Act I Summary
Summary of I.i
Language in I.i
Insults in I.i (I)
Insults in I.i (II)
Summary of I.iii
Cor. as Machine
Act II Summary
The Flow of Act I, Scene iii
Bill Long 1/4/08
Understanding the Women of the Play
In addition to putting insightful thoughts into the mouths of the common people, S also develops his female characters better than any other author of his period. The real "engine" of the tragedy of Coriolanus is his mother, Volumnia. We don't learn a lot about her, but her prominent place in this scene tells us all we need to know about her. She is the one who stands behind Martius' ("M") extreme toughness and quest for military honor (he receives the name Coriolanus in I.ix). She has nurtured it in him from his earliest days, and Act I, Scene iii tells us about this. It also is a revealing scene because we meet M's wife Valeria, who is mirror-opposite of Volumnia. You wonder why the "tough-guy" Martius ever fell for the battle-averse Valeria, but we are given no clue. In this essay I will present Volumnia's story of her bringing up of M and then shift to consider Valeria's divided mind on military issues.
Before describing Volumnia's "unfeminine" thirst for blood, I have to pause on S's insightful language once more. Is there something Oedipal in her opening lines, spoken to Valeria?
"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 honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love," 1-5.
Perhaps this is just "woman talk," but the references to the marriage bed and "my son" as "my husband" gives the words a kind of eerie Oedipal tang. In I.i M himself engages in some speculation about being someone else. He says, about the Volscian warrior Aufidius,
"I sin in envying his nobility;
And were I anything but what I am,
I would wish me only he," 230-232.
You wonder if S is just cleverly and subliminally placing these thoughts in the text to illustrate a common issue in human life--where everyone wishes s/he were someone else. But in the case of the mother, she perhaps has spent too much time imagining what life would be like to be her son's wife...
But then she talks about how she has been committed to her son's martial toughness since his youth. But she makes an important distinction early on in her talk:
"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 picture-like to hang by th' wall, if renown made it not stir, was pleas'd to let him seek danger where he was like to find fame," 8-13.
Her commitment was not simply to seek honor for her son, but to have him pursue the course of honor when the chances of renown were best. Thus, she is not only a perceptive person in knowing that honor was the currency of greatness in Rome but also that currency had its greatest "exchange value" when done in a setting where fame would follow. It is the difference between doing a 360-degree dunk in the NBA slam-dunk competition and on the Brooklyn blacktops. It is the same act, but only the former will get you endorsements, adulation and fame. So, Volumnia engineered it that her young son participated in the war to throw out Tarquinius Superbus. He returned "his bows bound with oak," 14-15 (with highest honors).
Having engineered the first steps in her son's rise to glory, Volumnia knows that she can't let up. This fierce ambition and martial desire is then augmented by her imaginative flight to the actual field of battle. The Romans and Volscians are in the field, and she can, as it were "see" the battle going on right before her. What does she "see?"
"See him (her son) pluck Aufidius down by th' hair;/ Methinks I see him stamp thus, and call thus:/ 'Come on, you cowards, you were got (begot) in fear,/ Though you were born in Rome!'"
Then, her imagination takes wing and she continues:
"His bloody brow/ With his mail'd hand then wiping, forth he goes./ Like to a harvest-man [that's] task'd to mow/ Or (Either) all or lose his hire," 34-37.
So vivid is her language and so eagerly does she tell her ambitions that the fearful Virgilia can't contain herself anymore.
"His bloody brow? O Jupiter, no blood!" 38.
By now it is clear as crystal how the two women are different from each other, even though Valeria has only uttered one line. She is the timorous one, the one who will not leave the house as long as her husband is at war, one who voluntarily takes on a sort of "mini-death" until the danger is passed. She, as it were, "faints" at the sight of blood, while her mother-in-law would love to bathe in it. It was a toss-up to Volumnia which looked more attractive: Hecuba's breast (she was the mother of Hector) when she suckled Hector or Hector's forehead when it "spit forth blood/ At Grecian sword" (40-43). The milky-flowing, life-giving breast or the split skull. Which is more attractive to you? Of course S has made his point--with clarity and power.
Virgilia Speaks Up
Though we see Virgilia as the sort of "wimp" who would rather wait and fret, she does have another side. We get a window into her when she tells a story about her and M's unnamed son. When Volumnia says about the boy Martius that he "had rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his schoolmaster," (55-56), this reminds Valeria of a story of her son. Their little boy is really a "daddy's boy." She goes on:
"O' my troth, I looked upon him o' Wednesday, half an hour together: has such a confirmed countenance. I saw him run after a gilded butterfly; and when he caught it he let it go again; and after it again; and over and over he comes, and up again; catched it again; or whether his fall enraged him, or how 'twas, he did so set his teeth and tear it; O, I warrant, how he mammocked it!," 58-65.
Valeria, like her mother-in-law, speaks in prose rather than blank verse. It is the mark of either lower-class people or of an unimportant subject matter. By so speaking, the reader realizes that these two women, as well as M, are from a "lower class" of society. But Volumnia has so engineered it that her son, in Act I, Scene i he speaks in blank verse! (beginning with I.i.164) This means that her son, M, has "made it" in Rome. Almost made it, I mean to say. That, indeed, will be the tragedy of the play.
But here we see that it is like father, like son. The son had a resolute or determined look on his face (no doubt like dad). He ran after a golden butterfly (significance? perhaps the honor/fame that M pursued?), caught it and let it go over and over again. He fell, rose, and caught the butterfly. Finally, possibly because the fall enraged him, he set his teeth and tore it to pieces. In the beautiful verb coined by Shakespeare in this very line (though the noun had been known for a century) he mammock'd it (i.e., tore it to fragments or shreds; line 65).
Who really moves the world? Is it the counsels of men, their battles in the Senate and on the battlefields of life, whether in business or storming a city? Or, is it the debates of mothers and daughters-in-law, in which they observe and tell about how they raised these very boys? Are the men free to pursue their hearts or are their hearts programmed by the women who themselves have their own agendas for their sons? Volumnia, as we later see, wants her son to attain fame and honor so that they might be lifted from their lower social stratum. Martius willingly goes off to war. And so the women, in the quiet of the home front, may be said in fact to direct the course of empires. Or, at least, S gives us enough information here to make that argument.
Copyright © William R. Long 2004-2008