The Return of the Domestic in Coriolanus - Essay

William Shakespeare


(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 say all the yarn she spun in Ulysses' absence did but fill Ithaca full of moths," Valeria teases (I.iii.79-81). For all its conventionality, the women's discourse encompasses public affairs as well as traditional "women's issues." Valeria's news of the army's progress, which she has heard from a senator (lines 92-8), reflects the on-going and vital dialogue between public officials and private citizens. Amidst talk of needlework, children, and the brief wars, the two matrons plan to attend on a "good lady that lies in" (line 74). Here a glimpse of domestic community appears, however momentarily, as both politically astute and tied to reproductive and social life.

This hopeful, even playful, domestic portrait is counterposed by an image of home that is an alien and a threatening landscape in the play. Whereas other Shakespearean tragedies employ foreign or uninhabited space to define the hero's identity and to contrast the human or social landscape, for Marcius there is no such place; as Adrian Poole puts it, there is, "no Dover cliff, no sea, nor even after all a fen in which he could fancy himself as a dragon .. . no empty or 'wild' space in which he could...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 yokes "home" with "wives" lends a sexual, and specifically domestic cast to the image. Marcius's invocation of the wives of the enemy—a category of person mentioned frequently in the play (IV.iv.2, II.i.168,—specifies the association of home with female relations and, like Volumnia's fantasy, shows the preference for manly action against the "voluptuous surfeit" of home-dwelling.

Household objects themselves as well as domestic activities take on a negative cast and seem irrelevant to those of the political world; yet the play's central conflict over the price and availability of corn reminds us of the political valence of ordinary domestic items such as tools and foodstuffs. The first citizen calls the others to action: "Let us revenge this with our pikes ere / we become rakes; for the gods know I speak this in / hunger for bread, not in thirst for revenge" (I.i.20-22). Marcius fails to see the political import of pikes and bread. He refuses the spoils awarded him, and is baffled by the Roman soldiers looting "[c]ushions, leaden spoons, / Irons of a doit" while he himself remains ready for further battle: "My work hath yet not warmed me" (I.v.5-6, 17). To "keep at home" is one way to express surrender, as when Menenius wavers in his campaign to address Marcius in his banishment (V.i.7).29 The ability of domestic discourse to comprehend the public life in the streets, senate, and on the battlefield appears in Menenius's theory of the value of a hot meal: "He was not taken well; he had not dined" (V.i.50). While Menenius's assumption does not apply to Marcius, we should not fail to notice that the play supports the belief that domestic comforts, including meals, have the positive power to soften and the negative power to emasculate their consumers. Menenius pursues his humors theory, noting that without adequate nourishment,

We .. . are unapt
To give or to forgive; but when we have
These pipes and these conveyances of our
With wine and feeding, we have suppler souls
Than in our priest-like fasts.

(lines 52-6)

The "suppler souls" of well-fed householders compare favorably, in Menenius's metaphor, to the rigidity of fasting priests. In this image, home life implies satiety, emotional exchange ("to give or to forgive"), erotic fulfillment, family, and nurture—a vision challenged in the alternative domestic discourses of the play.

As if returning home were a type of "retirement" from politics, the patricians continually command the people home, off the public streets, out of the political fray. So Menenius tells the homely tale of the belly in an effort to send the people home. In the confrontation between the people and Marcius in act III, Menenius and senators alike urge one another home (III.i. 230, 234), and Brutus orders Marcius pursued "to his house" and plucked thence while bidding his co-agitator to meet in the market-place: "Go not home" (lines 308, 330). When things get too heated, the tribunes Sicinius and Brutus repeat their wish to dismiss the people home (IV.ii.1, 5, 7) just before Volumnia makes her invidious comparison between the Capitol and "[t]he meanest house in Rome" (IV.ii.40)—a rhetorical foray which Menenius celebrates: "You have told them home" (IV.ii.48). Going home means giving up political action.

In this play, which climaxes in the mutual banishment of citizens and hero (III.iii.117-24), the ejection from home—whether literal or metaphorical—is equally fraught. For example, Marcius verbally alienates the people by expressing his belief that they are barbarians rather than native Romans (III.i.238-40). The ultimate manifestation of this insult is Volumnia's taunt that her son is in fact a Volscian bastard, a point to which I return below (V.iii. 178). "Home" then alternately images the Roman and non-Roman, the plebeian and patrician, the familiar and barbaric, weakening surfeit and strengthening nurture.

That the positive values of domestic experience such as comfort, familiarity, and nurture have a place in Roman civic life inflects the language men use to express public matters. As noted, Marcius tries to deny the authority of the domestic sphere by denying his affiliation with it, "As if a man were author of himself / And knew no other kin" (V.iii.36-7). Yet such a statement depends on the very assertion of kinship, on the inescapable ties to a realm of personal history. In the use of this rhetorical posture he is joined by both Volscian and Roman men. Coriolanus, Cominius, and Aufidius independently cast their military relations in terms of their own wedding days (and nights!) and family ties, thereby acknowledging the crucial power of the domestic aspect of their lives, as they pretend to disown it.30

Masculine relations in the Senate and on the battlefield are figured not only as heterosexual (marital) relations, as Adelman has argued, but also in terms of the whole of "private" life.31Coriolanus flattens out Shakespeare's "division of experience," showing that the public sphere of war and statecraft is meaningless without reference to private, domestic foundations. Just as the debt to a foreign host is seen to supersede paternal protection in...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

Given Coriolanus's tendency alternately to enforce and deny domestic identity and family ties, how then can "his nurse's tears" ( 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...

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(Shakespearean Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1920 words.)