Coriolanus The Return of the Domestic in Coriolanus
by William Shakespeare

Coriolanus book cover
Start Your Free Trial


(Shakespearean Criticism)

Download Coriolanus Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The Return of the Domestic in Coriolanus

Ann C. Christensen, University of Houston


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 political and maternal issues raised by the play, along with feeding and nurture. In Coriolanus, home is a place and an idea which localizes the diffuse conflicts in family and state.5 A category at once more narrow than "politics" and "gender" and more general than "maternal," the domestic accounts for the complex interplay of gender, power, nurture, family, and state by addressing the play's convoluted estimations of "home" and not home. The Shakespearean household houses the family, while serving as a metaphor for the early modern state.6 By domestic I mean both literal households and the people, objects, and activities associated with the place where one lives; for the purposes of this essay, the category covers both home and homeland, "[t]he country, our dear nurse" (V.iii.110). Because it conveys a sense of location, "domestic" is especially suited to address this play so rich in architectural metaphors and so dependent upon the physical boundaries—city gates and thresholds—of homes, Rome, and Corioli/Antium.7

Coriolanus challenges expectations concerning "home" as protected space, the source of familiarity and comfort, by constructing public and private in mutually constituting tension—a relation resisted by Marcius, who tries to polarize the spheres in an effort to maintain autonomy.8 For him there is a reversal whereby "home" is seen as both non-compelling and threatening while "not-home," here enemy territory, demands the hero's involvement and lends him succor. While the domestic is denigrated for laxity, wartime activities are part of the "stirring world" (IV.v.220-1). So Marcius comes to "hate" his "birthplace," in all its connotations of Rome, Volumnia, family life—in short, the domestic—and instead embraces the Volscian towns of Corioli and Antium, his enemy's "hearth" (IV.iv.23-4). His relationship with Rome as both native city and domicile is marked by departure9—whether in defense of or in banishment from the city. Even his achieved or promised returns fail to be true "home-comings": after victory at Corioles he defers going home by visiting the patricians "[e]re in our own house I do shade my head" (II.i.184-5); his threatened return to conquer his homeland is aborted at the threshold, "even to / The gates of Rome" (, and he is killed as a traitor in the city where he was renamed.

Gail Kern Paster attributes the relative exclusion of private settings from the world of the play to the demands of Roman citizenship, noting that...

(The entire section is 8,623 words.)