How does Coriolanus' relationship with his wife compare to his relationship with his mother?

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In Shakespeare's play, Caius Martius Coriolanus is a warrior par excellence; in fact, he's very good at being a soldier. The main influence in his chosen lifestyle is his mother, Volumnia, one of Shakespeare's most influential maternal figures.

Volumnia cherishes a warrior spirit to rival that of the most battle-hardened Roman soldier. In fact, Coriolanus is inevitably drawn to Volumnia by virtue of his emotional connection to this dominating matriarch. One can argue that he seeks her acceptance and approval as much as he seeks victory on the battlefield. It is Volumnia who encourages her son to excel in warfare and to pursue a course in politics. Coriolanus thinks her "the most noble mother of the world" (Act 5, Scene 3), while Volumnia assures him: "Thou art my warrior; I holp to frame thee" (Act 5, Scene 3). Indeed, Volumnia proudly asserts that "there's no man in the world more bound to 's mother" (Act 5, Scene 3).

On the other hand, Coriolanus' relationship with Virgilia, his patient and long-suffering wife, is fraught with emotional tension of a different sort. Virgilia, the stereotypical quiet and submissive Roman wife, doesn't think very much of Volumnia's emphasis on war and bloodshed. She finds no joy in her husband's absences. In Act 1 Scene 3, the main point of contention between Volumnia and Virgilia is Coriolanus' preoccupation with warfare.

Volumnia maintains that Virgilia needs to stop moping about her husband going off to war. She simultaneously lectures and patronizes her daughter-in-law; Volumnia basically refuses to sympathize with Virgilia. Here's what she proclaims:

"I pray you, daughter, sing; or express yourself in a more comfortable sort: if my son were my husband, I should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he won honour than in the embracements of his bed where he would show most love...I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child than now in first seeing he had proved himself a man...I had rather had eleven die nobly for their country than one voluptuously surfeit out of action" (Act 1 Scene 3).

While Virgilia shrinks from the prospect of Coriolanus shedding his blood, Volumnia calls her a "fool" for not appreciating what a warrior has to sacrifice for victory. So, Volumnia essentially overshadows her daughter-in-law; she leaves no room for Virgilia to assert her wifely concerns.

Meanwhile, Coriolanus sees Virgilia as his better self; he does not seek her approval because she approves of him already. Virgilia's respectful address of "My lord and husband" is in turn lavishly rewarded by his adoring "Best of my flesh, Forgive my tyranny." To Coriolanus, a kiss from Virgilia makes up for his long exile away from her; to this battle-hardened warrior, his wife is his "gracious silence."

So, the difference between Coriolanus' relationship with his mother and with his wife lies in his differing approach to both. With Volumnia, Coriolanus must evince consistent evidence of his exploits on the battlefield to satisfy the dictates of her expectations. Yet, in the midst of the biggest decision in his life (to withdraw from attacking Rome), it is Virgilia's kiss which fills his mind and heart:

Now, by the jealous queen of heaven, that kiss
I carried from thee, dear, and my true lip
Hath virgin'd it e'er since.’

While Coriolanus sees Volumnia as the inspiration behind his warrior ethos, he views Virgilia as the one woman whose gentle love inspires his sexual passion and loyalty.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
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