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Chapter 4
The Kinsfolk and Friends of Coriolanus


Of the subordinate persons, by far the most imposing and influential is Volumnia, the great-hearted mother, the patrician lady, the Roman matron. The passion of maternity, whether interpreted as maternal love or as maternal pride, penetrates her nature to the core, not, however, to melt but to harden it. In her son's existence she at first seems literally wrapped up, and she implies that devotion to him rather than to her dead husband has kept her from forming new ties:

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.

Marcius is thus the only son of his mother and she a widow; but these reminiscences show how strictly the tenderness, and still more the indulgence, usual in such circumstances, have been banished from that home. In Plutarch the boy seeks a military career from his irresistible natural bent:
Martius being more inclined to the warres, then any young gentleman of his time: beganne from his Childehood to geve him self to handle weapons, and daylie dyd exercise him selfe therein.

In Shakespeare the direction and stimulus are much [p. 550] more directly attributed to his mother, and it is she who first despatches him to the field. This she herself expressly states in her admonition to Virgilia:

Volumnia.
I pray you, daughter, sing; or express yourself in a more comfortable sort: if my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour, than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love. When yet 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 honour would become such a person, that it was no better than picture-like to hang by the 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.

Virgilia.
But had he died in the business, madam; how then?

Volumnia.
Then his good report should have been my son; I therein would have found issue. Hear me profess sincerely: 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.

He is the object of her love because he is to be the ideal which she adores. She trains him to all the excellence she understands, and would have him a captain of Rome's armies and a force in the state. She has to the full the sentiment of noblesse oblige, and is inspired by the same feeling which in Plutarch moves Marcius to bid the patricians show that
they dyd not so muche passe the people in power and riches
as they dyd exceede them in true nobilitie and valliantnes.
She is full of the virtues and prejudices of her class, and, with the self-consciousness of an aristocrat, looks from the plebs only for the obedience and approval due to their betters. They are quite unqualified for self-government or for the criticism of those above [p. 551] them. In comparison with the noble Coriolanus, the people, whom she calls the rabble, are “cats” (IV. ii. 34). Naturally she is tenacious of the supremacy of her order, and would fain see it make good its threatened privileges. She remonstrates with her son for his contumacy:

I am in this,
Your wife, your son, these senators, the nobles;
And you will rather show our general louts
How you can frown than spend a fawn upon ‘em,
For the inheritance of their loves and safeguard
Of what that want might ruin.

Her dream has been that Marcius shall be consul to establish once more the power of the patricians. When he enters in his great triumph from Corioli, she exclaims in expectation of that result:

I have lived
To see inherited my very wishes,
And the buildings of my fancy: only
There's one thing wanting, which I doubt not but
Our Rome will cast upon thee.

Yet she has one feeling that outweighs both her maternal and her aristocratic instincts, and that is devotion to her country. This is the first and last and noblest thing in her. It is the basis and mainspring of the training of her son; she wishes him to serve the fatherland. It is the basis and mainspring of her patrician partisanship; she honestly believes that the nobles alone are fit to steer Rome to safety and honour. And to it she is willing to sacrifice the two other grand interests of her life. When the call comes she is ready for Rome, with its mechanics and tribunes as well as its senators and patricians, to persuade her son to the step that will certainly imperil and probably destroy him. It is public spirit of no ordinary kind that makes such a nature disregard the dearest ties of family and caste, and all personal [p. 552] motives of love and vengeance, to intercede for the city as a whole. But she puts her country first, and her words show that she never even questions the sacredness of its claim:

Thou know'st, great son,
The end of war's uncertain, but this certain,
That, if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name,
Whose repetition will be dogg'd with curses;
Whose chronicle thus writ: “The man was noble,
But with his last attempt he wiped it out:
Destroy'd his country, and his name remains
To the ensuing age abhorr'd.

She feels, as well she may, that she is basing her plea on eternal right, and is willing to stake her success on the irresistible truth of her argument.

Say my request's unjust,
And spurn me back: but if it be not so,
Thou art not honest.

Such a woman is made to be the mother of heroes. It is no wonder that she has bred that colossal Über- mensch, her son. But she has the defects of her qualities. Her devotion is narrow in its intensity, and in normal circumstances spares little recognition or tolerance for those beyond its pale. Her contempt for the plebeians is open and unrestrained. She was wont, says Coriolanus,

To call them woollen vassals, things created
To buy and sell with groats, to show bare heads
In congregations, to yawn, be still and wonder,
When one but of my ordinance stood up
To speak of peace or war.

Even when trying to pacify her son, she cannot bridle her own resentment. When he recklessly cries of his opponents: “Let them hang!” she [p. 553] instinctively approves: “Ay, and burn too.”1 The energy of her love of glory has nothing sentimental about it, but often becomes savage and sanguinary. She gloats over her robust imaginings of the fight:

Methinks I hear hither your husband's drum,
See him pluck Aufidius down by the hair,
As children from a bear, the Volsces shunning him:
Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus: “Come on, you cowards! you were got in fear,
Though you were born in Rome:

his bloody brow
With his mail'd hand then wiping, forth he goes,
Like to a harvest-man that's tasked to mow
Or all or lose his hire.

Virgilia.
His bloody brow! O Jupiter, no blood!

Volumnia.
Away, you fool! it more becomes a man
Than gilt his trophy: the breasts of Hecuba,
When she did suckle Hector, look'd not lovelier
Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning.

And when she has heard the actual news, she triumphantly exclaims:

O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for't. (II. i. 133.)
As Kreyssig points out, even great-hearted mothers, proud of their warrior sons, do not often like to dwell so realistically on havoc and slaughter and blood. But tenderness and humanity are alien to her nature. When Valeria narrates how young Marcius tore in pieces the butterfly, she interrupts with obvious satisfaction: “One on's father's moods” (I. iii. 72). At her hearth Coriolanus would not be taught much kindliness for Volscians or plebeians or any other of the lower animals. Indeed, her own relations with her son depend on his reverence rather than on his fondness. In the two collisions of their wills he resists all her entreaties and endearments, but yields in a moment to her anger and indignation. She [p. 554] beseeches him to submit to the judgment of the people-all in vain till she loses patience:

At thy choice, then:
To beg of thee, it is my more dishonour
Than thou of them. Come all to ruin: let
Thy mother rather feel thy pride than fear
Thy dangerous stoutness, for I mock at death
With as big heart as thou.--Do as thou list.

At this his efforts to propitiate her are almost amusing:

Pray, be content:
Mother, I am going to the market-place:
Chide me no more. I'll mountebank their loves,
Cog their hearts from them, and come home beloved
Of all the trades in Rome. Look, I am going.

Similarly, at the end, all argument and complaint, all pressure on the affections of Coriolanus are without avail, till she turns upon him with a violence for which, as in the previous case, Shakespeare found no authority in Plutarch:

Come, let us go:
This fellow had a Volscian to his mother;
His wife is in Corioli, and his child
Like him by chance. Yet give us our dispatch:
I am hush'd until our city be afire,
And then I'll speak a little.

And the great warrior and rebel cannot bear her rebuke.

These are instances both of the degree and the manner in which Volumnia's forceful character influences her son. Indeed it is easy to see that for good and evil he is what she has made him. She is entitled to say:

Thou art my warrior:
I holp to frame thee.

And though elsewhere she puts it,

Thy valiantness was mine, thou suck'dst from me,
But owe thy pride thyself;

[p. 555] the impartial onlooker cannot make the distinction. He is bone of her bone and blood of her blood; and all her master impulses reappear in him, though not so happily commingled or in such beneficent proportion. The joint operation is different and in some respects opposite, but there is hardly a feature in him that cannot be traced to its origin in Volumnia, whether by heredity or education. This is just what we might expect. Modern conjecture points to the mother rather than the father as the source of willpower and character in the offspring; and in the up-bringing of the boy Volumnia has had it all her own way. Plutarch, as we saw, in his simple fashion, notices this as a disadvantage: and though we may be sure that Plutarch's insinuation of laxity could never be breathed against Shakespeare's Volumnia, still she could not give her son more width and flexibility than her own narrow and rigid ideals enjoined. Moreover, her limitations when transferred to the larger sphere of his public efforts, would cramp and congest his powers, and displace his interests.

Nor was there any other agency to divide the young man's allegiance to his mother or to counteract or temper her authority. Generally the most powerful rivals of home influence are the companionship of friends, and the love that founds a new home in marriage. But both of these are either wanting in Coriolanus' life, or serve only to deepen the impressions made on him by Volumnia.

If, for example, we consider the relation of friendship, we cannot but notice that Shakespeare gives him no intimate of his own years. A French tragedian would infallibly have placed by his side the figure of a confidant. Shakespeare was dispensed from the necessity by the freer usage of the Elizabethan stage and was at liberty to follow out [p. 556] the hints which he found in Plutarch. Marcius was

churlishe, uncivill, and altogether unfit for any mans conversation. . . . They could not be acquainted with him, as one cittizen useth to be with another in the cittie. His behaviour was so unpleasaunt to them, by reason of a certaine insolent and sterne manner he had, which bicause it was to lordly, was disliked.
So in Shakespeare he has no personal relations with any of the younger generation, even their resort to him as their congenial leader surviving, as has already been pointed out, only in the desiccated phrase of a stage direction ; and his only associates are old or elderly men like Titus Lartius, the Consul Cominius, and Menenius Agrippa. What sort of antidote could they supply against his mother's intolerant virtue? As Shakespeare conceives them, they respectively follow in Marcius' wake, or are powerless to change and check his course, or even urge him forward.

Take Lartius, whom Shakespeare has drawn in a few rapid and vigorous strokes. He is old and stiff, but ready if need be to lean on one crutch and fight with the other, prompt to take a sporting wager, and, when he wins, eager to remit the stake in his admiration for the noble youngster, to whom with all his years he grants priority, whom on his supposed death he laments as an irreplaceable jewel, whom he hails as the living force that dwells within the trappings of their armament. Clearly from this cheery old fighting man, with his reverential enthusiasm for Marcius' fighting powers in voice, looks and blows, we need not expect much correction of Marcius' restiveness at the civic curb.

Cominius would seem more likely to prove a fitting Mentor, for to his love and esteem he adds discretion. In Shakespeare, though he has “years upon him,” he is the avowed friend and comradein-arms of the younger man; the brave and prudent [p. 557] general, “neither foolish in his stands, nor cowardly in retire;” who, perhaps from seniority, holds the position to which the other might aspire, but who confidently appeals to his promise of service. For their mutual affection is untouched by jealousy, and Cominius not only extols his heroism in the camp, but is his warmest advocate in the Senate. He resents the citizens' fickleness and the tribunes' trickery at the election as unworthy of Rome as well as insulting to her hero, and is indignant at the attempt to arrest Coriolanus; but he abhors civil brawls, and, just as in the field so in the city, he bows to “odds beyond arithmetic,” and considers that

Manhood is call'd foolery, when it stands
Against a falling fabric.

So he counsels Marcius' withdrawal from the hostile mob, and afterwards dispassionately states the three courses open to him, with some hesitation sanctioning the method of compromise if the hothead can bring himself to give it fair play. When his doubts prove true, he interposes first with a remonstrance to his friend, and then with a solemn appeal to the people; and though in neither case is he allowed to finish, his efforts do not flag. He wishes to accompany the exile for a month, and maintain a correspondence with him and have everything in readiness for his recall. And if, when the invasion takes place, he rails at those who have brought about the calamity, that does not hinder him from his vain but zealous attempt at intercession. Altogether a sagacious, loyal, generous, but somewhat ineffective character, who wins our respect rather for what he essays than for what he achieves; for he brings nothing to a successful issue. With the best will in the world, which he has, and with more freedom from class prejudice than can in point of [p. 558] fact be attributed to him, such an one could do little to tame or bridle his friend.

There remains Menenius, with his much more strongly marked character, and with the fuller opportunities that a close intimacy could procure. Were Marcius and he of the same flesh and blood, their affection could hardly be greater. When debating with himself whether to try his mediation, this thought encourages the old man: “He call'd me father” (v. i. 3). He tells the Volscian sentinel:

You shall perceive that a Jack guardant cannot office me from my son Coriolanus. (v. ii. 67.)
And when they meet, he hails him:
The glorious gods sit in hourly synod about thy particular prosperity, and love thee no worse than thy old father Menenius does! O, my son, my son! (v. ii. 72.)
Nor are these statements idle brags ; they are borne out by Coriolanus' own words when he dismisses him:

For I loved thee,
Take this along; I writ it for thy sake, [Gives a letter
And would have sent it.

And again he tells Aufidius:

This last old man,
Whom with a crack'd heart I have sent to Rome,
Loved me above the measure of a father;
Nay, godded me, indeed.

But the last expression may give an explanation both of the young man's condescension to fondness and of the unprofitableness of Menenius' influence. He is too much dazzled by the glories of his splendid adoptive son. His enthusiasm knows no bounds. No lover is more enraptured at receiving a billet doux from his mistress, than is the old man when the youth on whom he dotes, deigns to write to him. [p. 559]
A letter for me! it gives me an estate of seven years' health; in which time I will make a lip at the physician; the most sovereign prescription in Galen is but empiricutic, and, to this preservative, of no better report than a horse-drench. (II. i. 125.)
He may occasionally interpose a mild hint of remonstrance against Marcius' vehemence, but it is solely on the ground of expediency, not at all on the ground of principle; and on the whole he belongs to that not very edifying class of devotees who can say of a friend,

Whate'er he does seems well done to me.
Of which he himself is not altogether unaware. He tells the Volscian sentinel:

I tell thee, fellow,
Thy general is my lover: I have been
The book of his good acts, whence men have read
His fame unparallel'd, haply amplified:
For I have ever verified my friends,
Of whom he's chief, with all the size that verity
Would without lapsing suffer: nay, sometimes,
Like to a bowl upon a subtle ground,
I have tumbled past the throw; and in his praise
Have almost stamp'd the leasing.


This attitude, then, accounts for Coriolanus' predilection for the old senator, and also reduces the value of the relation as an educative agency. Youthful recklessness will meet with no inconvenient thwarting, i.e. with no salutary rebuke, from such an adorer. But of course in the blindest friendship there is always the unconscious influence and criticism of the admirer's own walk and conversation. And at first sight it might seem that this influence and criticism Menenius was well fitted to supply. He, too, like Volumnia, puts Rome before all other considerations, as is shown not only by his undertaking the mission to the Volscian camp, but by his action all through the drama. He is ever willing to play the part of mediator. Now we find him soothing [p. 560] the people, now we find him soothing Coriolanus. When the banishment is an accomplished fact, he endeavours to mitigate the outbursts of Volumnia; and Sicinius bears witness:

O, he is grown most kind of late.

During all the tumult of the election and the émeute he keeps his head and his heart; for he is inspired by the right civic feeling that there must be no civil war.

Proceed by process;
Lest parties, as he is beloved, break out,
And sack great Rome with Romans.

And with this patriotism, partly as its result, he combines singular moderation, at least in principle and thought, if not in language. He is always ready to commend and accept compromises. He says to the tribune,

Be that you seem, truly your country's friend,
And temperately proceed to what you would
Thus violently redress.

On the other hand, when Marcius draws he sees the mistake and interposes: “Down with that sword” (III. i. 226); and only when the tribunes persist in their attack does he himself resort to force, which, however, he is glad to abandon at the first opportunity. And this moderation comes the more easily to him that he has a real kindliness even for the plebeians. It is assuredly no small compliment that at the very height of the popular violence this patrician and senator, the known and avowed friend of Coriolanus, should be chosen by the tribunes themselves as their own delegate:

Noble Menenius,
Be you then as the people's officer.

This confirms the testimony given him by the First Citizen in the opening scene: “He's one honest [p. 561] enough” (I. i. 54); and the Second Citizen describes him as
Worthy Menenius Agrippa; one that hath always loved the people. (I. i. 52.)
He has indeed a sympathy with them, that shows itself in the russet and kersey of his speech. The haughty Coriolanus despises the household words of the common folk, and cites them only to ridicule them, but Menenius' phrases of their own accord run to the homespun and proverbial. He addresses the obtrusive citizen: “You, the great toe of this assembly” (I. i. 159). The dissension at Rome is a rent that “must be patch'd with cloth of any colour” (III. i. 252). Coriolanus' rough words he excuses on the ground that he is

ill school'd
In bolted language: meal and bran together
He throws without distinction.

He figures the relentlessness of the returned exile as “yon coign o‘ the Capitol, yon corner-stone” (v. iv. 1), and is at no loss for illustrations of the change that has come over the outcast:
There is a differency between a grub and a butterfly, yet your butterfly was a grub. (v. iv. 11.)
And with similes for Coriolanus' present temper he positively overflows:
He no more remembers his mother now than an eightyear-old horse. The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes. (v. iv. 16.)
There is no more mercy in him than there is milk in a male tiger. (v. iv. 29.)
All his thoughts clothe themselves in the pat, familiar image, and this is no doubt a great help to him in persuading his auditors, for which he has an undeniable talent. His famous apologue, besides being a masterpiece in its kind, worthy of La Fontaine at his best, completely answers its immediate purpose; [p. 562] and in the later scene he is able to lull the storm that Coriolanus and the tribunes have raised, and obtain from the infuriated demagogues what are in some sort favourable terms. But he is assisted in this by his genuine joviality and bonhomie. He is one of those people who permit themselves a little indulgence that we hardly blame, for it is only one side of their pervasive good nature. Menenius is in truth something of a belly-god and wine-bibber. When he hears news of Marcius he promptly decides how to celebrate the occasion:
I will make my very house reel to-night; (II. i. 121.)
and he has already confessed that he is known to be
one that loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying Tiber in't; ... one that converses more with the buttock of the night than with the forehead of the morning. (II. i. 52 and 56.)
It is almost comic to hear him consoling Volumnia on her son's banishment when she moves off to lament “in anger, Juno-like,” with an invitation: “You'll sup with me?” (IV. ii. 49). And wholly comic is his explanation of Cominius' rebuff by Coriolanus, an explanation suggested no doubt by subjective considerations:

He was not taken well; he had not dined:
The veins unfill'd, our blood is cold, and then
We pout upon the morning, are unapt
To give or to forgive; but when we have stuff'd
These pipes and these conveyances of the blood
With wine and feeding, we have suppler souls
Than in our priest-like fasts; therefore I'll watch him
Till he be dieted to my request,
And then I'll set upon him.

But the worthy bon-vivant is thoroughly in earnest, and in the crisis of his altercation with the sentinel harks back to this key of the position, as he supposes it to be:

Has he dined, canst thou tell? for I would not speak with him till after dinner. (v. ii. 36.)
[p. 563] All these, however, are very human weaknesses, that sort well with the geniality of the man, and, just because they are very human weaknesses, might have a wholesome rather than a prejudicial effect on the overstrained tensity of Marcius. So far then; despite the excessive and uncritical in Menenius' love, his patriotism, his moderation, his popular bent, commended by his persuasive tongue and companionable ways, might tend to supplement the defects and transcend the limitations of Volumnia's training. But Menenius has other qualities akin to, or associated with, those that we have discussed, which would have a more questionable and not less decisive influence. He admits that he is

said to be something imperfect in favouring the first complaint.

That is, he neglects the wise counsel, “Hear the other side,” and jumps to his conclusion at once. This is quite in keeping with the partiality that makes him magnify the virtues of his friends, and with his assumption that, since his own intercession has failed, that of Volumnia can have no effect. He prejudges, in other words he is prejudiced. We do not have any instance of this in his acts, but we have many in his unconsidered sayings, that, as he imagines, are to have no consequence beyond the moment.

Then he goes on to confess that he has the reputation of being “hasty and tinder-like upon too trivial motion” (II. i. 55), which means that he loses patience and fires up without adequate ground; and of this too we have ample evidence. He is wonderfully forbearing and longsuffering if matters of any moment are at stake, but if he has gained his point, or if there is nothing to gain and nothing to lose, he rails and mocks in Coriolanus' own peculiar vein. Thus, when he has convinced the mob, he feels free [p. 564] to make the ringleader his butt. When the tribunes profess to “know him,” that is, to understand his character, he overwhelms them with peppery banter. When the news of Coriolanus' invasion arrives, in unrestrained indignation he upbraids the people and their blind guides with their imbecility. But it will be observed that no harm ever comes by any of these ebullitions. They have no after-effects. If something has to be done, no one could be more sagacious and conciliatory than Menenius. Dr. Johnson said of him, perhaps more in exercise of his right as a sturdy old Tory to twit those in high places, than in deliberate appreciation of the facts: “Shakespeare wanted a buffoon and he went to the Senate House for that with which the Senate House would certainly have supplied him.” Similarly, in the play Brutus is rash enough to answer him back:

Come, come, you are well understood to be a perfecter giber for the table than a necessary bencher in the Capitol. (II. i. 90.)
But Menenius deserves neither taunt. It was no parliamentary wag or social lampooner whom the Senate entrusted with the task of addressing the rioters, or who persuaded the triumphant tribunes to a compromise. The charges nevertheless have a foundation in so far that Menenius, partly in jest, partly in irritation, gives his tongue rein unless he sees reason to curb it, and allows his choleric impulses full expression. These random ejaculations are taken at their proper value by himself and others. As he says:

What I think I utter, and spend my malice in my breath.

He is obviously one of those estimable and deservedly popular people whose deliberate views are just and penetrating, and who are gifted with the power of commending them, but who are none [p. 565] the less liked because they do not always think it necessary to have themselves in hand, but let themselves go on the full career of their own halfjocular, half-serious likes and dislikes, when for the moment they are free from graver responsibilities.

Now this of itself was no very good example for Coriolanus. He adopts Menenius' headlong frankness, but without Menenius' tacit presupposition of good-humoured hyperbole. He utters what he thinks but he does not spend his malice in his breath. His friend would do nothing to teach him restraint and reserve, but would rather, if he influenced him at all, influence him to surcharge his invectives and double-barb his flouts.

But not only so. These instinctive likes and dislikes, which the old patrician could not but feel but which he never allowed to interfere with his practical policy, were the guiding principles of his less cautious friend. It must be admitted that there is no abuse of the citizens or their officers to which Coriolanus gives vent, but can be paralleled with something as strong from the mouth of Menenius. This worthy senior who hath always loved the people, turns from the tribunes with the insult:

God-den to your worships: more of your conversation would infect my brain, being the herdsmen of the beastly plebeians.

In this mood he asks them in regard to Coriolanus:

Your multiplying spawn how can he flatter-
That's thousand to one good one?

He has to the full the aristocratic loathing for the uncleanly populace:

You are they
That made the air unwholesome, when you cast
Your stinking greasy caps in hooting at
Coriolanus' exile.

You are the musty chaff: and you are smelt
Above the moon.

[p. 566] These are his authentic innate prejudices that he controls and represses by the help of his reason and his patriotism, when the emergency requires: but they are there; and he would be no more careful to restrain them in his familiar circle than a squatter at his club feels called upon to restrain his opinions about the Labour Party, though he may be very proud of Australia, and a very kindly master, and though he would neither publish them in an election address nor perhaps justify them in his serious moments to himself. And this, we may suppose, was the sort of conversation Marcius would hear as a lad from his old friend. There would be little in it to modify the pride and prejudice he derived from his mother.
And lastly, coming to the other possible corrective, would his wife be likely to soften the asperities of temper and opinion that were his by nature and by second nature? At first we might say Yes. She takes comparatively little pleasure in the brilliance of his career and is more concerned for his life than for his glory. When Volumnia recalls how she sent him forth as a lad to win honour, Virgilia's heart pictures his possible death, and how would that have been compensated? For she loves in the first place not the hero but the husband, and her love makes her timorous. She has none of her mother-in-law's assurance that his prowess is without match and beyond comparison. When “wondrous things” are told of him how characteristic are their respective comments:

Virgilia.
The gods grant them true!

Volumnia.
True! pow, wow.

How differently they feel about his contest with his rival:

Virgilia.
Heavens bless my lord from fell Aufidius!

Volumnia.
He'll beat Aufidius' head below his knee
And tread upon his neck.

[p. 567] So she shrinks from the thoughts of blood and wounds over which Volumnia gloats, and trembles at the dangers of the campaign. Devoured by suspense, she is in no mood to meet the ordinary social claims on her rank and sex, but shuts herself up within her four walls, and wears out the time over household tasks. Her seclusion, and the attempts to withdraw her from it, must not be misunderstood. They have sometimes been taken as pictures of domestic narrow-mindedness on the one hand, and callous frivolity on the other. But frivolity is unthinkable in Volumnia; we may be sure she would never advise or do anything unbefitting the Roman matron. And it is quite opposed to the impression Valeria produces; we may be sure she would never suggest it. In Plutarch's story it is she who proposes and urges the deputation of women to Coriolanus, and though Shakespeare, to suit his own purpose, transfers by implication the credit of this to Volumnia, Plutarch's statement was enough to prevent him from transforming the true authoress of the idea into the fashionable gadabout that some critics have alleged her to be. On the contrary, with him she calls forth the most purely poetical passage in the whole play, and she does so by the vestal dignity and severity of her character. Coriolanus greets her in the camp:

The noble sister of Publicola,
The moon of Rome, chaste as the icicle
That's curdied by the frost of purest snow
And hangs on Dian's temple: dear Valeria!

The woman to whom this splendid compliment is paid by one who never speaks otherwise than he thinks, is assuredly no more obnoxious than Volumnia herself to the charge of levity. They are both great high-hearted Roman ladies who do not let their private or public solicitudes interfere with [p. 568] their customary social routine, and Valeria visits her friend to cheer her in her anxiety, as she would have her, in turn, visit and comfort their common acquaintance. But Virgilia is cast in a gentler mould; though neither is she lacking in character, spirit and magnanimity. Of course she is not an aggressive woman, and she feels that the home is the place for her. She speaks seldom, and when she does her words are few. It is typical that she greets her husband when he returns a victor with no articulate welcome, but with her more eloquent tears. He addresses her in half humorous, half tender reproach:

My gracious silence, hail!
Wouldst thou have laugh'd had I come coffin'd home,
That weep'st to see me triumph?

A wonderful touch that comes from a wonderful insight. It may well be asked, as it has been asked, how Shakespeare knew that Virgilia's heart was too full for words.

But with all this, she shows abundant resolution, readiness and patriotism. She is adamant to the commands of her imperious mother-in-law and the entreaties of her insistent friend when they urge her to break her self-imposed retirement. She, too, has her rebuke for the insolent tribunes. Above all, she, too, plays her part in turning Coriolanus from his revenge. In that scene, after her wont, she does not say much, less than two lines in all, that serve to contain the simple greeting and the quick answer to her husband's warning that he no longer sees things as he did:

The sorrow that delivers us thus changed
Makes you think so.

But who shall say that

those dove's eyes
Which can make gods forsworn,

[p. 569] did not shed their influence on his mother's demand, and help him to break his vindictive vow. Remember, too, that the sacrifice this implied would mean more to her than to Volumnia, for though she likewise can dedicate what she holds dearest on the altar of her country, her affections, her home, Marcius as an individual, bulk more largely in her life.

And if she loves him, we see how fondly he loves her. More than once or twice he alludes to his happiness as bridegroom, husband, and father. When she appears before him, his ejaculations and the tenderness of his appeal,

Best of my flesh,
Forgive my tyranny,

speak volumes in a mouth like his for the keenness of his affection. To express the bliss that he feels in the salute of re-union, this hero-lover can find analogues only in his banishment and his vengeance:

O, a kiss
Long as my exile, sweet as my revenge!
Now, by the jealous queen of heaven, that kiss
I carried from thee, dear: and my true lip
Hath virgin'd it e'er since.

This woman, then, with her love and sweetness, that strike such responsive chords in the rude breast of her lord, is apparently well fitted to smooth the harshness of his dealings with his fellow-men: and this would seem all the more likely since her gentleness is not of that flabby kind that cannot hold or bind, but is strengthened by firmness of will and largeness of feeling.

All the same, she exerts no influence whatever before the very end on her husband's public life or even on his general character, because she has no interest in or aptitude for concerns of his busy, practical career. She has chosen her own orbit in her home, and her love has no desire to step beyond. [p. 570] We have seen that, according to Plutarch, Volumnia was entrusted with the selection of her son's wife. This Shakespeare omits, perhaps as incongruous with the spontaneousness of the relation between his wedded lovers, but it may have left a trace in the position he assigns to Virgilia. The mother-in-law has and claims the leading place; and, as Kreyssig remarks, with a woman of the daughter-in-law's steady inflexibility, collisions more proper for comedy than for tragedy must inevitably ensue, unless there were a strict delimitation of spheres. Volumnia continues to be prompter and guide in all matters political. She has all the outward precedence. On his return from Corioli, her son gives her the prior reverence and salutation, and, only as it were by her permission, turns to his wife. When the deputation of ladies appears in his presence before Rome, he seems for a moment to be surprised out of his decorum, and his first words of passionate greeting are for Virgilia; but he presently recovers, and, with a certain accent of reproof, turns on himself:

You gods! I prate,
And the most noble mother of the world
Leave unsaluted: sink, my knee, i‘ the earth:
Of thy deep duty more impression show
Than that of common sons.

Evidently, his love for his wife, intense though it be, is a thing apart, a sanctuary of his most inmost feeling, and is quite out of relation with the affairs of the jostling world. In them his mother has supreme sway, and Virgilia's unobtrusive graciousness does not exercise even an indirect influence on his ingrained principles and prejudices. She is no makeweight against the potent authority of Volumnia. [p. 571]

1 There is no authority for taking this most characteric utterance from Volumnia and assigning it to “a patrician” as some editions do.

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  • Cross-references from this page (8):
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1.1
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 1.3
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 2.1
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 3.1
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 4.2
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 5.1
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 5.3
    • William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, 5.4
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