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Coriolanus | Study Guide

William Shakespeare

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Coriolanus | Act 1, Scene 3 | Summary



The action returns to Rome. Martius's mother, Volumnia, and wife, Virgilia, discuss Martius's heroism. Volumnia expresses her pride in Martius, whom she feels is proving his manhood in battle, and says that that even losing a son in war is noble. Virgilia hopes her husband won't be wounded, but Volumnia chides her, saying that blood is more important than a trophy. Their friend Valeria enters. She asks how they are doing and whether Virgilia would spend the day with her to help Virgilia take her mind off Martius. Virgilia politely but sternly refuses: she feels it is her duty to stay at home when her husband is off at war. In the course of the conversation, Valeria asks how Virgilia's son is. Virgilia merely says he is fine. But Volumnia boasts of the boy's masculine qualities, preferring swords to his teacher. Valeria adds to this by sharing a moment where she witnessed the boy chasing a "gilded butterfly," catching it and letting it go. After a fall the boy's temper led him to capture the butterfly and kill it by biting it. After Valeria continues to urge Virgilia to come with her, Virgilia is still unmoved in her decision to remain at home.


Volumnia's pride in her son is clearly evident in this scene. Her statements attest she would prefer a man (husband or son) to be in battle winning glory and honor than remaining safely at home. She seems cold hearted and perversely proud of Caius Martius. She reproaches her daughter-in-law for hoping for Martius's safe return and emphasizes the valor of returning bloodied. This shows the value Roman mothers could place on furthering the social standing of their male children and the family by relation. Volumnia is portrayed as the overbearing, domineering matriarch who drives the scene forward, which almost pushes Virgilia and Valeria into the shadows.

This scene supports the themes of honor and gender roles. The lengths to which a mother and wife will go to attain honor in the eyes of Roman society are boundless. Honor appears to be Volumnia's driving force. But even Virgilia has strict notions of how the wife of a soldier should behave in his absence. In addition, the lines of behavior between male and female are clearly drawn. The female's duty is to home and to raise hearty, aggressive males. True to ancient Roman culture, the women have control of the household but little else.

Also appearing in this scene are the symbols of the butterfly and wounding. The gilded butterfly to which Valeria refers was symbolic of the human soul and transformation. Martius's son commits a violent act by biting the butterfly, which indicates the ongoing lineage of destruction. The act might also symbolize a break with Roman values. The glorification of wounds accentuates the prestige attached to violence, particularly if one is victorious.

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