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Mother Courage: The Power of Women in War

Mosaic

Mosaic of Minverva (1897) by Elihu Vedder within the Library of Congress, Thomas Jefferson Building.

From the siege of Troy to Vietnam, war has been a man’s work. Women stayed behind while their husbands, friends and fathers trekked across oceans to fight the good fight, defeat the enemy, protect the homeland. Women had no place in the trenches—soldiers defined themselves as masculine protectors, embracing bravado and violence in defense of an idealized home. On January 24, 2013, however, the definition of a soldier changed with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s announcement that the U.S. military would lift the ban on female members in combat. The policy acknowledged what had already been occurring overseas, recognizing women for the valor and dedication they demonstrate every day alongside their male comrades.

But in the history of war, women have often been relegated to the background. They were not asked when countries declared war, nor invited to join the fight against a common enemy. In Coriolanus and Wallenstein, two generations of women fight masculine battles from a position of weakness.

As Coriolanus battles Volscian soldiers and Roman plebeians, sustaining wounds and insults, all his wife Virgilia can do is wail: “O no, no, no!” and “O heavens!” Her anger boiling over at the treacherous tribunes Sicinius and Brutus, she finally voices her grief, to no avail: “You shall stay too. I wish I had the power / To say so to my husband.” Predictably, the tribunes ignore her, scoffing, “Are you mankind?” The words of womankind have no power over anyone.

And there is her mother-in-law, Volumnia, Shakespeare’s most fearsome matriarch. Though she was once perhaps as voiceless as Virgilia, Volumnia has transformed herself into a force of nature. Unable to actually participate in Roman public life, her power over Coriolanus is nonetheless absolute. When Coriolanus turns against Rome, Volumnia is the only one who has the power to defeat him, unmanning him with a mother’s scolding. By the end of the play, Virgilia realizes what Volumnia has known all along: as women, they wield no power, but as the mothers of sons, they have clout. Abandoning themselves and focusing on their maternal roles, they find the one argument that Coriolanus cannot ignore. Mother and mother land, women and Rome are bound together, an entity that will either destroy or be destroyed.

Minerva

'Giustiniani Minerva,' a Roman marble of Athena/ Minerva (late 5th or early 4th century B.C).

Amid the battle-scarred landscape of the Thirty Years’ War in Wallenstein, Countess Czerny and Thekla must also rely on feminine prowess to win power. When the young lieutenant Max retrieves Thekla, Wallenstein’s daughter, from her convent in the quiet countryside, he glimpses peace for the first time. Max’s artless love for Thekla gives her power over him and, as a result, potential influence in military schemes. “Thekla, speak up, do something, you foolish girl!” her aunt the Countess exhorts her when Max threatens to abandon Wallenstein. “You have the power…” Instead, Thekla wields her power by willfully renouncing it, escalating her father’s doom. But her action is fruitless. Like Coriolanus, Max cannot deny the demands of masculine honor; like Virgilia, Thekla is ultimately powerless to stop him.

By contrast, Countess Czerny strives to keep step with her brother Wallenstein, attempting to play matchmaker in love while Wallenstein plays matchmaker with nations. In many ways, she is her brother’s twin in her thirst and aptitude for greatness; were she a man, she would rival him in courage and cunning. But as a woman, her gifts are wasted. When all the schemes fail, the only action left to her is a final assertion of strength.

There is only one scene in both of these plays in which a woman seems to triumph. Finally able to play the part of military hero, Volumnia returns to Rome victorious, having sacrificed her son for the good of the republic. But Shakespeare does not allow Volumnia to speak. Her silence is pregnant and uneasy—just as Virgilia’s was at the beginning of the play. She has used the might of motherhood to destroy her son, and whether or not she realizes it, she has killed the source of her pride and power. When Coriolanus loses his life, Volumnia loses her identity. She is doomed to powerlessness, unless she begins the cycle of violence again with Young Martius, once again taking up a son as a surrogate.

The women of Wallenstein and Coriolanus are strong mothers, wives and daughters, and powerful characters—but ultimately, they fight in a world that is not for them. Today we are moving toward a world where gender does not define or limit identity. Women now have the power to create their own path, even to sacrifice themselves in the manner of Max and Coriolanus. Merit and ability, not gender, can determine success. Had Volumnia become consul herself, the history of Rome might have been very different.

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Laura Henry Buda is STC’s Education Coordinator and served as Artistic Fellow in the 2011-2012 Season. She holds an MFA in dramaturgy from the A.R.T./M.X.A.T. Institute at Harvard University.

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