Study Guide

Coriolanus Family

By William Shakespeare


I say unto you, what he hath done
famously he did it to that end. Though soft-conscienced
men can be content to say it was for
his country, he did it to please his mother and to be
partly proud, which he is, even till the altitude of
his virtue. (1.1.35-40)

Nobody denies that Coriolanus has performed a great military service for Rome. There is, however, a big debate about what motivates Coriolanus to achieve so much on the battlefield. Here, a Citizen accuses Coriolanus of doing it all to "please his mother" and not because he loves Rome or cares about the common people. Translation: Coriolanus is nothing but a mama's boy.

You are transported by calamity
Thither where more attends you, and you slander
The helms o' th' state, who care for you like fathers,
When you curse them as enemies. (1.1.77-80)

When the starving Citizens riot against the patricians and accuse them of hoarding Rome's food supply, Menenius claims that the people have got it all wrong. See, the patricians love them and take care of them, just like "fathers" take care of their children. Uh, maybe. Or maybe Menenius is just a big liar because the patricians don't seem to care about the plebeians at all. Or maybe, in Coriolanus, parents can't be counted on to take care of and nurture their kids—which means that the patricians are like parents to the plebeians. You know, bad parents.

Away, you fool! 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. (1.3.39-43)

We've suggested that the patricians are a lot like bad parents withholding food from the plebeians, who are kind of like their "children." It turns out this whole "parents not feeding/nurturing their kids" idea is something that gets repeated throughout the play. Like here: Volumnia says that she thinks a warrior's bloody forehead is "lovelier" than a mother breastfeeding her infant. Literary critic Janet Adelman sees this as evidence that Volumnia withheld food and nutrients from Coriolanus when he was a baby. Is that why he's such a hot mess? Do you buy this psychological reading?

Methinks I hear hither your husband's drum,
See him pluck Aufidius down by th' hair;
As children from a bear, the Volsces shunning him.
Methinks I see him stamp thus and call thus:
'Come on, you cowards! You were got in fear,
Though you were born in Rome.' His bloody brow
With his mail'd hand then wiping, forth he goes
Like to a harvestman that's tasked to mow
Or all or lose his hire.
His bloody brow? O Jupiter, no blood! (1.3.32-41)

You know how Volumnia likes to fantasize about her son's military exploits and the awesome war wounds he'll get in battle? Coriolanus' wife Virgilia feels just a wee bit differently. She's horrified that her husband might be injured or killed in battle. This passage not only highlights the differences between the two women's attitudes toward warfare, but it also shows us that war-loving Coriolanus has more in common with his tiger mom than with his pacifist wife.

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)

Note to moms everywhere: No sentence should ever start with the words "if my son were my husband." Full stop. Because then you get really uncomfortable things like Volumnia suggesting she gets more pleasure from seeing her son go off to war than she would get from going to bed him. If he were her hubby, of course. Gee. It's no wonder that psychoanalytic literary critics have such a field day with this play.

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 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 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. (1.3.5-18)

Oh, boy. No wonder Coriolanus is so aggressive and violent. Here, Volumnia brags about how she raised her son to be the deadliest warrior in Rome. She sent him off to war when most moms were insisting that their sons stay at home. According to Volumnia, the only way for Coriolanus to prove "himself a man" was for him to become a warrior—which made her happier than giving birth to her little "man-child." Passages like this are why so many literary critics get worked up over 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? You might just grow up to be a killing machine.

O' my word, the father's son! I'll swear, 'tis a
very pretty boy. O' my troth, I looked upon him o'
Wednesday half an hour together. H'as 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 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!
One on 's father's moods.
Indeed, la, 'tis a noble child. (1.3.60-70)

This is where Valeria tells everyone how she saw Coriolanus' little boy get mad and tear apart a butterfly with his teeth. (After he tortured it for a while, that is.) Notice how Young Martius is repeatedly compared to his father? Sounds like he's growing up to be a Mini-Me version of his dad. But does that mean Volumnia has her clutches in him too … or do moms not actually make that much of a difference?

Let me speak.
I have been consul, and can show for Rome
Her enemies' marks upon me. I do love
My country's good with a respect more tender,
More holy and profound, than mine own life,
My dear wife's estimate, her womb's increase,
And treasure of my loins. (3.3.137-143)

It's obvious that family bonds are important in this play, but as we can see here, loyalty to Rome is more important. Even Cominius claims to love Rome more than his own family.

Wife, mother, child I know not. (5.2.88)

When Coriolanus is banished by his metaphorical Roman "family," he also tries to break ties with his literal family by denying any association with them. This might be the only way Coriolanus can bring himself to carry out his vengeance on Rome without feeling guilty about it.

[...] or we must lose
The country, our dear nurse, or else thy person,
Our comfort in the country.
thou shalt no sooner
March to assault thy country than to tread—
Trust to 't, thou shalt not—on thy mother's womb,
That brought thee to this world.
                                                  Ay, and mine,
That brought you forth this boy, to keep your name
Living to time. (5.3.127-129; 140-146)

When Coriolanus' mom and wife beg him to not to destroy Rome, they tell him that destroying Rome (their "dear nurse") would be like trampling all over his own "mother's womb," along with the womb of his wife, which, of course, is where Coriolanus' son came from. (Um, graphic much?) In other words, they remind him that destroying Rome involves the destruction of Coriolanus' entire family.

O mother, mother!
What have you done? Behold, the heavens do ope,
The gods look down, and this unnatural scene
They laugh at. O my mother, mother, O!
You have won a happy victory to Rome;
But, for your son—believe it, O, believe it!—
Most dangerously you have with him prevailed, (5.3.205-211)

Looking for evidence that Volumnia causes her own son's death? Here's your passage. When Volumnia succeeds in convincing (manipulating?) Coriolanus to make peace with Rome, Coriolanus seems to know that this will ruin him. And he's right—but he does it anyway, for his mommy. Aw. We guess?