Summary of Act II
Bill Long 1/9/08
The "Preparation" for Coriolanus' Downfall
If Act I of the play shows Coriolanus ("C") at his military best, Act II presents him at his public worst. Act II is crucial because it demonstrates the "tragedy" of C. The "tragedy" of C is that skills that served him so well in one venue actually undermine him in another. His merciless focus, stinging words and uncompromising action to bring opponents to book in battle actually works against him when he appears in public. In the public arena the most useful weapons are not arms but words; in public life the skill most needed is not bluster but persuasion; in public life the means of success is not by berating your colleagues or shaming them into performance but deferring to their wishes and cultivating their pride.
Act II consists of nearly 700 lines and has three scenes. The first scene prepares for C's arrival from battle and celebrates that arrival. Scene ii describes the official ceremony where C's acts of valor are recounted. Finally, Scene iii portrays C's attempt to secure support of the plebs for his candidacy for the consulship. He has a serious of encounters with them that make the commoners uncomfortable and lead to the Tribunes' conniving to bring C down. This barest bones summary does little in the way of helping us understand the distinctive contribution of Shakespeare--the brilliance and compressed nature of his language and description of human emotions and motivations. Let's turn to each scene briefly, and the following essays will focus on more precise themes in Act II.
Scene i can be divided in to three parts: (1) lines 1-96, where two Tribunes argue with Menenius, the patrician; (2) lines 97-204; where C appears to the adulation of all; and (3) lines 205-270, where the hard-pressed Tribunes try to devise a plan to bring C down. The major point of the plebian speakers is that C hates the people and is arrogant. Since he has no compassion for the common people in any way, he will act as consul consistently with this approach--and the people will really be in trouble.
The play opened (I.i) with a debate between Menenius and two common people. In that scene Menenius appeared to be a sort of jovial and fun-loving patrician, understanding if not supportive of the plebs. But here all indications of friendliness have disappeared. Menenius is dripping with scorn and venom, and the two common people respond to him by accusing him of being a sort of "back bencher," an insignificant player in the affairs of Rome (lines 81-83). Their mutual vituperation is cut off both by the appearance of the three women (wife, mother and friend of C's wife) and, finally, the triumphant entry of C. Rome knew how to do triumphs and ovations well; we are treated in this scene to the triumphal entry of their latest and greatest hero, Martius Gaius Coriolanus. His mother Volumnia is overjoyed because he has large "cicatrices" (wounds--148) as signs of his valor. The return of her "striped" son is portentous for her; now he can legitimately run for the consulship, thus elevating her and him to the highest social status in Rome. Yet, if C honored his druthers, he would simply return to battle (202-204).
It comes out in this scene that in order to "stand" for the consulship he must solicit support from the plebs, clad only in the candidus, the white garment, the "napless vesture of humility" (234). The Tribunes don't like what is unfolding at all, but they seem to be powerless to stop it. Yet, the germ of an idea arises in their minds--they wil "suggest the people in what hatred/ He still hath held them" (245-246). The scene closes with the sense that our real drama is just beginning to unfold.
The scene shifts to the Capitol, where due obsequies are to be offered to the returning C. The scene is important because it shows that C is very uncomfortable in receiving public adulation. When gently insulted by a Tribune, who obviously is trying to goad him into losing his cool, C abruptly leaves the ceremony (77). Yet the ceremony continues, and the general Cominius continues to sing the glorious of C. His long speech in lines 82-122 recounted C's history of noble military exploits and will provide the grist for an essay or two below. After C's deeds are recounted, Menenius announces that the Senate would be pleased to make C consul (132-133). Yet there is one thing he must do: he must "speak to the people" (135). This is precisely what C does not want to do. Perhaps perceiving that he will fail at this rather pro-forma task, he begs to be let off from it:
"I do beseech you,
Let me o'erleap that custom; for I cannot
put on th egown, stand naked, and entreat them
For my wounds' sake to give their suffrage..." (135-138).
He knows that he will have to put on an act in order to do it (145). It is like we say when we don't want to do a necessary task: we will "hold our nose" while doing it. But his admission that he will act in this deceptive way is all the fuel needed by the Tribunes. Brutus says tersely, "Mark you that," (146). It is as if we are playing a massive game of "Gotcha!" and the Tribunes finally have discovered a way to "get at" C.
Scene iii is a significant for the play because it shows C actually "lowering himself" to beg the support of the people. It opens with three common people debating the merits and demerits of C, but then the scene shifts to a conversation between Menenius and C. In today's language Menenius is C's "handler:" the one who will "guide the nomination" through the treacherous shoals. The only difficulty C needs to get through is appearing before the people in the candidus, the white robe of candidacy. C protests to M that he really isn't up to the job. He wants to berate the people for their cowardice (52-53), but Menenius quickly tells him:
"O me, the gods!
You must not speak of that. You must desire them/ To think upon you," II.iii.54-56.
With this inauspicious beginning, we now see C trying to appeal to the plebs for support. He is awkward in so doing; he solicits their support but then, immediately upon receiving it, turns on his heels and heads for others of them. The people get the impression that he is patently "using" them--he is not concerned at all about their welfare or their concerns. C escapes from this task and utters his longest speech to date (almost 20 lines) in which he says what he honestly feels about the process:
"Better it is to die, better to starve,
Than crave the hire which first we do deserve.
Why in this woolvish toge should I stand here
To beg of Hob and Dick...?" II.iii.113-116.
Yet C seems to be "home free" and prepares himself for his induction as consul. Then, after he has exited, the scene concludes with about 100 lines of discussion between three common people and the two Tribunes about C's "performance." They are highly dissatisfied with it, and the Tribunes come up with a plan to undermine C. They will have the people accuse C of evil intent, of pride, of hating the people while, at the same time, say to the patricians that the Tribunes were the ones who first wanted to push the support of C on the people. Thus, the plebian "change of mind" is seemingly an indication of the people's breaking from the Tribunes. Thus, we see the true nature of politics here; the Tribunes are trying to manipulate their own people, the people they "represent," to characterize their change of mind so that the Tribunes look "good."
With that cunning plot, Act II comes to a conclusion.
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008