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Monday, May 28, 2012

‘thou can’t march over thy mother’s body.’

Coriolanus: Storyline

Long, long ago, Rome faced a famine. Its common people are the worst sufferers. The city had the grain but it was kept by the patricians for their own use. People come on the streets “in hunger for bread, not thrust for revenge,” demanding that they be allowed to fix the cost of grain by themselves. They declare Caius Marcius—the brave and patriotic soldier of Rome—as the “chief enemy of the people.” At this, Menenius intervenes saying that the patricians have the most charitable care of them at heart. As the argument goes on between the rioters and Menenius, Caius Marcius enters the scene exhibiting his hatred for plebeians, addressing them as, “you dissentious rogues” and also informs that the senate has approved five tribunes of their own choice to “defend their vulgar wisdoms.” 

As this crisis is on, war breaks out with a neighboring Italian tribe, Volscians. They are led by Tullus Aufidius, the known archrival of Marcius. Under the heroic leadership of Marcius, Rome defeats the Volscians. Marcius, leading from the front, captures their city Corioles. On return, Marcius, in recognition of his role in capturing the Volscians’ city, Corioles, is accorded a hero’s welcome. He is also honored with the name Coriolanus. The senate also offers to make him a consul. 

There is, however, a condition for his becoming a consul. He has to seek the votes of the plebeians. At the bidding of his mother, he does seek the plebeians’ support, but reluctantly. At first, the plebeians, having regard to his role in the recent war, agree to support him. But two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius, who hate Coriolanus, prod the plebeians to reverse their decision. In the campaign, Coriolanus finds it loathsome to seek the favor of the plebeians by showing the scars on his body that he suffered in the battles. In the mêlée that follows, Coriolanus losing his temper, speaks intemperately against the very mechanism of seeking popular consent. Taking advantage of this, the two tribunes—Brutus and Sicinius—make the plebeians revolt against him calling him traitor, and drive him into exile.

Hurt by the ill-treatment meted out for all that he had suffered in protecting Rome, Coriolanus, in his own non-compromising style, walks out of Rome with a vow to revenge. He then walks straight into Aufidius’ house in the rival’s camp in the city of Antium, of course his face all muffled over. Surprised at his countenance and silence, the inmates of the house report to Aufidius the strange disguise of the person just arrived. Upon enquiry, Coriolanus unmuffles himself and proclaims: “I am Caius Marcius, once thy foe in particular and of all the Volscians, as my surname Coriolanus witnesses. I have come to your camp not to save my life, but to be revenged of them who banished me from the country for which I fought fierce battles with Volsces.” He assures him that he will fight with better will for him than he fought against him earlier. Thus hearing Coriolanus and being mightily pleased of it, Aufidius welcomes him, saying his coming to them is doing a great honor to Volsces.

They both then plan to invade Rome. Aufidius’ army, doubly excited by the presence of Coriolanus on their side, marches to Rome. Weakened by the absence of Coriolanus, Rome finds it difficult to resist the enemy’s army. Soon, Aufidius and Coriolanus encamp outside the walls of Rome. Panicked by the attack, two of the old friends—Cominius and Menenius—one after the other, go to supplicate Coriolanus in person at his camp for mercy and peace, but he refuses to heed.

The Roman nobles, fearing that nothing can now stop the Volsces, send Coriolanus’ mother Volumnia, his wife and child to plead on their behalf. She begs him to make peace, else “thou shalt march to assault thy country over thy mother’s body.” In reverence for her, he relents crying: “O mother, you have won a happy victory for your country, … mortal and unhappy for your son.” The Romans hail Volumnia as the savior of Rome.

Thereafter, Coriolanus and the Volscians return to Antium. The commoners extend a hero’s welcome to Coriolanus. He then tells the Lords: “We have made peace / with no less honor to the Antiates / Than shame to th’ Romans.” But Aufidius, who gave silent consent earlier to Coriolanus’ question saying “I was moved withal,” when asked for his opinion about Coriolanus’ conceding to his mother’s request, now accuses Coriolanus of treachery for not capturing Rome. As the Lords are asking to hold, the crowd, as instructed beforehand, press about him crying “kill” “kill” “kill”, and kill Coriolanus. The Lords asking the people “Tread not upon him” order a hero’s burial. Gone the rage, Aufidius too joins his people in carrying the body through the city.


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