Bill Long 1/2/08
Ultimately--To Himself Alone
The first impression you might get of the warrior Coriolanus ("C") is that he not only is committed exclusively to military valor (he lacks "balance" as my women friends would say to me) but that he also is utterly committed to Rome. After all, why be such a warrior on behalf of Rome if it isn't the welfare of Rome that is your ultimate joy? This was certainly the way he was raised by his mother Volumnia. She wanted him to wear the oaken crown, the sign that he had bested his opponents on the battlefield. Her attitude is captured well in I.iii, in a conversation with Virgilia, C's wife. Volumnia can see in her mind's eye the bloody brow of her son, and she rejoices. Virgilia, however, recoils in horror:
Vir. "His bloody brow? O Jupiter, no blood!
Vol. "Away, you fool! it more becomes a man Than gilt his trophy (i.e., than gold on the 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," 38-43.
Volumnia wants her son to come back with wounds because these wound will be his "badge," so to speak, when he puts on the light white tunic as a candidate (candidatus is Latin for 'clothed in white,') and seeks the support of the plebs. By donning this toga it will be more easy for C to display his wounds. When the people see his wounds, they will realize that he has suffered on behalf of the people and is worthy of consular office. We see this play out in II.iii.
Now we understand Volumnia's motivation as a mother. She, who was probably widowed or divorced shortly after C's birth, wants the ultimate "protection" and "honor" of the state. She can get this through her son if he rises to the level of consul. He can attain that level through his bloody exploits on behalf of Rome. Knowing this, Volumnia dedicated her life to making her son "tough as nails." The military valor of her son would provide the means for her to attain the fame for which she longed.
Coriolanus and His Military Valor
I think it is interesting how children "hear" the moral advice or values of their parents. Often children turn out to be like the parents, but sometimes they hear the parents' advice but lose some of the philosophy behind the advice. For example, one way to write about the history of American religion since WWII is to say that the children of the 1960s and 1970s "heard" their parents advice to become prosperous but that we didn't adopt the "mythology" or religious superstructure that fueled this belief--and that was a commitment to the "mainline" Protestant church. That is, the children get the ultimate message (wealth is important) but they lose the philosophical underpinning (God provides you with good things and deserves your worship).
I give this example because I think it is helpful in understanding C's motivations. In short, my thesis is that he "heard" his mother's advice, to be strong and tough as nails, but that he ignored the "mythology" or ideological superstructure behind her advice. She wanted him to be strong so that he could eventually become consul to protect her, but C was unable to adopt that belief. For C, it all stopped at military valor.
One remarkable passage gives us a window into C's attitude. In I.i, after being informed that the enemies, the Volsces, are in arms, Martius (not yet called Coriolanus) says:
"They have a leader,/ Tullus Aufidius, that will put you to't./ I sin in envying his nobility;/ And were I any thing but what I am,/ I would wish me only he," 228-232.
After this stunning admission, Cominius, one of the Roman commanders, says to him:
"You have fought together?" (i.e., against each other?)
"Were half to half the world by th'ears, and he
Upon my party, I'd revolt, to make
Only my wars with him. He is a lion
That I am proud to hunt," 233-236.
Here is a paraphrase of these lines. Martius is saying that if one half of the world was fighting against the other half, and that Aufidius was on his side ("upon my party"; though it seems to me that this phrase is ambiguous. Why couldn't it mean "upon" as "against" as well as "upon" as "accompanying"?), Martius would revolt or leave his side, pull himself out of the fight to fight against Aufidius alone ("make only my wars with him). In other words, he is so riveted on the way that Aufidius has either dissed him or challenges him that he simply would have to leave all in order to fight him.
Therefore, ultimately, what M does is not fight for Rome but fight for himself and the personal honor that comes through military conflict. Just as Tom Brady needs the New England Patriots to establish his "valor" in life, so Martius "needs" Rome to show his military virtue. Perhaps this then gives us an insight or window into M's reluctance to show his wounds to the plebs when he is candidating for office in II.iii. He tells them of his willingness to show the wounds "in private" (line 77; can't you imagine the scene--and now, for your own private viewing pleasure...drum roll... Coriolanus' wounds!), but he won't display them publicly. This may be an index of his arrogance--his "aw shucks" attitude which is, in fact, an indication of pride, but it also may indicate something else. Maybe M/C is reluctant to show off his wounds because he also knows, in his heart of heart, that he isn't committed to the office for which he is running. He finds it distateful to try to "buy" the support of the plebs because, ultimately, he doesn't want their support. He doesn't want or need the patrician support either. He is, in the final analysis, an island to himself, a person whose ultimate commitment is to his own toughness and reputation. Only Aufidius seems to stand now between that ambition and reality. If this is the case, then Coriolanus' later betrayal of Rome when his honor is besmirched fits into this. He really isn't the loyal foot-soldier or, better said, he is loyal only to a point. When it is no longer to his advantage to be loyal, he runs to the other side. He is the Dick Morris of the early Roman Republic.
His mother, Volumnia, could never have done this because she is, in her heart of hearts, a Roman. She is so utterly committed to the Roman system of doing things that her identity, though wrapped in her son, is found in being a citizen of Rome. What she didn't understand, and what parents of all generations don't understand, is that children are great bifurcators. They know how to split off the moral message from the mythology or ideology that underlies the message, adopt the message and then leave the mythology on the sidelines. So that is precisely what her son will do, and this passage gives us a foreshadowing of that attitude. It says, in a revealing way, that even if M/C was fighting on the same side as Aufidius against the rest of the world, he would stop fighting against the enemy so that he could join into a battle against Aufidius. Now, if that isn't a window into the soul, nothing is. So, keep this passage in mind as you follow M/C through his difficulties after his great victory. He can't "lower" himself to "beg" from the plebs because he ultimately doesn't really care about the state (Rome) which is trying to work out a modus vivendi between the patricians and the plebs. In fact, Coriolanus is a lone ranger. This will be the real issue of the tragedy.