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This is a crucial scene of the play since it presents the main crisis and marks the onset of Coriolanus’ tragic downfall. The opening conversation between Coriolanus and Titus Lartius reveals that the Volscians are again preparing for war and are still a threat to Rome, key information to later developments in the play. When he hears that Aufidius has gone to Antium, Coriolanus states that he wants to go and meet his enemy there. Ironically, this will happen soon enough, but under circumstances that are quite unforeseen at this point.
From the start of this scene, Coriolanus reveals his distaste for the tribunes. He cannot bear to see them in a position of power and senses that they are plotting against. He denounces them as “ tongues o’ the common mouth,” a statement that the play has clearly returned to the main conflict between Coriolanus and the citizens. When the tribunes inform Coriolanus that the citizens have withdrawn their support for his election as consul, Coriolanus blames the tribunes for turning the common “herd” against him. He says the citizens are inconstant and announces that they are unfit to rule or even have a voice in decision making. The tribunes are pleased at the reaction of Coriolanus, for they know they can turn his anger against him. Menenius’ pleas for maintaining peace go unheeded, and the tension rises to a frantic pitch as Coriolanus foolishly loses his temper and plays into the hands of the tribunes. In a long speech, he says that giving the commoners representation will give them too much power and bring about chaos. The speech clearly reflects his elitist beliefs in the patrician class. Brutus accuses Coriolanus of acting like a god rather than a mortal like them.
The Senators manage to repel the attack on Coriolanus and send him home. A Senator realizes that Coriolanus himself has marred his fortunes. Menenius, a true friend, tries to excuse his behavior by laying the blame on his noble nature, which is too good to be understood in Rome, but even he is exasperated with Marcius’ inability to make concessions or to speak rationally to the commoners.
Brutus and Sicinius show their devious natures as they manipulate Coriolanus’ emotions to the point of excessive anger and play on the crowd’s emotions. Even they realize that Coriolanus may be unwittingly playing a part in the rebellion he seeks to quell. Although Menenius proves useful in soothing the angry mob and promises to bring Marcius to the market place to answer their grievances, he cannot control Coriolanus’ temper nor ameliorate the situation. The scene ends with a precarious balance which could tilt either way. The crisis that started in the first act has been simply postponed and not averted.