Outside of Coriolanus’s tent in the Volscian camp, Coriolanus talks with Aufidius, saying that tomorrow they’ll set their army on the walls of Rome. He asks Aufidius to report to the Volscian lords how well he has been doing. Aufidius agrees that Coriolanus has done well to ignore the suits and pleas of Rome, even refusing to have private conversations with his friends. Coriolanus explains that Menenius, whom he “with a cracked heart” sent back to Rome, loved him like a father. He believes Menenius was sent as Rome’s last defense, but he only offered the conditions which Coriolanus previously denied. Coriolanus will hear no more suits from the state or from his friends after this.
Again Coriolanus shows that even in exile, and even as a nameless, heroic, military machine without a family, he still serves the ruling class. Coriolanus recognizes the paternal relationship between himself and Menenius, but it’s not strong enough to override his political allegiance to the ruling class or his personal vendetta against Rome. Though they are friends, Coriolanus views Menenius through a military lens and sees the conversation only as an official negotiation of terms.
Some shouting in the distance makes Coriolanus question if he’ll have to break the vow he just made, and Virgilia, Volumnia, Valeria, and young Martius enter attended by servants. Coriolanus says that his wife is in front, and then “the honored mold wherein this trunk was framed,” his mother, holding the hand of his son. He tries to rid himself of affection. Virgilia curtsies and makes “dove” eyes, and Volumnia bows (like Mount Olympus pleading to a molehill), and young Martius has a look that is extremely difficult to deny. But Coriolanus says he will not be like a baby goose; he’ll act like a man who is author of himself and has no other family.
Many Shakespeare plays include figurative language describing fathers as sculptors to their daughters, depicting the formative, patriarchal, creator / created relationship between fathers and daughters. The depiction of Volumnia as a mold or framer of Coriolanus inverts this typical relationship and imagery, and Coriolanus reinforces the majesty of his mother by comparing her to Mount Olympus. To remain a hero and to remain steadfast, he must continue to be isolated and separated from his family.
Virgilia greets Coriolanus, and he says that her eyes are not the same as he saw in Rome, which she attributes to her sorrow. Coriolanus compares himself to a “dull actor” who has forgotten his part. He calls Virgilia the “best of his flesh,” and asks her to forgive him—but not to plead with him to forgive Rome. They kiss, and he says the kiss is “long as [his] exile, sweet as [his] revenge.” He then solutes “the most noble mother of the world” by kneeling. Volumnia tells him to rise, and then she kneels to him. He’s surprised that she’d kneel to her chastised son, and raises her up.
Coriolanus’ line calling himself a “dull actor” is meta-theatrical, since it is spoken by an actor on stage. Coriolanus could not play the political part required of him, and since his banishment he cannot play himself (because his identity was so tied to Rome), so now he is no one. He’s at his most heroic and his most dangerous, but he’s completely without identity. The irony of asking for forgiveness while demanding not to be asked for it is not lost on Coriolanus.
Volumnia says, “thou art my warrior; I [helped] to frame thee,” and asks if Coriolanus knows Valeria. Coriolanus does recognize her, and then Volumnia presents young Martius, whom she says is a miniature of his father who will eventually look just like him. Coriolanus prays that his son is noble, incapable of disgrace, and a good soldier. Volumnia has young Martius kneel, and she says that he, herself, Valeria, and Virgilia are now suitors to Coriolanus. Coriolanus responds that before they ask, they should remember that he has sworn not to acquiesce and will not dismiss his Volscian soldiers or go back to Rome. He doesn’t want to hear that he seems unnatural, and doesn’t want them to try to calm his rage and desire for revenge with reason.
Volumnia continues to invert the traditional father / daughter dynamic by saying that she “framed” Coriolanus. She emphasizes the ownership she feels over her son with the possessive “my warrior,” which is contrasted with Coriolanus’ hopes for his own son to become a soldier. Coriolanus doesn’t want to engage with any language, especially with pleas to change his mind, since he is extremely attached to his stubborn adherence to Roman values. He would not compromise his values in order to pacify the citizens of Rome, and he won’t do it now to spare them.
Volumnia knows Coriolanus has already denied what they will ask for, but they will ask anyway, so that if he truly says no, it will be because of his “hardness” rather than because they didn’t ask. She begins by telling him how unfortunate she and Virgilia are, since while they should be overjoyed to see Coriolanus, due to the circumstances they are weeping and shaking with fear in reuniting with him. They fear “the mother, wife, and child” will have to see “the son, the husband, and the father tearing his country’s bowels out.”
Volumnia shows how Roman identity is woven into the familial relationships and identities of each family member. They are as much Roman as they are Coriolanus’ family. Thus, in confronting him, they confront a paradox. Since he is currently so anti-Roman, he is at once their family member and not their family member.
Coriolanus requests their prayers, but Volumnia says they cannot pray. They are bound to their country as well as to Coriolanus, so they must either lose Rome or lose Coriolanus. Either Coriolanus will be led through the streets of Rome in shackles, or Coriolanus will destroy Rome and receive accolades for shedding the blood of his wife and child.
Volumnia further explains the paradox she faces: they are equally tied to Coriolanus and to Rome, so they are completely powerless and unable to act. Even praying would violate either familial obligation or Roman duty. The women can’t save Rome without ruining Coriolanus, and Coriolanus can’t win without destroying his family and home.
Volumnia herself will not wait to see how the war turns out. If she cannot persuade Coriolanus from attacking the city, his first steps towards conquering Rome must be to tread on his “mother’s womb that brought [him] into this world.” Virgilia echoes that he’ll have to tread on her womb, which brought forth young Martius, too, and young Martius says he will not be tread on, planning to run away until he is old enough to fight. Volumnia clarifies that they are not asking him to destroy his honor by destroying the Volscians instead of the Romans. Instead, they hope that he reconciles peace between the two. War is uncertain, but if he conquers Rome, his name will go down in history along with curses, since he’ll have destroyed his own country.
It could be argued that by forcing Coriolanus to tread on their wombs, Volumnia and Virgilia draw a parallel between the citizens’ ungratefulness for Coriolanus’ wounds. To trample the mother that brought him into the world would be extremely ungrateful and dishonorable, just as it was dishonorable for the citizens to banish the hero who fought for them. Young Martius already shows his father’s warlike spirit and sense of honor.
Continuing her lengthy speech, Volumnia repeatedly asks why Coriolanus will not speak to her, invoking both Virgilia and young Martius to help her convince him. She claims that “There’s no man in the world more bound to [his] mother,” yet he allows her to beg like this without showing any respect. She speaks of how frequently she has sent him to war and seen him come home, and says he can deny her request, but if he’s not honest he’ll be punished by the gods for failing to oblige his duty to his mother.
Volumnia’s repeated requests for Coriolanus to speak reinforce the fact that he cannot speak and has no special language ability. Her assertion that Coriolanus is the man closest to his mother in the world is often used in psychoanalytical / Freudian readings as evidence for the over-intense relationship between Coriolanus and Volumnia.
Coriolanus turns away, and Volumnia instructs Virgilia and Valeria to kneel with her to shame him. They kneel, and Volumnia says they’ll go back to Rome and die with the rest of the city. When they rise, she says of Coriolanus “this fellow had a Volscian [for] his mother, his wife is in Corioles,” and his child only looks like him by chance. She then claims she’ll be “hushed” until Rome is on fire, and only then will she speak again.
Volumnia resolves the paradox and the split of duty between family and Rome by saying that they are dependent on the other. If Coriolanus is not a Roman, then he must not be their family member. After making this profound rejection of her son, Volumnia begins a powerful silence, leaving a vacuum in which Coriolanus is finally forced to speak.
Silently, Coriolanus holds his mother by the hand, and after the pause, he cries out “O mother, mother! What have you done!” He calls out to the heavens and tells Volumnia she has “won a happy victory to Rome,” a victory that is “most mortal” to her son. He accepts his fate if it will come, and he tells Aufidius that he wants to make peace. He asks his former rival if he would have done anything different were he in the same position, and Aufidius simply says that he was moved by the scene. Coriolanus says Aufidius can come up with the terms of the peace, and decides to go back with him to Antium.
In the powerful silence, Coriolanus realizes that he really doesn’t have the power to destroy his city and his family. In becoming reconnected to his family, he becomes reconnected to Rome, and he becomes once again humanized and therefore vulnerable. He’s no longer an unfeeling thing or a heroic god; he’s a man with a worldly connection to his family. “Most mortal” shows that Coriolanus knows his decision to spare Rome will probably cost him his life.
Coriolanus then rejoices with the women, saying that they’ll drink together and that the women deserve a temple built for them based on the peace they have created. Aufidius, meanwhile, says in an aside that he’s glad Coriolanus has compromised his honor by being merciful, since he hopes to use this to his advantage in his old goal of defeating Coriolanus.
Coriolanus is no longer an unfeeling war-machine, and the women have replaced him as the play’s heroes. Aufidius immediately sees that he can capitalize on Coriolanus’ mercy and his relationship with his family, both of which equate to vulnerability.