In Caius Martius’s house, Volumnia, his mother, and Virgilia, his wife, sew. Volumnia tells her daughter to be more comfortable. If her son were her husband, Volumnia says, she’d be happier in his absence—during which he might win honor—than in bed with him. When Caius Martius was young and her only son, she sent him to “seek danger where he was [likely] to find fame,” knowing how well honor would become him. She sent him to war, and he returned crowned with oak, proving himself a man.
Volumnia’s alarming hypothetical “If my son were my husband” is often cited as evidence for Freudian psychoanalytic readings of the play (related to Freud’s idea of the Oedipus complex, in which male children are said to have a subconscious sexual desire for their mothers and jealous hatred of their fathers). Volumnia and Martius’ strange relationship is also characterized by the fact that Volumnia sent Martius to war when he was only a boy in order to turn him into a hero. Oak crowns were given to soldiers who saved Roman citizens.
Virgilia asks Volumnia what would have happened if Martius died as a child in that first war. Volumnia responds that the good reputation Martius would have received from dying in war would make up for the tragedy of his death. She professes that if she had twelve sons, each as beloved to her as Martius, she would rather eleven die nobly for Rome than one overindulge himself and avoid action. Their serving gentlewoman then enters and announces that Lady Valeria has come to visit.
While she loves her son (maybe even too much – see above), Volumnia cares more about his honor and reputation as a valiant hero than she does about his life. It’s important to her that this heroism is in service of Rome. She wants him to be famous, but honorably so.
Virgilia asks Volumnia to let her leave, but Volumnia tells her to stay. She thinks she hears her son’s war drum, and visualizes him defeating Aufidius and uplifting Roman soldiers. She describes his bloody brow and compares him to a laborer hired to mow down an entire field or not get paid for his work. At the mention of Caius Martius being bloody, Virgilia cries out “no blood!” but Volumnia scolds her, saying that blood is more becoming than gold, and “the breasts of Hecuba when she did suckle Hector, looked not lovelier than Hector’s forehead when it spit forth blood at Grecian sword.” Virgilia prays that heaven will protect her husband from deadly Aufidius, but Volumnia is confident that Martius will defeat his rival.
Just as she is controlling over her son, Volumnia controls also her son’s wife. While Virgilia becomes distraught imagining her husband bloodied, Volumnia corrects her, comparing blood to gold and thereby introducing the notion that wounds are valuable commodities. With vivid imagery of Hector (an archetypical warrior hero from Homer’s Iliad) and his mother, Volumnia makes it clear that violence and war are superior to motherhood and family.
Valeria enters, greets Volumnia and Virgilia, and asks how Virgilia’s son Young Martius is doing. He prefers swords and military drums to school, which prompts Valeria to say he is his father’s son. Valeria says she looked after him on Wednesday for half an hour, during which she saw him chasing a butterfly. The boy would catch it, let it go, and then catch it again, until he tore it up with his teeth. Volumnia confirms that this is like his father Caius Martius.
Young Martius’ displays of violence liken him to his father, who (as Volumnia said earlier in the scene) went to war when he was only a boy.
Valeria tells Virgilia to leave her sewing and come with her, but Virgilia doesn’t want to go outside until Caius Martius returns from war. Valeria tries to convince Virgilia to visit a woman who is pregnant, but Virgilia refuses. Valeria then compares her to Ulysses’ wife Penelope, who spun extensive amounts of yarn while her husband was gone, only to fill their home with moths. Valeria offers to tell Virgilia news of her husband if she’ll agree to go with her. The Volscians have gathered an army now pitted against Cominius and part of the Roman army; Caius Martius (and Titus Lartius) are attacking and prevailing against the city of Corioles. The war will be over soon. At the good news Virgilia agrees to go with Valeria, but Volumnia tells her to just stay home because her bad mood will ruin their mirth.
Ulysses (Odysseus in Greek) is another famous hero from Greek myth (most notably described in Homer’s Odyssey). His wife Penelope waited at home during the Trojan war and the 10 years of wandering it took her husband to get home. This comparison reinforces the notion that Martius is a heroic, even godlike soldier. Virgilia and Volumnia present two ways for family to react when someone is at war. Virgilia essentially keeps a silent vigil, praying for her husband’s safe return, but Volumnia (and Valeria) have loftier expectations and pray for valiant victories and wounds which can be used as political leverage.