Oh, what a muthah…

OK, I mentioned that the Fiennes film of Coriolanus seemed to accentuate a certain Oedipal reading in the production, especially in a scene following Martius’ return from Corioles. Volumnia lovingly bandages his wounds in the bathroom, sharing a quiet, almost whispered conversation; when his wife Virgilia walks in on them, they turn and look at her, and she wordlessly leaves the room, closing the door for their privacy.

Of course, I wouldn’t exactly call that Oedipal. But there’s something there…

In the play’s first scene, as the first and second citizen discuss the relative merits and sins (mostly sins) of Martius, the first citizen states of Martius’ motivation for heroism, “Tough soft-conscienced men can be content to say it was for his country, he did it to please his mother and to be partly proud” (I.i.35-7). They had originally criticized his pride, but now mother-pleasing trumps even that. And to have this stated so early in the play, before there is any real verbal defense of him, helps to set this conception stick in our heads as an audience (I would think, not having actually ever seen this present on-stage).

In the third scene, as Volumnia talks to Virgilia, the mother does make an interesting husband-son verbal link:

If my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence [of him being in battle] wherein he won honor than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love.
  • I.iii.2-5

Husband. Bed. Embracements. Love. Maybe I was wrong on that whole “no Oedipal” thing.

There is no father. And there is no brother. At least not now. Volumnia talks of a time when Martius was “tender-bodied and the only son of [her] womb” (I.iii.6). Martius, if nothing else, is her first-born son. But you do get the feeling he is the only son, as she says,

Had I a dozen sons, each in my love alike, and none less dear than thine and my good Martius, I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action
  • I.iii.22-5

And with a mother like that, can you blame a boy for wanting to please his mother?

Yet, it might also be a bit embarrassing. When pleading with Cominius to stop praising him, Martius admits, “My mother, / Who has a charter to extol her blood, / When she does praise me grieves me” (I.ix.13-5). Martius has been embarrassed by his mother’s public praise. So it’s no surprise that when they reenter Rome, Cominius points out first Volumnia to Martius. And his first action? The conquering hero kneels before his mother. As we’ve noted before, Martius speaks first to her, then to his wife, whom he calls “silence” (I.ix.171), then chides Virgilia for her tears, saying that those are what the widows and mothers in Corioles have. Obviously, Martius is not a fan of the typical female.

Nor is he have much use for children. When Brutus informs Martius that he has lost the support of the people, Martius responds, “Have I had children’s voices?” (III.i.30); dismissing the citizens, equating them with children. After retreating from the Senate after the public accusation, Martius–after railing against the citizenry–immediately invokes his mother: “I muse my mother / Does not approve me further” (III.ii.7-8), and in an attempt to show her his mettle, tells her, “I play / The man I am” (III.ii.15-6). Disdainful of women and children, this concept of manhood is obviously important to him.

[note: later in the scene, for those Oedipal fans out there, she does tell him, “I am in this / Your wife, your son, these senators, the nobles” (III.ii.64-5). Just sayin’]

He’s disdainful of all women, save his mother, who is able to convince him to go to the citizens. And when that plea to the people doesn’t work and he’s been banished, the first person he comforts is–not his son, nor his wife, but–his mother: “Nay, mother, / Where is your ancient courage?” (IV.i.2-3). After he leaves, she is left desperate, angry, and out for blood: “Anger’s my meat. I sup upon myself” (IV.ii.50).

When Martius joins with the Volscians, his wife and mother and son attempt to convince him to show mercy on Rome. Again, it is he who kneels to Volumnia (V.iii.50). And ultimately he bows to her request: “O mother, mother! / What have you done?” (V.iii.182-3).

Like any mother-pleasing boy would.

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