Coriolanus — act one (part two): a victory and a name bestowed

Previously on Coriolanus: The Roman citizenry–starving–is up and armed, about to storm the grain warehouse. They blame a soldier and favored son of the patricians named Caius Martius (remember that name for later), despite his service for Rome because he is arrogant and proud. A patrician and friend/mentor to Martius arrives to try to calm the mob, but ends up insulting them instead. Martius arrives, hurls more insults 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 (remember that name, too); we also learn that the senate has granted the citizens some protection/quasi-representation, in the form of tribunes. We next go to Corioles, a major town in Volsca, where senators there tell Aufidius (remember him?) that three Roman battalions are heading to Volsca, led by Cominius, Martius, and Titus Lartius. Aufidius states his hope to meet Martius in the field. Next, we meet Martius’ mother Volumnia and wife Virgilia. Volumnia is a proud mama, and a vicious one to boot; Virgilia is worried nonetheless. The next scene takes us back to Corioles where Martius and his army have arrived. Aufidius and his army arrive. Fighting and chaos ensues, advances, retreats (during which Martius berates his own troops), advances again, and we ended in the middle of Act One, with a bleeding and pursued Martius, heading into the gates of the town…

The cliffhanger that ended Act One, Scene Four, was not as suspenseful as one would think.

Act One, Scene Five begins with Roman soldiers carrying off their spoils of war, seemingly victorious. That still-bleeding Martius enters, and is none too happy to see this, especially as there are other battles to be won, especially against “the man of [Martius’] soul’s hate, Aufidius” (I.v.10), who is winning his battle against the Romans.

Act One, Scene Six takes us to the Roman camp where Cominius hears words of the battle, but only up to the point where the Romans were driven back. The reason why the news is so slow (as if those in the audience were wondering) is because “Spies of the Volsces / Held [the messenger] in chase” (I.vi.18-9) causing him to go out of his way. But then Martius arrives, asking, “Come I too late?” (I.vi.24 and 27), spoiling for more fight. He delivers news to them that Lartius is “holding Corioles in the name of Rome” (I.vi.37), and then in language that harkens back to Henry V (whom, you might recall, I said Martius most definitely did NOT resemble in battle), speaks of Lartius holding the town like greyhounds in the leash, about to slip. Martius asks how the battle goes here; the news is exactly what Martius wants to hear: the Volscian army, with a vanguard of soldiers from Actium is still in the field led by Aufidius. And off he goes, followed by all those soldiers who “love this painting [blood] / Wherein [they] see {Martius] smeared … think brave death outweighs bad life” (I.vi.69-70, 72).

The short next scene has Lartius leaving Corioles with a small holding army, as he leads the larger troops into battle, warning the lieutenant to send the holding army and abandon the town, if Lartius sends for help.

At the beginning of Act One, Scene Eight, Martius and Aufidius meet on the field of battle. The trade insults, then blows, then much to Aufidius’ dismay and “shame” (I.viii.14), members of his own army come in and pull him from battle.

In Act One, Scene Nine, the scene turns to the Roman victory party where Cominius praises Martius’ exploits in battle, Lartius arrives to chime in, as well. Martius, despite what the citizenry had said before about his arrogance and pride, and despite his own harsh words to his own soldiers in battle, responds modestly, saying “I have done as you have done–that’s what I can” (I.ix.16). Cominius continues to praise Martius, saying how all “Rome must know / The value of their own” (I.ix.20-1), and offering him the victorious general’s “common distribution” (I.ix.35) of one tenth of the spoils. Martius refuses, and proclaim a hope for the end of war. Cominius then announces,

For what he did before Corioles, call him,
With all th’applause and clamor of the host,
Caius Martius Coriolanus.
  • I.ix.62-4

So THAT’s how we got the title.

Martius reluctantly agrees, then asks that a poor man, in whose house Martius found kindness, who had been taken prisoner by the Romans, be found so that the man may be released. Only Martius has forgotten the man’s name. [gee, I really hope this is a case of Shakespeare beginning a story line, then forgetting it…because if it isn’t–this is not going to end well.]

The final scene of the act takes place at the Volsce camp, where Aufidius and a soldier lament the loss of Corioles, and continue to state hatred of Martius.

And thus, the first act of Coriolanus ends…

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