“Mine eyes do sweat compassion,” Coriolanus, Act V, iii
The perfect line for all those who cry at inappropriate times. Sadly, just as perfect for those highly appropriate times like the funeral of your beloved’s grandfather.
We’ll miss you Zaida Harry.
Welcome all to the final act of Shakespeare’s Tragedy of Coriolanus.
Listen to the podcast here.
The last act ended one a conspiratory note where we overheard Tullus Aufidius and one of his lieutenants plotting Coriolanus’ downfall. However, in act V, scene I, we leave Aufidius to his scheming and turn our attention back to Rome. Cominius returns from his visit to the Volscian camp where he has pleaded with Coriolanus to lay down his arms and not strike against Rome. He gives the gathered tribunes and patricians a play by play of his petition but his mission is a failure: Coriolanus will not cease his hostile actions against Rome. Furthermore, he appears to have broken all of his bonds of affection with Rome and its citizens. He has become a relentless juggernaut of war. With few options available to them, the Romans convince Menenius – Coriolanus’ closet friend – to journey to the Volscian camp and see if he can leverage their friendship into compassion for Rome.
When Menenius arrives at the Volscian camp in scene 2, he is initially denied access to Coriolanus by the sentinels standing guard outside the camp. (Curiously enough, these are also identified as Senators in our online edition.) They say that Coriolanus has no interest in speaking with anyone from Rome. Menenius argues with them that Coriolanus will want to hear from him given their long friendship but they only respond that he should hate Rome, as Coriolanus does, because they banished its greatest warrior. Aufidius and Coriolanus arrive on the scene, drawn by the sound of the argument at the gates. Menenius tries to plead his case but Coriolanus tells him that he has cut all ties with Rome and won’t hear another word. He does, however, hand him a letter before sending him on his way.
After Cominius and Menenius’ failure to talk Coriolanus out of taking his vengeance on Rome, the desperate Romans go to their backup plan and send in the women: Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, his wife Virgilia, his son (young) Martius, and Valeria, a friend of the family. Coriolanus has just sworn not to listen to any more petitions from Rome when they three women and the boy Martius are lead into the camp at the start of scene 3. Coriolanus swears to act “As if a man were author of himself,” as if his family was of no significance to him and he exists in the world unfettered by relationships. At first, he stands his ground but when the women kneel and Volumnia pleads with him he finds himself unable to remain unmoved. He agrees to broker a peace between the Volscians and the Romans but in convincing him to stand down, Coriolanus believes his mother has doomed him.
In scenes 4 and 5, the Romans receive the good news that they won’t be crushed beneath Coriolanus’ war machine thanks to the pleas of the three women. It seems Menenius is mistaken and that Coriolanus does, in fact, have “more mercy / in him than there is milk in a male tiger.” The news arrives just in time because the angry plebeians have captured the tribune Junius Brutus and are threatening to kill him slowly for having banished Coriolanus. As the people welcome the women home, they repeal his banishment.
Coriolanus, however, is not returning home in scene 6. As he has sworn to serve as a soldier to the Volscian cause, he returns to Antium to continue his service as well as to deliver the final terms of the peace treaty he has negotiated on behalf of the Volsces. Before he arrives, Tullus Aufidius has prepared a letter for the Volscian in which he accuses Coriolanus of being a traitor to the Volscian cause. Aufidius is worried that if he allows Coriolanus to address the people he will be able to sway them from sentencing him to death and se he decides to strike Coriolanus before he can give an account of his actions. Coriolanus presents the lords of Antium with the treaty but Aufidius tells them not to read it. He and his men fall upon Coriolanus and kill him. In the aftermath, Aufidius tells them that he just saved them from danger by killing Coriolanus. Moments later, he orders his body to be carried out and buried with honours.
The final act of Coriolanus seems like a bit of a letdown in the end. The tension builds in the first few scenes until at last the women talk him out of waging war and return to the city to great acclaim. The final scene in particular is very disappointing. Coriolanus returns to the city and before he can do anything, he’s once again accused of treason. He’s unceremoniously murdered by Aufidius and his lackeys and then, in the same breath, his body is carried off-stage and the play ends. This is actually an interesting trend we’ve noticed while reading our way through Shakespeare’s plays. A lot of them are really rockin’ through the first four-and-a-half acts but then they wrap up awkwardly or suddenly in a way that’s really unsatisfying or downright confusing. Either Shakespeare wasn’t good with endings or there’s something we haven’t quite understood about what made for a good ending in the late 16th century.
For instance, the short speech which caps this play, in which Aufidius claims to regret his actions, seems totally disingenuous. Is that intentional on Shakespeare’s part? While we’ve seen all of Aufidius’ plotting behind the scenes and have every reason to distrust his words, the lords of Antium have not. It’s likely he’s not saying these words for our benefit but for that of the Volscian lords in attendance. That would paint him as a sort of ‘Noble Brutus’ – the one who kills Julius Caesar because he believes him to be a tyrant, not the tribune Brutus in Coriolanus – who kills Coriolanus to avoid a greater danger to the Volsces.
It’s also interesting that Shakespeare ends the play here because in Plutarch, we learn that after Coriolanus’ death some of the Volsces’ other enemies saw their chance to attack them and picked them to pieces. Tullus Aufidius is eventually killed and the Volsces never recover. They’re eventually conquered by the Romans, making Coriolanus’ death one of the factors in the Roman Republic’s early expansion. Still, does Coriolanus in fact “have a noble memory”? Not so sure.
In our next podcast, we’ll be revisiting some of our favourite speeches from Coriolanus. If you have any passages you’d like us to discuss, please leave us a comment!
Also, don’t forget to check in on some of our Brawlers: