By Charles Matthews

Friday, September 9, 2011

4. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, pp. 194-236


Scene I

Titus Lartius has returned from Corioli with news that Aufidius is assembling new troops, which Coriolanus takes to mean that they'll be back at war with the Volscians soon. But Cominius thinks not: "They are worn, lord consul, so, / That we shall hardly in our ages see / Their banners wave again." Lartius also tells Coriolanus that he met with Aufidius, who told him "That of all things upon the earth he hated / Your person most." On learning that Aufidius is now living in Antium, Coriolanus says, "I wish I had a cause to seek him there, / To oppose his hatred fully."

But he will soon have other business to deal with, for Sicinius and Brutus enter to tell him that the people have changed their mind and are opposing his consulship. Naturally, Coriolanus is outraged, and accuses the tribunes of having "set them on," which of course they have done. Menenius tells him, "Be calm, be calm," which is pretty much what he will be saying to Coriolanus for the rest of the act. But Coriolanus denounces it as a "plot," and says that if the nobility gives in to the plebeians now, they'll never get control of them.

Brutus denies that it was "a plot," and says that the people realize that Coriolanus "mock'd them," and that he was angry when free grain was distributed to the people. Coriolanus suggests that the tribunes told the people this, and Cominius supports him, saying that Sicinius and Brutus "are like to do such business." Menenius comes out with another "Let's be calm," and when Coriolanus continues to denounce the demagoguery of the tribunes, adds, "Not now, not now." Menenius gets a seconding "Not in this heat, sir, now," from the First Senator.

But Coriolanus isn't listening their cautions, insisting that he won't stoop to flatter "the mutable, rank-scented meinie," because in coddling them, "we nourish 'gainst our senate / The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition" that they sowed by giving them a voice through the tribunes. "Well, no more," Menenius cautions, again seconded by the First Senator. But that only provokes Coriolanus more: He's not going to hold his tongue, any more than he would have sheathed his sword in battle.

Brutus and Sicinius say that they're going to let the people know of Coriolanus's attitude, and indicate that they don't intend to let him take power as consul: "It is a mind / That shall remain a poison where it is, / Not poison any further." But Coriolanus seizes on the word "shall" as indicating an authority on Sicinius's part that he cannot accept: "Shall remain! / Hear you this Triton of the minnows? Mark you his absolute 'shall'?" he asks the other patricians. He argues that they have been "reckless" in allowing the plebeians to choose someone like Sicinius to be "The horn and noise o'th'monster's." The patricians "are plebeians / If they be senators." Sicinius, he says, "puts his 'shall,' / His popular 'shall'" in opposition to them.

Cominius tries to steer Coriolanus away: "Well, on to th'market place." But Coriolanus can't let it go, and returns to the topic of the free grain, even though he's interrupted by Menenius's "Well, well, no more of that." By yielding to the people, Coriolanus says, "they nourish'd disobedience, fed / The ruin of the state." And Brutus retorts by asking why the people should allow "One that speaks thus" to become consul. Coriolanus returns to his personal sore point: the failure of the common soldiers to follow him through the gates of Corioli. "Even when the navel of the state was touch'd, / They would not thread the gates: this kind of service / Did not deserve corn gratis." Continuing to indulge the "rabble" this way "will in time / Break ope the locks o'th'senate, and bring in / The crows to peck the eagles."

"Come, enough," urges Menenius. But he plays into the hands of Brutus, who says, "Enough, with over-measure." And into Coriolanus's hands as well: "No, take more!" he says, and continues his rant, arguing that "where gentry, title, wisdom / Cannot conclude but by the yea and no / Of general ignorance," then nothing of consequence will be achieved. He urges the senators to "pluck out / The multitudinous tongue."

Sicinius proclaims this argument to be treason. But Coriolanus is only goaded by this characterization, and decides that if this be treason, make the most of it. Brutus and Sicinius were chosen as tribunes to put down a rebellion. "In a better hour, / Let what is meet be said it must be meet, / And throw their power i'th'dust."

"Manifest treason!" proclaims Brutus, and calls for the aediles to apprehend Coriolanus, and Sicinius tells the aedile to summon the people, in whose name he proclaims Coriolanus a public enemy, "A foe to th'public weal." There is a struggle between the patricians and the tribunes as the "rabble" (in the word of the stage direction) enter. Menenius is ineffectually pleading, "On both sides more respect," but there is a general hubbub until Sicinius calls for "Peace!"

But Sicinius only takes the resulting silence as an opportunity to proclaim, "You are at point to lose your liberties: / Martius would have all from you, Martius / Whom late you have nam'd for consul." Menenius rightly observes that Sicinius's statement "is the way to kindle, not to quench." But Brutus proceeds to argue that Coriolanus "is worthy / Of present death." And Sicinius knows how to bring it about: "Bear him to th'rock Tarpeian, and from thence / Into destruction cast him." Brutus calls on the aediles to seize Coriolanus.

Menenius steps forward to try to calm things, but Coriolanus only makes them worse by drawing his sword. Menenius tells him to put the sword away and urges the patricians to help Coriolanus. There is a struggle, and the patricians succeed in ousting the tribunes and the people. They are left contemplating the possibility of civil war, and Menenius expresses his vexation with Coriolanus telling him, "Put not your worthy rage into your tongue." Coriolanus insists, "On fair ground / I could beat forty of them," and Menenius agrees that he would like to take it out on the tribunes, but Cominius observes that the odds are against them, and and that this is not the time for macho blustering: "manhood is call'd foolery when it stands / Against a falling fabric." He and Coriolanus should leave before the mob comes back with reinforcements.

When Coriolanus is gone, Menenius observes,
His nature is too noble for the world: 
He would not flatter Neptune for his trident, 
Or Jove for's power to thunder. His heart's his mouth: 
What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent; 
And being angry, does forget that ever 
He heard the name of death.
Brutus, Sicinius, and their followers return, and Menenius tries to reason with them, which isn't easy. When he refers to Coriolanus as ""the consul," Sicinius and Brutus protest that he doesn't have that title, and their followers cry out "No, no, no, no, no." Menenius begs to be heard, but Sicinius is bent on Coriolanus's execution: "He dies tonight," and proclaims Coriolanus "a disease that must be cut away."

This seems to remind Menenius of his earlier parable of the belly, and he argues, "Oh, he's a limb that has but a disease: / Mortal, to cut it off; to cure it, easy." Amputating the limb would be foolish if it can be cured.  He reminds them of Coriolanus's military service to Rome. But Sicinius figures that two can play at the parable of the belly game: "The service of the foot, / Being once gangren'd, is not respected / For what before it was." And Brutus urges them to go to Coriolanus's house and take him there, "Lest his infection, being of catching nature, / Spread further."

Menenius argues that Coriolanus has powerful friends, and that unless they "Proceed by process," the plebeians might suffer the consequences of their unilateral move against him. He says that Coriolanus was trained to fight, not to reason, and that if they'll just give him a little time, he'll "undertake to bring him / Where he shall answer by a lawful form -- / In peace -- to his utmost peril." The First Senator backs him up: "Noble tribunes, / It is the humane way. The other course / Will prove too bloody," and who knows how it will turn out in the end.

So Sicinius and Brutus agree to give Menenius time to talk with Coriolanus, but tell their followers not to go home. And warns Menenius that if he doesn't bring Coriolanus to the market-place in good time, "we'll proceed in our first way."

Scene II

Coriolanus is adamant. He's not about to change his ways for anything, even if they break him on the wheel or have him torn apart by wild horses, "Or pile ten hills on the Tarpeian rock, / That the precipitation might down stretch / Below the beam of sight."

But maybe his mother can change his mind. When she enters, he recalls her contempt for the common people, and asks, "Would you have me / False to my nature?" She replies that she would rather he had taken power in his office as consul before he started offending people. But he doesn't want to hear it: "Let go," he says, perhaps somewhat petulantly. But she goes on: He shouldn't have shown "them how ye were disposed / Ere they lack'd power to cross you." "Let them hang," he replies, and she sympathizes: "Ay, and burn too."  

 Menenius and the senators enter to tell him that he needs to go back and talk to the people to fix things. Volumnia agrees; she may sympathize with him, But she's pragmatist enough to understand what he has to do: "I have a heart as little apt as yours, / But yet a brain that leads my use of anger / To better vantage." So what does he need to do, he asks. Menenius says he has to go back to talk to the tribunes and "Repent what you have spoke." Coriolanus says, "I cannot do it to the gods, / Must I then do't to them?"

Volumnia tells him that he's learned how to play politics with the enemy in wartime, so why not in peace? "If it be honour in your wars to seem / The same you are not, which, for your best ends / You adopt your policy, how is it less or worse / That it shall hold companionship in peace / With honour...?" He needs to do lip service to the plebeians "with such words that are but roted in / Your tongue," even though he doesn't believe them in in his heart, "your bosom's truth."
Now, this no more dishonours you at all, 
Than to take in a town with gentle words 
Which else would put you to your fortune and 
The hazard of much blood. 
I would dissemble with my nature where 
My fortunes and my friends at stake requir'd 
I should do so in honour.
She goes on to urge him to go to them with his hat in his hand and even kneel to them, because "Action is eloquence, and the eyes of th'ignorant / More learned than the ears." He should tell them that he was trained to be a soldier, so he doesn't have "the soft way" that would have been more appropriate in dealing with them, but he'll try to do better. Menenius is delighted with Volumnia's advice, of course, and says, "This but done, / Even as she speaks, why, their hearts were yours."

Cominius enters and says he's been to the marketplace and everyone is so angry there that Coriolanus either needs to be calm or not go at all. Menenius and Volumnia agree, so Coriolanus resolves to make the effort: "Must I / With my base tongue give to my noble heart / A lie that it must bear? Well, I will do't." But he has his doubts if he can really pull it off: "You have put me now to such a part which never / I shall discharge to th'life." Cominius assures him they will "prompt" him in the role. But then, after likening himself to a harlot, a eunuch, a schoolboy or a beggar, Coriolanus gets cold feet and decides "I will not do't  / Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth, / And by my body's action teach my mind / A most inherent baseness."

Volumnia tells him that asking him to stifle his pride is difficult: "To beg of thee it is my more dishonour / Than thou of them." But his "stoutness" is "dangerous" -- not that she's afraid: "I mock at death / With as big heart as thou." Still, it's up to him: "Thy valiantness was min, thou suck'st it from me, / But owe thy pride thyself."

So he changes his mind again:
Mother, I am going to the market-place: 
Chide me no more. I'll mountebank their loves, 
Cog their hearts from them, and come home belov'd 
Of all the trades in Rome. Look, I am going. 
Commend me to my wife. I'll return consul, 
Or never trust to what my tongue can do 
I'th'way of flattery further.
"Commend me to my wife" is a rather revealing interpolation in this speech. It's as if he knows he's not coming back. And with the word "mildly" as a kind of mantra, he goes off.

Scene III

Brutus and Sicinius are waiting and as usual plotting, this time to accuse him of not distributing the spoils from the battle with Aufidius and the Antiates. And when an aedile brings news that Coriolanus, accompanied by Menenius and "those senators / That always favour'd him," is on his way they rehearse with the aedile the coming scene. Brutus tells Sicinius to "Put him to choler straight."

Menenius murmurs, "Calmly, I do beseech you," to Coriolanus as they enter, and Coriolanus assures him that he wants to "Throng our large temples with the shows of peace / And not our streets with war," which Menenius calls "A noble wish."

The aedile returns with the plebeians, and Sicinius says,
                                              I do demand, 
If you submit you to the people's voices, 
Allow their officers, and are content 
To suffer lawful censure for such faults 
As shall be prov'd upon you.
Coriolanus says he's "content," which Menenius hastens to echo and to remind them of the wounds that Coriolanus bears for "The warlike service he has done." Coriolanus once again downplays the wounds as "Scratches with briers," but Menenius asks the citizens to consider that when he doesn't speak like one of them, he's really a soldier. So Coriolanus asks them why they changed their minds about his consulship.

Sicinius charges that Coriolanus plans to turn himself "into a power tyrannical; / For which you are a traitor to the people." He has hit a nerve right off, and Coriolanus protests, "How! Traitor?" Menenius is alarmed and urges him, "Nay, temperately: your promise!" But the damage has been done, and Coriolanus says, "The fires i'th'lowest hell fold in the people! / Call me their traitor! Thou injurious tribune!" The crowd begins chanting "To th'rock, to th'rock with him." Sicinius quiets them, but says he "Deserves th'extremest death," whereupon Brutus begins, "But since he hath / Serv'd well for Rome--" as if he is going to extenuate Sicinius's statement.

Coriolanus isn't going to allow for any extenuation, however, and begins to argue with Brutus about his service to Rome. Menenius anxiously reminds Coriolanus, "Is this the promise that you made your mother?" Coriolanus ignores him and says let them do whatever they want: the Tarpeian rock, exile, flaying, he isn't going to "buy / Their mercy at the price of one fair word."

So Sicinius pronounces his sentence: "we, / Ev'n from this instant, banish him our city, / In peril of precipitation / From off the rock Tarpeian, never more / To enter our Rome gates." The plebeians join in crying for his banishment. Cominius begs them to listen to his argument on Coriolanus's behalf, but is shouted down after a signal from Sicinius and Brutus. But Coriolanus interrupts their shouts.
You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate 
As reek o'th'rotten fens, whose loves I prize 
As the dead carcasses of unburied men 
That do corrupt my air: I banish you! 
It's a splendidly high-handed moment, banishing the mob from his ideal community of honor and military values. He proclaims that his banishment leaves them defenseless, prey to fears of invasion. And he concludes by turning his back on them and with the sublime proclamation, "There is a world elsewhere!"

The patricians exit with Coriolanus and the plebeians rejoice.
From the 1984 BBC production: Alan Howard as Coriolanus; Joss Ackland as Menenius; John Burgess as Sicinius; Anthony Pedley as Junius Brutus; 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; Patrick Godfrey as Cominius; Peter Sands as Titus Lartius; John Rowe as First Roman Senator; Irene Worth as Volumnia; Mike Gwilym as Aufidius; Joanna McCallum as Virgilia; Heather Canning as Valeria.

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