Summary of Act I (Continued)
Bill Long 1/2/08
Meeting Martius (Coriolanus), the Warrior
Act I, Scene i lays out the two problems that move the play. On the one hand we have a schism in Rome between patricians and plebs, a schism that leads to bitterness and near insurrection. On the other hand, we have a fight with an external enemy, the Volscians ("V"), who would love to exploit Roman internal weakness to achieve their aims. Whereas I.i explores the former, I.ii-x describe the battle for Corioli, chief city of the V. This essay summarizes I.ii-x.
Our scene shifts to the V and to their chief military strategist, Aufidius, in I.ii. He is upset with the V senators because the V plans seem to be known to the Romans. The irony of this, however, is that Aufidius tells us this as he is reading a dispatch from his spies about the vulnerability of the Romans. Indeed, we are in a battle, and information is "leaked" to both sides.
Before S's description of the battle actually begins, we get the one "domestic scene" of Act I. In Scene iii, the mother (Volumnia) and wife (Virgilia) of Martius/Coriolanus speak about their hopes and fears for Martius in battle. Some time has obviously passed since I.ii because Volumnia can almost "hear" the triumph of Martius. She says to Virgilia:
"Methinks I hear hither your husband's drum;
See him pluck Aufidius down by the hair," 29-30.
In this scene we become aware that mother and wife have completely different value systems. Mother absolutely longs for her son to become wounded in battle, since wounds are the marks of valor. Wife, on the other hand, detests battle and is afraid of losing her husband. Virgilia has made a vow not to depart from her home until her husband safely returns.
On To The Battle--I.iv-viii
We have only met a harsh and vitriolic Martius ("M") so far. Now, in I.iv, we see him on the battlefield, and the first picture we get of him is different. He is joking with Lartius, one of the commanders. He bets his horse that news coming to them is good news [the Roman troops are divided into two groups; one of them, under Lartius, attacks the city of Corioli while the other, under Cominius, will encounter the enemy in the field]. But this light-hearted spirit before battle is soon replaced by intense energy as the Army of the V enters. M verbally attacks his own troops for their cowardice.
"You shames of Rome! you herd of--Biles and plagues/ Plaster you o'er....," 31-32.
This seems to have a salutary effect on the troops, and some of the enemy retreat to their city. M goes in, alone as it turns out, after them. The city gates are shut, and it looks as if the end has come for M. He is "trapped" among the enemy, and even the commander Titus Lartius utters a brief speech that sounds like a eulogy to M.
"O noble fellow!/ Who sensibly outdares his senseless sword," 52-53.
By saying this S means to say that M, though sensitive to pain, is bolder than his sword, which is not. But, mirabile dictu, Martius is spared, and he emerges from Corioli covered with blood. His followers then take Corioli. A great victory, indeed.
Act I, Scene v, a short scene, is only dropped in to show M's attitude toward the spoils of victory. M will have none of them. Indeed, he berates those who would lower themselves to go after spoils. He ridicules the goods as worthless: "crack'd drachme" or "leaden spoons" or "irons of a doit" (a doit is a cheap coin). One of my favorite images of the spoil's worthlessness follows:
"doublets that hangmen would/ Bury with those that wore them," 6-7.
One of the ways a hangman would be compensated for his duty in Shakespeare's time was that he could keep the garment of the condemned person. But the V spoil is so worthless that even a hangman would bury the doublets!
Act I, Scene vi takes us back to the battlefield, and this time M joins with Cominius, the other general, who is fighting the V in the field. M hears that Aufidius is fighting in this location, and he can't wait to join in battle against his long-time foe. M says:
"I do beseech you/ By all the battles wherein we have fought,/ By th' blood we have shed together, by th' vows/ We have made to endure friends, that you directly/ Set me against Aufidius..." 55-59.
Act I, scene vii only consists of seven lines, and is a flashback to Roman commander Titus Lartius, who is instructing his troops on how to maintain the guard over the defeated city, Corioli. If he calls for in-the-field reinforcements, he wants to receive them.
In I.viii, M and Aufidius meet up in battle. But, like a TV show that can't have the "big battle" happen in the first few minutes of the show, so here the encounter is inconclusive. They meet, they insult each other, they begin to fight, and then Aufidius' reinforcements come to help him. Their encounter ends, and M complains that he has been "shamed" by Aufidius' being seconded in such a cowardly fashion.
Finishing Act I
Act I, Scene ix is a major scene in the play, for in it the Roman leaders recognize the accomplishment of M and give him a new name: Coriolanus. He will forever wear this as a badge of his honor for defeating the enemy of Rome. Now he is Caius Martius Coriolanus. But M/C can't stand all the attention that he is receiving. As I say in this essay, he seems to entertain the view that anyone could have done what he did; what he accomplished is not that special. The scene closes with a little story that can be interpreted two ways. M/C wants to "beg" a favor of his general Cominius. In past days M/C had occasionally lodged in Corioli at the house of a poor man who treated him kindly. M/C would have it that Cominius treat this poor man well now that he is a prisoner. But, the only problem is that M/C forgot his name. Is S trying to present this as an indication of M/C's magnanimity or his lack of concern for people--since if you forget someone's name at a crucial moment it is as if you never knew them at all? What do you think?
Act I ends with a scene that describes Aufidius' wrath at the latest developments. Previously he has sought out and fought M/C on terms of honor or according to the rules of engagement, but he had been defeated five times. Now, if he meets him again, all will be different. Aufidius will observe no rules or conventions of fight. He will be an "extreme cage fighter," so to speak, to C and just wipe him out. On this foreboding note, the First Act ends.
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008