Coriolanus — act four: the world takes a slippery turn

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 everyone 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, the plebeian tribunes again accuse Coriolanus of being a traitor to the people, and the plebeians then banish Coriolanus.

Act Four of Coriolanus begins at the gates of Rome where the newly banished Coriolanus is saying goodbye to his family and friends. Well, actually, his first speech is directed to his mother; when his wife responds, “O heavens! O heavens!” (IV.i.11), Coriolanus completes the antilabe with “Nay, I prithee, woman–” (IV.i.11) before he is interrupted by his mother, and he then responds to her again. Virgilia does not seem to have Coriolanus’ ear like Volumnia does.

Coriolanus is convinced “[he] shall be loved when [he is] lacked” (IV.i.15). He delivers personalized farewells to Cominius, Menenius, and his mother again; relegating his wife to a mere “my wife” reference (IV.i.20). Volumnia asks for, and get an agreement from Cominius to escort Coriolanus, but her son refuses, saying again goodbye, with what I’m sure is supposed to be gallows humor: “While I remain above the ground, you shall / Hear from me still” (IV.i.51-2), but it sounds a little foreboding, no?

Act Four, Scene Two, takes us back into Rome where the two plebeian tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, gloat over their “shown … power” (IV.ii.3), and get ready to send the people home as “their great enemy is gone” (IV.ii.6). Volumnia, Virgilia and Menenius enter, having returned from saying farewell, and the two women accost the tribunes, who attempt to leave. Menenius attempts to keep the peace, but tribunes escape, only to have Volumnia proclaim, “Anger’s my meat. I sup upon myself” (IV.ii.50). She wants blood for what has been done to her son.

Meanwhile, on the road to Antium, a Roman and a Volscian meet, remember a previous meeting, and discuss the state of Rome. The Roman announces the banishment of Coriolanus from Rome, and says to his Volscian friend that “Aufidius will appear well in these wars, his great opposer Coriolanus, being now in no request of his country” (IV.iii.32-3). The Volscian says that he will deliver the news personally to Aufidius, and invites the Roman to come along, and he does, intimating that in sympathy of Coriolanus, he will help the Volscian army attack Rome. Needless to say, Nicanor the Roman is not a plebeian.

Near Aufidius’ house in Antium, Act Four, Scene Four shows Coriolanus arriving in Antium. He asks a citizen to help him find Aufidius’ house, and before it–in, if I am not mistaken, the first soliloquy of the play–Coriolanus muses on the world’s “slippery turns” (IV.iv.12), and says of his upcoming meeting with Aufidius: “If he slay me, / He does fair justice; if he give me way, / I’ll do his country service” (IV.iv.24-6). He is ready to join the enemy.

In the next scene, in Aufidius’ house, Coriolanus makes his way past bickering servingmen, and presents himself to Aufidius, who at first doesn’t recognize. Coriolanus has no choice but to announce,

My name is Caius Martius, who hath done
To thee particularly and to all the Volsces
Great hurt and mischief; thereto witness may
My surname Coriolanus.

[I] present
My throat to thee and to thy ancient malice,
Which not to cut would show thee but a fool,
Since I have ever followed thee with hate,
Drawn tuns of blood out of thy country’s breast,
And cannot live but to thy shame, unless
It be to do thee service.
  • IV.v.69-72, 99-105

Now, given this is Act Four, Aufidius–who remember HATES Coriolanus–doesn’t cut the Roman’s throat and end the play. Instead he “twine[s] / [His] arms about [Coriolanus’] body” (IV.v.110-1). Yes, Aufidius gives his enemy a hug and welcomes him into the Volscian fold. In fact, Aufidius will give Coriolanus one half of his army, one half of his command, and “since [Coriolanus] know’st / [His] country’s strength and weakness” (IV.v.143-4), Aufidius will work with him to defeat Rome. If you’re thinking “what the hell?” you’re not alone: when the soldiers leave, one of the servingmen states, “Here’s a strange alteration!” (IV.v.153).

No kidding.

The sixth scene of the fourth act takes us back to Rome where the plebeian tribunes are still celebrating their political and deceitful victory over Coriolanus. We see Menenius greet them respectfully, and citizens hail them. Then word arrives that the Volscians are sending two separate armies toward Rome; Menenius is sure this is because Aufidius, “hearing of Martius’ banishment” (, is taking advantage and attacking when he perceives Rome is in a military weakness. Then come word of Martius’ joining with Aufidius and that he’s leading one of the Volscian armies heading toward Rome. Word travels fast, and Cominius enters, and both he and Menenius rail against the two tribunes and their “good work” (, 97, and 149). The tribunes aren’t celebrating now. And it only gets worse for them when a band of citizens arrive to complain that it was the tribunes’ idea to banish Coriolanus. They show regret for what they’ve done, but not the tribunes who simply “do not like this news” (

The seventh and last scene of this act takes place in the Volscian camp of Aufidius, near Rome. More and more of the Volscian army are joining with Coriolanus, and Aufidius’ reputation is “dark’ned by this action” (IV.vii.5). Aufidius seems taken aback, not only by his troops’ actions, but those of Coriolanus himself: “He bears himself more proudlier, / Even to my person, than I thought he would / When first I did embrace him” (IV.vii.8-10). Yet for the moment, Aufidius is willing to use Coriolanus to defeat Rome, but he has an endgame in mind:

One fire drives out one fire, one nail one nail;
Rights by rights founder, strengths by strengths do fail.
Come, let’s away. When, Caius, Rome is thine,
Thou art poor’st of all; then shortly art thou mine.
  • IV.vii.54-7

And on that ominous note–can Coriolanus trust no one, save dear ol’ mom?–Act Four of Coriolanus ends.

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