Coriolanus | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Coriolanus | Act 1, Scene 1 | Summary

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Summary

Armed plebeians (commoners) are protesting in the streets of Rome about the lack of food: the senators have set the price of grain so high the plebeians cannot afford to eat. They are blaming the patricians (the wealthy) for their plight. They specifically hurl their hatred at Caius Martius, a general who looks down on the plebeians. Another patrician, Menenius, attempts to calm the uproar by stating the corn shortage is a punishment from the gods. He says they are to blame, not Martius. Martius learns from a messenger that enemies of Rome, the Volscians, are gathering arms for an attack. Martius shares his admiration for their leader, Tullus Aufidius, and continues to share his criticism of the Roman commoners. Martius exits, and the end of the scene focuses on the two tribunes Sicinius and Brutus sharing their disapproval of Caius Martius: they think he is an arrogant fame seeker.

Analysis

This scene sets the tone and struggles for the remainder of the play. Caius Martius is continually at odds with the citizenry even though there is no explanation for this early in the play. In ancient Rome it was common for grain to be imported due to poor agricultural conditions. Aediles, which appear later in the play, were the ones in charge of the grain stores. It was the gods who were thanked for any abundance of food. This is evidenced by Menenius's comment to the protestors. He says, "The gods, not the patricians, make it, and / Your knees to them, not arms, must help." He is advising them to pray for abundance instead of blaming the patricians and trying to solve the problem with violence.

The fact that Caius Martius shares his admiration for the enemy's leader while exhibiting nothing but contempt for his own Roman citizens is alarming. It demonstrates his love of power and control and his lack of compassion for those weaker than himself.

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