BB: Coriolanus, Act IV

In our tenth episode, we return to our regularly scheduled program with act IV of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Coriolanus.

Listen to the podcast here.

Act III ends with Coriolanus turning his back on Rome. In act IV, scene 1 he takes his leave of his friends and family. Coriolanus predicts that the people of Rome will miss him when he’s gone and Rome is once again threatened. Of course, he doesn’t say that he’ll be the one to lead the troops to its doors!

Act IV, scene 2 is another short scene. The tribunes of the people, having successfully banished Coriolanus from Rome, dismiss their mob. They spot Volumnia and Menenius and try to avoid them but Coriolanus’ mother makes straight for them and gives them a piece of her mind before they beat a hasty retreat.

The next scene recaps some of the information we already know: Coriolanus has been banished from Rome and the divided people of Rome are ripe for the picking. Is this for the benefit of some of the people in the audience who maybe haven’t been paying attention? Or is this just Shakespeare’s way of explaining how the Volsces know what’s going on in Rome?

Coriolanus’ wanderings have led him through the gates of Antium, right to Tullus Aufidius’ house. In act IV, scene 4, he approaches in disguise and in act IV, scene 5 makes his presence known to the servants of the household. Thinking he’ some vagrant, they refuse him access to the house. After beating one of the servants, Aufidus comes to investigate. He doesn’t recognize Coriolanus at first, who slowly reveals his face to Aufidius. Throughout the scene Tullus Aufidius keeps asking him for his name until at last Coriolanus identifies himself as the conqueror of Corioles. He explains how he has been betrayed by his city and offers up either his life or his service to Tullus Aufidius. Tullus Aufidius welcomes him with open arms and offers him half of his forces to exact his revenge and crush Rome beneath his boot for the Volsces. In one of the few funny moments of the play, Aufidius’ servants suddenly all claim to have known that Coriolanus was not some bum but a noble person.

We return to Rome for scene 6. Brutus and Sicinius are busy gloating to Menenius about how much betters things are now that Coriolanus is gone. However, while they are vaunting the great peace Coriolanus’ exile has brought to Rome, messengers arrive with some grim news: Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius have joined forces and are heading for Rome. Ooops. Menenius and Cominius make it clear that this is all the tribunes’ fault but the tribunes try to quiet the people by suggesting that this is something the patricians have made up. The tribunes follow the patricians to the Capitol to confirm the news.

Act IV ends with a short scene involving Tullus Aufidius and one of his lieutenants. Seems that Coriolanus is more popular with the troops than Aufidius anticipated. The Lieutenant suggests that if Aufidius doesn’t do something soon, he’ll be eclipsed by Coriolanus’ legend. Aufidius realizes that he can’t do anything yet or they might not succeed in the campaign against Rome but hints that Coriolanus’ pride will give him the leverage he needs to get rid of him once their war is done.

One of the most interesting scenes in this act is the initial encounter between Coriolanus and Tullus Aufidius. As I mentioned above, when Coriolanus first arrives at Tullus Aufidius’ doorstep, Aufidius does not recognize him. He asks him several times to name himself but Coriolanus appears to say nothing at first. When he is not recognized, he starts dropping hints, suggesting that his name is “unmusical to the Volscians’ ears, / And harsh in sound to thine.” Aufidius doesn’t get the hint and while he seems to recognize some noble quality in Coriolanus, he asks him again for his name. Coriolanus again delays and tells him to “Prepare thy brow to frown.” He still doesn’t recognize him and at last Coriolanus reveals himself in a lengthy speech in which he reveals his entire recent history and his desire for vengeance. But why play this revelation game at all?

Coriolanus is the name he was given after he (almost) single-handedly conquered Corioles. Cominius will later, in the epic act V, describe how Coriolanus refuses to answer to ‘Coriolanus.’ After all, how can he still consider himself Coriolanus when he’s now fighting on the same side as the people who, not too long ago, he conquered? For Coriolanus, names represent action, and his past actions are his identity. When he’s exiled from Rome, his name ‘Coriolanus’ loses its meaning and by extension, so does the man called ‘Coriolanus:’ he becomes “a kind of nothing, titleless” who refuses all names. Coriolanus’ logic is simple but brutal: what is left for this juggernaut of war when his titles and history have been rendered obsolete, or when he has been displaced by ungrateful politicians? To forge himself a new name in the ashes of Rome.

As always, we’re looking forward your comments!

Welcoming Virginie Tremblay to our sonnet readers this podcast. Enjoy number 4

Also, you should visit Stephanie’s website here to see some of her awesome art!

(Podcast recorded and edited by Daniel J. Rowe, Show notes by Eric Jean)

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