Volumnia’s Dog: The Roman Classical Conditioning of Coriolanus

In William Shakespeare’s final tragedy Coriolanus, plebeians, senators, soldiers, enemies, and even some immediate family struggle in their attempts to indentify and characterize the essence of Caius Marcius Coriolanus. Coriolanus himself struggles for much of the final two acts of the play, trying out an identity that he ultimately realizes to be a contrived farce which contradicts his very nature. As much as Coriolanus would like to believe that he is author of himself, the evidence provided in Shakespeare’s text suggests otherwise. Despite the often fickle views of the plebeians and the subversive, dishonest attitudes held by Brutus and Sicinius, William Shakespeare’s text paints Coriolanus as a highly conditioned tool of the Roman state—an instrument of his mother Volumnia’s desires to purposefully breed a pure warrior, public servant, and the ultimate and ideal Roman citizen.

Volumnia first conditions her son Caius Marcius as a young boy to be the ideal Roman warrior. She begins her training process by sending Marcius off “To a / cruel war” as a child (1.3.13-14), so that he may ‘prove himself to be a man’ (1.3.17). When hearing of this story, Virgilia, the wife of Coriolanus, expresses her displeasure and concern by asking...

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