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Volumnia, A Character Study Essay

2047 words - 8 pages

"O, he is wounded; I thank the Gods for't!"

I had a boss who once told me that America started "going down the crapper" when women got the vote. He said politics should be about money and war, and those are a man's issues. Upon first glance, Coriolanus would seem to agree with him. It is a play that opens with economic outrage, and depicts the glories and horrors of war. One would assume in such a play that perhaps the most significant (and the most villainous) character would be a man. One would be mistaken.

When we first meet Volumnia, she does not strike us as either reprehensible or noteworthy, as we come to find her just moments later. The stage directions dictate that she is sitting on a "low stool" with Virgilia, sewing. Her speech is in prose, to start. All these elements are set to give us the impression of a meager woman, without much influence. Very soon into her speech, in fact, in her second sentence, we are given a hint of things to come. "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." (I.iii. 2-5) This speech sets a theme. As the scene continues, Volumnia takes unabashed joy in her son's triumphs in war. It seems almost fetish-like, her lust for word of blood. When Virgilia recoils at the thought of blood, Volumnia doesn't hesitate to extol its virtues:

" It more becomes a man

that gilt his trophy. The breasts of Hecuba

When she did suckle Hector looked not lovelier than Hector's forehead when it spilt forth blood

At Grecian sword, contemning.--"

(I.iii. 40-44)

This is a hideous image, and one wonders how any person, especially a mother, could make such a claim. Our initial revulsion turns almost comical when Valeria enters, and describes Coriolanus' son's foray with the butterfly, which culminated with the little boy tearing it to shreds. Volumnia gushes with pride at this tale, comparing the boy to his father. It is this sort of behavior that lends us a clue as to Coriolanus' inability to adapt to the social demands of his political position. Any man raised by a mother who sends her son into war at the ripe age of 16 and glorifies both the wounds he gives and the wounds he receives cannot be expected to function as a normal man would. Rufus Putney, in his psychoanalysis of Volumnia extrapolates on this point.

"Volumnia...is a consumingly fierce, domineering woman and mother. Widowed when her only son was an infant, she reared him to be a harsh, contemptuous, intolerant, arrogant patrician and a ferocious, indomitable warrior. Upon this mighty man she then imposed the role of submissive son who must obey his mother and strive for her constant approbation. She so imposed her values upon him that she created in him a superego that made him a man of iron rigidity. Since his conscience does not permit compromises, he is a military hero but a...

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