Study Guide

Coriolanus Power

By William Shakespeare


We are accounted poor citizens, the patricians
good. What authority surfeits on would
relieve us. If they would yield us but the superfluity
while it were wholesome, we might guess they
relieved us humanely. But they think we are too
dear. The leanness that afflicts us, the object of our
misery, is as an inventory to particularize their
abundance; our sufferance is a gain to them. (1.1.14-21)

When the play opens, the Citizens riot in the streets of Rome because they're starving and the aristocrats have been hoarding the city's food supplies by setting the cost of grain too high for the plebs to be able to afford it. Here, one of the starving plebs argues that the patricians are literally and figuratively getting fat while the lower classes suffer. Sounds like it's time to occupy Rome.

us revenge this with our pikes, ere we become
rakes; for the gods know I speak this in hunger for
bread, not in thirst for revenge. (1.1.21-24)

Look. Shakespeare's not saying you should go out and start a riot or anything, but he's not exactly blaming the plebeians for picking up their "pikes," either. They're starving, after all, and it seems pretty clear that the patricians have been taking advantage of them.

I tell you, friends, most charitable care
Have the patricians of you. 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. Alack,
You are transported by calamity
Thither where more attends you, and you slander
The helms o' th' state, who care for you like fathers,
When you curse them as enemies. (1.1.67-80)

Here, Menenius tries to calm down the angry plebs by telling them that the patrician class cares for them like "fathers" care for their children. Aside from being totally condescending, this passage is interesting because it portrays Roman society as one, big, happy family. Well, except for the "happy." In fact, the entire play portrays the patricians as really bad parents. In a complex society like Rome, those who hold all the power have an obligation to care for the common people just like parents have an obligation to care for their kids.

Care for us? True, indeed! They ne'er
cared for us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their
store-houses crammed with grain; make edicts for
usury, to support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome
act established against the rich, and provide
more piercing statutes daily, to chain up and restrain
the poor. If the wars eat us not up, they will;
and there's all the love they bear us. (1.1.81-88)

When Menenius claims that the patricians "care" for the plebeians like "fathers" care for the kids, the plebs aren't buying it. We're talking more eye-rolling than a van of thirteen-year-olds on the way to an Arlo Guthrie concert.

There was a time when all the body's members
Rebelled against the belly; thus accused it: (1.1.96-97)

In order to calm down the rioting plebs, Menenius compares Rome to a human body and says the Senate is like the stomach and the common people are like the other body parts. The stomach is in charge of collecting all the food before dispersing the nutrients to the rest of the body, just like the Senate is in charge of collecting the city's grain and dispersing it to the people. Basically, Menenius is trying to tell the people that they're actually being fed (just like the "belly" in the fable) but they're just too dumb to realize it.

Tl; dr: Menenius is being totally manipulative. He doesn't care about the plebs any more than Coriolanus does, but he does care about getting and keeping power.

Five tribunes to defend their vulgar wisdoms,
Of their own choice. One's Junius Brutus,
Sicinius Velutus, and I know not. 'Sdeath!
The rabble should have first unroofed the city
Ere so prevailed with me. It will in time
Win upon power and throw forth greater themes
For insurrection's arguing. (1.1.237-243)

In order to appease the angry plebs, the Senate decides to give them five tribunes to represent their political interests. In ancient Rome, tribunes were elected officials--the whole point of having them was to protect the common people from getting their rights trampled all over by the upper classes, who controlled the government. But, in Coriolanus, the elected tribunes end up being just as power hungry and manipulative as the Senators.

Thanks.—What's the matter, you dissentious rogues,
That, rubbing the poor itch of your opinion,
Make yourselves scabs?
He that will give good words to thee will flatter
Beneath abhorring. What would you have, you curs,
That like nor peace nor war? The one affrights you;
The other makes you proud...
With every minute you do change a mind
And call him noble that was now your hate, (1.1.174-176; 178-181; 193-195)

Coriolanus doesn't beat around the bush. Here, he tells the plebeians he can't stand them because they're (1) dishonest, (2) cowardly, and (3) fickle. Ouch. Way to be a callous jerk and a class snob, Cor. The thing is, Coriolanus might just be right. We're reminded over and over again the plebeians really are dishonest (they lie about having wanted Coriolanus exiled from Rome at 4.6.136-145); cowardly (they run away in fear during the battle at Corioles in Act 1, scene 4); and fickle (they take their votes back about 2 seconds after they agree to elect Coriolanus to office at 2.3.253-255). Is the play telling us that the lower classes really don't deserve any political power?

I sometime lay here in Corioles
At a poor man's house; he used me kindly.
He cried to me; I saw him prisoner;
But then Aufidius was with in my view,
And wrath o'erwhelmed my pity. I request you
To give my poor host freedom. (1.9.91-96)

Er, wait a minute. Remember when we said the play portrays the plebeians (especially the Roman plebeians) as dishonest, cowardly, and fickle? Maybe not. Here, Coriolanus explains that a Volscian plebian was a generous host and treated him well while he (Coriolanus) was busy destroying the poor guy's city. Apparently, the dude was taken as a war prisoner and Coriolanus wants him released. The problem is that Coriolanus just can't seem to remember the guy's name so nobody ever gets around to helping him out. In the end, he's just another nameless plebian, and Coriolanus is just another aristocratic jerk.

That's a brave fellow, but he's vengeance
proud, and loves not the common people.
'Faith, there had been many great
men that have flattered the people, who ne'er loved
them; and there be many that they have loved, they
know not wherefore; so that, if they love they
know not why, they hate upon no better a ground.
therefore, for Coriolanus neither to care whether
they love or hate him manifests the true knowledge
he has in their disposition and, out of his noble
carelessness, lets them plainly see 't. (2.2.5-15)

At the Capitol, a couple of Officers prepare for the senate and talk about Coriolanus' chances of getting elected. On the one hand, he's a "brave" war hero. On the other hand, he's way too proud and hates the "common people." And it's hard to wield power of a group of people who think you hate them.

At sixteen years,
When Tarquin made a head for Rome, he fought
Beyond the mark of others. Our then dictator,
Whom with all praise I point at, saw him fight
When with his Amazonian chin he drove
The bristled lips before him. He bestrid
An o'erpressed Roman and i' th' Consul's view
Slew three opposers. Tarquin's self he met
And struck him on his knee. In that day's feats,
When he might act the woman in the scene,
He proved best man i' th' field, and for his meed
Was brow-bound with the oak (2.2.103-114)

What were you doing when you were 16 years old? Maybe getting a driver's license and bargaining for a later curfew? Not Coriolanus. He was becoming an insta-war hero by helping defeat Tarquin, Rome's former tyrant king.

We charge you, that you have contrived to take
From Rome all seasoned office and to wind
Yourself into a power tyrannical,
For which you are a traitor to the people.
How? Traitor? (3.3.83-86)

Throughout the play, we hear over and over again that the Roman plebeians and the tribunes think Coriolanus is a tyrant who wants to take away their rights, despite the fact that Coriolanus is the guy mainly responsible for getting rid of Rome's last tyrant king, Tarquin. Why do you think Shakespeare goes out of his way to make this point in the play? Is he suggesting that a government run by elected officials is unrealistic? Or is he just saying that Coriolanus isn't the right man for the job?