In Defense of Volumnia's Mothering in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Coriolanus

by Marvin Krims

October 6, 2001


Psychoanalytic literary critics usually hold Volumnia responsible for her son's hyperaggressive personality, an opinion based upon a reading of Volumnia's own words as imagined by Shakespeare. These words include sue," and to her friends with haughty pride, "To a cruel war, I sent him." In this essay, I argue that reading Volumch provocative statements to her son as "Thy valiantness [meaning his savagery] was mine, thou suckedst from mnia as responsible for Coriolanus's personality is incomplete because it overlooks both Shakespeare's representation of more maternal layers beneath her abrasive exterior and suggestions in the text of constitutional factors operating within her son, quite apart from his mother's influence. Such constitutional factors have been emphasized by recent longitudinal studies of hyperactive, hyperaggressive children and adults. Thus, once again, Shakespeare's intuition anticipates the findings of modern psychology.

The truth is rarely pure and never simple.
--Oscar Wilde

A devil, a born devil, on whose nature Nurture can never stick; on whom my pains, Humanely taken, all, all lost, quite lost . . .
--Prospero on Caliban, Tempest 4.1.188-190

    Gaius Marcius Coriolanus is one of Shakespeare's least likable characters. Plutarch, Shakespeare's source for the play, describes Coriolanus as “churlish and uncivil, and altogether unfit for man's conversation”. Although he was an fearless and effective leader in battle, he was completely impossible as a person and thus only earned the respect but not the love of the people of Rome. When he was required to show his war wounds to the people to gain their votes for Consul, he arrogantly refused. The citizens, already antagonized by his patrician attitude, then wasted little time in forcing him into exile. Enraged at being rejected, he then turned his fury against his own country.

     Men of his ilk are not uncommon in the sociopolitical landscape—then and now—and we may well be moved to wonder what formative childhood experiences shaped the personality of these difficult, although at times necessary leaders. On the surface, Shakespeare's words seem to provide us with a simple, direct answer—at least for Coriolanus: the text directly informs us that Coriolanus's difficult personality is attributable to the way his mother, Volumnia, brought him up. And we hear this from Volumnia herself, as she proudly and stridently declares in her own words that she deliberately raised Coriolanus to be a bloodthirsty warrior. But I intend to argue that the text also contains some indications that the history she provides is incomplete and that there is still another factor entirely independent of Volumnia's influence that also determined her son's development: Coriolanus's own inborn, constitutional nature. Although the very idea of inborn or constitutional differences among children may seem to violate our precious democratic ideals that all children are created equal, the reality is that children simply are not the same but vary greatly in the psychological equipment they bring to the world. In the reading I propose, Coriolanus's own constitutional nature made his childhood far more challenging and difficult for Volumnia than her callous declarations would have us believe.

The Reader's Negative Response to Volumnia

    On the surface of the text, Volumnia openly invites us to join her in her belief that she bears complete responsibility for her son's personality. For example, when Virgilia, Coriolanus's wife, worries that her husband has been wounded in battle, Volumnia crows:

Away, you fool! It more becomes a man Than gilt his trophy. The breasts of Hecuba, When she did suckle Hector, look'd not lovelier Than Hector's forehead when it spit forth blood At Grecian sword, contemning (1.3.39-43).

     Instead of trying to comfort Virgilia, Volumnia flaunts her joy at the prospect of her son having been gloriously wounded in battle.2 Her invocation of Hecuba nursing Hector also contains a possible backward glance to the time that she suckled Coriolanus. She suggests that, along with her milk, she infused an equal measure of thirst for blood—for others' and his own. This notorious “breasts of Hecuba” speech, along with others like it, is usually read as a reflection of Volumnia’s cruel and pathological attitude toward Coriolanus when he was a little child. This attitude, she tells us, he then incorporated into his personality and this formed the basis of his love of violence. And she seems to take enormous pride in what she did with him! Many modern readers, at considerable distance from the cult of Roman militarism and with vastly different attitudes toward war, cannot help but feel deeply troubled, indeed repelled by her attitude.

    Perhaps it is also the utter lack of shame with which she stakes her claim, the cold-blooded effrontery of her outrageous assertion that she turned her child into a monster, that so provokes us to condemn her. This flagrant display of how she warped her child's personality immediately dissuades us from trying to understand her sympathetically. Instead, without bothering with further inquiry, we are driven to accept her description of herself as a harridan. But I argue that if we uncritically accept her formulation of herself as a monster-maker, we succumb to the negative feelings that she understandably evokes in us and are thus disabled from thinking as clearly and objectively as we might about her and her role in her son's development. This easily can cause us to overlook the fact that even this woman who so repels us must possess the same obscure complexities and unconscious motivations that we impute to Shakespeare's other characters. And, of course, these less conspicuous aspects of her personality must also have entered into her child rearing. But our negative response to her prevents us from giving her this deeper understanding, the same understanding we freely give other, more sympathetic characters.

    Thus we need to try to overcome our antagonism—what in clinical psychoanalysis would be called countertransference—and make an effort to search beneath her noisy rhetoric for quieter qualities that may have also influenced her early relationship with her son. These more subtle, less visible components might not change our subjective response to Volumnia, but we could gain more insight into her behavior, which in turn would give us a better understanding of her and her role in Coriolanus's development.

     Before proceeding further, I need to offer the reader a brief personal note. As I searched out these less visible aspects of Volumnia and her role in her son's development, I encountered even more stubborn resistances within myself than I have grown accustomed to struggle with in applying psychoanalysis to texts. And these resistances very nearly wrecked my effort. Of course, these resistances resulted from my own, personal intrapsychic problems that were mobilized by thinking about this woman and her role in her son's development. And, of course, the strength of these resistances is a tribute to Shakespeare's artistic capacity to create an emotionally compelling portrait of a thoroughly obnoxious woman. Although I think I was finally able to process these resistances and discover the more complex layers beneath Volumnia's surface, the task was unusually difficult.

    Thus I find it completely understandable that critics generally do not probe very deeply into Volumnia's personality but rather tend to accept at face value her account of how she distorted her child's development. Kahn, in her psychoanalytic exploration of the childhood origin of Coriolanus's character structure, writes of Volumnia: “By thrusting him from dependency and thrusting onto him a warrior self of her own devising, Volumnia effectively murdered the babe in Coriolanus, the loving and vulnerable self within him” (p. 172.).3 Adelman expresses a similar formulation in her essay: “Coriolanus incorporates not only his mother's attitude toward food but also the transformations in mode implicit in her image of Hector. These transformations—from feeding to warfare, from vulnerability to aggressive attack, from incorporation to spitting out—are at the center of Coriolanus's character and our responses to him; for the whole of his masculine identity depends on his transformation of his vulnerability into an instrument of attack” (p.149). Garber concurs, arguing that “[Coriolanus] is a boy in his uncritical submission to Volumnia; he is either her submissive son or a mechanical man ….” (p. 46) And, of course, all of these formulations are completely consistent with modern developmental psychology, which holds that the child's earliest experiences with the mother are crucial for personality formation and that difficulties in this area bode ill for the child's future development.

    Quite like literary critics and developmental psychologists, the other characters in the play also respond negatively to Volumnia. In 4.2, Sicinius, the crafty tribune, spies Volumnia distraught at her son's exile and tries to avoid her. But she intercepts him and, at once reverting to the harridan, attacks: “O, y'are well met; the hoarded plague o' the gods/ Requite your love!” (l.17-18). He replies insultingly, “Are you mankind?” (l. 27). (“Mankind” is usually read here as something like “mannish” or “savage,” thus a deprecation of Volumnia's femininity.) But Volumnia's typically abrasive reply, “Ay, fool; is that a shame?/ Note but this, fool:/ Was not a man my father?” suggests that she hears the insult as a challenge to her very humanity (the more traditional meaning of “mankind”), and this indeed might also be part of Sicinius's intent. But we cannot be like Sicinius; we cannot allow ourselves the expediency of marginalizing her, thus denying her the understanding we offer other literary characters.

    And this understanding is not made any easier by the fact that even when Volumnia is clearly the victim herself, she seems to do all she can to deflect our sympathy. For example, later in this same scene, her good friend, Menenius, responds compassionately to her anguish and symbolically offers her the primal comfort of his breast. “You'll sup with me?” (l. 69), he asks. But Volumnia, never comfortable with her dependency, is especially threatened now that she feels the most helpless. Accordingly, she declines Menenius's offer and fends him off with: “Anger's my meat; I sup on myself,/ And so shall starve with feeding” (l. 70-72). Then, with her “Leave this faint puling and lament as I do,/ In anger, Juno-like,” she reinforces her stance as the enraged virago who, like the goddess Juno, needs none but herself. She thus defensively converts her neediness into anger and a phantasy of omnipotence. But in doing so, she denies herself the compassion of others. Thus, she does with herself exactly what she taught her son to do: she embraces anger and renounces all vulnerability—whatever the cost.

    And the cost to Volumnia is high. In denying her neediness, she denies her own humanity and thus starves herself of her friend's compassion—and the reader's as well. Her words project her as something beyond understanding, something less than human, and it then becomes a simple matter for us to reject this evil creature who deliberately harmed her babe; she certainly is not of our mankind.

    But let us recall Terence's words here: “I am a man; nothing human is alien to me.” Do we exclude her from our humanity because she represents something within ourselves that we need to disown? Might there be just a smack of Volumnia within ourselves that we cannot tolerate? What is intolerable within ourselves, we might easily project without, on to a despised Other, and then we can disown it as not of our mankind. This, of course, is the classical psychology of prejudice: we condemn and disown the black for his/her sexuality and the Jew for his/her greed. And this “proves”—if only to ourselves—that we are neither sexual nor greedy. If we disown Volumnia's cruelty and callousness, then we “prove” that we could never, ever be that way ourselves. Thus, the temptation to exclude Volumnia from humankind may spring from our wish to deny similar, despised tendencies within ourselves.

    But I argue that we need to be able to tolerate the intolerable just enough to search for and understand the deeper complexities that may motivate one who lives out such tendencies in her behavior. Let me at once be clear here about what I mean by “tolerate the intolerable”: I do not urge that we should support such behavior—in Volumnia or anyone else. Rather, I suggest that we need to tolerate difficult and repellent problems just enough to think clearly about them and possibly to contribute to their solution. Excluding from consideration that which repels us at best solves nothing and at worst amplifies problems by perpetuating the obfuscation that inevitably surrounds them.

    And let me add that I do not think we need to blame ourselves for wanting to reject Volumnia and all that she stands for; it is, after all, also part of our own humanity to turn away from what we find distressing. However, we do need to try to understand even those characters—literary or real—of whose actions we thoroughly disapprove.

Volumnia's Narrative of Coriolanus's Development

     It certainly does not help Volumnia's cause that she so relishes her role as the creator and destroyer of her son's personality. In her first appearance in the text, she introduces herself by boasting how she shipped Coriolanus off to the wars when he was a little boy:

    If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed wherein he should show the most love. When 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 king's entreaties, a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding . . . [I] was pleased to let him seek danger where he was 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 (1.3.2-17).

    Here, on the surface of the text, she celebrates how she sent her “tender-bodied” son away from her, at a time when “a mother should not sell him an hour from her beholding.” This, of course, encouraged him to renounce his normal childhood dependency on his mother in favor of an identity as a soldier and to inscribe the proof of his fearlessness on the battlefield with the blood of his enemies. And perhaps her thought of him as her husband (her only reference to her husband in the text) in association with "the embracements of his bed" suggests a not-so-unconscious libidinal interest in him. This incestuous tie would have driven him still further away from a passionate bond with another woman, and his pallid attachment to “silent” Virgilia seems to confirm this. Thus, Volumnia, the bitch-mother, destroyed her little boy's libidinal pleasures, present and future, oral and genital. This left him only with his sadism which he inflicts on the rest of the world—with his mother's blessings.

    Accordingly, Volumnia presents us with a narrative in which she traumatized her own little son, giving him little choice but to incorporate the attitudes she pressed on him. And indeed throughout the text, Coriolanus lives out an identification with his mother's cruel attitudes, finally leading Rome's enemies against his own native city. As Kahn puts it: "Volumnia has succeeded all too well in making her son not a person but a personification, a grotesque caricature of Roman manhood" (p. 157).

    Thus, we have neatly arrayed before us the helpless, abused child-victim who becomes the adult-victimizer and the omnipotent abuser-mother who is the cause of it all. Both partners in crime are thus clearly identified and securely labeled. And voila`, we are now in the fortunate position of knowing just who the enemy is and how she created one of Shakespeare's least likeable characters. It is obvious—too obvious, I argue: we are to hate cruel Volumnia, and perhaps even feel some jot of sympathy for poor, unlovable Coriolanus!

    Thus encouraged by Volumnia's own rhetoric, critics, both feminist and psychoanalytic, follow closely her words-on-the-page and condemn her, even though none of these commentators could be classified as a New Critic. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that critical commentary is replete with epithets such as "bitch-goddess," "monster-maker," and "harridan," epithets that call into question her "mankind"; only someone—or something—less than human could deliberately harm her child. This uncritical acceptance of Volumnia's self-report demonizes her—just as she demonizes herself. And, of course, this demonization deflects us from searching for additional factors that might make her behavior with Coriolanus at least more understandable, if not forgivable.

    It is also interesting to note that holding Volumnia responsible for Coriolanus's personality closely parallels the formulations of psychotherapists whose empathic understanding is limited to their patients and stops short of their patients' parents. While this therapeutic approach may be useful, perhaps even desirable under some circumstances, it must also be acknowledged that it is incomplete. Parents, real and literary, also require understanding, even—perhaps especially—those who flaunt their culpability and provoke our censure.

    There is yet another factor that prevents us from understanding Volumnia: we gain something by labeling her the evil, omnipotent parent. This allows us to accord her son at least a modicum of sympathy: he is, after all, the innocent victim of that awful mother. If we can discover ways in which he was a victim, then we can empathize, at least to some extent, with Coriolanus, despite his belligerent, antipathetic attitude. Thus, critics are able to point out that Coriolanus eventually does mature, shows mercy to his family, and finally spares Rome—all this, of course, in spite of Volumnia's upbringing. Walker refers to “the critical commonplace that Marcius has now become human and will die as a result” (p. 183).

    But Volumnia is kept apart and almost never granted the understanding accorded her son. She remains marginalized throughout critical inquiry: the eternal, immutable witch-mother who, like Sycorax (Caliban's witch-mother), created a monster. Even Luckj, rare among critics in regarding Volumnia as a “fully developed figure with a capacity for psychic depth and change,” momentarily speaks of her as harming her son despite her “agonized awareness of the costs of her actions” (p. 329). Barzilai, in her essay, does not censure Volumnia but holds that she is but a literary device, necessary for dramaturgic purposes, rather than a representation of a real, in-the-flesh mother. Barzilai also offers a persuasively argued reading of Coriolanus as suffering from an "[internal] impulse silently pressing for the dissolution of the self," what Freud called the “death instinct” (p. 96). Although I have some difficulty with the concept of an inborn, inwardly directed “death instinct,” this aspect of Barzilai's reading is adjacent to my own in that she postulates that Coriolanus is driven by internal forces beyond his—and Volumnia's—control.

    Bamber, like many other critics, sees Volumnia as “a monumental figure quite incapable of change and devoid of complexity” (p. 102). But this is precisely the problem: Volumnia's report of her child rearing is completely devoid of complexity. It lacks all mention of the baffling problems, the endless uncertainties, the vexing contradictions inevitable in any parent's attempt to rear a child. Accordingly, we know that there must be vast areas of her child rearing completely concealed behind the stony facade Volumnia presents to the world. And so she remains a monolithic figure, portrayed in the text and in critical commentary alike as closer to granite than flesh and blood, all hard, repellent surface with no depth.

    In the absence of so much information about the details of Volumnia's parenting, we need to acknowledge that we are in the midst of a relative vacuum about Coriolanus's development and must proceed cautiously with any attempt to fill that vacuum with conjecture. We certainly cannot simply accept as complete Volumnia's strident proclamation that there is a simple, direct, cause-effect relationship between the way she raised him and the way he turned out as an adult. Accordingly, we need to subject her account to the same scrutiny and skepticism that we accord the narratives of other fictive characters whose depths and complexities are hidden beneath the facade of their words. What then might be missing and therefore hidden from sight in Volumnia's account?

Information Missing from Volumnia's Account

    In pointing out what is missing from Volumnia's account, my principal goal is to undermine certainty: the nearly unanimous critical certainty induced by her own words, that she created Coriolanus's personality out of whole cloth. Answers to the questions I shall raise are simply not available in the text, and I certainly do not intend to draw any firm conclusions based on what is absent; Shakespeare does not attempt to present us with a clinical case history, and Barzilai is correct that Volumnia is a literary device and that device part of the project for the drama. Thus, mere absence from the text signifies nothing; the play's always the thing. My purpose in this section is simply to create enough uncertainty to encourage further reader interrogation of the text for alternative explanations of Volumnia's behavior toward Coriolanus.4

    But Volumnia is much more than simply a literary device; she is also a superbly drawn literary character, and her words therefore are as open to inquiry as the words of a real mother. If we can locate crucial lacunae in her assertions, if we can become less convinced that we know exactly what Volumnia did or did not do, we shall be in a better position to study the words-on-the-page to gain a deeper understanding of her role in her son's development.

    So what are these areas of missing information? Volumnia speaks as if she were the only influence on Coriolanus during his childhood. How can this be true? Volumnia, despite her other faults, is neither shy nor retiring, not the sort of person likely to have isolated herself with her child. Surely, the patrician Volumnia would at least have had the usual slave girl to raise him.

    And where is his father in all this? What was his father's role in Coriolanus's life, and how did the child react to him and his loss?5 (Plutarch tells us that although Coriolanus lost his father “early . . . . his father survived to hear of his [son's] successful generalship at Leuctra.”)6 Was there a grandparent, relative, or friend involved with Coriolanus to help his mother with him? We know absolutely nothing of other possible formative influences in Coriolanus's childhood, other than Volumnia herself.

    And let us consider the style of Volumnia's rhetoric as she reports of Coriolanus's earliest years. We note that her report is highly selective. Totally absent from her words are the usual travails of parenting: the child's unpredictable mood swings; inexplicable preferences and aversions; puzzling fears, phobias, and nightmares. We do not even hear of the temper tantrums and the exasperating negativism that so many children exhibit and that we would expect in the childhood of anyone as hostile as the adult Coriolanus.

    Instead of these difficult aspects of child rearing, Volumnia's proud chronicle of his childhood omits anything about him over which she had no control. Rather, she presents her parenting as if she had been in total command of the situation and had deliberately programmed her child-warrior's actions, which he then dutifully carried out. All moments of uncertainty or helplessness are omitted; hardly surprising, for, after all, Volumnia is our historian. Only indirectly and inferentially do Volumnia's words allow us to glimpse where she might have had difficulty or perhaps even failed with him at times. I shall return to this later.

    Thus, her account is simple—much too simple, I argue: her monstrous golem sprang out of the mold she carefully formed, and behaved precisely the way she had planned. This outcome is in sharp contrast to what usually happens in real parent-child relationships where there is nearly always significant frustration of parental expectation—an aspect of developmental reality faithfully recorded elsewhere in Shakespeare's oeuvre; Prince Hal, Henry VI, Goneril, and Regan are examples. With these characters, Shakespeare's art faithfully reflects the experience of real parents whose plans for their children so often founder on the rocks of their children's individuality. In contrast, Volumnia hardly mentions any difficulties with her plans for her son and omits completely Coriolanus's temperament—his own natural inclinations aside from hers—and this omission call our attention to this very sector of his personality development.

    Volumnia tells us almost nothing about this aspect of his personality as a child, apart from what she wanted for him; there must have been more to him than compliantly following her wish that he become a soldier. Of course, it is impossible to believe that his natural temperament was shy and introverted, and certainly there is no indication of this in the text. But if by any chance, he were naturally inclined to be a quiet child, so very different than he is now, it would reinforce Volumnia's claim that she molded him. But I intend to show later on that there are indications in the text that he was always quite the opposite of a quiet child: that he had always been difficult and, at times, impossible for Volumnia to control. In this, he might have been just like his son, also named Marcius, who so cruelly "mammocked" a butterfly (1.3.65).

    In addition to what we do not know about Coriolanus's childhood, we must also be cautious about what we think we know from Volumnia's words. Her self-report of her mothering insists on her harshness toward him (and we need not question this), but her very insistence leads us to wonder what might be concealed beneath this strident claim. Doth the lady protest too much? Is it really possible that she loved him only when he acted like a monster? It seems unlikely to me that any mother who is not psychotic could behave this way toward her child, and the text does not represent Volumnia as psychotic.

    Certainly she seems to love him now. She tells him, “Thy valiantness was mine, thou suckedst it from me” (3.2.152), and this speech is often cited as emblematic of her problematic attitude toward him. But if this is not merely Volumnia's metaphoric statement for her early influence on him, if she did in fact suckle him (and why should we doubt her words?), we need to give her credit for giving him her breast instead of turning him over to a wet-nurse as was customary for aristocrats in Shakespeare's time. And to my ear, “thou suckedst it from me” has the ring of a declaration of maternal love—disguised and concealed behind her haughtiness, but nevertheless a visceral affirmation of their organic bond. She thus affirms their basic, primal connection: her breast, his mouth; her milk, his blood; we would hardly expect a tender declaration of love from this woman. Accordingly, I read her braggadocio here as possibly concealing strong, maternal feelings for her baby. Thus, Coriolanus's early bond with his mother might well have included love that was both nurturing and affirming, and not solely contingent on his acting out his aggression.

    It also seems to me likely that this woman who is so fearful of her own dependency might be able to identify with her baby and thus take special vicarious pleasure in giving him her breast and her love. She thus could have vicariously gratified her own dependent needs by feeding her child—gratification by proxy, as it were. And indeed this may be a universal dynamic.7 And even if we grant that Volumnia could not have verbally expressed tender love for her baby, her facial statement, the way she held him, and her eye contact would have transmitted a nonverbal message quite at variance with the report she gives us of those early years.

    Of course, we have no way of knowing any of this for sure, certainly not with this fictional character—and often not with real parents' inevitably flawed recall of the past. But we do need to acknowledge that there is a great deal we simply don't know and that it is at least a possibility that Volumnia provided Coriolanus with a better early holding environment than is readily apparent on the surface of the text.

    The possibility that Coriolanus experienced a better environment is important for our attempt to construct a childhood for him. If he were indeed provided with a better environment by a less monolithic Volumnia, it means that he was offered a variety of emotional experiences with which to identify. Why then did he identify himself so exclusively as a warrior if other, more benign identities were also available to him?

    There was, of course, his mother's urging him to become a soldier and this must have played a part, although we must also keep in mind the dubious fate of parental plans for their offspring. But I argue that there was another factor, completely independent of Volumnia, that caused him to selectively adopt this particular identity. An unusual, constitutional predilection for aggression (possibly even genetic, since his son is so like him) would lay the foundation for this identity, which his mother then so assiduously encouraged. Children with a constitutional—although not necessarily genetic—predilection for aggression are well known to developmental psychologists and child psychoanalysts.8

    But before we can accept the possibility of Coriolanus's own constitutional temperament as fundamental to his identity, we need something more substantial than what is missing from Volumnia's account; we need positive support from what is present in the text. Accordingly, I shall now try to show how the text may be read to reveal a less implacable, more complex Volumnia who could therefore have offered her child a range of choices for possible identification. Then I shall explore the text for indications that Coriolanus was driven by forces within himself—independent of his mother— to form an identity based on acting out aggression.

A More Complex Volumnia

     The text, of course, offers no contemporaneous account of Coriolanus's childhood; we have only Volumnia's backward glances. But we do have an indirect source of information: we learn something of their relationship as they interact with each other as adults. What we learn of them in this way, we may cautiously project backward into the past. Of course, their circumstances at the time represented in the text are radically different from the child-rearing years, but Volumnia is still the same woman, and her son, I shall try to show, might have been quite the same as a small child as he is in the “now” of the text.

    We glimpse a more complex, although certainly no less manipulative, Volumnia in 3.2. Here she joins with the nobles to urge Coriolanus to retract his defiance of the people and thus regain their votes for consul. Of course, he resists as before; he cannot force himself to submit to the commoners any more than he could yield to the enemy.9 To him, they are one and the same, and therefore he is puzzled by her request. He protests: “Why do you wish me milder? Would you have me/ False to my nature? Rather, say I play/ The man I am” (l. 15-18). He seems convinced that the way to gain her love is by brutal, uncompromising behavior. Her wish for him to be "milder" violates his perception of her as the infernal she-cat who loves her kitten only when he kills. And this perception of her has been at the core of his relationship with her since he was a child.

    But I argue that his perception of her is also a misperception. Later in the scene, she points out his misperception to him: “I prithee now, sweet son, as thou hath said/ My praises made thee first a soldier, so,/ To have my praise for this, perform a part/ Thou hast not done before” (3.2.131-34). Volumnia thus challenges his perception of her by pointing out that he could also have her love (“praise”) by controlling himself at times. And this, she tells him—and us—is something that he has “hast not done before,” and this then opens the possibility that he has always defied her.

    Although Volumnia may be exaggerating, trying to manipulate him by inducing guilt, I argue that these words may also be read as an implied challenge to the very developmental theory she had earlier constructed with her “breasts of Hecuba” speech. She now opens the possibility that, when he was a child, she had also wanted him to control himself at times, certainly at least enough to protect those close to him—including her— from his aggression. But something—I argue that it was his constitutional nature—frustrated any attempt by her, or anyone else, to discipline him, and he failed to develop adequate controls. Later on, this developmental failure has its most dramatic statement when the citizens of Rome reject him and he plans to slaughter everyone he cares about, including his own family.

    Accordingly, Volumnia's early relationship with Coriolanus might have been far more difficult and complicated than she now admits. It is true, she wanted him to be a warrior, but she also wanted a warrior who could contain his aggression when the situation demanded it. He, however, was unable to integrate any sustained self-discipline into his personality. Thus, Coriolanus was able to identify with only some of his mother's wishes and attitudes; with others he obviously could not. This difference between what Coriolanus took into his personality from his mother and what he did not can be accounted for by his constitutional temperament which explains why he developed his rigid, narrow, hectoring personality without any of his mother's capacity for self-restraint.

    When Volumnia responds to her son's insistence that he “play the man” he is, she further underscores just how far he deviates from what she wants for him:

You might have been enough the man you are With striving to be less so. Lesser had been The thwarting of your dispositions if You had not showed them how you were disposed, Ere they lacked power to cross you (3.2.23-27).

    Volumnia points out that he might have prevailed if he had been less mule-headed; he should have concealed his true feelings and then asserted himself when the tribunes were less powerful. Such deception would be easy for Volumnia, for she “would dissimulate with my nature where / My fortunes and my friends at stake requir'd / I should do so in honor” (3.2.77-79). Volumnia combines Machiavellian deceit with Juno-like arrogance. Although little this offensive woman says about herself is calculated to make us love her, she does clearly reveal her appreciation of and capacity for self-restraint. And this she urges on her son.

    But her words are wasted on him. For Coriolanus, to be “less so” is to be less indeed, and he remains unmoved. After much futile begging and cajoling, Volumnia then follows her own advice and appears to give up; perhaps she even dissimulates to have her way with him. But in doing so, she provides us with a another glimpse of how he frustrates—and probably had always frustrated—her efforts to teach him self-control:

                                        At thy choice then. To beg of thee, it is my more dishonor Than thou of them. Come all to ruin. Let Thy mother rather feel thy pride than fear Thy dangerous stoutness; for I mock at death With as big heart as thou. Do as thou list. Thy valiantness was mine, thou suckedst it from me; But owe thy pride thyself (3.2.149-153).

    Although probably still hoping that she can somehow bend his will to hers, she resigns herself to Coriolanus's stubbornness and gives him his choice because she realizes she has no choice. She accepts what she cannot change, but rather than weep and bemoan her fate, she characteristically stiffens her resolve: “For I mock at death/ With as big heart as thou.” Perhaps she also consoles herself by reverting to her original developmental theory and claiming credit for creating him: “Thy valiantness was mine, thou suckedst it from me.” But despite the pride she feels, we may also wonder whether her words conceal some feeling of guilt because she knows that the same “valiantness” he sucked from her now also propels him toward self-destruction (“Come all to ruin”). I shall return to the issue of her guilt  later.

    We need to note here that Volumnia accepts the reality of her son's intractable stubbornness and does give in to him, albeit arrogantly and ill-temperedly; grace is not her virtue. But she does in fact yield, and her capacity to do so is in sharp contrast to her son's inability to do so except under the most extreme circumstances, as when he is about to destroy the city of his birth.

    I argue that Volumnia's capacity to accept reality and accommodate herself to it—if only under duress—is as much a part of her character structure as her arrogance. In possessing this capacity, her character is radically different from his; she is far more mature and highly developed than her son. She thoroughly appreciates the subtlety of strength in the acceptance of weakness and the futility of stubborn persistence in the face of certain opposition; her son considers all this to be merely weakness. Even if we concede that Volumnia does all this accommodating manipulatively, to induce guilt and thus gain ultimate victory over her son, we must also concede that at least she has the capacity to do so and he most assuredly does not.

    And let us note especially the last line of her verse: “But owe thy pride thyself.” Here again, as earlier in the scene, she challenges her self-aggrandizing theory of her role in his development. But this time her challenge is quite explicit as she directly points to her son’s own constitutional nature as the root cause of his uncompromising behavior.

    Of course, her “owe thy pride thyself” reflects Volumnia's anger with her son for his defying her, and she now disclaims responsibility for him: this “pride” of his—she means his mule-headedness— certainly did not come from her! But I read that more is suggested here. She informs her son—and the reader—that she perceives something deep within him that drives his extraordinary belligerence and undermines his self-control. Although she happily acknowledges that he took in a full measure of her “valiantness,” she also insists that he certainly did not take in a jot of her capacity to accommodate to the demands of reality. There must be something about him that determines just what he can take in from her and what he cannot. He is not simply a product of her creation as she had claimed earlier; he owes his stiff-necked pride to himself.

    Thus, Volumnia's words here openly and directly subverts the very developmental history she had earlier advocated with her "breasts of Hecuba" speech. She thereby undermines her (far from unique) imagery of the child as an empty receptacle who sucks in parental attitudes en masse, like milk from a breast. Yet, despite this challenge to her original theory, there is still truth in what she told us earlier: children do indeed take in and identify with parental attitudes. Her original developmental theory remains intact; she has merely added a layer of complexity.

    Now we can see that there is much more to the story of her son's development than simply victimization by a bitch-mother who turned her child into a monster and drove him to destruction. We can now glimpse that her innocent babe might not have been quite so innocent after all: he may have been born with unusually powerful aggressive tendencies that his mother then carefully nurtured—sometimes to her regret. Accordingly, Volumnia's own words tell us—here much more softly than in her earlier proclamations— that she is not to be held entirely responsible for her son's personality; Coriolanus's own nature makes him quite impossible for her and anyone else. And, as I shall show later, there is still more textual indication that he has always been difficult.

     But if it is true that he has always been this difficult, why does Volumnia not simply tell us of the trouble she had disciplining him? Some mothers would make this clear at once. Why does she construct a developmental narrative—now let us call it her “private theory”— that indicts her for his problems, omitting precisely anything that she could not control and which would then tend to absolve her?

Volumnia's Private Theory

    On the surface, Volumnia's private theory derives from her moment in history and her persona; she certainly has little motivation for historic accuracy. In Roman times, as in Shakespeare's, the cult of militarism securely held the popular imagination and she is very much a creature of the times, as Barzilai points out. As the fiercely proud and supremely narcissistic mother of Rome's triumphant savior-general, she takes credit for his fearless behavior on the battlefield; she euphemistically calls it his “valiantness.” And she is partly justified in taking credit, but I believe that there are other, less obvious reasons that she assumes responsibility for him.

    Her son is not only Rome's savior; he is also in constant difficulty with the citizens, so her pride in him cannot be completely unalloyed by doubt. And Volumnia is constantly made painfully aware of his inability to compromise, a fatal flaw that must eventually destroy him. Like most parents, she probably feels guilty and responsible for his problems, despite her attempt to deny it at times. This feeling of guilt seems to plague parents of troubled children whether or not they did in fact contribute to their child's problems. For Volumnia, the guilt would be especially strong since she had deliberately fostered his belligerence. Goaded by this guilt, Volumnia, like many real mothers, would then embark on an understandable but often ill-conceived attempt to locate a cause for his behavior in the way she had raised him.

    And Volumnia does not have far to search, for she already claims credit for his “valiantness” on the battlefield. Why, then, is she not also responsible when this same trait becomes self-defeating stubbornness in the political warfare of the forum? Is she not responsible for this as well? Thus, she constructs a narrative in which she is both the Juno-like mother who created a hero and the bitch-goddess who drives her son to destruction. And, of course, this arrogant, willful woman, who is so fearful of vulnerability, would find it extremely difficult to speak her mea culpa; for her, this is a feeling that dare not speak its name. So, she crows about what she thinks she did to him, rather than speaking softly or with shame as she might if she were a less rigidly defended and more open about her feelings.

    Thus Volumnia's combined feelings of narcissistic omnipotence and guilt—rather than, say, an intuitive understanding of the subtleties and complexities of child-rearing, structure her story of her son's development. She then buttresses her narrative by collecting only data that supports this theory, overlooking data that undermines it (essayists, beware!). Partial truth then becomes the whole truth for Volumnia, and she takes full responsibility for Coriolanus's problems. This is exactly the way real parents of troubled children and adults develop their self-accusatory theories that place them squarely at the center of blame, bearing out Bacon's observation that “human understanding, once it has adopted an opinion, collects instances that confirm it.” And, of course, the credibility of Volumnia's private pleading is enhanced by Shakespeare's art.

    Let me be clear here: I do not argue that she bears no responsibility for him; I agree with the other critics that she does. Rather, I argue that her guilt and narcissism lead her to construct an overly simplified narrative, a narrative that focuses exclusively on those aspects of her child-rearing for which she really does bear responsibility and to omit all divergent and confounding aspects: for example, how helpless or confused she must have been at times—just like all parents. And we might also note in passing that Shakespeare always reflects complexity in his main characters. The very absence of complexity in Volumnia's strident proclamations prompts us to locate the subtle nuances and contradictions in her narrative that Shakespeare might only reveal sotto voce.

    However, there is one place in the text where Volumnia speaks out plainly about the difficulties she had with Coriolanus as a child and openly contradicts her claim of having intentionally created him.

Coriolanus as Author of Himself

    In the “supplication scene” (5.3), Coriolanus has joined with the enemy to lead an attack on Rome. Volumnia, now on her knees along with Virgilia and her grandson, begs him to spare the city but Coriolanus coldly refuses. Volumnia, now desperate, implores him:

                                       There's no man in the world More bound to's mother, yet here he lets me prate Like one i' the stocks. Thou hast never in thy life Showed thy dear mother any courtesy, When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood, Has lucked thee to the wars, and safely home Laden with honors (5.3.158-164).

    Volumnia no longer takes pride in his “valiantness”; now she berates him for his intransigence. He makes her feel completely helpless, “like one i' the stocks,” and she fears that she cannot deter him from the destructive path he seems determined to pursue. Her helplessness with him highlights an curious anomaly in their relationship: although he is tightly bonded to her (“There's no man in the world / More bound to's mother”), he is also quite capable of completely ignoring her wishes. And, central to this reading, she then tells him—and us—that this contradiction, now his defiance of her pleading in Aufidius's camp, exactly replicates their relationship when he was a child: “Thou hast never in thy life / Showed thy dear mother any courtesy, / When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood, / Has clucked thee to the wars.” Now we can better understand the inner dynamics of Coriolanus's relationship with his mother: this military hero's adult relationship with his mother continues his infantile attachment to her, complete with all the ambivalence and defiance that are always part of that early relationship.

    Although Volumnia here may be trying again to control him by making him feel guilty, her words also provide us with important additional information about his childhood. She suggests that he always had been a difficult, at times an unmanageable child. Perhaps she had finally despaired of trying to discipline such a child and granted his wish to be a soldier, a real possibility for young boys in those times. She might even have told herself that her brave little boy could look after himself, and therefore she could let him go and do as he wished. Forced acquiescence, rather than real agreement with his demands, became a prototype of how she had to deal with him: she gave him his choice because she had no choice, just as when she failed to help him gain the votes of the commoners. Her metaphor of the “poor hen” who clucked him off to the wars then exactly expresses her feelings as she helplessly watched her little son strut fearlessly into harm's way. Now as an adult, he behaves with her (and everyone else) just as he behaved with her when he was a child.

    And we can note just how far Volumnia's account has changed from her braggadocio in 1.3; she now presents us with a radically different narrative of Coriolanus's childhood. She no longer refers to herself as an acrobat who “sprang in joy . . . . at first hearing he was a man child” nor as the Juno-like mother who poured “valiantness” down his gullet. Now she tells us that she was but a “poor hen” who could only stand helplessly by and cluck her child off to war. Thus we have two entirely different versions of their history together, and this contradiction demands our attention. What was the real situation then: did she joyfully send her little boy off to war, or was she powerless to stop him? The text points Janus-like in both directions, and therefore we have no way of knowing which version is correct.

    One could argue that here in Aufidius's camp Volumnia grotesquely exaggerates—perhaps even feigns—how difficult he was as a child, and we should not trust her words. She has already told us: “I would dissimulate with my nature where / My fortunes and my friends at stake requir'd / I should do so in honor.” How can we trust the words of such an unscrupulous woman? But that does not mean that now we can totally dismiss her words here as outright fabrications. If we were to do this here, how would we decide which of her words to dismiss and which to privilege? Could we dismiss her boast that she turned him into a warrior and simply attribute the claim to her overweening vanity?

    The words-on-the-page need to prevail, and we must accept the possibility that both versions are correct: Volumnia was a malignant bitch-goddess and a pathetic poor hen. Accordingly, we need to develop a reading that integrates both versions and reconciles them with the rest of the text. And this provides greater verisimilitude, for an integration that accommodates widely divergent and conflicting narratives comes closer to the usual complexities encountered in real mother-child relationships.

Two Histories: One Coriolanus

    With these two versions in mind, let us return to 1.3, where Volumnia crowed about how she raised Coriolanus to be a warrior. Recall her “Away you fool!” (l. 39) which began her “breasts of Hecuba” verse, her callous response to Virgilia's concern for her husband's safety.

    In the integration I propose, Virgilia's fear for her husband's safety recalls for Volumnia her own fears for little Coriolanus (or Marcius, as he was then called) when he was off at the wars. Volumnia's dismissive “Away, you fool” then becomes a repetition of her defense against her own fears for her “tender-bodied” child: she dismissed her fears by telling herself that she was just being foolish. This, of course, is exactly how women have had to stifle their fears for their soldier sons (and now daughters) throughout the ages. She could then “leave this faint puling and lament” for her little boy: anger is her meat; lament, her poison.

    But, of course, she does far more than simply defend herself against her fears; she also gratifies her own prodigious hostility by urging her son on the bloody course that he is determined to pursue. In this, she is like Freud's rider in his analogy of the ego's relationship with the id: the ego-rider can steer the id-horse only in the direction the horse wants to go (Freud 1923). And she gains narcissistic satisfaction by arrogating “credit” for having raised a man-child who returns to her with “brows bound with oak.”

    And here in 1.3, there is one small, additional textual support for reading Volumnia as both helpless to control his wild behavior and encouraging it. In the long prose speech in which Volumnia first tells us how she raised her son, she proclaims her joy “in that absence wherein he won honor.” She insists that “to a cruel war, I sent him”; “sent” is used here in the sense of “dispatched” (l. 13). But we note also that later on in the same speech, she tells us that she “was pleased to let him seek danger where he was to find fame”; “let” is used here in the sense of “permit.” Perhaps this is another instance of her “at thy choice”: she lets him seek danger because she is unable to stop him. Volumnia again bows to the inevitable and endorses it as her choosing. And, of course, on still another level, his hostile behavior is of her choosing!

    Thus, both of Volumnia's versions of Coriolanus's childhood history are correct: she encouraged her son's aggression and, at the same time, felt relatively powerless to prevent it. And, as he grew older, physically stronger and more independent, she had even less control and had to let him go ever further, finally into the ultimate act of aggression: war.10 Thus I read Shakespeare's characterization of Coriolanus as a savage son of an equally savage mother, his nature nourished by her nurture, a match made in heaven and hell.

    In questioning the conventional commentary on Volumnia, I raise the perplexing problem of the limitations of retrospective construction by both psychoanalysts and psychoanalytic literary critics of the parents' role in causing emotional problems in their children. Long before Freud, this problem bedeviled parents as they tried to understand their own errors in child rearing in a similar effort to account for problems in their offspring. The accuracy of all retrospective constructions—by psychoanalyst, critic, and parent alike—is almost always compromised by conscious and unconscious selection, as all parties tend to select data which seem congruent with present problems and to eliminate data which are not. And the record of prediction of adult personality characteristics of children by direct observation of their parents is equally dismal: to date, no research study, based solely on parental attitude, has predicted prospectively how a given child will turn out. Of course, parents do bear a heavy responsibility for their child's emotional development, but the degree of parental responsibility for serious emotional problems in their offspring and the precise role of environmental influences on the child remain a largely unresolved issues in child developmental research.

    Earlier in the century, pioneering child therapists “resolved” the problem of parental accountability for the children's emotional difficulties by holding the parents completely responsible. In some extreme instances, this attitude led to treating only the parents and withholding treatment from the troubled children. Although including the parents in the therapeutic milieu can be very helpful, the position of holding parents solely responsible led to decades of clinical obfuscation and scapegoating of parents. Most clinicians now consider that complex constitutional factors in the child interact with equally complex environmental influences to determine adult personality. This intricate circularity precisely parallels the complex, reverberating dynamic seen in all close relationships. How easy it was when we could avert all this complexity and simply fault the Volumnias of the real and fictional world!

    The expansion of developmental theory to include the child's own personality and his/her constitution demands that we move beyond merely blaming Volumnia. Including Coriolanus's own constitutional predisposition in our schema opens the possibility that his temperament when he was a child was much the same as it is in the “now” of the text: he was overcharged with aggression and internally driven into wild and reckless behavior. In this reading then, the hyperaggressive child, Caius Martius, is father to the reckless warrior, Coriolanus.11

    Clinicians have followed such children as they mature into adulthood, and distressingly often their problems dangerously persist.12 Many have difficulties with the law and are imprisoned. Coriolanus, of course, was a law unto himself until he violated Roman tradition, and was banished—the equivalent of imprisonment for Roman aristocrats. Then he turned against his own republic and literally became an outlaw.

    Thus, I read Volumnia's words as recalling the dilemma of a mother who finds herself trying to raise a hyperaggressive child. Such children can drive their mothers to distraction, and, in turn, many mothers respond by trying hard to curb them; some, in desperation, even risk breaking their spirit. But instead, Volumnia's own character structure caused her to adapt to her unruly son's ways and finally to take pleasure in his audacity. She tells us: “I had rather have eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” (1.3.24-5). Although words like these might distress the modern reader, one could easily argue that, given the Zeitgeist, Volumnia's support of Coriolanus's aggression contained elements of positive adaptation to the real dangers that surrounded Rome in those early days.

    At the beginning of the “supplication scene,” Coriolanus sees Volumnia, Virgilia, and his son, Marcius, approaching his tent in Aufidius's camp. His resolve starts to melt, for he really is “not of stronger earth than others.” He tries to firm his resolve by disavowing his bond with them:

                                       . . . I'll never Be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand, As if a man were author of himself And knew no other kin (5.3.37-40).

    Of course, his subjunctive “as if a man were author of himself” completely undermines his denial of his attachment to his family, and in fact his words do the precise opposite: his use of the conditional reaffirms his strong bond with them. He is as imprinted with his family as if he were one of Lorenz's goslings. And, according to the reading I propose, his selection of the word “instinct” here may contain still another layer of meaning: a reference to his feeling of being driven by forces deep within himself, not subject to his conscious control and quite apart from his intellect, Trieb in the Freudian sense. In this sense, he is indeed “author of himself.”

    Thus the text may be read as a Shakespearean questioning of the egalitarian but overly optimistic view of the baby's mind as a tabula rasa on which the parents inscribe their mark. I have tried to show that the text also represents how parents make their mark on the background of the child's inborn, constitutional proclivities. Thus, the analogy is more properly with a painting exhibiting pentimento or with a palimpsest, rather than with inscription on a blank slate. We might even speculate about what would have happened had Coriolanus been born a more sensitive, even fearful child. Then he might have responded with anxiety to his mother's bloody wishes for him and become withdrawn, perhaps even hidden behind her skirts. But now we leave the text too far behind.


1 Awarded the 1998 Robert J. Stoller Foundation Prize, for an essay on “psychoanalytically informed research in the bio-behavioral sciences, social sciences, or humanities.” Presented at The American Academy of Psychoanalysis, Toronto, Canada July 1998. (Back to Main Text)

2 All quotations follow The Folger Library General Reader’s Edition of The Tragedy of Coriolanus, Louis B. Wright and Virginia A. LaMar, eds., New York: Washington Square Press, 1962. (Back to Main Text)

3 In a later publication, Kahn (1992) expands upon her formulation by pointing out that both Volumnia and Coriolanus are victims of Roman militarism: “As a mother, [Volumnia] is of course subjected to the dominant ideology, --but she is also instrumental to it, and thus central to the play's critique of virtus.” p. 165. (Back to Main Text)

4 Volumnia never taxes our negative capability but instead propels us into what Keats terms an “irritable reaching after fact and reason.” (Back to Main Text)

5 Joseph Wagner (personal communication) points out that the absence of Coriolanus's father made him more vulnerable to his mother's pernicious influence. (Back to Main Text)

6 Plutarch's account of Coriolanus's contact with his father is somewhat ambiguous. Plutarch tells us both that Coriolanus's father died “early” and that: “[I]t was the greatest felicity of his [Coriolanus's] whole life that his father and mother survived to hear of his successful generalship at Leuctra. . . . And he had the advantage, indeed, to have both parents partake with him, and enjoy the pleasures of his good fortune. But, Marius, believing himself bound to pay his mother Volumnia all that gratitude and duty which would have belonged to his father, had he been alive, could never satiate himself in his tenderness and respect to her.” (North's translation). (Back to Main Text)

7 The reader can observe this dynamic firsthand by watching a baby being fed, and glancing at the caretaker's mouth which almost invariably opens simultaneously with the baby's. (Back to Main Text)

8 For an overview of recent psychiatric research on this aspect of child development, see Zeanah et al and Mannuzza et al and Pajer. For a psychoanalytic perspective on hyperactive children, see Gilmore. The current scientific literature on the heritability of constitutional tendencies for hyperaggression is not as nearly as compelling as studies indicating the importance of early constitutional factors in themselves, of whatever cause. (Back to Main Text)

9 Coriolanus tries to obey his mother's urging to pretend to submit himself to the people and even dons the “gown of humility.” But before he can gain their votes, he is provoked to renew his defiance, just as the tribunes had planned all along. (Back to Main Text)

10 Plutarch tells us he went off to war as a "stripling." (Back to Main Text)

11 In Plutarch's account, Coriolanus “began at once, from his very childhood, to handle arms; feeling that adventitious implements and artificial arms would effect little.” Was this an indication of an unusually strong and dangerous aggressive temperament? It surely would indicate this in modern times but even if this were also true for a boy in early Rome, we know that Shakespeare freely adapted Plutarch. Yet, I think it means something that Shakespeare read Plutarch and closely followed him, at times almost word-for-word, in other places in this text. (Back to Main Text)

12 For longitudinal studies of hyperactive children , see Klein et al, Manuzza et al, and Pajer. (Back to Main Text)

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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Marvin Krims "In Defense of Volumnia's Mothering in Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Coriolanus". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available December 5, 2023 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: October 6, 2001, Published: October 6, 2001. Copyright © 2001 Marvin Krims