Ah, Virgilia (also spelled “Vergilia”), the wife of Martius in Coriolanus. What to say of her?
Well, let’s start by saying that Martius isn’t kidding when he calls her “My gracious silence” (II.i.171).
Virgilia has but 26 speeches in the entire play for a total of 34 lines…so most of her speeches are short (compare to Volumnia – 57 speeches, but with 305 total lines). Only four of them are to her husband (or even in his presence), and all of those are post-banishment–one on his way out of town, the final three during their meeting in the Volscian camp.
Now, some of the early (i.e. pre-Plutarch) accounts actually have as her name Volumnia (Martius’ mother’s name in the play–whose name in those accounts is Veturia). Back when we were discussing Shakespeare’s sources for the play, we noted North’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives as being the principle one; we noted at the time that it seemed that Shakespeare expanded the wife/mother’s roles in the play. I also mentioned the speculation that Shakespeare filched a bit from Livy (it seems that Menenius’ “body” analogy comes from there). But, wait, there’s more.
We know Livy used the Volumnia/Veturia pairing for the wife/mother, rather than Plutarch’s Virgilia/Volumnia. Let’s say for argument’s sake, that Shakespeare had read Livy in translation and thus knew of those names. While he may have just stolen wholesale from Plutarch, what if Shakespeare actually chose to use the Plutarch names rather than the Livy? What would be the rationale behind that?
The name “Virgilia” most see as a feminizing of the Roman poet, Virgil, supposedly with a translated meaning “flourishing” or “strong” …at least according to some of the baby-naming sites on the internet. Depending on how one plays Virgilia’s refusal to accompany Volumnia and Valeria in Act One, Scene Three, one might see her strength; her later appearances in Act Four, Scene Two (when she and Volumnia accost the tribunes) and Act Five, Scene Three (in the Volscian camp) could support this strong aspect as well. But other baby-naming sites have “virgil” meaning “staff-bearer.” OK, so one that bears a staff. What’s a staff? (oh, get your minds out of the gutter…we’ll hit bawdy in the weeks to come). Well, our ol’ friends at the Oxford English Dictionary give us some interesting choices: a walking stick, a crutch, a shepherd’s crook, and a weapon (“staff, n.I.1.a,c,d and 2., respectively” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017). Does this wife in Coriolanus seem to bear any of those? For herself, or for her husband? Is she (along with Volumnia) able to “shepherd” Martius to suing for peace?
I’m not sure. But I do find it interesting…