The first act of Coriolanus (and it’s a fairly long one, longer than average, with more scenes–ten–than any other play) begins on a street in Rome with a “company of mutinous Citizens with staves, clubs and other weapons” (I.i.opening stage direction)…and that’s a pretty detailed stage direction for Shakespeare (though these stage directions have become more explicit as we’ve moved through the canon).
And what are these citizen so “mutinous” about, why are the “resolved rather to die” (I.i.4)? Well, the answer is in the finish of the “resolved” sentence: “famish.” It seems that the Roman citizenry are starving. And if there’s someone to blame, it seems, then that someone is “Caius Martius…chief enemy of the people” (I.i.7-8).
And who is this enemy, this Caius Martius? Why, only the man who will be–before the end of this play–called Coriolanus.
As the scene progresses, it appears that the citizens have gathered to storm a grain warehouse; and there’s a pretty clear Marxist reading to be gleaned, as they are doing this “in hunger for bread, not thirst for revenge” (I.i.23). They want to go after Martius because, despite the “services he has done for his country” (I.i.28-9), he “pays himself with being proud” (I.i.31-2). Our hero has done good service for his country, and because he is proud, the citizenry wants to kill him. The citizenry is not looking too good here.
Menenius Agrippa arrives, and though he’s another patrician, and a friend to Martius, he’s seen as “one that hath always loved the people” (I.i.50). Agrippa attempts to state the patricians’ case, giving them an allegory in which the state is a body, and its parts are the different groups of people. By the end, he is telling the citizens that they are the “great toe” (I.i.154). Upon this insult, Martius arrives, and he berates them as well. He also tells Agrippa that if the senate would let him use his sword, he would slaughter these citizens, stacking the “quartered slaves as high / As [he] could pick his lance” (I.i.197-8). And Martius is not looking too good right about now, either.
We hear that the senate, however, has granted the citizens some protection/quasi-representation, in the form of tribunes. Then word arrives that the enemy Volscian army is in the field. Martius praises their leader Aufidius, for whom Martius “sin[s] in envying his nobility” (I.i.228). Envy yes, but wants to kill him, too.
When Martius and the Citizens leave the stage, two of the new tribunes remain to complain more about Martius, saying that he gets far too much credit for what he does.
In Act One, Scene Two, we’re taken to the senate…but not of Rome, but of Corioles, a major town in Volsca. The senators are meeting with Aufidius, the leader of the Volscian army whom Martius wants to fight. News has arrived 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.
Act One, Scene Three takes us back to Rome, but this time to the home of Martius, where we meet his mother Volumnia and wife Virgilia. Volumnia tries to cheer a worried Virgilia by telling her of her mother’s pride and pleasure “to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame” (I.iii.13-4). When Virgilia asks how Volumnia would have felt if he had died; Volumnia responds, “Then his good report should have been my son” (I.iii.20-1). Damn. Guess we know how Martius became the badass he’s become. Volumnia goes on to fantasize Martius’ defeat of Aufidius, even with a bloody brow–the blood “more becomes a man / Than gilt his trophy” (I.iii.39-40). A friend of Virgilia, Valeria–what is it with all these V’s???–comes in to see her friend, and to tell her of Martius’ son playing with a butterfly… until he “mammocked” (I.iii.65) and tore it to pieces. Volumnia responds by say something along the lines of “Like father, like son.” Oh, and the friend has some news: Cominius and his army is contending with a part of the Volscian army, while Martius and Lartius head down to Corioles.
The next scene takes us to the gate of that town, where Martius and Lartius (with their army) call the senators of Corioles for a parley, whom inform them that the rest of the Volscian army led by Aufidius is on its way to take on the Romans. The Volscians enter, and the Romans are beaten back. Martius curses his soldiers, belittling them: “You souls of geese, / That bear the shapes of men” (I.iv.34-5); he even threatens to fight them before calling on them to follow him into the battle again. Henry V this guy ain’t. Through the gate they go. Wartime chaos continues, and Martius returns “bleeding, [and] assaulted by the Enemy” (I.iv.61 stage direction). The scene ends with all the soldiers entering the city.
And with that cliffhanger, I’m going to bed. Next time (or soon), the rest of Act One.
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NOTE: re-reading this scene (actually reading II.i), I realize that Valeria is not a friend of Virgilia–the wife–but of Volumnia–dear ol’ mom…