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Putney, R. (1962). Coriolanus and his Mother. Psychoanal Q., 31:364-381.

(1962). Psychoanalytic Quarterly, 31:364-381

Coriolanus and his Mother

Rufus Putney, Ph.D.


Late in his career Shakespeare turned to the legend of the prehistoric Roman hero, Coriolanus, who, in deference to his mother's entreaties, abandoned his vengeance and spared ungrateful Rome. It is a tragedy ensuing from an Oedipal mother-son relationship. Volumnia, the mother, is a consumingly fierce, domineering woman and mother. Widowed when her only son was an infant, she reared him to be a harsh, contemptuous, intolerant, arrogant patrician and a ferocious, indomitable warrior. Upon this mighty man she then imposed the role of submissive son who must obey his mother and strive for her constant approbation. She so imposed her values upon him that she created in him a superego that made him a man of iron rigidity. Since his conscience does not permit compromises, he is a military hero but a failure as politician and statesman. Volumnia ultimately contrives his doom.

When extreme conflict arises between them because she can

sacrifice her principles to the demands of reality while he, so thorough has been the process of introjection, cannot, she makes the charge that he is causing her death, or that she will commit suicide to force his submission. So stringent is the conflict between his conscience and his unconscious death wishes—Volumnia had sent him at sixteen to his first battle and gloried in his wounds and scars—that he automatically submits. On a second occasion, when at the head of the Volscian army, he is at the gates of helpless Rome, which he has vowed to destroy in revenge for his banishment, she renews her threats to overcome the stubbornness with which he clings to his desire for vengeance. Although her threat that she will commit suicide as soon as he advances on Rome has more probability than her former complaint that she would be killed if he caused civil war in Rome, Coriolanus tries to resist because he knows now he must choose between his death and hers. Ultimately, his conscience compels him to choose his own death rather than his mother's.

The hidden theme of matricide has not been noted in previous discussions of the play, although other aspects of the Oedipal situation have been well presented, especially by Hofling (4). Hitherto, the rigidity and exorbitance of Coriolanus's conscience have not received due emphasis; nor has his perfectionism, the need for absolute accomplishment imposed on him by his conscience, been offered as the explanation of his inability to tolerate hearing himself praised.

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