Valeria. Huh?

Yesterday, we looked at the problematic wife in Coriolanus (problematic for scholars, not–really–for Martius), Virgilia. Today, let us turn to another V-lady in the play…no, not big mama, Volumnia, but her friend Valeria.

This is a weird case. She appears in only 4 scenes (Act One, Scene Three; Act Two, Scene One; and Act Five, Scenes Three and Five). She speaks only in the first two: in the first act, she holds a running conversation with Volumnia and Valeria; in the second, she seconds the praise Volumnia heaps on Coriolanus). All but a single line of her fourteen speeches are in the first scene. It’s not what she says (or doesn’t say) in Act Two, Scene One, that interests me, however. It’s what said to her.

Coriolanus enters, he is greeted by great fanfare, which makes him uncomfortable (“it does offend my heart” [II.i.165]), is reunited with his mother (kneeling to her), and addresses his wife, but only after Volumnia points her out. Coriolanus calls her his “gracious silence” (II.i.171), then either jokes about or chides her for crying at his arrival:

 My gracious silence, hail.
Wouldst thou have laughed had I come coffined home,
That weep’st to see me triumph? Ah, my dear,
Such eyes the widows in Corioles wear
And mothers that lack sons.
 Now the gods crown thee!
And live you yet? (To Valeria.) O, my sweet lady, pardon.
I know not where to turn. O, welcome home!—
  • II.i.171-7

Menenius then interrupts to welcome him home; the spousal reverie is gone. Coriolanus’ one line response is (despite what in a modern play, with legitimate and authorial stage directions) interestingly ambiguous. The first half could be to either Menenius or Valeria; in either case, there’s a sarcastic, even biting, tone. If the first half is to Menenius, it could be a kind of ball-busting joke; obviously the second half is obviously to someone else, unless of course Menenius is played by/as a woman. If it’s not to him, then it could be to any of the three V women: to his wife, a request to pardon him for having his attention turned away; to his mother, for neglecting her for a whole half-dozen lines; to Valeria, for having not noticed her earlier, or even apologizing to her–if the first half of the line is to her. The next line is from Volumnia, excited for the return of her son.

And then Valeria appears in the final act, accompanying Volumnia and Virgilia on their trip to convince Coriolanus to spare Rome. She says nothing in this scene, or in the scene (two scenes later) when they return triumphant to Rome. Thirteen lines in her first appearance, one in her second, she then disappears for the better part of three acts, and then she shows up twice, only to be silent in each.

Why is she there?

Perhaps the answer can be found in Plutarch (and hinted at in Livy). In Lives, Plutarch only mentions her as the leader of the delegation of Roman women who implore Volumnia and Virgilia to call upon Coriolanus. In Livy, the delegation is nameless, referred to only by the term “the matrons.” The first act scene in which the three women converse is purely Shakespeare’s invention. It would be very strange to have Valeria accompany Volumnia and Virgilia in Act Five (especially silently), without their having some interaction before. Plus, this first act conversation is a way to deepen the only female characters in an almost ridiculously masculine play.

But how do you play her? In the list of characters of both the Works Rowe and Works Theobald, as well as my Pelican Shakespeare (“Globe Shakespeare Text”), we get a description of Valeria as “a friend of Virgilia.” In the “Moby Shakespeare Text,” and thus the Folger Digital Text, it’s “a friend of Volumnia and Virgilia.” There is a level of respect in Virgilia’s repeated addressings of Valeria as “your ladyship” (I.iii.50, 54) and “good madam” (I.iii.54, 71, 87, 91. 102); but is it respect for one’s elders? Or is it a bit sarcastic (like her husband)? Are Volumnia and Valeria contemporaries? There certainly seems to be a rapport between the two women; and here, maybe Livy’s “matron” description can be used as casting subtext. What about Virgilia and Valeria? There seems to be a rapport there as well. Or is Valeria temporally somewhen in between?

And the Latin valere meant “to be strong.” And I have no idea how that ties in with this.

She’s an enigma, that Valeria.

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