Student Question

Compare and contrast Volumnia and Virgilia's roles as women in Rome.

Quick answer:

"Coriolanus" is a depiction of a great Roman hero whose pride and anger discredits his otherwise moral virtue. Coriolanus, in the end, becomes just another politician who is only concerned about personal gain. Link for more:

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While Volumnia cherishes the masculine thirst for combat in her maternal breast, her daughter-in-law, Virgilia, typifies the traditional Roman wife. In the play, Virgilia is quiet and unassuming; she says very little (as befits a good Roman wife) and often capitulates to the whims of her domineering mother-in-law.

Shakespearean critics have often commented on the seeming discrepancy between how a Roman wife was expected to act in her time (as characterized by Virgilia) and how a woman like Volumnia managed to transcend the expectations of her time. Certainly, Volumnia is no typical Roman mother. She is the main power and inspiration behind Coriolanus' war exploits, and she definitely dominates both her son and daughter-in-law in the domestic sphere as well.

In ancient Rome, women were expected to derive their greatest satisfaction from the home; mothers especially were viewed as the preservers of Roman civilization and culture. Youthful marriages were encouraged, with girls being married off as young as fourteen years of age. Additionally, chastity was the prime feminine virtue; virgin wives were said to ensure the purity of paternal heritage. At the same time, Roman society tolerated extra-marital flings by husbands. Men could consort with prostitutes, but women were generally labelled promiscuous for engaging in similar acts.

Women were also differentiated by the manner of their dress. Respectable women wore stolas (long dresses), while prostitutes wore togas.  A man could have a wife or a concubine, but not both. The concubine was considered one step below a wife and a step above a prostitute.

As a rule, women were given no roles in the public sphere: they were largely prohibited from participating in any sort of political activity. For example, Roman women could not vote, speak, or campaign at political assemblies; certainly, all business, financial, and law interests required the intervention of male representation and input. Informally, a woman could influence her husband or male lover privately, but that was the extent of female power.

In that sense, Volumnia characterizes the unconventional in terms of Roman femininity. She wields power expertly through manipulating Coriolanus' emotional dependence on her. As the presiding matriarch of the family, it is Volumnia who decides when Coriolanus goes to war and when he forebears (as is the case when he withdraws from attacking Rome with Aufidius). Volumnia represents the many Roman women who chose non-traditional paths after their husbands and/sons died in battle. These women owned and managed their family businesses quietly; they labored courageously on behalf of their children despite the challenges they faced in the midst of personal tragedy.

So, through Volumnia and Virgilia, Shakespeare skilfully juxtaposes the two prevailing conventions of femininity during his time. For more, please refer to the two links below.

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