My next column for The Sunday Guardian.
In my arguments against Freudian interpretations of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude, I always bring up another complex mother-son dynamic from Shakespeare: Coriolanus and Volumnia. In Coriolanus is a tragic hero almost entirely in the hands of his mother. The play presents an archetypal case for Freudian analysis. Coriolanus has been brought up by his mother and has been trained to be a warrior with honour and fortitude – except where his mother is concerned. Volumnia teaches her son to stand up to anyone but herself. He is, from the very beginning, at his mother’s mercy. Volumnia lives vicariously through her son’s exploits, thrilling to the dangers he is caught in and the injuries that are done to him. In fact, she even goes so far as to say, ‘O, he is wounded; I thank the gods for’t’ when Coriolanus returns from war, bloody and injured.
For Volumnia, there is glory only in war and grace only in victory. Many reasons can be cited for Volumnia’s attitude: her desire to see her son as glorious as his father, her own need to go into battle and command an army, her desire to serve her country by giving her men up to it and perhaps a need to control and dominate the people around her. But looking specifically at her motivation when she ruins her son’s plans of revenge, it seems as though she is almost entirely driven by patriotism and the loyalty she feels to Rome. Her actions are as powerful a sacrifice for her country as any. In destroying her son, Volumnia saves her country.
When Volumnia hears that Coriolanus has joined forces with Aufidius and is marching against Rome, she must be aware that, in some ways, she is the cause: it was she who brought him up with a fierce pride that would retaliate when wounded; it was she who instilled in him a misplaced sense of honour; it was she who made him believe he was destined for greatness. When Rome turns its back on Coriolanus, all his mother’s lessons drive him to a violent vengeance that would ruin the country that she loves. Volumnia knows that she is not just the cause – she is also the only solution.
Coriolanus is arrogant and intolerant, but it is Shakespeare’s Coriolanus who is so. Shakespeare amends freely from his sources, Plutarch and Livy, in writing about Coriolanus’ march against Rome with Aufidius. Plutarch’s Coriolanus returns to Rome with a carefully plotted plan to massacre the Plebeians and forge a bond with the Patricians, i.e., not so arrogant that he wishes to destroy the Patricians, but rather so entrenched in his roots that he wishes to rejoin them. No such return to roots is suggested in Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Coriolanus returns with one objective: to wipe everyone out of Rome. He determines to sever all ties with the Patricians and anything to do with his earlier life. Thus it is that when he falls prey to familial bonds, his capitulation seems all the more wretched.
Coriolanus’ conflict with himself has one obvious resolution. Coriolanus knew this even before Volumnia made her demands. When she enters, he says: ‘Desire not / T’allay my rages and revenges with / Your colder reasons’. Even as he says this, Coriolanus knows that this is exactly what Volumnia will ask and exactly what he must give her.
Volumnia, for her part, comes well-prepared for the showdown. She knows what arguments she must use to win him over. She callously uses Coriolanus’ son and wife as part of her rhetoric. She calls upon her country to evoke a sense of patriotism in him. She accuses him of not caring about his son, his wife or his mother. Volumnia knows, probably better than anyone else, that Coriolanus loves, and loves deeply, his family. She is unashamed to use that fact in her favour. By kneeling before him and begging, she further embarrasses him and drives him to acquiesce to her wishes. Indeed, she does everything in her power to make him feel guilty about avenging his dishonour. Volumnia knows exactly how to push the right buttons with her son.
I go back to Coriolanus as a political text frequently. For me, no work of Shakespeare describes the politics of our lives as well as this one does. Leaders are nurtured by this country the way Coriolanus is nurtured by Volumnia: they are taught to be glorious, to be ambitious, to be self-righteous. They are reared to be heroes and leaders; aggression becomes their grammar, polemic becomes their style.
And that’s when we have painted ourselves into a corner. When things go wrong, they wreak havoc and chase avengement. Volumnia shows her real strength when she chooses her country over her son. He is her Frankenstein’s monster, and she quietly destroys him as easily as she created him, just as we must destroy the monsters we create.