Act I Scene i
The play opens in Rome, where a mutinous and armed crowd of common people (called the plebeians) has gathered. They are angry because they believe that the ruling nobility (called the patricians) is hoarding grain, driving up the price and making the people starve. They resolve to kill the war hero and patrician Caius Martius (later called Coriolanus), whom they call "chief enemy to the people?(I.i.5?). Then, they believe, they will be able to set their own price for grain. One of the citizens defends Caius Martius by pointing out that he has done good service to his country, but another protests that his motives were pride and to please his mother.
Menenius, a friend of Caius Martius and a patrician who is popular because he is "one that hath always loved the people?(I.i.41?2), enters. He calms the plebeians, saying that the shortage of grain is due to the acts of the gods, not the patricians. The patricians, he says, care deeply for the plebeians. He tells them the fable of the belly. The other parts of the body rebel against the belly because it receives all the food, yet never seems to work. The belly replies that it is the storehouse for the food, and sends nourishment to all the body's parts. Similarly, the senators (heads of state) of Rome are the belly, and the plebeians are the mutinous other parts of the body. Every benefit the plebeians receive comes from the senators, who collect it but then distribute it.
Caius Martius appears, and speaks contemptuously to the plebeians. He curses their discontentedness and fickleness, and says that only the Senate can keep order among such violent people. He favors killing them all, if the patricians would only lay aside their pity. He tells Menenius about the outcome of an insurrection elsewhere in the city. To Caius Martius's disgust, the patricians have come to an agreement with the plebeians, allowing the plebeians five tribunes (magistrates) of their choice to represent their interests. The plebeians were overjoyed by this concession and abandoned their protest.
A messenger rushes in and tells Caius Martius that the Volsces, an Italian tribe based to the south of Rome, have mobilized to attack Rome. Caius Martius is pleased, because war will be a good way to get rid of Rome's excess idle population. He praises the Volsces?leader, Tullus Aufidius, and says he will be proud to fight him.
A senator appoints Caius Martius second in command to Cominius, a general. Caius Martius sarcastically challenges the plebeians to join him in fighting the Volsces, who have granaries full of grain. The plebeians melt away.
Only Sicinius and Brutus, two of the tribunes chosen by the people, remain on stage. They marvel at Caius Martius's extraordinary pride. Sicinius cannot believe that he can bear to be second in command under Cominius. But Brutus points out that this is the ideal position for one so greedy of fame as Caius Martius, since if anything goes wrong in the war, it will be considered Cominius's fault, and everyone will say that Caius Martius should have been in charge.
The play opens in tumult, introducing the chief conflict that will drive the action: the resentment felt by the plebeians, or common people, towards the patricians, their rulers. Their resentment is focused on the war hero Caius Martius (later named Coriolanus), whom they single out as "chief enemy to the people?(I.i.5?). In spite of the excellent service he has done Rome as a warrior, his nature attracts such hostility because he makes no attempt to hide his contempt for the common people. This aspect of his nature will eventually cause his downfall.
The plebeians represent an important force in the play, to the extent that they form a character in their own right. Shakespeare is ambivalent in his attitude to the plebeians. In this scene, they have a legitimate cause for anger ?they are short of food and believe that the patricians are hoarding grain to drive up prices ?but are shown as dangerously fickle in their loyalties. Their attitude to Caius Martius is somewhat irrational. While acknowledging the good service he has done to Rome, they cannot see past his unattractive pride and assume that this makes him their enemy. In fact, Caius Martius has risked his own life for the good of the people. His great failing is that he lacks the common touch, or what modern politicians know as the gift of public relations.
Caius Martius's foil with respect to public relations, Menenius, emphasizes the flaws in the plebeians?judgment. Menenius understands the importance of public relations and plays to the people's expectations of him. They praise him as "one that hath always loved the people?(I.i.41?2). But he does nothing more practical to alleviate their hunger than tell them the fable of the belly, the moral of which is something like "Don't worry, the patricians have your best interests at heart.?There is irony in the fact that Menenius, who, as is later mentioned, is a famed dinner table wit, uses the fable of the belly to fob off people who are genuinely hungry. What is more, as soon as the immediate crisis has abated, Menenius dismissively calls the plebeians "rats?(I.i.148), revealing that he thinks no better of the people than does Caius Martius, though Caius Martius is more honest.
Menenius is a politician, and possesses the politician's skill of hoodwinking the people into believing that they are helping when in fact they are doing nothing at all. One of the plebeians says to Menenius, "You must not think to fob off our disgrace with a tale,?(I.i.80?1), but this is exactly what Menenius does. Despite the weakness of Menenius's case, the plebeians unquestioningly accept it and abandon their protest. Elsewhere in the city, another group of plebeians have been persuaded to abandon their protest after being allowed to choose five tribunes to represent their interests to the ruling patricians. It remains to be seen how effective these tribunes will be in alleviating the plight of the plebeians. The audience's first impression of the two tribunes who appear in this scene, Sicinius and Brutus, is as clever politicians.
However, typically of the ambivalences that characterize this play, Menenius's fable is not merely an empty reassurance. Beyond the political "spin,?the fable points to a deeper truth (as Shakespeare saw it) which is available to Menenius but not to the mutinous plebeians. The fable is a reference to the concept of the body politic, a traditional way of likening the functioning of the state to that of the human body. The body politic assumes that the state has an organic nature, just as the body does, and that therefore certain political structures and actions are appropriate. A "natural?society is viewed as functioning in a manner similar to the human body. Though this idea has been used to support a variety of governmental types (and indeed, the play Coriolanus has been used to support both right-wing and left-wing political movements), in general, these governments are hierarchical and authoritarian. The values they promote are conservative, and stress social order and obedience to those in power.
While the concept of the body politic was used from the time of the ancient Greeks, it declined in popularity during the seventeenth century and was replaced by the concept of the social contract, in which the people establish a communally agreed manner of social organization. Hence Shakespeare's plays are essentially conservative, and support ideas that were in terminal decline by the time he wrote them. He consistently champions the inherited authority of monarchy and nobility over the forces of democracy, which he portrays as lacking direction, wisdom and resolution, and as against the natural order.
Coriolanus is no exception to this rule. Overall, the impression given of the plebeians is of a well meaning but over-emotional and fickle mob who do not know what is best for them. Thus they fall prey to the manipulations of scheming politicians like Brutus and Sicinius. Shakespeare offers nothing to contradict Caius Martius's verdict on the plebeians, and events will later bear out his judgment: "With every minute you do change a mind, / And call him noble that was now your hate, / Him vilde that was your garland?(I.i.168-170). Their loyalty and resolve drift this way and that at the prompting of the latest crisis or persuasive politician. Caius Martius speaks with contempt of their lack of intellectual rigor when he lists the simple truisms with which they voice their demands: "They said ?that dogs must eat, / That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not / Corn for the rich men only?(I.i.191?94).
These weaknesses of the plebeians do not, however, excuse Caius Martius's proud and arrogant attitude towards them, which is extreme. The obligations involved in the concept of the body politic lay on those in authority as well as those who were on the receiving end of authority. The fable of the belly not only gives Shakespeare's view that the lesser body parts (the plebeians) should not rebel against the belly (the patricians) that nourishes them, but also suggests that the belly should not disdain and detach itself from the lesser body parts in the way that Caius Martius does. His relationship with the plebeians is characterized by his cursing them for their fickleness and cowardice, and this is clearly a betrayal of his responsibility to them. In the wider sense, it is the patricians?responsibility to ensure that the people are fed, and the patricians are failing in this duty. The First Citizen makes this clear in his speech at I.i.67?2: "Care for us? ?They ne'er cared for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their storehouses crammed with grain; make edicts for usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act established against the rich, and provide more piercing statutes daily, to chain up and restrain the poor. ." This breakdown in the relationship between patricians and plebeians is as dangerous to the health of society as a breakdown in the relationship between belly and body parts would be to the health of a person.
Though Caius Martius embodies the classical Roman value of "virtus?or manly valor, he is also a seventeenth-century English aristocrat in his nature and attitudes. Indeed, during Shakespeare's time, classical Roman values had long been claimed by the English aristocracy, many of whom boasted of their supposed descent from Roman leaders. The English aristocracy's role was comparable to that of the rulers of classical Rome: they were landowners by inheritance and warriors by profession. In Shakespeare's time, the aristocracy and its attendant values of noble birth, honor, loyalty to the monarch, and courage in war, was in decline. It was being increasingly threatened by the growing merchant and professional classes, whose origins lay in the common people, whose values were those of the entrepreneur, and whose power source lay in money. The loyalties of these 'new men?were not to the monarch but to Parliament, a group of men like themselves who could be relied upon to support their interests. In Coriolanus, Caius Martius finds himself at the center of just such a conflict between the old ruling class, of which he is a member, and the rising power of the people, or democracy. Caius Martius is both a character drawn from history and a representative of the plight of the aristocracy in Shakespeare's time.
Coriolanus is set in the Rome of around 496 B.C., shortly after the defeat of Tarquinius Superbus, the last king of Rome, and during Rome's transition to a republic. Its struggle for power between the traditional rulers, the patricians, and the plebeians or common people is believed by many scholars to reflect a similar struggle in the politics of Shakespeare's time. King James I succeeded to the English throne in 1603. His reign was marked by an ongoing struggle between the power of the monarchy and that of Parliament, the representative of the people. James believed that the power of the monarch was absolute and was granted by "divine right,?and he refused to work with Parliament or to recognize its authority.
The conflict continued into the reign of James's successor, Charles I, and led to the English Civil Wars (1642?651) between royalist and Parliamentary forces. In 1649 Charles I was executed for treason by Parliamentary decree. Parliamentary forces were eventually victorious and England became a Republic, which from 1653 was under the leadership of the "Lord Protector,?Oliver Cromwell. After Cromwell's death, the Republic collapsed for want of a strong leader, and in 1660 Parliament restored the monarchy. It invited King Charles II to return from exile and be crowned as England's next king. Disagreements between the monarchy and Parliament continued in the reigns of Charles II and his successor, James II. James proved unable to work with Parliament, and in 1689, in a bloodless coup, Parliament arranged for Prince William of Orange and his wife Mary to become the rulers of England. During their reign, the foundations of the constitutional monarchy system, which has lasted to the present day, were laid. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch is head of state (which in practice is generally a ceremonial role with limited power), while a prime minister, whose power derives from election by the people, is head of government. In 1689, Parliament enacted the Bill of Rights, which strictly limited the monarch's powers. The Settlement Act of 1701 fully established the supremacy of Parliament.
Thus, Coriolanus prefigures a historical conflict that was to be worked out over a period of approximately one hundred years after the play was written.