By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

3. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, pp. 151-193

Act II

Scene I

While waiting for news from Corioli, Menenius encounters the people's tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, and asks them why the people favor them over Martius (whom they don't yet know as Coriolanus). They say he has all sorts of faults, but especially pride. Menenius retorts that they shouldn't talk, that if they took a good look at themselves, "Why, then you should discover a brace of unmeriting, proud, violent, testy magistrates (alias fools) as any in Rome."

Brutus says that Menenius is a better talker than he is a judge, but Menenius continues to excoriate them for "saying Martius is proud: who, in a cheap estimation, is worth all your predecessors since Deucalion." He takes his leave of them and encounters Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria. Volumnia tells him that Martius is on his way home, which delights him. She says he has won his third "oaken garland," but that although he fought Aufidius, his enemy escaped. "The senate has letters from the general," she tells him, "wherein he gives my son the whole name of the war: he hath in this action outdone his former deeds doubly."

Together, Volumnia and Menenius count up Martius's wounds, including the latest "I'th shoulder, and i'th'left arm," and conclude that the total is "twenty-seven: every gash was an enemy's grave." But they are interrupted by the sound of trumpets and the entrance of Martius-now-Coriolanus flanked by Cominius and Titus Lartius and a troop of soldiers. A herald proclaims that because he fought alone inside the gates of Corioli, Martius is now called Coriolanus.

Embarrassed by the hoopla, Coriolanus says, "Pray now, no more," and seeing his mother, kneels before her. Volumnia brings Virgilia forth, and Coriolanus hails her as "My gracious silence" -- Virgilia isn't much given to speech -- and comments about her tears, "Would'st thou have laugh'd had I come coffin'd home, / That weep'st to see me triumph?  Ah, my dear, / Such eyes the widdows in Corioles wear, / And mothers that lack sons." Which is maybe not the most effective way to cheer her up.

Menenius welcomes Coriolanus, Cominius, and Titus, though, having recently spoken with Sicinius and Brutus, he warns them that "We have some old crabtrees here at home that will not / Be grafted to your relish."

Coriolanus tells his wife and his mother that before he can go home he has to meet with the patricians, who have more honors in store for him. Volumnia says she has seen her wishes come true already, "only / There's one thing wanting, which I doubt not but / Our Rome will cast upon thee" -- a consulship. Coriolanus is reluctant: "Know, good mother, / I had rather be their servant in my way / Than sway with them in theirs." But he is marched off to the Capitol as Volumnia and Virgilia head home.

This leaves Brutus and Sicinius to complain about all the fuss being made over Coriolanus, and to fret that if he is made consul, their power is in jeopardy. But Sicinius comforts Brutus with the expectation that Coriolanus's temperament will make people forget about his heroism. Brutus knows that Coriolanus won't submit to the custom of showing "his wounds / To th'people" and "beg their stinking breaths" in support of his new office. Of course, they mean to help things along by reminding "the people in what hatred / He still hath held them." Sicinius agrees:
                                         This (as you say) suggested 
At some time when his soaring insolence 
Shall touch the people -- which time shall not want, 
If he be put upon't, and that's as easy 
As to set dogs upon sheep -- will be his fire 
To kindle their dry stubble; and their blaze 
Shall darken him for ever.
A messenger arrives with word that they are wanted in the Capitol: "'Tis thought / That Martius shall be consul." So Sicinius and Brutus hurry off to see it happen.

Scene II

Even the officers laying out the cushions for the magistrates to sit on are speculating on whether Coriolanus is too proud for the job of consul, the First Officer opining that he's "a brave fellow; but he's vengeance proud, and loves not the common people" and that he even seems to encourage the people to hate him.

The patricians and tribunes enter, followed by Coriolanus, Menenius, and Cominius. Brutus and Sicinius are there, too, and when Menenius starts to present the case for Coriolanus as consul, they interject their main concern, that Coriolanus "remember / A kinder value of the people than / He hath hereto priz'd them at." Menenius chides them for being out of order, and says, "He loves your people, / But tie him not to be their bedfellow." And then Coriolanus starts to leave, saying, "I had rather have my wounds to heal again / Than hear say how I got them." Menenius tries to get him to stay, but he exits. When he does, Menenius points to it as evidence of Coriolanus's modesty: "He had rather venture all his limbs for honour / Than one on's ears to hear it."

Cominius delivers the account of Coriolanus's deeds, starting with his fight against Tarquin when Coriolanus was only sixteen. When Cominius pauses, Menenius says, "Worthy man," and the First Senator concurs that he deserves the honor. Cominius concludes,
                                     Our spoils he kick'd at, 
And look'd upon things precious as they were 
The common muck of the world. He covets less 
Than misery itself would give, rewards 
His deeds with doing them, and is content 
To spend the time to end it.
Menenius repeats his praise, and asks that Coriolanus be called back in. When he returns, Menenius tells him that the senate wants to make him consul, and all he has to do now is meet with the people. But this is the one thing Coriolanus doesn't want to do: "I cannot / Put on the gown, stand naked, and entreat them / For my wounds' sake to give their suffrage." Sicinius insists that he has to do it anyway: "Sir, the people / Must have their voices; neither will they bate / One jot of ceremony." But Menenius advises Coriolanus not to make a big deal of it, and the senators acclaim him. Everyone leaves but Sicinius and Brutus, who then go off to plot ways to use Coriolanus's reluctance against him.

Scene III

A group of citizens gather to discuss the situation, and the Third Citizen decides, "I say, if he would incline to the people, there never was a worthier man." They observe as Coriolanus enters, "in a gown of humility," with Menenius still trying to persuade him that "The worthiest men have done't." Coriolanus is still arguing that he can't show them his wounds and tell them "I got them in my country's service, when / Some certain of your brethren roar'd and ran / From the noise of our own drums." Menenius begs him to speak to the citizens "In wholesome manner," and leaves, no doubt uneasily, as Coriolanus tells him "Bid them wash their faces, / And keep their teeth clean."

A trio of citizens approach Coriolanus and say that the price of the consulship is that he ask for it "kindly." So Coriolanus tells them, "I have wounds to show you, which shall be yours in private." They agree to that, though the Third Citizen thinks there's something odd about the business. Two more enter, and one of them tells Coriolanus that he has served the country well, but he hasn't "loved the common people." Coriolanus argues that "You should account me the more virtuous, that I have not been common in my love." And he asks them to grant him the consulship, which satisfies them, even though he still doesn't show his wounds.

Coriolanus grumbles to himself about having to go through with this ritual, and thinks that if we slavishly held to all old traditions, "The dust on antique time would lie unswept / And mountainous error be too highly heap'd / For truth to o'erpeer." But he decides to stick to it, and when three more citizens appear he launches into an appeal for more of their approval:
Your voices! For your voices I have fought, 
Watch'd for your voices; for your voices, bear 
Of wounds two dozen odd; battles thrice six 
I have seen and heard of; for your voices have 
Done many things, some less, some more: your voices! Indeed I would be consul.
It's a speech that has to be delivered with a certain amount of sarcasm, but as it wins over the three citizens it can't be too heavily ironic. But as they exit, his parting shot of "Worthy voices!" can certainly drip with contempt.

Menenius enters with Brutus and Sicinius, and tells Coriolanus that he has won the approval of the citizens and now all he has to do is meet with the senate. Coriolanus asks if he can change clothes, and goes off with Menenius to do so. Sicinius and Brutus remain behind to ponder his success in persuading the citizens and what they can do about it. The citizens enter, in some disagreement about whether Coriolanus was mocking him in his appeal for their voices. The First Citizen thinks it was only Coriolanus's usual way of speaking, but the others insist "He us'd us scornfully." The Third Citizen thinks all he wanted from them was their "voices," and when he got them was done with them.

Brutus asks why they didn't confront him with his arrogance, and Sicinius says they were "fore-advis'd" to provoke him by reminding him of his past contempt for the people. If they had done that, they would either have elicited a promise from him that they could have held him to, or they would have stirred his anger, which they could have used to prevent his election. The Third Citizen says, "He's not confirm'd: we may deny him yet." And the other citizens say they can gather "five hundred voices" and "twice five hundred" plus their friends to speak up against Coriolanus.

So Brutus urges them to do so. And Sicinius says, "Let them assemble; / And, on a safer judgement, all revoke / Your ignorant election. Enforce his pride / And his old hate unto you." Sicinius says they should say that he and Brutus ordered them to support Coriolanus and to go against "your own true affections." Brutus says they can "Say we read lectures to you, / How youngly he began to serve his country," and so on. Sicinius tells them to say that they've considered "his present bearing" and have realized "That he's your fixed enemy, and revoke / Your sudden approbation."

The citizens exit, and as in every scene in this act, Sicinius and Brutus are left on stage, this time to congratulate themselves on what they "have goaded onward," and then to go off to the Capitol to see what happens next.

From the 1984 BBC production: Joss Ackland as Menenius; Alan Howard as Coriolanus; Patrick Godfrey as Cominius; Peter Sands as Titus Lartius; Mike Gwilym as Aufidius; Irene Worth as Volumnia; Joanna McCallum as Virgilia; Heather Canning as Valeria; John Burgess as Sicinius; Anthony Pedley as Junius Brutus; John Rowe as First Roman Senator; Paul Jesson as First Citizen; Ray Roberts as Second Citizen; Leon Lissek as Third Citizen; Jon Rumney as Fourth Citizen; Russell Kilmister as Fifth Citizen.

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