By William Shakespeare

Act V

The 'great issue' of the final act is whether Coriolanus will inflict his wrath upon Rome or underlying finer qualities will emulate the hero's pride and determination for vengeance. Under pressure from the fearful Tribunes, Menenius, though reluctant, is pressed into travelling to Coriolanus to attempt to dissuade the disgraced hero from sacking the city of his former pride. When Menenius fails in his mission, it is left to Coriolanus' mother, Volumnia, to engage her son and save Rome. Volumnia's success finally proves fatal for Coriolanus, as he returns not to Rome but to the Volscians, where Aufidius has conspired his downfall and assassination.

Act V, scene i

We begin with Menenius refusing to go to Coriolanus. The patrician advises sarcastically 'Go you that banish'd him / A mile before his tent fall down, and knee / The way into his mercy.' Cominius' attempts to dissuade his former comrade have already failed, and the commander is certain of the hero's determination to inflict revenge on the city:

' 'Coriolanus'
He would not answer to; forbad all names;
He was a kind of nothing, titleless,
Till he had forg'd himself a name o' the fire
Of burning Rome.'

Coriolanus has not only forsaken his title; the act is symbolic of the hero's repudiation of his past - the glory of Rome and its armies, and his family and home. Shakespeare reinforces this with references to Coriolanus as 'nothing' and 'thing'. War against, and the sacking of, Rome is 'useful' for Coriolanus at this point. In parallel to the opportunities for social cleansing of Rome's parasitic plebeians, war against the city will allow the hero to destroy his political and personal enemies, and prevent what he believes is an unconstitutional state of affairs there. The conflict of 'national' interests is exposed in the dispute between Menenius and the people. Menenius asks the Tribunes 'We must be burnt for you' (l.32). In reply, Sicinius calls upon Menenius' statesmanship: 'If you refuse your aid / In this so never-needed help, yet do not / Upbraid with our distress'. Beneath the façade of fear for Rome, Menenius is concerned that Coriolanus will reject his plea. Though Menenius is gradually persuaded, Cominius knows only Volumnia can save Rome.

Act V, scene ii

On his arrival at the Volscian army's camp, the guards refuse to admit Menenius, despite his insistence on his close ties with the hero. Coriolanus and Aufidius arrive as the guards are about to forcefully drive Menenius away. Menenius, in an attempt at forging a sort of paternal bond, calls the hero his 'son'; Coriolanus however upholds his commitment to his determination to exact revenge on Rome and the Volscian cause by rejecting Menenius. The Roman patrician is left to the guards' mockery. The First Watch's observation that Coriolanus' rage cannot be quietened by the 'easy groans of old women' or 'virginal palms of your daughters' anticipates, ironically, the embassy of women in the next scene. This expression of Volscian hero-worship is concluded when the First Watch declares of Coriolanus, 'He's the rock, the oak not to be wind shaken.'

Act V, scene iii

Coriolanus is however shaken, and this scene is the strongest example of the force of the maternal bond that overrides all other opinion for the fallen hero. The irony is heightened as Coriolanus prides himself on his steadfastness against Roman efforts at appeasement just as Volumnia's arrival is imminent.

'This last old man,
Whom with a crack'd heart I have sent to Rome,
Lov'd me above the measure of a father,
Nay goaded me indeed.'

Coriolanus' resolution to admit no more Romans to the camp is shattered by the arrival of Volumnia, Virgilia and his son. Ironically Coriolanus yields to his mother, the figure that has done more to shape the facets of the hero that have caused his present dilemma. Coriolanus acknowledges this when he describes Volumnia as 'the honour'd mould / Wherein this trunk was fram'd' (ll.22-3). Though he is still bent on exacting revenge on Rome, he has become uncertain, 'Like a dull actor'. Coriolanus kneels before his mother; Volumnia states that she feels it is she who should kneel before him. Coriolanus sees this as an inversion of natural order of things:

'What's this?
Your knees to me? to your corrected son?
Then let the pebbles on the hungry beach
Filip the stars. Then let the mutinous winds
Strike the proud cedars 'gainst the fiery sun,
Murd'ring impossibility, to make
What cannot be, slight work!'

The language looms close over the social and political turmoil of Rome. It also symbolises Coriolanus' revolt against Rome; at this point however he fails to perceive the meaning of his own words. Volumnia introduces first, Valeria, then Coriolanus' son a 'poor epitome' (ll.68-70). Nevertheless, Coriolanus is steadfast - 'Do not bid me / Dismiss me soldiers, or capitulate / Again with Rome's mechanics' (ll.81-3). Volumnia reveals her dilemma - Coriolanus or Rome:

'...either thou
Must as a foreign recreant be led
With manacles through our streets, or else
Triumphantly tread through on thy country's ruin,
And bear the palm for having bravely shed
Thy wife's and children's blood'

She has been force to choose her country before her son; and Volumnia realises a similar appeal will be fruitless with Coriolanus. Thus Volumnia emphasises the consequences of his destruction of Rome in narrow, familial terms, rather than those of high politics or mass slaughter and destruction. Therefore if Volumnia fails to dissuade Coriolanus, he must trample over her to march on Rome. Virgilia echoes Volumnia - 'Ay, and mine, / That brought you forth this boy to keep your name / Living to time' (ll.125-7).

Coriolanus moves to leave, but is prevented from doing so by a lengthy speech by Volumnia. We see now that not only does she strive to turn her son around, but that in order to do so she had undergone a crucial shift in attitude. Now she proclaims, 'Thou know'st great son, / The end of war's uncertain'. Volumnia needs not any help from her companions - hence she tells Virgilia 'He cares not for your weeping' (l.156). Though this is rhetorical, intended to touch Coriolanus. The hero attempts to leave a second time, and Volumnia now falls to her knees before him. Secretly sure she has succeeded, Volumnia asks to be dismissed and concludes her visit with the lines - 'I am husht until our city be afire, / And then I'll speak a little.' Coriolanus remains silent, before proclaiming, 'Behold, the heavens do ope, / The gods look down, and this unnatural scene / they laugh at, O my mother, mother!' The last line reflects Coriolanus' innermost anguish and turmoil. The scene is unnatural in part because Volumnia kneels before her son; more so perhaps is the fact that Coriolanus has now gone against his own nature to bring fire and wrath upon Rome and has yielded to the embassy of women. It is here that Coriolanus takes on the stature of the tragic hero; he turns now to Aufidius and promises 'though I cannot make true wars / I'll frame convenient peace' (ll.190-1). Though Aufidius says he 'was mov'd withal' by the scene, secretly he relishes the new found opportunity to exploit Coriolanus' weaknesses.

Act V, scene iv

Back in Rome, Menenius assures the Tribunes that the embassy of women will prove futile in dissuading Coriolanus from attacking Rome. The audience already knows that Coriolanus has given up his determination to subdue Rome to his vengeance, and are led to wonder if the Tribunes will take political gain from Coriolanus' capitulation. There follows the juxtaposition of the destructive force of Coriolanus, and his love for his mother. Menenius speaks of Coriolanus developing 'from man to dragon', recalling the associations of Act IV.

The power and force of Coriolanus is emphasised during the discussion in Rome. Coriolanus 'moves like an engine' (echoing Cominius before the Senate in II.ii), he is godlike (culminating earlier references: III.i, and V.iii), and described as 'a thing made for Alexander' - not only an image of the Greek Conqueror, but also a dehumanised thing (II.ii, IV.v,

Menenius' sense of imminent doom for Rome heightens with the arrival of a messenger who announces Brutus has been taken by the people, who threaten to kill him if the embassy of women fails. A second messenger arrives to announce the success of Volumnia's journey to her son.

Act V, scene v

A brief scene occurs in which Shakespeare shows us the reception of the embassy of women on their return to Rome from the Volscian army camp. The scene provides an opportunity for a show of pageantry and further, serves as a parallel to Coriolanus' return from victory against the Volscians in Act II and his fate in the following scene. The irony is made all the more acute by the political success the patricians take from Volumnia's successful embassy.

Act V, scene vi

It is uncertain whether the action takes place in Antium or Corioli. Drawing on envy, and now provided with the pretext of Coriolanus' treachery, Aufidius conspires against the hero. Aufidius presents his conspiracy to the nobles as Coriolanus is still hero-worshipped by the citizens - their attitude at variance with that of the Roman citizens. Aufidius is amazed that the people cheer Coriolanus as he enters the city. Coriolanus' speech on his return emphasises the military and financial advantages he has won, presenting defeat as a victory. Coriolanus has finally begun to understand the manner of the politician's rhetoric.

Aufidius refuses to address Coriolanus by his 'stol'n name/Coriolanus, in Corioles' (ll. 89-90) and brands him a traitor. Coriolanus has not developed enough however, and his predictable loss of self-restraint summons his downfall. He threatens to beat Aufidius, and worse recalls how 'like an eagle in a dove- cote, I / Flutter'd your Volscians in Corioles.' (ll. 114-15)

The conspirators stab Coriolanus to death. Aufidius tramples on his archenemy's body. Despite their sense of betrayal and desire for retribution, the Volscian nobles recognise Coriolanus' exceptional qualities - 'Let him be regarded / As the most noble corse that ever herald / Did follow his urn.' (ll. 142-4)