I think Coriolanus has the longest Act 1 I’ve read so far, but the long setup is useful–and needed–in setting up the characters and the situation in a dwindling Rome.
Coriolanus begins with citizens griping about the recent famine and grain stores of the wealthy which are full. They call one of them out, Martius Caius (who has Coriolanus added by the end of Act 1), as an enemy of the people for letting them go hungry as he leads men to war. They are also aware how much he despises the lower classes. Menenius, one of the elites, calms the crowd and tells it to disperse, as things will improve soon and war is coming.
Then it cuts to Martius and a lengthy presentation of him as leader, as they fight the Volscians and the army’s fortunes go up and down. His chief rival is Aufidius, who he fights bravely but the man gets away to fight another day. Martius’ bravery and deeds give him the extra name of Coriolanus.
Coriolanus is proud, arrogant, and very much a product of his class. He loves his mother, Volumnia, and listens to her most of all and bends to her will quite often (many do, actually). This both helps and hurts him in the long run as he’s advised by she and Menenius to take the next steps to ruling Rome.
He’s given the chance to be Consul of Rome, but would have to ask the plebs for votes–something very difficult and humbling thanks to his disdain for them. Though the people are pleased with him, politics rears its ugly head as two tribunes undermine his efforts by telling people he’s an enemy of the state. Enraged, Coriolanus says the wrong things at the wrong time and the tribunes seize the chance to get him exiled.
This leads to something that we’ve read about many times before: coming back home with a vengeance as head of an invading army, throwing everything into an uproar.
It’s an interesting process that gets to this point, and I won’t spoil how it goes. It’s worth a read for yourself because for a political figure, I think Coriolanus is one of the most frustrating to read because of his flaws, but also well rounded because of them. He’s insultingly honest and can’t fake emotions, so we’re treated to a very well-developed Roman character. His ambitions and feelings are complicated in some respects, but also frustrating in their blindness. Granted, I’m a mostly broke person and have some pet peeves regarding class snobbery anyway, but he is who he is and is not good at pretending otherwise.
In a way, I can respect that.
Of course, one can call this a massive flaw. I like what the editors said about this play, considering it “a deeply human as well as a profoundly political play.” I agree with that, because it takes its time unfolding, and the man himself is complex enough to keep your interest. I’d love to see this on the stage with a fantastic leading man.
Of the Ancient plays, I think this one’s my favorite. You really get a feel for the society and it’s definitely a social play more than jumping from battlefield to battlefield (though there’s plenty of that, too). Worth a read (and a viewing if you’re lucky enough).