Volumnia’s Dog: The Roman Classical Conditioning of Coriolanus

May 29, 2019 by Essay Writer

In William Shakespeare’s final tragedy Coriolanus, plebeians, senators, soldiers, enemies, and even some immediate family struggle in their attempts to indentify and characterize the essence of Caius Marcius Coriolanus. Coriolanus himself struggles for much of the final two acts of the play, trying out an identity that he ultimately realizes to be a contrived farce which contradicts his very nature. As much as Coriolanus would like to believe that he is author of himself, the evidence provided in Shakespeare’s text suggests otherwise. Despite the often fickle views of the plebeians and the subversive, dishonest attitudes held by Brutus and Sicinius, William Shakespeare’s text paints Coriolanus as a highly conditioned tool of the Roman state—an instrument of his mother Volumnia’s desires to purposefully breed a pure warrior, public servant, and the ultimate and ideal Roman citizen.Volumnia first conditions her son Caius Marcius as a young boy to be the ideal Roman warrior. She begins her training process by sending Marcius off “To a / cruel war” as a child (1.3.13-14), so that he may ‘prove himself to be a man’ (1.3.17). When hearing of this story, Virgilia, the wife of Coriolanus, expresses her displeasure and concern by asking Volumnia, “But had he died in the business, madam, / how then?” (1.3.18-19). Volumnia responds by saying that she had rather have eleven sons “die nobly for their country / than one voluptuously surfeit out of action” (1.3.24-25). Volumnia makes her distinction between duty and love very clear: It is more important for her that Marcius give his service, even if it means his life, to the state of the Rome. She thus subjects him at an early age to either prove himself an honorable man and warrior for Rome, or that he should die for choosing to live a life dedicated to the perusal of his own pleasures. Volumnia again reiterates her ideology when Virgilia expresses her anxiety and concerns for her husband being away at war. She tells Virgilia to express herself “in a more comfortable sort. If my son were / my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence / wherin he won honor than in the embracements of / his bed where he would show most love” (1.3.1-5). For Volumnia, to be Rome’s honorable warrior is even more important than one’s commitment to their family and children—one should not fret because their husband and child’s father may be gruesomely slain in battle, but that honor should outweigh all other virtues.Coriolanus directly reflects his mother’s conditioning through his actions and attitudes in being committed to the state. When speaking to his men, he scorns them for stealing spoils and being dishonorable to Rome, saying: “See here these movers that do prize their hours / At a cracked drachma!” (1.5.4-5). Coriolanus sees the spoils of monetary value as being morally and fundamentally worthless—he tells his men that honor, the only true value, can be achieved by having spirit for the state of Rome, and in fighting on their behalf.Coriolanus again displays Volumnia’s training as he wears the gown of humility and undergoes the ritual of humiliation to become consul for the betterment of Rome, despite having personal objections to the process. Though he does not wish to be publicly commended for his heroic service as a warrior, he undergoes the ritual on the grounds that it is tradition—as he says: “Custom calls me to’t…Rather than fool it so, / Let the high office and the honor go / To one that would do thus” (1.5.4-5). So despite his personal objections to the process, Coriolanus knows that it is a process of social custom and high importance to the Roman citizens. Instead of abstaining from the ancient custom, he partakes (to the best of his abilities) to do what is best for Rome and its citizens. Volumnia’s breeding has caused Coriolanus to forfeit any original, self-prescribed definitions of personal integrity; her conditioning has instead replaced self-examination and commitment to family with an ideal value system which places Roman honor and public service to the state above all other principles. Coriolanus only briefly loses his identity as a Roman warrior and public servant when Brutus and Sicinius falsely accuse him of being a traitor. As the Volumnia-formed foundation of his identity is pulled out from beneath him, he searches for a new role out of desperation. Being trained as a warrior, he naturally gravitates towards battle, and he attempts to be a mercenary-for-hire. The charade momentarily half-satisfies his quest—that is, until Volumnia reminds Coriolanus who he is and what he was raised to do. Volumnia teases out her son’s true identity when she says, “This fellow had a Volscian to his mother; / His wife is in Corioles, and his child / Like him by chance” (5.5.178-180). After Volumnia calls his bluff, Coriolanus can no longer stand to pretend anymore. He realizes that he is not simply a warrior, but a Roman warrior—he is not just any state’s citizen, but a committed Roman citizen whose very essence and duty is to the people of Rome and doing whatever is best for the state as a whole. Volumnia’s speech reminds Coriolanus where his commitments lay, and that he cannot escape his true Roman identity.Volumnia said in the very first act that she would rather have a son die nobly for the state than to seek-out his own pleasures, and she instills this in Coriolanus (1.3.24-25). He knows that he will die for brokering peace for Rome, yet he is still willing to do what is best for the state. It is precisely because of Volumnia’s conditioning and intentions to breed the ideal Roman citizen that Coriolanus’ life plays out as it does. Volumnia’s ideology is implanted into Marcius at a young age as she sends him off to battle to either prove an honorable man, or to die. Her teachings and ideals of what it means to be Rome’s warrior and servant directly cause Marcius to become Coriolanus, and pursue the life which we see before us. Volumnia single-handedly influences Marcius to value the state before family, honor before love, and public service before self-fleeting pleasures.Works CitedShakespeare, William. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Bevington, David. Sixth Edition. The University of Chicago: Pearson Education, Inc, 2009.

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