Cymbeline, King of Britain

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Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline, King of Britain. (The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 207-301).

Of Interest: RSC Resources | ISE Resources | S-O Sources | Holinshed’s “Kymbeline” | Boccaccio’s Decameron Day 2.9 | Rare Triumphs of Love and Fortune, 1589 | Peele’s Sir Clyomon and Sir Clamydes |

Act 1, Scene 1 (221-25, Cymbeline has banished Posthumus for marrying his daughter Imogen; Imogen rightly distrusts the queen and stands up to her father; she and Posthumus exchange love tokens—a ring and a bracelet, respectively; Posthumus will go stay with  Philario in Rome; Cloten makes an unsuccessful attempt to assault Posthumus.)

An irrational old king vexed with his virtuous but stubborn daughter, surrounded by an untrustworthy royal family—this should sound familiar to anyone who has seen or read King Lear, in which Lear and Cordelia are torn asunder while vulture-like Regan and Goneril gobble up their fortuitously enlarged helpings of British land to rule. Posthumus Leonatus has a problem similar to that of Edmund of Gloucester in King Lear—not that he’s illegitimate, but his less than royal lineage makes him persona non grata at Cymbeline’s court. Imogen’s vocabulary is much more expansive, however, than Cordelia’s stubborn, if honest, repetitions of “nothing”—Cymbeline’s daughter fights back spiritedly when the king derides her suitor with the phrase “basest thing” (224, 1.1.125) and banishes him. Cymbeline, says Imogen, has failed to realize that bringing the two of them up together might lead to this situation, and the situation is worsened by his refusal to recognize merit as anything but a property of noble birth.

Looking forward, however, we will find that in Cymbeline law and custom only seem implacable. In true comic fashion, they can be revoked with a change of heart and a word or two. Lear’s decrees are not reversible in time to do anyone good, but Cymbeline’s are. The analogue of the faithful servant Kent in King Lear would be the wronged but ultimately loyal Belarius, who—having spitefully kidnaped Cymbeline’s two young sons some twenty years previously—returns them to the king when he least expects it, thereby ushering in the play’s happy ending.

None of this is to suggest that Cymbeline is on a par with the masterpiece King Lear. Indeed, Dr. Johnson wrote that pointing out the play’s many flaws would be “to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”[1] In our own day, Harold Bloom has insisted that Cymbeline is deliberate self-parody, repeating in a tired manner certain silly plot contrivances that the Swan of Avon may have become too fond of over the years: a foolish but still magnificent sovereign; a decapitation; a massive violation of the so-called unity of time since the action seems to shuttle back and forth between ancient Britain and Renaissance Italy; identity switches and disguisings sufficient to make a viewer’s head spin; a gender-bending heroine; a presumptuous husband with a potentially lethal Madonna/whore complex; a loquacious villain who does evil—oh, we don’t know why; a foppish aristocratic oaf who stands on his unimpressive masculinity and threatens Tarquin-ravishment against a chaste woman; a potion that induces a death-like coma; an ultra-unlikely family reunion; and a final-act virtual symphony of improbabilities.[2]

Of course, this is Shakespeare we’re talking about: even if the critics are correct that in Cymbeline the playwright is making fun of his worst tendencies, the results are by no means to be despised. That would be true even if only for Imogen’s sake: a memorable heroine, she rises above the dramatic environment in which Shakespeare has placed her. It’s a high-class problem to have, this “rising above,” and as Harold Bloom would be quick to tell us, it’s one she shares with Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.[3]

To open the play, we are told that Cymbeline adopted the orphan Posthumus and raised him as a close servant (221-22, 1.1.28-50). Imogen has married the young man only to see him banished by her father the King because of the great gap between the two in rank. It seems as if everyone except Cymbeline can see the truth, which is that Posthumus is a worthier match for his daughter than Cloten, the buffoonish son of Cymbeline’s new queen. The courtiers may not say so to their master’s face, but all of them are “Glad of the thing they scowl at” (221, 1.1.14), meaning the frustration of Cloten in his suit for Imogen’s hand in marriage. As for the new queen, she is a master dissembler who feigns affection for her daughter-in-law while secretly seething at her for failing to accept her son as husband and heir to Cymbeline’s throne. Imogen, however, is not fooled: “O dissembling courtesy!” (223, 1.1.84), she exclaims after speaking with this deceptive woman.

Posthumus informs Imogen that he is about to depart to the home of  Philario, a friend of his deceased father (223, 1.1.97-99). Imogen and he exchange tokens of their love: she gives him a ring, and he gives her a bracelet (223-24, 1.1.109-24). But the young man must be gone in haste when Cymbeline storms in and declares him “Thou basest thing” and his daughter a “disloyal thing” (224, 1.1.125, 131). The king is wrong: Imogen is by no means disloyal. In fact, her main virtue is her loyalty towards Posthumous, and through the perilous adventures she undertakes, she will only reconfirm the excellence that resides within her. In the romance world, adventure and happenstance have magic properties all their own. In a broadly Christian scheme, they turn out to be providential with regard to the discovery of truth and the partial fulfillment of desire. As William Hazlitt suggests in his essay on Cymbeline in Characters of Shakespeare’s Plays (1817),[4] Imogen’s faithfulness to Posthumus Leonatus sets the play’s tone and centers its action: the reigning passion is loyalty. Imogen shows herself to be as headstrong as her imperious father when she defies his will: “Sir, / It is your fault that I have loved Posthumus. / You bred him as my playfellow, and he is / A man worth any woman…” (224, 1.1.143-46). These are not the words of a woman who would submit meekly to an unjust royal prerogative.

As for the departure of Posthumus, there is some drama when Cloten tries to engage the banished husband in a sword fight, but nothing much comes of it (225, 1.1.161-64). This departure will profoundly alter the life of Imogen as well as Posthumus. The romance genre emphasizes the necessity of alienation: you don’t know the value of a person, quality, or happy situation until you are threatened with its loss. Alienation is one of the main ways people discover who they are. The time will come when Imogen herself must leave the court in order to return to it on a firmer basis, after many accidents. In this first act generally, Imogen confirms the quality of her character: what we can expect isn’t so much growth and development on her part but rather confirmation of and insight into what she already is.

None of this reassurance about Imogen’s goodness, it is worth noting, fits neatly within the characters’ tendency early on to define others in terms of untested superlatives and absolutes. Posthumus, for example, swears to Imogen, “I will remain / The loyal’st husband that did e’er plight troth” (223, 1.1.95-96). And at the play’s outset, the first gentleman speaks effusively about Posthumus, reporting him as “a creature such / As to seek through the regions of the earth / For one his like, there would be something failing / In him that should compare” (221, 1.1.19-22).[5] This sort of language says very little about those who are praised, but it says considerably more about the turbulence in Cymbeline’s court. Hyperbolic praise is an instrument Shakespeare uses to expose the hollowness and unsustainability of courtly environments and political dispensations. A healthy society or state can tolerate some degree of linguistic exuberance and even flattery, but when it is wholly dependent on such tendencies, that is a sign that all is not well.

Act 1, Scene 2 (225-26, Cloten preens himself and waxes jealous against the now absent Posthumus while his assistant the second lord cuts him down to size.)

The second scene is a comic introduction to the queen’s villainous son Cloten, who shows himself to us as a puffed up, foppish oaf amply given his comeuppance by a wisecracking second lord who undercuts him throughout, though not in a way that makes Cloten himself aware of the undercutting. It is not difficult to see what is eating away at Cloten: he decries the intolerable fact that his love object Imogen “should love this fellow and refuse me!” (226, 1.2.22) When people tell us who they are, as Maya Angelou used to say, we had best believe them. The laws of Cloten’s being are envy, cupidity, and seething resentment.

Act 1, Scene 3 (226-27, Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus shines: she regrets that their parting could not last longer.)

Imogen’s loyalty to Posthumus is touching in his absence, and she relates how her parting from her new husband was interrupted by Cymbeline: “comes in my father, / And, like the tyrannous breathing of the north, / Shakes all our buds from growing” (227, 1.3.35-37). With regard to the metaphor she employs, in romance, if winter comes, spring can’t be far behind: the organicism implied by this metaphor implies the acceptance of loss and death in exchange for the possibility of regeneration and reconciliation. We know that Imogen’s father the king, though he acts like the stark north wind, will eventually give way and participate in the play’s harmonies and reconciliations. The question is, how much will be lost before he comes round?

Act 1, Scene 4 (227-31, Giacomo draws Posthumus into a quarrel over the comparative value of Italian women and Imogen, and lays down a “trial of virtue” wager: Posthumus’s ring for Imogen’s compromised honor.)

Giacomo introduces himself to us, and we immediately understand that he is not given to crediting the grand praise that others have apparently been showering upon Posthumus Leonatus, about whom he says, among other things, “I have seen him in France. We had very many / there could behold the sun with as firm eyes as he” (228, 1.4.9-10).

Whatever we may gather about Giacomo, we also quickly see that Posthumus has learned little from experience in his relatively short life thus far. Immediately after recounting a quarrel he fell into with a Frenchman over the relative qualities of English and French females, he allows Giacomo to tempt him into making the same argument, except that now the ladies for comparison are Italian. This clever man needles Posthumus, “I have not seen the most precious / diamond that is, nor you the lady” (229, 1.4.63-64). In other words, he mocks Posthumus for his naïve ideals about feminine virtue. Giacomo boasts that without much ado he will strip Imogen of her virtue and win the ring her husband wagers: upon only a second meeting with her, he insists, he will take away “that honour of hers which you imagine so / reserved” (230, 1.4.114-15). Posthumus raises the stakes as high as he can, promising that if Giacomo fails in his attempt, he will answer for the insult to Imogen in a duel (230, 1.4.139-45).

As for this “trial of virtue” plot, as Prof. Harold Toliver of UC Irvine pointed out to me years ago, it is a medieval commonplace, probably because of the martyrdom patterns established in Christian narratives. Chaucer’s “Clerk’s Tale,” which validates the Marquis Walter’s long and painful testing of his wife Griselde, illustrates this penchant for putting female virtue to the test. Posthumus decides to put Imogen’s virtue to a similar test, and allows Giacomo to tempt her. We may well question Posthumus’s judgment: the man’s actions at this point are bound to disappoint us. As Albany says in Act 1, Scene 4 of King Lear, “Striving to better, oft we mar what’s well.”[6]

For all his protestations about her innocence, Posthumus’s proof-by-temptation scheme seems ethically dubious. Shakespeare’s regard for this old plot device doesn’t seem wholehearted. No less a moral authority than Jesus led his flock in prayer, “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”[7] It’s hard to argue with a statement like that. In modern times, we would call what Posthumus does to Imogen “entrapment.” And then there’s his exhibition of that green-eyed, smothering monster jealousy. In Act 3, Scene 3 of Othello, Iagopins down this passion with his lines about Desdemona’s misplaced handkerchief: “Trifles light as air / Are to the jealous confirmations strong / As proofs of holy writ.”[8] Once indulged, such a powerful feeling admits of no going back, and Posthumus must act upon it. Only the fullness of romance time will allow this situation to be made good, at least to a great extent.

Act 1, Scene 5 (231-33, the queen demands poisonous substances from Cornelius, who gives her a potion that only causes deathlike sleep; the queen gives this potion to Pisanio, whom she attempts to win away from Posthumus; she threatens absent Imogen with death if she does not relent and give in to Cloten.)

Cornelius conscientiously asks the queen what she wants with the “poisonous compounds” she has ordered (231, 1.5.8), and he does not like the answer he receives, which is that she plans to use them on defenseless animals and note the effects the poison has upon them (231, 1.5.18-23). He knows her for what she is, and resolves not to give her what she wants, but rather a simulacrum that will “stupefy and dull the sense a while” (232, 1.5.37). The queen next sets to work on Pisanio, the servant of Posthumus, trying to win him away from his master towards Cloten and giving him a box filled with Cornelius’s fake poison that she hopes Pisanio himself will swallow, thinking it a remedy. The queen threatens absent Imogen, who, she says, “Except she bend her humor, shall be assured / To taste of [the drug] too” (233, 1.5.81-82).

Act 1, Scene 6 (233-38, Giacomo comes to Cymbeline’s court and slanders Posthumus as a playboy; Imogen believes him but is uninterested in repaying Posthumus in kind, so Giacomo pretends he was testing Imogen’s faith in her husband and asks if she will store a chest allegedly containing gifts for Cymbeline.)

By letter, Posthumus recommends Giacomo to Imogen (234, 1.6.22-24), and the Italian promptly makes mostly excellent use of his first conversation with the lady. He paints a picture of a feckless, adulterous Posthumus living it up in Italy, exhibiting the opposite of the chief qualities Imogen thinks he possesses: earnestness and fidelity. He is known, says Giacomo, simply as “The Briton Reveller” (234, 1.6.60). Giacomo’s wicked suit almost fails, first when he overdoes the runup portion of his gambit and Imogen bluntly (and hilariously) asks him “Are you well?” (234, 1.6.49), and then when he boldly urges revenge and utters the sentence, “I dedicate myself to your sweet pleasure” (236, 1.6.135). This latter declaration causes Imogen to denounce him outright: “If thou wert honorable / Thou wouldst have told this tale for virtue…” (236-37, 1.6.141-42). But Giacomo is more than up to the occasion, protesting boldly that he meant only to test the strength of Imogen’s virtue (237, 1.6.162-64). With the addition of a simple device—namely, a request to store a chest full of plate and jewels meant as a gift for Cymbeline—Giacomo’s diabolical plot is set (237-38, 1.6.184-92).

Giacomo’s assault on Imogen, we should note, is in some ways similar, and in some ways different, from the more famous one detailed by Shakespeare’s source here, the Roman historian Titus Livius (Livy) in Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.57-59. In Livy’s account, the villainous Sextus Tarquinius is said to be “inflamed by the beauty and purity of Lucretia,” and while he tries to seduce the faithful Roman wife of Collatinus with pleadings calculated “to influence a female heart,” in the end he is reduced to making a stark threat to disgrace her by killing Lucretia and placing the body of a slave next to her corpse, thereby tricking the Romans into believing she had been cut down in the midst of adultery.[9] That alone is what convinces Lucretia that there’s no way out of the dire situation, and suicide soon becomes her response. Giacomo’s attempt upon Imogen is also “calculated” in this way, and it fails just as miserably, at least in the most immediate sense.

Giacomo’s calculation, however, is perhaps worse than Tarquin’s in its contemptuous a priori construction of female nature as easily moved to uncontrollable, complicit lust. Even Tarquin probably didn’t quite believe about Lucretia what Giacomo apparently does about his “mark” Imogen. We may recall that Giacomo didn’t initiate his wager with Posthumus because he was “inflamed by the beauty and purity” of Imogen, as Tarquin was smitten by the description of Lucretia (or as Angelo is driven to act against the saintly Isabella in Measure for Measure), but instead because he wanted to prove a cynical, abstract proposition about female humanity. For us today, it’s hard to avoid equating Giacomo’s actions with the most obnoxious sort of “pickup artists” who plague the internet with their macho posing and vulgar assumptions about women as bottomless wells of lustfulness or suckers for a deceptive, fast-talking man. Even as this play has given us so much rhetoric proclaiming various characters’ impossibly high pitch of virtue, Giacomo presents as a comic-book villain: he is a stereotypical “supersubtle Italian,” a sexually predatory Machiavel. This may be another way in which Shakespeare gets mileage from the otherwise risible violation of the “unity of time” in Cymbeline: Giacomo’s sly Renaissance Italian “Rape of Imogen” is cast as something like a parody of Livy’s reverse-heroic or high-villain narrative of the Tarquin prince’s “Rape of Lucretia.” What transpires here may remind some readers of Karl Marx’s witticism that history repeats itself—“the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”[10] It’s a peculiarly mirthless farce, but a farce all the same.

Act 2, Scene 1 (238-39, Cloten again puffs himself up, worries about meeting anyone of lesser rank, including Giacomo; as usual, the second lord mocks him in a witty aside.)

Cloten interprets the actions of others as motivated by what drives him: lust, ambition, and avarice. We often find this oppositional representation of love in romance plays: true and charitable love versus the prideful and empty sort (“cupidity”) that we find in Cloten. The confrontation of heightened, opposed absolutes seems characteristic of romance. Cloten fears losing face, he fears what he calls “derogation” (239, 2.1.40-41) if he condescends to meet the newly arrived stranger Giacomo. He doesn’t want to mix with those below his station. That fear constitutes the law of his being: it makes him tick, so to speak.

This tendency in Cloten is interesting since the play in general emphasizes the inherent goodness of aristocratic characters such as Belarius and his sons Guiderius and Arviragus. Shakespeare is careful not to go too far in that direction, but he doesn’t appear to dismiss altogether the claim that blood bestows nobility, that virtue can in part be inherited. Cloten is rather like the dragon in the old romances—he is the monster who must be slain because he would cut off the quest for reunification and reconciliation, and cut short the generosity of romance time. The “knight” who slays him, as it will turn out, is Guiderius. Cloten’s destructive lust and self-love are incurable, unlike the disturbing but less damnable jealousy that besets Posthumus. The second lord has Cloten “pinned and wriggling on the wall” like the imaginary insect in T. S. Eliot’s poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”[11] The clever queen, he muses, is cursed with a son who “Cannot take two from twenty, for his heart, / And leave eighteen” (239, 2.1.52-53). Well, as they say, talent skips a generation. Sometimes it skips more than that number.

Act 2, Scene 2 (240-41, Giacomo emerges from the trunk he asked Imogen to store in her bedchamber, taking note of ornaments and structure in the room as well as a mole on sleeping Imogen’s left breast; he takes her bracelet.)

It is time for Giacomo to carry out his wicked designs upon Imogen’s happiness. Emerging from the trunk in which he has stowed himself, the devious fellow describes himself in the grand style: “Our Tarquin thus / Did softly press the rushes ere he wakened / The chastity he wounded” (240, 2.2.12-14). He notes various ornamentations and items in Imogen’s chambers, but most damning of all, he remarks a mole on her left breast (241, 2.2.37-38). Assiduous readers of Shakespeare will feel perfectly at home betting that Giacomo’s perusal of the book Imogen had been studying will yield him Ovid’s recounting of rape and cannibalistic revenge, “The tale of Tereus”(241, 2.2.45). Giacomo’s brand of evil here consists in foreclosing upon Imogen and Posthumus’s love by means of a deceptive command of the facts: he cheats at his wager with Posthumus, and is able to describe Imogen’s room and her personal characteristics.

It may seem ironic that Giacomo works his wickedness with the aid of facts: they may be “stubborn things,” but they don’t often matter much in Shakespearean romance, or in the romance world generally. Cymbeline apparently existed around the time of Augustus Caesar, and in fact Raphael Holinshed mentions him in the Chronicles.[12] But Giacomo is obviously a Renaissance Italian, one who lives and moves slyly in the age of Machiavelli. This temporal abyss is so extreme that it lends credence to the view of critics who insist that Cymbeline is self-conscious parody. Shelley’s friend the satirist Thomas Love Peacock may have been thinking of this play, with its ancient and modern characters greeting one another across what logic tells us should be a gap of around 1,500 years, when he mocked the Elizabethans for their disregard of the neoclassical unities:

Shakespeare and his contemporaries … used time and locality merely because they could not do without them, because every action must have its when and where: but they made no scruple of deposing a Roman Emperor by an Italian Count, and sending him off in the disguise of a French pilgrim to be shot with a blunderbuss by an English archer. This makes the old English drama very picturesque … though it is a picture of nothing that ever was seen on earth except a Venetian carnival.[13]

Shakespeare’s millennium-and-a-half hop-skip to modern Italy is undeniably bizarre, but just as in his early revenge tragedy, that barbarous masterpiece Titus Andronicus, he seems determined to unsettle any comfortable notions about the grand qualities that supposedly distinguished ancient Rome from every other place and culture on earth, so in Cymbeline he challenges these same notions by means of a deliberately absurd temporal rift between the ancient City and the modern.[14] It is not so much that Shakespeare represents human nature as essentially the same through the ages as that he appears to resist any idea of a rock-solid, foundational Rome upon which to build our conception of history or humanitas. The Eternal City has been reinventing itself from time immemorial, aided by an uncanny ability at once to believe and disbelieve its own self-spun legends.

Act 2, Scene 3 (241-45, Cloten orders a serenade for Imogen, who despises him to his face; her insults provoke him to vow revenge; Imogen is almost frantic with the thought that she has lost the bracelet Posthumus gave her.)

Cloten makes a thoroughly ineffective attempt (if an actual one, unlike Giacomo’s) to win Imogen’s affections. The only good thing that comes of it is the fine air, “Hark, hark, the lark at heaven’s gate sings…” (242, 2.3.17-23). Face to face, Cloten declares his love for Imogen, and receives for his reply a measure of her strength: “I care not for you, / And am so near the lack of charity / To accuse myself I hate you…” (244, 2.3.103-05). One is reminded of Fanny Burney’s witty journal description of a suitor who just couldn’t understand that his attentions were not welcome.[15] But while Cloten may be dense, even he gets the point when Imogen tells him the hair on his head isn’t worth the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus (244, 2.3.128). This scornful flouting elicits from Cloten a desire for revenge (245, 2.3.150-51). Meanwhile, Imogen’s real concern is that (thanks to Giacomo at 240, 2.2.33) she has lost the bracelet given her by Posthumus: “I hope it be not gone to tell my lord / That I kiss aught but he” (245, 2.3.142-43).

Act 2, Scene 4 (245-49, Giacomo returns to Rome and declares victory over Imogen and Posthumus, who unwisely believes him especially because of the bodily “evidence” and denounces all womankind.)

As Philario and Posthumus trade views on the prospects of the Romans getting the tribute they’ve demanded from Cymbeline (245-46, 2.4.10-26), Giacomo enters and triumphantly declares his victory in the contest of female virtue. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry at the sight of Posthumus’ pitiful performance here, with Giacomo egging him on and Philario vainly trying to draw the most substantial account possible from Giacomo: “take your ring again; ’tis not yet won” (248, 2.4.114). But when Giacomo brings out his supposedly irrefutable evidence—Imogen’s bracelet and that unfortunately noted lovely mole on her breast, the game is up, and Posthumus is quite certain that this wily stage Italian has (as the Machiavellian Iago did with Othello), “prove[d his] love a whore.”[16] The reaction we get from Posthumus is no better than that of the romantic absolutist Othello: the mole, he avers, “doth confirm / Another stain, as big as hell can hold…” (249, 2.4.139-40).

Act 2, Scene 5 (249-50, Posthumus makes outlandishly misogynistic statements: loss of faith in Imogen has shattered him.)

Posthumus hits enough home runs to make it into the Misogynists’ Cooperstown on the first ballot: “We are all bastards…” (249, 2.4.2), he whines, and then comes the grand slam: “there’s no motion / That tends to vice in man but I affirm / It is the woman’s part…” (250, 2.4.20-22). He imagines the act of copulation between Giacomo and chaste Imogen, proving only the deranged state of his own imagination (250, 2.4.15-17). For the moment, at least, he would make fine company for Othello, Leontes from The Winters’ Tale, or Hamlet in that awful conversation with Ophelia in Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1. As for this scene, as Hamlet might say, “Go to, I’ll no / more on’t.”[17]

Act 3, Scene 1 (250-52, spurred on by the queen and Cloten, Cymbeline refuses to pay tribute to the Romans.)

The Roman ambassador Lucius delivers Augustus Caesar’s demand for tribute from the Britons, but the queen and Cloten sway Cymbeline from paying the 3,000 pounds Caesar wants. Cloten says arrogantly, “If Caesar can hide the / sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, / we will pay him tribute for light…” (251, 3.1.41-43), and Cymbeline himself, while reminding present company that he spent time at Caesar’s court in his youth, comes round to the idea that failure to resist would “show the Britons cold” (252, 3.1.74), especially because just now the Pannonians and Dalmatians are in open warfare with Roman armies. Cymbeline will not fail to keep up with the barbarian Joneses.

Act 3, Scene 2 (252-54, in separate letters, Posthumus commands Pisanio to kill Imogen and asks Imogen to come to Milford Haven in Cambria, which she at once makes plans to do.)

Pisanio is dismayed at the letter Posthumus has sent requiring him to kill Imogen: “Thy mind to hers is now as low as were / Thy fortunes” (252, 3.2.10-11), he laments. He tries to break this news to Imogen, but only succeeds in rendering her more eager to get to Milford Haven in Cambria than she already was upon reading the deceptive letter Posthumus dedicated to her. Imogen makes her plans, which include a female assistant fetching her “a riding suit no costlier than would fit / A franklin’s housewife” (254, 3.2.76-77). Pisanio’s role is similar to that of the banished Kent in King Lear: while his immediate goal is to protect Imogen, he also keeps Posthumous from doing harm so long as an insane fit of jealousy drives his actions. In this way, he also resembles Cornelius, who refused to give the queen the deadly concoctions she sought. There is a special sort of fidelity that consists in not doing the bidding of a master who has taken leave of his or her senses. It may not be in line with the eighteenth-century Kantian “categorical imperative”[18] that would enforce the keeping of promises no matter the circumstances, but it is rooted in a time-honored sentiment. Authority combined with impulsiveness and immaturity is a deadly combination, and sometimes, stripping away the agency of those thus afflicted is the only way to prevent things from reaching the worst.

Act 3, Scene 3 (254-55, we meet Belarius and his supposed sons Arviragus and Guiderius; Belarius gives us—not the boys—the complete back story as to why they are living in the Welsh countryside; both young men lament their lack of experience.)

Cutting off the king’s issue can be a vicious affair in ancient literature—recall Ovid’s tale of Tereus, Procne and Philomela in Metamorphoses[19]—but in this play things aren’t so bad. Belarius has kidnapped Cymbeline’s two sons and raised them with a healthy distrust of courtly deception, but they subsequently get their chance to prove the nobility that is their birthright. The two young men, Arviragus and Guiderius, are understandably reluctant to accept the limitations Belarius has placed upon them. When he says, “this life / Is nobler than attending for a check…” (255, 3.3.21-22), both of these supposed sons chime in with a rebuttal: Guiderius says of his rough existence, “unto us it is / A cell of ignorance, traveling abed …” (255, 3.3.32-33). Arviragus adds, “our cage / We make a choir, as doth the prisoned bird…” (255, 3.3.42-43). Both of them complain of being inexperienced in the wide world and show themselves very impatient to enter it. The narrative that Belarius has fed them does not satisfy anyone but himself, an older man who has already seen too much of that world and paid the price for it.

Belarius provides us with the necessary background information on why he and his two young men are living as hunters in the Welsh countryside, a rough place that always gave even the Romans trouble. It seems that Belarius was taken down by a couple of villains who accused him of treason against Cymbeline on behalf of the Romans. Cymbeline believed the lie and banished Belarius from Britain (256, 3.3.65-69). Once the boys have made their exit, Belarius is free to tell us the rest of the story, which is simply that in his anger against Cymbeline’s injustice, he decided to take away the king’s futurity and therefore stole by means of Euriphile his two male children, whose names are now Polydore (Guiderius, the heir to Cymbeline’s throne) and Cadwal (Arviragus, the younger of the two). Belarius himself is now called Morgan, and the boys believe he really is their father (256, 3.3.79-107). That’s the way he wants to keep it since he has come to regard them as his own sons.

We might note in passing that Wales is hardly a green world of the Forest of Arden type, and that the court from which Belarius was exiled doesn’t appear to have been particularly corrupt, though it is peopled with some disturbing characters. The setting in this romance play is fairly unrealistic in the first place, so there’s no need to escape into a magical world to grow and develop and then return to achieve social reintegration. The main value of the Welsh setting is that it gives Arviragus and Guiderius a martial edge: they are hunters, not shepherds, so when the time comes, they will be admirably prepared to do heroic service against the Roman invaders, which in turn paves the way for them to regain entry to Cymbeline’s court.

Act 3, Scene 4 (257-61, Pisanio reveals the contents of Posthumus’ letter commanding him to kill Imogen; he has a plan to rescue her: she must dress as a young man and enter the service of the Roman Lucius; Pisanio also gives her the potion-box the queen had given him.)

Pisanio takes Imogen part-way to Milford Haven, and at last reveals to her the contents of the letter Posthumus had sent him. Imogen is overwhelmed, and declares herself “a garment out of fashion” that must be ripped to shreds by the owner since it is “richer than to hang by th’ walls …” (258, 3.4.50-51). Pisanio refuses Imogen’s request to run her through with a sword, and reveals his plan to get her out of her predicament: he will deceive Posthumus into thinking that he has indeed killed Imogen. Then she must go to Milford Haven and, dressed as a young man, present herself to the Roman ambassador and general, Lucius, in whose service she may come to a place in Rome not far from where Posthumus is staying (259-60, 3.4.123-79). Ominously, Pisanio passes the queen’s potion-box along to Imogen, with the innocent advice, “a dram of this / Will drive away distemper” (261, 3.4.190-91).

Act 3, Scene 5 (261-65, suspected of helping Imogen escape from court, Pisanio deceives Cloten into expecting to come upon Posthumus at Milford Haven; Cloten sets forth his diabolical plans to murder Posthumus and ravish Imogen.)

The king begins to miss his daughter, and Cloten points the finger at Pisanio (263, 3.5.54-55), who comes in for much questioning. The queen, meanwhile, is spinning her wheels in her usual conspiratorial fashion: of Imogen, she says, “Gone she is / To death or to dishonor, and my end / Can make good use of either” (263, 3.5.62-64). Under Cloten’s pressure, Pisanio pretends to accept his proposal that he should become his servant rather than remain the servant of Posthumus, and Cloten’s first order is to bring him the suit the fellow was wearing when he left to begin his banishment (264, 3.5.124-25). This villain’s plan is to murder Posthumus at Milford Haven, where he believes (in accordance with the original deceptive letter Pisanio gives him) the man is headed. Afterwards, he will compound his evil by sexually assaulting Imogen: “With that suit upon my / back will I ravish her—first kill him, and in her eyes…” (264, 3.5.133-34). This vicious plan will accomplish three objectives: first, Cloten will slake his jealous rage at Posthumus; second, he will pay Imogen back for her contemptuous words to him earlier, where she cast it in his teeth that the “meanest garment” ever worn by Posthumus was worth more to her than the hair on Cloten’s head (244, 2.3.128-30); third, he will obtain his ultimate objective of forcibly making her his wife, kicking her all the way back to Cymbeline’s court (265, 3.5.138-41).

To top this for intent to commit a host of villainies, we would need to go straight to Livy’s History of Rome, where the author tells the story of Sextus Tarquinius’s rape of the Roman matron Lucretia, or indeed to Shakespeare’s own retelling of that story in The Rape of Lucrece. We could even go to Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus, where we would meet the self-declared supervillain Aaron the Moor, who brags about digging up dead men and setting them upright at their dear friends’ doors, most likely to mock the key Roman concept of friendship or amicitia.[20] Of course, we need not worry too much since this is Cloten, and Cloten never accomplishes anything he sets out to do. He’s no Tarquin, and neither would he pass a class in basic Machiavelli since he manages to make himself a hated object of contempt.[21] Even so, his loser-status doesn’t make him any less wicked—the crudely literalistic turn of his mind is characteristic of Shakespeare’s nastiest villains.[22]

Act 3, Scene 6 (265-67, Belarius and his charges light upon disguised Imogen eating their food, and give “him” a warm welcome.)

Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius light upon the disguised Imogen eating their camp rations, and they respond with surprise when she offers them gold and silver for her dinner. She claims that her name is Fidele. Belarius tenders her an unexpectedly warm welcome: “Think us no churls, nor measure our good minds / By this rude place we live in” (266-67, 3.6.62-63), and both brothers experience something like love at first sight: “I’ll love him as my brother …” (267, 3.6.69), declares Arviragus. As is usually the case in Shakespeare, we cannot take for granted that the countryside is a less civilized place than the city or the court, and Imogen is pleasantly surprised to stumble upon the same insight. So too with Orlando in As You Like It, when, in search of sustenance for his poor old servant Adam, he stumbles upon the exiled Duke Senior’s rustic circle and is shocked to find that his show of pirate-like ferocity is unnecessary.[23]

Act 3, Scene 7 (267-68, Lucius is appointed proconsul and Rome’s general against the Britons.)

Lucius is appointed proconsul (provincial governor), with the responsibility of marshaling the Roman forces against Cymbeline’s Britons.

Act 4, Scene 1 (268, Cloten admires himself in the mirror and rehearses his evil designs against Posthumus and Imogen.)

Cloten admires himself in the mirror and waxes poetical about his coming destruction of Posthumus and rape of Imogen, after which he will “spurn her home to her / father” (268, 4.1.16-17) and expect his mother to smooth things over with Cymbeline. This character wants to be a villain, but cannot manage more than to appear a pseudo-courtly fop, a stock character in the Shakespearean canon. If he had somewhat better manners, his place would be with dishonest courtiers such as Osric and Oswald from Hamlet and King Lear, respectively—men who are already very far from acting as the renowned author Baldassare Castiglione prescribes in his Book of the Courtier.[24] But as mentioned earlier, even though Cloten does not meet the high standards of Shakespeare’s more serious villains, he is not deficient in their degree of innate wickedness.

Act 4, Scene 2 (268-79, Imogen-as-Fidele is ill and takes Pisanio’s potion; Cloten arrives and is beheaded by Guiderius, to the dismay of Belarius; Arviragus carries in the seemingly lifeless body of Imogen-as-Fidele and the brothers lament; alone, Imogen awakens to find the headless Cloten dressed as Posthumus, and blames Pisanio; a soothsayer for Lucius interprets portents favorably to Rome; Lucius finds Imogen-as-Fidele and offers this stranger a chance to join up with the Romans.)

Imogen is increasingly impressed at the capacity for decency she finds here away from Cymbeline’s palace: “what lies I have heard! / Our courtiers say all’s savage but at court” (269, 4.2.32-33). Arviragus falls more deeply in love with Imogen-as-Fidele, while Imogen has taken ill sufficiently to try the supposedly wondrous potion Pisanio gave her (267, 4.2.37-38).

Cloten arrives on the scene, and Belarius is stricken with fear because he recognizes him as the queen’s son (270, 4.2.64-67). Guiderius is left alone to face Cloten, who immediately demands that he yield to him. Guiderius parries the oaf’s threats and insults expertly, and cuts off his head. Belarius is by no means pleased—he realizes the consequences of killing a Briton royal: “We are all undone” (272, 4.2.122), he tells Guiderius. But to himself, he marvels at the noble nature of both Guiderius and Arviragus: “’Tis wonder / That an invisible instinct should frame them / To royalty unlearned …” (273, 4.2.175-77). Guiderius makes what turns out to be an important decision to toss Cloten’s head into the stream nearby (273, 4.2.182-84).

Arviragus soon enters with the seemingly lifeless body of Imogen-as-Fidele (274, 4.2.194-96). Belarius instructs the young men that they must restrain their contempt for Cloten and give him the burial that a member of the royal family deserves (275, 4.2.245-49).[25] For Imogen-as-Fidele, Guiderius and Arviragus sing a noteworthy refrain: “Fear no more the heat o’th’ sun, / Nor the furious winter’s rages …” (275, 4.2.257-58; see 275-76, 4.2.257-80). The theme of the song is that in the end, even young lovers must “come to dust” (276, 4.2.274).

When Belarius and the two brothers have departed, Imogen awakens next to the headless body of Cloten, dressed in Posthumus’s clothes: “A headless man? The garments of Posthumus?” (276, 4.2.307) She now blames Pisanio for what she believes to be the murder of Posthumus, on the evidence that the drug he gave her was not the cordial he claimed it to be (277, 4.2.325-28).

A Roman captain informs Lucius that troops from Gaul (“Gallia”) and troops led by Giacomo (who is here said to be the Duke of Siena’s brother) have arrived from Italy (277, 4.2.332-41). A soothsayer portends success to the Romans, declaring, “I saw Jove’s bird, the Roman eagle, winged / From the spongy south to this part of the west, / There vanished in the sunbeams …” (277-78, 4.2.347-51). Lucius catches sight of the headless body before him and also spies the living Imogen-as-Fidele. The upshot of this discovery is that Lucius offers Imogen-as-Fidele a chance to join up with the Romans (278, 4.2.379-81), which she accepts with only the proviso that first the body of the man she supposes to be Posthumus must be buried. Pisanio’s plan has come to fruition almost by accident, after quite an eventful detour.

Act 4, Scene 3 (279-80, the queen is gravely ill, and Cymbeline is desperately isolated; Pisanio is confused about the current state of affairs, but trusts to time and the gods.)

The queen is desperately ill and in a state of madness thanks to the absence of her son Cloten, so Cymbeline is isolated in a time of great need (279, 4.3.1-9): the Romans have now landed in force. Pisanio is in the dark regarding the whereabouts of Posthumus, Imogen and Cloten. His only plan is to fight for the Britons and leave the rest to the heavens: “All other doubts, by time let them be cleared: / Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered” (280, 4.3.45-46). This is the correct attitude to take for a character in a comic or romance play: trust to time.[26]

Act 4, Scene 4 (280-81, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Belarius agree to fight for Cymbeline against the Romans.)

Belarius tries to explain to his courageous charges that it would be unwise to expose themselves by volunteering to fight for Cymbeline because Belarius himself would be recognized: “I am known / Of many in the army” (280, 4.4.21-22). But his realist argument falls on deaf ears since Arviragus and Guiderius insist on making their mettle appreciated in the coming fight. As Jaques says in As You Like It, young men will be “Seeking the bubble reputation / Even in the cannon’s mouth.”[27] We may be reminded, too, of Harry Hotspur in . Belarius ends up declaring, “If in your country wars you chance to die, / That is my bed too, lads, and there I’ll lie” (281, 4.4.51-52). The old man does not make the tragic mistake made in the Aesop’s fable about the king who loves his little son so much that he won’t let him leave his lodgings, only to lose the boy to an infection caused by an injury stemming from his extreme frustration.[28] He realizes that he can’t keep the young men he took from Cymbeline away from danger forever. The time has come for them to make their mark on the world, come what may.

Act 5, Scene 1 (281-82, Posthumus believes Imogen is dead at Pisanio’s hands; he will fight for Cymbeline and seek death to honor Imogen.)

Posthumus believes Pisanio’s claim that he carried out his order to execute Imogen, and decides that instead of fighting on the side of the Romans, he will switch over to support Cymbeline and, with any luck, die for Imogen. He describes this transformation in part as a casting off of external appearances: “I will begin / The fashion—less without and more within” (282, 5.1.32-33). This seems like a welcome turn toward self-reflection and a healthy interior state for Posthumus, but he manages to dissipate any good will we may feel toward him by continuing to believe that Imogen was, in fact, unfaithful to him, as appears when he says, “You married ones, / If each of you should take this course, how many / Must murder wives much better than themselves / For wrying but a little?” (281, 5.1.2-5) There’s just something unlovable about a man who works himself up to “forgiving” a woman who has done him no wrong.

Act 5, Scene 2 (282-83, Posthumus defeats Giacomo, and Cymbeline is captured but rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, Arviragus, and Posthumus; Lucius tries to protect Imogen-as-Fidele.)

Posthumus fights with and disarms Giacomo, and the Italian immediately feels “heaviness and guilt” (282, 5.2.1) for his base betrayal of Imogen. In the third scene, Cymbeline is captured but is then instantly rescued by Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus, who, as they put it, “Stand, stand, and fight” (282, 5.2.13). They are joined in the rescue by Posthumus. Lucius tries to safeguard Imogen-as-Fidele from the Briton advance since, in the fog of war, Roman troops are killing their own.

Act 5, Scene 3 (283-85, Posthumus, disheartened by an aristocratic onlooker’s cowardice, turns Roman again and is promptly captured by the Britons; at this point he wishes only for death, to atone for his offense against Imogen.)

Posthumus describes to a lord the bravery of Belarius and others, and rebukes that same lord for treating his story like fiction: “you are made / Rather to wonder at the things you hear / Than to work any” (284, 5.5.53-55). Posthumus is so disheartened by this fellow’s chatty cowardice that he decides to turn Roman again, the better to meet his end since Cymbeline’s troops now have the upper hand (285, 5.5.75-83). He is promptly captured by Briton troops. Shakespeare’s treatment of the loquacious lord is another instance of his interest in exploring the balance between representing martial action and indulging in the desire to talk about such things, to spin webs of language about the pathos and glory of war.[29]

Act 5, Scene 4 (285-89, in prison, Posthumus reflects on his debt to Imogen. His departed parents and brothers come to him in a dream, and complain to Jupiter about Posthumus’s fate. Jupiter promises them that all will be well, and provides them with a prophetic tablet that the ghosts place upon the chest of their sleeping family member. A messenger arrives and says that Posthumus must be brought into the presence of Cymbeline.)

Cast into prison, Posthumus meditates on his debt to Imogen (348, 5.5.1-29). His departed father, mother and brothers appear to him in a vision as he sleeps. They complain to Jupiter of the wrongs that he has suffered through the villainy of Giacomo, who labored “To taint his nobler heart and brain / With needless jealousy” (287, 5.4.49-50). Tired of their complaining, Jupiter appears and promises a happy ending after explaining “Whom best I love, I cross…” (287, 5.4.71). In the end, says Jupiter, Posthumus “shall be Lord of Lady Imogen, / And happier much by his affliction made” (287, 5.4.77-78). Awakening, Posthumus realizes that a tablet has been placed upon his breast—this is the play’s one apparent instance of the miraculous instead of the merely implausible—and reads a prophecy from it having to do with “a lion’s whelp,” “a piece of tender air,” a “stately cedar,” and branches therefrom. (288, 5.4.108-10) When these things are put together in a meaningful relationship, says the tablet, Britain will thrive. Immediately thereafter, the jailer comes in to tell Posthumus he is to be hung. “Oh, the charity of a / penny cord!” (289, 5.4.135-36) exclaims the philosophical jailer who duly passes the information along. He seems so disillusioned with his job that we might half-suspect he’s floating his résumé in hopes of finding something better. Before his execution, Posthumus will be brought before Cymbeline.

Act 5, Scene 5 (289-301, Cymbeline knights Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius; Cornelius reports the queen’s death along with her dreadful confessions; Lucius asks that Imogen-as-Fidele be spared death, but Imogen-as-Fidele doesn’t reciprocate; Giacomo reveals the source of the ring he’s wearing and details his villainy; after Posthumus strikes Imogen-as-Fidele, Pisanio identifies Imogen, amazing Cymbeline and Posthumus; Pisanio and Guiderius explain the death that befell Cloten, forcing Belarius to confess that they’re Cymbeline’s sons; Posthumus admits that he helped rescue the king; Imogen has lost a kingdom but gained two royal brothers; the soothsayer explains the prophecy; Cymbeline pardons everyone, lauds the gods, and agrees to pay tribute to the defeated Romans.)

Cymbeline begins this scene by wishing that the brave soldier who assisted Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus in rescuing him could be found. This man we know to be Posthumus. But Belarius and his two charges are present, and Cymbeline makes them British knights (290, 5.5.19-22). Cornelius enters and reports that the queen is dead (290, 5.5.25-27). Not only that, but he runs through a litany of dreadful revelations from the dying queen: she never loved Cymbeline but only coveted his power; she pretended to feel affection for Imogen but in fact hated her and planned to poison her; and finally, she intended to poison Cymbeline himself (290-91, 5.5.37-61) in order to secure the throne for her son, Cloten. When the latter went missing, however, the queen was driven to distraction, fell sick, and died. Cymbeline is stunned, but he does not blame himself for being taken in: “Mine eyes / Were not in fault, for she was beautiful; / … nor my heart / That thought her like her seeming” (291, 5.5.62-65). It appears that an ancient, staunchly British king fell victim to the Renaissance Neoplatonist desire to align the beautiful with the good.

Lucius the defeated Roman general is brought in, desiring only to spare Imogen-as-Fidele from the death sentence that must befall all Romans present: “Never master had / A page so kind, so duteous, diligent …” (291, 5.5.85-86). Imogen surprises Lucius by failing to reciprocate when the king offers her a chance to redeem a prisoner: “The boy disdains me…” (292, 5.5.105), says Lucius almost in disbelief. But understandably, Imogen is more concerned about the tale Giacomo can be constrained to tell about how he got the precious diamond ring he now possesses, and so to undo the reputational harm he has done to Imogen herself.

Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus are in turn surprised when they recognize their guest Imogen-as-Fidele, whom they thought to have died; but now they behold “The same dead thing alive” (292, 5.5.123). Pisanio recognizes her as well. Imogen-as-Fidele’s next move is to demand that Giacomo explain where he got the ring he’s wearing (293, 5.5.135-36), and Giacomo confesses that he received it from Posthumus. Cymbeline demands that he explain himself in full, which sparks a comic exchange in which Shakespeare may be making fun of his own tendency towards prolixity, or at least suggesting a lamentable return to the earlier part of the play’s rhetorical excesses. The old king hears the word “daughter” and is on fire to hear the rest of Giacomo’s story, but he proves all but helpless to stop the slow-motion carriage-wreck that is the anguished Giacomo coming clean about his transgressions (293-94, 5.5.153-209). But at last, the Italian makes himself sufficiently clear: “my practice so prevailed / That I returned with simular proof enough / To make the noble Leonatus mad…” (294, 5.5.199-201). By this time, that kind of language passes for pure comprehensibility. Giacomo, as Matthew Arnold cites François Guizot pronouncing sentence on Shakespeare himself, has apparently “tried all styles except that of simplicity.”[30]

When Imogen-as-Fidele pleads with Posthumus, who has interrupted Giacomo to declare himself the greater villain and indeed the murderer of Imogen (294-95, 5.5.213-20), Posthumus strikes the supposed page, prompting a reproach from Pisanio, who at last calls Imogen by her name (295, 5.5.231), to the amazement of Cymbeline and Posthumus alike. When Imogen blames Pisanio for her near-death experience, Cornelius interjects, remembering now to mention one of the queen’s admissions: she had given Pisanio the potion-box, but as we know from near the beginning of the play, Cornelius did not trust her with deadly poison and so gave her only a very strong sedative, one that mimics death. Imogen and Posthumus embrace, and Cymbeline greets her as his child (296, 5.5.263-65). The old king informs Imogen that her stepmother the queen is dead, but not much attention is paid to that event.

Pisanio steps in when the king mentions that Cloten is still missing, explaining his device in passing along to Cloten Posthumus’s deceptive letter addressed to Imogen, which told her to make her way to Milford Haven in Wales. Guiderius adds a simple, “I slew him there” (296, 5.5.286). Cymbeline’s response is not quite what Guiderius was expecting: “thou art condemned” (297, 5.5.297). This dread sentence, of course, forces Belarius to reveal the rest of the story: “This boy is better than the man he slew…” (297, 5.5.301), which risks enraging Cymbeline. But the matter is quickly cleared up when Belarius reveals the remarkable information that, with the help of the boys’ nurse Euriphile, he had, in fact, kidnapped them after his unjust banishment: “Beaten for loyalty / Excited me to treason” (298, 5.5.343-44). Cymbeline’s response is entirely positive since he can see these young men’s quality for himself, and the tokens Belarius is able to provide (a mantle and a mole) only increase the king’s certainty.

Cymbeline explains to Imogen what this all means for her: “Thou hast lost by this a kingdom” (299, 5.5.372), but she does not see the matter that way, preferring instead to dwell upon what she has gained: a pair of long-lost brothers. “I have got two worlds by’t” (299, 5.5.373), says she. Cymbeline doesn’t quite understand it all, and who can blame him? He expresses a desire to hear further details in due time to lessen his wonder (299, 5.5.381-86).

Posthumus is now able to declare that he is the poor soldier who assisted Belarius, Arviragus, and Guiderius in rescuing Cymbeline, and he calls upon Giacomo to verify his story. When this villain makes plain his sudden change of heart and asks for death once he returns the ring and bracelet he wrongly came by (300, 5.5.411-16), Posthumus decides to show mercy: “The power that I have on you is to spare you …” (300, 5.5.417). That decision, in turn, leads Cymbeline to declare a general pardon for everyone, including the Romans (300, 5.5.419-21).  

The soothsayer rounds off the moment by explaining the prophecy that Posthumus’ ancestors had placed upon his chest: Posthumus is the “lion’s whelp,” Imogen is the “piece of tender air,” Cymbeline himself is the “lofty cedar,” and of course Guiderius and Arviragus are the two branches (300-01, 5.5.434-56).[31] Cymbeline surprises everyone by unilaterally offering to pay the Roman tribute whose refusal had led to the bloody struggle between the two nations, and his final pronouncements are, “Laud we the gods” and “let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (301, 5.5.474, 477-79).[32] This political and military turn of events may seem shocking, but as the Norton editors point out, it probably has to do with Shakespeare’s interest in indulging the increasingly strong desire among the English to see their country as a second Roman Empire, but also to preserve their sense of being independent agents rather than as thralls to the history and image of another powerful nation. Beyond that, as Jean E. Howard suggests in her introduction, a sense of “contingency” pervades the actions and decisions taken in this historical romance.[33]

By the end of the play, nearly everything has been set right, with the unaccented exception of the death of the queen and her mean-spirited, oafish son Cloten. Cymbeline’s wrath was real and his error deep, but the power that had seemed to be so absolute and irrevocable turns out not to be so after all. In a romance universe, the march of events is not inexorable, and the price of insight and the recovery of one’s identity isn’t death. At the play’s outset, Cymbeline’s behavior was as irrational as that of King Lear, but time has given him the gift of coming round to a better perspective on love and life. Even the dread justice of royal absolutism is pushed aside in the final act with a wave of the king’s staff since, of course, Guiderius “just happens” to be Cymbeline’s son. Giacomo is found out as a villain and seems likely to go to the block, but he simply renounces his villainy and is forgiven, so all is well there, too.[34] Generosity is spread all around like butter on hot bread.

In the end, Jupiter’s prophecy, which had seemed to be nonsense, turns out to be true. Generosity reigns over chaos, and intelligibility reigns over incomprehensibility. Jupiter rules, and so does Shakespeare, the artist as romance magician who can draw mellow happiness from anguish and unity from a cascade of improbabilities. Like romance works of art generally, Cymbeline follows the broad spiritual path of an alienation from identity and then a return to it in a more secure, if by no means permanent, state: romance is for the most part a kindly genre that promotes the magical power of art and adventure to transform the human condition, provided we understand that the losses and sorrows induced by our mistakes cannot simply be wished away or canceled out. Romance represents to us a world largely disposed to fulfill the fundamental desires that give meaning to and ground a person’s time on earth. The only real bittersweetness in the play’s conclusion—for that is a strong feature of romance, too—lies in the king’s understanding of the pain he has caused Imogen and the many years he lost with his sons thanks to his own unjust treatment of Belarius, who, no doubt, must feel sorrow as well now that his revelation leads him to let go of the young men he has come to think of as his own.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake


[1] Johnson, Samuel. Notes to Shakespeare, Vol. III. Comments on Cymbeline. The Augustan Reprint Society. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[2] Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998. See the essay on Cymbeline, 614-38.

[3] Bloom, Harold. Ibid. The essay on Hamlet, 383-431.

[4] Hazlitt, William. Hazlitt on English Literature: An Introduction to the Appreciation of Literature. Ed. Jacob Zeitlin. New York and London: Oxford UP, 1913. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[5] Some of the characters who are so prone to overpraising in this play could stand to read Michel de Montaigne’s essay “Of the Inconstancie of our Actions.” In it, the author, as translated by John Florio, writes, “We float and waver betweene divers opinions: we will nothing freely, nothing absolutely, nothing constantly.” Essays, Vol. 2, Ch. 1. Accessed 2/18/2024.

[6] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. See 783, 1.4.318.

[7] The Gospel according to Saint Matthew 6:13. Bible Gateway. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[8] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. See 552, 3.3.319-21.

[9] Livy. Ab Urbe Condita, Book 1.57-59. The relevant Latin is, “Tarquinium mala libido Lucretiae per vim stuprandae capit; [11] cum forma tum spectata castitas incitat.” and “Tarquinius fateri amorem, orare, miscere precibus minas, versare in omnes partes muliebrem animum.” Accessed 2/15/2024.

[10] Marx, Karl. The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. Accessed 2/15/2024.  

[11] Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” In The Waste Land and Other Poems. New York, Vintage Classics, 2021. Pp. 5-11. 

[12] Holinshed, Raphael. The Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland. 1587. Vol. 2, pg. 32. The Third Book of the Historie of England. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[13] Peacock, Thomas Love. “The Four Ages of Poetry,” 1820. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[14] We might say the same of Shakespeare’s bloody revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus, which so mingles “barbarian” with “Roman” qualities that the two terms become all but inextricable.

[15] Burney, Frances. From Letters and Journals, “Mr. Barlow’s Proposal.” In Abrams, M. H. et al, eds. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 8th ed., Vol. C. pp. 2812-15. Norton, 2006.

[16] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 512-86. See 452, 3.3.356.

[17] Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Second Quarto with additions from the Folio. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 358-447. See 398, 3.1.142-43.

[18] Kant, Immanuel. “On a supposed right to lie from philanthropy.” (“Über ein vermeintes Recht, aus Menschenliebe zu lügen” (1797). In Practical Philosophy. Trans. and ed. Mary J. Gregor. Cambridge and New York,  Cambridge UP, 1999. 605-16. At issue is Kant’s famous response to Benjamin Constant’s challenging question as to whether it’s acceptable to lie if a killer with an axe shows up at your home and wants to know if your best friend is there. The answer in light of the Kantian “categorical imperative” is No because it’s always wrong to lie; otherwise, the very idea of truth would soon be undermined.

[19] Ovid. Metamorphoses. See Book 6, “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela.” Trans. Henry T. Riley. New York & London: George Brill & Sons, 1893. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[20] Shakespeare. The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. 145-98. See 170, 5.1.135-40.

[21] See, mainly, Machiavelli’s Chapter XIX of The Prince, titled “That One Should Avoid Being Despised and Hated.” Accessed 2/18/2024.

[22] Shakespeare. King Lear. Folio with additions from the Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Tragedies, 3rd ed. Combined text 764-840. In Act 3, Scene 7 of King Lear, Lear’s ally Gloucester, when asked why he helped the old king, had said to his tormentors Regan, Goneril, and Cornwall, “Because I would not see thy cruel nails / Pluck out his poor old eyes…” (811, 3.7.56-57). Little did he know that at the beginning of the scene, Goneril had already conjured up exactly that image, so Gloucester’s exclamation only spurs Cornwall to turn the image into literal reality at once. What the old lord Gloucester can scarcely imagine, these fiends eagerly turn into a gory event. Similarly, Posthumus isn’t satisfied with simply raping Imogen—he must rape her while wearing Posthumus’s clothessince, after all, she referred to those clothes when she insulted him earlier in the play.

[23] Shakespeare. As You Like It. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731. 695, 2.7.88ff.

[24] Castiglione, Baldesare. The Book of the Courtier. Trans. Leonard E. Opkycke. Accessed 2/16/2024.

[25] Belarius seems to share the attitude of Thomas More’s narrator in Utopia, who in the final chapter of that book (titled “Of the Religions of the Utopians”) questions Raphael Hythloday’s enthusiasm for the communistic utopian society he visited on the grounds that such a society must lack “splendor” and “majesty,” which he calls “the true ornaments of a nation.” See More, Thomas. Utopia. Ed. Henry Morley. Accessed 2/18/2024.

[26] Perhaps the best example of this attitude is the shipwrecked Viola in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. In Act 1, Scene 2, after devising her scheme to disguise herself as a young male page and offer her services to the Duke of Illyria, Viola says to her fellow survivor the ship’s captain, “What else may hap, to time I will commit.” Twelfth Night, or What You Will. The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 743-97. See 746, 1.2.59.

[27] Shakespeare. As You Like It. In The Norton Shakespeare: Comedies, 3rd ed. 673-731). See 697, 2.7.152-53.

[28] Aesop. Fables. “The King’s Son and the Painted Lion.” Accessed 2/7/2024.

[29] The back-and-forth battle scenes make much the same point about human actions being fickle and inconstant, dependent more on circumstance than on any purported firmness of character. As in a previous note, see Montaigne’s Essays, Vol. 2, Ch. 1. Accessed 2/18/2024.

[30] Arnold, Matthew. “Preface to Poems, 1853.” Pg. 12. In Poems by Matthew Arnold. London & New York: Oxford UP, 1909. Accessed 2/18/2024.

[31] Perhaps it’s best to leave aside the fact that this seemingly astute reading depends in part, as the Norton editors point out in a footnote to pg. 300, on a piece of bad etymology.

[32] With more self-consciousness to his credit, Cymbeline might adapt Richard the Third’s much-noted question about his improbable success with Lady Anne (“Was ever woman in this humor wooed? / Was ever woman in this humor won?” 393, 1.2.214-15) and ask, “Did ever Roman in this humor go scot-free?” See Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Richard the Third. Quarto. The Norton Shakespeare: Histories, 3rd ed. 384-465.

[33] See Norton editors’ footnotes for Cymbeline, Norton Romances and Poems 3rd ed., pp. 213, 216.

[34] Romance, which seems most comfortable dealing with archetypal characters rather than realistic, grounded individuals, need not lean into character development: the characters in Cymbeline transform as suddenly and completely as if they were in some modern work grounded in magical realism. This sometimes happens in comedy as well.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2024 Alfred J. Drake

Cymbeline, King of Britain

Questions on Shakespeare’s Romance Plays

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Shakespeare, William. Cymbeline, King of Britain. (Norton Romances and Poems, 3rd ed. 207-301).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, we are introduced to Cymbeline and Imogen. How does their discord (its causes and the manner of their interaction) compare to that of Lear and Cordelia in King Lear? Moreover, what other similarities and/or differences can you find between the current play’s opening scene and the beginning of King Lear?

2. In Act 1, Scenes 1-2, Cymbeline’s Queen converses with Imogen, and we meet the Queen’s son Cloten. In what regard are these two held, and why? What difference between the mother and the son begins to appear even at this early point? But in what sense do they resemble each other as well?

3. In Act 1, Scene 4, how does Posthumus’ “ring wager” come about? What are the terms of the wager between Jachimo and Posthumus? While such a bet no doubt seems unfair and even absurd to modern sensibilities, on what grounds might a medieval or early modern man have defended it?

4. In Act 1, Scene 5, how does the try to advance her plot against Imogen’s match with Posthumus? What does she ask of the doctor, Cornelius, and how does he respond in word and deed? What is the Queen’s use for Pisanio at this point?

5. In Act 1, Scene 6, how does Jachimo attempt to traduce Imogen? What virtues does she demonstrate in responding as she does? Based on all you have seen of Imogen thus far in Act 1, what seems to be the guiding principle by which she speaks and acts?


6. In Act 2, Scenes 1 and 3, what anxieties and ambitions does Cloten manifest in his conversations with the Lords, with Cymbeline and the Queen, and finally with Imogen? How does he understand his own situation at Court and with regard to Imogen, whose affections he covets?

7. In Act 2, Scene 2, what details does Jachimo gather in order to convince Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful? What significance do Jachimo’s classical allusions (to Tarquin, Tereus and Philomela) add to this wicked scene?

8. In Act 2, Scene 4, Jachimo lays out his “evidence” against Imogen’s chastity. What makes the pitch effective as a piece of rhetoric? What weakness in Posthumus does Jachimo shape his unveiling of the evidence to exploit? What general view of women does Posthumus proclaim by the fifth scene?


9. In Act 3, Scene 1, what different attitudes do Cymbeline, the Queen, and Cloten take up towards Augustus Caesar’s demand that the Britons pay tribute? What relationship obtains between Cymbeline and the Roman ambassador Lucius, and what seems to be the underlying reason for this relationship? If you are presenting on this question, please add some very brief background on relations between the Romans and the Britons around the time frame Shakespeare references (one helpful page is’s ).

10. In Act 3, Scenes 2 and 4, how does Imogen react first to the news that Posthumus is in Wales (Cambria) at Milford-Haven and then to the knowledge that he believes she has been false to him? What is Pisanio’s plan to redeem the situation, or at least to avoid the worst that might happen? How does the Imogen react to this plan?

11. In Act 3, Scene 3, we meet Belarius and the two young men he has raised, Guiderius and his younger brother Arviragus. What is Belarius’ story — why was he banished? What sort of life do he and the two young men lead, and in what setting? In what ways do their perspectives on this situation differ? How does this new “Belarius subplot” relate to the main one?

12. In Act 3, Scene 5, how does Cymbeline react to the news that his daughter Imogen has fled the court? What more do we learn about the Queen and Cloten’s respective plans in this scene? In particular, what is Cloten’s rationale for the attempt he plans to make against Imogen?

13. In Act 3, Scene 6, how do Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus receive Imogen, disguised as “Fidele”? How does this reception deepen the contrast already established between the existence these three men lead and the life others lead at the court of Cymbeline?


14. In Act 4, Scenes 2 and 4, how do Arviragus and Guiderius show their “quality” as young men of aristocratic birth? What does Belarius apparently think of this manifestation of nobility, and what concerns him about the bold deed of Guiderius? To what extent does the play as a whole (up to this section) validate the idea that noble birth should be taken as a promise of innate goodness?

15. In Act 4, Scene 2, what happens to Imogen as “Fidele” when she drinks the potion that Pisanio gave her some time ago? When she awakens to find a headless body next to her, what confusions set in that the rest of the play’s unfolding will have to resolve?


16. In Act 5, Scenes 1-3, what role do Belarius, Arviragus and Guiderius play in saving Cymbeline and Britain from defeat by the Romans? What motivates Posthumus to join with these three against the Roman army?

17. In Act 5, Scene 4, Posthumus’ departed parents and brothers appear to him in a dream. What is the substance and import of his dream? How do the shades who appear to Posthumus in his sleep address Jupiter, and how does the God respond to their address? What does Posthumus learn, if anything, from the dream?

18. In Act 5, Scene 5, by what means is the identity of Imogen and Posthumus finally revealed to Cymbeline and the others at court? What specific device does Shakespeare employ to accomplish this revelation?

19. In Act 5, Scene 5, what further difficulty does this discovery lead to with respect to Belarius and Guiderius, and how is the new problem resolved? What about the fate of Lucius the virtuous Roman, and the devious Jachimo — what happens to them?

20. Act 5, Scene 5 concludes with Cymbeline’s commands, “Laud we the gods, / And let our crooked smokes climb to their nostrils / From our blest altars / . . . . Let / A Roman and a British ensign wave / Friendly together” (474-79). Contrast the ending of King Lear with the concluding scene of Cymbeline: what makes it possible for the latter play (a romance) to end with forgiveness, concord, and security while the tragedy King Lear ends in crushed hopes and death? What assumptions are operative in Cymbeline that are not viable in King Lear?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen, Walter Cohen, Suzanne Gossett, Jean E. Howard, Katharine Eisaman Maus, and Gordon McMullan, eds. The Norton Shakespeare: Romances and Poems + Digital Edition. Third edition. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93862-3.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Titus Andronicus

Commentaries on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 115-79).

Act 1, Scene 1 (124-135, Bassianus & Saturninus advance their cause; Titus’ sons sacrifice Alarbus; Titus makes Saturninus emperor; Bassianus absconds with Lavinia, enraging Titus; Saturninus makes Tamora his empress; Tamora promises revenge against Andronici)

The play seems to be set late in the fourth century CE, and it depicts a Roman world turned upside down—one in which a Goth leader only recently brought to Rome in chains is elevated to nearly supreme power, and a valiant Roman is crushed by his rigid belief in an ancient code of honor that virtually no-one around him takes seriously.  In the eventful first scene, Titus Andronicus, a soldier of forty years’ standing, returns to Rome with his trophy Goths Tamora and her sons, only to be confronted with the bickering of Saturninus and Bassianus over the imperial succession.  While Saturninus proclaims his right as the first-born son of the late emperor, Bassianus advances his cause in the name of virtue: “suffer not dishonor to approach / The imperial seat” (125, 1.1.13-14), he pleads to the Tribunes, Senators, and his own followers. 

Titus has just returned from ten years of fighting in Rome’s cause, and all ears await his sentence as to who should take the throne.  The general’s speech to the assembled Romans is magnificent in its honest reckoning of the losses he has willingly borne for his country, and moving in its attention to the children he has lost: “Titus, unkind and careless of thine own, / Why suffer’st thou thy sons, unburied yet, / To hover on the dreadful shore of Styx?” (126-27, 1.1.86-88)  He is a Roman of the old school and a believer in strict pietas to family and state. 

At his remaining sons’ request, therefore, Titus will sacrifice conquered Tamora’s eldest son.  Titus’ sons explain clearly why they want to commit this act: “… so the shadows be not unappeas’d, / Nor we disturb’d with prodigies on earth” (127, 1.1.100-101).  Titus agrees to this demand without hesitation, but Tamora is quick to see the affair as hypocrisy: “must my sons be slaughtered in the streets / For valiant doings in their country’s cause?” (127, 1.1.112-13)  Her sons have only done what Titus’ would do in defense of their homeland.  Tamora’s plea, “Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son!” (127, 1.1.119) is revealing in that its numerical quality suggests a world in which everything can be quantified or accounted for: surely, this strange honor code in which Titus believes is expansive enough to allow for generosity towards the eldest son of a valiant, defeated queen!  Titus is thrice noble, and ought to be magnanimous in victory.  But Titus disagrees: the honor code is strict, and a demand by blood for blood cannot be refused without shame.  It would, in fact, constitute an outrage against the memory of Titus’ dead sons.  So Tamora’s individual heartache, her natural appeal as a mother, must be subordinated to Roman ritual: piety must be upheld, and the general tells her to “Patient” (127, 1.1.121) herself while this supposed act of Roman religiosity is accomplished.  Tamora’s denunciation seems appropriate: “O cruel, irreligious piety!” (127, 1.1.130)  Tamora may be a barbarian queen, but she is no fool.  “Barbarism” is a worthy concept in Shakespeare’s play: the powerful Goths serve as a ground for the anxieties of a civilized people about their relationship to violence, their sense of identity, and the efficacy of their language.  Tamora and her sons both do and do not understand Rome.  The question is, how well does Rome understand them?

The aftermath of the deed done by Titus’ sons is announced with the words, “Alarbus’ limbs are lopped, / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky” (128. 1.1.143-45).  The alliteration of the first line is deliciously absurd, and lets us in on the comic undertone of this otherwise tragic play: Titus Andronicus has an over-the-top quality, a tendency to revel in its scenes of violence and criminality, that mark it as a fine example of Elizabethan revenge tragedy.  “Shakespeare was young when he wrote Titus,” as an old professor of mine used to suggest by way of accounting for the play’s exuberance and outright silliness (there are approximately 217 references to body parts in Titus Andronicus—surely no accident on Shakespeare’s part), but we might as well admit that it’s a masterpiece of its kind.  The Elizabethans loved this kind of limb-hacking, blood-spattered spectacle, as the popularity of other plays such as Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy attests.  Dexter Morgan, eat your heart out!

With Alarbus’ limbs duly lopped, Titus must return to public responsibility.  Offered the throne in his own right, he magnanimously turns it down with the utterance, “Give me a staff of honor for mine age, / But not a scepter to control the world” (129, 1.1.198-99).  As kingmaker he chooses the eldest son of the departed Caesar as the new emperor, and Saturninus promises to wed Lavinia out of gratitude for this service (130, 1.1.240). 

But Bassianus, with the aid of Titus’ sons, escapes with his beloved Lavinia.  Titus kills his son Mutius when the latter bars his way in pursuit of the absconders (131, 1.1.288), but Saturninus flies into a rage anyhow, and chooses Tamora for his empress in place of Lavinia. 

The perverse nature of this choice is implied in Tamora’s promise to the young man: “If Saturnine advance the Queen of Goths, / She will a handmaid be to his desires, / A loving nurse, a mother to his youth” (132, 1.1.327-28).  Titus has given control of great Rome to a man who seeks a mother in the “barbarian” woman who wants nothing more than to destroy it as a means of revenging her losses in battle and the slaughter of her child.  As empress, Tamora  deviously smooths things over for Titus (134, 1.1.428ff), who has been left to lament the betrayal by his sons of the reputation he held dear.  As she explains to the inexperienced young emperor, she does this the better to crush Titus and his entire line when Saturninus is secure on the throne: “I’ll find a day to massacre them all …” (134, 1.1.447).  And so the act ends with Saturninus’ offer of a double wedding, and Titus’ promise of fine hunting.

Act 2, Scenes 1-2 (135-39, Aaron exults in Tamora’s success; Aaron helps Chiron and Demetrius plot the rape of Lavinia)

Aaron is exultant at Tamora’s advancement because it means great rewards for him, not only in terms of wealth but also personal pride: he will “be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,” but more than that, he will “wanton with this queen” (136, 2.1.19, 21) who promises to be the ruin of the hated Romans and their emperor.  Chiron and Demetrius scheme with Aaron’s aid to ravish Lavinia: says Aaron the strategist, “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull” (138, 2.1.129), and therefore they can absorb in silence the savage crime these young men desire to commit against Lavinia.  They will all conspire with Tamora to refine the plot.  Scene 2 tells us of the hunting party’s beginning.

Act 2, Scene 3 (139-46, Bassianus and Lavinia discover Tamora and insult her; Aaron brings in Chiron and Demetrius, who kill Bassianus and rape & mutilate Lavinia with Tamora’s approval; Saturninus is duped by Aaron into arresting Martius and Quintus)

Tamora and Aaron converse in the woods, with Aaron counseling sexual restraint while revenge is yet to be had: “Madam, though Venus govern your desires, / Saturn is dominator over mine” (140, 2.3.30-31).  Then Bassianus and Lavinia discover Tamora and insult her at length (140-41, 2.3.55-87).  Aaron brings back Chiron and Demetrius, who kill Bassianus and rape and mutilate Lavinia, with Tamora’s explicit and sadistic approval (142, 2.3.114); she mocks Lavinia’s appeals to feminine compassion, reminding all present of Titus’ utter lack of compassion for her own heartrending pleas in support of her son (143, 2.3.161-64), and admonishes her sons, “The worse to her, the better loved of me” (143, 2.3.167).  Tamora goes off to enjoy herself with Aaron while the deed is done (143, 2.3.190-91).  Saturnine is easily duped by Aaron’s forged letter and planted bag of gold into thinking that Titus’ sons Martius and Quintus are Bassianus’ murderers (145, 2.3.281-85).  They are dragged from the pit into which they have fallen and brought to prison.  Tamora pretends to Titus that she will yet again assist him (146, 2.3.304).

Act 2, Scene 4 (146-47, Marcus finds Lavinia, likens her to Philomel; Titus must be informed)

Titus’ brother Marcus finds Lavinia and wonders what has happened.  Waxing poetical, he likens the scene to the story of Tereus and Philomel: “But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee …” (146-47, 2.4.26-27).  Worse yet, he says, the ravishers have improved upon the dastardly practice of the original: “… he hath cut those pretty fingers off / That could have better sewed than Philomel” (147, 2.4.41-43).  Off they’ll go to afflict Titus with the sight of his ruined daughter, as if he hadn’t suffered enough already: as usual, the reference to suffering is harshly physical: “Come let us go, and make thy father blind …” (147, 2.4.52-53).

Act 3, Scene 1 (147-53, Titus abandoned, addresses sorrows to the stones; Lucius is in exile; Titus sees ravished Lavinia, and his post-cathartic thoughts turn towards revenge)

Everyone ignores Titus’ self-sacrifice of four decades, and the tribunes he implores are nowhere to be found, so he tells his “sorrows to the stones” instead (148, 3.1.36).  His entire world view has crashed, and Rome seems “a wilderness of tigers” (148, 3.1.54) intent on devouring only Titus and his kin.  Lucius has been banished for trying to assist his brothers.  At this point, we pity Titus already, but now he is shown Lavinia to top off his grief: “But that which gives my soul the greatest spurn/Is dear Lavinia” (149, 3.1.101-02).  Of course, pity has its limits when a man insists on serving up puns such as the one Titus offers Lavinia: “… what accursed hand / Hath made thee handless in thy father’s sight?” (149, 3.1.66-67).  Titus’s sacrifice of Tamora’s sons in the name of piety now appears worthless since piety is dead in Rome.  To be “wondered at in time to come” (150, 3.1.135) for the intensity of his wretchedness now seems appropriate to Titus, and his thoughts turn to what they can do to bring this about, by any means necessary.  Here Titus responds to unspeakable pain, both physical and mental.  In 3.2, he will reach a point at which there are no more tears, only vengeance, but not in the present scene; he is still processing his raw grief.

Aaron enters and offers to lend the Andronici a hand—or rather take one, and Titus, who had already thought it appropriate to “chop off” (149, 3.1.72) the hands that had vainly defended Rome, falls for the ruse: in spite of all that’s happened, he still thinks that when a man has given his word, honor will bind him to it.  Aaron’s pitch to any one of the Andronici is, “… chop off your hand / And send it to the King” (150, 3.1.153 -54).  As for Aaron, he is as always the ultimate stage villain: “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace, / Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (151, 3.1.203-04).  Aaron’s cynical, selfish perspective is that codes exist only to get others to do what you want them to do.  But the Moor also pledges allegiance to pure wickedness, and as we can see from his exultant comments when he is in great danger later on, he is almost religious in his devotion to evil.  Titus’ rigidity in adhering to old Roman honor and morality has opened a window for Aaron’s excesses, and the man indulges his sadistic brand of individualism when Roman morality breaks down.

A messenger soon undeceives Titus (152, 3.1.233-39), and the absurd spectacle of “thy two sons’ heads, / Thy warlike hand, thy mangled daughter here,” as Marcus describes the sight (152, 3.1.253-54), brings no more weeping from the old man but instead determination to plan the destruction of Tamora and the Emperor: “Why, I have not another tear to shed” (153, 3.1.265).  This is a critical Senecan turning point in the play: Titus has turned from grief towards revenge and will not look back.  Lucius is instructed to go to the Goths to raise an army (153, 3.1.284).  Titus, Marcus and Lavinia continue the grotesque body parts motif by carting their dismembered kinsmen’s particulars off the stage: “Come, brother, take a head, / And in this hand the other I will bear …” (153, 3.1.278-81); even Lavinia is asked to pitch in and carry the severed hand of Titus.

Act 3, Scene 2 (153-55, banquet theme of hands, revenge against a fly: macabre interlude in preparation for revenge, but Titus is not insane)

Just when we thought the hand theme couldn’t be more over-the-top, along comes the second scene, with Titus and family seated at a banquet.  When Marcus clumsily blurts out, “Fie, brother, fie, teach her not thus to lay / Such violent hands upon her tender life” (154, 3.2.21-22), Titus responds with the immortal lines, “O, handle not the theme, to talk of hands, / Lest we remember still that we have none” (154, 3.2.29-30).  Titus continues to think on revenge, connecting even Marcus’ killing of a fly to this imperative: the family is not yet so reduced, he says, “But that between us we can kill a fly / That comes in likeness of a coal-black Moor” (155, 3.2.76-77).  Marcus thinks Titus is out of his mind, but that doesn’t seem to be the case; I suppose it’s just that by now his overflowing pain and grief have been transformed into a macabre sense of humor.  Titus and Lavinia soon go off to read “Sad stories chanced in the times of old” (155, 3.2.82).  Titus doesn’t know yet how informative those stories will turn out to be, but Ovid is about to provide some enlightenment about Lavinia’s travails.

Act 4, Scene 1 (155-58, Lavinia uses Ovid to reveal the truth, spurring Titus to revenge)

An excited Lavinia explains what happened to her via Ovid’s tale in the Metamorphoses about Procne, Philomel, and the wicked Thracian King Tereus, which Titus recognizes easily: “This is the tragic tale of Philomel…” (156, 4.1.47), and she writes “Stuprum–Chiron–Demetrius” (157, 4.1.77). Stuprum means rape, as in the Latin phrase, per vim stuprum, “violation by main force.”  Titus says he will be another Lucius Junius Brutus, this time expelling not Tarquins but Goths (157, 4.1.86-93), and he writes a note to be carried along with presents by the boy Lucius to Tamora’s sons at the palace (158, 4.1.113-15).  As for Ovid’s “Tereus, Procne, and Philomela” from Book 6 of The Metamorphoses, a lot of the details from this story seem to be distributed amongst the revenging factions of Titus and Tamora—the wooded setting for the rape of Lavinia mirrors the forest setting of the Thracian King Tereus’ rape of his sister-in-law Philomela, and so forth.  The strange disguises of Tamora and her sons evoke the Bacchanalian disguise in Procne and Philomela’s ruse against Tereus: he’s served the cannibal pie during the course of a Bacchanalian festival.  Ovid’s Latin story is at least as deliciously barbarous—pun intended—in its details as anything Elizabethans such as Thomas Preston (Cambises, 1561) or John Pickering (Horestes, 1567) or Shakespeare himself ever wrote. The same might be said of the Stoic Seneca, author of such bloody plays as Thyestes, circa CE 60.   

Marcus continues to believe that Titus has gone insane: “Marcus, attend him in his ecstasy” (158, 4.1.124), he says to himself, but it may not be so.  Shakespeare has cleverly combined Ovid’s story from The Metamorphoses with the violent foundational myth of the Roman Republic: the rape and suicide of Lucretia.  Below is the momentous tale from Titus Livius’ The History of Rome, in which Lucretia lets death attest to her adherence to the female married chastity necessary to preserve dynastic Roman bloodlines. The matron’s death allows her determined husband Collatinus, Lucius Junius Brutus, and others to use her outraged corpse as a prop for the expulsion of the Tarquin (Etruscan) King Lucius Tarquinius Superbus.  Lucretia, more insightful about the severe implications of the rigid Roman honor code than her own husband, provides the blood that spurs Roman valor into throwing off 244 years of Tarquin rule.  Here’s a version of the story I have shortened from a public-domain copy of Titus Livius’ History of Rome, Book 1:

1.57: […]The royal princes sometimes spent their leisure hours in feasting and entertainments, and at a wine party given by Sextus Tarquinius at which Collatinus, the son of Egerius, was present, the conversation happened to turn upon their wives, and each began to speak of his own in terms of extraordinarily high praise. As the dispute became warm, Collatinus said that there was no need of words [….] “Why do we not,” he exclaimed, “[…] pay our wives a visit and find out their characters on the spot? [.…] Thence they proceeded to Collatia, where they found Lucretia very differently employed from the king’s daughters-in-law, whom they had seen passing their time in feasting and luxury with their acquaintances. She was sitting at her wool work in the hall, late at night, with her maids busy round her. The palm in this competition of wifely virtue was awarded to Lucretia….  Sextus Tarquin, inflamed by the beauty and exemplary purity of Lucretia, formed the vile project of effecting her dishonor [.…]

1.58: A few days afterwards Sextus Tarquin went, unknown to Collatinus, with one companion to Collatia. He was hospitably received by the household, who suspected nothing, and after supper was conducted to the bedroom set apart for guests. When all around seemed safe and everybody fast asleep, he went in the frenzy of his passion with a naked sword to the sleeping Lucretia, and placing his left hand on her breast, said, “Silence, Lucretia! I am Sextus Tarquin, and I have a sword in my hand; if you utter a word, you shall die.” [.…] When he saw that she was inflexible and not moved even by the fear of death, he threatened to disgrace her, declaring that he would lay the naked corpse of the slave by her dead body, so that it might be said that she had been slain in foul adultery. By this awful threat, his lust triumphed over her inflexible chastity, and Tarquin went off exulting in having successfully attacked her honour. Lucretia, overwhelmed with grief […] sent a messenger to her father at Rome and to her husband at Ardea, asking them to come to her [….] They found Lucretia sitting in her room prostrate with grief. As they entered, she burst into tears, and [said] …, “The marks of a stranger, Collatinus, are in your bed. But it is only the body that has been violated, the soul is pure; death shall bear witness to that. But pledge me your solemn word that the adulterer shall not go unpunished. [….]  It is for you […] to see that he [Sextus Tarquinius] gets his deserts; although I acquit myself of the sin, I do not free myself from the penalty; no unchaste woman shall henceforth live and plead Lucretia’s example.”  She had a knife concealed in her dress which she plunged into her heart, and fell dying on the floor [.…]

1.59: [….] Brutus drew the knife from Lucretia’s wound, and holding it, dripping with blood, in front of him, said, “By this blood-most pure before the outrage wrought by the king’s son-I swear, and you, O gods, I call to witness that I will drive hence Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, together with his cursed wife and his whole brood, with fire and sword and every means in my power, and I will not suffer them or any one else to reign in Rome.” [….]

1.60: When the news of these proceedings reached the camp, the king [.…] hurried to Rome to quell the outbreak [.…] Tarquin found the gates shut, and a decree of banishment passed against him; the Liberator of the City [L. J. Brutus] received a joyous welcome in the camp, and the king’s sons were expelled from it [.…] Lucius Tarquinius Superbus reigned twenty-five years. The whole duration of the regal government from the foundation of the City to its liberation was two hundred and forty-four years. Two consuls were then elected in the assembly [.…] They were Lucius Junius Brutus and Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus.  [End of Book 1]  From The History of Rome, Vol. I, Titus Livius. Editor Ernest Rhys. Translator Rev. Canon Roberts. Everyman’s Library. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, 1912.

Act 4, Scene 2 (158-62, Aaron figures out Titus’ note to Chiron & Demetrius, and defends his child by Tamora fiercely, even killing the nurse: the boy is his future)

Titus’ note to Chiron and Demetrius reads “Integer vitae, scelerisque purus, / Non eget Mauri jaculis, nec arcu” (159, 4.2.20-21; [the man who’s] upright in his life and free of vices has no need of Moorish spears or bows”).  But the boys aren’t good enough readers of Horace’s Odes to realize that Titus knows they conspired with the Moor.  Aaron is clearly out for himself—he doesn’t even tell Tamora about this new information.  The Empress delivers a child by Aaron, who protects his newborn son fiercely (160) when Chiron and Demetrius think to kill the infant, bearing him away to the Goths with the intention of raising the child as a warrior.  Aaron kills the Nurse (161), horrifying even the wicked sons of Tamora.  A countryman’s fair-skinned baby will be substituted and presented as Saturninus’ legitimate heir.  What is the child to Aaron?  He makes the point succinctly: “My mistress is my mistress, this myself … / … / This before all the world do I prefer” (161, 4.2.106-08).  Rome and its politics can go hang; Aaron’s main concern is to take the portion of immortality that a child of one’s own promises.

Act 4, Scene 3 (162-65, Titus aims his arrows for justice to heaven, at Saturninus’ palace: how mad or sane is he at this point?)

Titus’ arrows bear messages soliciting the gods for justice nowhere to be found on earth: “sith there’s no justice in earth nor hell, / We will solicit heaven and move the gods …” (163, 4.3.50-51).  The whole scene seems to show him both unhinged and yet canny: he tells Publius and Sempronius, “… when you come to Pluto’s region, / I pray you deliver him this petition” (163, 4.3.13-14).  His stratagem, though, is to shoot arrows towards Saturninus’ palace, and thereby to unsettle the young Emperor.  Titus also pays a rustic or “clown” to present Saturninus with a short speech and some pigeons (164,  But then, perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss the notion that there’s something insane about Titus’ behavior all through the play: if insanity is doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results, Titus is at times close to a madman: he keeps supposing that if somebody makes a promise, it must be kept; and if somebody is legally entitled to an office, he’ll do his duty rather than taking advantage of the situation.  Such persistence in doing the honorable thing would make sense in a normal setting, but in decadent Rome it can only destroy the person who practices it.

Act 4, Scene 4 (165-67, Saturninus is angry at Titus, scared of Lucius: Tamora promises to neutralize the threat)

Saturninus is enraged before the Senate over Titus’ “blazoning our unjustice every where” (165, 4.4.18) and then has the clown hanged after reading the letter Titus wrote.  Tamora thinks she has at last driven Titus off the deep end: “Titus, I have touched thee to the quick” (166, 4.4.36).  The Emperor is frightened upon hearing that Lucius is headed for Rome with an army of Goths (166, 4.4.68-72), but he misunderstands Titus’ motive, which is revenge of a sort not reducible to politics.  Titus doesn’t want to rule Rome—what good would that do his battered spirit and maimed body now?  Tamora promises to soothe Titus’ anger, and thereby get him to separate Lucius from his invading force: “I will enchant the old Andronicus …” (167, 5.1.88-92).

Act 5, Scene 1 (167-71, The Goths will follow Lucius; Aaron recounts and exults in his allegedly numberless villainies; Lucius agrees to meet Saturninus at Andronici’s home)

The Goths swear loyalty to Lucius: “Be bold in us.  We’ll follow where thou lead’st …” (168, 5.1.13).  Aaron, captured with his child, is brought in.  He did not know about this new development.  Lucius threatens the child, so Aaron promises to reveal everything about his plots with Tamora and her sons, but Lucius must swear by the Christian god—for it seems that’s what Aaron attributes to Lucius by way of faith, based on his reference to Lucius’ ritualistic “popish tricks” (169, 5.1.76; see 74-85).  This is obviously a strange moment in the play since the ritual sacrifice in Act 1 has absolutely nothing to do with Christianity or, indeed, with properly pagan Roman ritual.  Well, all the plotting Aaron recounts (169-70, 5.1.87-120)—his getting a child by Tamora, the murder of Bassianus and the rape and mutilation of Lavinia that he inspired Chiron and Demetrius to do, and his own gleefully fraudulent taking of Titus’ hand — is news to Lucius because he left to raise an army of Goths before Lavinia revealed exactly what had happened to her and who did it.

When asked if he’s sorry, Aaron outdoes himself with a flourish of supervillain rhetoric (170, 5.1.124-44).  It would be hard to top the following claim for sheer malice: “Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves, / And set them upright at their dear friends’ door …” (170, 5.1.135-36; see 125-40).  He seems dedicated not so much to the kind of violence that furthers his self-interest or ambition but rather to a code of evil for evil’s sake, perhaps in part out of hatred for the Romans he so evidently despises: friendship is the target of Aaron’s alleged stratagem here, and readers of classical history and culture will know that loyalty in the cause of amicitia was among the primary Roman virtues.  More than that, Aaron asserts a fierce liberty in the face of a Roman culture that depends greatly upon the ties that bind people: ties of memory, friendship, and honor.

To round off the scene, Lucius hears that Saturninus “craves a parley at your father’s house” (171, 5.1.159), and agrees to hear the emperor out if proper pledges be given.

Act 5, Scene 2 (171-75, Tamora and sons try to fool Titus by dressing up as Revenge, Murder, Rapine; Titus slaughters Chiron and Demetrius)

Tamora and sons show up at Titus’ place dressed as Revenge, Murder, and Rapine (171-72).  He doesn’t believe them, but they consider him mad in spite of the clues he lets slip.  “Revenge” wants Titus to send for Lucius, and promises that when they are all at a banquet at Titus’ home, she will bring Tamora, Chiron, Demetrius, the Emperor and any other foes so that he may take revenge upon them (173, 5.2.114-20).  Titus insists that Rapine and Murder stay with him (173, 5.1.34) and then kills them, though not before he fully informs them that they are literally on the banquet menu: “Hark, wretches, how I mean to martyr you.… / … / “I will grind your bones to dust, / And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste …” (174-75, 5.2.179, 185-86).  Like the Thracian King Tereus in the legend Ovid recounts, Tamora will “swallow her own increase” (175, 5.2.190). 

Act 5, Scene 3 (175-79, Titus serves up some C & D pie, kills Lavinia, is killed by Saturninus, who is then killed by Lucius, who will be emperor; Aaron is sentenced to starve, and Tamora to be food for the birds, refused a proper burial)

Titus enters dressed as a cook.  The table is set and dinner is served (176, 5.3.25ff).  Titus asks Saturninus if Virginius (a decemvir from 451-449 BCE) was right to kill his daughter for chastity’s sake (176, 5.3.36-38).  (Appius had used legal trickery in an attempt to force himself on her, claiming that she was actually his slave; Virginius, disguised as a slave, killed her just after Appius’ co-conspirator Marcus Claudius judged in favor of Appius.)  Titus then kills Lavinia, saying “Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee,” explaining to all present that Chiron and Demetrius had ravished her (176, 5.3.45ff).  Asked where they are, he informs Tamora and Saturninus with an unforgettably gleeful rhyme: “Why, there they are, both bakèd in this pie / Whereof their mother daintily hath fed, / Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred” (176-77, 5.3.59-61).  Titus immediately stabs Tamora, and Saturninus kills him, whereupon Lucius kills Saturninus (177, 5.3.65). 

Aemilius asks for a full account of all the misdeeds, and receives it from Lucius (177, 5.3.95-107), who is chosen emperor.  Marcus asks all assembled if the Andronici have done wrong in exacting revenge; if they have, he offers that “The poor remainder of Andronici, / Will hand in hand all headlong hurl ourselves …” (178, 5.3.130-31).  But there’s no such call.

Aaron is carried in and judgment is sought against him (179, 5.3.175-77).  He is sentenced to starve while buried “breast-deep in earth” (179, 5.3.178), which seems like a spiteful way of denying him the sustenance that cannot be denied his child.  Still, Aaron maintains his standing as the play’s most remorseless evildoer: “If one good deed in all my life I did, / I do repent it from my very soul” (179, 5.3.188-89).  (In Julie Taymor’s adaptation, Aaron’s child is also brought in.)  The savage irony of this punishment is that, as mentioned earlier, Aaron had set himself up as a free spirit, unbound and untouched by Roman customs or values.  The Emperor will be properly buried, but Aaron will be pinned down to this lean fate and “that ravenous tiger, Tamora” (179, 5.3.194) will feast the birds.

All in all, the play is a delightfully outrageous, bloody instance of Elizabethan revenge tragedy in the tradition of Seneca and Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, in which the protagonist Hieronymo seeks wild, violent justice for the vengeful murder of his son.  Melodramatic as it may seem, Kyd’s early revenge tragedy is serious and philosophical. It considers life’s great questions, above all what constitutes justice in a wicked world, and is perhaps worthy of comparison with similar efforts by Aeschylus or Sophocles.  Shakespeare’s play is sometimes dismissed as frivolous, and of course it isn’t exactly the metadramatic extravaganza that is Hamlet, but it has a serious dimension that repays study.  Titus is no mere villain, and neither is Tamora.  Only Aaron seems to be a thoroughgoing dastard, with Tamora’s foolish sons coming in a distant second—they lack Aaron’s cunning and brains. 

Shakespeare’s genius leads him to employ the Romans versus Goths theme in a manner that confounds any simple opposition between Roman and Goth.  Titus turns out to be more of a Goth than we might have thought: excessive, bloody, and barbarous in his revenge.  Tamora is more than a cardboard or stage barbarian; her motive for revenge is at least legitimate, and she shows herself a skilled manipulator of Roman politics. 

Aaron’s race adds yet another perspective on the Goth/Roman opposition: it’s true that the “villain plot” he drives sets itself up against the twin revenge plots of Titus and Tamora and in part displays the man’s dedication to wickedness, but Aaron shows considerable loyalty to his child as the image of himself, and exults in his blackness.  Moreover, while Shakespeare may not be subjecting the revenge code to the kind of scrutiny it receives in Hamlet (where it’s understood that revenge is against God’s law), he seems quite interested in the complexities of Roman honor.  The allusions he makes to the Lucretia story from Livy’s History of Rome and to the Philomela tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses allow him to explore the significance of those key Roman myths. 

What is the play suggesting about moral codes?  Perhaps that people must live by them and within them, but also that they must not be imprisoned by them altogether.  Rigidity, failure to reflect on one’s values, allows cynicism and outrage to flourish: extremes beget counter-extremes.  Titus is an “honorable man,” to be sure, but the play as a whole keeps iterating that claim in action until the iterated actions generate a Mark Antony effect: by the fourth and fifth acts, what’s needed isn’t more old-fashioned honor but a plan for revenge against the barbarous Goths and Moors who have taken advantage of Titus’ stiff morality. 

Julie Taymor’s 2000 production Titus sets the play in a strangely neo-fascist Italy, with its futuristic architecture and art.  Taymor’s choice makes sense because the 1920’s-40’s dictator and Hitler ally Benito Mussolini appropriated the ancient Roman symbols of power and tried to turn Italy into an empire.  (For one thing, he invaded Ethiopia.)  And even in ancient times, the image of Rome in its imperial phase was due at least partly to the well-oiled propaganda machine of Augustus Caesar and the wisest of those who followed him as rulers.  Augustus promoted the idea that Rome’s anachronistic republican values were still operative, even though by his day, such values were probably more of a fashion statement than anything else.  By Titus’ era, his Rome no longer exists, in spite of his stubborn (if stylized) adherence to it.  Titus’ stylization, its earnestness aside, is itself decadent and not much more than an anachronistic fashion.  Of course, fashion statements can have political implications and reflect political facts on the ground, whether sincere or not.  Perhaps Shakespeare would praise Taymor’s concentration on the role of fabrication and stylistic borrowing and recycling in politics and history, with the definition of “reality” as consisting significantly (though not necessarily entirely) in a people’s perception of themselves rather than being reducible to some external standard.  Taymor’s film version ends by opening out onto the future; Aaron’s barbarian child seems the victor, the one who will inherit the time beyond the play’s frame.  Taymor’s version takes up a significant attitude towards the pageant of destruction and creation, struggle and lapse, memory and loss that we call history.

Finally, Titus Andronicus revels in gory violence, but the celebration is a response to the pain of life, a response to outrage and unfairness, a response to the simple fact of the tragic dimension of life: the world and human desire do not run parallel or accord with each other.  We may remember the scene in Martin Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver where the antihero Travis Bickle forces himself to hold his hand over an open flame for as long as he can.  This sort of grim endurance is the stuff of revenge tragedy, to which we should add a big heap of gallows humor and high-impact imagery (the Elizabethans, as Muriel Bradbrook would say, valued imagery and direct moral statement over narrative or characterization).  I prefer this revenge-play response to some of the ways we have of handling violence and pain today: violence in songs and films that justifies itself not as concentrated spectacle or protest but instead as a low species of realism: how many rappers (I don’t mean all of them, by any means) have defended their music’s gender-based and ethnic insults and raw gangster violence on the simple basis of “telling it like it is”?  I think art can do better than mindlessly perpetuate a sordid reality or claimed reality.  There are at least two legitimate ways to achieve this goal: one is an understandable retreat into the world of art—you can’t “live in art,” as a friend of Lord Tennyson correctly reminded him, but you can go there frequently and draw something good from your experience.  The other way is something more like an indirect, sophisticated exploration and even a protest with regard to the conditions of life, the human condition.  Some modern people’s sensibilities may be too delicate to handle Elizabethan or Jacobean revenge tragedy, but the plays themselves are serious efforts in the tragic and philosophical Senecan mode, with the aim being to explore the limits of pain and injustice, the better to inure an audience to its own sufferings without resorting to despair.

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake

Titus Andronicus

Questions on Shakespeare’s Tragedies

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Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. (Norton Tragedies, 2nd ed. 115-79).


1. In Act 1, Scene 1, discuss the play’s presentation of Roman religious ritual: why does Titus believe that his sacrifice of Tamora’s eldest son Alarbus is honorable and necessary? In what does the sacrifice consist, and how does Shakespeare represent it onstage?

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does the captured Tamora, Queen of Goths, react to the prospect — and then the fact — of her eldest son’s slaughter? How does her response affect the way an audience might perceive the conduct and attitude of Titus with regard to the sacrifice?

3. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Titus present to the Roman public his view of the death of several sons in his latest military campaign? How does he appear to feel about it privately, to himself, and how much scope do his private sentiments have with him?

4. In Act 1, Scene 1, what is the political situation in Rome? What claims do Saturninus and Bassianus respectively make to succeed their departed father the emperor? What clues does the text offer about the character of these two young men?

5. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does Titus handle the authority given to him by the people and leading politicians, including his brother, the Tribune Marcus Andronicus? In particular, what is Titus’ rationale for lending his voice to Saturninus and ignoring Bassianus?

6. In Act 1, Scene 1, the newly elevated Saturninus chooses Titus’ daughter Lavinia as empress, but is promptly love-struck by the alluring Tamora. How does Titus take the offer of his daughter being raised to empress, and how does he handle the rebellion this prospect sparks on the part of Bassianus, Lavinia, and his own sons? Who is in the right here, and why?

7. In Act 1, Scene 1, what does Tamora (newly made empress) understand about Roman ethics and politics that Titus doesn’t (at least until later)? Explain how she asserts her authority over Saturninus and begins to take control of the situation in Rome by manipulating that nation’s codes of language and conduct.


8. In Act 2, Scene 1, how does Tamora’s long-time lover, Aaron the Moor, see his situation now that Tamora has become Empress of Rome? How does he deal with the argument between her sons Chiron and Demetrius over their desire for Lavinia — what advice does he offer them, and what is his purpose in advising them as he does?

9. In Act 2, Scene 3, how does Aaron’s stratagem play out? In what ways do Chiron, Demetrius, Tamora and Aaron heap injury upon injury on the Andronici in this scene? In particular, how does Tamora respond to Lavinia’s pleas to kill her instead of ravishing her?

10. In Act 2, Scene 4, characterize Marcus Andronicus’ response when he lights upon the ravished and mutilated Lavinia: what classical allusions come to him when he sees her in distress, and what use does he make of them? How does he connect the dreadful scene in front of him with what has so far occurred in the play, and what does he think it necessary to do?


11. In Act 3, Scene 1, Titus is confronted with two shocks: the impending execution of two sons, and the sight of his mutilated daughter Lavinia, brought to her by his brother Marcus. How does he understand Rome now? To what extent is the representation of Titus’ suffering at this point designed to elicit pity? What in the representation might be said to work against pity?

12. In Act 3, Scene 1, what deception does Aaron practice against Titus, and on what basis is he able to get away with it — that is, why, with respect to Titus’ outlook and sensibilities, is Aaron’s stratagem so successful? In addition, what does Aaron reveal about his motivation for behaving as he has so far in the play — what are his allegiances and desires?

13. In Act 3, Scene 2, the remaining Andronici in Rome gather for a banquet. What do Titus’ reactions and words reveal about his mindset at this point? Is he distracted, as Marcus thinks, or would his mental state be best described otherwise? What is discussed at the banquet, and what elements of the scene inject comedy into an unbearable situation?


14. In Act 4, Scene 1, by what means does Lavinia reveal what has been done to her? How does Ovid’s book The Metamorphoses figure in her successful implication of Chiron and Demetrius? What lesson does Titus himself derive from Lavinia’s tale, beyond the obvious one that Tamora’s sons are the guilty parties?

15. In Act 4, Scene 2, Titus has his message delivered to Chiron and Demetrius, and news arrives that Tamora has given birth to a child by Aaron. How does Aaron handle this dangerous situation? What new dimension of himself do his words and actions regarding this event and its significance reveal?

16. In Act 4, Scene 3, how does Titus advance his designs on the Emperor? To what extent, if at all (as asked in a previous question), does he appear to be unbalanced? What is the point of having his supporters shoot “messaged” arrows in the direction of Saturninus?

17. In Act 4, Scene 4, how do Saturninus and Tamora, respectively, react to Titus’ threatening gesture against them from the previous scene, in which he ordered message-laded arrows shot in the Emperor’s direction? What errors beset their thinking with regard to Titus’ mental state and motives?


18. In Act 5, Scene 1, Aaron is captured by Lucius’ army while trying to escape from Roman territory with his child. From lines 124-44, Aaron utters one of the purest declarations of villainy in English drama: what opposition do his words constitute against Roman ethics, or indeed any kind of morality at all?

19. In Act 5, Scene 2, Tamora and sons show up at Titus’ place dressed as Revenge, Murder, and Rapine. What does Tamora apparently think she is accomplishing by this performance? How does Titus fool them all, and what does he do to Chiron and Demetrius? How does he explain his course of action to them as he kills them?

20. In Act 5, Scene 3, Titus ends Lavinia’s suffering and feeds Tamora and Saturninus “Chiron and Demetrius pie.” First, how does Titus justify his killing of Lavinia? And with regard to the dinner scene, why, after all that has happened thus far and based on the Ovidian source from which Shakespeare has drawn, is this cannibalistic catastrophe the most appropriate one?

21. In Act 5, Scene 3, what punishment does Lucius (newly proclaimed emperor) decree for Aaron? Why is that punishment a suitable revenge for what Aaron has done? Also, to what extent does Lucius’ heaping of blame on Aaron for what has happened seem adequate as an explanation for the tragic events that have occurred? Explain.

22. General question: why are there so many references to body parts in this play that they begin calling attention to themselves as such? What theme is Shakespeare exploring — or what goal is he achieving — when he makes his characters refer so clumsily, and so frequently, to the body parts they or others have lost: tongues, hands, heads, etc.?

23. General question: is Titus Andronicus a straightforward revenge tragedy, a parody or send-up of revenge tragedy, or something in between? In other words, do you think the play is meant to be taken seriously as tragedy? Or do you find its chief value in the realm of jest, spectacle, and mockery? Explain.

24. General question: if you have seen Julie Taymor’s film Titus (2000), how does it explore the play’s conflicts between Romans, Goths, and Aaron the Moor? How might the film be said to enhance our understanding of the play? What does the “neo-fascist” setting (and perhaps other decisions Taymor makes) add to the text?

Edition. Greenblatt, Stephen et al., eds. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Four-Volume Genre Paperback Set. Norton, 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-93152-5.

Copyright © 2012 Alfred J. Drake