The Rose Tattoo concerns itself with several of Tennessee Williams’s major themes, especially the importance of sex as the vital key to all human relations, and the ability of women to see this reality much more clearly than men. Serafina is the most obvious bearer of this message, as she revels in her pregnancy early in the play and on more than one occasion brags about the rich sexual life she and Rosario share. In fact, whenever she speaks of Rosario, her speech is in terms of their unquenchable sexual desire for each other. When Rosario is killed and the object of her desire is removed, Serafina completely disintegrates, both physically and mentally, and becomes almost inhuman in her slatternly appearance and bizarre behavior. Her connection with Rosario is so strong that she defies the Roman Catholic Church and keeps his ashes in a kind of shrine, equating them with the statue of the Virgin Mary. Rosario becomes a kind of god to her, and she speaks of how she holds him in her arms in her dreams and memories, which are more important to her than anything in the world of the living.
Serafina also attempts to control her daughter Rosa’s sexuality, locking her in the house naked so she cannot leave to meet Jack, her sailor boyfriend. The fact that Rosa is kept naked calls attention to her entry into the world of adult sexual desire. Serafina also makes Jack kneel before a statue of Mary to pledge that he will respect Rosa’s purity. Later it becomes clear that Rosa is more than willing to be seduced by Jack, while he is restrained by his pledge before the Virgin Mary. Rosa realizes the power of sexuality, while Jack is restrained by societal and religious mores.
Alvaro is the lone man who seems to realize the importance of sex in the life of Serafina, and he makes his desire to seduce her abundantly plain. She is alternately attracted to and repelled by him, eventually succumbing to the lure of his similarity to Rosario. After symbolically killing Rosario by dispersing his ashes, Serafina gives herself to Alvaro ecstatically, her cries of bliss heard by Rosa in the yard. When Serafina finally realizes that Rosa’s desire for Jack is sincere, she sends her to him with her blessing. Notably, there is no talk of marriage; Serafina realizes that desire itself is the end and blesses Rosa’s entry into the adult world as a keeper of desire, even as she welcomes a pregnancy to underline her reentry into the world of the living.
Pride One of Serafina’s defining characteristics is her pride. She is excessively proud of her husband, Rosario, and seems to think that his glory reflects on her. This is shown in her boasting. She boasts about Rosario’s beauty, virility, and family. She claims, for example, that he was a baron in Sicily, though few believe her.
While on one level, Serafina’s boastful pride is ridiculous and humorous, on another, it constitutes the play’s nod at classical Greek tragedy. In classical tragedy, the hero always has a significant tragic flaw, and hubris, or pride, is often that flaw. However, while in ancient drama the flaw is a factor contributing to the play’s tragic events, in Williams’s play, Serafina overcomes her weakness. Her change of heart comes about partly because she accepts that her husband was not perfect after all. Further, she signals, in her love for Alvaro, that she is not so glorious and is capable of loving someone who is not perfect.
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Rose Tattoo is a very human play, despite its borrowings from the austere, heroic tradition of classical tragedy. Serafina may have a character flaw that is reminiscent of the hubris that besets so many classical heroes, but she is far more a comedic figure than a tragic one. In having Serafina learn that she is ordinary, and in depicting her as essentially ridiculous, Williams fondly suggests that humans are, precisely, quite ridiculous most of the time and hardly grand at all. The element in the play that best encapsulates Williams’s notion of humanity is the play’s many references to clowns and clown-like behavior. A clown is a figure who makes people laugh, usually by suffering terrible indignities. In other words, Williams suggests that at the same time that people suffer terribly they are poor creatures whose lives are comic misadventures.
Idolatry Williams evokes ancient (pre-Christian) Greco- Roman religion in his play, through its focus on sexuality and virility and through the many references to wine. Specifically, he gestures toward the god Dionysus (Greek) or Bacchus (Roman). This god was the caretaker of many things, for example wine, creative intoxication, sexuality, passion, reT generation, male sexual potency, and right worship. Serafina is, in one guise, what would have been known in ancient times as a ‘‘bacchante,’’ as her worship of her extremely virile husband is akin to a worship of male sexual potency, and hence Bacchus in general.
In gesturing toward this god, Williams in some sense resuscitates him approvingly. The play is a celebration of life, sexuality, and passion. Yet, the play also makes it clear that Serafina worships her husband inordinately. Indeed, when he dies, she puts his urn of ashes on her mantle and seems to think of it as an object to be worshipped in her husband’s stead. In a sense, Serafina treats her husband as a god when he is alive and the urn as an object of worship when he is dead. Since idolaters are persons who worship things not approved of by those practicing official religion, Serafina is an idolater in the play. She elevates her husband and his remains in an improper manner.
Serafina learns proper conduct by the play’s end, as she learns that neither her husband nor she are deserving of worship. Yet, she retains her lust for life. In remaining passionate and in having learned who and what properly deserves adulation, Serafina develops over the course of the play into a truly proper worshiper of Dionysus, as this god not only represents the life force but right worship as well.
Life and DeathThe Rose Tattoo sets up a particular opposition of life and death in the opposition of Serafina and Estelle. This duality associates chaos and excess with life and order and restraint with death.
Serafina evokes a chaotic, burgeoning life force in many ways. Her elaborate outfits, hairstyle, and jewels are gaudy at the play’s opening, but endearingly suggestive of a passionate, happy nature at the same time. Her husband’s virility and her own fertility, in conjunction with her healthy plumpness and interest in sex, suggest the ongoing nature of life. Her cluttered house further suggests chaos at the same time that it serves as a hive of purposeful productivity, since Serafina runs a business from home.
Estelle Hohengarten is in every way Serafina’s opposite, embodying forces that counter those that Serafina expresses. Where Serafina is plump and drawn to the gaudy, Williams’s stage directions describe Estelle as slim and dressed in clothes suggestive of minimalism and restraint: ‘‘She is a thin blonde woman in a dress of Egyptian design.’’ Ancient Egyptian art and clothing are known for their simplicity, their severe abstraction, and for the many rules that govern their design.
Estelle is linked to death because she first appears in Serafina’s life the day Rosario is killed, and she is on stage only one other time in the play, namely the next day at Rosario’s wake. Death counters life, then, as order counters chaos, as the definitive cessation of all open-ended creativity, activity, and productivity.