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Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare’s greatest political tragedies. In Act I, the citizens of Rome are on the verge of revolt because of an acute shortage of grain. The Roman citizens are especially bitter towards the patrician (aristocratic) Caius Marcius, and think he is the “chief enemy to the people.” Although he has rendered great services to the state, the citizens think that the main motivation of his actions is his excessive pride and a desire to please his mother. Menenius Agrippa, a friend of Marcius and “ one that hath always loved the people,” tries to persuade the hungry plebeians that the patricians are genuinely interested in their welfare. He narrates a fable in which the members of the body revolt against the belly, but eventually realize that the belly sustains them all. Marcius, however, openly denounces the plebeians for their inconstancy and presumption and is disgusted that the Senators have appointed five tribunes to protect the interests of the commoners in response to their petition.
The rebellion in progress is interrupted by a revolt inspired by the Volscians under the leadership of Tullus Aufidius. Marcius’ wife, Virgilia, is unhappy at the news of Marcius’ departure and refuses to leave her house until he returns. In contrast, Marcius’ mother, Volumnia, is extremely pleased; she rejoices in her son’s military exploits and reminisces about the day when he won his first victory in the battle against the Tarquins.
Near Corioli, the Volscian capital, the Roman soldiers lose heart, but Marcius inspires them to capture the city by his own bravery. Although Marcius refuses his share of the war loot and scorns the praise of his fellow comrades, Cominius declares that from henceforth Marcius will be known as Coriolanus, in honor and memory of his great victory. Unfortunately, the victory has also resulted in an enmity with Tullus Aufidius, who resolves to destroy Coriolanus at any cost.
Act III opens with Coriolanus’ discussion of the news that Tullus Aufidius, who has shifted his headquarters to Antium, is preparing to take up arms again. In the midst of this, Sicinius Velutus and Brutus announce that the plebeians no longer approve of Coriolanus’ election. They accuse Coriolanus of having opposed the free distribution of wheat among the commoners. Coriolanus replies that since they were not willing to fight for their country, the commoners do not deserve the grain. The tribunes summon the commoners, who are wild with rage and try to seize Coriolanus. The Senators, with Coriolanus’ help, manage to repel the crowd. When the tribunes demand the death of Coriolanus, Menenius subdues them by promising to bring him to the Forum to answer the charges levied against him. Coriolanus, however, refuses to yield to Menenius’ request and only relents to the entreaties of his mother, who argues that policy, combined with honor, is as essential in peace as in war.