The Puppet Master of Rome: the Mother-Son Relationship in Shakespeare’s Coriolanus

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There is one thing in the world that everyone has: a mother. Some people never knew their mothers, some have bad relationships with their mothers, and some love their mothers more than anything else. In William Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, Caius Martius, or Coriolanus, has a very intense relationship with his mother, Volumnia. He loves, respects, fears, and is controlled by her. This is made very evident throughout the play. Everything she asks for is done promptly after a simple proclamation of her need for it.
This includes anything from fetching a drink for her to calling off an attack on a city. Coriolanus has his mother’s voice in his ear throughout the play. Sometimes, it saves him, but it also gives him a lack of identity and ultimately causes his demise. The first time we are introduced to Volumnia is in Act 1, Scene iii of the play. She is sitting and sewing with Virgilia, Coriolanus’ wife, and Valeria, Virgillia’s friend. At this point in the play, Coriolanus is in battle, fighting the Volsces in the city of Corioles.
Virgilia worries for the safety of her husband and prays that he comes back unharmed. Volumnia responds to her and lets the audience see what kind of mother she really is. As Virgilia expresses her concern for her husband’s well being, Volumnia proceeds to tell her that she would rather have her son die in battle than come back uninjured. She makes a short speech about how his injuries and his involvement in battle enforce his manhood. When he was but tender-bodied and the only son of my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked all gaze his way, when for a day of kings’ entreaties a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding, I, considering how honor would become such a person – that it was no better than picturelike to hang by th’ wall, if renown made it not stir – was pleased to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame.



To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned, his brows bound with oak, I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man. (I, iii, 5-17) In this speech, Volumnia makes it clear that she had always planned for Coriolanus to be a warrior and she would not be proud of him for any other reason. As their talk continues, Virgilia asks her how she would feel if her son died in battle. Volumnia responds to her by saying that is she had twelve sons, she would have rather “had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action. ” (I, iii, 22-25) This statement reveals the to audience Volumnia’s obsession of gaining fame vicariously through her acclaimed war-hero son and her influence on her son becomes blatantly apparent.
This demonstrated Volumnia’s gender role in her society, as well. Volumnia “manages to be heard in spite of [traditional gender roles]; nevertheless, there are strict codes of conduct and societal expectations for the behavior of women, which Virgilia follows to the letter, although Volumnia cannot help but rebel. Coriolanus seems restricted by these same ideas [and] forced to act like a hardened man, and stung when he has to admit weakness, or show any emotion. ” (Coriolanus Themes) This view is further enforced in the following act’s first scene, when Coriolanus returns.
Volumnia and the others stand watching him and his army approach. Volumnia proclaims “O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for‘t. ” (II, i, 118) She basks in the glory of his wounds and announces them to the crowd as he approaches. A darker side of Volumnia comes out in this scene. As trumpets sound, she looks upon her nearing son and says aloud “Before him he carries noise, and behind him he leaves tears. Death, that dark spirit, in’s nervy arms doth lie; which, being advanced, declines, and then men die. (II, i, 154-157) She also makes it known that she has faith in his position in the Consul, which has yet to be confirmed. This overbearing attitude of Volumnia’s has a huge influence on Coriolanus, but we don’t see the true extent of his dependence and commitment to her until act III, when Volumnia berates him for his actions in front of the citizens of the town and for the Senators, therefore, costing him his position as Consul member. Coriolanus had let his temper and disdain for the citizens and government overcome him and he insulted them all in various ways, including calling the Senators “barbarians” (III, i, 239).
She enters by saying, “O, sir, sir, sir, I would have had you put your power well on, before you had worn it out. ” (III, ii, 16-18) After berating him, she encourages him to go make amends with the people of the town and regain his popularity; she won’t give up her dreams quite yet. She also lets him know that she will guide him and he can “go to them, with this bonnet in thy hand; and thus having far stretched it – here be with them – thy knee bussing the stones – for in such business action is eloquence […]. (III, ii, 72-76) She later follows this statement with, “Prithee now, go and be ruled […]”(III, ii, 89-90) This statement presents a sort of double entendre, seeing as she presently rules him and has for his entire life. She is not only telling him to hand himself over to the approval of the public, but to let her take him by the hand in doing so. Volumnia makes it known that she has everything to lose from Coriolanus’ failure. She even bluntly states, “[…] it is my more dishonor than thou to them. Come all to ruin!
Let thy mother rather feel thy pride than thy dangerous stoutness, for I mock at death with as big heart as thou. Do as thou list. Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck’st it from me, but owe thy pride thyself. ” (III, ii, 124-130) To this, Coriolanus responds with compliance and goes immediately to the market place, asking of his mother, “chide me no more. ” (III, ii, 132) Coriolanus cannot take much chastisement or reprimanding from his mother without caving in and doing exactly as she asks, for that is all he knows.
Towards the end of the play, Coriolanus finally defies his mother and leaves Rome to side with the Volces. This is the first time he ever left her or did not follow her word in the entire play. However, before his attack on Rome, Volumnia uses the most epic of motherly guilt trips when she, Virgilia, and Valeria travel to the Volsces’ city to convince Coriolanus to stop the attack. She attempts to break his icy exterior to attack his heart and change his position on the coming war.
She first attempts to stoke his ego and confirm his greatness, asking how he could make this decision. When that fails to reach him, she pushes the argument that they will have no place to go when their home is destroyed. When that also fails, she then pulls on his heartstrings and tells him that they will all die by the hands of the Volsces because of his commands. When she notices him beginning to doubt his position, she lays on the line “so, we will home to Rome, and die among our neighbors. […] Yet give us our dispatch.
I am hushed until our city be afire, and then I’ll speak a little. ” (V, iii, 172-182) This finally reaches him. He breaks down to Aufidius and makes peace, refusing to continue the war. In the end, Vomumnia was praised by Rome for convincing her son to make peace and preventing the attack. He gained the hero status she wanted for her son. He did not resent her for it, but he did die to defend the honor of Rome. “Volumnia's reputation as the noblest Roman matron of them all is apparently the product of outmoded idealization of motherhood.
Hofling, undoubtedly the best informed of the recent commentators, writes: 'Volumnia thus is seen to be an extremely unfeminine, non-maternal person, one who sought to mold her son to fit a preconceived image gratifying her own masculine (actually pseudo-masculine) strivings. Her method, we learn from the above and other speeches, was to withhold praise and the scant affection she had to give from any achievements except aggressive and exhibitionistic ones” (Putney) Coriolanus’ lack of independence from his mother created a lack of identity for himself.
He did not know how to go about life without his mother, even at his age and having his own family. “Coriolanus' lack of identity is due to a controlling mother in a fatherless environment. According to the Freudian model for establishing male identity, Coriolanus is doomed. Nowhere is this more evident that at the end of the play, when Volumnia, his mother convinces him to spare Rome. He is wholly controlled by his mother, and has no voice of his own. He says, "Like a dull actor now,/ I have forgot my part and I am out,/Even to full disgrace" (V, iii, 40-42).
Following his mother's demands, he spares Rome, which leads directly to his demise. Thus, his controlling mother coupled with the absence of a father figure leads to his lack of identity, which leads to his death. ” (Freudian Interpretation) Coriolanus even follows his mother’s desire for honor in death in battle during his final hour. He proclaims, “cut me to pieces, Volsces. Men and lads, stain all your edges on me. ” (V, vi, 110-111) In the end, if it were not for Volumnia’s influence, her son may have lived a full life and been able to care for his family.
In the same respect, there may have not been peace between Rome and the Volsces. Volumnia truly is the strength of Rome. Throughout the play, Volumnia never lost her courage or backed down from the challenges that could have prevented her and her son from achieving her status. She made it seem as though she would do anything for the people she loved and the city that was her home, but she always had ulterior motives and clawed her way to the top, sacrificing her son along the way.
Works Cited
"Coriolanus Themes." GradeSaver.com. 14 Mar. 2011. GradeSaver LLC.. 1999 .
"Freudian Interpretation." New York University.edu. 14 Mar. 2011. New York University. .
Putney, Rufus. "Coriolanus | Mother-Son Relationship." eNotes.com. 14 Mar. 2011. eNotes.com. 2011 .

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