Volumnia’s last word (economy-sized)

OK, last week, I looked at Martius’ big speech (and we’ve already taken a look at the homo-erotic response to it, the longest speech by Aufidius) from Coriolanus. Today, let’s take a look at the longest speech of the play, this one by dear ol’ mum, Volumnia. There’s some pretty interesting stuff going on in the scansion (as well as a stage direction or two).

It’s Act Five, Scene Three, in the Volscian camp on the outskirts of Rome, where Martius and Aufidius ready their armies for the attack. Martius has already turned away Menenius (who seemed like a father-figure to him), and Martius has admitted doing so “cracked” (V.iii.9) his heart.

So who should walk in at this moment?

That’s right, Volumnia, Martius’ wife Virgilia, Valeria (who will say nothing in this scene), young Martius, and their attendants. Volumnia tries to get Martius to spare Rome, but Martius refuses them, and attempts to leave. And this is when we get the longest speech in the play:

Nay, go not from us thus.
If it were so, that our request did tend
To save the Romans, thereby to destroy
The Volsces whom you serve, you might condemn us
As poisonous of your honor. No, our suit
Is that you reconcile them, while the Volsces
May say “This mercy we have showed,” the Romans
“This we received,” and each in either side
Give the all-hail to thee and cry “Be blest
For making up this peace!” Thou know’st, great son,
The end of war’s uncertain, but this certain,
That, if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name
Whose repetition will be dogged with curses,
Whose chronicle thus writ: “The man was noble,
But with his last attempt he wiped it out,
Destroyed his country, and his name remains
To th’ ensuing age abhorred.” Speak to me, son.
Thou hast affected the fine strains of honor
To imitate the graces of the gods,
To tear with thunder the wide cheeks o’ th’ air
And yet to charge thy sulfur with a bolt
That should but rive an oak. Why dost not speak?
Think’st thou it honorable for a noble man
Still to remember wrongs?—Daughter, speak you.
He cares not for your weeping.—Speak thou, boy.
Perhaps thy childishness will move him more
Than can our reasons.—There’s no man in the world
More bound to ’s mother, yet here he lets me prate
Like one i’ th’ stocks. Thou hast never in thy life
Showed thy dear mother any courtesy
When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood,
Has clucked thee to the wars and safely home,
Loaden with honor. Say my request’s unjust
And spurn me back; but if it be not so,
Thou art not honest, and the gods will plague thee
That thou restrain’st from me the duty which
To a mother’s part belongs.—He turns away.—
Down, ladies! Let us shame him with our knees.
To his surname Coriolanus ’longs more pride
Than pity to our prayers. Down! An end.
This is the last. So, we will home to Rome
And die among our neighbors.—Nay, behold ’s.
This boy that cannot tell what he would have,
But kneels and holds up hands for fellowship,
Does reason our petition with more strength
Than thou hast to deny ’t.—Come, let us go.
This fellow had a Volscian to his mother,
His wife is in Corioles, and his child
Like him by chance.—Yet give us our dispatch.
I am hushed until our city be afire,
And then I’ll speak a little.
  • V.iii.131-82

And that is one long speech. And no–for those of you who were wondering–it isn’t the longest in Shakespeare…at 52 lines is a little less than twenty lines short–Gloucester (the future Richard III) gets that honor at the end of The Third Part of Henry VI.

In the first line–it’s a half-line–she completes the antilabe started by her son, maintaining a perfectly pentameter line, though kicking it off with two spondees (NAY, GO NOT FROM), to ensure her being heard.

/ / / / ~ /
Nay, go not from us thus.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
If it were so, that our request did tend
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
To save the Romans, thereby to destroy
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
The Volsces whom you serve, you might condemn us
~ / -~- / ~ / ~ / ~ /
As poisonous of your honor. No, our suit
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Is that you reconcile them, while the Volsces

It’s possible to scan that first full line, and kick it off with a trochee, emphasizing the “if.” But I argue against this. I think Volumnia feels confident enough not to rely–at this point–on a rhetorical device (she certainly doesn’t need a “then” before “you might condemn us”); no, I think she’s emphasizing the “it,” making sure that Martius knows that she understands his statement preceding her speech–that being tender doesn’t need prompted by some show…say of a wife and son. I think she’s going after his degrading tenderness as “woman’s” (129), and she says–in confident, unwavering iambic pentameter–that attempting such a trick would be to harm his honor. She knows that linking honor with the concept of masculinity is more likely to win Martius’ agreement. She then begins to discuss peace between the two armies, still in iambic pentameter, but when she gets to “mercy” part of the speech, something changes:

~ / / / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
May say “This mercy we have showed,” the Romans
/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
“This we received,” and each in either side
/ ~ / / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Give the all-hail to thee and cry “Be blest

The variations from the iambic are telling: She emphasizes “THIS” merciful act; she knows that mercy is not something her son is known for, and she says THIS will be the only merciful act. She continues this statement of singularity with the trochee to kicks off the next line (THIS we), again highlighting this one-time-only offer. The third line has two variations; she’s less sure of herself here–she’s not sure that the “all-hail” of the soldiers is enough for Martius. The present praise may not be the way to his heart, but his legacy, she feels, might be. And in this appeal to history, the next stretch is mainly solid, confident iambic pentameter:

~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
For making up this peace!” Thou know’st, great son,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ || / / / ~
The end of war’s uncertain, but this certain,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
That, if thou conquer Rome, the benefit
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Which thou shalt thereby reap is such a name
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Whose repetition will be dogged with curses,
~ / ~ / / / ~ / ~ / ~
Whose chronicle thus writ: “The man was noble,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
But with his last attempt he wiped it out,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Destroyed his country, and his name remains

The only variations touch upon the specialness of this one merciful act: the caesura and then spondee (THIS CERtain) in the second line of the section; and the later “thus” is emphasized to show how he will be remembered. But as she gets to the end of the historical argument, she falters again:

/ -~- /~ / ~ / / ~ ~ /
To th’ ensuing age abhorred.” Speak to me, son.

The printer-forced elision of “the ensuing” derails the entire line. If it is fully spoken, the line might be six-feet long, but at least it would maintain a fairly solid rhythm (save for a trochee in the penultimate foot, pleading for an answer, for her son to SPEAK to her). But it’s not, so we’re left with three straight trochees with another stressed syllable thrown in for good measure (abHORRED); you might then argue for a caesura before a trochee/iamb end to the line, but even then the rhythm leading up to it is bad. So, obviously, she’s off. What has thrown her off? Does he respond silently somehow? Is this why after asking for him to speak to her, she doesn’t even give him the chance, instead launching into a string of perfect blank verse to regain her footing:

~ / ~ / ~ ~ / / ~ / ~
Thou hast affected the fine strains of honor
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
To imitate the graces of the gods,
~ / ~ / ~ / / / -~- /
To tear with thunder the wide cheeks o’ th’ air
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
And yet to charge thy sulfur with a bolt
~ / ~ / ~ / / ~ ~ /
That should but rive an oak. Why dost not speak?

The only variations here are the extra stressed “WIDE” to describe the clouds (CHEEKS o’ th’ AIR), and the trochee to begin the question of his silence. She practically calls him a god here. But again she doesn’t give him much of a chance to respond (even if he wasn’t silent) when she kick-starts the next line with a spondee:

/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Think’st thou it honorable for a noble man
/ ~ ~ / ~ / || / ~ / ~
Still to remember wrongs?—Daughter, speak you.

The follow up line starts with a trochee, but then pauses in the middle. She’s allowing him to speak, in fact, giving him the opportunity to complete her antilabe. But he doesn’t take the bait. Instead, Volumnia turns to Virgilia, but then cuts her off by saying Martius doesn’t care before interrupting herself to direct young Martius to speak:

~ / / ~ ~ / ~ / ~ /
He cares not for your weeping.—Speak thou, boy.
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Perhaps thy childishness will move him more
~ / ~ / ~ || ~ / / ~ ~ /
Than can our reasons.—There’s no man in the world

Again, she doesn’t give young Martius a chance to speak, either; she’s on a roll. She goes another line and a half of iambic pentameter before pausing again.

~ / ~ / ~ || / / / / ~ /
More bound to ’s mother, yet here he lets me prate

But this time, I don’t think it’s to give Martius (or anyone else for that matter) a chance to speak; no, I think she feels that she’s onto something good, so she starts with two spondees after that enforced pause (YET HERE HE LETS), to speak to a seemingly different audience audience. But if he thinks she’s letting him off the hook, he’s got another thing coming. After yet another enforced pause, taking the place of what would be an unstressed syllable, she goes after him again (THOU):

~ / -~- / || / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Like one i’ th’ stocks. Thou hast never in thy life
/ ~ / / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Showed thy dear mother any courtesy

And here it’s as if she knows she’s not getting through to him as his mother, but what about A mother in general terms:

~ / / / / ~ / / ~ /
When she, poor hen, fond of no second brood,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Has clucked thee to the wars and safely home,
/ ~ ~ / ~ || / ~ ~ / ~ /
Loaden with honor. Say my request’s unjust
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / / /
And spurn me back; but if it be not so,
/ ~ / / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
Thou art not honest, and the gods will plague thee
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
That thou restrain’st from me the duty which
-/- / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
To a mother’s part belongs. He turns away.

She refers to herself as a “poor hen,” the stereotypical mother…and it seems to stick in her throat in a line filled with a spondee, then a trochee, then a spondee (notice she refers to this mother in the third person, not first). While the next line regulates (she gets to talk about war!), the rhythm falls apart again as she talks of the repercussions of a restraining of her “duty.” And what is this motherly duty that has her so discombobulated? Voicing a desire (“fond”) for … wait for it … grandchildren (“second brood”)! That’s crazy, right?

Yes, it is, at least coming from Volumnia. So crazy that Martius turns away from her (in a direction that’s less “stage” than damn-near-command). She calls for her fellow visitors to try to physically appeal to him. She plays on shame and guilt:

/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Down, ladies! Let us shame him with our knees.
/ ~ / / / ~~ / ~ / ~ /
To his surname Coriolanus ’longs more pride
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Than pity to our prayers. Down! An end.

I don’t think she’s used to taking this tack; I’m not sure she’s ever had to. But the broken rhythm in the first two lines–that variation from the iambic is trying to tell us something. She has them all, women and child, kneel before him (in a nice piece of oral stage direction). It’s a last ditch attempt to sway him, and she tells him as much:

/ ~ ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
This is the last. So, we will home to Rome
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
And die among our neighbors.—Nay, behold ’s.

Aside from the trochee-starting first line (THIS is), it’s a measured statement. But it doesn’t work: she has to tell him to look at them (has he looked away, even tried to walk away? [again, stage direction]). She turns his attention away from the women to his own son:

/ / ~ / ~ / / ~ ~ /
This boy that cannot tell what he would have,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
But kneels and holds up hands for fellowship,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / / /
Does reason our petition with more strength
/ / / ~ ~ -/- / ~ ~ /
Than thou hast to deny ’t.—Come, let us go.

And this makes her truly uncomfortable, as we get two fairly iambic line sandwiched between (let’s call them) metrically challenged lines. The first line has a spondee (THIS BOY) as well as a trochee (WHAT he). And that last line? There are only two iambic feet in the pentameter line, and one of those is elided. And again, she seems to interrupt herself with a recognition of her failure by telling her party to rise (ah, more stage direction).

And at this point, her last resort is to reference Martius’ new partner in an attempt to appeal to her son’s care for Aufidius:

/ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~
This fellow had a Volscian to his mother,
/ / ~ / ~ / -~- / ~ /
His wife is in Corioles, and his child
~ / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
Like him by chance.—Yet give us our dispatch.

This, too, is fairly measured (only the first two lines kicked off by spondees [THIS FELlow; HIS WIFE]). The rhythm is calm. But what is she saying? Aufidius had a mother who was Volscian. No kidding. Aufidius’ wife is in Corioles. OK, now things get interesting. Was she captured? Killed? (The Fiennes film implies this visually, without any verbal statements.) It’s not necessarily a positive statement, and if it’s an appeal, it’s an awkward one. But then she gets to the kicker: Aufidius’ child looks like him…maybe (“chance, n.; II.7.b” Oxford English Dictionary Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 22 April 2017). This most definitely is not positive; she’s implying the wife’s unfaithfulness, that Aufidius is a cuckold. That’s insulting. And then WITHOUT A PAUSE, again as if interrupting herself, she says, “But send us on our way with our message.” She then closes the speech with a line and a half of fairly measure iambs (save for the opening elided spondee (I’M HUSHED).

-/- / ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /
I am hushed until our city be afire,
~ / ~ / ~ / ~
And then I’ll speak a little.

After saying she’s but a messenger sent away, she says she’ll be silent until Rome is in flames, and then she’ll have something (short) to say. The Pelican Shakespeare scans this to mean “a curse”…and that works for me. Regardless, she ends with a half line, and FINALLY her son completes the line, beginning, “O, mother, mother”… metrically, it looks to be either an interruption or a pause between the two speeches. I’d go for a pause. I love the idea of her ending the longest speech in the play with a statement that she’ll have a little more to say…later; he waits for her to continue, but when she doesn’t, he speaks.

And he capitulates.

But what turned him? The appeal to mercy didn’t work. Neither did the appeal to peace. His legacy didn’t seem to matter to him. The verbal apotheosis doesn’t seem to affect him, either. Referencing Virgilia or his son doesn’t do anything. And her ham-fisted appeal as a woman wanting more grandchildren seems ridiculous. Shaming him as a bad son doesn’t work. In fact, at this point, he tries to leave. She then has her party kneel to him. Still nothing. And then she gets up, insults his new friend and gets ready to blow out of town.

And I think it’s this that gets to Martius, finally: the insult of Aufidius, and the statement of her calmly yet cursingly meeting her death in a Rome in flames.

That’s the mother he’s known. Badass. Defiant. That’s who he’s fought for. That’s who and what wins him over.

Jeez, that’s a great speech. So much there. The rollercoaster of discomfort then adaptation, as she makes adjustment after adjustment, trying to find that perfect appeal. Just freaking masterful.

If I was a female actor of “a certain age,” this would be the role I want.

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