The play begins with a food riot in Rome. A patrician, Menenius, seeks to pacify the discontented citizens. Another, Caius Martius, however, encourages confrontation. The heated atmosphere is temporarily appeased as modest constitutional reform is granted to the plebeians; as a result the citizens are given some form of political representation through five Tribunes.
The tensions within Rome are then focused on the threat of an outside enemy, the Volsces. Volumnia, Caius Martius' mother, supports her son's eagerness for war and the chance of military glory. His wife, however, is apprehensive. Martius is heroic in the war with the Volsces and instrumental to the capture of a neighbouring city, Corioli.Act I, scene i
'Enter a company of mutinous citizens, with staves, clubs, and other weapons', a street in Rome, en route to the Capitol. We are immersed into an atmosphere of civil disturbance that has been prompted by acute food shortages among the lower orders in Rome. The citizens are resolved 'rather to die than to famish.' Caius Martius is identified as the cause of the trouble, and emerges as a hated figure among the plebeians. The citizens assert a rash and violent solution to their problems: 'Let us kill him, and we'll have corn / at our own price' (ll.9-10). Superficially the disturbance concerns corn prices, but it quickly emerges that the problem is something deeper, rooted in social tension, and the food crisis is merely the catalyst. The First Citizen scathingly observes how the upper echelons of Roman society do nothing to allay the hardship of the poor, but rather ensure the continuance of their impoverished existence to bolster their social and political positions. With the contrast of opinions between the First and Second Citizens about the course of their actions (ll. 13-45), Shakespeare illustrates the difficulties the oppressed have in achieving unity, until a figure of hatred to collectively unleash their tension is found. Shakespeare also demonstrates the fickleness of the plebeians' attitudes - later in the scene the Second Citizen sways in his opinion, and his hostility towards Caius Martius grows firm. Menenius' arrival halts progress of the mob towards the Capitol. The citizens look on Menenius favourably - he is described as 'one that hath / always loved the people' and 'honest enough, would all the rest / were so!' (ll.50-4) Menenius is political and his balanced rhetoric ideal to diffuse the situation.
Menenius likens the state to a ship, with the patrician senators at the helm, guiding affairs. The inflamed citizens are not persuaded by Menenius' first exposition; thus he proceeds to recount the 'belly fable'. The imagery here is important; Menenius recounts a belly fable to starved plebeians, envisages a system of food distribution from the centre that is obviously failing. Menenius' underlying contempt for the citizens and the political necessity of his speech heretofore is exposed when he declares 'Rome and her rats are at the point of battle' (l. 161).
Caius Martius arrives. In contrast to Menenius' attempts to diffuse the situation with reason and friendliness, however duplicitous, Caius Martius is at once aggressive and insults the 'dissentious rogues', disregards the 'poor itch of your opinion', and questions what reason they have to 'Make yourselves scabs?' (ll.162- 4) This language of a disease or ailment illustrates Caius Martius' physical revulsion at the plebeians, affirming his social prejudices. Where Menenius responds to the citizens both collectively and individually, Martius sees only an undifferentiated mass and is enraged by their challenge to and ingratitude for the Senate (ll. 185-7). The reason for Martius' stern words becomes apparent. Menenius points out to Martius that he has diffused the mob, to which Martius responds that the patricians have granted a measure of political constitutional reform with five Tribunes to represent the plebeians in the Senate. Martius expresses his fear for Rome's social hierarchy.
However, Martius is encouraged by the news of war against the Volscians. He envisages war as a means of ridding Rome of some of its 'rabble'. Yet it becomes clear that Martius' enthusiasm for war is more personal than patriotic as he considers the opportunity to engage his Volscian enemy, Aufidius.
Through Martius we see the attitude of the nobles; they expect the citizens to fight for Rome but have no concept of their duty to provide reciprocal obligation in society. At the end of the scene the new Tribunes, who have been ignored up to this point, are left to provide an insightful assessment of what will come from Roman success in war.Act I, scene ii