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According to Aristotle, a unified plot has a beginning (that which is not necessarily caused by something else but which produces other events), a middle (which derives from what has gone before and which something else must follow), and an end (something that depends on what has happened but which need be followed by nothing else). Coriolanus has a five-act structure which is typical in Shakespeare’s plays. Act I constitutes the beginning or exposition of the play. The audience is given the relevant Background Information, which is essential for understanding the play, and all the main characters are introduced. The plot is also introduced, as the citizens brand Marcius as the “chief enemy to the people”, accuse him of being overly proud, and dismiss his services to the state as being motivated by a desire to please his mother. The introduction also sets out the dominant Themes of the class conflict between plebeians and patricians and the pride of Marcius, which will greatly contribute to his downfall.
Act II begins the rising action, as it develops the incidents portrayed in the introduction. Coriolanus is given a triumphant welcome in Rome and the class conflict develops by showing the opposition of the tribunes to the election of Coriolanus as consul and the reluctance of the citizens in giving Coriolanus their votes. Coriolanus’ tragic flaw prevents him from humbling himself before the commoners and soliciting their votes. This leads to the crisis in Act III when the tribunes order Coriolanus to be arrested. They demand that he be put to death, but ultimately the sentence is changed to that of exile. It is one of the highpoints of the rising action.
The play’s action moves forward in four distinct stages: Coriolanus as the chief enemy of the people (Act I), Coriolanus as the popular hero who returns home in triumph (Act II), Coriolanus’ election as consul and his banishment (Act III), and Coriolanus as public enemy and banished man seeking his revenge (Acts IV & V). While Coriolanus follows Aristotelian conventions, many critics see it as a tragedy of an inferior sort with too great a mixture of external and internal conflict for Coriolanus so that neither is fully developed.