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Scattered Corn: Ritual Violence and the Death of Rome in Titus Andronicus

(Shakespearean Criticism)

Naomi Conn Liebler, Montclair State University

[We] never really confront a text immediately, in all its freshness as a thing-in-itself. Rather, texts come before us as the always-already-read; we apprehend them through sedimented layers of previous interpretations, or … through the sedimented reading habits and categories developed by those inherited interpretive traditions. Fredric Jameson, Preface, The Political Unconscious

"Tragedy conjures the extinction of the human race" (Woodbridge 1994: 179). The ominous loading of the stage at the ends of Shakespearean tragedies encourages the view that tragedy is about death: the death of the body, of the spirit, of the polity. In that sense, Titus Andronicus (which rivals Hamlet in its final on-stage body count) should be judged one of Shakespeare's most successful tragedies, a tour de force, the quintessence of the genre itself. But many critics have argued that it was the least successful of Shakespeare's tragedies (Bevington 1980: 956; Rackin 1978: 10; J. D. Wilson 1948: li-lvi). A notable exception is Maurice Charney's observation that, along with other revenge tragedies of its generation, Titus Andronicus "helped to explore the possibilities of tragedy," and "shows the way that leads to greater plays.… The greatness of Shakespearean tragedy is already manifest" (1990: 9-10).

It was, however, Terence Spencer who reminded us a generation ago of the context in which an Elizabethan audience would have received Titus. Citing Antonio Guevara's Decada, translated by Edward Hellowes as A Chronicle, conteyning the lives of tenne Emperours of Rome (1577), as an "established" source for the play, he notes that among the "lives" an Elizabethan reader would have found therein,

appears a blood-curdling life of a certain Emperor Bassianus.… [It] is one of almost unparalleled cruelty.… I will not say that it is a positive relief to pass from the life of Bassianus by Guevara to Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus (and there to find, by the way, that Bassianus is the better of the two brothers).… Titus Andronicus is Senecan … a not untypical piece of Roman history, or would seem to be so to anyone who came fresh from reading Guevara. Not the most high and palmy state of Rome, certainly. But an authentic Rome, and a Rome from which the usual political lessons could be drawn.

(Spencer 1957:32)

The fact that Titus Andronicus follows classical models should not be ignored or explained away; neither should the idea that it offered its original audience "the usual political lessons" for which they turned to Roman history in the first place, although Spencer does not say what those were. More recent critics (Miola 1981; Charney 1990) have historicized the play from this hybrid Elizabethan-Roman point of view. This is not easy to do; as Miola says, "any approach which seeks to fit the various incarnations of Shakespeare's Rome to a single political or theological Procrustean bed does violence to the heterogeneity of the city's origins and character" (1981: 95).

The horrors that the play represents, however shocking they may be to the kinder, gentler culture that we think we are, would probably not have shocked an audience regularly entertained by what Steven Mullaney calls the "dramaturgy of the margins," by which "the horizon of the community was made visible, the limits of definition, containment, and control made manifest," and which included "hospitals and brothels, … madhouses, scaffolds of execution, prisons, and lazar-houses" (1988: 31), not to mention various animal and human atrocities going on virtually next door to the Theater in bear-baiting and cock-fighting dens, and similarly heterodox, disorderly, or "incontinent" cultural entertainments. As John Velz notes, walls are the most important edifices in Shakespeare's Rome, which is "above all urbs in its etymological sense, the enclave of civilization ringed round with a protective wall, outside of which the dark forces of barbarism lurk" (1978: 11). Evidently one...

(The entire section is 9,063 words.)