Act II Scenes i-iii
Act II, scene i
In Rome, Menenius discusses Caius Martius (now called Coriolanus) with the two tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius. The tribunes criticize Coriolanus for his pride. Menenius rebukes them, saying that they themselves are guilty of pride. Brutus replies that Menenius is better known as a witty conversationalist at the dinner table than a valued member of the Senate. Menenius insults the tribunes, calling them "the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians?(II.i.87?8).
Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria enter. Volumnia tells Menenius that Coriolanus has been victorious and is coming home, for which Menenius gives thanks to the Roman god Jupiter. Volumnia is proud because Coriolanus has been wounded and been honored with an oak garland by a thankful Rome. She points out that he can show these wounds to the people, to persuade them to proclaim him consul (a magistrate of the Roman Republic who was elected for a term of one year).
Coriolanus arrives in triumph, crowned with an oak garland. The people cheer him, but he tries to silence them, embarrassed by their praises. He greets Volumnia, Virgilia, and Menenius.
Brutus and Sicinius discuss Coriolanus privately. They fear that if he is made consul, his power will threaten theirs. They say that he has sworn never to put on the threadbare toga that symbolizes humility, nor show his wounds to the people. They are certain that his pride will destroy his chances of being consul, and agree that this is in their interest.
A Messenger arrives and invites Brutus and Sicinius to the Capitol, the building where the state rulers gather. The people are hailing Coriolanus as consul, and it seems certain that he will be elected.
Act II, scene ii
At the Senate House at the Capitol, two officials are preparing the room for the Senators and discussing whether Coriolanus will be chosen as consul. Coriolanus enters with the Senators and tribunes. While Cominius makes a speech recounting Coriolanus's heroic exploits in battle, Coriolanus leaves the room, embarrassed by the praise and attention. When the speech is over, the Senators recall Coriolanus. They tell him that while they are eager to make him consul, he must first put on the toga of humility, speak to the people, and show them his wounds, in order to gain their votes. Coriolanus begs to be allowed to break with that custom, as he finds it demeaning to boast. But Menenius and the other Senators say he has no choice, and escort him to the market place (forum).
Act II, scene iii
At the market place, the plebeians have gathered to hear Coriolanus. They feel that they cannot refuse him their votes because they are grateful for the services he has done Rome in war, but they are unhappy about his hostile attitude to them.
Coriolanus enters, dressed in the toga of humility. He is accompanied by Menenius, with whom he is still arguing. The plebeians have been briefed, probably by the tribunes, to approach Coriolanus in ones, twos, and threes, rather than in bigger groups. Coriolanus reluctantly speaks to each plebeian to beg their votes, but he refuses to show them his wounds. All promise him their votes, though one complains to Brutus and Sicinius that he showed disdain for them. Brutus and Sicinius rebuke the plebeians for forgetting the tribunes?instructions to extract a promise of Coriolanus's love and support before giving him their votes. They warn that once in power, Coriolanus will crush the people and take away their liberties. They tell the plebeians to withdraw their support for Coriolanus and to say that they only voted for him because the tribunes persuaded them to. (With this last claim, the tribunes are protecting themselves from Coriolanus's supporters by pretending to be on their side.) The plebeians are to go to the Capitol and say that they have now realized that Coriolanus is their enemy. The plebeians agree, saying that they repent giving Coriolanus their support.
Brutus and Sicinius predict that Coriolanus will be furious at the plebeians?fickleness. They plan to take advantage of his public rage to bring him down.
At the beginning of Act II, Coriolanus, for all his contempt for the masses, still has his integrity: "I had rather be their servant in my way / Than sway with them in theirs?(II.i.192?93). This makes him a strong and honest person, but a disastrous politician. During scenes i-iii, other people are beginning to destroy his integrity by persuading him to act against it. Coriolanus does not want to pretend a humility he cannot feel by donning the toga of humility, showing his war wounds and begging for votes from people he despises. His bowing to the insistence of Menenius and the other Senators against his nature is the start of a tragic decline in Coriolanus. In his plays, Shakespeare often uses the symbolism of clothing to express truth or falsehood, or social or geographical dislocation in the wearer. The point is that if the person is wearing the wrong clothes, then the outer appearance is at odds with the inner person. In the case of Coriolanus wearing the toga of humility, there is a disconnection between who he really is and who he is pretending to be. The sight of this war hero humiliating himself for the sake of political expediency is heart-rending to witness and alerts the audience to the inevitability of his disintegration.
It is one of the ironies of this play that this disintegration begins at the time when Coriolanus is at the height of his popularity, when his war victories are so fresh in the people's minds that they are willing to overlook his arrogance. But outward success is revealed to be deceptive, as it can contain the seeds of downfall.
While the cause of Coriolanus's downfall is partly his own nature, helping along the process are the scheming tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius. In contrast with Coriolanus, they lack integrity. While they accuse Coriolanus of pride, Menenius points out that they are just as guilty of pride ?but unlike Coriolanus, they do not recognize this. Their greatest sin is therefore the ultimate Shakespearean one of not knowing themselves; as Menenius says, "You know neither me, yourselves, nor anything?(II.i.62). Menenius's verdict is to be proved correct later in the play, when the tribunes?failures in judgment indirectly cause Rome's ruin.
Meanwhile, the tribunes convince themselves that they are acting in the interests of the people. When Coriolanus suggests that the people could do well without the custom whereby a man standing for consul must ask for their votes ("It is a part / That I shall blush in acting, and might well / Be taken from the people??II.ii.141-143), the tribunes seize upon his words, which they do not trouble to understand more deeply, as evidence that he means to take away the people's powers. They will use the people's fear of such a tyranny to defeat Coriolanus.
This section continues to highlight Volumnia's excessive ambition for her son, which even overrides concern for his life. She takes a perverse delight in his wounds, because they increase his fame, keeping count of them and committing to memory the position of each one. Though this aspect of her nature would be seen in any age as unhealthy and brutal, it would have been especially shocking in Shakespeare's time. Then, the role of women was seen as protecting and nourishing their children ?not as encouraging them to put their lives in peril for the sake of their careers. Combined with Coriolanus's own nature and the plotting of the hostile tribunes, his close relationship with his fatally ambitious mother is a factor leading him to destruction.
The plebeians continue to be portrayed as a weak, emotional mob incapable of rational thought and subject to the manipulations of the cynical tribunes, Brutus and Sicinius. Within a single scene (II.iii), under the influence of the tribunes, they veer from acclaiming Coriolanus as consul to denying him their support. Shakespeare suggests that the common people are incapable of responsibly exercising any major role in government.