— 5.3 —
Coriolanus, Aufidius, and others met in the Volscian military camp.
Coriolanus said, “Tomorrow we will encamp our army before the walls of Rome. Aufidius, as you are my partner in this action, you must report to the Volscian lords how plainly and openly I have borne this business.”
Aufidius acknowledged, “You have respected only the Volscian ends and purposes; you have stopped your ears against the petition of the Roman people; you have never allowed any Roman to make to you a private whisper — no, not even by such friends who thought that you surely would allow them to speak to you.”
Coriolanus said, “This last old man, whom with a cracked and broken heart I have sent to Rome, loved me more than a father loves his son; indeed, he made a god of me. The Romans’ last resort was to send him, for whose old love I have, although I showed a sour disposition to him, once more offered the conditions I first sent to the Romans, which they refused and cannot now accept as a point of honor. I did that only to show grace to him, who thought he could do more. A very little I have yielded to, but hereafter I will not listen to fresh embassies and suits, neither from the state nor private friends.”
He heard a noise and asked, “What shouting is this?”
He guessed the cause of the noise and said to himself, “Shall I be tempted to infringe my vow at the same time it is made? I will not.”
Wearing mourning clothing, Virgilia, Volumnia, Valeria, and some attendants arrived. With them was Martius’ son, young Martius.
Coriolanus said to himself, “My wife comes foremost; then my mother — the honored mold wherein this trunk of mine was framed — and holding her hand is the grandchild to her blood. But leave me, all affection and emotion! All bond and privilege of human nature, break and get away from me! Let it be virtuous to be obstinate and unyielding.
“What is that curtsy worth? Or those doves’ eyes, which can make gods forsworn? I melt, and I am not made of stronger earth than other men. My mother bows to me, as if Olympus, the home of the gods, would nod in supplication to a molehill, and my young boy has a look of intercession, to which great human nature cries, ‘Deny it not.’
“Let the Volscians plow Rome and harrow Italy. I’ll never be such a gosling as to obey natural instinct, but I will stand firm, as if a man were author and parent of himself and knew no other kin.”
Virgilia said, “My lord and husband!”
“These eyes are not the same as those I wore in Rome,” Coriolanus replied.
He meant that he had changed and no longer looked at her the same way that he had looked at her previously to being exiled from Rome.
His wife replied, “The sorrow that shows us thus changed makes you think so. Our sorrow has changed us so much that you think you have new eyes.”
Coriolanus said to himself, “Like a dull, unintelligent actor now, I have forgotten my part, I am at a loss for words, and I am completely disgraced.”
He recovered enough to say, “Best of my flesh, forgive my cruelty, but do not, because I have asked you for your forgiveness, say to me, ‘Forgive our Romans.’”
His wife kissed him.
Coriolanus said, “Oh, when I was exiled, you gave me a kiss that has lasted as long as my exile and that is as sweet as my revenge! Now, by the jealous Queen of Heaven, Juno, goddess of marriage and punisher of the unfaithful, I swear that when I left Rome, I carried away that kiss from you, dear; and my true lips have virgined it — been chaste — ever since.
“You gods! I prate, and I leave unsaluted and ungreeted the noblest mother of the world. Sink, my knee, in the earth.”
He knelt and said to Volumnia, his mother, “Let my knee do its duty and make a deeper impression in the earth than other sons make so that I can acknowledge my respect for you more than common sons acknowledge their mothers.”
His mother replied, “Oh, stand up, blessed one, while with no softer cushion than the flint, I kneel before you and improperly show my maternal respect to you, as I have been ‘mistaken’ all this while about the respect owed between the child and parent. Previously, I thought that you ought to kneel to show me respect, but now I ‘know’ that I ought to kneel to show you respect.”
This was shocking: A child ought to kneel to show respect to his parent; it is wrong for a parent to kneel to show respect to her child.
“What is this?” a shocked Coriolanus said. “You are on your knees to me! This is a rebuke to me!
“Let the pebbles on the barren beach rise up and strike the stars!
“Let the mutinous winds blow the proud cedars so that they strike against the fiery Sun!
“Let impossibility be murdered, in order to make what is impossible only slight work. Let the laws of nature be destroyed so that impossible things happen!”
Coriolanus valued valor and honor. Suicide can be honorable in some situations. A parent kneeling humbly to her son is not an honorable situation. He stood up and raised his mother.
“You are my warrior,” his mother said. “I helped to frame — shape and train — you.”
She then asked him, “Do you know this lady?”
The lady was her friend Valeria.
Coriolanus replied, “She is the noble sister of Publicola, an important Roman patrician. She is Rome’s Moon, whose goddess is the virgin Diana. She is as chaste as the icicle that’s crystalized by the frost from purest snow and hangs on Diana’s temple. She is dear Valeria!”
Moving Coriolanus’ son forward, Volumnia said, “This boy is a poor miniature of yourself, but with the execution of enough time he may show that he is completely like yourself.”
Coriolanus said to his son, “May Mars, the god of soldiers, with the consent of supreme Jove, King of the gods, infuse your thoughts with nobleness so that you may prove to be incapable of dishonor and so that you may prove to stand out in the wars like a great sea-beacon, withstanding every gust of wind, and saving those who see you!”
Volumnia said to Coriolanus’ son, “Get on your knee, young sir.”
“That’s my brave and splendid boy!” Coriolanus said.
“Even he, as well as your wife, this lady, and myself, are petitioners to you,” Volumnia said.
“Please, be quiet,” Coriolanus said. “Or, if you must ask, remember this before you ask: The thing I have forsworn to grant may never be regarded by you as denials to all of you. I cannot grant what I have sworn not to grant. Do not ask me to dismiss my soldiers, or to bargain and come to terms with Rome’s working class.
“Don’t tell me in which ways I seem unnatural. Don’t try to alleviate my rages and revenges with your colder reasons.”
“Oh, say no more, no more!” Volumnia said. “You have said you will not grant us anything, for we have nothing else to ask, except that which you already deny us. Yet we will ask it, so that, if you fail to give us our request, the blame may hang upon your hardness; therefore, hear us out.”
Coriolanus said, “Aufidius, and you Volscians, listen, for we’ll hear nothing from Rome in private.”
He sat down and then asked his mother, “What is your request?”
“Even if we would be silent and not speak, our mourning clothing and the state of our mourning bodies would betray what kind of life we have led since your exile. Think to yourself how much more unfortunate than all living women are we who have come here, since the sight of you, which should make our eyes flow with joy and our hearts dance with comforts, constrains them instead to weep and shake with fear and sorrow because the mother, the wife, and the child see the son, the husband, and the father tearing his country’s bowels out.
“And your enmity’s most deadly to poor us. You ban us from praying to the gods, which is a comfort that all but we can enjoy. How can we pray for the safety of our country, to which we are bound, and at the same time pray for victory for you, to whom we are also bound? Either we must lose our country, which is our dear nurse, or else we must lose you, who is our comfort in our country. We must find an inevitable calamity, even though we have our wish, whichever side should win: For either you must, as a traitor who helps a foreign power, be led with manacles through our streets, or else you must triumphantly tread on your country’s ruin, and bear the palm of victory for having ‘bravely’ shed the blood of your wife and children.
“As for myself, son, I do not intend to wait on fortune; I will not wait until these wars determine who is victorious. If I cannot persuade you rather to show a noble grace to both countries — that of the Romans and that of the Volscians — than to seek the end of one of those countries, you shall no sooner march to assault your country than you will tread — believe that what I say is true — on your mother’s womb that brought you into this world.”
She was threatening to commit suicide if he continued to march on Rome.
“Yes, and on my womb, too,” Coriolanus’ wife said. “My womb that brought forth for you this boy to keep your name living in time.”
Coriolanus’ young son said, “He shall not tread on me; I’ll run away until I am bigger, but then I’ll fight.”
Coriolanus said, “He who does not want to feel a woman’s tenderness must not see a child or a woman’s face. I have sat too long.”
He stood up.
“No, do not go from us like this,” his mother said. “If it were the case that our request did tend to save the Romans, and by so doing destroy the Volscians whom you serve, you might condemn us as being poisonous to your honor. But that is not the case; our suit is that you reconcile the two sides: the Romans and the Volscians. While the Volscians may say, ‘This mercy we have shown,’ the Romans may say, ‘This mercy we have received.’ And each person on either side will give the all-hail to you and cry, ‘May you be blest for creating this peace!’
“You know, great son, that how a war will end is uncertain, but this is certain: If you conquer Rome, the benefit that you shall thereby reap is such a name whose repetition will be dogged with curses. The history books will have this written in them: ‘The man was noble, but with his last attempt at doing a great deed he wiped his nobility out; he destroyed his country, and his name remains abhorred to the ensuing age.’
“Speak to me, son.
“You have sought the fine strains of honor in order to imitate the graces of the gods. You wanted to tear with thunder the wide cheeks of the blowing air.”
In maps of the time, illustrations showed wind issuing from the puffed-out cheeks and open mouth of Aeolus, god of the winds.
Volumnia continued, “And you wanted to load your sulphur into a thunderbolt that would split only an oak tree.”
In saying that the thunderbolt split an oak tree — rather than a man — she was leading up to an important point: An important grace of the gods is mercy, and that is the grace that her son ought to seek.
Volumnia continued, “Why don’t you speak? Do you think it is honorable for a noble man always to remember wrongs?
“Daughter, speak: He does not care that you are weeping.
“Speak, boy. Perhaps your childishness will move him more than can our reasons and arguments.
“There’s no man in the world more bound to his mother; yet here he lets me prattle like one publicly humiliated in the stocks.”
The stocks were pieces of wood with half-circles carved out of one edge; when two pieces of wood were put together, the half-circles would form circles. A person would be restrained by having his or her feet, hands, and/or head put in the circles. The person being punished might plead, but the people punishing him would ignore his or her pleas.
Volumnia continued, “You have never in your life showed your dear mother any courtesy when she, poor hen, fond of no second brood, has clucked you to the wars and safely back home, loaded with honor. Say my request’s unjust, and kick me away, but if my request is just, then you are not honest and honorable, and the gods will plague you because you keep back from me the respect that a child ought to give to a mother.”
Coriolanus started to leave.
Volumnia said, “He turns away. Get down on your knees, ladies; let us shame him with our knees. To his surname ‘Coriolanus’ belongs more pride than pity to our prayers. He is a man of Corioli, not the conqueror of Corioli. Get down, ladies.”
The three ladies and Coriolanus’ son knelt.
Volumnia continued, “Let’s make an end of it. This is the last appeal we will make. And so we will go home to Rome, and die among our neighbors.
“Coriolanus, look at us. This boy, who cannot tell what he wants to have, but who kneels and holds up his hands because we ladies do, argues for our petition with more strength than you have to deny it.”
She paused; Coriolanus remained silent.
She then said, “Come, let us go, ladies. This fellow — Coriolanus — had a Volscian for his mother. His wife is in Corioli and his ‘child’ who is beside me resembles him simply by chance.
“Yet give us our dismissal, Coriolanus. I am hushed until our city is set on fire, and then I’ll speak a little.”
The little she would speak would be to curse her son as she died.
Coriolanus held her hand; he was silent for a short time.
Then he said, “Oh, mother, mother! What have you done? Behold, the Heavens open, the gods look down, and they laugh at this unnatural scene.”
The scene was unnatural because the mother’s successful pleading put her son’s life at risk.
Coriolanus continued, “My mother! Mother! You have won a happy victory for Rome, but as for your son — believe it, oh, believe it, you have prevailed with him in a way that is very dangerous and perhaps mortal to him. But, let it come.
“Aufidius, although I cannot make true wars, wars that are true to my promise, yet I’ll frame a suitable peace. Now, good Aufidius, if you were in my place, would you have heard a mother less? Or granted less, Aufidius?”
Aufidius replied, “I was moved by it.”
“I dare to swear that you were,” Coriolanus said, “and, sir, it is no little thing to make my eyes sweat compassion.”
He was crying.
Coriolanus continued, “But, good sir, advise me what peace treaty you would like to make. As for me, I’ll not return to Rome; instead, I’ll go back with you. Please, stand by me in this affair.
“Oh, mother! Oh, wife!”
As Coriolanus talked with his wife and his mother, Aufidius said to himself, “I am glad you have set your mercy and your honor at war inside yourself. Out of that I’ll manipulate things so that I regain my former fortune.”
Coriolanus said to his mother and his wife, “Yes, and soon. But we will drink together, and you shall bear a better witness back to and in Rome in your own person than words. We will give Rome a new peace treaty, which will have fair terms as did the old peace treaty, and which will be counter-signed and sanctioned.
“Come, go inside the tent with us. Ladies, you deserve to have a temple built to you. All the swords in Italy and all her military allies could not have made this peace.”
Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved
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