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Keywords:

  • Cornelia;
  • eloquence;
  • example

This article argues that Shakespeare's Coriolanus draws on the powerful exemplary figure of Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, in its ambiguous depiction of the relationship between eloquence and femininity. By looking at ideas relating to the example, and at a range of depictions of Cornelia, the essay suggests that the manipulation of these images represents a response to emergent discourses relating to femininity, as well as an engagement with the reception of classical rhetoric. As the figures of Cornelia and her counterpart Volumnia demonstrate, female exemplars are integrally involved in the formulation of ideas about style, rhetoric and ethics, and can be seen to figure centrally in the Renaissance's understanding of relationships between private and public, as figured in the polis, the household and in historical narrative. Shakespeare both addresses and complicates the standard equation between maternal virtue and eloquence by critiquing the incursion of feminine rhetoric into the public realm of politics and governance.