For the second half of its 2012-2013 the Shakepseare Theater company in Washington, DC is currently putting on performances of Coriolanus, Wallenstein, and The Winter’s Tale. The first two plays are being performed in a pair the company is calling the Hero/Traitor Repertory, but it’s also fascinating to read the two Shakespeare works currently in production, Coriolanus and The Winter’s Tale, together. Though the former is a tragedy set in ancient Rome about a war hero who becomes the enemy of his city when he refuses to temper his manner to secure elected office, and the latter is a comedy of mistaken identities set in Sicily and Bohemia, both plays have tremendous roles for older women, Volumnia, Coriolanus’s mother in the play that bears his name, and Paulina, advisor to the royal family of Sicily, in The Winter’s Tale. And to a certain extent, both plays are about what happens when women are barred from formal roles in public life, or when their voices are ignored.
In Coriolanus, Volumnia is the model of a Roman mother, a woman who has raised a great war hero. But while Marcius (the name her son bears before he is given the title Coriolanus in recognition of his war service) can do what Volumnia cannot, represent his country on the battlefield and win honor and political power by doing so, Coriolanus lacks his mother’s deft political perception and ability to compromise when necessary. To a certain extent, this is Volumnia’s fault in raising him. She’s the kind of woman who tells her daughter-in-law “If my son were my husband, I / should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he / won honour than in the embracements of his bed where / he would show most love,” and insists that if Marcius were killed in battle “Then his good report should have been my son.” Marcius’ success is a proxy for Volumnia’s own ambitions. When he wins his greatest victory yet and is poised to become a consul, she reflects, “I have lived / To see inherited my very wishes / And the buildings of my fancy.”
But she may actually be more fit to make the compromises necessary to hold that office than her son is. “Pray, be counsell’d,” Volumnia begs her son when he’s furious at having to go through the rituals to make him consul, including hearing himself praised for his accomplishment, and seeking the approval of Rome’s ordinary citizens, who he has nothing but contempt for. “I have a heart as little apt as yours, / But yet a brain that leads my use of anger / To better vantage…You are too absolute; / Though therein you can never be too noble.” The implacable nature that leads Coriolanus to storm entire cities by himself, and to fight his bitter enemy in single combat makes him an incredibly terrible politician. Volumnia may never have been able to kill in battle the way her son does, but it’s a shame she isn’t allowed to stand for office in his place. Coriolanus may be repulsed by the prospect of compromise, but Volumnia understands a politician’s job all too well: “I would dissemble with my nature where / My fortunes and my friends at stake required / I should do so in honour.”