Coriolanus — act two: in a dis-likability contest, everyone loses

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. We next go to Corioles, a major town in Volsca, where senators there tell Aufidius that three Roman battalions are heading to Volsca, one led by Martius, whom Aufidius states his hope to meet 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 first act continues taking us back to Corioles where Martius is forced to retreat, but Martius ends up taking Corioles. When Martius then goes to assist Cominius, he learns that Aufidius is in the field with the army from Actium; Martius goes to meet up with and defeat Aufidius in battle. They do meet, but before the battle is decided, Aufidius’ army comes in and rescues/takes him away from battle. In celebration of the Roman victory, Cominius praises Martius’ exploits in battle, and Martius actually responds modestly, refusing the winning general’s share of one tenth of the spoils. However, for what he did at Corioles, they rename him Coriolanus. As the first act ends, Aufidius in the Volsce camp laments the loss of Corioles, and continues to state his hatred of Martius.

Act Two of Coriolanus takes us back to Rome where Menenius and the two plebeian tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, discuss the latest news of Coriolanus’ victory, with the patrician praising him and the two tribunes continuing to complain about him. Coriolanus’ mother and wife appear, and Volumnia–dear ol’ mom–seems thrilled by Coriolanus’ war-wounds: “O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for’t” (2.1.118). She pridefully boast of his war scars, now counting “twenty seven. Every gash was an enemy’s grave” (2.1.151). Coriolanus arrives to great fanfare (and his renaming). Coriolanus, embarrassed by it, stops them, and is then reunited with his mother. Menenius is thrilled to have Coriolanus back as well. Coriolanus says goodbye to his mother and wife–a woman he never addresses in the scene (heck, even his mom’s friend gets a weird hello: “And live you yet? Oh my sweet lady, pardon” (II.i.176)–and he goes off with his train, leaving the plebeians’ tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius to complain about him (again). Much of it sounds like envy, until they get to the self-preservation portion of their complaints: if he becomes consul, their “office may, / During his power, sleep” (II.i.217-8). They begin to plot against him, exchanging lies they will tell to the people: “We must suggest the people in what hatred / He still hath held them” (II.i.240-1). Well, maybe they aren’t lies exactly, but these are nothing voiced in this scene before our audience’s ever-lovin’ ears. But the tribunes have to hurry: a messenger returns with news that Coriolanus will become consul if the people thus far get their say:

I have seen the dumb men throng to see him,
And the blind to hear him speak. Matrons flung gloves,
Ladies and maids their scarves and handkerchiefs,
Upon him as he passed; the nobles bended
As to Jove’s statue, and the Commons made
A shower and thunder with their caps and shouts.
  • II.i.257-62

Act Two, Scene Two, takes us to the Capitol and the Senate house. Two officers discuss the events in Rome, and Coriolanus’ possible rise to consul. Coriolanus enters, with some patricians, and tribunes who begin to discuss honoring the returning hero. Brutus says that he is willing to honor Coriolanus “if he remember / A kinder value of the people then / He hath hereto prized them at” (II.ii.58-60). There is not much support for Brutus at that point, but Coriolanus offers to leave anyway, saying it’s just because he doesn’t want to hear them recount his bravery, not for anything Brutus has said. But then Coriolanus says, “But your people, / I love them as they weigh –” (II.ii.73), and leaves anyway.

In his absence, the consul Cominius makes the convincing case for Coriolanus, and they decide to make his consul. 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 who talk of how they’re going to go to the people and get them to go against Coriolanus.

In Act Two, Scene Three, citizens begin to gather in the Forum, ready of Coriolanus’ arrival. They seem to be leaning against voting for Coriolanus, but that they will vote for him as befits the custom: “So, if he tell us of his noble deeds, we must also tell him our noble acceptance of them. Ingratitude is monstrous” (II.iii.8-9). The more they talk; however, the more they talk, the more they begin to want to demand respect from Coriolanus. When he enters in “a gown of humility” (II.iii.38 stage direction), they exit, allowing him private time to state (again) his discomfort at the ritual and his open disdain for the people (“Hang ‘em! / I would they would forget me, like the virtues / Which our divines lose by ‘em” [II.iii.55-7]) to his mentor Menenius, who cautions Coriolanus from speaking out against the custom or the people who come to ask him. Menenius exits, and three citizen return to talk to Coriolanus.

He begins with short answers, saying he is there for his own deserving, not his desire. But as the interview goes on, he becomes less and less civil, and says that he will show his scars only in private; while this could be seen as embarrassment and humility, it is still a breech in the custom. Amazingly, though, they agree to vote for him. When the next pair of citizen enters, the situation worsens. When one citizen complains that Coriolanus has “not indeed loved the common people” (II.iii.92), he responds that the citizenry should “account [him] the more virtuous that [he has] not been common in [his] love” (II.iii.93-4). And despite that he refuses, again, to show his scars to them, they too agree to support him for consul. When they leave, he curses the custom, but resigns himself to it.

Menenius and the two plebeian tribunes re-enter to announce that it appears that all has gone well, and that Coriolanus can now go to the Senate for his “approbation” (II.iii.144). He and Menenius exit, and when the citizen re-enter, Brutus and Sicinius begin to turn their lukewarm support for Coriolanus to cold disdain. The citizens realize Coriolanus was “not confirmed; we may deny him yet” (II.iii.209). Brutus and Sicinius continue to rile up the citizens, convincing them that “he’s your fixèd enemy” (II.iii.250). When the citizen leave, the tribunes gloat on how they’ve turned the citizenry to “mutiny” (II.iii.256) and “goaded [them] onward” (II.iii.263), then predict that Coriolanus will respond with rage.

And thus, Act Two of Coriolanus ends.