Act I Summary
Summary of I.i
Language in I.i
Insults in I.i (I)
Insults in I.i (II)
Summary of I.iii
Cor. as Machine
Act II Summary
The Flow of Act I, Scene i
Bill Long 1/4/08
Understanding the Four "Mini-Scenes"
Reading Shakespeare for me is somewhat like trying to do my taxes. Every year when I come back to them, I find it incredibly difficult to "re-enter" the arcane world of federal and state tax. But, once I get the "hang" of it again, the tax task flows and, sometimes even becomes enjoyable. Well, the analogy isn't perfectly apt; once you get the 'hang' of Shakespeare you can experience immense pleasure with him. But it does take some doing at times to get into his flow. That is why I spend comparatively more time expositing the early sections of his play--so that his language, images and content is clearly fixed in our mind.
We can divide Act I, Scene i into four sub-sections; (1) lines 1-50; (2) lines 51-163; (3) lines 164-251; and (4) lines 252-279 (of the Riverside Shakepeare, 2nd ed). The first and last sections consist of the plebs talking to each other, either in the person of unidentified people (1) or the newly-appointed Tribunes (4). The second and third sections consist of conversations between two patricians, Menenius and Martius ("M"), the latter known as Coriolanus after I.ix, and some plebians. Thus, the plebian conversations "sandwich" the conversations between patrician and plebian. Let's say a word about each.
I. Two Common People Talk (lines 1-50)
S often presents conversations between the "little people" about the actions of the "big people" before them. Often he invests little people with crucial insight for the flow of the play. Here the two men discuss M and the problems he creates for the plebs. In a word, he is proud, and he seems to do everything to please his mother. The latter point is derived from Plutarch's Coriolanus, which says:
"there was not a battle fought (by the Romans) from whence he (M) returned not without some reward of honor. ...but touching Martius, the only thing that made him to love honor was the joy he saw his mother take of him," Sec. 10.
The only positive thing about M they agree on is that he isn't covetous. Indeed, S devotes an entire scene to this in I.5. After conquering Corioli, M berates his fellow soldiers for taking spoils--mostly worthless trinkets--while he can barely wait to move on to fight with Cominius against the Volsces. Back to I.i. Just when the sound of the plebian insurrection is heard, the patrician Menenius enters.
II. Conversation between Menenius and Plebs (51-163)
S cleverly inserts two conversations now between patrician and pleb. This one is between a patricianm who the plebs admit "hath always lov'd the people" (51-52), and the two men from I. above. In fact, Menenius loves the plebs no more than Martius, who hates them, but he knows how to cloak his disdain in pleasant and disarming conversation. The conversation includes two major points: (a) discouraging the plebians' from rebelling; and (b) the image of the stomach and other bodily parts. The language of the former is wonderfully Shakespearean. Let's hear a few lines:
"For your wants,
Your suffering in this dearth, you may as well
Strike at the heaven with your staves as lift them
Against the Roman state; whose course will on
The way it takes, cracking ten thousand curbs
Of more strong link asunder than can ever
Appear in your impediment: for the dearth,
The gods, not the patricians, make it; and
Your knees to them, not arms, must help," (66-74).
He says two things. First, any violent revolt against Rome will be as useless as a human revolt against the gods. Second, your complaint is really with the gods--take it to them. But S says it so much more elegantly and richly. We see staves shaking against the patricians, violent efforts to break them in pieces, advice to get on one's knees rather than to use one's arms. And, what makes S's language so utterly transcendent is that this is all said "in passing" or as part of an ongoing scene or conversation. Verbal ornaments that would be worthy of being the centerpiece on a royal table are placed next to each other as if they are being sold at a garage sale.
The second purpose of this conversation is for Menenius to recite an image in Plutarch about the interdependence of the patricians/plebs in the Roman Republic. It is such a winning story that something like this is also present in St. Paul's theological argument in I Cor. 12 about the mutual interdependence of members of the Body of Christ. Here he tells a story of the stomach and the limbs of a the body. The stomach seems inelegant and rapacious. It takes all the food. But, according to Menenius, the stomach actually nurtures the entire body, enabling it to flourish and do its work. In some such relationship do the patricians stand to the plebians.
One brief interjection is appropriate here. When Menenius tells the story of the body, he is interrupted by one of the citizens with a question (l.106). Menenius answers by talking about the stomach "smiling." But in ancient literature it was the lungs that were the organ of laughter. So, in a humorous sort of way, by referring to the stomach "smiling," he is "deconstructing" the common understanding of the roles played by various organs in the body. But S, ever brilliant, passes this quickly, moving on to the rest of the conversation...
The point is that "no public benefit which you receive/ But it proceeds or comes from them (the patricians) to you," 152-153). Then, as if to show his disdain for the plebs, Menenius concludes his story with:
"What do you think,/ You, the great toe of this assembly?" (154-155).
He throws back in their face the image that he has just drawn, showing that they are the most undignified parts of the body. Funny.
III. Coriolanus and the Plebs (164-251)
Now the real fun begins. Coriolanus enters and, with words dripping in acrimony, attacks the plebs. I have already looked at some of his words in detail, so I won't repeat them here. Suffice it to say that after he insults them, he is asked about the uprising of the plebs at the other end of the city. He has just been there, and he reports with barely suppressed scorn on the naming of five Tribunes (he can only remember two--l. 217) and his desire to line 'em up and shot 'em (or the ancient equivalent thereto--ll. 197-200). But then his vitriol gets the better of him and he talks about the upcoming war with the Volsces as a means to "vent/ Our musty superfluity" (225-226), i.e, to get rid of these superfluous members of society. Then, as he finishes his words, and prepares for battle, he has a few more choice words:
"Nay, let them (the plebs) follow (into battle).
The Volsces have much corn; take these rats thither/ To gnaw their garners," (248-250).
To Martius the commoners are nothing more than rats, "fragments" or "shreds" that should be released into war to decrease the excess population of Rome. War will teach them a lesson about demanding "rights." Disdain, hubris, anger, bitterness, resentment...all of these characteristics dribble from Martius contemptuous lips.
IV. The Two Tribunes Speak (252-279)
After a display like that, what can the people do? Well, this scene closes with the two recently-named Tribunes commenting on the arrogance of Martius. He will not "spare to gird the gods" (256); i.e., he won't be reluctant to scoff at the gods. He is so proud that he "disdains the shadow/ Which he treads on at noon" (260-261). He disdains the very reality of humanity. And, to make things worse, his position as "2nd in command" in the battle actually will accrue to his benefit, because if things go poorly, they will blame the commander Cominius, but if things go well, they will attribute it to the 2nd in command--M. It looks as if M will just be able to "get away with" his arrogance and hatred. But, read on, because nothing is quite as it seems in S.
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008