Act III Scenes ii-iii
Act III, scene ii
At his home, Coriolanus tells the patricians that he will never change his attitude to the people. Volumnia enters. Coriolanus is surprised that she is not praising him, since he did her bidding in humbling himself before the people. She is exasperated with him for throwing away his power before he claimed it. Menenius enters and tells Coriolanus that he has treated the people too harshly, and that he must approach them again and apologize. The alternative, he says, is civil war. Coriolanus is unwilling, but Volumnia says that he must pretend humility, and flatter the people with words he does not believe. She adds that everyone agrees with her - the patricians, Virgilia, and their son.
Cominius arrives from the market place and warns Coriolanus that the people are angry. Menenius reminds Coriolanus to speak politely to them. Coriolanus reluctantly agrees, though he feels he will not be able to perform his part well. As he leaves for the market place, he calls upon "Some harlot's spirit?(III.ii.112) to possess him so that he can pretend humility.
Act III, scene iii
Sicinius and Brutus plot Coriolanus's downfall. They have arranged a voting system that will favor the views of the poor majority rather than the usual system, which favors the patricians. They brief an Aedile to work on the people to echo whatever sentence they (Sicinius and Brutus) decide. Brutus tells Sicinius to make Coriolanus angry, as he will not be able to control his speech and will say something that will bring about his ruin.
Coriolanus, accompanied by Senators, enters. He agrees to abide by the people's verdict. Menenius speaks in defense of Coriolanus, pointing out that he has done valuable service to Rome but that he is a soldier, rough in speech. Sicinius charges Coriolanus of plotting to seize tyrannical power and of treason to the people. Coriolanus rises to the bait and furiously accuses him of being a liar. With Sicinius's encouragement, the plebeians cry out for Coriolanus to be thrown off the Tarpeian rock. The Senators remind him to be polite, but Coriolanus insists he will not speak one polite word to them, even if it means his death. Sicinius and Brutus pronounce sentence on Coriolanus: he shall be banished from Rome forever. The plebeians echo the sentence. Coriolanus replies contemptuously that it is he who banishes them. He leaves with the patricians.
Act III, scene ii begins with Coriolanus swearing that he will never change his behavior towards the plebeians, even if it means his death. At first, he brushes aside the patricians?attempts to persuade him to change his mind. Thus far, he maintains his integrity. But he cannot resist the powerful influence of his mother, who tells him that he must speak to the people not as his heart prompts him, "But with such words that are but roted in / Your tongue, though but bastards, and syllables / Of no allowance to your bosom's truth?(III.ii.55?7). This speech is shocking in that it demands deliberate dishonesty from a man whose life's habit has been honesty and truth to himself. The violence of the departure from the truth that Volumnia requires is contained in the word "bastards.?The word carries some force to modern ears but would have been even more jarring to an audience of Shakespeare's time, when illegitimacy meant a betrayal of social and religious codes, and threatened the basis of inherited wealth and thus family cohesion. Volumnia is ordering Coriolanus to betray himself. Coriolanus's acquiescence to her will is a tragic fall from integrity, and he is aware of its magnitude, likening himself to a prostitute: "Away, my disposition, and possess me / Some harlot's spirit!?(III.ii.111-112) He goes on to ask that his "throat of war?be turned into a eunuch's thin tone, or a girl's voice that lulls babies to sleep. In other words, he is about to be false to his nature. In Shakespeare's plays, this is a serious and often fatal sin.
In the light of this self-betrayal, it is a bitter irony that Volumnia's final words to him as he prepares to leave for the market place are "Do your will?(III.ii.137). Coriolanus is certainly not doing his will, but hers.
Coriolanus's integrity and simplicity are contrasted with the manipulative cunning of the tribunes, Sicinius and Brutus, against which this great warrior has no defense. They correctly predict that they have only to provoke him to anger to ruin his chances of being consul. Coriolanus falls into their trap immediately; they do not even have to try hard. By their earlier briefing of the plebeians (Act II, scene iii) to claim that they only voted for Coriolanus because the tribunes persuaded them to, the tribunes kept favor with Coriolanus's supporters. They continue with this ploy by now having the people cry for Coriolanus to be cast off the Tarpeian rock, and then pronouncing the relatively milder punishment of banishment. They are giving the impression of being merciful when in fact they are engineering Coriolanus's downfall. What they seem is not what they are. With Coriolanus, on the other hand, outward appearance and inner self are one and the same ?until Volumnia persuades him, by bribing him with the promise of her approval or "praise,?to "perform a part / Thou hast not done before?(III.ii.109-110).