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This scene reveals a major change of attitude in Coriolanus, who finally concedes to someone else’s demands rather than continuing to enforce his own. It is through the entreaties of his family that Coriolanus makes a gesture that is highly symbolic of a change in his proud and self-absorbed character. He thinks about the welfare of others and, in a way, sacrifices himself in order to save Rome and his family.
Coriolanus’ love for his family overcomes his sense of honor and loyalty to the Volscian state. The meeting between the warrior and his wife, mother, and son is certainly one of the most poignant scenes in the play. When he sees with his mother, probably for the last time, the meeting has a tremendous emotional impact on him, just as Volumnia has hoped. By kneeling before him and begging him to spare his family and Rome, she is able to dissuade Coriolanus from attacking his native country.
When the scene opens Coriolanus is engaged in a council of war and wants the Volscian lords to know of how firmly he has resisted the pleas of his countrymen; he admits, however, that it was very difficult to turn Menenius away. Coriolanus then vows that he will not receive or listen to anyone from Rome. Just as he concludes his promise, a commotion is heard, and his family enters. Coriolanus tries to steel himself against the sight of them, pretending to be impervious to their presence. When his mother bows before him, he is overcome by a sense of shame. He manages, however, to keep his composure; he states he must be the author of himself and refuses to acknowledge the power his family has over him.
Volumnia’s first words are to reproach Coriolanus as she raises him and “unproperly” kneels before him herself. Her intention is shame him, and she succeeds in doing so. Coriolanus is deeply embarrassed by this horrendous inversion of the parent-child relationship and bids her to rise. Volumnia accurately gauges the effect of their arrival on Coriolanus and immediately plunges into her purpose for coming. She says that they have come as suitors, but her son cautions her not to try to “allay (his) rages and revenges” with her “cold reasons.” But Volumnia refuses to back away and begins her protracted appeal, which is complex and deeply moving on a number of levels. Drawing on their pitiable condition, she announces how they have suffered since he was banished from Rome. She highlights the unnaturalness of their situation, saying they do not know whether to pray for Rome or for the victory of Coriolanus. Whoever wins, they shall be the losers. She then appeals to his code of honor by citing the fact that if he attacks Rome, he will always be reviled as a traitor who betrayed his own country; she declares that this will bring such shame on her that she will kill herself. Virgilia asserts the same thing, but Young Marcius contends that he will run away and wait until he is strong enough to fight back. The child is obviously a younger version of Coriolanus