By William Shakespeare


Coriolanus goes to meet the people against the advice of the Tribunes who warn him that the mood among the citizens is against him. The Tribunes have treated the citizens to goad Coriolanus' temper. When tested, Coriolanus is impatient and speaks in terms the Tribunes construe as treason. The Tribunes coerce Coriolanus into revealing his true feelings, and he is then banished from Rome in disgrace.

Act III, scene i

The scene begins with a discussion of the Volscians between Lartius and Coriolanus. Lartius reveals Aufidius has returned to Antium and regrouped his army. Coriolanus enquires 'At Antium lives he?' before revealing his animosity towards his arch- enemy, 'I wish I had a cause to seek him there, / To oppose his hatred fully.' (ll. 17- 20) This sets up another incident of dramatic irony, as what Martius means at this point is a cause in the glory of Rome, not as the banished traitor.

The focus quickly becomes Roman political affairs as the Tribunes arrive. Coriolanus' social prejudice is evident in his scorn for Brutus and Sicinius - he reveals 'tongues o'th' common mouth. I do despise them' before noting their pretensions to power, and how it tests the nobles: 'Against all noble sufferance' (ll.22- 4). The Tribunes attempt to dissuade Coriolanus from going to the marketplace, where, they reveal, 'The people are incens'd against him.' (l.30)

As the Tribunes had hoped, Coriolanus is provoked into revealing his true feelings and ambitions for Rome. Coriolanus' opinion of the extension of political power to the citizens is clear:

' soothing them, we nourish 'gainst our senate
The cockle of rebellion, insolence, sedition,
Which we ourselves have plough'd for, sow'd and scattr'd,
By mingling them with us...'

Turning to the patricians, Coriolanus exclaims 'You are plebeians / If they be senators' (ll. 100-1). Coriolanus expresses his disdain for the Tribunes, which he believes was a hasty concession made during the popular tumult. Now, he argues, it should be removed, as the lower orders are not fit for government. He argues unless this is done, it will feed 'The ruin of the state' (l.116-36).

The Tribunes interpret Coriolanus' outburst as treason - 'Has spoken like a traitor, and shall answer / As traitors do.' (ll.161-2). A mob of plebeians arrives and urges Coriolanus' arrest, though his resistance threatens to spark violence. Sicinius addresses the people: 'You are at point to lose your liberties: / Martius would have all from you' (ll.192-3) Coriolanus reiterates that the Tribunes threaten to bring down the social order. Now we see that Menenius' fable of the belly has no foundation in the socio-political realities of Rome - the divisions of class in the state destroy any notion of organic unity the patrician had entertained. Coriolanus stands to restore the imbalance of power to the nobles; thus the Tribunes urge his death. Menenius' belated attempts at quelling the situation fail as Coriolanus draws his sword. In the resultant struggle, though outnumbered, the patricians manage to fend off the Tribunes and the plebeians.

Reluctantly, Coriolanus heeds advice to leave with Cominius. Menenius remains to assess the situation; the patrician concludes that 'His nature is too noble for the world' and that this has prevented his rise to political power. Here Menenius' speech is full of irony.

Menenius' speculation is interrupted by the return of the mob. Sicinius demands, 'Where is this viper / That would depopulate the city and / Be every man himself?' (ll.261-3) - the Tribune's use of 'viper' here is important, as Coriolanus has earlier portrayed the citizens as a many-headed monster, 'multitudinous tongue', 'bosom multiplied' or hydra. Whereas Coriolanus perceives himself as the Herculean hero who will decapitate the venomous menace to Rome, Sicinius believes him to be a traitor who endangers the security of the city, but more his own position as a Tribune. Menenius manages to regain his rhetorical abilities and argues that Coriolanus is not a disease to Rome that is in need of 'surgery' - 'he's a limb that has but a disease: / Mortal, to cut it off; to cure it easy.' (ll.293-4) In the language of the body politic Menenius invokes, recalling his martial endeavours Coriolanus is too precious for Rome to discard, and more, he believes the hero can be reformed, or at least controlled.

The Tribunes are persuaded to accept more constitutional means of punishing Coriolanus; they do however realise their dilemma - 'To eject him hence / Were but our danger, and to keep him here / Our certain death.' (ll.284-6) If they expel Coriolanus they risk his wrath from an outside army, but if he is allowed to stay they know he will repeal the grant of the Tribunes' constitutional rights. Typical to Shakespearean drama, we are presented with the dilemma, but given no right or wrong answer.

Act III, scene ii

We meet Coriolanus who emphasises his steadfastness:

'Let them pull all about mine ears, present me
Death on the wheel, or at the wild horses' heels,
Or pile ten hills on the Tarpeian rock,
That the precipitation might down stretch
Below the beam of sight: yet will I still
Be thus to them.'

Coriolanus lacks the political skills of guile and duplicity; Volumnia is more cynical and recognises her son's error - 'if / You had not show'd them how ye were dispos'd, / Ere they lack'd power to cross you.' (ll.21- 3) She argues that Coriolanus still has time to impose his position on Rome and outmanoeuvre the Tribunes. Menenius concurs: 'why, their hearts were yours: / For they have pardons, being ask'd, as free / As words to little purpose.' (ll.87-9)

Coriolanus, however, is appalled at the prospect of returning to the marketplace: 'To th' market-place! / You have put me now to such a part which never / I shall discharge to th' life.' (ll.104-6) Following from earlier theatrical imagery or association with duplicity, Coriolanus' nature is unwilling to act the part, and moreover he does not possess the necessary capabilities to retain power through the political art of deception. Following this, Shakespeare has ascribed to the marketplace prominence in Roman social- political life. As a place where interaction between several classes can be seen, the Shakespearean Roman marketplace resembles Elizabethan and Jacobean public theatres.

Coriolanus invokes imagery of 'selling' or 'prostituting' himself; stating, 'Well, I must do't / Away my disposition, and possess me / Some harlot's spirit!' (ll.110-12), it is clear that to Coriolanus' retention of dignity is more important than political necessity. Volumnia castigates Coriolanus for his pride - the matriarchal influence proving successful, the hero resolves himself to take on the politic mantle once again, even though it is against his character (ll.132-4). Answering observations that the Tribunes will be resilient in their accusations, Coriolanus is adamant, 'Let them accuse me by invention: I / Will answer in mine honour' (ll.143-4).

Act III, scene iii

An important scene occurs, in which Coriolanus is tried and banished from Rome by the Tribunes. The determination of the Tribunes to topple Coriolanus is clear from the beginning of the Act: Brutus advises, 'In this point charge him home, that he affects / Tyrannical power. If he evades us there, / Enforce him with his envy to the people.' (ll.1-3) The Tribunes are intent on whatever sentence will settle on Coriolanus and that it carries with it the collective 'authority' of the people; moreover they want to provoke Coriolanus to condemn himself, enticing him so 'he speaks / What's in his heart' (ll.28-9).

While the Tribunes are bent on exposing Coriolanus' true prejudices, his friends among the patricians require him to lie. Though Shakespeare balances the two sides of the socio-political struggle, we are drawn most to Coriolanus, despite the shortfalls of his character, because of the way in which he is trapped between them. Before Coriolanus stands before the Tribunes, Menenius asks they accommodate his soldierly manner, and following this seeks to emphasise the martial heroism he has brought and the importance he serves to Rome's external security (ll.49-51). The rhetorical ability that allowed Menenius to intercede between the patricians and the plebeians in the first act has now eluded the aged politician, and even Cominius tells him to hold his tongue (l.57).

Scinius moves onto the proceedings; the charge against Coriolanus is clear - he is cast as 'traitor to the people' (l.66), which remains unacceptable despite Brutus' acknowledgement of his martial endeavours (ll.83-4). However Brutus' comparison of serving Rome on the battlefield to his own civic duties has been calculated, and Coriolanus' outburst predicted, and even counted upon.

The sentence of Coriolanus' banishment from Rome is pronounced; Cominius interrupts with a declaration of his allegiance to the state in a manner that moves towards fulfilling the description offered by Menenius' belly fable in act one. The Tribunes however cut Cominius short because it is an aside from the task at hand - Coriolanus' expulsion. The Tribunes, unlike the mob Menenius diffuses, are not interested in the patricians' rhetoric of paternal duty that obfuscates their inherent prejudices. It is this underlying attitude that Coriolanus' high- minded bluntness gives expression to:

'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.'

The arrogance and assertiveness of Coriolanus is capped by his reversal of the sentence in which he declares to the Tribunes, 'I banish you!' (l.123) Coriolanus' assessment in his scathing words against the citizens' uncertainty or fear (ll.124-7) proves short - after he is banished the city enjoys hitherto unrivalled prosperity. That is until the threat of external military power brings it to an end.