To Coriolanus, she's "dearest mother." To the rest of us? More like mommy dearest.
There's no doubt Volumnia is the most influential person in Coriolanus' life. She raised him to be Rome's deadliest warrior, she pushes him towards a career in politics, and she's able to convince him to spare Rome when he seeks revenge against his home town.
Over the years, plenty of literary critics have chimed in on Volumnia's character. Let's start with the good. A famous Shakespeare scholar from the late 1800's named F.J. Furnivall once said that "no grander, nobler woman was ever created by Shakespeare's art … from mothers like Volumnia came the men who conquered the known world, and have left their mark for ever on the nations of Europe" (source).
In other words, Volumnia is awesome because she raised her son to conquer stuff? Hm. Maybe it's time for a second opinion.
Have you ever seen one of those Band-Aid commercials where some little kid scrapes his knee and goes running to his mommy for help? That is … exactly the opposite of Volumnia. In fact, she absolutely loves it when her son is wounded and keeps some running tally of Coriolanus' war scars. Check out what she has about warriors getting wounded in battle:
[...] it more becomes a man
Than gilt his trophy. The breasts of Hecuba,
When she did suckle Hector, looked not lovelier
Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood
At Grecian sword, contemning.—Tell Valeria
We are fit to bid her welcome. (1.3.42-47)
Yikes! Basically, Volumnia is saying that she thinks violence and bloodshed are more beautiful than a mother nursing her infant. What's that all about? Literary critics like Janet Adelman have argued that this passage suggests that Volumnia didn't nurture Coriolanus when he was a baby or when he was growing up. She may have even withheld food to toughen him up (source).
Either way, pretty freaky.
This kind of talk is typical of Volumnia, who buys into Rome's violent, warrior culture. After all, she brags that she sent Coriolanus off to war when he was super young. Check it out:
yet he was but tender-bodied and the only son of
my womb, when youth with comeliness plucked
all gaze his way,
I, considering how honor would become
such a person
[...] let him seek danger where he
was like to find fame. To a cruel war I sent him, (1.3.5-8; 10-11; 13-14)
Oh, boy. Volumnia brags about how she raised her son Coriolanus to be the most deadly warrior in Rome. Not only that, but she also brags that when he was still young, she sent him off to war when most moms were insisting that their sons stay at home. Volumnia is always telling us that she thinks having a military career is the only way for boys to become "men."
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. (1.3.16-18)
It's no wonder so many literary critics are interested in Volumnia's psychological impact on her son. Can you imagine what it would be like to grow up in a house where your only parent told you over and over again that you weren't really a "man" unless you went out and slaughtered a bunch of enemy soldiers?
It might be a lot like growing up into Coriolanus.
The Woman behind the Slaughter
You probably also noticed that Volumnia runs around taking all the credit for her son's achievements. At one point, she says to Coriolanus "Thy valiantness was mine; thou suck'st it from me" (3.2.157). Translation: she thinks he inherited his bravery from her because she breast fed him. (Back in the day, some folks thought that women could pass on certain traits and features to babies through their breast milk.)
Why does this matter? Well, maybe she's living through her son because she's a woman and can't go out and slaughter Volscians herself. That would explain why Volumnia is so hell-bent on making her son a politician when he comes back from war, despite the fact that he wants nothing to do with politics—and we have to say, we kind of feel her on that one. It must have been super frustrating to be all ambitious with nothing to lean in to.
"If my son were my husband:" Volumnia and Incest
Finally, we have to mention Volumnia's creepy comment about going to bed with her son. Oh, did you miss that? Let us remind you:
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. (1.3.2-5)
Freaky, right? Here, Volumnia suggests that she gets more, um, pleasure, from seeing her son go off to war than she would get from going to bed him....if he were her hubby, that is.
Note to Volumnia: No sentence should ever start with the words "If my son were my husband."