Titus Andronicus

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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, 4.3.91.4-5).  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