Volumnia (or is that Veturia?)

The last couple of non-podcast blog entries on Coriolanus have been about Virgilia and Valeria, Coriolanus’ wife and her (?) friend–two of our three V’s in the play. Today, let’s finish off the V trifecta with everyone’s favorite mother, Volumnia.

By sheer volume (bad pun, I know), Volumnia is the big badass woman on the block. While Valeria has fourteen speeches in the play, and Virgilia 26, Volumnia has 57. And it’s just not the number of speeches. Valeria’s speeches comprise a total of 41 lines, and Virgilia just 35 (remember, she is the general’s gracious silence” (II.i.171). Volumnia? Her 57 speeches contain 305 total lines.

More importantly, however, I think, is the fact that she has a 52-line speech (her “Nay, go not from us thus” [V.iii.131-82] speech, her last to her son, and her last words of the play)…the longest speech in the play. The second-longest speech in the play comes from Cominius (his speech of support for Coriolanus for consul [II.ii.81-121]), 41 lines, a full twenty percent shorter than Volumnia’s. Her son has the third-longest, 37 lines–his ‘surrender’ to Aufidius [IV.v.69-105]–and Aufidius, in his response to Coriolanus as has the fourth-longest at 35 lines (IV.v.105-139). Volumnia has a 32 lines speech (just before her longest (V.iii.94-125), and both Coriolanus and Aufidius also have an additional 30-line speech apiece.

Here’s an interesting tidbit. Remember a couple of days back when I mentioned that the Livy version of the source material had different names for the wife and mother characters: who was Virgilia in Shakespeare and Plutarch was Volumnia in Livy; who was Volumnia in the later versions was Veturia in Livy.

That original name for the mother, comes from the Latin word meaning “expert, senior, experienced, veteran.” All of which work for our Volumnia character. It also appears that the word is possibly taken from the name of a Roman patrician family, and it from this family, Vetusia, that Coriolanus was descended.

Volumnia, on the other hand, seems to be the feminization of ancient Roman name “Volumnius,” which in turn came from the Latin meaning “scroll.” I can understand Shakespeare choosing to go with “strong” over “scroll” for the wife. But to take from the mother the concepts of experienced expertise and in its place give her “scroll”? It doesn’t makes sense.

Was this just a matter of Shakespeare using the Plutarch? Or was it a matter of him choosing specifically not to go with the Livy? And if so, why?

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