Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Menenius is in the company of the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, who snipe about Coriolanus’ excessive pride. To the indirect assertion that “Nature teaches beasts to know their friends,” Menenius asks, “Pray you, who does the wolf love?” “The lamb.” “Ay, to devour him, as the hungry plebeians would the noble Martius” (II.i.6-10). As the tribunes continue insulting Martius, Menenius accuses them of hypocrisy and self-serving parasitism. Interestingly, he offers up this description of himself:
I am known to be a humorous patrician, and one that loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying Tiber in ‘t; said to be something imperfect in favoring the first complaint, hasty and tinder-like upon too trivial motion; one that converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning. What I think, I utter, and spend my malice in my breath. (II.i.47-54)
Menenius is blunt to the tribunes: “You know neither me, yourselves, nor any thing” (II.i.66-67). The elder Ogburns insist that Oxford is represented by Menenius in the final revision of this play (Ogburn and Ogburn 964).
When Menenius dismisses the tribunes from his company, Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria enter. “How now, my as fair as noble ladies — and the moon, were she earthly, no nobler” (II.i.97-98). Volumnia and Menenius mutually praise Martius for his latest accomplishments. Menenius is particularly happy to hear he has received a letter from him. Volumnia rejoices that the general “gives my son the whole name of the war” (II.i.135). They agree that Martius’ battle wounds will help win him popular support in a bid for the consulate, but they may be a little too enthusiastic about counting up his scars.
Generals and other military officials enter, proclaiming his victory and affirming his new honorary name: Coriolanus. He is wearing a garland but protesting all the fuss. He stops the accolades and kneels before his mother, then talks to his wife briefly. Virgilia says nothing, but a frenzy of welcome cries fills the void. Volumnia alludes to one more wish she has for Coriolanus (it’s clear she wants him to become consul), but he is reluctant to enter the political arena, especially since it requires a ritual involving the solicitation of public approval in the “market-place” (II.i.233). Onward to the Capitol we go anyway.
Those tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, worry about Coriolanus gaining power over them, but they figure they can trick him into revealing his arrogance and hatred for the masses. Sicinius says,
The commoners, for whom we stand, but they
Upon their ancient malice will forget
With the least cause these his new honors, which
That he will give them make I as little question
As he is proud to do ‘t.
Brutus notes this useful bit:
I heard him swear,
Were he to stand for consul, never would he
Appear i’ th’ market-place, nor on him put
The napless vesture of humility,
Nor, showing (as the manner is) his wounds
To th’ people, beg their stinking breaths.
The prosaic quality of their speech is appropriate. A messenger informs them that Martius seems like a shoe-in for consul at the Capitol: I have seen the dumb men throng to see him, and / The blind to hear him speak” (II.i.262-263). The two tribunes hie them thither: “Let’s to the Capitol, / And carry with us ears and eyes for th’ time, / But hearts for the event” (II.i.268-270).
Two officers lay cushions in the Capitol. One officer declares Coriolanus proud “and loves not the common people” (II.ii.6). Another retorts: “Faith, there hath been many great men that have flatter’d the people, who ne’er lov’d them; and there be many that they have lov’d, they know not wherefore; so that, if they love they know not why, they hate upon no better a ground” (II.ii.7-11) — a confusing assertion of uncertain application, except when we start thinking about Coriolanus’ relationship with Rome later.
Patricians, tribunes, lictors, and others enter. Menenius and a senator ask Cominius to report Coriolanus’ accomplishments. Brutus heckles, but Menenius says, “He loves your people, / But tie him not to be their bedfellow” (II.ii.64-65). Goaded a bit by the tribunes, Coriolanus expresses discomfort at the idea of hearing himself praised again: “oft, / When blows have made me stay, I fled from words” (II.ii.71-72); to listen to more praise is “To hear my nothings monster’d” (II.ii.77). Coriolanus leaves and Cominius begins: “I shall lack voice” (II.ii.82). But he manages to eke out another forty lines of glory for Coriolanus’ brave deeds. Menenius cannot help but exclaim, “Worthy man,” afterwards (II.ii.122), but we might ask how any of this military success qualifies him for consul.
The Senate approves Coriolanus as consul, but he asks to be excused from the customary wearing of the humble gown and the display of his wounds for popular support among the plebeians: “It is a part / That I shall blush in acting” (II.ii.144-145). But Menenius moves things along. The tribunes gloat that Coriolanus will likely prove true to character in front of the people.
They may be a “many-headed multitude” (II.iii.16-17), but the citizens at the Forum do have individual and varied voices regarding Coriolanus and their own role in their society. Yet most opinion about Coriolanus is favorable. And “Ingratitude is monstrous, and for the multitude to be ingrateful were to make a monster of the multitude; of the which we being members, should bring ourselves to be monstrous members” (II.iii.9-13).
A grousing Coriolanus, in his “gown of humility” (II.iii.40), arrives with Menenius, who advises him to speak a bit more diplomatically than is his inclination. Coriolanus chats with some citizens who tell him the price of the consulship: “The price is, to ask it kindly” (II.iii.75), which he sort of does. Another group acknowledges his service to Rome but insists he has “not indeed lov’d the common people” (II.iii.92-93). He replies, “You should account me the more virtuous, that I have not been common in my love” (II.iii.94-95). He won’t show the wounds in public, but the crowd is satisfied and gives its approval of him.
The elder Ogburns want to broadcast an appeal here to all professors of English (Ogburn and Ogburn 968-969), with Coriolanus’ words:
What custom wills, in all things should we do ‘t,
The dust on antique time would lie unswept,
And mountainous error be too highly heap’d
For truth to o’erpeer.
Menenius explains the next step and Coriolanus is anxious to get out of the stupid robe “and, knowing myself again, / Repair to th’ Senate-house” (II.iii.147-148).
Although one citizen feels that Coriolanus “flouted” them, another thinks, “No, ’tis his kind of speech, he did not mock us” (II.iii.160-162). The tribunes, however, harp on Coriolanus’ haughtiness and draw attention to his refusal to show his wounds. “Plutarch says that Coriolanus actually showed his scars and won their favor more fairly. It was only when, on the actual voting day, he showed up with an escort of patricians, in all his pomp and pride, that the plebeians turned from him” (Asimov 234). The tribunes, noting that the citizens failed to carry out their role “As you were lesson’d” (II.iii.177) and “As you were fore-advis’d” (II.iii.191), now successfully goad the citizens into considering a reversal of the unofficial election: he’s not yet confirmed, so they can still deny him (II.iii.209-210). Coriolanus’ likely reaction to a rejection, the tribunes are sure, will do him in. Another passage here regarding Coriolanus’ noble ancestry (II.iii.236ff) comes “straight out of North’s translation of Plutarch, almost word for word” (Asimov 235).