Volumnia and Coriolanus, Mother and Son

“Sweet son, as thou hast said / My praises made thee first a soldier.”

At the center of Coriolanus is a relationship uncommon to Shakespeare’s work: a powerful mother and the son she has molded in her image. Volumnia is a fierce woman, noble in birth and lionhearted. Had she been able to join the Roman army, she would gladly have done so. Instead, she channels her ambition, pride, and decisiveness into her son Caius Marcius, building herself a soldier who could wear the hero’s garland of oak leaves that is denied her.

Brian McCann as Menenius, Tina Packer as Volumnia, and Robert Lyons as Coriolanus in Lantern Theater Company’s production of Coriolanus. Photo by Mark Garvin.
Had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike and none less dear than thine and my good Marcius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action. Volumnia in Act I, Scene iii

The class system of Coriolanus’ Rome — divided between wealthy, noble patricians and lower-class, less-powerful plebeians — was based largely on family standing, wealth, and citizenship. It was also based around men; women were members of the class to which their husbands or fathers belonged, and had little standing of their own. Volumnia has internalized Rome’s reverence for military accomplishment and married it to her sharp political acumen, but there is no avenue for her to achieve her own ambitions. The only socially acceptable outlet for her desires is through her son, Caius Marcius. In pouring those qualities into her son, she rightly claims “Thy valiantness was mine,” crediting her own inborn courage with her son’s glories.

“Volumnia in this day and age might have somewhere to put her energies. But at that time, no.” —Tina Packer, in her recent interview with the Lantern

Volumnia is not just iron-willed and martial, however; she’s shrewd and strategic. When urging her son to make peace with the citizens, she assures him that to speak carefully and with nuance is no shame: I would dissemble with my nature where / My fortunes and my friends at stake required / I should do so in honour.” Her years of watching proudly from the sidelines as her son wins victories in war and dozens of wounds to show for them has given her an astute understanding of the compromise and ambiguity inherent in Roman politics. Shakespeare writes Volumnia in the years following the death of Elizabeth I, a woman living the life Volumnia might wish she could access: wearing armor, stirring men to battle, and navigating the politics of a powerful nation.

Queen Elizabeth I
I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too. — Queen Elizabeth I, facing the Spanish Armada set to invade England

Caius Marcius Coriolanus proves incapable of learning the political maneuverability that Volumnia tries to teach him. From a young age, Coriolanus was taught that glory is won with peril, and when he was a child Volumnia “was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame.” The boy taught to seek valor through swords and scars grows into a highly accomplished soldier, earning honor in no fewer than 18 battles. But when “Death, that dark spirit, in [his] nervy arm doth lie,” there is little room for the nuance or ambiguity of his mother. He has seen, time and again, that he holds lives in his hands, both of his enemies and friends, and this leaves him little patience for pettier disputes. Might is right. Nobility is power. Country above self.

With all of his mother’s martial energy, but without her clear-eyed political savvy, Coriolanus cannot succeed as consul like his mother would wish. He has self-awareness enough to recognize this, warning Volumnia “Know, good mother, / I had rather be their servant in my way, / Than sway with them in theirs.” Coriolanus’ knowledge of his strengths, though, is no match for his mother’s persuasion and his desire to make her proud, and he stands for consul, leading to his ruin.

Coriolanus’ disastrous and brief run for consul results in both his banishment and his leading an army against Rome. When seeing the mighty soldier she raised turned against her home, Volumnia appeals to their deep parental bond to persuade Coriolanus to spare Rome:

Volumnia pleading with Coriolanus. Robert Westall, c 1800

“There’s no man in the world / More bound to [his] mother.”

“Thou hast never in thy life / Show’d thy dear mother any courtesy, / When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood, / Has cluck’d thee to the wars and safely home, / Loaden with honour.”

“Thou shalt no sooner / March to assault thy country than to tread…on thy mother’s womb, / That brought thee to this world.”

The woman who raised Coriolanus to be a merciless fighter appeals to the one bond he cherishes above strict honor, and as ever, her choice is the wise one. It is the appeal to his duty to her as a mother that softens Coriolanus, crying out “O mother, mother! / What have you done?…Were you in my stead, would you have heard / A mother less?

The mother-son bond at the center of Coriolanus allows Volumnia the glory she could not otherwise attain, and gives Coriolanus the mettle needed to achieve greatness. It also dooms the son to death at the hands of his enemy.

Join us for Coriolanus at Lantern Theater Company, March 9 — April 16, 2017. Visit our website for tickets and information.

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