The Return of the Domestic in Coriolanus
Critical responses to Coriolanus tend to concentrate on two dominant issues: the political and the maternal. Approaches to the former typically address the play's representation of the polis, the conflicts between patricians and plebeians, and draw on Shakespeare's historical sources of Plutarch, Livy, and Machiavelli as well as contemporary contexts such as the food shortages and Midlands enclosure uprisings of the early seventeenth century.1 Understandably, maternal issues—from milk to mildness—dominate psychoanalytic and gender studies of the play and focus on Volumnia—her curious attitude towards nurture, her role in forming her son, his responses to "feeding and dependency."2 Of course, neither approach wholly neglects the other.3 Stanley Cavell neatly summarizes the two critical strains while noting that both recognize the play's central concern with nurture: "the play lends itself equally, or anyway naturally, to psychological and to political readings: both perspectives are, for example, interested in who produces food and in how food is distributed and paid for. From a psychological perspective .. . the play directs us to an interest in the development of Coriolanus's character. From a political perspective the play directs us to an interest in whether the patricians or the plebeians are right in their conflict."4 The present study poses a third term, the domestic, to encompass both the...
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The play insists on the deep connections between the private and the public evidenced, as Paster observes, in the pervasive language of kinship to convey relations, for example, between patrician and plebe, victor and vanquished, warrior and enemy.18 Domestic metaphors show how private life inflects public situations, making domestic concerns as prominent as those which are conventionally political. For example, a Roman spy's colloquialism tellingly depicts political conflict in terms of domestic discord: "I have heard it said, the fittest time to corrupt a man's wife is when she's fallen out with her husband" (IV.iii.28-30). A more extended illustration of the relation between the domestic and the public is I.iii, the only women-centered domestic scene in the play, which continually figures personal, familial experience in relation to public action. Imagining that her son were her husband, Volumnia conflates family roles, preferring "Coriolanus's absence on the battlefield to conjugal embraces as she, his mother, rejoiced more in the news of his first glory in battle than in the news of the birth of a boy."19 The scene goes on both to celebrate and parody domestic life. Child's play is the "mammocking" of butterflies and mimicking of the father; women's needlework is "fine" yet futile; the "manifest housekeepers" such as Penelope and Virgilia, Marcius's stay-at-home wife, are dutiful bores: "You would be another Penelope; yet they...
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The play articulates these cultural tensions by envisaging the domestic sphere alternately as impoverished and potent. "Home" is less a staged locus than an insult in the play, more often used adverbially than nominally.27 Volumnia herself equates action or productivity with a necessary absence from home when she claims to prefer the noble death of eleven (hypothetical) sons in battle "than [have] one voluptuously surfeit out of action" at home (I.iii.21-3). The congenital phobia of eating in Marcius and Volumnia as well as the consumptive nature of "home" having been ably treated elsewhere, I am concerned with the dual evaluations of "home" as both constitutive force integral to the public sphere and a debilitated, second-best place where only the weak reside: for example, Marcius fights abroad, while the people stay home; Menenius, the notably mild patrician, is a "perfecter giber for the table than a necessary bencher in the Capitol" (II.i.74-6).28
The twin offenses of being a Volscian or a homebody register the ambivalence of the domestic. Marcius equates "retire[ment]" or retreat with otherness. "He that retires," challenging his army at the gates of Corioles, "I'll take him for a Volsce" (I.iv.28), eventually bidding the Romans, "Mend and charge home, / . . . we'll beat them to their wives" (lines 38, 41). While most editors gloss "home" as an adverb, meaning "to the utmost," the fact that Marcius's charge...
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Given Coriolanus's tendency alternately to enforce and deny domestic identity and family ties, how then can "his nurse's tears" (V.vi.96) ultimately convince the hero to change his mind and spare Rome? The answer is they don't.44 For all her charming rhetoric of motherhens and trampled wombs, Volumnia does not win him over simply by invoking familial/filial bonds, but by alloying them with her sense of public, civic duty, thus rendering explicit the mutual dependence of the spheres operating in the play all along. Volumnia equates Rome with domestic nurture: "The country, our dear nurse" (V.iii. 110) in an echo of the nurses and dairy maids supporting Marcius on the streets of Rome. In both cases—the Roman matron and the working women—a political force drives the so-called private sphere. As Donald Stauffer notes, "In one sense Rome is not so much a patria as a matria, like the England of the history plays: 'This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings.'"45 Furthermore, as I have argued, Volumnia does understand the political nature of her production of "men-children only" as servants to the state. In act V, she presents an enlarged domestic sphere blurring home and homeland in language more explicit than the metaphors characteristic of her son and other "public men."
The note struck by "nurse's tears" is recognized immediately by both Marcius and Aufidius as uniquely persuasive (Marcius has already...
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Critics have properly identified gender and family disturbances in Coriolanus in which a potent mother defines manhood through aggression and bloodshed, and warring men align womanhood with a debilitated (and debilitating) domestic sphere. Equally compelling is the play's focus on the political conflicts between classes, states, and forms of government. Yet, as Lisa Lowe has argued, critics tend to see these issues as separate; she affirms that the play "resists the narrow definitions of 'political drama' or 'gender drama.' It . . . directs the reader to consider the ways in which political conflicts take place in the family, and likewise the ways in which gender is not restricted to psychological interrelationships but is inscribed upon civic activities as well."49 I have shown that the domestic sphere houses, as it were, the political and intrafamilial disturbances of the play which represents home at once as a safe refuge and a coward's retreat, both disabled and threatening, but ultimately politically efficacious. Coriolanus's reversal of conventional notions about home and abroad is in part a response to the growing ideological division between the domestic sphere and the public sphere in early modern England. Through Volumnia's politicization of the maternal roles of feeding and nurturing in the domestic province, and through Marcius's false opposition of domestic relations to public ones, this play challenges traditional...
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