In a previous post (here), I stated that I would be writing exclusively about Shakespeare’s Coriolanus during the month of January. Here is my first attempt to deliver on that promise! 🙂 This post will be split into a part 1 and part 2 because it just got too long!
Virgilia is Coriolanus’ wife and, admittedly, she doesn’t really have a big role in the play.
Here is the extent of her lines in the play:
Act 1 Scene II: This scene is where she speaks the most, but all her lines express the worry she has for her husband or her desire to remain at home until his return.
Act 2 Scene I: She has three lines during this scene, which is the scene of her husband’s homecoming. Oddly she goes completely silent when Coriolanus appears. This impels Coriolanus to call her “my gracious silence” (2.1.180) when he sees her crying instead of rejoicing at his return.
Act 4 Scene I and II: Once again she has a mere three lines, even though these scenes encompass Coriolanus’ departure from Rome after being banished and a confrontation with the tribunes for the people whose actions ultimately led to the banishment.
Act 5 Scene III: Again she has a few lines in this scene where Volumnia, Marcius’ son, and Virgilia try to convince Coriolanus not to sack Rome.
So, what gives? Is Virgilia just a secondary, under-developed, character in this tragedy or does she argue a point (albeit almost as quiet as a mouse)?
It seems that Coriolanus describes Virgilia best as “my gracious silence” (2.1.180). For she is his; she is referred to throughout the play almost exclusively as Coriolanus’ wife (vs. by her name). She appears to belong to him in more ways than that, as her lines are overwhelmingly dedicated to worrying over him (as in act 1 scene II), or exclaiming at his return or change of fortune. Gracious is also an accurate representation of who she is, as she graciously allows Coriolanus to make social faux pas after faux pas. He also leaves her to raise their son (Shakespeare claims they had one, Plutarch says they had two) with Volumnia, a domineering mother-in-law. She endures all this emotional turmoil without uttering hardly anything. Consequently, of course, silent seems to be most befitting her as she utters little to nothing throughout all the most intense plot points. Even despite Volumnia’s initial plead for her to “…sing, or express (her)self in a more comfortable sort” (1.3.46-7). Coriolanus’ might also call her “my gracious silence” because he views her as being gracious in her silence or, in other words, he is thankful that she neither honors him with praises (which, being the weirdo he is, he hates) or tries to persuade him to do something his “noble virtue” tells him would be wrong.
Virgilia’s absence and lack of expressiveness is a criticism on Shakespeare if it is not read as intentional. I see this absence as a deliberate with drawl from social and political life. I believe that she does this for her own preservation, as well as the preservation of her son. Virgilia is as much Volumnia’s counterargument as she is Coriolanus’.
Tune in to see why in my next post! Thanks for reading!