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

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Sarah Sutor
English 297
Dr. Cooke
The Puppet Master of Rome
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...
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