David Bruce: “William Shakespeare’s CORIOLANUS: A Retelling in Prose” — Act 2, Scene 1

— 2.1 —

In Rome, Menenius was talking with Sicinius and Brutus, two Tribunes of the plebeians.

“The augur tells me we shall have news tonight,” Menenius said.

Augurs interpreted omens and forecast the future.

“Good or bad?” Brutus asked.

“Not according to the prayer of the people, for they do not love Martius,” Menenius replied.

“Nature teaches beasts to know their friends,” Sicinius said.

“Please, tell me whom does the wolf love?” Menenius asked.

“The lamb,” Sicinius answered.

“Yes, to devour him,” Menenius said, “as the hungry plebeians would love to devour the noble Martius.”

“He is indeed a lamb that baas like a bear,” Brutus said.

“He’s a bear indeed, and he lives like a lamb,” Menenius said.

In other words, they disagreed in their evaluations of Martius. Brutus believed that Martius was a bear and not a lamb — Martius was dangerous to the plebeians. Menenius believed that Martius was a dangerous bear on the battlefield but a lamb — at least to the patricians — off it.

Menenius continued, “You two are old men. Tell me one thing that I shall ask you.”

Menenius was saying that since the Tribunes were old men, they ought to be wise men. He was implying that they were not wise men.

“We will, sir,” they replied.

“What extreme wickedness makes Martius morally deficient that you two don’t have in abundance?” Menenius asked.

Brutus replied, “He’s poor in no one fault, but well stocked with all of them. He lacks no fault, for he has them all.”

“He especially has pride,” Sicinius said.

“And he tops all others in boasting,” Brutus said.

“This is strange now,” Menenius said. “Do you two know how you are thought of here in the city, I mean by us on the right-hand file? Do you?”

The best soldiers were on the right-hand file. By “us,” Menenius meant those whom he considered the best citizens of Rome: the patricians.

Sicinius and Brutus asked, “How are we thought of?”

“Because you talked about pride just now,” Menenius said, “I need to ask you whether you will be angry if I tell you.”

The two Tribunes replied, “Well, well, sir, well. How are we regarded?”

“Why, it is no great matter,” Menenius said, “for a very small pretext will rob you of a great deal of patience. Give your dispositions the reins and let them run freely, and be angry at your pleasures, at least if you take it as pleasurable to you in being so. You blame Martius for being proud?”

“We are not the only ones who do, sir,” Brutus replied.

“I know you can do very little alone,” Menenius said, “for your helps are many, or else your actions would grow wondrously feeble: your abilities are too much like those of an infant for you two to do much alone. You talk of pride: I wish that you could turn your eyes toward the napes of your necks, so you could look at yourselves and make an interior survey of your good selves! I wish that you could!”

“Suppose that we could see ourselves. What then, sir?” Brutus asked.

“Why, if you could see yourselves, then you would discover a pair of undeserving, proud, violent, testy magistrates, alias fools, as any in Rome.”

A wisdom story stated that men carry two bags: one in front, and one in back. In the front bag, men carry knowledge of their neighbors’ faults. In the back bag, men carry knowledge of their own faults.

“Menenius, you are well enough known, too,” Sicinius said.

Sicinius meant that Menenius’ faults were also well known.

“I am known to be a whimsical and moody patrician, and one who loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying, diluting Tiber River water in it. I am said to be somewhat imperfect because I tend to favor the complainant, who speaks first, in a case of law. I am said to be hasty and tinder-like — quick-to-anger — upon too trivial a reason. I am said to be one who converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning: I stay up late and get up late. I am said to be a man who utters what I think, and I expend my malice in my breath and words.

“Meeting two such wealsmen as you are — I cannot call you Lycurguses — if the drink you give me touch my palate adversely, I make a crooked face at it. I express in my face what I think.”

Wealsmen are public servants who are supposed to be devoted to the weal — the well-being — of the state. “Weal” sounds like “well,” and the two Tribunes said “well” frequently.

Lycurgus was a statesman who created the constitution of Sparta in Greece. Lycurgus was given credit for wisdom, something that Menenius felt the two Tribunes lacked.

Menenius continued, “I can’t say your ‘worships’ have reported the matter well, when I find the ass in compound with the major part of your syllables.”

He meant that much of what they said was asinine, especially when it came to their opinion of Martius. He may also have been saying that as Tribunes they used many words such as “whereas.”

Menenius continued, “And although I must be content to endure those who say you are reverend grave men, yet they lie deadly when they tell you that you have good faces.”

Lies may be intrinsically sinful, but not all sins are deadly sins. Menenius was saying that the two Tribunes’ faces revealed that they were bad men, and that anyone who looked at their faces and told them that they were good men was committing a deadly sin.

Sins can be venial, or they can be mortal: deadly. A deadly sin leads to damnation. Mortal sins deprive the soul of the grace — mercy — of God. Venial sins are less serious and do not damn the soul.

Menenius continued, “If you see my character as I have described it in this map of my microcosm — my face that reveals my little world — it follows that I am known well enough, too! As you have said, people know my character. Therefore, what harm can your bisson conspectuities — your bleary or almost-blind sight — glean out of this character of mine, if — or since — I am known well enough, too?”

Menenius was saying that one of his well-known faults was a kind of honesty. If he disliked something, it showed on his face. For example, if he disliked wine that someone had given him, his dislike showed on his face. His honesty also appeared in his words. Other people might flatter the two Tribunes by saying that the two Tribunes were good men, and Menenius might be forced to tolerate these people’s use of flattery, but Menenius himself would tell — and just now had told — the two Tribunes that they were bad men. So what can the two Tribunes learn by looking at Menenius’ honest face — a face that everyone knew revealed what he was thinking? They would learn harm — what Menenius really thought about them.

“Come, sir, come, we know you well enough,” Brutus said.

Brutus was trying to get along with Menenius, but Menenius did not want that.

Menenius replied, “You don’t know me, yourselves, or anything. You are ambitious for poor knaves’ hats and legs. You want them to doff their hats and bend their legs as they show respect to you.

“You wear out a good wholesome forenoon in hearing a case between a woman who sells oranges and a man who sells wine taps, and then you adjourn the case, which concerns three pence, to a second day of hearing.

“When you are hearing a matter between one side and another side, if you happen to become sick with the colic, you make faces like over-expressive actors, you set up the blood-red flag and declare war against all patience, and as you roar for a chamber pot, you dismiss the controversy bleeding the more entangled by your hearing.”

The court case was bleeding because it was unfinished and unhealed and because the two Tribunes had made the case worse through their hearings into the case. In addition, whatever was excreted into the chamber pot was mixed with blood.

Menenius continued, “All the peace you make in their cause is calling both the parties knaves. You are a pair of strange ones.”

Brutus said, “Come, come, you are well understood to be a much better joker for the dinner table than a necessary statesman in the Capitol.”

“Our very priests must become mockers,” Menenius said, “if they shall encounter such ridiculous subjects as you are. When you speak best to the purpose, it is not worth the wagging of your beards; and your beards deserve not so honorable a grave as to stuff the pincushion of a person who repairs old clothes, or to be entombed in an ass’ pack-saddle.

“Always you must be saying that Martius is proud, but Martius, even regarded at a low estimate of his true worth, is worth all your predecessors since Deucalion, the Greek Noah, although it is very likely that some of the best of your predecessors were people who inherited their jobs as hangmen.”

Being a hereditary hangman was a lowly occupation.

Menenius continued, “Good day to your ‘worships.’ More conversation with you two would infect my brain, since you are the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians. I will be bold and take my leave of you.”

Menenius moved a short distance away, but he saw Volumnia, Virgilia, and Valeria coming toward him.

Menenius said, “How are you now, my as fair as you are noble ladies — the Moon-goddess, if she were Earthly, would be no nobler than you. Where do you follow your eyes so quickly?”

Volumnia replied, “Honorable Menenius, my boy — Martius — is approaching. For the love of Juno, let’s go.”

Juno was the goddess who was the wife of Jupiter, King of the gods.

“Ha! Martius is coming home!” Menenius said.

“Yes, worthy Menenius,” Volumnia said, “and he is coming home with the most prosperous approbation. Everyone is acclaiming his military success.”

Menenius threw his hat in the air and said, “Take my hat, Jupiter, and I thank you. Hooray! Martius is coming home!”

Volumnia and Virgilia said, “It is true.”

“Look, here’s a letter from him,” Volumnia said. “The state has received another letter, his wife another one, and, I think, there’s one at home for you.”

Menenius said, “I will make my house reel with my happiness tonight: a letter for me!”

“Yes, certainly there’s a letter for you,” Virgilia said. “I saw it.”

“A letter for me!” Menenius said. “It gives me another seven years of health, during which time I will curl my lip at the physician. The most sovereign prescription in the medical textbook of Galen is but quackery, and compared to this preservative of a letter bearing good news about Martius, Galen’s most sovereign prescription has no more reputation than that of a dose of medicine for a horse. Isn’t Martius wounded? He has been accustomed to come home wounded.”

“Oh, no, no, no,” Virgilia said.

“Oh, he is wounded,” Volumnia said. “I thank the gods for it.”

“So do I, too, if the wound is not too serious,” Menenius said. “As long as he brings a victory home in his pocket, the wounds become him.”

Wounds acquired in a victory are better regarded than wounds acquired in a defeat.

“On his brows, Menenius, he comes the third time home with the oak garland,” Volumnia said.

Martius was coming home crowned in glory, wearing a garland of honor on his head.

Menenius asked, “Has he disciplined — beaten — Aufidius soundly?”

“Titus Lartius writes that they fought together, but Aufidius got away alive,” Volumnia replied.

“And it was time for him to run away, too, I’ll warrant him that,” Menenius said. “If Aufidius had stayed by Martius, I would not have been so fidiused for all the chests in Corioli, and all the gold that’s in them.”

Menenius had used the name of Aufidius to create a new word, “fidiused,” which meant “treated like Martius would treat Aufidius.” Fittingly, the word “fidiused” had decapitated the name of Aufidius.

Menenius asked, “Is the Senate possessed of this information? Has it been informed?”

“Good ladies, let’s go,” Volumnia said.

She then said to Menenius, “Yes, yes, yes; the Senate has letters from the General, wherein he gives my son the whole credit for the victory of the war. Martius has in his actions in this war outdone his former deeds doubly.”

“Truly, there are wondrous things spoken about him,” Virgilia said.

“Wondrous things!” Menenius said. “Yes, there are, I promise you, and he truly deserves the wondrous things said about him.”

“May the gods grant that all these wondrous things said about him are true!” Virgilia said.

“True!” Volumnia said. “Of course, they are true!”

“True!” Menenius said. “I’ll be sworn they are true. Where is he wounded?”

He said to the two Tribunes, who were nearby and listening, “God save your good worships! Martius is coming home, and he has even more cause to be proud than before.”

He asked again, “Where is Martius wounded?”

Volumnia replied, “In the shoulder and in the left arm there will be large scars to show the people, when he shall stand for his place — when he shall campaign to be elected Consul. He received seven hurts in his body in the final battle in which the tyrant Tarquinius Superbus was repulsed.”

Menenius began counting, “One in the neck, and two in the thigh.” He calculated mentally and said, “There’s nine wounds that I know of.”

Volumnia said, “He had, before this most recent military expedition, twenty-five wounds on his body.”

“Now it is twenty-seven wounds,” Menenius said. “Every gash was an enemy’s grave.”

The sounds of Martius’ entry into Rome filled the air.

Menenius said, “Listen! The trumpets!”

Volumnia said, “These are the ushers of Martius. Before him Martius carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears. Death, that dark spirit, lies in Martius’ muscular arm, which, being advanced, declines, and then men die. Martius’ arm, holding a sword, is raised, and then it falls and an enemy soldier dies.”

Trumpets sounded. Cominius the General and Titus Lartius appeared. In between them was Martius, the newly named Coriolanus, crowned with an oaken garland. Also present were Captains and soldiers, and a herald.

The herald announced, “Know, Romans, that all alone Martius fought within the gates of Corioli, where he has won, along with fame, a name added to Caius Martius; following these names is this name of honor: Coriolanus.”

The herald said to Caius Martius Coriolanus, “Welcome to Rome, renowned Coriolanus!”

Trumpets sounded.

The crowd shouted, “Welcome to Rome, renowned Coriolanus!”

Coriolanus said, “No more of this shouting; it offends my heart. Please, no more.”

Cominius said to him, “Look, sir, your mother!”

Coriolanus said to Volumnia, his mother, “You have, I know, prayed to and pleaded with all the gods for my prosperity!”

He knelt before his mother. In this society, it was proper for a child to kneel before his parents to show respect; it would be highly improper for a parent to kneel before a child.

“No, my good soldier, get up,” Volumnia said to him. “My gentle Martius, worthy Caius, and newly named because of your deeds in battle — what is your new name? Is it Coriolanus I must call you? But, oh, remember your wife!”

Coriolanus had remembered his wife, who was much less outspoken than his mother.

He gently teased Virgilia, his wife, who was crying from happiness, “My gracious silence, I greet you! Would you have laughed if I had come home in a coffin, you who weep to see me in my triumph? My dear, such weeping eyes as you have, the widows in Corioli wear, and the mothers who now lack sons.”

Menenius said, “Now, may the gods crown you!”

Coriolanus replied, “And may they continue to keep you alive.”

To Valeria, he said, “Oh, my sweet lady, pardon me for not speaking to you earlier.”

“I know not where to turn,” Volumnia said. “Oh, welcome home. And welcome, General, and welcome to all of you.”

“A hundred thousand welcomes,” Menenius said. “I could weep and I could laugh. I am both light and heavy, both happy and sad. Welcome.”

Looking at the two Tribunes, Menenius said, “May a curse gnaw at the very root of the heart of anyone who is not glad to see you three: Coriolanus, Cominius, and Lartius! You are three whom Rome should dote on, yet, by the faith of men, we have some old crabapple trees here at home that will not be grafted to your relish — they will not be altered so that they like you.”

He continued, “Yet welcome, warriors. We call a nettle but a nettle, and we call the faults of fools simply folly. We must call things what they are; some things we cannot change.”

Cominius said, “That is always true; it is always right.”

Coriolanus said, “Menenius is always right — always.”

The herald shouted for the crowd to step aside and give the procession room to move forward, “Give way there, and let’s go on!”

To Volumnia and Virgilia, Coriolanus said, “Give me your hand, and give me yours. Before I shade my head in our own house, the good patricians must be visited, from whom I have received not only greetings, but along with those greetings new honors.”

Volumnia said, “I have lived to see you inherit exactly what I wished for and all the buildings of my fancy; the castles I built in the air have become real. There’s only one thing lacking, which I don’t doubt that our Romans will give to you.”

Coriolanus knew what she meant: a Consulship. The position of Consul was the highest political position in the Roman Republic.

“Know, good mother,” Coriolanus said, “I had rather be the Romans’ servant in my own way than sway with them and rule them in their own way.”

Cominius said, “Let’s go on — to the Capitol!”

Cornets sounded, and everyone left except the two Tribunes: Brutus and Sicinius.

“All tongues speak about Coriolanus, and the people who have bleared eyesight put on spectacles in order to see him,” Brutus said. “A prattling nursemaid who has been sent into a rapture lets her baby cry while she chats about Coriolanus. The untidy kitchen wench pins her richest lockram around her dirty neck and clambers up the walls to eye him.”

Lockram was an inexpensive Breton linen cloth. The “richest” lockram fabric would not be very rich.

Brutus continued, “Benches in front of shops, frameworks projecting from storefronts, and windows are smothered with people, leaden roofs are filled with people, and the roof ridges are filled with people of all kinds sitting astride the ridges as if they were horses. All these people are alike in wanting to see Coriolanus.

“Seldom-seen flamens — priests devoted to a particular god — press among the popular throngs and puff and breathe hard in order to win a vulgar station: one among the common crowd.

“Also, veiled dames commit the war of white and damask-pink — their complexion — in their nicely made-up cheeks to the wanton spoil of Phoebus’ burning kisses. They expose their cheeks to the Sun and risk getting a sunburn — something regarded as unattractive in our society.

“Such a pother and fuss are being made over Coriolanus that it is as if whatsoever god is leading him had slyly crept into his human physical faculties and given him the graceful posture and bearing of that god.”

“I am sure that he will quickly be made Consul,” Sicinius said.

“Then our political positions as Tribune may as well, during his powerful time as Consul, go and sleep,” Brutus said. “While he is Consul, he won’t allow us to have any influence.”

“He cannot temperately transport his honors from where he should begin and where he should end; instead, he will lose those honors he has won,” Sicinius said. “He cannot behave in such a way as a politician must behave in order to be popular and to stay in office.”

“In that there’s comfort,” Brutus said.

Sicinius said, “Don’t doubt that the commoners, for whom we stand, will because of their long-standing hostility toward Coriolanus forget for the least cause and reason these new honors of his. That Coriolanus will give them that cause or reason I have little doubt — he will be proud to do it.”

“I heard him swear that if he were to run for Consul, he would never appear in the marketplace or wear the threadbare garment of humility,” Brutus said.

People running for the political office of Consul customarily wore a toga with no tunic underneath. This both showed humility and also made it easy to display wounds that the candidate had acquired while fighting in battles for Rome.

Brutus continued, “He also swore that he would not show, as the custom is, his wounds to the people — he would not beg for anything from people with stinking breaths.”

“That’s true,” Sicinius said.

“It is what he said; these are his words,” Brutus said. “He would prefer to miss out on being Consul rather than to carry his election with anything except the petition of the gentry to him, and the desire of the nobles.”

“I can wish for nothing better than for him to continue to hold that intention and to put it into execution.”

“It is very likely that he will,” Brutus said.

“If that happens, the end result for him will be what we want: a sure destruction,” Sicinius said.

“A sure destruction is sure to be the end result, whether for him or for our political authorities. To achieve the end we desire, we must remind the common people that Coriolanus has always hated them. We can tell the common people that Coriolanus always would have made them mules to serve his army, he always would have silenced those who pleaded on their behalf, and he always would have taken away their freedoms. He has always held them, in human action and capacity, to have no more soul or fitness for the world than camels in the war, which receive only their provender for bearing burdens, and only sore blows when they sink under their burdens.”

“As you say, if we remind the common people of these things at some time when Coriolanus’ soaring insolence shall stir and move and vex the people — which time shall not be wanting, if Coriolanus were to be provoked and incited to act that way, and that’s as easy to do as to sic dogs on sheep — that will be his fire to kindle their dry stubble, and their blaze shall darken him forever.”

A messenger walked over to them.

Brutus asked, “What’s the matter?”

“You have been sent for to go to the Capitol,” the messenger said. “It is thought that Martius shall be elected Consul. I have seen the dumb — incapable of speaking — men throng to see him and the blind to hear him speak. Matrons have flung gloves, and ladies and maidens have flung their scarfs and handkerchiefs, upon him as he passed. The nobles have bent their knees as if they were before the statue of Jupiter, King of the gods, and the commoners have made a shower and thunder with their hats and shouts. I never saw anything like this.”

Brutus said to Sicinius, “Let’s go to the Capitol. We will carry with us ears and eyes that seem appropriate for what is going on at this time, but we will also carry with us hearts for the outcome that we are looking forward to.”

That event was the downfall of Coriolanus’ Consulship.

“I am with you,” Sicinius replied.


Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved


Lulu (Paperback Books for Sale)


Smashwords (eBooks for Sale, and Free eBooks)


This entry was posted in Shakespeare and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s