Coriolanus : Act One

Coriolanus starts with a bang! ... Well, actually it starts with a lot of people talking about grain-hoarding, but after that it's seven straight scenes of battle!

Menenius is great. He walks into this horde of rioting plebeians and decides the best thing to do is to tell them a story of an anthropomorphic belly. This particular scene has the immortal line "Your most grave belly was deliberate", which is literary gold, if you ask me. Menenius: the only character in Shakespeare who can get away with saying "belly" on stage, over and over again.


Caius Martius pretty quickly establishes his credentials as an enemy of the people, given that his first major speech is all "you lousy commoners, you smell funny, you're cowardly, you're stupid, you're fickle, you're ungrateful and I wouldn't trust any of you father than I could throw you." So at this point we know he's going to have an absolutely smashing political career. 

Sicinius and Brutus are.. well, they're not really the villains of the piece, since they're just trying to defend the interests of the people, which, I think we can all agree, is admirable. However, they are politicians, which makes them as easy a target as anyone. 

And here is Tullus Aufidius, the famous Volscian general with whom Caius Martius has fought many times. As much as Martius is obsessed with Aufidius, it seems that Aufidius is even more obsessed with Martius, as we'll see later on. It's kind of cute, in a "I totally want to kill you" sort of way.

It should be dawning on you at this point that Volumnia was not the sort of mother who baked Martius cookies and took him to the public library on weekends. Let's see how her baby is doing in battle...

The moment when Martius emerges from the gates of Corioles, covered in blood and fighting off dozens of Volscians, is just pure stage gold. Also, I like to think about what goes on backstage during a performance: presumably the actor playing Coriolanus rushes into the wings, where he is attacked by several make-up artists wielding ketchup squeeze bottles filled with fake blood. 


Martius spends most of the Battle of Corioles running around, covered in blood. Everyone else spends most of the Battle of Corioles commenting on the fact that he's running around, covered in blood.

The line "make you a sword of me" is often cited as distilling the core of Martius's character. He's not a human being. He's a weapon. Like a sword, he's also sharp, pointy, and covered in blood.

Here is a video compilation of the "make you a sword of me" bit, as performed by Alan Howard and Ralph Fiennes. I'm not fond of the BBC Shakespeare production. Alan Howard does a fine job, but the production itself, particularly the battle scenes, are highly stylized and lose some primal energy as a result.


0:00 - BBC Shakespeare, 1984, Alan Howard
0:40 - Coriolanus, 2013, Ralph Fiennes

Is this one of the shortest scenes in Shakespeare? I'm sure there are shorter ones, but this is definitely a contender. I'll have to do some research.

It's time for the big battle! It's mildly anticlimactic (in more ways than one) because just as Martius looks like he's going to take Aufidus down, a bunch of Aufidius's Volscian buddies rush in and save him. This makes Aufidius sad, either because (a) his honor has been besmirched by his troops interfering in an honorable duel-to-the-death, or (b) he is deprived of an excuse to wrestle further with Martius. The possible homoerotic undertones of this fight are ludicrously played up in the 1984 BBC Shakespeare production starring Alan Howard as Coriolanus and Mike Gwilym as Aufidus. Both of them are wearing little more than tiny leather posing pouches, are oiled to a point of luminescence, and spend a lot of time grappling with each other.

A lot of people get embarrassed if they're praised publicly, but Maritus gets embarrassed and mad. He really really really doesn't like it. Except maybe he does. I love his line "I will go wash", which acts as a huge bucket of cold water over the preceding exultant shouts of praise. 

I also love the moment at the end of this scene where Martius asks for a Volscian who sheltered him while he was fighting in Corioles to be released. It's the first time he shows some real compassion. Of course, he then promptly forgets the name of the Volscian and moves on, presumably leaving the poor guy to linger in Roman custody indefinitely. 

Poor old Aufidius. He just can't win.