Coriolanus abbreviated

The audience finds itself as the play opens on a street in Rome, five hundred give-or-take years before the time of Christ, Rome at that time being a city that is just beginning to become a city, well before Rome was considered by anyone as an empire.  A group of plebeians, the common people, are complaining among themselves about the lack of corn provided to them by the patricians, the aristocrats who decide how things in young Rome are run. (Humor, Act 1, Scene 1) Caius Martius, a patrician, soon enters saying “Hang ‘em” when told the plebeians are looking for more corn, Martius being a senator, a general, a military hero and “the chief enemy to the people,” so a plebeian says. (Pride, Act 1, Scene 1)

We soon learn that the Volsces, an enemy-state to Rome, “are in arms.”  Martius and Titus Lartius, another general, are asked by Cominius, the most senior of Rome’s generals, to lead a fight against the Volscians and to try to gain control of their city of Corioles.  Separately, Volumnia, Martius’ strong-willed mother, tells Virgilia, Martius’ weak and worried wife, that she should “rejoice in his honors” rather than “fear to lose him.” (Mother to Daughter, Act 1, Scene 3) Volumnia is a self proclaimed “valiant” woman, and she is, as we’ll see in spades when she counsels her son late in the play. 

Following Cominius’ orders, Martius and Lartius and their troops rush Corioles.  Martius is trapped inside the city as the Volscians seal the city’s gates.  The Roman soldiers retreat; then promptly regroup and re-rush the city, taking it.  Martius, to everyone’s surprise, not only survives but escapes his Corioles’ captors.  While a wounded but proud Martius returns to Rome to confer with Cominius, Lartius and his men hold the captured city.  Caius Martius, always supremely confident and aggressive, receives permission to re-attack “Aufidius and his Antiates.” (Chauvinism, Act 1, Scene 6) Aufidius is the Volscian general; the Antiates are the soldiers of Antium, Antium being the principal Volscian city.  Martius and Aufidius meet and fight; Martius whips him, a frustrated Aufidius saying “Five times, Martius, I have fought with thee; so often hast thou beat me, and wouldst do so, I think, as often as we eat.” 

At a Roman camp outside of Rome, Martius is honored by Cominius as a hero, proclaiming “Therefore be it known, as to us, to all the world, that Caius Martius for what he did before Corioles, call him, with all th’ applause and clamor of the host, Caius Martius Coriolanus.”  Martius modestly accepts the honorary title of Coriolanus.  Separately, Aufidius vows revenge, saying of Martius “If e’er again I meet him beard to beard, he’s mine or I am his.” (Revenge, Act 1, Scene 10)

Brutus and Sicinius, both Roman tribunes, tribunes being protectors of plebeian rights, let Menenius know how much the people “love not Martius,” Menenius being an older Roman and a confidant to Martius.  Menenius defends Martius as a loyal Roman and a good man.  Separately, Martius talks about Menenius, saying “this old man loved me above the measure of a father.” Menenius learns that Martius is “coming home” and that he has been honored as “renowned Coriolanus.”  Separately, Coriolanus notes that he plans to deal with the people of Rome, the patricians and plebeians alike, “my way.”  This is the beginning of real trouble for this proud Roman patrician.  Brutus and Sicinius let us know that they view him with disdain and that in regard to the plebeians “what hatred he still hath held them.” (Deference, Act 2, Scene 1) Brutus and Sicinius stand up to him, protecting the rights of the plebeians, the responsibility that goes with their position as tribunes. 

Meanwhile, in the Roman Senate, filled with patricians, the senators offer Coriolanus varying degrees of support.  Cominius lavishes praise on him and recounts his heroic actions at Corioles. (Pride, Act 2, Scene 2) But when Coriolanus is asked by Menenius that it “remains that you do speak to the people,” Coriolanus suggests he would like to “o’erleap that custom.”  Meanwhile at the Roman Forum, the common people heatedly share their political views of Coriolanus, but in the end come to a compromise saying “Let him be consul.”  His condescending response is: “Worthy voices!”  (Pride, Act 2, Scene 3) When Coriolanus and Menenius leave for the Senate House, Brutus and Sicinius rile the crowd, railing against Coriolanus, but a significant minority of citizens continues to offer Coriolanus their support. Sicinius says to the plebeians: “you may revoke your sudden approbation.”  As the plebeians exit, the two tribunes let us know that some plebeians have changed their minds about Coriolanus and “almost all repent in their election.” 

Coriolanus learns that Aufidius, upset with the Volscians’ loss of Corioles, has retired to Antium; Coriolanus notes that he’d like to visit him there.  Sicinius and Brutus confront Coriolanus, telling him the people “are incensed against him” for among other reasons calling them “foes to nobleness.” Menenius and the First Senator call for calm. Coriolanus delivers a set of lectures to the Senate, letting them know why he thinks they dare not let the plebeians gain influence and that the common people need be kept in their place. (Anger, Act 3, Scene 1) (Pleading, Act 3, Scene 1) Listening to him, the tribunes vow to further stir up the public against him, saying he “shall answer as traitors do.”  Coriolanus is a little roughed-up by the crowd.  He draws his sword.  Brutus cries “Martius is worthy of present death,” some suggesting he be hurled from the Capitoline cliff, known as the Tarpeian rock.  Continuing to protect Martius, Menenius convinces the tribunes that they should “precede by process” suggesting the plebeians meet in the marketplace and that there Coriolanus “shall answer by a lawful form.” 

At home with his mother and wife, Coriolanus wrestles with how to deal with the current strife.  Volumnia tells her son he must be “milder.” (Mother to Son, Act 3, Scene 2)  She offers sound advice, yet is suspect that he can remain calm, knowing how he may react to all the criticism he’s been receiving.  He responds, “Well, I will do’t.”  Cominius and Menenius do their best to encourage him, both agreeing with Volumnia that he needs to answer the tribunes “mildly.”  Sicinius and Brutus assemble the plebeians to hear him.  Again Menenius cautions him, saying “calmly, I do beseech you.”  Coriolanus asks the audience, “First hear me speak.”  He does speak, but when Sicinius calls him a “power tyrannical” and a “traitor” Coriolanus, not unexpectedly, erupts angrily.  The tribunes, having the authority, decide he is to be banished from Rome.  Coriolanus responds “Curs, I banish you!  There is a world elsewhere.”

A banished Coriolanus is accompanied to the gates of Rome with his wife, his mother, Cominius, Menenius and others.  In classic Shakespeare style, he bids them farewell, leaving them all emotionally wilted. (Honor, Act 4, Scene 1) Back in Rome, Volumnia lays into the tribunes; they take it in stride. 

Coriolanus later surfaces at the house of Aufidius in Antium, enters the house, charms the servingmen, asks to see Aufidius, who, entertaining the Volscian senators with a dinner party, leaves his guests and confronts this uninvited visitor, not recognizing him. Coriolanus identifies himself. (Disclosure, Act 4, Scene 5) Aufidius warmly greets him as if he were a long-lost friend. (Acceptance, Act 4, Scene 5) Aufidius has Martius meet the Volscian senators who just happen to have imminent plans to invade Roman territories.  Aufidius immediately offers to split the command of his troops with Coriolanus; Coriolanus agrees, eager as he is to seek revenge against Rome. 

Back in Rome, Brutus, Sicinius, Menenius and Cominius learn that the “Volsces with two separate powers are entering in the Roman territories, and destroy what lies before ‘em.”  Blame is passed around with citizens saying “Though we willingly consented to his banishment, yet it was against our will.”  Cominius tells Menenius “You have helped to melt the city upon your heads.”  Menenius doesn’t disagree.  A messenger reports that to the Volscians, Coriolanus “is their god. He leads them like a thing made by some other deity.”   Meanwhile at a camp outside Rome, a lieutenant suggests to Aufidius that Coriolanus, having one-half the Volscian command “has eclipsed you in this action.”  Aufidius quietly responds “I understand thee well.”  Aufidius proceeds to share with his lieutenant his strategy to deal with Coriolanus and the dynamic relationship that’s evolved. (Insight, Act 4, Scene 7)

Meanwhile, with Coriolanus and the Volscians camped on the outskirts of Rome, Sicinius persuades Menenius to meet with Coriolanus and try to convince him not to sack and ruin Rome.  Menenius does briefly talk with Coriolanus, who summarily rejects him; empty-handed Menenius returns to Rome. 

Independently, Volumnia, Virgilia and young Martius, their son, enter the Volscian camp to give their best shot at convincing their son, husband and father to drop his plans to destroy Rome.  Here Shakespeare has Volumnia offer perhaps the most beautiful and compelling mother-to-son set of arguments found in literature. (Mother to Son, Act 5, Scene 3.1) (Mother to Son, Act 5, Scene 3.2)  (Mother to Son, Act 5, Scene 3.3) Virgilia lets her mother-in-law do the persuading.  The son is pretty much silent.  Coriolanus, the strong and proud Roman, concedes saying “I’ll frame convenient peace.”  Back in Rome, word spreads that “the ladies have prevailed.”  Volumnia and Virgilia are welcomed triumphantly back to Rome as heroines.

Coriolanus and Aufidius return to Corioles.  Aufidius meets with a group of conspirators, one conspirator saying, “The fall of either makes the survivor heir of all.” Aufidius responds “I know it.”  Coriolanus tells the city’s lords “We have made peace.” Aufidius calls him “Traitor!”  Predictably, Coriolanus erupts angrily.  The conspirators kill him.

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