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MonkeyNotes-Coriolanus by William Shakespeare
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Notes

The first scene of the second act opens with Menenius, Sicinius, and Brutus discussing Marcius. The tribunes criticize him for being overly proud and disdainful of the commoners. They also accuse him of being a braggart, which he certainly is not; the audience has seen him saying little about his own victory and silencing the praise of others. Menenius is shown to defend Marcius from the charges levied against him, yet he cleverly escapes personal criticism by professing himself to be “a humorous patrician.” But Menenius does not spare the tribunes, calling them hypocritical and ambitious. The entire exchange becomes marked by contempt, as accusations and counter-accusations fly. As their conversation draws to a close, Menenius comments, “You talk of pride: O that you could turn your eyes towards the napes of your necks, and make a survey of your good selves.” This is a telling comment and true of most of the Roman leaders. They are all unwilling to evaluate their own characters, foreshadowing that Coriolanus will not see his own faults. On a larger scale this inability to self-assess results in a political crisis in Rome.

When the ladies enter, Menenius goes from being caustic and contemptuous to posing as a courtier, praising the women in exaggerated terms. Volumnia is overjoyed and shares the news of her son’s victory. Menenius is genuinely happy to hear of the victorious return of Marcius and promises to give a feast. When the talk turns to Marcius’ wounds, Virgilia appears distraught as she thinks of her husband’s pain; in contrast, Volumnia is exultant that he bears wounds, the marks of a noble soldier.


Now that the Volscians have been defeated, the class conflict and political turmoil are sure to come to the forefront again. The play opened with the prospect of plebian rebellion, which was averted by the mediation of Menenius; now the commoners have two representatives who are cunning and greedy for power. They are certain to stir things up; in fact, during this scene, they show their envy of Coriolanus and plot his downfall. For the moment, however, the crowd gathers to welcome Marcius as a war hero. The herald sings his praise and the crowd shouts its approval. However, underneath all the jubilation and praise for Coriolanus, there is an uneasy tension.

Marcius’ entry with the garland crowning his head amid shouts of general approval is magnificent. He is embarrassed by the unrestrained welcome and subdues the crowd to silence. Upon seeing his family, he first greets his mother and then turns to his wife and lovingly reproaches her for her tears. He addresses Virgilia not as a heroic warrior but as someone who understands her concern for him. There is warmth in his words for her.

A note of doubt enters the play when Volumnia expresses her desire that Coriolanus be made consul, a fulfillment of all her dreams. Marcius, however, knows he is more suited for the battlefield than the Senate halls; he is rigid in what he believes and inflexible to change, limiting traits for a politician.

The scene closes with another conversation between the two tribunes. Their dialogue reveals that they are extremely jealous of Coriolanus and lust for more power and praise for themselves. If Coriolanus becomes consul, they will make sure he is not successful by making him reveal his disdain for the commoners, which will surely cause his downfall due to all the political unrest. The conversation closes with a mood of foreboding for the protagonist. When the messenger arrives to say that Coriolanus is sure to be elected consul, the foreboding increases.

The structural principle operating in the scene is one of juxtaposition and contrast. The scene opens with the snubbing of the tribunes by Menenius and closes with hatching a plot by the tribunes. There is a deliberate and exaggerated contrast as Menenius turns away from the tribunes and greets the ladies in dignified courtly terms; this reveals his two-sided nature, scornful one minute and gracious the next. Volumnia’s enthusiasm for blood and honor contrasts sharply with the concern and silence of Virgilia.

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MonkeyNotes-Coriolanus by William Shakespeare

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