For our second play we dive into the Tragedy of Coriolanus.
Listen to the podcast here.
The first act of Coriolanus is a whirlwind of action and conflict. Scene 1 opens on a mob of hungry Roman citizens who have decided to take by force the food which has been denied them by the patricians. Menenius arrives on the scene and manages to talk them down but soon after Caius Martius (Coriolanus) shows up and he and the citizens exchange insults. (A Brawler favourite, from the mouth of Coriolanus: “What’s the matter, you dissentious rogues, / That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion, /Make yourselves scabs?”) We learn that a neighbouring city has plans to attack Rome. Martius invites the mob to join the army and earn their corn through service to the state. We also learn that another mob, elsewhere in the city, laid down their arms in exchange for the right to elect five representatives of the common people to government, the tribunes, a concession which Martius finds deplorable. The scene closes with the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus talking about Coriolanus’ prideful nature.
Scene 2 quickly jumps to the Volscian camp. Aufidius hears about the impending Roman counter-attack and vows to fight Martius in single combat until one of them kills the other.
Scene 3 is a domestic scene in which we find Volumnia and Virgilia sewing in Martius’ home. Volumnis extols the virtues of her son. She mocks her daughter-in-law for not taking enough pride in her husband’s military service to Rome and for being overly concerned for his safety. Virgilia’s friend Valeria shows up and tells them that Martius and the others are off to war against Aufidius and the Volscians. Volumnia is happy about the news, Virgilia is not.
Scenes 4 through 10 describe the action-packed battle for the city of Corioli. (Some editions write Corioles.) By the end of scene 4, Martius is cut off from the rest of the army and locked inside the city with Titus lartius and his men. With the help Martius’ individual efforts, the Romans take the city and Martius leaves Lartius behind (in scene 5 and scene 7) to occupy the town while he rushes to Cominius’ aid. A message reaches Cominius in scene 6 which claims that Martius has been killed but Martius then appears on stage covered in blood (most of it’s Volscian blood of course because Martius is such a badass) and he joins Cominius’ forces. In scene 8 Martius and Aufidius finally square off but they are interrupted by Aufidius’ men who interfere in their duel. Scene 9 opens with the retreat of the Volscian forces. For his role in the fighting, Cominius rewards Caius Martius with an extra share of the spoils and with the surname ‘Coriolanus.’ Coriolanus accepts the title but turns down the loot. Finally, Aufidius vows to kill Coriolanus by any means necessary in scene 10.
As Daniel mentioned on the air, part of the challenge of understanding the relationships and the political stakes within the play comes from our lack of familiarity with Roman titles and customs. (This is in addition to Shakespeare’s own occasional misunderstandings.) To help you map out who’s who in Coriolanus, here’s a short list of some of the titles referred to in the play:
- Consul: This is a rather complicated title, but in the play it stands for the highest political appointment in Rome. Consulships were granted by election of the people of Rome – patricians and citizens had to give their assent.
- Patrician: The patricians are the nobility and leaders of Rome, thought to be the descendants of the Roman Republic, foudned following the exile of the Tarquin kings who used to occupy Rome.
- Citizen or plebeians: These, for the purposes of this play anyhow, are the common, free people of Rome.
- Tribune: An official elected by the plebeians. It is illegal to threaten them with harm and they have the right to pass judgement on individuals on behalf of the common people of Rome.
- Aediles: They traditionally guarded and maintained public buildings. In Coriolanus they serve primarily as the plebeians’ police force (They show up later in the play)
This episode from Roman history occurs at the very dawn of the Republic, less than a generation after the last king gets booted out of Rome (We’re told that Coriolanus fought in that war, in fact, as a teenager). This is important because it helps to explain both Coriolanus’ sometimes unsympathetic disregard for the common people but also the people’s fear of Coriolanus’ authority. Also good to keep in mind: at this point in history, Rome has not yet embarked on its conquest of Italy and the city’s fate is still very much uncertain.
To wrap up, here’s a short list of some of the characters appearing in this (wild!) first act of Coriolanus:
- Menenius Agrippa: An old patrician and friend of Coriolanus who tries to keep the peace and curb the excesses of Coriolanus’ character.
- Caius Martius “Coriolanus:” A skilled Roman war hero who makes a better soldier than a politician. He dislikes the common people for their inconstancy.
- Volumnia: Coriolanus’ mother who pushes her son towards fame and political power.
- Virgilia: Coriolanus’ young wife.
- Valeria: one of Virgilia’s friends.
- Cominius and Titus Lartius: Roman generals under whom Coriolanus serves during the attack on Corioli.
- Junius Brutus and Sicinius Velutus: These are the newly elected tribunes of the people. They have made it their task to oppose Coriolanus’ rise to power which they see as dangerous for the common people of Rome.
- Tullus Aufidius: The general of the Volscian army and Coriolanus’ chief military rival.
If you’re looking for a good movie adaption of Coriolanus, check out Ralph Fiennes’s recent adaptation. (While Fiennes does a really good Coriolanus, prepare to get blown away by Vanessa Redgrave as Volumnia. Outstanding.)
Anyhow, hope you enjoy listening to Coriolanus as much as we do!