By Charles Matthews

Friday, September 9, 2011

5. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare, pp. 237-275

Act IV

Scene I

Coriolanus bids farewell to his family and friends, summoning all the stoic fortitude he can muster. Virgilia, on the other hand, can only lament, "O heavens! O heavens!" as her mother-in-law curses "all trades in Rome, / And occupations." But it's clear that Coriolanus isn't going to rest in exile when he compares himself "to a lonely dragon that his fen / Makes fear'd and talk'd of more than seen." Volumnia urges him to take Cominius along as a companion until he gets settled somewhere. Cominius says he'll come along with him for a month so that they know where to find him when they achieve restitution. But Coriolanus says he'll go it alone, and that he'll keep in touch.

Scene II

In the city, Sicinius and Brutus are deciding what to do now that they've won, and they figure that it's best to show some humility. But then they see Volumnia, Virgilia, and Menenius approaching and decide to beat a retreat before they have a nasty encounter. Unfortunately, Volumnia spots them and denounces them for banishing "him that struck more blows for Rome / Than thou has spoken words." Menenius as usual finds himself trying to calm things down, telling her, "Come, come, peace!" Finally, they manage to slip away from her tongue-lashing, though Sicinius gets in a little dig with his exit line, suggesting that Volumnia is insane: "Why stay we to be baited / With one that wants her wits?"

Before Volumnia leaves, she says, rather imperiously, to Virgilia, "Leave this faint puling, and lament as I do, / In anger, Juno-like. Come, come, come!"

Scene III

Nicanor, a Roman who is a Volscian sympathizer, and Adrian, a Volscian, meet somewhere outside of Rome. When asked for the news from Rome, Nicanor says there have been "strange insurrections: the people against the senators, patrician and nobles." Adrian says that the Volscians are aware of this, and have been making "most warlike preparation," hoping to take advantage of the unrest in Rome. Nicanor says that although things have calmed down, it wouldn't take much to make them flare up again: "For the nobles receive so to heart the banishment of that worthy Coriolanus, that they are in a ripe aptness to take all power from the people, and to pluck from them their tribunes for ever."

Adrian invites Nicanor home for supper, and Nicanor promises to tell him all sorts of news that the Volscians will be glad to hear. He asks if they have an army ready to move, and Adrian says, "A most royal one" that is prepared "to be on foot at an hour's warning."

Scene IV

Coriolanus arrives in Antium "in mean apparel, disguised and muffled," because he's afraid that if he's recognized in a city many of whose men he has killed, he might be killed himself by "wives with spits, and boys with stones / In puny battle." He approaches a man on the street and asks his way to Aufidius's home. The man tells him he's standing in front of it. When the man leaves, Coriolanus reflects,"O world, thy slippery turns!" Longtime friends can break up in a quarrel over some insignificant trifle, and on the other hand, "fellest foes, / Whose passions and whose plots have broke their sleep" can turn into allies. That's what he hopes will happen between him and Aufidius:
My birthplace hate I, and my love's upon 
This enemy town. I'll enter: if he slay me 
He does fair justice; if he give me way, 
I'll do his country service.
So he goes into Aufidius's house.

Scene V

As you might imagine, the servants, who are busy with the feast Aufidius is holding, are not happy to see a stranger "in mean apparel" show up in the house, and try to get rid of him. Coriolanus is aware that he "Appear[s] not like a guest" and that he doesn't deserve "better entertainment / In being Coriolanus," but he stands his ground until finally he comes to blows with one of the servants.

Aufidius, alerted to the presence of this troublesome stranger, comes out to see what's happening and asks Coriolanus, "Whence com'st thou? What wouldst thou? thy name? Why speak'st not? Speak, man: what's thy name?" Coriolanus reveals his face, but Aufidius doesn't immediately recognize him and asks his name again, observing that he has "a grim appearance" and that his "face / Bears a command in't." Finally, Coriolanus identifies himself:
My name is Caius Martius, who hath done 
To thee particularly, and to all the Volsces, 
Great hurt and mischief: thereto witness may 
My surname, Coriolanus. 
He explains that he has been "Whoop'd out of Rome" by "The cruelty and envy of the people, / Permitted by our dastard nobles." He has arrived at Aufidius's house "in mere spite / To be full quit of those my banishers." He would like for Aufidius to "make my misery serve thy turn," but if he wants to kill him,
                     then, in a word, I also am 
Longer to live most weary, and present 
My throat to thee and to thy ancient malice; 
Which not to cut would show thee but a fool, 
Since I have ever follow'd thee with hate, 
Drawn tuns of blood out of thy country's breast, 
And cannot live but to thy shame, unless
It be to do thee service.
Aufidius assures him that "Each word thou hast spoke hath weeded from my heart / A root of ancient envy." He hugs Coriolanus, and then proclaims a new bromance:
I lov'd the maid I married; never man 
Sigh'd truer breath; but that I see thee here, 
Thou noble thing, more dances my rapt heart 
Then when I first my wedded mistress saw
Bestride my threshold.
In fact, there's a strong homoerotic current to Aufidius's account of his feelings about Coriolanus:
                                     Thou hast beat me out 
Twelve several times, and I have nightly since 
Dreamt of encounters 'twixt thyself and me -- 
We have been down together in my sleep, 
Unbuckling helms, fisting each other's throat -- 
And wak'd half dead with nothing.
(Granted, "fisting" has a somewhat different meaning in this context, but still....)

So Aufidius invites Coriolanus in to the feast to meet the Volscian senators and plan a course of action against Rome. After they go in, the servants gather to discuss this strange encounter, and to talk about the prior conflicts between Coriolanus and Aufidius, and the sudden change in their relationship. The Third Servant reports that Coriolanus "is so made on here within as if he were son and heir to Mars." He's been given a seat at the "upper end o'th'table" and Aufidius "makes a mistress of him, sanctifies himself with's hand, and turns up the white o'th'eye to his discourse."

They decide that it will be war again, and the First Servant is fine with that: "Let me have war, say I. It exceeds peace as far as day does night: it's sprighly walking, audible, and full of vent. Peace is a very apoplexy, lethargy, mulled, deaf, sleepy, insensible; a getter of more bastard children than war's a destroyer of men." Then they notice that the feast is ending and they hurry back inside.

Scene VI

Shakespeare's deft use of dramatic irony is evident here, because while the Volscian servants are celebrating the delights of war, back in Rome, Sicinius and Brutus are relishing peace, and gloating that they make Coriolanus's "friends / Blush that the world goes well." Menenius enters, and they try to taunt him with how well the world is going, but Menenius says it "might have been much better if / He could have temporized." But he doesn't know where Coriolanus is now, and "His mother and his wife / Hear nothing from him." Several citizens enter and exchange greetings, then exit, and Sicinius remarks, "This is a happier and more comely time / Than when those fellows ran about the streets / Crying confusion."

But then an aedile enters to say that they have arrested a slave who reports that the Volscians are on the move in Roman territory and are destroying "what lies before 'em." Menenius observes that it must be Aufidius, and that he has heard of Coriolanus's banishment and is taking advantage of it. Sicinius and Brutus are a little uneasy at this news, and Brutus wants "this rumourer whipp'd." Menenius cautions that whipping the informant is unwise, just in case his information is true, but Sicinius asserts, "I know this cannot be," and Brutus, "Not possible."

Then a messenger enters to say that the patricians are going "to the senate-house. Some news is coming / That turns their countenances." Sicinius blames it on the slave again, and wants him whipped "'fore the people's eyes." But the messenger says that not only has the slave's report been confirmed, but that Coriolanus has joined with Aufidius "And vows revenge." This time, Menenius is the skeptic: "This is unlikely: / He and Aufidius can no more atone / Than violent'st contrariety." Menenius is, as usual, reasonable, but his weakness is that he is unimaginative when it comes to human behavior.

Another messenger summons Menenius to the senate: "A fearful army, led by Caius Martius, / Associated with Aufidius, rages / Upon our territories." He is followed by Cominius, who attacks the tribunes: "You have holp to ravish your own daughters, and / To met the city leads upon your pates." Menenius interrupts with several anxious requests, "What news? What news?" But Cominius is so angry with the tribunes that he ignores the requests until Menenius says, "If Martius should be join'd wi'th'Volscians--" Cominius turns to him in exasperation:
He is their god. He leads them like a thing 
Made by some other deity than nature, 
That shapes man better; and they follow him 
Against us brats, with no less confidence 
Than boys pursuing summer butterflies, 
Or butchers killing flies.
(The echo of Valeria's account of Coriolanus's son killing the butterfly is a nice touch here.)

Menenius turns on the tribunes now because of their manipulations of the people with their "breath of garlic-eaters." "He'll shake your Rome about your ears," Cominius says of Coriolanus. "We are all undone unless / The noble man have mercy," Menenius observes. But who can beg for Coriolanus's mercy, Cominius asks. "The tribunes cannot do't for shame; the people / Deserve such pity of him as the wolf / Does of the shepherds." Even his friends such as Cominius and Menenius confess that they feel unworthy of asking leniency from Coriolanus. "We lov'd him, but, like beasts / And cowardly nobles, gave way unto your clusters, / Who did hoot him out o'th'city."

The citizens enter, and Menenius says, "Here come the clusters." He denounces them, but the citizens all say that they thought it was a shame to banish him, and that "it was against our will." Cominius scoffs at this, and he and Menenius go off to the Capitol. Sicinius tells the citizens to go home and not to worry about it, and they leave, sill claiming that they "ever said we were i'th'wrong when we banished him." The tribunes head for the Capitol to see what is happening.

Scene VII

Aufidius is getting a little ticked off with Coriolanus, who has more charisma with the soldiers than he does. He admits, "He bears himself more proudlier / Even to my person than I thought he would / When first I did embrace him." Aufidius's lieutenant says he wishes, for Aufidius's sake, that he hadn't joined forces with Coriolanus. Aufidius admits that Coriolanus "shows good husbandry for the Volscian state, / Fights dragon-like, and does achieve as soon / As draw his sword." The lieutenant asks if Coriolanus will take Rome, and Aufidius says he does: The nobility loves him and the "people / Will be as rash in the repeal as hasty / To expel him thence. I think he'll be to Rome / As is the osprey to the fish."

But Aufidius also thinks that the same defects, such as "pride" or "defect of judgement," will undermine Coriolanus if he succeeds.
                                    So our virtues 
Lie in th'interpretation of the time, 
And power, until itself most commendable, 
Hath not a tomb so evident as a chair 
T'extol what it hath done. 
One fire drives out one fire; one nail, one nail; 
Rights by rights falter, strengths by strengths do fail. 
Come, let's away. When, Caius, Rome is thine, 
Thou art poor'st of all: then shortly art thou mine.

From the 1984 BBC production: John Burgess as Sicinius; Anthony Pedley as Junius Brutus; Alan Howard as Coriolanus; Joss Ackland as Menenius; Patrick Godfrey as Cominius; Irene Worth as Volumnia; Joanna McCallum as Virgilia; Valentine Dyall as Adrian; Teddy Kempner as Nicanor; Mike Gwilym as Aufidius; 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; Peter Sands as Titus Lartius; John Rowe as First Roman Senator; Heather Canning as Valeria.

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