“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. Brian McCann as Menenius, Tina Packer as Volumnia, and Robert. Volumnia is a character in William Shakespeare's play Coriolanus, the mother of Caius Martius Coriolanus tries and fails to follow the advice, and is banished from Rome. Volumnia is at the gate when Psychoanalytic critics read Coriolanus largely through his relationship through his mother. In their view, Volumnia never. Get an answer for 'Compare and contrast the characters of Volumnia and Virgilia with regards to gender and find homework help for other Coriolanus questions at eNotes. Read the study guide: 3 educator answers; How does Shakespeare portray the behaviour of men, regarding questions of power, relationship.
Although he was an fearless and effective leader in battle, he was completely impossible as a person and thus only earned the respect but not the love of the people of Rome. When he was required to show his war wounds to the people to gain their votes for Consul, he arrogantly refused.
The citizens, already antagonized by his patrician attitude, then wasted little time in forcing him into exile. Enraged at being rejected, he then turned his fury against his own country. And we hear this from Volumnia herself, as she proudly and stridently declares in her own words that she deliberately raised Coriolanus to be a bloodthirsty warrior.
But I intend to argue that the text also contains some indications that the history she provides is incomplete and that there is still another factor entirely independent of Volumnia's influence that also determined her son's development: Coriolanus's own inborn, constitutional nature. Although the very idea of inborn or constitutional differences among children may seem to violate our precious democratic ideals that all children are created equal, the reality is that children simply are not the same but vary greatly in the psychological equipment they bring to the world.
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In the reading I propose, Coriolanus's own constitutional nature made his childhood far more challenging and difficult for Volumnia than her callous declarations would have us believe.
The Reader's Negative Response to Volumnia On the surface of the text, Volumnia openly invites us to join her in her belief that she bears complete responsibility for her son's personality. For example, when Virgilia, Coriolanus's wife, worries that her husband has been wounded in battle, Volumnia crows: 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 1. Instead of trying to comfort Virgilia, Volumnia flaunts her joy at the prospect of her son having been gloriously wounded in battle. This attitude, she tells us, he then incorporated into his personality and this formed the basis of his love of violence.
And she seems to take enormous pride in what she did with him! Many modern readers, at considerable distance from the cult of Roman militarism and with vastly different attitudes toward war, cannot help but feel deeply troubled, indeed repelled by her attitude. Perhaps it is also the utter lack of shame with which she stakes her claim, the cold-blooded effrontery of her outrageous assertion that she turned her child into a monster, that so provokes us to condemn her.
This flagrant display of how she warped her child's personality immediately dissuades us from trying to understand her sympathetically. Instead, without bothering with further inquiry, we are driven to accept her description of herself as a harridan. But I argue that if we uncritically accept her formulation of herself as a monster-maker, we succumb to the negative feelings that she understandably evokes in us and are thus disabled from thinking as clearly and objectively as we might about her and her role in her son's development.
This easily can cause us to overlook the fact that even this woman who so repels us must possess the same obscure complexities and unconscious motivations that we impute to Shakespeare's other characters. And, of course, these less conspicuous aspects of her personality must also have entered into her child rearing. But our negative response to her prevents us from giving her this deeper understanding, the same understanding we freely give other, more sympathetic characters.
These more subtle, less visible components might not change our subjective response to Volumnia, but we could gain more insight into her behavior, which in turn would give us a better understanding of her and her role in Coriolanus's development.
Before proceeding further, I need to offer the reader a brief personal note. As I searched out these less visible aspects of Volumnia and her role in her son's development, I encountered even more stubborn resistances within myself than I have grown accustomed to struggle with in applying psychoanalysis to texts.
And these resistances very nearly wrecked my effort. Of course, these resistances resulted from my own, personal intrapsychic problems that were mobilized by thinking about this woman and her role in her son's development.
And, of course, the strength of these resistances is a tribute to Shakespeare's artistic capacity to create an emotionally compelling portrait of a thoroughly obnoxious woman. Although I think I was finally able to process these resistances and discover the more complex layers beneath Volumnia's surface, the task was unusually difficult.
Thus I find it completely understandable that critics generally do not probe very deeply into Volumnia's personality but rather tend to accept at face value her account of how she distorted her child's development. Kahn, in her psychoanalytic exploration of the childhood origin of Coriolanus's character structure, writes of Volumnia: Quite like literary critics and developmental psychologists, the other characters in the play also respond negatively to Volumnia.
But she intercepts him and, at once reverting to the harridan, attacks: But we cannot be like Sicinius; we cannot allow ourselves the expediency of marginalizing her, thus denying her the understanding we offer other literary characters. And this understanding is not made any easier by the fact that even when Volumnia is clearly the victim herself, she seems to do all she can to deflect our sympathy.
For example, later in this same scene, her good friend, Menenius, responds compassionately to her anguish and symbolically offers her the primal comfort of his breast.
Volumnia - Wikipedia
But Volumnia, never comfortable with her dependency, is especially threatened now that she feels the most helpless. Accordingly, she declines Menenius's offer and fends him off with: She thus defensively converts her neediness into anger and a phantasy of omnipotence. But in doing so, she denies herself the compassion of others. Thus, she does with herself exactly what she taught her son to do: And the cost to Volumnia is high.
Her words project her as something beyond understanding, something less than human, and it then becomes a simple matter for us to reject this evil creature who deliberately harmed her babe; she certainly is not of our mankind. But let us recall Terence's words here: Might there be just a smack of Volumnia within ourselves that we cannot tolerate? What is intolerable within ourselves, we might easily project without, on to a despised Other, and then we can disown it as not of our mankind.
This, of course, is the classical psychology of prejudice: Thus, the temptation to exclude Volumnia from humankind may spring from our wish to deny similar, despised tendencies within ourselves. But I argue that we need to be able to tolerate the intolerable just enough to search for and understand the deeper complexities that may motivate one who lives out such tendencies in her behavior. Rather, I suggest that we need to tolerate difficult and repellent problems just enough to think clearly about them and possibly to contribute to their solution.
Excluding from consideration that which repels us at best solves nothing and at worst amplifies problems by perpetuating the obfuscation that inevitably surrounds them. And let me add that I do not think we need to blame ourselves for wanting to reject Volumnia and all that she stands for; it is, after all, also part of our own humanity to turn away from what we find distressing.
Volumnia's Narrative of Coriolanus's Development It certainly does not help Volumnia's cause that she so relishes her role as the creator and destroyer of her son's personality. In her first appearance in the text, she introduces herself by boasting how she shipped Coriolanus off to the wars when he was a little boy: If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed wherein he should show the 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 king's entreaties, a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding. 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 1.
And perhaps her thought of him as her husband her only reference to her husband in the text in association with "the embracements of his bed" suggests a not-so-unconscious libidinal interest in him. Thus, Volumnia, the bitch-mother, destroyed her little boy's libidinal pleasures, present and future, oral and genital. Accordingly, Volumnia presents us with a narrative in which she traumatized her own little son, giving him little choice but to incorporate the attitudes she pressed on him.
And indeed throughout the text, Coriolanus lives out an identification with his mother's cruel attitudes, finally leading Rome's enemies against his own native city. As Kahn puts it: Thus, we have neatly arrayed before us the helpless, abused child-victim who becomes the adult-victimizer and the omnipotent abuser-mother who is the cause of it all.
Both partners in crime are thus clearly identified and securely labeled. Thus encouraged by Volumnia's own rhetoric, critics, both feminist and psychoanalytic, follow closely her words-on-the-page and condemn her, even though none of these commentators could be classified as a New Critic. And, of course, this demonization deflects us from searching for additional factors that might make her behavior with Coriolanus at least more understandable, if not forgivable.
It is also interesting to note that holding Volumnia responsible for Coriolanus's personality closely parallels the formulations of psychotherapists whose empathic understanding is limited to their patients and stops short of their patients' parents. While this therapeutic approach may be useful, perhaps even desirable under some circumstances, it must also be acknowledged that it is incomplete. There is yet another factor that prevents us from understanding Volumnia: This allows us to accord her son at least a modicum of sympathy: If we can discover ways in which he was a victim, then we can empathize, at least to some extent, with Coriolanus, despite his belligerent, antipathetic attitude.
But Volumnia is kept apart and almost never granted the understanding accorded her son. She remains marginalized throughout critical inquiry: Barzilai, in her essay, does not censure Volumnia but holds that she is but a literary device, necessary for dramaturgic purposes, rather than a representation of a real, in-the-flesh mother. But this is precisely the problem: Volumnia's report of her child rearing is completely devoid of complexity. It lacks all mention of the baffling problems, the endless uncertainties, the vexing contradictions inevitable in any parent's attempt to rear a child.
Accordingly, we know that there must be vast areas of her child rearing completely concealed behind the stony facade Volumnia presents to the world. And so she remains a monolithic figure, portrayed in the text and in critical commentary alike as closer to granite than flesh and blood, all hard, repellent surface with no depth.
In the absence of so much information about the details of Volumnia's parenting, we need to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a relative vacuum about Coriolanus's development and must proceed cautiously with any attempt to fill that vacuum with conjecture. We certainly cannot simply accept as complete Volumnia's strident proclamation that there is a simple, direct, cause-effect relationship between the way she raised him and the way he turned out as an adult.
Accordingly, we need to subject her account to the same scrutiny and skepticism that we accord the narratives of other fictive characters whose depths and complexities are hidden beneath the facade of their words.
What then might be missing and therefore hidden from sight in Volumnia's account? Information Missing from Volumnia's Account In pointing out what is missing from Volumnia's account, my principal goal is to undermine certainty: Answers to the questions I shall raise are simply not available in the text, and I certainly do not intend to draw any firm conclusions based on what is absent; Shakespeare does not attempt to present us with a clinical case history, and Barzilai is correct that Volumnia is a literary device and that device part of the project for the drama.
Thus, mere absence from the text signifies nothing; the play's always the thing. My purpose in this section is simply to create enough uncertainty to encourage further reader interrogation of the text for alternative explanations of Volumnia's behavior toward Coriolanus.
If we can locate crucial lacunae in her assertions, if we can become less convinced that we know exactly what Volumnia did or did not do, we shall be in a better position to study the words-on-the-page to gain a deeper understanding of her role in her son's development. So what are these areas of missing information? Volumnia speaks as if she were the only influence on Coriolanus during his childhood.
How can this be true? Volumnia, despite her other faults, is neither shy nor retiring, not the sort of person likely to have isolated herself with her child. Surely, the patrician Volumnia would at least have had the usual slave girl to raise him.
And where is his father in all this? What was his father's role in Coriolanus's life, and how did the child react to him and his loss? We know absolutely nothing of other possible formative influences in Coriolanus's childhood, other than Volumnia herself.
And let us consider the style of Volumnia's rhetoric as she reports of Coriolanus's earliest years. We note that her report is highly selective. Totally absent from her words are the usual travails of parenting: We do not even hear of the temper tantrums and the exasperating negativism that so many children exhibit and that we would expect in the childhood of anyone as hostile as the adult Coriolanus.
Instead of these difficult aspects of child rearing, Volumnia's proud chronicle of his childhood omits anything about him over which she had no control. Rather, she presents her parenting as if she had been in total command of the situation and had deliberately programmed her child-warrior's actions, which he then dutifully carried out.
All moments of uncertainty or helplessness are omitted; hardly surprising, for, after all, Volumnia is our historian. Only indirectly and inferentially do Volumnia's words allow us to glimpse where she might have had difficulty or perhaps even failed with him at times.
I shall return to this later. With these characters, Shakespeare's art faithfully reflects the experience of real parents whose plans for their children so often founder on the rocks of their children's individuality. Volumnia tells us almost nothing about this aspect of his personality as a child, apart from what she wanted for him; there must have been more to him than compliantly following her wish that he become a soldier.
Of course, it is impossible to believe that his natural temperament was shy and introverted, and certainly there is no indication of this in the text. But if by any chance, he were naturally inclined to be a quiet child, so very different than he is now, it would reinforce Volumnia's claim that she molded him. But I intend to show later on that there are indications in the text that he was always quite the opposite of a quiet child: In this, he might have been just like his son, also named Marcius, who so cruelly "mammocked" a butterfly 1.
In addition to what we do not know about Coriolanus's childhood, we must also be cautious about what we think we know from Volumnia's words. Her self-report of her mothering insists on her harshness toward him and we need not question thisbut her very insistence leads us to wonder what might be concealed beneath this strident claim.
Doth the lady protest too much? Is it really possible that she loved him only when he acted like a monster? It seems unlikely to me that any mother who is not psychotic could behave this way toward her child, and the text does not represent Volumnia as psychotic. Certainly she seems to love him now. But if this is not merely Volumnia's metaphoric statement for her early influence on him, if she did in fact suckle him and why should we doubt her words? She thus affirms their basic, primal connection: Accordingly, I read her braggadocio here as possibly concealing strong, maternal feelings for her baby.
Thus, Coriolanus's early bond with his mother might well have included love that was both nurturing and affirming, and not solely contingent on his acting out his aggression. It also seems to me likely that this woman who is so fearful of her own dependency might be able to identify with her baby and thus take special vicarious pleasure in giving him her breast and her love. And indeed this may be a universal dynamic.
In Defense of Volumnia's Mothering in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Coriolanus
But we do need to acknowledge that there is a great deal we simply don't know and that it is at least a possibility that Volumnia provided Coriolanus with a better early holding environment than is readily apparent on the surface of the text.
The possibility that Coriolanus experienced a better environment is important for our attempt to construct a childhood for him. If he were indeed provided with a better environment by a less monolithic Volumnia, it means that he was offered a variety of emotional experiences with which to identify. Why then did he identify himself so exclusively as a warrior if other, more benign identities were also available to him?
There was, of course, his mother's urging him to become a soldier and this must have played a part, although we must also keep in mind the dubious fate of parental plans for their offspring.
But I argue that there was another factor, completely independent of Volumnia, that caused him to selectively adopt this particular identity. An unusual, constitutional predilection for aggression possibly even genetic, since his son is so like him would lay the foundation for this identity, which his mother then so assiduously encouraged.
Accordingly, I shall now try to show how the text may be read to reveal a less implacable, more complex Volumnia who could therefore have offered her child a range of choices for possible identification. A More Complex Volumnia The text, of course, offers no contemporaneous account of Coriolanus's childhood; we have only Volumnia's backward glances. But we do have an indirect source of information: What we learn of them in this way, we may cautiously project backward into the past.
We glimpse a more complex, although certainly no less manipulative, Volumnia in 3. Here she joins with the nobles to urge Coriolanus to retract his defiance of the people and thus regain their votes for consul. Of course, he resists as before; he cannot force himself to submit to the commoners any more than he could yield to the enemy.
He seems convinced that the way to gain her love is by brutal, uncompromising behavior.
Her wish for him to be "milder" violates his perception of her as the infernal she-cat who loves her kitten only when he kills. And this perception of her has been at the core of his relationship with her since he was a child. But I argue that his perception of her is also a misperception. Later in the scene, she points out his misperception to him: She then praises her grandson for being like his father in love for war.
When Virgilia says that she will not go outside until Coriolanus comes home, she tries, unsuccessfully, to change her mind, saying that she should be proud of such a husband. Coriolanus returns in the first scene of the next act, and Volumnia, along with Virgilia and Menenius a friend of Coriolanus await him in Rome. She is overjoyed on reading of his deeds in battle in a letter he wrote her. When she hears that he received wounds, she says, "I thank the gods for't. When her son arrives she praises him for his great deeds, saying he has fulfilled all her wishes for him except one: This wish is now easily within reach, she says, because his wounds will persuade the people to support him.
In Act three, after Coriolanus is accused of treason because of some poorly-chosen words, he retreats to his home and discusses his predicament with his mother and a few friends. Volumnia chides him for not waiting until after he had been chosen as consul before speaking his mind to the people. She urges him to go back and apologise, using milder words. Coriolanus tries and fails to follow the advice, and is banished from Rome.
Volumnia is at the gate when he is sent away, and curses the people of Rome for making her son an outcast. When Sicinius and Brutus, the ones who led the people against Coriolanus, appear, she rails on them.