Coriolanus — act three: this isn’t going to end well

Previously on Coriolanus: The first act begins with the Roman citizenry–starving–up and armed, about to storm the grain warehouse. They blame 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; we also learn that the senate has granted the citizens some protection/quasi-representation, in the form of tribunes. In Corioles, a major town in Volsca, we meet Aufidius and learn that three Roman battalions are heading to Volsca, one led by Martius, whom Aufidius hates. Next, we meet Martius’ proud mother Volumnia and worried wife Virgilia. The first act continues back 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 in the fallout of Coriolanus’ victory. Not everyone is happy, however: the two plebeian tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, complain about Coriolanus. Much of it sounds like envy, but they fear if he becomes consul, they may lose their power; they begin to plot his political demise. In the Senate house, a convincing case is made for Coriolanus to become consul, and this looks to happen. Coriolanus thanks the senate upon his return, but begins an attempt to get out of the “custom” (II.ii.135) of speaking to the people, showing his wounds, and asking for their vote. He finally agrees to do it, and after Coriolanus and the train of senators leave, and again we get the two plebeian tribunes, planning on going to the people and getting them to go against Coriolanus. In the Forum, the “people” seem a pretty fickle yet malleable bunch; Coriolanus certainly won’t win them in a landslide. He arrives, and the citizenry approach him to question him. It doesn’t go great, but it 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 Coriolanus is their enemy; they all leave for the vote, which they’ve now decided will be negative.

Act Three of Coriolanus begins on a Roman street. Coriolanus, Menenius, patricians and senators enter, discussing the military movements of the Volscians led by Aufidius, who we learn is bitter against his own people for yielding the city of Corioles to then Martius (now Coriolanus). Aufidius now lives in Antium; Coriolanus wishes he “had a cause to seek him there” (III.i.19). Coriolanus tells Lartius of his hate for the entering Brutus and Sicinius (the plebeians’ tribunes)…and this when he has no idea of what they’ve done to him. Yet. The tribunes stop Coriolanus from entering the Capitol, as it is “dangerous” (III.i.26). They announce that the people are now “incensed” (III.i.32) against him. When Coriolanus says that this is some kind of plot, the Brutus says this is all because Coriolanus “mocked” (III.i.42) the people. Despite Menenius’ pleas for Coriolanus to calm himself, Coriolanus rages…and it only gets worse. Claims and counterclaims escalate until the tribunes finally state that Coriolanus “has spoken like a traitor, and shall answer / As traitors do” (III.i.161-2). The plebeians arrive with police, and they attempt to arrest Coriolanus. The plebeians are fought back, and Cominius and Menenius convince Coriolanus to go back to his home. Once he’s gone, Menenius attempts to calm the crowd to no avail. While the tribunes and the plebeians want to pursue Coriolanus, Menenius convinces them to allow him to try to bring Coriolanus back.

The second scene of the act takes us to Coriolanus’ home where his family attempts to calm the raging general. His mother Volumnia attempt to comfort (“O, sir, sir, sir, / I would have had you put your power well on, / Before you had warn it out” [III.ii.16-8]), then reason (“I have a heart as little apt as yours, / But yet a brain that leads my use of anger / To better vantage” [III.ii.29-31]) then chiding (“Come all to ruin! Let / Thy mother rather feel thy pride than fear / Thy dangerous stoutness” [III.ii.125-7]). Finally, this convinces Coriolanus to return to the Forum to meet with his accusers and “answer mildly” (III.ii.139).

The third and last scene of the third act returns to the Forum, where the plebeian tribunes plan to accuse him of desiring “tyrannical power” (III.iii.2), and begin to orchestrate how they will manipulate the people at the meeting later with Coriolanus, and push the general to “choler” (III.iii.25). Coriolanus enters with Menenius and Cominius, and states that he is content to let the proceeding go on; the plebeians enter. Menenius tells those in attendance to “consider further / That when [Coriolanus] speaks, not like a citizen, / You find him like a soldier” (III.iii.52-4). Sicinius accuses Coriolanus of being a “traitor to the people” (III.iii.66), and whatever calm Coriolanus might have had evaporates. The tribunes and plebeians then banish Coriolanus, who gives them quite the kiss-off:

You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek o’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air, I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty.
Let every feeble rumor 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 but 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.121-36

And with that, he exits, and the third act concludes.

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