Citizens armed with various blunt instruments gather on a street in Rome to protest the food shortage, and particularly to take out their anger on the aristocrats whose abundance leads to their deprivation. Their particular target is Caius Martius, whom the First Citizen calls "chief enemy to the people." They're all riled up and ready to go kill Martius when the Second Citizen speaks up to question why him? "Consider you what services he has done for his country?
It turns out that the First Citizen is particularly offended by Martius's pride: "though soft-conscienced men can be content to say it was for his country, he did it to please his mother, and to be partly proud, which he is, even to the altitude of his virtue." At least he's not "covetous," the Second Citizen maintains. But their argument is interrupted by the arrival of Menenius Agrippa, "one that hath always loved the people," the Second Citizen observes.
Menenius asks where they're going with their "bats and clubs," and the First Citizen retorts that their protest is well known to the Senate. Menenius wants to warn them that their protest will only result in their undoing:
I tell you, friends, most charitable careIt's the gods who are to blame, not the leadership of Rome, "who care for you like fathers, / When you curse them like enemies."
Have the patricians of you. For your wants,
Your suffering in this dearth, you may as well
Strike at the heaven with your staves, as lift them
Against the Roman state, whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs
Of more strong link asunder than can ever
Appear in your impediment.
But the First Citizen is having none of it. The patricians don't really care for them. They "Suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain." So Menenius tells them "A pretty tale": Once upon a time the rest of the body's parts "rebell'd against the belly," accusing it of being "idle and inactive," of sitting around doing nothings while the rest of them "Did see, and hear, devise, instruct, walk, feel, / And ... did minister / Unto the appetite and affection common / Of the whole body."
So the belly replied to "the mutinous parts" that were rebelling against it "As you malign our senators, for that / They are not such as you." It admitted that it is the first to "receive the general food ... / Which you do live upon." It is "the store-house and the shop / Of the whole body." But they seem to have forgotten that it sends the nourishment "through the rivers of your blood / Even to the court, the heart, to th'seat o'th'brain." And "that all / From me do back receive the flour of all, / And leave me but the bran."
The senators of Rome are this good belly,And Menenius asks the First Citizen, "the great toe of this assembly," what he thinks of this parable.
And you the mutinous members: for examine
Their counsels and their cares, digest things rightly
Touching the weal o'th'common, you shall find
No public benefit which you receive
But it proceeds or comes from them to you,
And no way from yourselves.
Before he can answer, however, Caius Martius enters and asks what these "dissentious rogues" are complaining about. "What would you have, you curs, / That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you, / The other makes you proud." He calls them untrustworthy. "With every minute you do change a mind, / And call him noble that was now your hate, / Him vile that was your garland."
Menenius says they are protesting the high cost of grain, and Martius denounces them as ignorant. He has just come from another protest at which the plebeians were allotted "Five tribunes to defend their vulgar wisdoms, / Of their own choice. One's Junius Brutus, / Sicinius Velutus, and I know not." If it had been up to Martius he wouldn't have given them any. "The rabble should have first unroof'd the city / Ere so prevail'd with me; it will in time / Win upon power, and throw forth greater themes / For insurrection's arguing."
A messenger enters with news that the Volscians have taken up arms, and Sicinius Velutus, Junius Brutus, Cominius, Titus Lartius, and several other Senators enter to confirm the report. Martius notes that their leader is Tullus Aufidius, whose nobility he envies, "And were I anything but what I am, / I would wish me only he." He's a worthy enemy, "a lion / That I am proud to hunt." So he agrees to follow Cominius in fighting against Aufidius, along with Titus Lartius. A Senator tells the mob, which has been standing around listening to this, to go home, but Martius observes that "The Volsces have much corn: take these rats thither, / To gnaw their garners."
Sicinius and Brutus, the newly named tribunes for the people, remain to comment on Martius's hauteur. Brutus hopes that "The present wars devour him! He is grown / Too proud to be so valiant." And Sicinius marvels that "His insolence can brook to be commanded / Under Cominius!" But Brutus thinks that even if things go wrong, Cominius will get the blame, "and giddy censure / Will then cry out of Martius, 'Oh, if he / Had borne the business!'" And the contrary will be true if things go well, Sicinius says: Martius will get all the credit.
In the Volscian city of Corioli, Aufidius is meeting the city's Senators to tell them that the Romans are on the move, led by Cominius, Martius, and Titus Lartius. The assumption is that they're headed for Corioli. So the Senators commission Aufidius to defend the city. He's eager to do so: "If we and Caius Martius chance to meet, / 'Tis sworn between us, we shall ever strike / Till one can do no more."
Back in Rome Martius's mother, Volumnia, and wife, Virgilia, are sewing. Volumnia is holding forth on Martius's valor, asserting that Virgilia should prize him for his military accomplishments more than for "the embracements of his bed." She remembers when he first went off to war and came back "his brows bound with oak," and claims, "I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child, than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man." Virgilia asks how she would have felt if he had died. Volumnia asserts that his reputation would have been her son instead: "I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country, than one voluptuously surfeit out of action."
Valeria then arrives for a visit, and Virgilia, perhaps fearing more of this Roman virtue talk, asks to be excused. Volumnia denies the request, and imagines how Martius will wipe "His bloody brow / With his mail'd hand" after killing Aufidius and then go off to kill some more. Virgilia hears only "His bloody brow? O Jupiter, no blood!" Which prompts Volumnia to call her a fool, because blood "more becomes a man than gilt his trophy."
Valeria makes her entrance and after a cursory look at Virgilia's embroidery asks about her son. Virgilia says he's doing well, but Volumnia takes over in praising the boy: "He had rather see the swords and hear a drum, than look upon his schoolmaster." Valeria joins in praise of the boy's bloodthirstiness:
I saw him run after a gilded butterfly, and when he caught it, he let it go again, and after it again, and over and over he comes, and up again, catched it again; or whether his fall enraged him, or how 'twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it. Oh, I warrant how he mammocked it!Just like his father, Volumnia agrees.
Valeria then asks Virgilia to go with her to see a woman who's having a baby, but Virgilia doesn't want to go. "I'll not over the threshold till my lord return from the wars." Volumnia scolds her, and Valeria insists, mocking her for being so domestic: "You would be another Penelope; yet they say, all the yarn she spun in Ulysses' absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths." Virgilia continues to resist them, and Valeria promises to tell her the news she's heard about Martius. Virgilia doesn't think it possible that there could be any yet, but Valeria tells her that she heard it from a senator: Cominius is leading a force against the Volscian army, while Martius and Titus Lartius are besieging Corioli.
This isn't much consolation to Virgilia, who continues to resist the pressure to make her leave the house, so Volumnia and Valeria go off without her.
A messenger arrives for Martius and Titus Lartius outside the gates of Corioli. They have bet each other a horse on the news, Martius apparently wagering that there's already been a battle. But he loses: The armies are arrayed against each other but haven't started fighting. They're about a mile and a half away, so Martius asks a trumpeter to sound the call for a parley with the city, knowing that the armies can hear his trumpets and he can hear theirs.
Two senators appear on the walls of the city, and Martius asks if Aufidius is inside the walls. They tell him no, and that no one inside is afraid of him. Then they hear drums at a distance followed by a trumpet call: "There is Aufidius. List what work he makes / Amongst your cloven army." Lartius calls for ladders to scale the walls of the city.
The Volscian army arrives, and Martius calls on his men to fight. But after a skirmish, the stage direction indicates, "The Romans are beat back to their trenches." Martius re-enters, "cursing," as the stage direction put it. The curses are directed at his own army, whom he tells, somewhat prophetically, "Mend and charge home, / Or, by the fires of heaven, I'll leave the foe / And make my wars on you."
The gates of the city open, and Martius charges forward. But his troops aren't with him, and the gates close, shutting Martius in. Titus Lartius returns and asks where Martius is. The soldiers tell him, and Lartius is in the midst of a speech praising Martius's valor when the gates open again and Martius re-enters, "bleeding, assaulted by the enemy." Lartius urges the troops to rescue Martius or to make a stand with him, and they all charge into the city.
The city has been taken, and the Roman soldiers are carrying off the spoils. Martius and Titus Lartius appear, but Martius is irritated by the looting: "these base slaves, / Ere yet the fight be done, pack up. Down with them!" He tells Titus to take enough soldiers to secure the city while he goes off to fight Aufidius and help Cominius. Titus wants him to rest, pointing out that he's bleeding, but Martius insists, "The blood I drop is rather physical [i.e., therapeutic] / Than dangerous to me." So off he goes.
Cominius and his soldiers are resting between battles when a messenger arrives who has seen only the first part of the action at Corioli, when the Romans were driven back to their trenches. Then Martius appears, looking as if he has been flayed, and asks if he's too late to help. He tells them that Lartius is busy "Holding Corioles in the name of Rome." Cominius wants to punish the messenger who had told him they were losing the battle, but Martius, somewhat uncharacteristically, tells Cominius to leave him alone. He curses the soldiers who retreated the trenches: "The common file -- a plague! tribunes for them!" (He can't get the idea of having tribunes appointed for the common people out of his head.)
When Cominius asks Martius how he prevailed, he's too impatient to tell the story, and asks why they aren't fighting. Cominius tells them they are at a disadvantage, and that the Volscians' best soldiers are with Aufidius, so Martius begs to be sent to face Aufidius. Cominius would rather Martius take it easy and have his wounds seen to, but he agrees. So Martius delivers a stirring challenge to the soldiers, exhorting those "that love this painting / Wherein you see me smear'd" -- i.e., blood -- to follow him. They cheer and throw their caps in the air, and he picks a force to go with him.
Lartius leaves a guard at the gates of Corioli and sets off with the rest of his men to join Cominius and Martius.
Martius and Aufidius face off and proclaim their hate for each other. "Here they fight, and certain Volsces come in the aid of Aufidius. Martius fights till they be driven in breathless."
The Romans have won. Martius has been wounded -- the stage direction says he enters "with his arm in a scarf" -- but is otherwise sound. Cominius praises his heroic deeds, and when Titus Lartius starts to add his praise, Martius demurs:
Pray now, no more. My mother,But Cominius insists, "Rome must know / The value of her own." He says Martius must take a tenth of the horses and the treasure they have captured. But Martius says he "cannot make my heart consent to take / A bribe to pay my sword: I do refuse it, / And stand upon my common part with those / That have beheld the doing." The crowd cheers and Cominius and Lartius bare their heads in his honor. Cominius says, "Too modest are you, / More cruel to your good report than grateful / To us that give you truly." And he proclaims that henceforth he should be known as "Martius Caius Coriolanus." (There's a long explanation here and in the introduction about how the name seems to have been switched around -- it should be Caius Martius Coriolanus -- but the point it that in the play from now on he's known as Coriolanus rather than Martius.)
Who has a charter to extol her blood,When she does praise me, grieves me. I have doneAs you have done, that's what I can; induc'dAs you have been, that's for my country.He that has but effected his good willHath overta'en mine act.
So he accepts the new name and says, "I will go wash; / And when my face is fair, you shall perceive / Whether I blush or no." Cominius says he'll go write to Rome about the victory and that Titus Lartius must stay to look after things in Corioli, but then Coriolanus remembers something: "I sometime lay here in Corioles, / At a poor man's house: he us'd me kindly," but he was taken prisoner and now Coriolanus wants him to have his freedom. Unfortunately, he can't remember the man's name.
Aufidius is covered in blood and really ticked off at Coriolanus: "By th'elements, / If e'er again I meet him beard to beard, / He's mine, or I am his." He vows,
Where I find him, were itHe tells a soldier to find out how Corioli is being held and who are going to be sent as hostages to Rome.
At home, upon my brother's guard, even there,
Against the hospitable canon, would I
Wash my fierce hand in's heart.
Brockbank observes in his introduction that Coriolanus is one of the few Shakespeare plays not represented on film, but that's about to change with the opening of Ralph Fiennes's production of the play:
It has, however, been presented on television by the BBC in 1984. Paul Jesson as First Citizen; Joss Ackland as Menenius; Alan Howard as Coriolanus; Patrick Godfrey as Cominius; John Rowe as First Roman Senator; Peter Sands as Titus Lartius; John Burgess as Sicinius; Anthony Pedley as Junius Brutus; Mike Gwilym as Aufidius; Valentine Dyall as Adrian; Irene Worth as Volumnia; Joanna McCallum as Virgilia; Heather Canning as Valeria.