Study Guide

Coriolanus Gender

By William Shakespeare


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. (1.3.14-18)

According to Volumnia, her son "proved himself a man" only after she sent him off to a "cruel war," where he became a hero on the battlefields. In other words, Volumnia equates masculinity with the violence of warfare. Coriolanus totally buys into this idea that aggression is the only thing that makes him a "man" instead of a mere "boy." As it turns out, this kind of thinking is very dangerous and leads to our hero's death. This becomes especially clear by the end of the play when Tullus Aufidius accuses Coriolanus of treason and calls him a "boy." Coriolanus flips out and dares the Volscians to kill him … which they do (5.6.111-116) .

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 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!
One on 's father's moods.
Indeed, la, 'tis a noble child. (1.3.60-70)

It's not just the violence and rage of warfare that's associated with masculinity in this play. Here, we see that everyday violence (like young Martius becoming "enraged" and gnashing a butterfly between his teeth) is considered typical behavior for men and young boys.

You would be another Penelope. Yet they say
all the yarn she spun in Ulysses' absence did but fill
Ithaca full of moths. (1.3.85-87)

Poor Virgilia is so stressed out about the possibility that her husband will be wounded or killed in battle that she can't even leave her own house and stays at home all day with her sewing. In this passage, her BFF (Valeria) comes along and makes fun of her for acting like "Penelope," the famous literary wife who stayed home pretend-weaving while her hubby, Odysseus, was out enjoying an epic adventure. Valeria does not mean this as a compliment. She basically accuses Virgilia of acting like a pathetic stereotype.

My gracious silence, hail.
Wouldst thou have laughed had I come coffined
That weep'st to see me triumph? Ah, my dear,
Such eyes the widows in Corioles wear,
And mothers that lack sons. (2.1.184-189)

Aw. Coriolanus is from war and greeting his family. His wife, Virgilia, stands by silently weeping through the entire scene, even when her husband gently teases her about it. But does this make her pathetic and weak? Or does it give her a quiet strength?

Well, I must do 't.
Away, my disposition, and possess me
Some harlot's spirit! My throat of war be turned,
Which choirèd with my drum, into a pipe
Small as an eunuch or the virgin voice
That babies lulls asleep! (3.2.137-142)

Here, Coriolanus says he thinks that if he is dishonest with the voters, he'll be acting like a "harlot." (The idea being that women are dishonest, duh.) He also says that asking for the plebeians' votes makes him feel like his once masculine voice ("throat of war") will turn into the squeaky, high-pitched voice of a "eunuch" (castrated man) or a "virgin" (young girl). Basically, Coriolanus associates political pandering with effeminacy and weakness.

Thy valiantness was mine; thou suck'st it from me, (3.2.157)

Volumnia is always running around taking credit for her son's achievements. Here, she says that he inherited his "valiantness" from her because she breast fed him. Seems highly likely. Does this suggest that Volumnia is trying to live vicariously through her son? Wouldn't be the first time a stage mom has done that.

Nay, mother,
Resume that spirit, when you were wont to say
If you had been the wife of Hercules,
Six of his labors you'd have done and saved
Your husband so much sweat. (3.3.19-23)

Coriolanus values the fact that his mother defies typical gender roles. Here, he praises her props for not being afraid to roll up her sleeves and do the kind of "labour" that's typically associated with men. Too bad the play doesn't seem to agree with him.

Are you mankind?
Ay, fool, is that a shame? Note but this fool.
Was not a man my father? Hadst thou foxship
To banish him that struck more blows for Rome
Than thou hast spoken words? (4.2.24-28)

Not everyone values Volumnia's spirit. When Volumnia speaks her mind to one of the tribunes, Sicinius asks "Are you mankind?" Translation: "Gee, that's not a very ladylike thing to say."

Ladies, you deserve
To have a temple built you. All the swords
in Italy, and her confederate arms,
Could not have made this peace (5.3.213-234)

Here, Coriolanus calls the women peacemakers—but are they? It's true that Volumnia convinced Coriolanus to sign a peace treaty. At the same time, she raised her son to be a killing machine and she's always encouraged Coriolanus to go to war. She doesn't care about peace—but she does care a lot about not dying.

Behold our patroness, the life of Rome!
Call all your tribes together, praise the gods,
And make triumphant fires. Strew flowers before
Unshout the noise that banished Martius,
Repeal him with the welcome of his mother.
Cry 'Welcome, ladies, welcome!' (5.5.1-7)

Here, Volumnia finally gets the recognition she's always wanted. Rome basically throws her a parade after she convinces Coriolanus to make peace between Rome and the Volscians. Too bad that, by convincing her son not to destroy Rome, she's basically signed his death warrant.