2 of Swords - Volumnia
Dramatis Personae: Volumnia; Virgilia; Valeria; Marcius.
Text & Context: The Sword Suit opens with a sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is, by nature, at cross-purposes with itself. The promise of peace, guaranteed by the sword.
Volumnia is all Coriolanus can hear. She is both immense - she permits no room for him in him - and immensely shallow. She is the book Coriolanus is a leaf from:
Anger's my meat; I sup upon myself,
And so shall starve with feeding.
The card illuminates that moment at which Coriolanus has returned to destroy Rome. To abate him, Volumnia's nature must devour itself; a sword, falling on its sword. At seeing his beseeching mother, Coriolanus kids himself:
I'll never be such a gosling to obey instinct, but stand
As if a man were author of himself
And knew no other kin.
This hollow talk of manhood and autonomy clashes with the newly wrought self-determination of Rome's populace and her institutions of civil polity. In the old Rome, the elite controlled food distribution; in the new, Shakespeare is pitiless in his depiction of the proletariat demanding their share. We know Shaksper the merchant illegally horded grain for financial gain, but Shakespeare is as heartless here as the patrician Coriolanus, caring not a groat for his starving public. The great poet inserts not a word to show Coriolanus is wrong.
How Coriolanus was forged into nothing more than an instrument of war is shown in an anecdote concerning his son, Marcius. The boy, a replica of his father, chased a "gilded butterfly", catching it and letting it go over and over again until he fell, and, seizing the insect, "mammocked" it - that is, tore it apart with his teeth. Volumnia greets the story with approval, and the smug observation: "one on's father's moods." Lear's fatherly words to Cordelia come to mind,
So we'll live,
and pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
at gilded butterflies.
As flies to wanton boys are we to th' gods -
they kill us for their sport.
As Coriolanus leads the Volscians to vanquish Rome, Cominius observes,
He is their god... and they follow him...
with no less confidence
Than boys pursuing summer butterflies,
Or butchers killing flies.
And again, Menenius,
There is differency between a grub and a butterfly;
yet your butterfly was a grub. This Coriolanus is grown
from man to dragon: he has wings; he's more than a
From the beginning, it was Volumnia's iron will made Coriolanus, and in the end it is only Volumnia who can be his undoing. With a white feather, possibly a swan's, symbol of cowardice, Volumnia writes the last word, and wrests her son's lawful sword.
Intertext: Swords 10 Coriolanus