Coriolanus: Novel Summary: Act I Scenes ii-x

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  Act I Scenes ii-x


Act I, scene ii
The action moves to the Senate House at the Volscian city of Corioli, where the Volscian commander Aufidius is preparing to leave with his forces to attack Rome. Aufidius tells the Senators that he believes the Romans are expecting the attack, but a Senator disagrees. The Second Senator tells Aufidius to take his army to Rome as planned and only to return to Corioli if the Romans besiege the town. Aufidius tells the Senators that he and Caius Martius have sworn an oath to fight to the death if they should meet.

Act I, scene iii
This scene takes place in Caius Martius's house, where his mother Volumnia and wife Virgilia are sitting sewing. Volumnia is impatient with Virgilia's worrying about Caius Martius, who is about to fight Aufidius's army. Volumnia says that Virgilia should take pride and rejoice in Caius Martius's warlike adventures, as that is the way he gains honor and renown. Even when he was very young, she encouraged him to seek danger in order to win fame. Virgilia fears that he might be killed, but Volumnia says that if he were, she would find comfort in his heroic reputation.

Virgilia's friend Valeria arrives. Virgilia wants to withdraw to her room to avoid company, but Volumnia forbids it. Valeria asks after Virgilia and Caius Martius's son. She describes approvingly how she saw him chase a butterfly and tear it to pieces, and remarks that he is his father's son. Valeria invites Virgilia out. Virgilia refuses as she has vowed not to set foot over the threshold until her husband returns. Valeria tells them the news from the war: Cominius has led his part of the army against Aufidius's army, and Titus Lartius and Caius Martius's force is besieging Corioli.

Act I, scene iv
The scene opens outside the gates of Corioli, where Caius Martius and Titus Lartius's army is laying siege to the city. Two Volscian Senators appear on the city walls to parley with the besiegers. They warn the Romans that Aufidius will soon return with his army. The Volscians open the city gates and send out their remaining forces to fight the Romans. After some fighting, the Volscians withdraw back into the city, pursued by Caius Martius. He orders his men to follow him, but they refuse, believing that he is going to a certain death. The gates close behind Caius Martius, shutting him into the city. Titus Lartius assumes he is dead, but Caius Martius fights off the Volscians single-handed. The gates open and Caius Martius emerges, bloodstained. Lartius summons the Roman army to follow Caius Martius back into Corioli, which they do.

Act I, scene v
Before the battle is won, Roman soldiers emerge from Corioli carrying loot, for which Caius Martius pours contempt on them. Caius Martius goes to join Cominius, who is fighting Aufidius's army.

Act I, scene vi
Cominius leads his men in a tactical retreat back to their camp. Caius Martius arrives, and the two men embrace. Caius Martius reports that Titus Lartius is holding Corioli for Rome. He also complains to Cominius about the cowardice of the Roman soldiers. He asks Cominius to send him to fight Aufidius in the battlefield. Cominius agrees, and gives Caius Martius his choice of men to accompany him. In a rousing speech, Caius Martius rallies the men, who cheer him and eagerly follow him to seek Aufidius.

Act I, scene vii
Titus Lartius leaves some men to hold Corioli and goes to join Cominius and Caius Martius at the battlefield.

Act I, scene viii
At the battlefield, Caius Martius meets Aufidius, and they fight. Though some Volsces help Aufidius in the fight, Caius Martius drives them all back single-handed.

Act I, scene ix
Cominius, Titus Lartius, and a wounded Caius Martius return to the Roman camp. Cominius and Titus Lartius begin to praise Caius Martius, who is largely responsible for the Roman victories at Corioli and in the battlefield, but he stops them. Cominius offers Caius Martius a tenth of the spoils of battle, but Caius Martius refuses, insisting that he only take an equal share of the spoils with all the soldiers who fought. The soldiers cheer Caius Martius. Caius Martius asks them all to cease praising him, saying that flattery has no place on the battlefield, and that he has done no more than many others have done without recognition. Cominius presents his horse to Caius Martius, and gives him a new addition to his name in honor of his victory: he will be known as Caius Martius Coriolanus, after the city he conquered.

Caius Martius asks Cominius to free a poor Volscian man who gave him hospitality in Corioli and who was taken prisoner. Cominius readily agrees, but Caius Martius cannot remember the man's name.

Act I, scene x
At the Volsces?camp, a bloodstained Aufidius bitterly reflects on his fifth defeat at the hands of Caius Martius. He swears that should they meet again, one of them will die. He will get revenge by any means, fair or foul.

Scene ii shifts the action from Rome to the Volscian city of Corioli. Shakespeare foreshadows the Romans?coming defeat of the Volscians by showing at the beginning of the scene that the Romans already know, through intelligence, the Volscians?plan of attack. The Roman army has already set off to engage the Volscians, robbing the Volscians of the initiative.

The scene also highlights the sworn enmity between Aufidius and Caius Martius. Aufidius's words at I.ii.34?6 ("If we and Caius Martius chance to meet .") set up an expectation in the audience's mind that the two men will fight and that eventually, one will die.

The contrast in mood and tone, from the public tumult of scenes i and ii to the private and domestic focus of scene iii, is typical of Shakespeare. He often uses such contrasts to provide different perspectives on the same subject (here, the subject is Caius Martius, who is first seen from the point of view of the plebeians and then from that of his mother and wife). The contrast also serves to stimulate the minds of the audience, whose focus is switched rapidly between broad and narrow, noisy and quiet, public and personal.

The exchange between Volumnia and Virgilia emphasizes the contrast between the two women. Volumnia has many traditionally masculine qualities: she is bold, ambitious for fame, and exults in the honor that can be won in battle. Because she is a woman in a society in which women were expected to occupy a subservient, passive and domestic role (this was true both of the society of ancient Rome and that of Shakespeare's England), she channels all her desires and enthusiasms into her son, Caius Martius. She is never happier than when Caius Martius is away fighting, risking his life and thereby increasing his warlike fame. His wife Virgilia, on the other hand, is timid and terrified at his martial exploits. The two women's contrasting attitude to the possibility that Caius Martius will be killed in battle sums up their different natures: Virgilia fears it, but Volumnia would take comfort in his heroic reputation, which would become a replacement child for her.

Scenes iv-ix establish Caius Martius as a war hero by showing his bravery and effectiveness in battle. He is largely responsible for both Roman victories ?in the battlefield and at Corioli. A contrast is drawn between his heroism and the cowardice and unreliability of the Roman soldiers. (As common people, the soldiers are identified with the plebeians.) When Caius Martius orders the soldiers to enter Corioli with him (scene iv), they refuse, in the belief that he is going to a certain death. This is clearly unacceptable since it is the role of a soldier to risk his life for his country. Their conduct is shown as justly drawing Caius Martius's contempt ("The mouse ne'er shunned the cat as they did budge / From rascals worse then they?? In scene v, they are shown looting cheap trash from Corioli before the battle is won.

The soldiers?petty greed and covetousness is set against the high-minded modesty of Caius Martius, who wants no reward for his services and determinedly refuses all praise for his achievements. In addition, Caius Martius shows affection and respect for his superior, Cominius. These two qualities give the lie to the cynical tribunes of the people, Sicinius and Brutus, who claimed (I.i) that Caius Martius was greedy of fame and so proud that he would find it hard to serve under Cominius. Caius Martius emerges from the battle scenes as a brave, honorable, and truthful man who knows his role and shoulders his responsibilities without hesitation. Though at the beginning of the play, his contempt for the plebeians seemed extreme, the base and unheroic behavior of the common soldiers suggests that he is, in fact, justified in his attitude. Thus, in the argument that raged between ruling aristocrats and common people both in ancient Rome and seventeenth-century England, Shakespeare subtly takes the side of the rulers.

However, Caius Martius's lack of public relations skills fatally undermines him in his career. His failure to remember the names of the tribunes of the people (I.i) reveals this lack (the skill of remembering people's names is today much emphasized on courses aimed at teaching participants to win friends and influence). A similar slip of memory comes in scene ix. When Cominius asks Caius Martius to name his reward for his excellent service, Caius Martius asks nothing for himself, but requests that a Volscian prisoner who was kind to him be set free. Cominius readily agrees, but Caius Martius has forgotten his name, meaning that his generous impulse comes to nothing. Caius Martius's obliviousness to the detail of his relations with ordinary people here has a serious outcome, making the difference between imprisonment and freedom for the Volscian man. The incident, while showing that Caius Martius is instinctively kind to the deserving among the common folk, is symptomatic of his unhealthy detachment from them.

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