Coriolanus condensed

The aristocratic patricians pretty much decided how things in Rome should work in 500 B.C. Rome. Actually, in 500 B.C., Rome was not yet quite Rome. Rome was a work in progress, just beginning to become a city-state, well before anyone might have even considered Rome to be anything like an empire.

Act 1. As the play opens, the plebeians, the common people, are complaining about the lack of corn the patricians are providing them. Martius, a patrician, says “Hang ‘em” when told the plebeians were looking for more corn. Martius is a senator, a general and a military hero.  The Volsces, an enemy state to Rome, “are in arms.” Rome’s senior general sends Martius to take Corioles, a major Volscian city.  Martius’ strong-willed mother, Volumnia, tells Virgilia, Martius’ worried wife, to “rejoice in his honors” rather than “fear to lose him.” Martius rushes Corioles, is captured, but escapes, and returns to Rome.  Rome holds Corioles. Martius returns to fight “Aufidius and his Antiates,” Aufidius being the Volces’ senior general; Antium being the Volsces principal city. Martius wins the battle, defeating Aufidius for the “fifth time,” Aufidius saying of Martius “you have shamed me.” Martius is given the honorary title of Coriolanus, now to be known as Caius Martius Coriolanus.  Speaking of Martius, Aufidius says “if e’er again I meet him beard to beard, he’s mine or I am his.”

Act 2. Two Roman tribunes, tribunes being elected protectors of plebeian rights, say the people “love not Martius.” Martius returns to Rome as “renowned Coriolanus.”  Coriolanus notes that he will deal with patricians and plebeians alike, “my way.”  The tribunes, however, stand up to him, believing that when it comes to the plebeians “what hatred he still hath held them.”  The Roman Senate supports Coriolanus, but the support is less than unanimous. Coriolanus tells the Senate that he would like to “o’erleap that custom” when told by the Senate that it “remains that you do speak to the people.” Coriolanus lectures the Senate, letting them know that they dare not let the plebeians gain influence and that the common people must be kept in their place.  The tribunes hear him, vowing to stir up the public against him, telling them he “shall answer as traitors do.”  Coriolanus is roughed up by the crowd.  A senior senator, Menenius, an older man and wise adviser to Martius, lets the plebeians know that Martius “shall answer by a lawful form.” 

Act 3. At home, Martius wrestles with ways to deal with the plebeians.  His mother advises him to be “milder,” suspect as she is that he can remain calm if challenged and criticized. He knows he must talk with the plebeians, pledging to his mother that “Well, I will do’t.” His close friend, Menenius, cautions him to speak “calmly, I do beseech you.”  Coriolanus addresses the crowd saying, “first hear me speak.”  Someone in the crowd cries “power tyrannical” and “traitor.”  He erupts angrily.  Having the authority, the tribunes banish him from Rome.  His response: “Curs, I banish you! There is a world elsewhere.”

Act 4. Coriolanus prepares to leave Rome, telling his wife and others “Come, leave your tears. A brief farewell.”  Through Shakespeare, Coriolanus leaves everyone emotionally wilted when at the gates of the city he leaves Rome, saying among other things “Bid me farewell, and smile.”  He surfaces at the home of Aufidius in Antium.  He enters the house, charms the servingmen, and asks for Aufidius who is there entertaining Volscian senators with a dinner party.  Aufidius greets him, not recognizing him.  But when Coriolanus identifies himself, Aufidius welcomes him as a long lost friend. The Volscian senators are there making plans to invade the Roman territories. Aufidius offers to split his command with Coriolanus. Coriolanus accepts the offer, angry as he is with Rome.  Back in Rome, the Romans learn that the “Volsces with two separate powers are entering in the Roman territories, and destroy what lies before ‘em.” A messenger reports that Coriolanus “is their god.” Aufidius is told that Coriolanus “has eclipsed you in this action.” Aufidius calmly responds “I understand thee well.”

Act 5. Menenius enters the camp of the Volscians now located on the outskirts of Rome.  He is able to briefly talk to Coriolanus, doing his best to convince him to back off his plan to sack Rome.  Coriolanus summarily rejects him, sending him with empty hands back to Rome. But Volumnia, Virgilia and young Martius (his mother, wife and young son) follow Menenius into the Volscian camp for a talk with Martius.  In perhaps literature’s most persuasive conversation between a mother and a son, Shakespeare has Volumnia lay heavily the issues at hand on her son, the proud Roman, Caius Martius Coriolanus conceding to her arguments, saying “I’ll frame convenient peace.”  Back in Rome Volumnia and Virgilia are heroines, word spreading that “the ladies have prevailed.”  Coriolanus and Aufidius return to Corioles.  Coriolanus tells the city fathers that “We have made peace.” From the crowd, Aufidius shouts “Traitor.” Coriolanus angrily erupts. A group of locals kill him.


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