Politics heat up and the bard brawlers read through Act II of the Tragedy of Coriolanus
Listen to the podcast here.
In Act II, scene 1, Menenius accuses the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus of plotting against Coriolanus for selfish reasons. The tribunes continue to maintain that Coriolanus is prideful and should not be given the consulship. Volumnia shows up with news of Coriolanus’ triumphant return to Rome. She and Menenius catalogue the history of Coriolanus’ wounds, which they anticipate will speak favourably for him when he is called upon to show proof of his military service to Rome. Brutus and Sicinius remain determined to convince the people to withhold their consent to Coriolanus’ nomination.
The patricians and the tribunes are gathered at the capitol to elect a new consul in act II, scene 2. Though we are told of two other candidates, Coriolanus is clearly a shoe-in for the job. (Cominius currently holds the office but he’s not one of the candidates. Consuls were not allowed to serve consecutive terms at this point in roman history.) Cominius offers up his panegyric to Coriolanus, which recounts his military exploits and tells everyone how much Coriolanus is epic and awesome, but Coriolanus doesn’t care to hang around and hear himself be praised (jury is still out on whether Caius Martius Coriolanus is really as humble as he keeps saying he is). All the patricians support his nomination but Coriolanus has no desire to parade his wounds before the common people. Meanwhile, more plotting by the tribunes who hope to abuse Coriolanus’ temper to discredit him.
Menenius convinces Coriolanus to honour the custom of showing his wounds in public. Act II, scene 3 takes place in the forum, with Coriolanus dressed in a sort of ritual gown of humility. The peasants know the score: this whole ‘show us your wounds’ business is basically a formality. Though the tribunes and the people can veto the decision of the patricians, if Coriolanus shows them his wounds, they’re more or less forced to give him their support (as the Third Citizen explains in the opening moments of the scene.). Coriolanus meets with the citizens in groups of 2 or 3 and generally acts like an ass with them but manages to get their grudging support. As soon as he leaves the scene, Sicinius and Brutus play the crowd and convince the citizens to withdraw their support. They cleverly cast themselves in the role of well-meaning but misguided counselors and the enraged citizens head for the capitol to deny Coriolanus his consulship.
About these citizens. In most of Shakespeare’s plays, these anonymous characters serve an expository role – like Neo in The Matrix, they ask the questions and volunteer the information the audience needs to understand the background of the story. Sometimes, they’re given some interesting lines, but in most cases they’re minor, undistinguished characters that only exist to fulfil a necessary narrative function. However, in Coriolanus, these citizens seem to have substance, individual leanings and views. Many of them differ in their assessment of Coriolanus and whether or not he should be consul. In Coriolanus, there’s disagreement, lack of consent and even changing opinions in the multitude. This is in fact precisely what Coriolanus finds reprehensible in the plebeians, their lack of constancy and their divisiveness. Ironically, the tribunes themselves seem to take advantage of this: they are easily able to sway the people to withdraw their support for Coriolanus’ appointment. I wrote about the tribunes and the citizens on my sometimes-active blog if you’re interested in reading more about them.
(Unfortunately, the differences between the seven citizens might not come out so clearly in the podcast. You’ll notice that only André, David, Daniel and myself were reading this week so we were forced to sort of jumble together the citizens’ lines. We tried on different voices… with varying degrees of success.)
The play though opens up with these same hungry citizens who seem to have very legitimate reasons for being upset at Caius Martius and their lot in the new Roman Republic. The commoners in Coriolanus aren’t simply dismissed by the plot, making quick cameos and then disappearing. They’re active (if nameless) participants in the unfolding drama. They quite literally take center stage opposite to Coriolanus throughout the play, as a group and as individuals.
As we mentioned several times on the show, Coriolanus is adapted from Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (often just called Lives, or Parallel Lives) which we highly recommend. It’s surprisingly readable. We’ll have more to say about Coriolanus and Plutarch as we read through the play but I wanted to leave you with one remark which is relevant to this scene. Coriolanus’ refusal to show his wound to the plebeians is Shakespeare’s invention. In Plutarch, Coriolanus does in fact parade his wounds for the people without complaint. The gown is made-up too. I wonder: does this make Coriolanus more of a petulant child for refusing to do what’s accepted tradition? Or is his objection to taking part in a politically expedient lie commendable?
There’s so much more that could be written about Plutarch and Shakespeare, but we’ll leave it for another episode.
Please leave us a comment to tell us what you think: is Coriolanus prideful or principled? Are the citizens just a bunch of lemmings for the tribunes to play with or do they deserve some names?
Looking forward to a totally explosive act III!