Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9063
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.
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 did not have to venture very far outside those walls to find lurking barbarism.
A "margin" is not only linear, defining a city's limits, but also spatial, a topology inhabited and informed by a social behavior and a political status. A space that delimits ambiguity and flux, that defines and contains by describing a boundary, a margin is itself a locus for alteration. In the terms by which a polis defines itself, "margin" represents the verge, the limits, by which one is citizen or alien, endogenous or exogenous, "one of us" or "one of them." Once again Mary Douglas's observation applies: "all margins are dangerous. If they are pulled this way or that the shape of fundamental experience is altered. Any structure of ideas is vulnerable at its margins" (1966: 121). In Titus Andronicus, as in Othello and The Merchant of Venice, one may live, or be brought to live, within a city's walls, and still be marginalized. That, surely, is one of the play's "usual political lessons."
Titus Andronicus is in many respects a marginal play. As Shakespeare's first tragedy, it was the terminus a quo, the initial boundary for the rest of his work in the genre. But most important is the play's concern with marginality and its threat to political identity. Rome in this play is a city of ambiguity, whose cultural identity is challenged from the outset by the incorporation of aliens within its boundaries, by confusion and dissension about its rules of conduct and their consistent applications, and by the hybridization of its central leadership.
Previous attempts to identify the play's sources have yielded a patchwork of less than satisfactory nominations, aside from the usual round-up of Ovidian, Senecan, and Virgilian—that is, literary—analogues. With every suggestion, scholars have noted how little may be said with certainly about Shakespeare's acquisition of the plot concerning the Goths and Aaron, as well as any story about any actual Andronici (Bullough 1973: VI: 3-82; Maxwell 1961: xxvii-xxxii; Charney 1990: 7; D. J. Palmer 1972: 323). The closest parallel texts are a prose story and a ballad printed in an eighteenth-century chap-book owned by the Folger Library, but as Bullough says, these are as likely to have followed Shakespeare's play as to have preceded it. The uncertainty of the date of the play itself (Hill 1957) makes it difficult to determine what Shakespeare knew and how he could have known it. What history of fifthcentury Rome was available to him? All of Shakespeare's usually accepted classical sources significantly antedate the famous Gothic "Sack of Rome." Tacitus's Histories and Annals (translated into English in 1591 and 1598, respectively), and Pliny's Natural History (translated into English in 1566) merely mention among various Germanic tribes the Gothones (Tacitus) or Guiones (Pliny); in any case both historians wrote during the first century CE., long before these "Goths" became any sort of threat to Roman borders or territories. Moreover, in Shakespeare's play, it is the Romans who are victorious, and nothing in the play indicates who started the war, or who invaded whose territories.
It may be said with some safety, then, that Shakespeare's "Goths" are not the ones who overthrew Rome in the fifth century, and indeed may not be any particular historical Goths at all. "Goth" may be a generic term for barbarian, especially barbarians of Eastern origin and fierce and bloody reputation: in "A Valediction: Of the Book," Donne employs the image of "ravenous / Goths and Vandals" to signal the end of civilization and especially of literacy and learning. In As You Like It, Touchstone compares his displacement in Arden with that of "honest Ovid … among the Goths" (III.iii.9), alluding to Ovid's description of his banishment among the Getae (formerly identified with "Goths") in the Pontic Epistles. Lear, in banishing Cordelia, compares her to "The barbarous Scythian, / Or he that makes his generation messes / To gorge his appetite" (I.i.116-18), incorporating a reminder of the reputation of invaders from the East for intrafamilial cannibalism that is, of course, reflected in Tamora's unwitting consumption of her children. 1
The term "Goth" functions in Shakespeare's play as part of a differential economy as the "other" of Roman civilization. In fact, long before any Gothic invasions, Rome was nearly destroyed from within by the same Bassianus Spencer mentions. This Bassianus was a Libyan on his father's side (the emperor Septimius Severus) and a Syrian on his mother's (Julia Domna), and converted his court to the manners and customs of Syrian theocracy. His reign and those immediately following constituted a long and bloody period of religious and political instability in Rome. For these events Shakespeare did indeed have a specific source, previously unidentified by the play's editors and critics. That source, which is also the source of Guevara's Decada and thus of Hellowes's Chronicle, is Herodian of Antioch's History of the Roman Empire. Herodian tells of a Rome governed for sixty years by an Afro-asiatic dynasty, its religion converted to a Syrian theocracy spearheaded by a politically clever and ambitious materfamilias and her two sons, one of whom had the other killed and proceeded to rule as one of the more vicious tyrants in Roman history. There are only two extant contemporary records of this period of internal destruction, this undoing by a marginalized and demonized force ruling from within Roman borders. The Greek Dio Cassius's Roman History was not translated into English until the twentieth century. Herodian's History was translated into English by Nicholas Smyth and printed by William Coplande circa 1550 as The history of Herodian, 2 a chronicle, modeled on Plutarch's Lives, of the late empire from Marcus Aurelius (161-80) to Gordian III (238-44), including the reign of Bassianus and his successors. Here is the lesson Tudor England would have learned from Herodian.
The historical Rome that later failed to stave off the Gothic invasion had long since already destroyed itself from within. Herodian's claim to the authority of an eye-witness may well be believed, since the Afroasiatic dynasty covers a period of only some sixty years (180-238): "And when by the space of lx. yeres, the Citie of Rome had sustained more gouernours then for the time sufficed, it came to passe, that many straunge thinges and worthy admiracion chanced" (Herodian 1550: sig. B.iv).
The story that interested Shakespeare began under Bassianus's father, Septimius Severus, a Libyan who had gained control of Rome without significant opposition during an interregnum in 193 when Rome had no central leadership. His main rival for control of Rome was one Niger, a former consul and governor of Syria. Niger's belated (and futile) campaign to defeat Severus deployed troops of Moroccan javelin-throwers, famous (says Herodian) for bravery, brutality, and savagery, and in Herodian's account Shakespeare might have found inspiration for his Moor.3 Severus's most famous exploit was the attempted subjection of Britain, to which Herodian devotes detailed attention. He died in the middle of this prolonged effort, and was succeeded by Bassianus (also known as Caracalla, and as Antoninus, an honorific attached to all Roman emperors from Septimius Severus to his grandson Severus Alexander). Bassianus was preferred to the throne by his Syrian mother, Julia Domna, herself a formidable and assiduous politician, mostly on behalf of her sons but with almost equal dedication to her own licentious and ambitious leanings. Several years before he died, Septimius Severus married Bassianus to the daughter of his Libyan compatriot, one Plautianus. The marriage was far from happy. To avenge his daughter's neglect, Plautianus hired a tribune out of the praetorian guard to kill both Bassianus and Severus, but the plot failed when the tribune betrayed his employer. The tribune's name was Saturninus, and he too was Syrian by birth (sig. M.iii, fol. xlii-xliii).
The historical Bassianus's brother was actually named Geta; perhaps the name Saturninus sounded more "Roman" for the brother of Shakespeare's Bassianus. It is entirely possible, as well, that "Geta" suggested "Goth" to Shakespeare; in fact, early histories of the Goths refer generally to the scattered tribes of Goths as Getae or Geticae.
In Herodian several missing links come together. The matter of religious controversy and Julia Domna's manipulations behind palace doors suggest two of the structural elements of the plot concerning Tamora. If Saturninus is indeed a namereplacement for Geta, Shakespeare simply reversed the personalities of the brothers, for the historical Bassianus killed his brother, annexed his lands, and ruled most tyrannically. In explaining himself to his people, Bassianus cited historical precedents for "kynred"-killers, naming, among others, "Romulus hym selfe, the buylder of this Citye," and Domitian's murder of his brother Titus (there is no connection between Shakespeare's Titus and Domitian's victim, but the name may have stuck in Shakespeare's mind). In the end, having killed too many of his own people—"he began to destroye euery man from the verie bedde syde, as the prouerbe sayth" (sig. N.iii, fol. xlv)—Bassianus was slain by the surviving brother, Martialis, of yet another of his victims. The manner of his death is worth noting: in Mesopotamia, returning from worship at the Temple of Diana, he stopped, as Herodian narrates,
to do the requisites of nature. Then Martialis, (which awaited euery conuenie~t howre) seyng the Emperour alone, & all other farre of, made haste towardes him asthough he were called for some businesse, & running vpon him unwares, as he was vntrussing his pointes, stabbed him in w~ a dagger, which he of purpose, secretly bare in hys sleaue.
The reign of Bassianus lasted altogether six years, and ended, ironically, in an act of defecation.
The utility of Herodian's narrative to a study of Titus Andronicus is not only as a previously unrecognized source for Shakespeare, the only one that links the names of Bassianus and Saturninus. Its special value is in its presentation, certainly available to Shakespeare, of a peculiar period in Roman history when Elizabethan England's favorite cultural antecedent was itself hybridized and feminized. Rome's "Syrian phase" began in 186, when a legion commander married the daughter of a Syrian priest of Elagabalus. In 193, when the Libyan Septimius Severus became emperor, Rome had a Syrian empress, Julia Domna, "the key figure in Rome's Syrian dynasty.… A shrewd, highly capable woman [who] assumed imperial responsibility with her husband" (Echols 1961: 4). When Bassianus (Caracalla) became emperor in 211, Rome had a Syrian-Libyan emperor, and when Elagabalus became emperor in 218, Rome had a Syrian emperor. The Syrian domination of Rome continued through the reign of Alexander Severus, a pacifist whose weak military command ultimately led to the return of "European" leadership under Maximinus (235-8), who was born in Thrace.
Thus, in Herodian we find not only some of those names that have baffled Titus's editors, but perhaps more importantly, a slice of Roman history which saw Rome dominated from within by "barbarians," 4 its values compromised and perhaps by Elizabethan standards bastardized and miscegenized, 5 its pollution led and orchestrated by a politically ambitious and calculating matriarch who gave him his model for Tamora, and a dynasty of African rulers. Titus Andronicus may be Shakespeare's attempt to accommodate that long and problematic episode in the history of a Rome which England preferred not to recognize. The Roman history that Tudor England read about in Herodian was not the masculine, European Roman history of Marcus Brutus, Julius Caesar, and Marc Antony; it was not the Rome upon which England in part rested its own cultural genealogy. It was a Rome dominated by feminine influence, 6 subverting everything that was understood by the ideology of romanitas.
The relation of the cultural displacements in the play, as suggested by Herodian's History, to ritualistic action is significantly illuminated by other ancient sources known to Shakespeare. There are certain aspects of Seneca's Thyestes that are undervalued in most criticism of Titus Andronicus. The Thyestes was already an old Elizabethan story when Shakespeare was born. Jasper Heywood's 1560 English translation was more than twenty years old when Thomas Newton published it in Seneca His Tenne Tragedies (1581). More familiar to the Elizabethans than the Aeschylean version preferred today, it told the base legend, the ur-myth, on which classical familial tragedies are modeled. Zeus's son Tantalus kills his son Pelops (in Seneca, constructed sentimentally as a baby "running to kiss his father" [1966: TLN 145]) and feeds him to the gods assembled at a formal banquet, with catastrophically inverted results for the entire community: "The consequence of this repast was hunger, / Hunger and thirst for all eternity" (1966: TLN 149-50). Similarly, in the Ovidian source for Lavinia's rape and mutilation, Procne retaliates against her rapist-husband Tereus on her sister Philomel's behalf by killing their son Itys and feeding his baked body to his father. Neither Ovid nor Seneca gives any reason for this originary, causeless infanticide, which in Seneca is reversed when Zeus restores Pelops. Pelops's two sons, Thyestes and Atreus, compete for their father's throne. Thyestes seduces his brother's wife; Atreus retaliates by killing and feeding Thyestes's sons to their father—all except Aegisthus (born of Thyestes's incest with his sister Pelopia), who grows up to seduce Clytemnestra, wife of Atreus's son Agamemnon, who had meanwhile sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia in order (he said) to summon the winds and save his navy. Clytemnestra kills Agamemnon, ostensibly in revenge for Iphigenia's death, and Orestes retaliates by killing his mother Clytemnestra while Electra, the remaining sister, urges him on, pours libations, and curses everyone in her whole sad family. 7
This dizzying synopsis illustrates a mythic base of infanticide and incest, laundered in the Aeschylean Eumenides to suggest an evolution towards "modern" and "humane" systems of justice. Seneca, however, was more interested in the foundational significance of sparagmos [ritual dismemberment] and omophagia [child-eating] than in institutionalized forms of civil retribution. Foundational stories define a culture to itself, setting standards and parameters by which it distinguishes itself from others. Originary violence, as Girard argues, is a given in foundation myths; it is nonetheless interesting to notice against whom and in whose behalf that violence occurs. The story of the House of Atreus deals entirely with intrafamilial or endogenous relations; kin-killing and incest are at the heart of both Aeschylean and Senecan versions of the story. The larger political narrative is just barely remembered in the face of these horrors: the Argive victory over Troy; the endless hunger in the aftermath of a banquet at the very beginning, and of course the fact that the "kin" in these stories are royalty (and earlier, deity), and therefore responsible for the welfare of whole polities.
It is worth noting how closely Shakespeare hews to his Senecan antecedent. The Gothic family looks much like the Thyestean side of Seneca's story: although Tamora does not kill her own children, she does, like Thyestes, eat them; the miscegenation of Tamora and Aaron can be seen as an inversion (a radical exogamy) of the incest (a radical endogamy) that produced Aegisthus. Recalling the Atreidan side of the story, Titus kills both a son and a daughter, as Tantalus killed his son and Agamemnon killed his daughter, 8 and plays the role of Atreus in feeding Tamora's sons to her.
The Thyestean pie put before Tamora, however, is more than a Senecan or Ovidian exercise by a novice playwright; it is appropriate justice. From the beginning of his career, Shakespeare understood the resonances of ritualistic action in performance. The baking and serving of Chiron and Demetrius is a fitting response to Lavinia's rape and mutilation. Tamora is literally made to swallow the agents of the grotesque violations she has engineered. A formal banquet is perverted into a mythologically antecedent act of omophagia, which in the mythic base devolves to a cycle of revenge with no resurrective or regenerative possibilities. In Titus, omophagia repays outwardly directed crimes of mutilation and murder with an inwardly directed pollution. The punctilious design of Titus's revenge reflects the power of inversion as redress. 9
Jan Kott's investigation of ancient rites involving sparagmos and omophagia as the cultural context of Euripides's Bacchae locates maternal omophagia as a structural inversion of incest, and also of giving birth and feeding. It is "genesis annihilated, moved back to its origins," negating both time and succession. "This simultaneous fili-, regi-, and dei-cide is the ultimate completion of the cycle. Cosmos has become chaos again so that everything can begin anew.… Fertility is mortally wounded in order that it may be renewed" (Kott 1973: 200). Kott's focus on maternal omophagia brings us closer to Tamora's punishment in Titus Andronicus than does any segment of the Atreus legend, in which all the child-eaters are male. "In such myths and sparagmos rites, women are the priestesses. They tear bodies to pieces and partake of the raw flesh. The sacrificial victim is always male: a child of the male sex, or a young man, or a ram, he-goat, or bull" (1973: 199).
Shakespeare aborts the ritual intention of sparagmos and omophagia; Titus is set not in the world of the Eleusinian rites but in late Imperial Rome as performed for Elizabethan England. In the violent and violational world of Shakespeare's play, cosmos becomes chaos but nothing can begin anew. This is evident from the specific nature of the Gothic family's crimes against the Andronici, which are themselves retaliation for the play's initial sparagmos, the "lopping" of Alarbus's "limbs." As Miola notes, "Instead of beginning the Roman Empire, the rape of Lavinia signals the end of whatever civilization Rome possesses and the triumph of lawless savagery" (1981: 88-9). Her mutilation signals the end of civilization in yet another way: the loss of hands and tongue deprive her of both writing and speech, which Ben Jonson called "the only benefit man has to expresse his excellencie of mind above other creatures. It is the Instrument of Society" (1965: 347). Their deprivation, then, signals the removal of the speechless from the social construct and renders her, by definition, inhuman.
The implication for the larger order of Rome in the play is disastrous: not only is Lavinia dehumanized, but as the only Andronica (and one of only three females in the play, all dead or imminently so by the end), her death, like her silencing and her rape, undermine Marcus's weak charge to the "sad-fac'd men, people and sons of Rome" (my emphasis) to "knit again / This scatter'd corn into one mutual sheaf (V.iii.67-71). The phallocentric image of the sheaf, the seminal one of scattered corn, and the address to men and sons are curious. On the one hand, Tamora's feminization of the Roman emperorship figures as the primary source of Rome's destruction, 10 not only as a masculine civilization but as a civilization of any kind. On the other hand, without women, Rome's hopes for renewal reside in an impossible parthenogenesis. The reconstruction of the body politic is highly doubtful after so much dismemberment: the bodies of Lavinia and Titus (and Martius and Quintus Andronicus, and Alarbus) are not the only ones dismantled in the play. The dismemberment of Rome as a polity is declared at the play's outset when Titus is invited by his brother on behalf of "the people of Rome" to accept the emperorship, "and help to set a head on headless Rome" (I.i.186). Shakespeare's pun is clearly intended; Titus's refusal inculpates him in his city's sparagmos.
A completed ritual would require both sparagmos and omophagia, dismemberment and ingestion or reintegration in a new body. Shakespeare fragments the ritual process by assigning the agency of sparagmos both to Chiron and Demetrius and to Titus, and that of omophagia to Tamora. Alarbus's and Titus's respective "lopp'd" limbs and Martius's and Quintus's severed heads all separately and collectively represent fragments of a body of ritual practice that in another time and place would have signalled the start of a healing rite. This play's deployment of disjecta membra demonstrates the nihilistic impact of ritual gone awry. Consequently, the promised end, the scattered corn knit into one mutual sheaf, is set up as an impossibility. There is no renewal, none is possible, for a Rome so torn apart and so far from the proper management of its foundational ritual practices.
In Titus Andronicus Shakespeare does not simply replicate the Thyestes or interpellate several foundational stories; he inverts them, foregrounding the political implications for Rome. Beginning with the election of Titus as emperor and his rejection of the honor, this aborted ceremony is immediately conflated with the entry of the Andronicus funeral procession, which takes us immediately to the sacrifice ad manes fratrum of Alarbus (D. J. Palmer 1972: 327). The play is arranged as a central story of sparagmos (Alarbus, Lavinia, Titus, Martius and Quintus) bracketed by infanticide (Mutius in Act I and Lavinia in Act V) and omophagia (Act V). This structuring foregrounds the confusion or interpenetration of political and religious ritual, which makes it much more than a Senecan imitation. It is a dissection of cultural formation and its definition, an interrogation of the inextricable relation between the political and ritual in culture. Ritual becomes not the effective redress for which it is designed but the actual site of contestation (for which there is no redress) and a reminder of the consequences to the polity of ritual violation or neglect.
The play's numerous and various examples of sparagmos enact a dissection or anatomy of culture that discloses its fault-lines. The intersections of axes along which culture is produced are also its vulnerable points; what can be joined can also be sundered. Shakespeare's meticulous attention to these junctures might seem remarkable in such an early play. But the discourse of the body that contextualizes this attention was a long-standing and wellknown commonplace by the late sixteenth century. The observation that the body is especially vulnerable at its joints and orifices belongs to Sir John Cheke, who noted in The Hurt of Sedicion Howe Grevous it is to a Commune-wealth (1549; STC 5109) that, like the natural body, the body politic "cannot bee without much grief of inflammacon, where any least part is out of joynt, or not duely set in his owne natural place" (quoted in M. James 1983: 8n.). The Rome that interested Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus was for sixty years a sutured patchwork of European and Afroasiatic population, politics, and religion.
What happens to such a sutured civilization? What specific junctures make it vulnerable? In Titus, culture is literally articulated in terms of body parts (D. J. Palmer 1972; Tricomi 1974; Paster 1989; Kendall 1989), which are further arranged into male and female categories. These anatomical assignments are expanded into gendered social roles, which are then undermined by constant inversion and re-inversion in this play. The consistency with which Shakespeare attaches such imagery to Roman history is worth noting; we find it again in Coriolanus in Menenius's Fable of the Belly. Remarkably, Shakespeare's first tragedy looks ahead to his final one when, in Titus, Aemilius looks "backward" by invoking the "historical" Coriolanus as a model for Lucius's revolt against Rome (IV.iv.68).
A culture defines itself in part by distinguishing self from other, "them" from "us," citizen from alien, and does so along both national and racial lines of demarcation. Out of such defining divisions, or rather to secure them, ideology is formed, and ritual's primary function, after guaranteeing physical survival, is to guarantee the survival of the cultural definition, that is, its ideology. But the Rome of Titus Andronicus has no unifying ideology. Titus believes that it does, as we see by his actions in the first moments of the play; but his faith is immediately contested by his sons and further problematized by the union of Tamora, the Asiatic Goth, and the Roman Saturninus.
The combined ritual function of sparagmos and omophagia belongs to that of the scapegoat or pharmakos. Again the matter of cultural distinctions, "them" and "us," is crucial. As Girard has explained, in order for a scapegoat rite to be effective, the pharmakos must resemble the rest of the community enough to represent it, and at the same time must be sufficiently alienated, misrecognized as other, to be killed with impunity (1977: 13). The opening scene of Titus Andronicus positions the political and ritual requirements of the victorious Romans against those of the defeated Goths, thereby interrogating the definitions that distinguish self from other, "Roman" from "Goth."
While I am not arguing that Titus Andronicus represents an Elizabethan plea for multicultural tolerance, it does raise questions about the definitions of culture that enable the chain of killing and revenge, and of sparagmos and omophagia that encircle and define this play. The play begins with a ritual sacrifice, ad manes fratrum (I.i.96-101), for Titus's sons who have been killed in battle. This sacrifice is seen as a legitimate demand from the Roman point of view, but not, obviously, from that of the Goths, who (again from the Roman point of view) are both aliens and prisoners of war, and therefore are perfect scapegoats. Their foreign status means that the Roman community is not contaminated by killing or by failing to avenge one of its own. If Alarbus were a solitary prisoner, his sacrifice would have achieved its intended effect, and we would hear no more of him or the Goths. But Shakespeare problematizes the ritual situation by including Tamora and her remaining sons. The "other" that Alarbus represents to Rome is "self to the Gothic contingent. Moreover, the rite itself is problematic in so far as it is intended as a rite of completion, to answer a killing and to avoid further reprisal; that effect is only possible in the case of communal agreement about its function and operation. For Tamora, it is not a rite but a murder, and therefore demands revenge. Her pleas for Alarbus's life complicate audience response by cutting across national lines of definition: instead of Goths and Romans, the audience is invited by Tamora's lines to consider an undifferentiated human communitas:
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother's tears in passion for her son;
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome
To beautify thy triumphs, and return
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke;
But must my sons be slaughtered in the streets
For valiant doings in their country's cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Her argument appeals to Titus's sense of piety as well as to the same romanitas that informed his own willing sacrifice in war of twenty-one sons for his country. His response turns the argument back upon her.
Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me.
These are their brethren, whom your Goths
Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain
Religiously they ask a sacrifice:
To this your son is mark'd, and die he must,
T'appease their groaning shadows that are
No compromise is possible: paradoxically, the cycle of revenge that ritual is designed to prevent is inevitable in the circumstances of the play. The hard truth of perspective is brought home: what Lucius calls the "clean" consumption by fire of the pharmakos (127-9) is for Tamora nothing but "cruel, irreligious piety!" (130), a definition that contradicts Titus's surname, "Pius," noting the virtue for which he is famous.
These contesting claims for "piety," defined separately by Tamora and Titus in terms of both "vengeance" and proper burial rites, illuminate from the very start of the play the crisis of Roman cultural definition. The question of definitions entailed in ritual clarity immediately spreads to members of Titus's own family when he kills and disowns Mutius. In his refusal to allow Mutius's burial, Titus enacts the definitional crisis, and Marcus identifies it: "Thou art a Roman; be not barbarous" (I.i.378). Roman values are themselves revealed as the site of contenstation. Since one of the hallmarks of romanitas is filial obedience, Mutius's rebellion against Titus in the matter of remanding Lavinia to Saturninus seems to Titus nothing less than treason. But Rome's belief in its own laws is equally compelling, and Lavinia was contracted to Bassianus. In order to resolve this particular conflict, Titus kills the "traitor" by first disclaiming kinship: Mutius is deliberately misrecognized, made an "other," an alien: "Nor thou [to Lucius] nor he, are any sons of mine. / My sons would never so dishonor me. / Traitor, restore Lavinia to the Emperor" (I.i.294-6). As an alien, Mutius can be denied proper ritual burial in the family tomb (I.i.349-54); but as an Andronicus, he must be so buried, and Titus's refusal is called by his brother Marcus "impiety" (355), the charge now coming not from Tamora but from within the family. The violation of Roman burial rites by a Roman immediately establishes the pattern of ritual perversion and neglect that continues throughout the play to the end, when the belated attempt is made to resurrect Rome from its own scattered seed: Titus and Lavinia are granted proper burial, but Tamora and Aaron will be left to rot at the margins of the city.
The tragedy is set in motion by conflicting ritual observations, a set of relativities, a clash of cultures whose differences reflect their similarities as we can hear in Tamora's pleading. Her maternal plea is dismissed; fittingly she later ignores Lavinia's appeal to "sister-hood." As disturbing as her "unfeminist" treatment of Lavinia is, it is also a strong form of revenge against Titus; as Miola points out, the rape of a daughter "is a flagrant violation of the family and the sacred bonds that tie it together … the destruction of her familial bonds has disastrous implications for the order in the city and the hierarchical order in nature itself (1981: 87). Tamora learns quickly that the Rome Titus embodies has no regard for the feminine (we see this again in Marcus's phallocentric closing invocation), and despite its claims to the contrary, none for the family either unless that family is natively Roman. G. K. Hunter long ago suggested that the "alternative 'household' of Saturninus/Tamora/ Aaron with Tamora's assorted children … can only be called a 'family' by a radically deformed definition" (1974: 4). However, it should be noted that the vaunted Roman regard for family is shown to be seriously limited in the paterfamilias himself. As Shylock says in The Merchant of Venice, "The villainy you teach me I will execute, and it shall go hard but I will better the instruction" (III.i.71-3). Since, in this Rome, feminine values are eschewed, Tamora, out of sheer survivalist adaptation, becomes more like the quintessential Roman male, that is, like Titus, one who can kill not only other people's children but his own. Though Tamora never quite manages to kill her own children (she orders her baby's death, but does not execute it), Titus remedies that by making her eat them. In an exchange of behaviors, father-Titus learns to be more like the Gothic (not the neo-Roman) mother-Tamora; his daughter's dismantling teaches him to empathize with the "parents" of a fly. Meanwhile, Aaron, the permanent alien, doubly demonized as "the black man with the Jewish name" teaches everyone what paternity and paternal love really mean when he taunts Chiron and Demetrius about their baby brother and bargains with Lucius to protect his son. Aaron preserves all the characteristics of his theatrical ancestor the Vice (until he steps forward to protect his son); he stays in the margin of Rome and machinates the inversion of all-that-is-Roman to nothing-at-all, an unregeneratable pile of scattered seed.
Rome, as represented by Saturninus, attempted to subvert the alien Goths by incorporating them into Roman citizenship and Roman values by his union with Tamora. But a dismembered polity, "headless Rome" (I.i.186) split from the beginning of the play by opposing brothers, is already fractured beyond any unified set of values. Since gender and racial distinctions are two especially visible options out of a number of tactics for cultural definition, the concretizing of Rome's cultural disintegration in a feminized and racialized dialectic enabled Shakespeare's audience to "see" the consequences to this civilization that allowed itself to let go of its cultural definitions, as Rome indeed had done and as Elizabethan England seemed increasingly in danger of doing (Mullaney 1988: 64; Bartels 1990; Neill 1989).
The definitional crisis spreads in yet another direction when Saturninus establishes Tamora as his empress. Tamora and her sons, former prisoners of war, are absorbed into Roman (or neo-Roman) identity, and the distinction of "Roman" from "non-Roman" is no longer persuasive, no longer even possible. Tamora's empowerment enables her to avenge her son's death, but she does so as a new-made Roman, and the "clean" ritual distinction of otherness is obliterated: for the remainder of the play, except for Aaron, all participants in this internecine slaughter are either Romans or neo-Romans by definition, and the entire community, in a chaos of kin-killing and self-mutilation, turns in upon itself in the ultimate pattern of annihilation.
From the start of the play, little more than half way through the first scene, we see the consequences first of contestation between separate communities; then the arena narrows to a specifically Roman venue, and then the circle contracts to the still smaller arena of a single family. Before the play is over, that arena will contract yet further to its most microcosmic version, the individual: Titus himself becomes the site of contestation, and the divisions we have already witnessed between communities, within a community, and within a family, become manifest in the literal dismemberment of the patriarch and his only daughter and the beheading of two of his three remaining sons. Like Alarbus, Martius and Quintus died from their dismemberment; but the mutilated images presented by both Titus and Lavinia are images of life-in-death, terrifying indistinctions that pollute by their failure to separate the living from the dead, which is the aim and the design of properly conducted, unsubverted, burial rites and mourning practices. Critics have struggled to define Titus's killing of Lavinia in a range of meanings from cruelty to mercy; but within the play, even Saturninus calls him "unnatural and unkind" (V.iii.48). Moral evaluations aside (and who among those present, except perhaps for Lucius and Marcus, is qualified to make any?) Titus completes Lavinia's definition as "dead"; and thus he explains it to Tamora: "'twas Chiron and Demetrius. / They ravish'd her, and cut away her tongue; / And they, 'twas they, that did her all this wrong" (V.iii.56-8).
Ironically, the "headlessness" by which Rome is identified at the opening of the play is filled in by the image of Aaron's punishment at the end of the play. Set "breast-deep," "fast'ned in the earth" (V.iii.179, 183), he appears to be a disembodied head; "planted," he epitomizes the paradox of an unregeneratable polity—his is not the corn or seed Marcus hopes to gather, but as he hopes, his seed, half Moor and half RomanGoth, will eventually destroy what is left of Rome. By that time, and indeed before the play is over, Rome has lost all vestiges of its political identity. Titus had a hand in that too, when he sent Lucius, "the turn'd forth" (V.iii.109), off to rally the Gothic army to march against what was once his city (a reversion also performed by Coriolanus) and against a woman who was once their queen. Throughout Titus Andronicus, both Roman and Gothic cultural distinctions are confounded: early on, Demetrius counseled his mother to wait for the "opportunity of sharp revenge" that would "favor Tamora, the Queen of Goths—/ When Goths were Goths and Tamora was queen" (I.i.139-40). By the end of the play, Goths are still not Goths (no more than Romans are Romans); they return with Lucius as his allies. Rome, too, is hybridized by Tamora's marriage to Saturninus; she refers to herself as "incorporate in Rome, / A Roman now adopted happily" (I.i.462-3). After this, her coupling with Aaron and the birth of their interracial child simply extends the blurring of distinctions already set in motion.
All cultural definitions are nullified in this play by the confusion or neglect of cultural markers. Rome, which has long since become a "wilderness of tigers," is in the end identified with the incorporated aliens Tamora and Aaron, each of whom is separately (V.iii.5; V.iii.195) called by Lucius a "ravenous tiger" (Loom-ba 1989: 46). Marcus's "Let me teach you how to knit again" and Lucius's promise "to heal Rome's harms, and wipe away her woe" (V.iii.148) are taken by some critics at face value (Hunter 1974: 6; D. J. Palmer 1972: 338); that is, they assume that Rome will indeed arise from its "scattered corn." Lucius's first act of "healing" is properly constructed as the re-establishment of funeral rites, which return us to the play's beginning. Funeral rites are part of the set of cultural distinctions that separate "Roman" from "other": Lucius buries Titus and Lavinia in the Andronicus tomb while planting Aaron and leaving Tamora "to beasts and birds to prey" (V.iii. 198). Aaron and Tamora are denied such rites not only in revenge but also because there are no rites appropriate to them; as incorporated aliens they remain demonized and marginal.
No regeneration is possible in such a fractured polity. Lucius's attempt to restore cultural unity is undermined by the truth about the bodies he would inter in the Andronicus tomb, once the symbol and locus of ritual integrity as Titus had argued in refusing to bury the son he had killed. The bodies of Titus and Lavinia are fragmented; they are missing parts. Despite Lucius's fiat, then, which is too little and comes too late, the Rome of Titus Andronicus, like its historical counterpart under Bassianus and his successors, cannot and could not be re-established, and it never was. By the end of the play we know why and how Rome fell.
1 Although Scythian invasions of the area around the Black Sea, where the Greeks encountered them, apparently ceased by the end of the second century, B.C.E., their reputation for barbarism was easily conflated with that of the various "Goths" who were active during the first several centuries, C.E.
2The history of Herodian. Subsequent English issues are from 1629 and 1634-5, too late for Shakespeare. The extremely popular, anonymous Scriptores Historiae Augustae was known throughout Europe in Latin codices (six editions from 1475 to 1518), including ones owned by Petrarch and Erasmus, but was not translated into English until the twentieth century. Its details differ from those in Herodian: it does not mention Saturninus, it diminishes Julia Domna's role (although she is identified as a notorious adulteress), and it underemphasizes the conversion of Rome to Syrian religion (Magie 1921, 1924: I and II). Herodian's history is the only contemporary record known to have existed in English during Shakespeare's lifetime. For a detailed account of Shakespeare's use of Herodian and its implications for reading Titus Andronicus, see Liebler 1994a.
3 Both Maxwell (1961) in a line gloss at IV.ii.20 , and West (1982: 70) note the reference to "Moorish javelins" in the line from Horace's Odes that Titus inscribes on the bundle of arrows presented to Chiron and Demetrius, and both think this a glance at Aaron. But it is just as likely that the Moorish reputation for javelin-throwing was already inscribed within Shakespeare's conception of Aaron, derived from Herodian. Horace provided additional support.
4 Echols reminds us that Herodian was himself a Syrian living in Roman exile (and, interestingly, writing in Greek), and adds that "his early association with the Syrian dynasty at Rome would account for the amazing 'Romanness' of his outlook. Herodian is so thoroughly patriotic and so Romanized that he can speak of his fellow non-Romans as barbarians, and can offer an analysis of his fellow Syrians that is thoroughly unflattering" (1961: 5).
5 It is important to recognize that modern interpretations of "Elizabethan" attitudes may be more modern than Elizabethan. As Bernal argues, "For 18th- and 19th-century Romantics and racists it was simply intolerable for Greece, which was seen not merely as the epitome of Europe but also as its pure childhood, to have been the result of the mixture of native Europeans and colonizing Africans and Semites" (1987: I: 2); in the Renaissance, "no one questioned the fact that the Greeks had been the pupils of the Egyptians, in whom there was an equal, if not more passionate, interest" and who were "deeply respected for their antiquity and well-preserved ancient religion and philosophy" (1987: I: 23-4). If Elizabethan England inherited the Classical period's acceptance of the Afroasiatic roots of Greek culture, we may need to re-evaluate our assessments of Shakespeare's representations of his Moors—not only Aaron, but more obviously Othello and Portia's Moroccan suitor in The Merchant of Venice—all of whose noble traits are misrecognized by their Italianate fellow characters. Bernal's thesis has been challenged, not only on points of historical accuracy but also on its failure to recognize a distinction between "objective" and "subjective" ethnicity. The former is "a biological category which defines groups of human beings in terms of their shared physical characteristics resulting from a common gene pool," whereas the latter identifies "the ideology of an ethnic group by defining as shared its ancestors, history, language, mode of production, religion, customs, culture, etc., and is therefore a social construct, not a fact of nature" (Hall 1992: 185). Herodian's history (along with Dio's and the Historia Augusta) establishes as certain that Rome between 183 and 236 was governed by an Afroasiatic dynasty, in terms that satisfy Hall's important distinctions of "objective" as well as "subjective" ethnicity. How the Elizabethan heirs to this history interpreted that ethnic admixture is a question requiring further careful investigation; see Loomba (1989); Neill (1989); Bartels (1990).
6 Julia Domma's extraordinary influence during Bassianus's reign is generally acknowledged by historians and translators of Herodian. See Echols 1961: 5, and Whittaker 1969: II: 367n.
7 Electra's relative passivity is sometimes considered evidence of the "patriarchal" (i.e., misogynist) nature of both Aeschylean and Senecan tragedy (Figes 1990). Presumably a more even-handed treatment of social formations would have allowed Electra to do more than pour libations, curse, and wait for Orestes to do the filthy deed of matricide; but then, a less even-handed treatment would not have allowed Clytemnestra to wield the knife against her husband.
8 Cox underscores the Stoic Roman nature of Titus's infanticide, arguing that such a view of "romanism" had a long and solid following among Elizabethans (1989: 173-6). This is a fair enough reading, but Titus's extraordinary suffering might have been represented through any of a variety of dramatic events. The play's persistent focus upon violence and ritual, it must be said, figures something else besides a fascination with Roman Stoic values.
9 Laroque identifies the pie as:
the transgression of a triple taboo. The first, clearly, is cannibalism; the second and third are indicated by the use of the word "daintily" ["Whereof their mother daintily hath fed" (V.iii.61)]. "Dainty" was also a term currently employed to refer to the testicles, which suggests that two other major taboos have also been transgressed—those of castration and incest, for Tamora has taken in and consumed her own sons' reproductive organs. Born from their mother's body, they re-enter it through a different orifice.
This identification of the triple taboo, it seems to me, is a better claim than the limited Freudian one which sees the cannibalistic feast as "oral vengeance" of the "catastrophically perceived preoedipal mother, who threatens total dismemberment and destruction (the devouring mother)" (Willbern 1978: 171). However, the issue of omophagia in the context of a formal banquet is more problematic than either Laroque or Willbern represent; it is simultaneously a ritual act of regeneration and an act of pollution, and in its inherent ambiguity it expresses the contestational and contradictory nature of foundation myths in general. For a provocative discussion of omophagia in Greek tragedy, see Kott 1973: 186-230.
10 White argues that Lavinia's rape and mutilation implicitly condemn a Rome where justice is constructed as male, self-destructive, revenge even when instituted by a woman such as Tamora (1986: 26-35; cf. Willbern 1978: 161; Tricomi 1974: 17). However, apart from a brief imagistic suggestion at the beginning (I.i.9-17) and another one at the end (V.iii.73-6), the crisis in Rome is represented throughout the play as a masculine ethos compromised by Tamora's Asiatic feminizing influence, an issue Shakespeare explored again later in Antony and Cleopatra.
11 This is extremely problematic, as both Derrida and his translator acknowledge. Derrida used Robin's "authoritative French translation" (1981: 71) of Plato for most of his essay's quoted material. Derrida's translator, Barbara Johnson, used yet a different edition of Plato in English, with supplemental reference to several different English translations which, she says, she "sometimes partially adopted" (1981: 66n.). Thus the difficulty of linguistic access is not only thoroughly explored in this essay; it is also thoroughly exemplified.
12 Lincoln suggests a significantly tangent view of the Fable's referential domain: without mentioning Coriolanus, he discusses the narrative from Livy, II.32, the "Apologue of Menenius Agrippa," where, he says, debt and its punishment are the major issues. "Unable to win concessions from the patricians … the plebs are said to have physically withdrawn from the city and established themselves as an independent community on the Aventine Mount, leaving the patricians to tend their own needs without the support of plebeian labor" (1989: 145-6). Lincoln argues that Livy's account has been contested as an inflected discourse effacing the dependence of the patricians on the plebs; in Livy, the Fable persuades the plebs to end their secession and return to the city, reconciled. Subsequently and consequently, the office of Tribuni plebis was created to provide protection for plebeian interests by officers elected from the plebs themselves. This revisionist reading raises questions about Shakespeare's selection of material: there is no hint in the play of so autonomous a plebeian move as secession, or of a threat of patrician starvation without plebeian labor. Apparently unaware of Coriolanus, Lincoln concludes his section on Menenius: "this discourse was still being employed as late as 1594, when the lieutenant general of the Cahors court, in condemning the Croquant rebels, posed as a rhetorical question: What would happen if the members of the body should rebel against the stomach and refuse to feed it?" (1989: 148). What makes this interesting for readers of Coriolanus is the play's interpretation of the plebs as hungry and complaining, but dependent upon patrician "generosity," and endangered both by its absence and by seditious tribunes. The question of source-reception, the "genealogy" through which the "Apologue" reached Shakespeare—whether directly from Livy, or perhaps via Machiavelli's version in the Discourses, which supported the principle of vox populi (Zeeveld 1962: 323-4)—interpellates its appropriation for the play. The idea of a plebeian power to secede, absent from the play, reconfigures the play's initial conflict and raises questions about the scapegoating of Coriolanus to both plebeian and patrician interests.
13 John Drakakis has very kindly given me permission to quote from his essay on Coriolanus (cited above, chapter 1, note 8). Among his valuable interventions in this essay is his suggestion of yet another "body" discourse, the economic body.
14 In "Coriolanus and the Delights of Faction," Kenneth Burke offers an Aristotelian reading of victimage that inculpates any audience watching the play. We (Burke insists on "we," rather than restricting response to a Jacobean collective) "pity him even while we resent his exaggerated ways of representing our own less admirable susceptibilities.… Thereby we are cleansed, thanks to his overstating of our case" (1966: 89, but the point is reiterated throughout the essay: 81-94). He reminds us that the play is concerned "drastically" with class distinctions, recalling that "in earlier medical usage, a 'drastic' was the name for the strongest kind of 'cathartic' Also, the word derives etymologically from the same root as 'drama'" (1966: 82).
15 The 1607 Midlands Uprising and other revolts against Enclosure Acts, which not only destroyed livelihoods but also re-drew, and in some cases erased, village maps, may have been more a symptom of growing unrest than a cause, "more often to have followed the abandonment of holdings than to have caused it" (Keen 1990: 72); in some cases tenants rather than landlords did the enclosing (Keen 1990: 73). Such enclosures actually began as early as the thirteenth century. Pettet's (1950) essay linking the date of Coriolanus with the 1607 Insurrection is now generally dismissed for occluding the long history of enclosures and their pernicious consequences all over England and over several centuries. Pettet seems to have ignored his own cited evidence, relegating to a footnote Stow's report in the Annales: "that of very late years there were three hundred and forty towns decayed and depopulated" (quoted in Pettet 1950: 40, n. 6). By Shakespeare's time, enclosure and redistricting had made the metonymy of land as an inviolable integrity (so eloquently lamented in Gaunt's famous speech in Richard II II.i.40-66), an illusion, or at least a very distant nostalgia.
16 As late as the early twentieth century, Sharp noted the "sudden" lack of support for local morris teams in the counties, which he attributed in part to "the enclosure of the common lands, and the creation of a proletariat, which led to a general migration of labouring men from the villages to the towns in search of work, the disruption of the social life of the village," and other ills; but, he added, "Whatever the reason of its decay, the Morris dance … flourished almost universally in the Midland counties as recently as fifty years ago" (Sharp and Mcllwaine 1912: 19). E. O. James (1961) and Helm (1965) found recent evidence of its survival, although Helm thinks it is finished as a serious endeavor, relegated as it was by the 1960s to entertainment at school-term festivals. Curiously, morris and sword dancing have seen increasing popularity in the United States at festivals celebrating British culture and during intervals at regional performances of Shakespearean plays; there are at present considerable numbers of active professional and amateur morris teams, including an all-female team, the Ring o' Belles, who perform in the New York metropolitan area.
17 Chambers briefly mentions this text, although his suggestion appears to have been subsequently ignored. He credits Johnson with having "brought together the scattered legends of the [other six] national heroes" (1903: I: 221), and notes that "the mummers' play follows Johnson" (1903: I: 221, n.2), that is, Johnson supplies an authentic narrative.
18 The dragon, says Chambers, was probably "the representative of the hardness of the frost-bound earth in winter" (1993: 178); thus the St George play, in his view, adumbrated the old seasonal ritual battle of winter and spring. He implies that the dragon directly symbolizes natural, i.e., climatic, elements that threaten plenitude and fruition, which might seem now to be a naive critical stance. Shakespearean demons are invariably human, and in so far as these cultural figures derive from solidly entrenched customs and practices, it might be more accurately said that the dragon figure, separately and as collapsed into the figures of both George and Coriolanus, represents a range of human and other forces inimical to communal life.
Source: "Scattered Corn: Ritual Violation and the Death of Rome in Titus Andronicus, " in Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy: The Ritual Foundation of Genre, pp. 131-48, Routledge, 1995.
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