Destruction by Selflessness

In Shakespeare's Coriolanus, Volumnia abuses her power over her son, making her heavily responsible for his death. Proof of her culpability consists of three parts, each revealing the unique character of her power: one, Volumnia has power over Coriolanus, thus highlighting his weaknesses; two, she is aware of her power, thus illustrating her relationship to her son; and three, she uses her power to her betterment and to her son's detriment, thus establishing her abuse of that power. Each piece of the proof will illustrate a different aspect of how the tragedy of Coriolanus occurred.

The first step in proving Volumnia's culpability in abuse of power is to prove that she does indeed have a power to abuse. Volumnia's control over Coriolanus first becomes apparent upon Coriolanus's return from the battle of Corioli. Coriolanus is a man so driven by pride that he cannot accept the praise of those he considers less worthy than himself. He disregards the adulation of every Roman except his mother. After dodging the praises of the herald, Coriolanus is quick to bow to his mother and hand credit of his victory over to her: "O,/You have, I know, petitioned all the gods/For my prosperity!" (Coriolanus 2.1.168-70)¹. As Coriolanus's haughtiness becomes more apparent, the gift of his glory to his mother becomes more meaningful. Since Coriolanus feels that he is a man driven by his own integrity, his willingness to bow to his mother shows that he is not the temple of selfhood he imagines.

The second time Volumnia asserts her will over Coriolanus occurs after her son risks treason by railing against the tribunes that goaded him into losing his temper. Volumnia convinces Coriolanus to offer his apologies to the tribunes and the plebeians, which is anathema to his nature:

A beggar's tongue
Make motion through my lips, and my armed knees,
Who bowed but in my stirrup, bend like his
That hath received an alms! I will not do't,
Lest I surcease to honour mine own truth,
And by my body's action teach my mind
A most inherent baseness. (3.2.117-23)

That he would give up such a deep belief is an indication that his integrity is subject to the will of his mother. His disingenuous reconciliation with the tribunes and plebeians is a failure of his integrity. Volumnia has the capability to convince her son to reject his dear guiding principles.

The third and final time Coriolanus submits occurs when he shows Rome mercy at the behest of his mother. His desire for revenge against Rome is base and selfish, though well deserved. Manipulation and abandonment by those he once saved are the rewards for his tireless service to Rome. When he agrees to spare Rome, he loses his honor. Glory and integrity are important to Coriolanus, but honor is his most treasured possession. Coriolanus maintains his honor despite any circumstance by opposing those he disagrees with to the detriment of all involved. Therefore, the most compelling evidence for Volumnia's power over Coriolanus is her ability to convince him to show mercy upon Rome, and thus void himself of his own esteem.

Each instance of Volumnia's dominance over Coriolanus is more severe than the last. First, Coriolanus yields his glory to her, sacrificing his pride; second, Coriolanus agrees to the appeasement of the plebeians he despises, sacrificing his integrity; and third, Coriolanus turns the Volscian army away from Rome, thus sacrificing his honor. Glory, integrity, and honor are the characteristics that make up Coriolanus's identity. As he loses each one to his mother, he loses a part of his identity which will result in his eventual outward as well as inward death.

The second step in proving Volumnia's responsibility for her use of power is showing that she is aware of the power she wields. Volumnia's relationship with her son indicates her knowledge of the power that she has over him. The earliest indication occurs when she first describes her feelings for her son. Volumnia announces that she takes more pleasure in her son's battlefield successes than she would his embraces if he were her husband. Volumnia is unashamed to juxtapose motherly love with sexual love, thus expressing total possession of her son. Volumnia has also sought to shape her son into a warrior since his youth: "When he was but tenderbodied and the only son of my womb . . . To a cruel war I sent him, from whence he returned his brows bound with oak" (1.3.1-17). Her comments display the fact that she has more than a passing interest in her son's achievements and is aware of her role in molding them. Volumnia proves that she knows she has power over her son a second time while entreating him to ask forgiveness of the tribunes and plebeians. Her persuasion is manifested in a clever mixture of guilt and reciprocity:

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 sucked'st it from me

Volumnia appeals to Coriolanus's sense of guilt by indicating that he owes his valor and life to her. Her appeal is unfair: a mother cannot ask that her son remain her slave by virtue of having given him life. Volumnia's bid for control of Coriolanus's actions reveals deception and must therefore constitute a conscious use of power.

A third indication that Volumnia is aware of her power comes from another use of guilt mongering and deception. While begging for Coriolanus to spare Rome after he takes control of the Volscian forces, Volumnia says that her son "hast never in thy life showed thy dear mother any courtesy" (5.3.161-2). Her rhetoric is so false and hollow that his total enslavement is required before he succumbs to it—Coriolanus has never done anything other than bend to her whims and show her courtesy. Volumnia ends her plea with a psychological trick: after all she has said, she announces her intention to give up, walk away, and prepare herself for death. She places blame on Coriolanus for her death while appearing as though she has chosen to die in order to respect his decision. She makes herself a saint and a tempter with a single gesture; Coriolanus cannot undo the paradox, thus he surrenders to his mother's will. Volumnia is too precise and exacting to have exerted such power by accident. She is aware that guilt and deception will cause her son to do her bidding.

The way in which Volumnia controls Coriolanus illustrates that her use of power is an intentional act. She attempts to appear innocent of manipulation by yielding many of her arguments at their cusp. She relents only when the argument is already won, or when her concession will seal Coriolanus's decision. Her conscious use of power over her son is more befitting a master-slave relationship than a mother-son relationship. The relationship to her son is similar to that of Coriolanus to his sword. Volumnia wields Coriolanus like a weapon and becomes upset when the weapon is taken away; she does not worry about the welfare of the implement.

The last step in uncovering Volumnia's abuse of power is that she not only has power and uses that power knowingly, but that she uses it for selfish ends, which results in the destruction of her son. Volumnia uses her influence to convince Coriolanus to pursue a career as consul at the cost of his beliefs. His mother knows how volatile Coriolanus is when he must act in opposition to his feelings. He does not have the temperament to uphold false behavior: his facade crumbles under the cross-examination of the tribunes. Volumnia insists that her son engage in a charade so that she may reap his glory when he becomes the most powerful man in Rome: "I would have had you put your power well on/Before you had worn it out" 3.2.16-7). Coriolanus is content with the largest amount of prestige attainable that will not result in the defamation of his spirit, a fact his mother trumps when she cozens him into pursuing the consulship of Rome. Volumnia has the ability to manipulate Coriolanus, and she does so to satisfy her own ambitions while causing damage to Coriolanus's identity.

Volumnia is aware of the tribunes' motivations, yet she does nothing to intercede on her son's behalf when they tempt him to sedition. After Coriolanus's banishment, Volumnia is more angry with the tribunes for having thwarted her designs than she is worried for her son's wellbeing: "Leave this faint puling and lament as I do,/In anger, Juno-like" (4.2.55-6). Her anger indicates that she takes the loss of Coriolanus as an affront to her own power. Sorrow is more befitting a grieving mother, but her actions agree with her relationship toward her son: she brandishes him in careless and dangerous ways.

Volumnia's final act of power over Coriolanus is the most destructive one for him and the most rewarding one for her. Volumnia is aware of the danger to her son if he resigns the final battle against Rome, as she admits: "Thou know'st, great son,/The end of war's uncertain" (5.3.141-2). Volumnia does not entertain the hope that she will ever see her son again and she does not encourage him to reconcile with Rome. She is content to leave Coriolanus as an enemy to every nation he has ever known, trading his life for her pride. When Volumnia persuades Coriolanus to spare Rome, he removes the last vestiges of self from his life and hands them over to his mother. Volumnia is treated as a hero to Rome; Coriolanus is left as a traitor to Rome and as a disgrace to Corioli.

Volumnia uses her influence over her son to satisfy her own ambitions. She suffers from the same dangerous pride that causes the major part of Coriolanus's downfall. She sees her son not as a separate, self-determining entity, but as an extension of her own will. Coriolanus's inner turmoil does not concern his mother; she is concerned with her legacy and station as achievable through the manipulation of her son. Volumnia's control strips Coriolanus of his dearest qualities, leaving him an empty man. His mortal death at the hands of the Volscian conspirators mirrors his inner death: the failure to disregard his mother and live according to his own will.

Volumnia's power over Coriolanus is indicative of his failure to uphold his sense of integrity and honor. Integrity and honor are unwavering entities, thus he dispatches them entirely when he chooses to compromise. Volumnia's conscious use of her influence over her son is indicative of her relationship to him. She possesses Coriolanus: all his achievements are hers. When Volumnia uses her power to better herself while damaging her son, her usage constitutes an abuse. But how can Coriolanus, the greatest warrior in Rome, lose his identity and life to the will of his mother? His pride keeps him bound to his mother. Volumnia understands her son better than he understands himself, and she deploys her rhetoric accordingly. She often reminds him of his greatness, how she shares his sentiments, and how his birth forever ties him to her. Her coddling creates an exploitable phenomenon in her son's psyche. As the progeny of his mother, he owes his strength and ability to her. Volumnia is the only living being more powerful than him because she is the source of his power. Coriolanus knows that his mother is responsible for the man he became. He is bound by his pride, integrity, and honor to respect only those whom he feels are worthy. His mother has made herself the only worthy competitor for that respect, and he must obey. The tragedy of Coriolanus is unique because it involves a downfall by compassion instead of a lack of compassion. Selflessness is sometimes as harmful as selfishness. A person in a position of great power has the ability to do great harm. In Coriolanus, the harm occurs when Volumnia convinces Coriolanus to place himself in the precarious position of having to act out a position in society he is not fit to hold. Because he is volatile, his selfless adherence to his mother's wishes puts himself and all of Rome in danger. Shakespeare seems to indicate that a society functions best when we do not betray ourselves to the wills of others; instead, each should fill the place that suits his own heart.

¹All quotations from Coriolanus are from William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, eds. Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).