Coriolanus — act five: backstabbers (and front-stabbers, too)

Previously on Coriolanus: In the first act, the Roman citizenry–starving–blames a soldier and favored son of the patricians named Caius Martius, despite his service for Rome, because he is arrogant and proud. Martius arrives, hurls insults at them, and intimates that if the senate allowed him, he’d mow down these citizens. Meanwhile, we learn he hates/envies a general from the Volscian army, Aufidius. In Corioles, a major town in Volsca, Aufidius learns that Roman battalions are heading to Volsca, led by Martius, whom Aufidius hates. Next, we meet Martius’ proud mother Volumnia and worried wife Virgilia. The first act continues in Corioles where Martius is victorious, taking the town almost single-handedly. Martius meets Aufidius in battle, but before the fight is decided, Aufidius’ army comes in and rescues/takes him away from battle. In celebration of the Roman victory, Martius is given the name Coriolanus; Aufidius in the Volsce camp laments the loss of Corioles, and continues to state his hatred of Martius. The second act takes place in Rome, where not is happy about Coriolanus’ victory: two plebeian tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, complain about Coriolanus, and they begin to plot his political demise. In the Senate house, Coriolanus thanks the senate upon his return for their agreement for him to become consul, but first comes the “custom” of Coriolanus speaking to the people, showing his wounds, and asking for their vote. He agrees to do it, while the two plebeian tribunes plan on getting the people to go against Coriolanus. In the Forum, the custom goes well enough for the people to say they will vote for him. After he leaves, however, the plotting tribunes turn the crowd’s lukewarm support for Coriolanus to cold disdain, convincing them to vote against Coriolanus. In Act Three, Coriolanus is confronted by the plebeians tribunes, and is told the people are now “incensed” against him. Coriolanus rages until the tribunes finally state that Coriolanus “has spoken like a traitor.” He returns home where his family is able to calm the raging general. He decides to return to the Forum to meet with his accusers. In the Forum, where the plebeian tribunes again accuse Coriolanus of being a traitor to the people, and the plebeians then banish Coriolanus. In the fourth act, Coriolanus says his goodbyes to his family and friends. And after he leaves, the plebeian tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, gloat over their victory, only to be accosted by Volumnia and Virgilia. Meanwhile, on the road to Antium, a Roman and a Volscian meet, remember a previous meeting, and discuss the banishment of Coriolanus from Rome–news that both the Volscian and the now deserting Roman will deliver to Aufidius. At Aufidius’ house in Antium, Coriolanus presents himself to Aufidius, and states his intention to serve Aufidius. Aufidius accepts Coriolanus, and since Coriolanus knows the Romans so well, he is given half of the army so he can attack Rome. Back in Rome, word arrives that the Volscian are sending two separate armies toward Rome; then comes word of Martius’ joining with Aufidius and that he’s leading one of the Volscian armies heading toward Rome. Word travels fast, and Cominius and Menenius rail against the two tribunes and it only gets worse for them when a band of citizens arrive to complain that it was the tribunes’ idea to banish Coriolanus. In the Volscian camp of Aufidius, near Rome, we hear that more and more of the Volscian army are joining with Coriolanus, and Aufidius’ reputation is suffering. Aufidius seems taken aback, not only by his troops actions, but by Coriolanus’s pride as well. Yet for the moment, Aufidius is willing to use Coriolanus to defeat Rome, but he has an endgame in mind for Coriolanus.

Act Five of Coriolanus begins with tribunes attempting to convince Menenius to go and talk to Coriolanus in an attempt to save Rome from destruction. Menenius refuses, as Cominius has already tried and failed, but after much discussion, he agrees. Menenius leaves, but Cominius still feels that “all hope is vain / Unless his noble mother and his wife, / Who, as I hear, mean to solicit him” (V.i.70-2).

In Act Five, Scene Two, we see Menenius arrive at the Volscian camp and rebuffed by the watchmen. When an argument ensues, Coriolanus and Aufidius enter to see what is going on. Menenius makes his plea to Coriolanus, trying to build a stronger connection with the general, calling him, “My son” (V.ii.61, 68) and himself, “thy old father” (V.ii.67). It doesn’t work, and Coriolanus turns him away, saying, “Wife, mother, child, I know not” (V.ii.78). But because he once “loved” (V.ii.85), he sends the old patrician home with a letter.

Next, Coriolanus and Aufidius discuss how Coriolanus is withstanding these pleas from Rome; Coriolanus admits that sending away Menenius “cracked [his] heart” (V.iii.9). Imagine then his turmoil when he is then visited by his mother, wife, son, and attendants. First, Virgilia attempts to talk to him, then mother Volumnia, who even uses her grandson as a prop for her requests. Coriolanus still refuses. Volumnia tells her son that if he continues his attack on Rome, he will end up literally killing his family. When the general attempts to leave, Volumnia makes one last push: if he calls a truce, the Volscians can take credit for mercy, and the Romans can thank them for it; she and the family kneel before Coriolanus. The general is taken aback; he wants to “frame [a] convenient peace” (V.iii.191). Yet he asks Aufidius what he would do if he was in Coriolanus’ place; the Volscian admits, “I was moved withal” (V.iii.194). With this answer, Coriolanus calls for the truce to be made, but says that he will not return to Rome, staying instead with Aufidius. In an aside, Aufidius says that he is glad that Coriolanus has sued for peace, as it allows him to “work / [Himself] a former fortune” (V.iii.201-2).

In Act Five, Scene Four, in Rome, Menenius speaks with Sicinius, one of the plebeian tribunes, without much hope as “there is no more mercy in [Coriolanus] than there is milk in a male tiger” (V.iv.28). And then messages begin to flow in: Brutus–the other plebeian tribune–has been captured by the plebeians, who swear that if the “Roman ladies bring not comfort home” (V.vi.38), that both tribunes will face death at the hands of the people; then news that the “ladies have prevailed” (V.vi.40); followed by a general shout of joy.

In the fifth scene of the act (and the penultimate of the play), a senator welcomes home the women as if they have triumphed in war; they are heroines.

In Act Five, Scene Six–the last of the play–we return to Corioles, where Aufidius prepares to have Coriolanus brought before the people. At this point, the stage directions say it all: “Enter three or four Conspirators of Aufidius’ faction” (V.vi.8 stage direction). They say that if Aufidius “do hold the same intent” (V.vi.12) as when he sought them, they are ready; Aufidius says that he will let the people decide. He laments that Coriolanus has spared Rome over a “few drops of women’s” (V.vi.45) tears. Lords of Volsca enter, unhappy with the truce; Aufidius says that they will be heard.

Coriolanus enters, hails the lords, senators, and commoners, and states his love for his new nation. He has returned with spoils to deliver to the Senate. And it as this point that Aufidius calls Martius (because he will not not use the “stol’n name / ‘Coriolanus’” [V.vi.88-9]) a traitor for his sparing of Rome without taking counsel of his generals. While some of the lords call for calm, the conspirators call for Coriolanus’ death, and the people follow suit. The conspirators then draw their swords and kill Coriolanus. The lords are shocked and angry with Aufidius, who answers them, “My lords, when you shall know … the great danger / Which this man’s life did owe you, you’ll rejoice / That he is thus cut off” (V.vi.134, 135-7). And as they take his body away, Aufidius claims to be “struck with sorrow” (V.vi.146), and says that Coriolanus “shall have a noble memory” (V.vi.152).

Thus, Coriolanus ends.

And I can’t help but feel cynical and a little queasy about all this.

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