&B that they hope the pair are happy after everything they’ve done. In the Volscan camp, Aufidius talks with his Lieutenant about Coriolanus’ insane charisma which draws soldiers to him like nobodies business. Aufidius hints that when they’ve taken Rome, he will do everything in his power to take out Coriolanus.
In Rome, S&B talk Menenius into trying to convince Coriolanus not to to attack Rome. Menenius fails. Coriolanus is in the midst of telling Aufidius that nothing will get him to stop the attack on Rome when the Mommy and Wifey Vs with Coriolanus Jr. and the third V in tow. Mommy, Wifey, and Jr all plead with Coriolanus and eventually Mommy (of course) is successful. The Volscans murmur about it but Coriolanus decides not to attack Rome. In Rome, Menenius and S discuss the odds of the 3 Vs success and receive word that the plebs are beating on B. They then get notice that the 3 Vs worked their magic and Coriolanus won’t be attacking, much to the delight of the Romans. In Antium, Aufidius plots with some co-conspirators to assassinate Coriolanus to make sure he stops stealing Aufidius’ thunder. Coriolanus comes into town and is lauded by everyone as a hero until Aufidius calls him a traitor, the two men have a verbal showdown, the citizens turn against him, and Aufidius and his conspirators kill him. The lords of Antium shame Aufidius for killing such a good man and Aufidius suddenly has an attack of conscience. He serves as one of the men who carry Coriolanus’ body off stage.
Heroes and Villains: There really aren’t any characters in this play that I have strong feelings about either way, so no favourite character this time around.
- against the grain (II.iii)
- thwack (IV.v)
- death by inches (V.iv)
Speech to Know: Coriolanus may be an annoying and arrogant character, but he knows how to give an impassioned and mildly insulting speech.
“You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate
As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead caracasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, – I banish you;
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumour shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders; till at length
Your ignorance, – which finds not till it feels, –
Making not reservation of yourselves –
Still your own foes, – deliver you, as most
Abated captives, to some nation
That won you without blows! Despising,
For you, the city, thus I turn my back:
There is a world elsewhere.” (III.iii)
View from the Pit: As a study in characters, Coriolanus is an interesting play (which is probably why my instructor chose it as one of the plays for my Shakespeare class in undergrad). The dynamic between Coriolanus and his mother is fascinating; add in the limp dish rag that is his wife, Virgilia, and there’s all kinds of psychological speculations to make about a man with such a dominant mother having such a passive wife. Coriolanus himself is an intriguing mix of the military hero who wishes to maintain his privacy and the member of the upper class who detests the general population. In this conflict between Coriolanus and the citizens of Rome, neither side is particularly appealing. Coriolanus is condescending, arrogant, and elitist while the masses are easily led and capricious. While this might lead the audience to then favour Aufidius, but his assassination of Coriolanus is cowardly and his own immediate regret over the action makes him even less likable. I’d respect him far more if he’d killed Coriolanus and had enough conviction in his actions to feel no remorse. Ultimately, a play with an interesting mix of characters but none of them are particularly likable and the plot is likely to appeal only to those who are particularly interested in (predictable) political maneuverings.