Coriolanus and The Psycho Gene


Long before neuroscientists found the interaction of genes, epigenetic effects and environment on the pathological tendencies in humans, it may appear that Shakespeare created the perfect study in his play Coriolanus. The relationship between Coriolanus and his mother Volumnia is a perfect of example of the making of a psychopathic killer. In order for that to occur according to Dr. Jim Fallon, a professor of neuroscience at the University of California, Irvine, there needs to be an intermingling of nature and nurture to wire the human brain for antisocial behavior. In his Ted Talk “The Violence Within Us,” given March 28, 2013[1], the first condition that needs to occur for a pathological condition to develop is the nature part. The violence gene needs to be passed on to the person.

Modern day science has determined that the MAOA violence gene is sex linked, meaning that it is only found on the X chromosome. This why mostly men are psychopathic killers is because they get their X chromosome from their mother whereas women’s MAOA gene can be diluted with the other X chromosome. This explains why there are so few women serial killers in history. But there are two components that leads a young man to disassociate himself from humanity in a way to become a psychopath. The first is the correctly inherited gene and the second is for the child to be exposed to violence in early adolescence. It may have been that since Coriolanus had both components that is what led ultimately to his destruction and death.

The character of Volumnia demonstrates exactly how a mother can corrupt and destroy her son, in the guise of patriotism. By exhibiting more masculine traits than feminine, Volumnia molded her only son to be a warrior but her coldness may have twisted his sense of human connection into a more destructive way. Her pride and sense of self is steeped in a troubling juxtaposition between “bearing children and bearing arms” (Kahn 147). Shakespeare created a Roman woman to take center stage in a violent and cruel Roman war where a virtu, the male virtue in Ancient Rome, was valued above compassion.

Volumnia took more pride and personal satisfaction in counting the wounds her son gained in fighting the enemies of Rome than she did in his honor. She had raised him to fight and die if need be for his country. Early in the play Volumnia converses with her daughter-in-law Virgilia on this emphasis as they were sewing together. She seems to be responding to Virgilia’s concern that her husband (Marcius Coriolanus) has been absent often recently due to the wars he was fighting. Concern on the part of a wife is a natural response to the situation. Reproving Virgilia, Volumnia tells her that that she should be happier that he is off fighting then if he were home because it shows more love. She says “if my son were my husband, I /should freelier rejoice in that absence wherein he /won honour than in the embracements of his bed where /he would show most love” (1.1 364-367). This seems a cold and unnatural response for a mother to have regarding the safety of her son.

If she were his father, perhaps it would be more acceptable for her to value her country over her son. She then goes on to brag that she had trained him to fight in wars by sending him while he was very young. She says “To a cruel /war I sent him; from whence he returned, his brows /bound with oak. I tell thee, daughter, I sprang not /more in joy at first hearing he was a man-child /than now in first seeing he had proved himself a /man” (377-380). Each of these comments leads to the possibility that Volumnia had created the second condition that researchers have found to create an anti-social personality disorder which is the nurture element; a violent event around adolescence.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a standard used by mental health professionals in the United States listing diagnostic criteria for psychiatric disorders, defines antisocial personality disorder as a person who has three or more of the following traits since age fifteen:

  • Regularly breaks or flaunts the law
  • Constantly lies and deceives others
  • Is impulsive and doesn’t plan ahead
  • Can be prone to fighting and aggressiveness
  • Has little regard for the safety of others
  • Irresponsible, can’t’ meet financial obligations
  • Does not feel remorse or guilt.

Coriolanus definitely displayed three or more of these traits. His disregard for the safety of others was his strongest trait. He had utter disregard for the lower classes of Rome, either their safety or well-being. Knowing that they were starving, he did not seem to be concerned. In response to them asking for corn from the cities storage, he declared: “they are dissolved: hang ’em!” They did not deserve good food, in fact that good food was not made for them at all and that should stop complaining. “That meat was made for mouths, that the gods sent not /Corn for the rich men only.” (1.1 210-215). His arrogance and narcissism is shown through his words.

Nor did he want to stoop to their level to serve them in public office. When his mother still heady with the honors he had received from the Senate for his victory at Coriol told him that she had waited all of her life to see Rome give him a consul, he replied that he is not so enamored of the idea. He said: “Know, good mother, /I had rather be their servant in my way, /Than sway with them in theirs” (2.1 1137-1139). Rather than planning ahead, he was impulsive when two tribunes turned the crowd against him and then he responded: “Break ope the locks o’ the senate and bring in /The crows to peck the eagles” (3.1 1898).

Had he planned ahead, he could’ve seen the best course of action would be to stay calm and get into office rather than rile things up. His mother warned him that it would have been better to get voted into office before he crossed the people because then they would not have had the power to throw him out of office. She lamented if /You had not show’d them how ye were disposed /Ere they lack’d power to cross you” (3.2 2188-2190). For her power was the key. She convinces him to go back to the people and pretend to be the leader they want. When the people reject him again he cries “You common cry of curs! whose breath I hate /As reek o’ the rotten fens, whose loves I prize /As the dead carcasses of unburied men /That do corrupt my air, I banish you” (3.3 2491-2495). It is then that he exhibited another trait of the DSM-5; aggressiveness. Rather than feel remorse or regret for his hurtful words that got him banished, he joined up with his enemy Tullus Aufidius to lead the fight against his own people.

It is his mother, Volumnia who convinced him to not attack Rome. In her speech to him, she used manipulative tactics to appeal to his love for her and his family but also to exhort his obligation to her. She first tried using guilt to sway him by telling him that he was bound to her out of loyalty but instead, he was humiliating her. She claimed that all she had done was cheer him on as he fought in all those wars and now he spurned her. Seeing no change in his face, she resorted to fear tactics and calls him a liar: “Thou art not honest; and the gods will plague thee, / That thou restrain’st from me the duty which / to a mother’s part belongs” (5.3 3669-3676).

He granted her wish perhaps out of love but maybe more out of knowing he had been out-maneuvered by a master manipulator, his mother. She won. For her victory, she was paraded through the city with honors and the treaty was signed. She received her reward for a life of “moulding the frame” of Coriolanus to be the fighting machine that he became. She took the credit.

He then returned to the enemy camp proclaiming that he lied to the Romans and pretended to reconcile with them. Instead, he had tricked them into believing that he had changed causing them to followed him back to the enemy camp. Coriolanus then proclaimed that he delivered them to the gates of Rome to take the spoils. He pledges allegiance to his enemy and betrays is own people: “Hail, lords! I am return’d your soldier, /No more infected with my country’s love /Than when I parted hence, but still subsisting /Under your great command. You are to know /That prosperously I have . . . led your wars even to /The gates of Rome.” (5.6 3907-3920). A sociopath’s perverted idea that he had done an honorable thing. However, his supposed ally, the former arch enemy Aufidius did not see it that way and had Coriolanus promptly killed.

This tragedy does not have a tragic hero because neither Coriolanus nor his mother realized the error of their ways, instead Shakespeare demonstrated how a mother who is twisted by her own lust for power in a masculine world such as the Roman one can sentence her own child to death. Long before the science could explain how it happens, Shakespeare reveals the complex components that make up a psychopathic killer and displayed it on the stage.

[1] Fallon, Jim. “Exploring the Mind of a Killer.” Jim Fallon:. TED Conferences, LLC, Feb. 2009. Web. 13 Mar. 2016.


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