Dr. Michael Delahoyde
Washington State University
Coriolanus, senators, and tribunes head for the marketplace for confirmation of the election. Lartius brings word that Aufidius has been building another army, but that the Volsces are too beaten to pose any threat for many years. Aufidius is cut from the same cloth as Coriolanus: he “did curse / Against the Volsces for they had so vildly / Yielded the town” (III.i.9-11). Coriolanus nevertheless wants to fight: “I wish I had a cause to seek him there [at Antium], / To oppose his hatred fully” (III.i.19-20). He also is very interested in Aufidius’ thoughts: “Spoke he of me?” (III.i.12) — a bit schoolgirly!
The tribunes Brutus and Sicinius (note how his name hisses) impede them with the news that the election has been reversed and the citizens are on the point of riot. Coriolanus accuses the two plotters: “You being their mouths, why rule you not their teeth? / Have you not set them on?” (III.i.36-37). Indeed, Brutus gives unintentional indication that he inflamed the masses with the old corn issue again. Cominius agrees with Coriolanus: public opinion has been manipulated. Menenius and a senator attempt to cool matters down, but Coriolanus rants against the populace gaining power. Brutus exclaims, “You speak a’ th’ people / As if you were a god, to punish; not / A man of their infirmity” (III.i.80-82) — a telling revelation concerning his view of the people. Coriolanus pitches an excessive fit at a presumptuous use of the word “shall” and declares the people cowards, a “multitudinous tongue” (III.i.156). His remarks are eventually declared traitorous and the tribunes try to have Coriolanus arrested, even executed: “Therefore lay hold of him; / Bear him to th’ rock Tarpeian, and from thence / Into destruction cast him” (III.i.211-213) — a moment reminiscent of the New Testament story of Jesus rejected in his own town. The small riot includes aediles (tribune officers), citizens, and patrician supporters of Coriolanus. He would fight forty of them, and Menenius claims he could take out a few, but Cominius convinces them that there are too many people and that all is out of hand now. Coriolanus takes the best advice in removing himself from the scene.
Menenius tells two patricians, “His [Coriolanus’] nature is too noble for the world” (III.i.254), and he is honest in his refusal to use flattery or diplomacy: “His heart’s his mouth; / What his breast forges, that his tongue must vent” (III.i.256-257). Despite Menenius’ reminders about Coriolanus’ service to Rome, the tribunes still want him executed. A citizen speaks: “He shall well know / The noble tribunes are the people’s mouths, / And we their hands” (III.i.269-271). Sicinius declares Coriolanus “a disease that must be cut away” (III.i.293), but Menenius says, “O, he’s a limb that has but a disease” (III.i.294). Rather than allow them to kill him, which would risk complete social chaos, Menenius will bring Coriolanus to the market-place for a kind of interrogation. [I can’t imagine there’ll be any problem with that!] A senator agrees that “It is the humane way. The other course / Will prove too bloody; and the end of it / Unknown to the beginning” (III.i.325-327) — spelling out a rhetorical practice witnessed several times in this play (e.g., I.i.22-24).
At home, Coriolanus wonders aloud to Volumnia why she isn’t encouraging him since she has always expressed nothing but disdain for the people: “Would you have me / False to my nature? Rather say, I play / The man I am” (III.ii.14-16). She advises a more reserved demeanor until he becomes consul: “You are too absolute” (III.ii.39). Menenius and a few senators all agree that Coriolanus needs to compromise a bit for the sake of stability and order. Volumnia thinks that deception, so useful in war, is a jolly good practice in this kind of case: he need be only a little hypocritical. She advises that he appeal to the emotions of the people: to kneel before them begging forgiveness and promising to behave better:
I would dissemble with my nature where
My fortunes and my friends at stake requir’d
I should do so in honor.
“It is a paradoxical statement. We may ask what sort of honour this is that allows her to dissemble with her nature” (Wells 322). “She talks a great deal about honor, but at the political crisis she is perfectly willing to fall back on policy and employ craft and lies” (Goddard, II 212).
Cominius arrives and advises that Coriolanus calm down the people. He complains, “You have put me now to such a part which never / I shall discharge to th’ life” (III.ii.105-106). But Cominius promises, “we’ll prompt you” (III.ii.106) and Volumnia adds, “To have my praise for this, perform a part / Thou hast not done before” (III.ii.109-110). Railing, he finally agrees to go and act humble and mild to secure his consul position. Perhaps he gives in “out of the absolute terror of being in the position of disobeying his mother’s wishes” (Asimov 241). Throughout, the theatrical metaphors indicate quite clearly that “Coriolanus is in the same situation as Hamlet, forced into a role intolerable to his soul. Only the miscasting began so much earlier that Marcius is wholly unconscious of the perversion his mother has effected” (Goddard, II 216).
Cominius tells Coriolanus, paradoxically, “Arm yourself / To answer mildly” (III.ii.138-139).
Back at the Forum, Brutus and Sicinius are stage-managing — planning to set Coriolanus off with accusations of overambition, arrogance, and greed, and then to trigger the crowd with some prearranged manipulations. Coriolanus arrives, telling Menenius that he will remain level-headed. He agrees to a public questioning, and Menenius begins playing up his war-wounds while Coriolanus downplays the same. Eventually, Sicinius accuses him of ambition and treason. Coriolanus takes the bait at the word “traitor” (III.iii.66ff), calls him a liar, and also objects to Brutus announcing his own supposed service to Rome. He is riled enough to refuse to beg as was advised, so, as planned, the tribunes and then citizens demand his banishment, despite Cominius’ defense of him. Coriolanus passes the point of no return, raging,
You common cry of curs, whose breath I hate
As reek a’ th’ rotten fens, whose loves I prize
As the dead carcasses of unburied men
That do corrupt my air — I banish you!
He warns the crowd of the possible military consequences of this and departs. Sicinius urges the citizens to follow Coriolanus and harass him until he’s gone.