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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,critical study of Titus Andronicus focused primarily on the question of Shakespeare's authorship of the play. While the debate over authorship has continued in the twentieth century, a shift in critical emphasis suggests that most modern commentators are willing to accept Titus as...

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During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries,critical study of Titus Andronicus focused primarily on the question of Shakespeare's authorship of the play. While the debate over authorship has continued in the twentieth century, a shift in critical emphasis suggests that most modern commentators are willing to accept Titus as Shakespeare's work. In addition to producing a re-examination of the relationship of Titus to other plays in Shakespeare's canon, the contemporary focus on the play's dramatic elements has brought new insights into its dramatic structure, its use of medieval and classical sources, and the relationship between its lyrical language and its violent action.

While critics such as M. C. Bradbrook (1951) and Bernard Spivak (1958) explored the relationship between Titus Andronicus and medieval literature, others examined the play's Roman setting and its rich use of classical sources, particularly Ovid's Metamorphoses and, to a lesser extent, works of Vergil, Seneca, and others. In an essay published in 1955, Eugene M. Waith suggested that Shakespeare was attempting in Titus to develop "a special tragic mode" that would dramatize the Ovidian theme of transformation through passion. The playwright failed, Waith maintained, because his Ovidian material was incompatible with the medium of drama. Alan Sommers (1960) defined the play's fundamental theme as the struggle between "ideal civilization," represented by Rome, and "the barbarism of primitive, original nature," symbolized by the forest and personified in the characters of Tamora and Aaron. More recently, commentators have maintained that Shakespeare uses Roman civilization to examine the inconsistencies and inadequacies of received ideas. Andrew V. Ettin (1970) saw in Titus a testing of the classical literary models available to Renaissance writers. Ronald Broude (1970) detected a similar questioning of Roman values. Arguing that the Elizabethans considered themselves heirs of both the Roman and the Germanic, or "Gothic," traditions, he suggested that Titus enacts a providential regeneration of a decadent society, as Gothic valor unites with traditional Roman values of justice and mercy to restore order at the end of the play. Heather James (1991) related Shakespeare's handling of classical sources to his use of images of mutilation and digestion. In Titus, she suggested, Ovid's Metamorphoses is used to comment on Vergil's account of the origins of Rome and to expose the roots of Rome's decay in its founding moments.

Scholars have also examined the discrepancy between the play's lyrical language and its hyperbolically violent events. While John Dover Wilson (1947) regarded the contrast as an attempt at parody, more recent commentators have put forward other explanations. In a pair of articles (1974 and 1976), Albert H. Tricomi drew attention to the close and often grotesque relationship between theme, imagery, and action in the play, which he saw as an original but ultimately unsuccessful experiment in integrating poetic language and dramatic action. For Ettin, Richard T. Brucher (1979), and Grace Starry West (1982), the disparity between the play's elevated language and its brutal action dramatizes the limitations of classical Roman models in confronting the human potential for passion and violence. A metatextual explanation for the conflict between language and action in the play was offered by James L. Calderwood (1971): Titus, he maintained, reflects the young Shakespeare's sense that his poetic language was violated when placed at the service of the theater. R. Stamm (1974) also offered a metatextual reading, suggesting that Shakespeare uses Lavinia's muteness to explore the sometimes conflicting claims of verbal and non-verbal dramatic expression. Lawrence Danson argued that in Titus and in his subsequent plays Shakespeare dramatizes the difficulty of human attempts to find expressive modes adequate to experience. Both playwright and characters are faced with the incapacity of rhetoric to frame an adequate response to the play's horrific events, which can find sufficient expression only in violent action and death. S. Clark Hulse built on Danson's observations, suggesting that, as civilized modes of behavior collapse into barbarism, Titus gradually relinquishes a language of words in favor of a non-verbal "language of signs." It is only after he has abandoned verbalized grief for the act of revenge that order can be restored to Rome and language can be restored to its normal function.

The play's female characters have also attracted extensive critical commentary in recent decades. David Willbern (1978) presented a psychoanalytical reading of the play that focused on its "manifest sexual, symbolic, and sadistic elements" and treated Titus's final revenge on Tamora as an enactment of the Freudian threat of the devouring mother. For Heather James, Tamora and Lavinia are made to embody threats to Roman order that must be contained. Marion Wynne-Davies (1991) examined the figures of Tamora and Lavinia in the context of late sixteenth-century rape legislation and the emerging concept of female selfhood. She concluded that while both characters emerge briefly as independent subjects, their destruction reasserts traditional limitations on female autonomy and self-expression.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 26105

Nicholas Brooke (essay date 1968)

SOURCE: "Titus Andronicus [1593?]," in Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, Methuen and Co. Ltd., 1968, pp. 13-47.

[In the following excerpt, Brooke argues that Titus Andronicus displays a greater formal and thematic unity than has previously been perceived.]


Titus Andronicus has for a long time been the most unpopular of all Shakespeare's plays: but its general execration dates only from the eighteenth century. In Shakespeare's lifetime it was very popular indeed. When it was at least twenty years old, in 1614, Ben Jonson commented ironically on its lasting reputation in the Induction to Bartholomew Fair:

He that will swear Jeronimo [i.e. The Spanish Tragedy] or Andronicus are the best plays yet, shall pass unexcepted at, here, as a man whose judgement shows it is constant, and hath stood still, these five and twenty, or thirty years.

That is only the most considerable of many references attesting both to its popularity, and its old-fangledness. The Restoration could still stomach the play, and Ravenscroft's 'improved' version (1687) held the stage regularly until 1725. But that seems to have been the end; thereafter it had scarcely been seen at all on the professional stage until the well-known revival at Stratford-on-Avon in 1955, produced by Peter Brook, with Laurence Olivier as Titus and Anthony Quayle as Aaron. Otherwise it survived three nights in London in the mid-nineteenth century, nine at the Old Vic, as part of a complete cycle of all the plays between the wars, and a few more recently. The Stratford revival was, however, a different matter: it coincided with some revival of interest among scholarly critics, though this hardly impinged on the newspapers who ascribed its success entirely to magical powers in actor and producer. This, I think, was quite wrong: only at one point can I recall the producer departing from the text noticeably, when he brought the ritual murder on to the stage; and the significance of this might well have escaped a modern audience if this had not been done.

Taste and sentiment in the eighteenth century recoiled from a play which was so obviously 'good' in neither. Ravenscroft indeed, introducing his improvements, described the original as a 'rubbish heap', and said that he had been told that Shakespeare did not write it. Theobald, in the early eighteenth century, accepted that gladly: in both, the wish was plainly father to the thought; and so it continued to be for almost all editors in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Early in the twentieth J. M. Robertson, the supreme disintegrator of Shakespeare's texts, did a very thorough job on Titus, and found contributions in it from almost every known Elizabethan dramatist. This, however, proved a reductio ad absurdum, and since then the field has narrowed to Peele. Dover Wilson, in the Cambridge New Shakespeare edition (1948) believed that Shakespeare revised and expanded a play of Peele's; J. C. Maxwell, in the new Arden Shakespeare edition (1953), suggested that Peele wrote Act I of a play which Shakespeare planned. Critical judgement still fathered scholarly opinion: Dover Wilson thought the play 'rottenly planned', and so ascribed it to Peele (who couldn't construct); Maxwell thought it 'admirably planned' and so ascribed it to Shakespeare (who could). It is plain that we need a truce to all this conjecture: scholarly statements about authorship have the weight to crush critical inquiry; and when they are based on nothing but critical opinion, the circle is vicious indeed. Francis Meres in 1598 listed the play as Shakespeare's; Heminge and Con-dell, his literary executors, printed the play as his in 1623. There is no good evidence to question this, and I shall proceed on the working assumption that the play is entirely Shakespeare's; indeed, it will become apparent that the play seems to me to have a coherence and unity of structure and writing scarcely possible in casual collaboration.


The unpleasantness of the play has become proverbial, and it is certainly obvious. Lavinia (off stage, but only just) is raped, has her tongue cut out and her hands cut off: in this condition she is led on stage by her satisfied violaters, and stands there while her Uncle Marcus descants on what he sees in elaborate rhetoric:

              Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy
Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame,
And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with three issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encount'red with a cloud.
                                          (II. iv. 21-32)

This is certainly unpleasing, in its baroque development of bloodiness: 'a crimson river of warm blood, like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind' or, 'a conduit with three issuing spouts'. Lavinia is turned to stone in the formalized language of the poetry; and yet the vision is the more horrible for occasional reminders that she is alive, for instance 'warm blood'.

That is only the beginning of the extreme horrors on the stage: Titus, in Act III, cuts off his own hand; Lavinia picks it off the stage with her teeth (because she has no hands), and finally Titus, with 'gentle' Lavinia's help, cooks up the Empress's sons in a pie, and causes her to eat it.

This is bloody stuff indeed; add to it the evident truth that Marcus' speech quoted above is static, undramatic, not at all the stuff of which stage plays are made; and add to that the oft-repeated statement that the structure of the play at large is chaotic—and all in there would seem to be a sufficient case against it.

I shall return to the structural point later; it seems best to begin now at the crux of the problem of taste, which I take to be this speech of Marcus', and consider more carefully what it is. First of all, I have called attention to the fact that the verse, however formal, is not frigid. One can point as well to:

Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encount'red with a cloud.

Here, 'encount'red' means firstly only 'meet', and then 'be covered up'; but it is also the standard word for the accosting of a prostitute, and it is that source which is the root of Lavinia's blush, the shame which (however complete her innocence may seem) drove Lucrece to suicide. Such writing is certainly not the frigid blundering of a hack. Nor is it the work of somebody being funny, as Dover Wilson believed. The basis for his contention about this passage is the close parallel between it and two stanzas of The Rape of Lucrece (1594). Lucrece, also raped, has just knifed herself in the presence of her husband and all the nobility of Rome:

Stone-still, astonish'd with this deadly deed,
Stood Collatine and all his lordly crew;
Till Lucrece' father, that beholds her bleed,
Himself on her self-slaught'red body threw,
And from the purple fountain Brutus drew
 The murd'rous knife, and, as it left the place,
 Her blood, in poor revenge, held it in chase;

And bubbling from her breast, it doth divide
In two slow rivers, that the crimson blood
Circles her body in on every side,
Who like a late-sack'd island vastly stood
Bare and unpeopled in this fearful flood.
 Some of her blood still pure and red remain'd,
 And some look'd black, and that false Tarquin

Comparing this with Marcus' speech in Titus, Dover Wilson remarks [in Titus Andronicus, 1948], that Lucrece is a period piece, 'nevertheless the unquestionable product of a serious artistic impulse'; whereas he sees the other as 'a bundle of ill-matched conceits held together by sticky sentimentalism'. 'Is it not clear,' he asks, 'that the whole speech is caricature?'

To me it does not seem in the least clear; but there is, certainly, a difference. The conceits of Lucrece can be developed more freely, because the narrative poem is not restrained by physical facts; hence the emblematic mingling of red blood and black. This kind of thing is not so freely available in Titus, because here the visual imagination is restricted to what is seen, on the stage; and on the stage, all blood is red. I can sympathize, too, with Dover Wilson's impression of 'sticky sentimentalism': The Rape of Lucrece is written in a carefully (and, as Hazlitt remarked, coldly) detached tone of narration, in which the personal situation is kept remote from our feelings; whereas in Titus the problems arise, it seems to me, from trying to fuse that tone, with a living situation on the stage, that of an uncle addressing his deflowered niece. Hence in Lucrece even the relation of her father to Lucrece is formally represented and does not become absurd; but in Titus the pronoun 'thy' has immediate personal force: the speech is punctuated by personal addresses—'Why dost not speak to me', 'Shall I speak for thee', and so on—which disconcertingly wrench the formal development of the poetry back to the personal application.

So that, if we reject Dover Wilson's theory of burlesque (in this context; I shall return to it in other ways later), but accept his general criticism of the two passages, the fact of this parallel with Lucrece (it is only the most considerable of several) remains important, for it is suggestive of what Shakespeare is attempting in Titus Andronicus. I have remarked on the red and black blood, which is not a physical fact (however superstitiously believed); and in Lucrece one does not mistake it for fact. It is the clearest instance in this passage of what is obvious everywhere in the poem, that the images are emblematic, and that emblems are made out of the figures of the poem. Shakespeare's Lucrece is, in poetry, the figure Sidney described from a painting:

… such a kinde of difference, as betwixt the meaner sort of Painters (who counterfet onely such faces as are sette before them) and the more excellent, who having no law but wit, bestow that in cullours upon you which is fittest for the eye to see: as the constant though lamenting looke of Lucrecia, when she punished in her selfe an others fault. Wherein he painted not Lucrecia, whom he never sawe, but painteth the outwarde beauty of such a vertue.

(An Apologie for Poetrie)

The human figure in Shakespeare's narratives (even in the erotic Venus and Adonis) is only slightly more definitely a thing of flesh than the allegorical projections of The Faerie Queene (which can also become, in its own way, highly erotic); and, in fact, both of Shakespeare's verse narratives get very close to allegory. In such a poem, the 'narrative' becomes anything but 'story-telling': it develops an interpretation and commentary through emblematic elaboration; it calls for the reader's alert judgement, and hence the detached tone which I commented on.

This is what is happening in Titus Andronicus. Marcus' speech is an attempt to adapt the techniques of The Rape of Lucrece to the stage (and not a wholly successful one). It is, therefore, a comment on the action, and realizing that, one can see its place in the play more clearly. The speech occurs at the very end of Act II, an Act which has developed the major crime against Lavinia (and a number of other crimes too), and so this stands in the place of a choric commentary on that crime, establishing its significance to the play by making an emblem of the mutilated woman. This function would have been clear, if the speech could have been labelled 'chorus', and allowed a divine knowledge of all events. As it is, the speech is not only partially disguised as dramatic utterance (the disguise is more opaque for readers than audience: an actor is obliged to speak it out as a set piece); it also has the complication that knowledge has to be passed off as Marcus' guesswork. This produces the clumsy sequence of rhetorical guesses: 'But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee'—he is, rather absurdly, right first time; and the guess and the commentary have to be worked into the stage situation of Uncle and Niece, so that the passage I quoted is preluded by 'Why dost not speak to me', and succeeded by 'Shall I speak for thee? shall I say 'tis so'.

The 'sentimentality' of which Dover Wilson complained, derives entirely, I suggest, from the juxtaposition of the narrative manner with these snatches of dialogue, forcing too immediate a personal application on the lines. If one omits them, and reads only the main matter, it is not sentimental at all. In tone, it is precisely like The Rape of Lucrece, granted only the diffusion of blank verse; the advantage, for such formal writing, is certainly with the formality of a rhymed stanza.

Recognizing the kind of poetry in which this speech is composed has important corollaries for considering the play as a whole. This speech itself lies nearer to non-dramatic poetry than anything else in the play, because its function is to develop a major theme out of the central action; in this it resembles Clarence's dream of human guilt, the slimy bottom of the deep, in Richard HI. But it is evident, here, that the use of poetry that Shakespeare is experimenting with in Titus is similar to that in Lucrece, itself derived from Spenser's achievement in The Faerie Queene: formal in structure and tone, relying on emblems to fuse imagery and moral idea, and responding to Ciceronian ideas of decorum in matters of style, related to the form of emblem used. Such an adaptation of what is essentially non-dramatic verse to the stage involves difficulties, as we have already seen, and we should expect to see more of this elsewhere. But on the whole we should expect to find variations of style and tone as large and deliberate as those which occur in The Faerie Queene, for instance between Book II and Book VI, or, more startlingly, between the two halves of Canto vi of Mutabilitie, contrasting the modes of epic and pastoral. In such a context one would expect not only the poetic language to have a deliberate formality, but to find that echoed as well in a formality of dramatic structure.

This I shall try to demonstrate. There is also another legacy of emblematic verse to the stage, the use of the stage picture as a visible emblem. This I have suggested is poor Lavinia's case, dumb and unmoving like the wood-cuts in an emblem book, while Marcus provides the interpretative verses that were usually printed beneath. It is certainly effective, even though here embarrassing; but it is characteristic of the use of the stage in this play. Titus grovelling on the floor while the State of Rome passes by in III. i; or leaving the stage at the end of the same scene, headed for Revenge's cave, bearing the heads of his dead sons while Lavinia carries his own hand in her teeth; or in IV. iii shooting arrows to the stars—all these, and many more, are visual images of a kind that may be more familiar in descriptive verse than actually seen on a stage; but they are powerfully effective in establishing emblems of the play's significance. They lead naturally into the emblematic punishment allotted to Aaron:

Set him breast-deep in earth, and famish him.
                                         (V. iii. 179)

and to the strange and moving conclusion which the discovery of the first quarto [in 1904] restored to the play:

Her [Tamora's] life was beastly and devoid of
And being dead, let birds on her take pity.

That final reference to pitiless birds is not fortuitous: it makes the last in a chain of references to Ovid's account of the rape of Philomel, which first becomes explicit in Marcus' speech under discussion:

But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy
                                            (II. iv. 26-7)

Tereus raped his sister-in-law, Philomel, and cut out her tongue to prevent her revealing the truth to his wife, Progne. Philomel, however, sewed the story into a sampler, and then helped Progne to achieve a beastly revenge. In Ovid's tale, they are all metamorphosed into birds. This initial reference is not casual: it is developed later in the speech:

Fair Philomel, why, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen-leaves upon a lute,
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touch'd them for his

In that, there is nothing funny in the least. Ovid is used again in IV. i to identify the criminals, and at the denouement Titus explicitly states:

For worse than Philomel you us'd my daughter,
And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd.
                                  (V. ii. 194-5)

This thread of reference to Ovid is by no means merely an exhibition of classical erudition; nor is Ovid used as a source for the action (apart from a few details): it serves to interpret the action, and to unify the play's structure. Eugene M. Waith [in Shakespeare Survey, 1957] has shown that Golding, and other Elizabethans, regarded Ovid's tale as moralizing the deterioration of men and women, under the stress of revengeful passion, into beasts; and Ovid himself spoke of 'a plan that was to confound the issues of right and wrong' when the victim outdoes her violator in bestiality.

This is the central theme of Shakespeare's play; and the character of Marcus' speech, whatever its limitations, is finally to be understood in this translation of the events of the second Act into a thematic statement of the play's formal concern. I have milked the speech pretty well dry, in order to illustrate this, and to establish the kind of unity which the play has; a unity which transcends all questions of divided authorship, and utterly repudiates the idea of a mere burlesque.


A deliberate choice of tone and control of action is certainly striking at the beginning of the first Act. Saturninus and Bassianus are shown in the full pomp of a Roman election to the Emperorship: a ceremonial scene, centred on the crown itself, held by Marcus Andronicus 'aloft', that is, on the upper stage with the other tribunes, while the candidates and their followers enter one from each of the stage doors to complete the symmetrical composition:

Princes, that strive by factions and by friends
Ambitiously for rule and empery,
Know that the people of Rome, for whom we
A special party, have by common voice,
In election for the Roman empery,
Chosen Andronicus, surnamed Pius
For many good and great deserts to Rome.
A nobler man, a braver warrior,
Lives not this day within the city walls:
He by the senate is accited home
From weary wars against the barbarous Goths,
That with his sons, a terror to our foes,
Hath yok'd a nation strong, train'd up in arms.
                                                   (I. i. 18-30)

The ceremonial staging is echoed in the pomp of utterance. The verse is not distinguished, but its stiffness is a consequence of function, not mere inexperience. Rome has always for Shakespeare the emotive suggestion of political greatness, and also of political curiosity: his interest in a society different from Tudor England is manifest here in the presentation of a fusion of democracy with Imperial power that pre-figures the political interest of Julius Caesar or Coriolanus.

The pomp of Rome is contrasted with 'weary wars against the barbarous Goths', and this opposition echoes throughout the first Act, finding its sharpest statement towards the end, when Marcus pleads with Titus:

Thou art a Roman; be not barbarous.

That is the theme: the contrast of the 'Roman' nobility of Man, and the 'Gothic' barbarity; or in common Elizabethan terms, between man proper, and man-near-beast: these are the terms which dominate Act II, and emerge at the end of Act I where Titus issues his invitation—

To hunt the panther and the hart with me

—two emblematic beasts that shadow Tamora and Lavinia.

But before the play can arrive at even that degree of explicitness, a great deal of exposition is required, and with that Act I proceeds rapidly. First of all, there is the ceremonial build-up for Titus' elaborately magnificent entrance to the tomb:

O sacred receptacle of my joys,
Sweet cell of virtue and nobility.

So far, the impressive staging, theatrical effectiveness and the political interest have struck one. Now something else intrudes: the tomb suggests a morbid aspect to Roman greatness (like Coriolanus' preoccupation with his wounds); Lucius extends that feeling:

Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh,
Before this earthy prison of their bones,
That so the shadows be not unappeas'd,
Nor we disturb'd with prodigies on earth.

The high style is maintained, reinforced with Latin; but the effect is strongly coloured by the colloquial 'hew his limbs', a vivid intrusion that is sustained in the contrast between 'his flesh' and 'their bones'. A latent brutality is strongly felt: this Roman, Titus' eldest son, is almost barbarous himself. When Tamora has pleaded eloquently for her son, and Titus has refused mercy (with the splendidly inadequate words 'Patient yourself, madam'), he claims the death of Alarbus as a ritual murder:

Religiously they ask a sacrifice.

But religion yields to a cruder revenge as Lucius repeats his phrase:

Let's hew his limbs till they be clean consum'd.

Tamora exclaims at this 'cruel, irreligious piety', and one of her surviving sons comments:

Was never Scythia half so barbarous!

and another retorts:

Oppose not Scythia to ambitious Rome.

Scythia was for the Elizabethans, as for the Romans, the land beyond the fringe of civilization, full of wild beasts. Titus' claim to religious revenge gives cause for a bloody retort, and the tragic irony of this thinly disguised Roman barbarity is stressed on Lucius' re-entry:

See, lord and father, how we have perform'd
Our Roman rites: Alarbus' limbs are lopp'd …

Lucius matches his previous 'hew'd' with the equally brutal 'lopp'd': and it is these two words which Marcus brings up again to describe the mutilated Lavinia at the end of Act II:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Hath lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body
    bare …
                                              (II. iv. 16-17)

This analysis makes it clear, I hope, that the shifts of tone and diction are deliberate, repeated, and echoed significantly. The root of the tragedy revealed here is not simply the meeting of Roman and Barbarian, but the emergence of barbarity in the Romans themselves, of the beast in (the noblest) Man. Further, though the Goths will turn out to be barbarous indeed, they are at this point able to score a dignified retort; and thus to hint one of the play's strongest developments, when the villainous Aaron blazes out in Act IV with more humanity than either his Roman or Gothic superiors.

This first hint of the tragic pattern must be registered, for there are other shifts of tone to follow, and another (more obvious) tragic blunder to be established. Titus is offered the Empery, and declines it; but he accepts the role of arbitrator between Saturninus and Bassianus. So far, both their utterances have been colourlessly dignified; now, as Titus proceeds to blind acceptance of primogeniture (the political question had obvious relevance to the problems of Elizabeth's successor), an effective dramatic irony is developed in the violent and stupid interruptions from Saturninus, contrasting with Bassianus' moderation:

Saturninus: Andronicus, would thou were
              shipp'd to hell,
    Rather than rob me of the people's hearts!
Lucius: Proud Saturnine, interrupter of the
     That noble-minded Titus means to thee!
Titus: Content thee, prince; I will restore to
     The people's hearts, and wean them from
Bassianus: Andronicus, I do not flatter thee,
    But honour thee, and will do till I die:
    My faction if thou strengthen with thy
    I will most thankful be; and thanks to men
    Of noble minds is honourable meed.

Titus persists in appointing the boor Saturninus to a post for which he is so patently unfit, and the tragic consequences of this blunder immediately unfold. Saturninus offers to marry Lavinia, a gesture which Titus accepts. But the next irony emerges in Saturninus' evident lechery for Tamora:

A goodly lady, trust me, of the hue
That I would choose, were I to chose anew.

Capell marked this 'Aside '; but the couplet marks it as a formal compliment, containing the pressure of concealed feeling. The trap springs at once: Bassianus claims Lavinia as his betrothed and carries her off with the support of Titus' family; one of his sons, Mutius, covers their exit, and the formal tone of the scene is violently changed:

Titus: What, villain boy,
      Barr'st me my way in Rome?

The brutality already apparent in the play is now revealed in Titus himself: the barbarity within the Roman has come out, and that theme is now associated with the obvious blunder of electing Saturninus.…

No doubt Act I is crowded and involved (it has taken some time to analyse); but it is neither confused nor slip-shod. On the contrary, it is remarkable for deliberate control; perhaps too deliberate: each 'discovery' (in Aristotle's sense) comes pat upon its anticipation (e.g. the revelation of Saturninus' boorishness at the moment when Titus decides to elect him). And the structural control is reflected in the language, in the shifts of tone, as well as in the implanting of ideas essential to the subsequent development. The weakness of this Act, then, is in over-elaboration, excessive self-consciousness. The discoveries are brilliant, but there are too many of them. It is also true that the stress on brutality tends to overlay the more subtle development I have tried to reveal, but this is not necessarily a criticism. Only two murders are committed, but the tale of Titus' innumerable sons extends this violence over the whole Act, and the obsessive effect is endorsed by the stress on ritual murder, 'our Roman rites'. In 1590 blood feud was by no means uncommon; and in this respect the Roman play had a reference to Elizabethan England which is no longer part of our society. Violence, however, is another matter.


[In Act II], As in Act I, effective use is made of surprise. The 'gentle' Lavinia enters with her husband and taunts Tamora for her lust:

'Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning,
And to be doubted that your Moor and you
Are singled forth to try experiments.
                                     (II. iii. 67-9)

The vulgarity of tone is at once cheap, stupid, and dangerous. It is as unexpected as Lucius-the-Roman's barbarity in Act I. And it is as convincing: it would be sentimental indeed to look for a nice little heroine in this play. Lavinia, here, has the beastliness of conscious virtue, and her vindictiveness anticipates the later action. She is to be dumb and helpless, and careless readers may therefore forget her presence in later Acts; but she is, like Ovid's Philomel, to be active in the vile revenge. Even in Lavinia, the paradise garden is also a barren detested vale.

The balance of response in this scene is very nicely controlled: Tamora the taunted reacts by destroying Bassianus; Lavinia the taunter is reduced to desperate pleading, not for her life, but for death. What she gets is deflowering, lopping, and hewing. Tamora's nature is fully revealed:

No grace? no womanhood? Ah, beastly creature.

Lavinia is brought back to the stage at the end of the Act to the accompaniment of the brutal jokes of satisfied lust:

Chiron: GO home, call for sweet water, wash thy
Cemetrius: She hath no tongue to call, nor hands
            to wash;
        And so let's leave her to her silent
Chiron: And 'twere my cause, I should go
            hang myself.
Demetrius: If thou hadst to help thee knit the
                                             (II. iv. 6-10)

The beastliness of man tends towards a sense of horrid farce.

That is the main development of Act II; it is alternated with the less interesting fate of Titus' sons in Aaron's trap. The twin disasters for Titus' family are achieved simultaneously (Lavinia off-stage, while Quintus and Martius are on stage), and it is left to Marcus to conclude the Act with the choric speech I discussed at the beginning of this chapter.…

Thus so far the play is very closely integrated: Act I establishes the dramatic situation with a thematic stress on Roman nobility versus barbarity; Act II develops that into the criminal action, with its thematic stress on the duality of nature, paradise, and hell. Hell-mouth itself is compared to the pit which Titus' sons fall into:

… this fell devouring receptacle,
As hateful as Cocytus' misty mouth.
                                        (II. iii. 235-6)

The unity of each Act is ensured in a manner, like Spenser's, of dominant verse tones: Act I is heroic, whereas Act II is pastoral; complexity of idea being indicated by abrupt changes of tone within the general norm. The two Acts are to be taken together as the first part of the play, and so must not be allowed to fall apart because of their stylistic contrast. Hence the use of Aaron's speech to link them, and Marcus' final summary. But such extreme use of decorum does always (as in The Faerie Queene) tend to disunity; and there is some awkwardness in adapting the poetic technique to dramatic utterance. This first part of the play is superbly organized, and surprisingly complex in its development; it is also very deliberate in every move of action and speech, and perhaps the deliberation is sometimes too apparent.


The next movement is indicated at the end of Marcus' speech:

Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee:
O, could our mourning ease thy misery!
                                   (II. iv. 56-7)

The dominant tone of Act III is elegiac: Titus on his knees before the State of Rome, ignored by them, and left half crazy with self-pity; and then Titus seeing Lavinia and descanting in a manner not unlike Richard II's laments; finally all the Andronici together as a chorus of despair. Elegy may seem to promise something even less dramatic than pastoral and in a sense this is true: Act III achieves a kind of stasis at the centre of the play, a pivot in the structure between the two main sequences of action, the beastly crimes before and the even more bestial revenge after. Thus its central action is hardly active at all, though superbly dramatic: the extreme change of mood when Titus caps the climax of Marcus' lament with a burst of laughter:

Marcus: Ah, now no more will I control thy
        Rent off thy silver hair, thy other hand
        Gnawing with thy teeth; and be this
           dismal sight
        The closing up of our most wretched
        Now is a time to storm; why art thou
Titus: Ha, ha, ha!
Marcus: Why dost thou laugh? it fits not with
this hour.
Titus: Why, I have not another tear to shed.                                           (III. i. 259-66)

That tears lie near to laughter is a cliché frequently experienced in the strained gaiety of funerals; it is a double experience as appropriate in its way to dramatic elegy as the duality of nature is to pastoral. This moment is the dramatic centre of the Act, indeed of the whole play, the point at which suffering drives Titus from passive grief to insane activity. It is anticipated, indeed provoked, by the grotesquely comic presentation of the lurid action in which Aaron persuades Titus to lose his hand. The offer of his sons' lives draws from Titus a barely sane recollection of the emblems of Act II:

O gracious emperor! O gentle Aaron!
Did ever raven sing so like a lark
That gives sweet tidings of the sun's uprise?
With all my heart I'll send the emperor my

The grotesque edge, here, develops into open farce as the Andronici fall to wrangling over whose hand should be cut off, allowing Aaron to point the absurdity:

Nay, come, agree whose hand shall go along,
For fear they die before their pardon come.

For Dover Wilson this is an instance of Shakespeare making fun of the melodramatic genre, and certainly our laughter sets us outside the action, seeing its mere absurdity. But this detached perception is not equivalent to repudiation: Chaucer's Troylus, safely removed to an outer sphere, sees the suffering actions of men in which he has been engaged, as matter for laughter. The suffering remains real enough; and so here, though the action which provokes the laughter and the suffering is heightened and improbable the responses of Marcus, Lucius, and Titus are probable enough. Almost more probable than Aaron's; and we are brought to see that we share our laughter with his exultant wickedness:

                   O, how this villainy
Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!
Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace,
Aaron will have his soul black like his face.

Aaron, I said, was placed outside the restrictive laws of life by his association with the empress, and still more by his conscious commitment to villainy; the enjoying laughter of this villainy is a further emancipation from the inhibitions of squeamish feelings. In this recognition Shakespeare is drawing on the experience of his predecessors, of Marlowe (in particular The Jew of Malta) and of popular drama leading back through the Vice of morality plays into the grotesque comedy of the miracle cycles; and the figure of Aaron is very closely related to Shakespeare's own Richard of Gloucester. With this range of popular tradition behind him, it is not surprising that Aaron stands out from the play with a vitality no other figure can rival.

The laughter here then is partly destructive of the solemnity (and thus far a relief), but partly the most horrible, and most profoundly real thing in the scene: for it is the laughter of witnesses to a mad house, or the Dance of Death: the point at which human civilization and dignity crumbles into farce, and becomes simply monstrous. It is thus a prelude to the more intense laughter of Titus sixty lines later, which marks his transition from object of sympathy to total alienation. Alienation of mind, because he is seen to be insane; alienation of sympathy, because he puts himself beyond the range of our approval. This is, effectively, his metamorphosis from man into beast, his noble nature transformed to a barren detested vale, where he searches for satisfaction:

Then which way shall I find Revenge's cave?

It follows that, contrary to the expectations of tragedy which Shakespeare himself established in later plays, the end here is a spectacle of human degeneracy by which may be appalled, but from which our sympathy is largely excluded. Here again I think Shakespeare is borrowing from an earlier dramatist's experience: Hieronimo, in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy, makes a similar declaration of intent to revenge in his famous 'Vindicta mihi' speech in Act III, scene xiii; and like Titus's, Hieronimo's conscious repudiation of orthodox approval alienates him from the audience's full sympathy. It is true that Hieronimo is madder before this scene than after it; but his restored coherence of mind is devoted to a violent action more deeply insane than his simple confusion before. Sympathy was not a usual expectation of early Tudor tragedy, whether academic like Gorboduc or popular like Cambises. The difference is that Shakespeare, taking a hint from Kyd, makes this alienation a central idea in his play: that men may be driven by suffering, not to the ennoblement of Victorian belief, but to become sub-human revengers. Man metamorphosed into beast suffers too the collapse of human dignity into the farce of insanity that I have discussed.

This, then, is the dramatic achievement of Act III: its climax is in the superb dramatic irony of Titus' laughter when Marcus appeals for tears. Irony in the relations of the brothers becomes inevitable, for Marcus remains a touchstone of sanity and normal judgement, and must henceforth be excluded from Titus' plans. Retrospectively, we can perceive the ironic misunderstanding of Lavinia's kissing Titus after 1. 249: Marcus sees it as a gesture of comfort, but when Titus breaks his silence we discover it to have been a kiss of complicity, like Philomel inducing Progne to revenge. 'Gentle' Lavinia is the agent of Titus' metamorphosis, and she is his bestial accomplice in Revenge. The roots of bestiality we have seen in them both in the first two Acts; that is what emerges now as they leave the stage bearing the emblems of their purpose, the heads of Titus' sons, his hand between Lavinia's teeth. The scene ends with Lucius alone, announcing a more conventional and respectable revenge: he will collect an army to attack Rome, destroy Saturnine and Tamora, and so restore the order which we have seen so profoundly disturbed.…


Act IV, scene i, opens with a vivid reminder that Lavinia is linked with Titus in obsession: the boy Lucius runs frightened away from her intent pursuit. Her purpose is to reveal her fate, and its perpetrators, which she achieves by indicating Ovid's Metamorphosis in the library. Thus the Philomel theme is recapitulated, and brings from Titus another recollection of the emblems of Act II:

Lavinia, wert thou thus surpris'd, sweet girl,
Ravish'd and wrong'd, as Philomela was,
Forc'd in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods?
See, see!
Ay, such a place there is, where we did hunt,—
O, had we never, never hunted there,—
Pattern'd by that the poet here describes,
By nature made for murthers and for rapes.
                                    (IV. i. 51-8)

Titus develops the beast emblems with hints of learning from Ovid what to do. His hysterical manner becomes a cloak for his intention, deceiving Marcus by an irony similar to the misunderstanding of Lavinia's kiss in III. i: the boy offers to stab Chiron and Demetrius, and Titus replies:

No, boy, not so: I'll teach thee another course.
Lavinia, come. Marcus, look to my house.

Titus means the cannibal banquet; but Marcus, thus excluded from the party, misunderstands:

But yet so just that he will not revenge.
Revenge the heavens for old Andronicus!

Like Hieronimo, Titus ought to leave vengeance to the heavens: that would be 'just'. But it is important here to feel Titus' withdrawal from justice, what Ovid called 'a plan that was to confound completely the issues of right and wrong'. We follow his revenge with an interest that is quite separate from moral approval; the more clearly so because it is contrasted with Lucius' independent plan for justified rebellion against the tyrant.

The hint of justice from the heavens is, however, fulfilled in crazy form in IV. iii when Titus delivers his threatening letters by shooting them on arrows over the walls, so that they drop on Saturninus from the skies. The scene is at once farcical and tragic as an expression of human impotence; but out of its mad gesture grows the reputation for irritating but harmless lunacy which enables Titus to trap Tamora in Act V. In the meantime, Titus' deterioration into bestiality in one sense, or his mad assumption of divinity in another, are both counterpointed by the brilliant development of Aaron in IV. ii. While the play seems to be breaking into fantasies of angels and devils, Aaron remains uncompromisingly human: not, of course, 'good', or in any way sentimentalized, but with a solid reality lacking in the other figures:

Pray to the devils; the gods have given us over.
                                           (IV. ii. 48)

His speech has a far more flexible speech rhythm which at once distinguishes him:

Ay, just; a verse in Horace; right, you have it.
[Aside.] Now, what a thing it is to be an ass!

And this quality emerges in action when the empress's black baby is revealed. Aaron displays a magnificent contempt for the lives and worries of any one else:

Chiron: I blush to think upon this ignomy.
Aaron: Why, there's the privilege your beauty
    Fie, treacherous hue, that will betray with
    The close enacts and counsels of thy heart!
    Here's a young lad fram'd of another leer:

Look how the black slave smiles upon the
As who should say, 'Old lad, I am thine

Paternal pride issues uninhibitedly into action to preserve the baby's life:

Two may keep counsel when the third's away:
Go to the empress; tell her this I said. [He kills
'Wheak, wheak!'
So cries a pig prepared to the spit.

Titus was metamorphosed into a beast; Aaron has no metamorphosis, he develops as a beast straight from the earth to which he will finally be condemned. But in this instinctual assurance of behaviour there is a power which seems impressively sane when contrasted with the derisive fantasy of what follows, Titus shooting arrows at the stars, loaded with evasive challenges to the emperor. With such superbly speakable words, it is not surprising that Aaron tends to dominate the end of the play. In the implied disturbance of values in this Act, this reversal of expectation is brilliantly effective; but as Titus is so firmly distanced from our sympathy, the human vitality of Aaron becomes a force that threatens the ultimate balance of the play. He is not simply part of the spectacle, and cannot be contained within the emblematic pattern of his punishment:

Set him breast-deep in earth, and famish him;
There let him stand and rave and cry for food.
If any one relieves or pities him,
For the offence he dies.
                                   (V. iii. 179-82)

Aaron repudiates the pity:

I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done …
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.

The quality of Aaron is something discovered in human experience, and learnt from Marlowe; he has a force that seriously disturbs the spectacle of tragedy in the play, of a kind that is more widely explored in Richard III. But scarcely more deeply, even there; a quality of humanity that cannot be absorbed in emblematic schemata has ultimately to be realized in the tragic hero himself before the tragic balance can be fully assured. In the tragic heroes from Richard II onwards, including Brutus, one can see an emergent wickedness that involves a wider range of our response.


Act IV ends with Saturninus and Tamora discussing Lucius' revolt, and the danger to Rome. This is sanity of another (and duller) kind than Aaron's. It leads to a clear stage, but not to a decisive Act ending. Act V opens with Lucius himself, and the revenge action is rapidly developed. There seem here to be signs of planning by Acts, IV being concerned with the plans for revenge, V with their execution. But it is by no means so clear as earlier divisions, and the play should surely be continuous here, so that Lucius and his Goths enter immediately after Saturninus and Tamora have left. My conclusion is that the play was planned in five Acts, with the last two probably continuous, as the first two certainly were; thus there are really two main movements to the play, with Act III standing between them as a pivot, with the central metamorphosis. Before that, Titus was noble man, Aaron a beast; after Act III Titus deteriorates into mad beast, while Aaron displays a kind of nobility: the issues of right and wrong are indeed confused.

But in Act V orthodox order has, of course, to be restored. That Lucius now represents (his brutality in Act I is long since forgotten), contrasted in scene i with the exultant villainy of Aaron. Scene ii carries the farcical development to its farthest limits, with Tamora disguised as the allegorical figure of Revenge in a mad game of pretence whose effectiveness is barely related to plausibility. But once Titus has killed Tamora's sons, his whirling words return to sanity in unfolding his plans and returning once again to Philomel and Progne:

For worse than Philomel you us'd my daughter,
And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd.
                                  (V. ii. 194-5)

The final holocaust, in V. iii, like that of The Spanish Tragedy, brings the farce back towards the reality of tragedy rather in the manner of a masque, or a modern ballet. Kyd actually uses a dance, where in Titus it is more like grotesque comedy, with Titus dressed as a cook; in both it is the shock of death itself that restores a sense of reality to the stylized enactment of unleashed destructiveness. In these early plays the heaping of bodies on the stage is achieved in harmony with the formal development before; it is only later, in such dramatists as Webster, that the attempt to combine the universal destruction with realistic plausibility threatens tragedy with laughter that is out of place. Shakespeare only avoids this danger in his more naturalistic tragedies, Julius Caesar and Hamlet, by the intensely moving speeches that succeed the deaths.

Once the holocaust is achieved, Marcus takes charge and restores the political Order of Act I; Lucius is declared emperor, and passes judgement on Aaron whose unrepentance stands alone to question the complacence of the conventional ending. But Lucius' last speech is unexpected, leaving the play with a final stress on the images of nature that have dominated it:

As for that ravenous tiger, Tamora,
No funeral rite, nor man in mourning weed,
No mournful bell shall ring her burial;

But throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey.
Her life was beastly and devoid of pity;
And being dead, let birds on her take pity.
                                 (V. iii. 195-200)

Faced with a damaged page in his copy, the printer of the second Quarto filled in with a conventional couplet on political order:

Then afterwards to order well the state,
That like events may ne'er it ruinate.

That sentiment (in less excruciating verse) is what one would expect; it calls attention to the strange quality of what Shakespeare actually wrote, creating a final emblem of the beast in man which can destroy humanity and substitute barbarity.


The transformation of Tamora from dramatic character into emblem for the play is once again like Spenser's usage in The Faerie Queene, most conspicuously at the end of the fabliau of Malbecco and Hellenore, when Malbecco in jealous fury throws himself over the cliff:

Yet can he neuer dye, but dying liues,
 And doth himselfe with sorrow new sustaine,
 That death and life attonce vnto him giues,
 And painefull pleasure turnes to pleasing paine.
 There dwels he euer, miserable swaine,
 Hatefull both to him selfe, and euery wight;
 Where he through priuy griefe, and horrour
 Is woxen so deform'd, that he has quight
Forgot he was a man, and Gealosie is hight.
       (Variorum, ed. F. M. Padelford, Baltimore,
            1934, Book III, Canto X, Stanza lx)

I have emphasized this poetic stylization in Titus, for it is the unifying element in the play. Its ambitious multiplicity of tragic patterns—the political order destroyed and restored; the destructive sequence of revenges; the Marlowan aspirations of Aaron—all these are concentrated on the central interpretative theme of tragedy as the emergence of the beast in man. The alienation of sympathy inherent in this idea requires of the audience the same judicial detachment obvious in The Rape of Lucrece; but at the same time, to grasp the significance of this, we must be exposed to the shock of physical horror. The matching of these opposed reactions is not overall successful, just as it is not locally successful in Marcus' speech at the end of Act II. But though it may have been the violence which gave Titus its initial popularity, it is not a simple matter of serving a popular taste: the play is governed by an imaginative intelligence which later found the blinding of Gloucester necessary to the tragedy of Lear.

The experimental use of non-dramatic poetic technique has some brilliant successes: the emblematic view of nature in Act II is given greatly enhanced vividness by the sense of characters really seeing what they describe; and Titus shooting arrows at the stars, which in a narrative poem would be a literal incident, develops on the stage the complex sense of being at once a real protest against tragic life, a mad gesture, and a farcical impotence. On the other hand, reference to The Faerie Queene implies a limitation on the actor's use of human personality which only Aaron escapes. But this should not prevent our responding to innumberable points of individual experience: Titus' shock in Act I at Saturninus' rejection of him; Tamora's anger in Act II when Lavinia and Bassianus taunt her, and Lavinia pleading afterwards; the brutal humour of Chiron and Demetrius releasing their victim, Aaron with his black baby, and so on. They are many, and diverse, and they occur in unexpected places turning our attention in strange directions—towards Tamora and Aaron as well as Lavinia and Titus, and sometimes away from the latter in revulsion: and all these forming part of the tragic structure I have analysed.

There is, in fact, a tremendous inventiveness and intelligence active in this often despised play. It is, obviously, experimental in character, and in many ways it does not succeed. But it is characterized by a remarkable linguistic and dramatic vitality, and the reference I made above to Lear may serve to indicate how fertile these experiments ultimately proved.

Richard T. Brucher (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "'Tragedy, Laugh On': Comic Violence in Titus Andronicus," in Renaissance Drama, n.s. Vol. x, 1979, pp. 71-91.

[In the following excerpt, Brucher suggests that much of the violence in Titus Andronicus is darkly comical in nature and serves to expose unpleasant truths about human nature and the limits of social codes of conduct.]

Despite Thomas Heywood's contention [in An Apology For Actors, 1612] that tragedy depicts "the fatal and abortive ends of such as commit notorious murders, … aggravated and acted with all the art that may be, to terrify men from the like abhorred practices," the effect of Elizabethan stage violence may not be moral at all. Nahum Tate did not think so, because he was determined to "improve" King Lear. By concluding his adaptation (1681) "in a success to the innocent distressed persons," Tate made the ending more "just" and avoided encumbering "the stage with dead bodies, which conduct makes many tragedies conclude with unseasonable jests." The problem of the catastrophe causing laughter rather than pity, fear, or moral gratification is more acute in Titus Andronicus (1593?), in which the hero Titus, the "Patron of virtue, Rome's best champion" (I.i.65), becomes "a cook, placing the dishes" (V.iii.26 s.d.). Dressed as a chef, Titus feeds Tamora her two sons, whom he has baked in a pie, kills his daughter Lavinia, and murders Tamora, before being killed by Saturninus. The effect of the atrocities, which are conducted onstage with a savage wit, is baffling. With some justification, John Dover Wilson [in Titus Andronicus, 1948] compares Titus to a "cart, laden with bleeding corpses from an Elizabethan scaffold, and driven by an executioner from Bedlam dressed in cap and bells."

The comic effect of violence was a problem for the Elizabethans, too. In the Induction to A Warning for Fair Women (1599), the figure of Tragedy, brandishing "in her one hand a whip, in the other hand a knife" (1. I. s.d.), insists that her purpose is to stir the spectators:

To rack a thought, and strain it to his form,
Until I rap the senses from their course.
This is my office.
                                       (11. 40-42)

But to Comedy and History, who vie with her for control of the stage, Tragedy is "a common executioner" (1. 6), and the stuff of tragedy is not exalted passion and moral instruction, but rant, bloodshed, and grotesquerie. Comedy sardonically suggests that the conqueror plays popular in the 1580s and '90s merely show "How some damn'd tyrant to obtain a crown / Stabs, hangs, impoisons, smothers, cutteth throats" (11. 43-44). The revenge tragedies go after more hysterical and fantastic effects:

    a filthy whining ghost,
Lapt in some foul sheet, or a leather pilch,
Comes screming like a pig half stick'd,
And cries, Vindicta!—Revenge, Revenge!
With that a little rosin flasheth forth,
Like smoke out of a tobacco pipe, or a boy's
Then comes in two or three [more] like to
With tailors' bodkins, stabbing one another—
Is not this trim?
                                             (11. 47-55)

Comedy points to an unpredictable, darkly comic effect that must be reckoned with. Some staged atrocities are so outlandish that they seem funny. I contend that the playwrights deliberately made some violence comic in order to thwart conventional moral expectations. I have in mind a form of violence which is shocking in its expression of power and evil, and yet so outrageous in its conception and presentation that it causes laughter as it disrupts our sense of order in the world. Titus Andronicus is an extreme play, but Shakespeare draws on a common interest in sardonic depictions of violent actions. In its crudest form, in a play like The Tragical Reign of Selimus, Emperor of the Turks (1594?), the comic savagery celebrates barbaric power. In its more witty and complex form, as in Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1590?), the comic savagery reflects an ingenious malevolence which defines its own order in a world of doubtful values. This more sophisticated form of aesthetic, or artfully plotted, violence is at once more appealing and subversive, because it derives from a highly developed, if perverse, human intelligence. The aesthetic conception of violence creates a histrionic context which involves the audience more directly in the fun. Understanding both the crude and the subtle expressions of witty depravity helps us to grapple with the perplexing effect of the violence in Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare combines the two forms of comic savagery and directs the onslaught against sympathetic victims. Consequently, the audience becomes engaged in an experience of moral chaos which painfully tests assumptions about human values and behavior, but which cannot comfortably be called tragic.…

Comic violence vividly depicts the dissolution of commonly held values because it implies that there is no sane order in the world to make the violence seem legitimate. Our laughter signals our participation in the disorder. In both Selimus and The Jew of Malta, however, there are distancing devices which prevent the disorder from becoming too painful. In Selimus the stereotyping of the barbarians keeps the extreme violence from being an immediate threat to civilization. The Jew of Malta subverts values more completely because the witty villainy becomes a more persuasive expression of reality than Christian virtue, but the histrionic gusto with which the violence is presented makes the reality seem like a fantasy. Titus Andronicus is a more troublesome play because engaging histrionics and raw brutality coalesce. The comically savage depiction of violence arouses the same kinds of reactions as in Selimus and The Jew of Malta, but it brings them into conflict with a more fundamental recognition that violence which causes real pain ought not to be amusing. Consequently, the violence in Titus Andronicus is much more cruel than any encountered so far, and it evokes a more distrubing vision of the world.

Late in Titus Andronicus, Aaron the Moor reveals to his captor Lucius, Titus's son, the crimes for which he has been responsible:

        murthers, rapes, and massacres,
Acts of black night, abominable deeds,
Complots of mischief, treason, villainies,
Ruthful to hear, yet piteously performed.…

Lucius expects Aaron to show remorse, but the villain rejoices in not having spent many days "Wherein I did not some notorious ill" (1. 127). His zealous confession recalls the mock-heroic interview in The Jew of Malta, in which Barabas boasts of killing sick people and poisoning wells, and Ithamore claims to have spent his time "In setting Christian villages on fire, / Chaining of eunuchs, binding galley-slaves" (II.iii.207-208). Like Barabas, Aaron delights in clever villainy, and the comic indulgence partially distances us from the pain he inflicts. But Aaron is not the protagonist of his play, and his victims are sympathetic, even heroic, in their suffering. More disconcerting, the noble Titus must adopt Aaron's witty malice before he can exact his revenge and clear the way for the restoration of order. The atrocities, "piteously performed" by villain and hero alike, engage us in a bizarre world of outrageous violence and suffering. The comic savagery mocks the apparently sane Roman values of Lucius and Marcus, depriving us of conventional moral or tragic responses.

Titus Andronicus is more impressive than The Jew of Malta because it moves us over a wider range of feelings. As Brooke argues [in Elizabethan Theatre, 1967] our responses necessarily change when fantasies of violence get translated into action: "it is one thing to laugh at the idea of mass-murder, another to see it done [on the stage]. We laugh still; but differently." Even in its most disturbing moments, as when Barabas murders his daughter, The Jew of Malta remains comedy. Marlowe does not test our squeamishness too directly, because he keeps the poisoning of the nuns offstage. We see only Abigail die. Her confession briefly establishes the reality of death, but the pathos quickly turns to farce:

Death seizeth on my heart, ah gentle friar
Convert my father that he may be saved,
And witness that I die a Christian. [Dies.]

                  2 FRIAR
Ay, and a virgin too, that grieves me most.…

The atrocities in Titus are seen as sardonic jokes by the perpetrators, but they are presented with horrifying realism before the audience. The disjunction between the lurid reality of the murders and mutilations and the way the characters talk about them is one of the play's most troublesome features, and a chief source of laughter. After the discovery of Bassianus's murder, Lavinia makes her startling entrance, "her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd" (II.iv. I s.d.). Aaron, who plotted Lavinia's savage defilement, later calls it a "trimming":

Why, she was wash'd, and cut, and trimm'd, and
Trim sport for them which had the doing of it.
                                   (V.i. 95-96)

Aaron's sneering jocularity appalls Lucius, as it is supposed to, but Lucius's reactions to the enormity of Aaron's crimes are comic, because they are so inadequate:

O detestable villain! Call'st thou that trimming?
                                                         (1. 94)

Lucius is too self-righteously conventional, too middle-class, to understand Aaron's wittily depraved sense of rape and mutilation. And yet Lucius has a real fondness for violence. In a rhyme as grotesque as the intended action, he threatens to hang Aaron's baby, so that Aaron "may see it sprawl—/ A sight to vex the father's soul withal" (V.i.51-52). Lucius also speaks the last words in the play, condemning Aaron and Tamora to terrible ends: Aaron to be set "breast-deep in earth" (V.iii.179) until he starves, and Tamora's body to be thrown "forth to beasts and birds to prey" (1. 198). Early in the play, Lucius zealously participates in the sacrifice of Tamora's son. He can hardly contain his satisfaction when he reports the execution:

See, lord and father, how we have perform'd
Our Roman rites: Alarbus' limbs are lopp'd,
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky.
                                  (I.i. 142-145)

This sacrifice precipitates the rest of the violence in the play, but Lucius talks of hewing and lopping limbs as if i t should offend no one. It is not love of violence that distinguishes Aaron from the Romans, but the witty conception of it.

Aaron's rendition of Lavinia's rape and mutilation is no more offensive than her uncle's. Marcus responds uncomprehendingly to his niece's silent, bleeding form:

              Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.

Shakespeare means to shock us with incongruity in this scene. As Albert Tricomi argues [in Shakespeare Survey, 1974], "the play deliberately 'exposes' the euphemisms of metaphor by measuring their falseness against the irrefutable realities of dramatized events." The bizarre effect of the discrepancy between the appalling reality of Lavinia's condition and Marcus's perception of it is part of the dramatic action. By talking so peculiarly about his ravished niece, Marcus contributes to the absurdity of his world, and we laugh at the absurdity.

Marcus's euphemisms are in character, because he refuses to confront a harsh, anarchic world. He would like to know what "beast" defiled Lavinia so "That I might rail at him to ease my mind!" (II.iv.34-35). Wilson suggests [in his edition of Titus Andronicus, 1948] that "a woodman, discovering an injury to one of his trees, would have shown more indignation." There is no talk of seeking justice or taking revenge, only of railing. Marcus even claims that the "craftier Tereus" (1. 41) who raped Lavinia would not have "cut those pretty fingers off (1. 42) had he seen them at work:

O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen-leaves upon a lute,
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touch'd them for his
                                           (11. 44-47)

The lines are beautifully ludicrous not simply because they are overly sentimental, but because they are absurdly out of relation to what has happened. Marcus has no way of knowing what took place, but the scene is fresh in our minds when he speaks. Lavinia's ravishers have no interest in her musical skills, only in her body. If she carries her chastity to her grave, Chiron says, "I would I were an eunuch" (II.iii.128). Just before Marcus descants on Lavinia's injury, Chiron and Demetrius lead her in, trading crude witticisms:

Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.

She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;
And so let's leave her to her silent walks.

And 'twere my cause, I should go hang myself.

If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.

This depraved exchange establishes the context for Marcus's speech, and the disjunction is intentionally wrenching. The vulgar humor of Chiron and Demetrius is as extreme as Marcus's honey-sweet Ovidian poetry, and it, too, is in character. Their wit is crude because they are stupid, mindless villains. They can properly be called "beasts." They even needed Aaron to give them the idea for the joint assault on Lavinia.

The crimes in Titus powerfully suggest the collapse of moral order and "the complete absence of 'justice' from Rome," but to argue that Aaron becomes "the symbol of nightmare disintegration and revolting barbarism" [Alan Sommers, Essays in Criticism, 1960] is an oversimplification. Until Titus embarks on his revenge, we can distinguish the good from the bad, but the distinction only partially explains the experience of the play. Shakespeare does not provide stable perspectives on the action. We can understand Lucius's outrage at Aaron's enormous villainy, but we cannot share his love of "legitimate" violence, which does not seem to work against Aaron anyway. Marcus argues for reason and decorum, but he does not seem to realize what is happening. The forces of law and order are painfully, laughably inadequate.

Moreover, there are degrees of craft and intelligence in the villainy. Chiron and Demetrius are dangerous buffoons, but their stupidity makes them easy prey for Titus. This is made clear when Titus sends them "a bundle of weapons, and verses writ upon them" (IV.ii.l s.d.). The implications of the verse from Horace, suggesting that the upright man need not fear the Moor's javelins and bow, pass by Chiron, but they instill in Aaron a new respect for Titus:

Here's no sound jest! the old man hath found
  their guilt,
And sends them weapons wrapp'd about with
That wound, beyond their feeling, to the quick;
But were our witty empress well afoot,
She would applaud Andronicus' conceit.…

Aaron's contempt for Chiron and Demetrius and his delight in Titus's "conceit" indicate that there is more to villainy than barbarity. There is an aesthetic dimension as well, which represents an even more radical subversion of values. Order now resides in aesthetics, not ethics, and survival becomes a grotesque battle of wits. It is hard for an audience to know how to react: our sensibilities are split by the intellectual appeal of the game and the emotional onslaught of the horrors which give the competition form.

The play's action reveals how vulnerable traditional values are to assault, but out of the chaos emerges a hierarchy of awareness. If the malevolent ingenuity represents a symptom of degeneration, it also provides a way to deal with the chaos, once the terrible reality is accepted on its own terms. The awareness, as Titus's experience shows, comes only with great pain, and it is akin to madness. Titus gets his full initiation into this wittily depraved world in Act III, when Aaron makes his proposition. If Titus, Lucius, or Marcus cuts off his hand and sends it to Saturninus, Mutius and Quintus, who are falsely charged with murdering Bassianus, will be freed. Titus has seen his reputation as Rome's exalted defender dissipate in a moment: his daughter has been raped and mutilated, his son-in-law has been murdered, two of his sons accused, and Lucius banished. Yet with comically pathetic naïveté, Titus welcomes Aaron's proposal:

O, gracious emperor! O gentle Aaron!
Did ever raven sing so like a lark
That gives sweet tidings of the sun's uprise?
With all my heart I'll send the emperor my
Good Aaron, wilt thou help to chop it off?

The grisly humor works here as it does in Selimus. Perhaps in self-defense, we laugh at the enormity of Aaron's villainy and at the gullibility of the Andronici, who, despite their experience, clamor to mutilate themselves. Titus pretends to relent, but while Lucius and Marcus go off looking for an ax, thinking one of them will make the sacrifice, he exhorts Aaron to perform the necessary surgery:

Come hither, Aaron; I'll deceive them both:
Lend me thy hand, and I will give thee mine.

In an aside Aaron remarks that "If that be call'd deceit, I will be honest" (1. 188), and then "He cuts off Titus' hand" (1. 191 s.d.). Titus thinks he has purchased his sons' lives "at an easy price: / And yet dear too, because I bought mine own" (11. 198-199), but he cannot indulge his joy or sorrow for long, because a messenger enters "with two heads and a hand" (1. 234 s.d.). Aaron, fat on his villainy, has made Titus the butt of a cruel joke for which, he later explains to Lucius, Tamora gives him "twenty kisses" (V.i.120). With this combination of maliciously shrewd exploitation of innocence and shocking violence, the scene makes one of the play's most disconcerting attacks on our sense of decency. Just as Aaron's jest mocks Titus's paternalism and his extreme gesture of friendship ("Lend me thy hand,… "), the brutality of the scene mocks the heroic ideal the Andronici mean to uphold. The scene demolishes the notion that traditional forms of heroism and nobility have any meaning in Aaron's world, and bitter laughter is a more appropriate response than pity, fear, or indignation.

Now Titus can only laugh: "Ha, ha, ha!" (III.i.264). The mad laughter, which thoroughly dismays Marcus, signals a turning point in the play, but I think it is a mistake to see it as the beginning of Titus's "metamorphosis from man into beast, his noble nature transformed to a barren detested vale, where he searches for satisfaction" in Revenge's Cave [Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, 1968]. Titus's subsequent actions are not noble, but they are vigorous, witty, and successful, and thus not barren. Titus's reactions seem mad in terms of the reactions of Marcus and Lucius, but his brother and son cling to a normalcy which no longer exists. Conventional moral order has been replaced by Aaron's aesthetic disorder. The apparent disorder in Titus's mind puts him in touch with Aaron's imagination, and he conducts an appropriately aesthetic revenge. Delivering equivocal messages to Tamora's sons, shooting arrows into court, and sending pigeons to Saturninus seem the actions of a madman, but they properly vex the enemy. When Titus seems most mad, deep in contemplation of direful revenge plots, he sees most lucidly through the illusions raised by his enemies, and he acts cunningly.

Shakespeare goes after extreme effects to engage the audience in the experience of an unpredictable world. Although the action of Titus derives from literary sources, it denies the reliability of precedents, particularly bookish ones, for understanding the heinous events. "A craftier Tereus" than the legendary one assaulted Lavinia, because he severed her hands as well as her tongue. Her very real defilement, as Titus recognizes, is worse than what we read about, and it requires a more intense reaction:

Had I but seen thy picture in this plight
It would have madded me: what shall I do
Now I behold thy lively body so?

Titus contrives a witty, grisly revenge because, as he explains to Chiron and Demetrius before he cuts their throats, grinds their bones, and bakes them in a pie to serve their mother,

    worse than Philomel you us'd my daughter,
And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd.
                                  (V.ii. 195-196)

The revenge has literary precedents in Ovid and Seneca, but Shakespeare dresses Titus in chefs clothing and presents the murders and bloody banquet onstage. There is an insistence in Titus that its violence is more outrageous than any described in its sources. This spirited competition with the sources yields some intellectual pleasure for the audience, but the comic distortion intensifies the sense of extremity by pushing the audience into an unfamiliar realm of experience where conventionally serious responses are disallowed. The violence in Titus is sometimes wondered at, as if it was part of a nightmare, or "fearful slumber" (III.i.252), but it affirms a vicious reality. Even Marcus, after enough atrocities pile up, begins to suspect that "the gods delight in tragedies" (IV.i.60).

A tension between fiction and reality, the tragic and the ludicrous, prevents the ending from being either pure ritual or mere farce. Ritual would allow us to abstract a symbolic meaning and so exorcise the evil, and farce would allow us to dismiss the grotesque action as a bad joke. The bloody banquet with which Titus consummates his revenge builds on shifting, conflicting sensations which provoke equally disconcerting feelings. After the guests arrive-the emperor and empress with regal train, to the sound of trumpets-Titus enters "like a cook, placing the dishes" (V.iii.26 s.d.). He dresses like a chef to emphasize his role as gracious host:

I would be sure to have all well
To entertain your highness and your empress.
                                      (11. 31-32)

Titus's comic posture as cook establishes the extreme, histrionic context of the slaughter, but his frenzied grief and the revolting nature of the revenge establish the horrible and undeniable reality. Our relationship to the scene is further complicated by a more subtle tension between horror and fascination. Being privy to Titus's menu, we can appreciate the irony of his welcome to his royal guests:

               although the cheer be poor,
'Twill fill your stomachs; please you eat of it.
                                              (11. 28-29)

Horror mixes with apprehension: when will the diners discover that they are eating human flesh? The anxiety can be called comic, though it is an intensely debasing comedy, because it is not mitigated by sympathy for the villainous dupes.

Lavinia unexpectedly falls first, again demonstrating that reality is more savage than legend. Almost as if he were initiating polite conversation, Titus asks Saturninus to "resolve me this":

Was it well done of rash Virginius
To slay his daughter with his own right hand,
Because she was enforc'd, stain'd, and

When Saturninus glibly replies that "It was" (1. 39), "Because the girl should not survive her shame, / And by her presence still renew his sorrows" (11. 41-42), Titus tests the idea by pulling a knife and stabbing Lavinia:

Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee;
And with thy shame thy father's sorrow die!
                                          [He kills her]
                                                 11. 46-47)

Because our attention has been divided—Tamora must be eating while Titus quizzes Saturninus—the killing is especially startling. Titus's grief seems genuine, but we are not allowed to view the killing as a sacrificial purging of sorrow, or even as a lurid expression of insane passion. The potential tragic emotion is immediately undermined because Titus, though he declares his profound suffering, must treat the filicide as a diversion which should not be allowed to interrupt the feast:

Will't please you eat? will't please your highness
                                                              (1. 54)

This line, with its reductive insistence that the banquet go on, returns the scene to grotesque comedy while it reveals Titus's increasing frenzy. At the same time, it focuses our attention on the revolting main course. The dinner guests are shocked and bewildered by their host's unpredictable behavior. We are perplexed too, but we share in Titus's grisly joke. Pressed by Saturninus to produce Lavinia's ravishers, Titus finally exclaims:

Why, there they are, both baked in this pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.

The diners' sudden revulsion at this revelation must be at once comic and horrible. The witty couplet contrasting Tamora's table manners with her diet intensifies the comic grotesquerie and reinforces the conflict between decency and lurking depravity that runs throughout the play. Titus insists that "'Tis true, 'tis true" (1. 63); and, as if to punctuate the veracity of the moment, he bids his retching guests to "witness my knife's sharp point" (1. 63), as he plunges it into Tamora. This unleashes a burst of violence. Saturninus immediately stabs Titus "for this accursed deed" (1. 64), and Lucius, wondering "Can the son's eye behold his father bleed?" (1. 65), stabs Saturninus. The sudden reversion of the regal banquet to wild butchery effectively visualizes the violent chaos of the play's world. Curiously, but typically, Lucius's sentimental justification for his participation in violence seems out of relation to the spectacle of the cannibalism and the flurry of stabbings. We laugh in an effort to reach an equilibrium, to put the bizarre action in perspective. But the action provides no clear directions, and we are left in a muddle.

As he does later in Hamlet, Shakespeare spends time after the climactic bloodbath restoring order and clarifying, ostensibly for the bewildered onstage witnesses, the hero's part in the carnage. In neither play can a character's summary of events do justice to our experience of the play, but the accounts at the end of Titus seem particularly inadequate. Titus is exonerated because he suffered "wrongs unspeakable, past patience, / Or more than any living man could bear" (V.iii. 126-127). It is because Titus's experience of sardonic malevolence has been so devastating that his behavior cannot be explained or excused in conventional terms. I do not think that "at the end it is as though some vital principle, long with-drawn, were reincarnated, uniting, as Marcus expresses it, "These broken limbs again into one body'" (V.iii.72) [Alan Summers, Essays in Criticism, 1960]. The action of the play indicates that Titus clears the way for the restoration of order by acting on his mad recognition of the aesthetic principles of disorder. Marcus and Lucius are not reliable spokesmen because they ignore the predominant quality of Aaron's villainy and Titus's spectacular revenge: the inspired, disorienting wit. Yet it is this amoral aestheticism, the violence for art's sake, that governs our experience of the play's assault on traditional human values.

Titus's experience, which includes his terrible suffering and his insanely inspired revenge, moves the audience beyond the vision of normalcy Marcus and Lucius adhere to. Like Barabas, and Hieronimo in The Spanish Tragedy (1587?), Titus engages in a revenge which transcends what is merely necessary and which transforms the suffering tragic hero into a grotesquely triumphant comic hero. Titus uses his comically hysterical Thyestean feast to engineer a collision between reality and complacent illusion. Tamora had expected to "find some cunning practice" (V.ii.77) with which to defeat Titus, but with her masquerade of Revenge, Murder, and Rape, she placed too much faith in her art and in Titus's lunacy, just as Titus once put too much faith in Aaron's humanity. She is made to surfeit on her evil. Horrors are brought to life to confront the audience with a world more zany and undeniably violent than what we discover in Ovid and Seneca. Brooke suggests that in Titus "it is the shock of death itself that restores a sense of reality to the stylized enactment of unleashed destructiveness." Revengers like Titus, Barabas, and Hieronimo build this shock of recognition into their performances, and they use the distancing effect of comic art to insure the impact of their meaning. Because of the dislocating effect of pain mixed with laughter, comic savagery is useful for engaging the audience in a sense of the chaos afflicting the characters onstage. The comic heightening of the brutality helps to reveal a world in which the malevolence is too witty, the violence too extreme, and the sense of order too illusory, to sustain the redemptive tragic emotions of pity and fear. Our bitter laughter reflects our painful involvement in the disorder.

It used to be argued that "all this violence and cruelty" in the early plays "inspires neither pessimism nor discouragement. The tragic hero is not weighed down by his failure: he boldly continues all forms of life, undeterred by the mutability of his fortunes" [Henri Fluchère, Shakespeare and the Elizabethans, 1947]. Surely, the violence creates a robustness that is one of the distinguishing features of the plays. The generalization certainly fits plays like Selimus, in which the violence celebrates power, and Lust's Dominion (1600?), in which the villain-hero Eleazar can simply proclaim, "Murder, be proud; and, tragedy, laugh on, / I'll seek a stage for thee to jet upon." But the violence in The Jew of Malta, and especially in Titus Andronicus, though still robust, witty, and inspired, reveals painful truths about the world and undermines cherished notions about human values and conduct. Insofar as the comedy is an expression and product of the subversion of moral values by the aesthetic violence, it anticipates the more brittle irony of the plays of Tourneur, Middleton, and Webster, in which Tragedy and Comedy again vie for control of the stage.

Eugene M. Waith (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "The Ceremonies of Titus Andronicus," in Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, edited by J. C. Gray, University of Toronto Press, 1984, pp. 159-70.

[In the following excerpt, Waith examines the use of ceremonial gestures in Titus Andronicus to dramatize conflicts between opposing sets of values and to present differing perspectives on the actions of the characters.]

Burley-on-the-Hill, where James I was to be so delighted by the masque of The Gypsies Metamorphosed, was the scene of Christmas holiday festivities in 1595-6 which included a performance of Titus Andronicus on 1 January. The choice of this play for such an occasion now seems very odd, to say the least, but perhaps less so when we notice that in the one known account of the occasion, the tragedy is valued mainly as a 'show.' Jaques Petit, the Gascon servant of Anthony Bacon, writes to his master: 'on a aussi ioué la tragedie de Titus Andronicus mais la monstre a plus valeu que le suiect.' To some critics the word 'monstre' may seem to have an unintended appropriateness, but even those who do not consider the play merely monstrous will agree that spectacles of one sort or another constitute an unusually important element of its stage presentation. It is tempting to suppose that the performance at Burley-on-the-Hill inspired Henry Peacham's famous drawing of Titus Andronicus, if the date on the manuscript is 1595, though we have no proof that Peacham was there. In any case, whenever and wherever it was executed, it suggests, in the variety of costume and gesture, something of the visual impact the play had. Many of the most striking appeals to the eye are made by ceremonies—the election of an emperor, a triumphal procession, prayers, a sacrifice, and burial rites, to go less than half-way through the opening scene. I believe that these ceremonies and other closely related visual effects make a vital contribution to the meaning of the play. 'La monstre' may be more directly related to 'le suiect' than Petit realized.

The play opens with a flourish of trumpets followed by the arrival at opposite doors of the rival candidates for the office of emperor, accompanied by drummers, trumpeters, and flag-bearers, while senators and tribunes enter 'aloft.' The contenders, Saturninus and Bassianus, with their friends and soldiers, face each other across the stage as do opposing armies in some history plays, clearly presenting the threat of violence. But the tribune Marcus Andronicus, holding in his hands a crown, the emblem of rule, persuades them to 'plead [their] deserts' peacefully. He also announces that the people's candidate is his brother Titus, who has saved Rome from the Goths. The forms of a democratic election are thus preserved and are dramatized by the spectacle of an incipient brawl turning into a political ceremony. G.K. Hunter [in Shakespeare Survey, 1974] has shown the remarkable similarity of this opening to that of Romeo and Juliet, where Montagues and Capulets enter at opposite doors and begin a fight which the prince ends, standing above, like Marcus, as an embodiment of civil order. In Titus Andronicus ceremonies which order or partly conceal discordant energies are of special importance.

When most of the first group of characters has left the stage to continue the process of election, a second ceremony, more spectacular than the first, supervenes—the triumphal return of Titus. Heralded by more drums and trumpets and preceded by four of his sons, as pallbearers with one or more coffins, the victorious general is drawn on stage in a chariot, behind which march the most distinguished of his prisoners, Tamora, the queen of the Goths, her three sons, and Aaron the Moor. For this is both a triumph and a funeral: the bodies of Titus's sons, who have died pro patria, are being taken to the tomb of the Andronici, a structure set up at the centre of the back wall of the stage. After a solemn march around the stage Titus alights from his chariot near the entrance of the tomb with his living sons on one side of him and his prisoners on the other. The stage picture powerfully asserts his centrality as the chief support of Rome, while the combined ceremony of victory and burial shows how aptly he is 'surnamed Pius' (I.i.23), like Aeneas. The tomb becomes an emblem of devotion to family, fatherland, and the gods.

In the context of the feelings generated by this pageantry the demand of Titus's son Lucius that 'the proudest prisoner of the Goths' be sacrificed 'Ad manes fratrum ' (lines 96-8) has an appropriateness which at first inhibits the reaction of shock at the idea of human sacrifice. Are we (and were Elizabethans) being asked to give imaginative assent to the customs of another time and place? Before such a question can be answered, it is greatly complicated by the plea of Tamora for her son Alarbus, whom Titus has immediately handed over to Lucius. On her knees the queen puts her feelings as a mother against the demands of Roman piety and further reminds Titus that by being merciful he might rise to an even higher religious standard. The Peacham drawing is evidence that her prayer was, not only verbally but visually, an arresting moment.

When Titus dismisses it with a reassertion of piety—'Religiously they ask a sacrifice' (line 124)—and Tamora says, 'O cruel, irreligious piety!' (130), the play presents the first of many double visions of its hero. His self-dedication to certain principles has produced a shocking loss of humanity, and yet this is no clear-cut case of the good man going wrong. We see a collision of two sets of values, neither of which should necessarily prevail in all circumstances. Of such conflicts the rhetorical controversiae were made, and Titus Andronicus often reminds one of those cases, where arguments of almost equal force can be brought to support opposing judgments.

In the main the ceremony of triumph and burial tells in favour of Titus's view of the situation, and so does much of the language of the scene. The death of Alarbus is described by Lucius as 'Our Roman rites,' and the 'sacrificing fire' to which his body has been consigned is said to produce smoke which 'like incense doth perfume the sky' (lines 143-5). In the midst of this speech, however, is the disturbing clause, 'Alarbus' limbs are lopp'd' (Lawrence Danson [in Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language, 1974] thinks it may be Shakespeare's worst half-line), which plays the brutal facts against the ceremonial way of interpreting them. And even the stage picture is not unambiguously pro-ritual, for as the rites are being described and as the bodies of Titus's sons are being laid in the tomb, the queen of the Goths and her sons are still there as reminders of the rejected plea for mercy, and with them the silent but surely (for an Elizabethan audience) ominous figure of Aaron the Moor.

The solemn words with which Titus now commits the bodies of his dead sons to the tomb gain an extraordinary power from the cross-currents of feeling inspired by the immediately preceding actions and dialogue. Rapt in contemplation of death, where one is 'Secure from worldly chances and mishaps' (line 152), Titus projects an admirable serenity, which we already see to be resting on shaky foundations. Shakespeare makes us aware of an unspoken counterpoint to this moving speech.

Violence again threatens ceremonial order when Marcus, as spokesman for the Roman people, asks Titus to be a candidate and assures him of election to the 'empery.' Saturninus, the eldest son of the dead emperor, immediately asks his followers to support his claim with their swords. Now Titus assumes the role of peacemaker and judge, and once again the ceremony, in which he plays the central part, shows him in a mainly favourable light, while at the same time it is obvious that he is making a foolish mistake. Bassianus, Saturninus's younger brother, making no threat of force, asks with perfect civility for Titus's support, but Titus hardly seems to hear him. As if there could be but one proper solution, he asks the people to choose Saturninus, who, a moment later, is acclaimed emperor. Declining the honour for himself, upholding the forms of election, and speaking reasonably in favour of the eldest son, Titus cannot seem entirely misguided (Shakespeare could count on widespread acceptance of the right of primogeniture), and yet Saturninus has already been established as wilful and violent in contrast to his law-abiding brother. When Titus instantly assents to Saturninus's proposal to marry Lavinia, with whom we know that Bassianus is in love, Titus's readiness to sacrifice everything to principle is painfully clear. Folly and self-righteousness are the obverse of his piety.

The ceremony of electing a new emperor is barely concluded before violence disrupts the established order as Bassianus, pointedly ignored in the preceding action, seizes his brother's bride. In the ensuing mêlée Titus is the only one of the Andronici to condemn Bassianus. To the others he is taking what belongs to him, but Titus's loyalty to the new emperor and to his own promise carry him to the point of killing his son Mutius for covering the escape of Bassianus. So completely does he identify himself with the course of action he has chosen that when Lucius tells him he has slain his son 'in wrongful quarrel,' he replies, 'Nor thou, nor he, are any sons of mine' (lines 293-4). Like Tamburlaine, he kills his son for being unworthy of him, but where Marlowe partly justifies his hero by making a comical coward of the son and discrediting Tamburlaine's enemies, Shakespeare creates a starker contrast. Only Titus can see the murder as an assertion of family honour. To everyone else it is a piece of wilful violence based on a hideous error of judgment. For the first time Titus is clearly wrong. Less clearly we may see a parallel between this sacrifice and that of Alarbus. When Titus is brutally spurned a few minutes later by Saturninus, sympathy for the hero is inevitably qualified. As in a controversia, the emperor's ingratitude must be weighed against Titus's self-deluded brutality.

The ceremony which immediately follows presents Titus's brother and remaining sons on their knees, begging him to allow the burial of Mutius in the family tomb. His initial angry rejection of his entire family is followed by reconciliation. The petitioners rise from their knees, place the body in the tomb, and kneel to say, 'He lives in fame that died in virtue's cause' (line 390). The ritual at least partially revalidates the piety of the Andronici.

It has been noted [by J. Dover Wilson, Titus Andronicus, 1948] that the fifty-line episode of the burial of Mutius, like the equally brief one of the sacrifice of Alarbus, seems to have been added to a pre-existing text. Both introduce visually striking ceremonies in which petitioners kneel to Titus. On one occasion he refuses; on the other he reluctantly accedes. Both complicate our understanding of the hero. These bits of evidence seem to show us an author increasing his use of what he sees as an effective device.

At the end of this long first movement the stage is again crowded with all the major characters, and Shakespeare gives us what could be seen as mockery of the preceding intercession followed by reconciliation. Here Tamora pretends to intercede with the emperor on behalf of Titus and his family; the Andronici kneel, and Saturninus feigns renewed friendship with them. That this spectacle is mere show we know from a long aside in which Tamora tells of her hopes for revenge and from Aaron's soliloquy, which follows when everyone else has left the stage. When the ominous black figure speaks at last, he adds a dimension to the political reality which some of the ceremonies have partially concealed. He may even act out a metaphor of revealing an unsuspected reality by discarding the drab clothing of a prisoner and putting on more brilliant attire as he says,

Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts!
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold.
                                       (lines 18-19)

His speech ends with a prophecy of the 'shipwrack' of the Roman commonweal.

The 'solemn hunting' of the panther and the hart, which occupies much of act II, is not presented on stage in a spectacular way, though we hear horns and may see the dogs (in the second scene). The main stage action is the hunting of Bassianus, Lavinia, and the sons of Titus, in the presentation of which Shakespeare introduces another kind of picture—the formal description which conjures up an imagined scene. The first instance is Tamora's attractive description of the woods (II.iii. 10-29), which John Monck Mason [in Comments on the Last Edition of Shakespeare 's Plays, 1785] considered the only speech in Shakespeare's style in the entire play. This might be taken as a standard instance of verbal scene-painting if it did not contradict descriptions of the same woods that precede and follow it. Aaron has assured Chiron and Demetrius that 'the woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull' (II.i.128). Tamora herself is to call them 'A barren detested vale' (II.iii.93), and later Titus will identify them with the 'ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods' where Philomela was forced (IV.i.53). To Tamora, in her anticipation of Aaron's embraces, all animate and inanimate nature 'doth make a gleeful boast' (II.iii. 11). The subjectivity of these views can hardly escape notice.

Much more striking is the contrast between the mutilated Lavinia who appears on stage and Marcus's Ovidian description of what he sees as he stands looking at her, comparing her missing hands to branches cut from a tree, the blood flowing from her mouth to a bubbling fountain, and her cheeks to the sun (II.iv. 16-51). The inappropriateness of such a response to Lavinia's situation poses a staggering problem for the director. Lyric and dramatic modes seem to collide; 'the action,' I once said [in Shakespeare Survey, 1957] 'frustrates, rather than re-enforces, the operation of the poetry.' The solution of some directors is to cut most or all of the Ovidian poetry, but a rejection of the contradiction is not inevitable. Another way of interpreting the scene is to take the discrepancy between what we see on the stage and what Marcus says as a kind of double vision, analogous to those ritual gestures in the first act which make piety of human sacrifice or honour of the murder of a son. The strange images which Marcus substitutes for the mangled body of his niece provide a way of holding the experience off rather than expressing the emotions it arouses. He longs to rail at the unknown perpetrator of this horror to ease his mind, and he knows that 'Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd, / Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is' (lines 34-7), but this sanative release is denied him. The fanciful picture he creates offers a temporary refuge even though the frustration of a more natural response threatens to intensify the repressed emotion. The double vision provided by this elaborate picture is neither rationalization nor wishful thinking but may be a desperate effort to come to terms with unbearable pain.

In the central scene of the play, where, after meeting Lavinia, Titus tries to save the lives of his sons by allowing his hand to be chopped off, only to have the hand returned to him with the heads of his sons, stage ceremonies and the analogous operation of pictorial poetry more and more transform reality into fantasy. A brief procession opens the scene, 'the Judges and Senators, with Titus ' two sons, bound, passing on the stage to the place of execution, and TITUS going before pleading' (III. i. first stage direction). The victorious general and king-maker prostrates himself before officials who totally ignore him. The pantomime is complemented by Titus's conceit that the stones to which he has addressed his plea 'are better than the tribunes,' more sympathetic and softer-hearted (lines 37-47). When he thus explains his talking to the stones after the judges and senators have walked off, he is doing something stranger than justifying cruel behaviour as adherence to lofty ideals, but not altogether different.

His bitter outburst,

                  dost thou not perceive
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey
But me and mine
                                   (lines 53-6),

is a shrewd appraisal of the actual situation, but also one of a series of vivid images which tend to push the action into an imaginary space—to offer a metaphorical reality which competes with what we see. The image of the hunting-down of the Andronici has been prepared for by the cynical references to Lavinia as the 'dainty doe' that Chiron and Demetrius seek to 'pluck to ground' (II.i. 117; II.ii.26). Soon Titus is comparing himself to 'one upon a rock / Environ'd with a wilderness of sea' (III.i.93-4). These self-comparisons are, of course, examples of a kind of heightening often used by the poetic dramatist and need not be attributed to the speaker. In this play, however, where the difference between the hero's view and that of others is frequently an issue, these pictorial representations of Titus may be taken, at least in part, as his own. Like Marcus's description of Lavinia, they may constitute a way of dealing with a reality too horrible to face directly, and they also suggest powerfully the process by which Titus is being transformed from a victim into a revenger. As the prey of tigers, as one about to be swept away by the sea, he is the helpless object of powerful forces, though already his grief, like the Nile, 'disdaineth bounds' (line 71). In his fantasy of the Andronici sitting around a fountain, their tears will make a 'brine-pit' of it (129): sheer quantity can have its effect. Soon he imagines that 'with our sighs we'll breathe the welkin dim' (211), to which Marcus replies, 'O brother, speak with possibility, / And do not break into these deep extremes' (214-15). But Titus's passions have no bottom. No longer a man who is simply at the mercy of tigers or the sea, he is now the sea or the earth, responding to the wind and rain of Lavinia's sighs and tears:

When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threat'ning the welkin with his big-swol'n face?

In these images of himself the responsive and dangerous power of the revenger begins to appear. When the final blow falls with the delivery of his sons' heads, his memorable question, 'When will this fearful slumber have an end?' (252) and his chilling laughter show us that he will now live mainly in the alternative world of his fantasies.

The next scene (III.ii) presents us with a banquet, one of the standard forms of Elizabethan stage ceremony. The scene appears only in the Folio text and was probably a late addition, made to provide an effective instance of Titus's fantasizing. It is not a state occasion like the banquet in Macbeth or the one to which Titus later invites the emperor and empress. Nevertheless, a certain formality is inevitable with the bringing in of a table and benches and the seating of the four Andronici, Titus, Marcus, Lavinia, and the young son of Lucius. Titus grieves; the boy comforts him, and then comes the one action of the brief scene: Marcus kills a fly with his knife. Titus at first protests this 'deed of death done on the innocent' (56), but when Marcus explains that it was a 'black ill-favoured fly, / Like to the empress' Moor' (66-7), Titus suddenly borrows the knife so that he can 'insult on' the fly's corpse, 'as if it were the Moor' (71-2).

The killing of the fly becomes a ritual of revenge:

Alas, poor man! grief has so wrought on him,
He takes false shadows for true substances

The episode not only anticipates the final banquet but also prepares for the enactment of other fantasies such as the sending of Titus's messages. Young Lucius delivers to Chiron and Demetrius a bundle of weapons wrapped in a scroll with a famous quotation from Horace (IV.ii). Titus dispatches kinsmen to find Astraea and to deliver a petition to Pluto; he gives the Clown an 'oration' to present to the emperor (IV.iii). Visually more impressive is the mad ceremony which takes place in the middle of this scene of message-sending: at Titus's command Marcus, young Lucius, and the other kinsmen shoot arrows into the palace grounds 'with letters on the ends of them' addressed to various gods.

The initial ceremonies of act I, whether political, military, or religious, are all genuine ceremonies with traditional forms embodying the ideals to which the hero subscribes. Even when their validity, appropriateness, and applicability are questioned, the forms continue to sustain one side of the dialectic by reminding us of the hero's essentially noble nature. The ceremonies of the middle of the play serve a different, but related, function. Prayers to the paving stones, the ritual murder of a fly, and the dispatch of messages to the gods are form without substance. They express, not ideals with a questionable relationship to the situation at hand, but fantasies, clearly separated from external reality. All of them reflect the hero's obsession with redress of some sort; some show his abiding concern with justice; one specifically adumbrates his revenge. At this point in the play, when Titus's failings have come to seem less important than the horrible way in which his enemies have taken advantage of him, it is appropriate to focus attention not on moral dialectic but on the traumatic consequences of his experience. The mad games in which Titus engages his kinsmen have the additional function of preparing for yet another kind of ceremony—the purely deceptive one by means of which he carries out his revenge.

For the final ceremony Shakespeare reassembles all the surviving major characters and, as befits the author of a revenge play, kills off a large proportion of them. The Thyestean banquet, however, is preceded by a ceremony devised by Tamora to complete the ruin of the Andronici. It is brilliant not only in its staging (it must have contributed significantly to the 'monstre' noted by Petit) but also in its multiple perspectives on character and theme.

When Tamora, disguised as Revenge and accompanied by her two sons as Rape and Murder, visits Titus, she apparently has herself drawn in a chariot (V.ii.47ff), as such allegorical personages often are in a masque. The spectacle recalls the triumphal procession of the opening scene, when Titus rode in the chariot while Tamora and her sons walked behind as prisoners of war. The situations are not precisely reversed, however, for now Titus appears above, as at the door of his study, and Tamora entreats him to come down: she is again the petitioner. Her plan for persuading him to invite Lucius to his house is as mad as any of his, though Tamora is repeatedly described as unusually clever. So she obviously considers herself, taking great pride in this invention, which 'fits his lunacy' (line 70). Only her sublime self-confidence blinds her to the plain fact that Titus instantly knows who she is. In a play which repeatedly shows how 'pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,' she proves to be, if anything, a more egregious example than the hero. When she rides away in triumph, leaving her sons with Titus, she gives him his second victory over her and hers. Throughout the brief episode this spectacle is not merely form without substance but a sign that means the exact opposite of what it seems to signify.

The banquet, which is conclusive in so many ways, is an exceedingly grand affair. Trumpets not only announce the arrival of Saturninus, Tamora, and their train but, a moment later, the entrance of Titus, dressed as a cook and bearing one of the fatal 'pasties' in his hand. He then places the dishes on the table, perhaps with such assistance as Lavinia can give. His welcome is ceremonious, and he explains his unusual costume by his wish 'to have all well' (V.iii.31) to entertain the emperor and empress. The guests are seated in their appointed places, and the banquet begins. The contrast beween these ceremonial gestures and the ensuing carnage fits perfectly in a play where every ceremony is in some way at odds with the situation which it solemnizes. The first death—Lavinia's at the hand of her father—is presented by Titus as a re-enactment of the killing of Virginia to wipe out her shame. Here Saturninus is ironically cast in the role of shocked spectator and spokesman for propriety (lines 35-48). Next comes Titus's revelation of the true nature of the banquet, and then in rapid sucession the stabbings of Tamora, Titus, and Saturninus, leading to 'a great tumult' (in the appropriate words of Capell's stage direction). It subsides as the stage picture recalls the opening of the play. Marcus and Lucius, standing above the assembled crowd, where Marcus stood once before, calm them with an explanation of what has happened and call for the reintegration of the Roman body politic. When Lucius is acclaimed emperor, the ceremonial order again prevails.

One of the most satisfying (and occasionally puzzling) characteristics of Shakespeare's mature writing is his extraordinary even-handedness with his characters, bringing out a great man's folly or blindness and a villain's moments of appealing humanity. When these antithetical qualities appear in a good actor's interpretation, they demand a corresponding complexity in the response of the spectator. In Chapman's words [in Byron's Tragedy], 'Oh of what contraries consists a man! / Of what impossible mixtures!' In its most impressive moments Titus Andronicus anticipates these later developments by offering simultaneously two contrary views of the hero, his family, and his enemies. Spectacular ceremonies and the closely related images of a pictorial poetry are the most conspicuous means of stimulating an awareness of these contradictions.

Marion Wynne-Davies (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "'The Swallowing Womb': Consumed and Consuming Women in Titus Andronicus," in The Matter of Difference: Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare, edited by Valerie Wayne, Cornell, 1991, pp. 129-51.

[In the following excerpt, Wynne-Davies examines the roles of Lavinia and Tamora in light of late sixteenth-century concepts of women's identity.]


Christine de Pisan, one of the first female authors to write in defence of women, devoted three chapters of The Book of the City of Ladies (1404) to rape:

Then I, Christine, spoke as follows, 'My lady [Rectitude], I truly believe what you are saying, and I am certain that there are plenty of beautiful women who are virtuous and chaste and who know how to protect themselves well from the entrapments of deceitful men. I am therefore troubled and grieved when men argue that many women want to be raped and that it does not bother them at all to be raped by men even when they verbally protest. It would be hard to believe that such great villainy is actually pleasant for them.

Her comments remain valid today; for example, they could have been usefully addressed to Judge David Wild, who said, in his summing up of a 1986 rape trial:

Women who say no do not always mean no. It is not just a question of saying no. It is a question of how she says it, how she shows it and makes it clear. If she doesn't want it, she only has to keep her legs shut and there would be marks of force being used.

Not surprisingly, the man was acquitted. The issue of rape appears to be founded upon certain premises about women's sexuality which have remained unchanged for five centuries. This male intransigence, then as now, provokes virulent debate from both sides, cutting across different areas of cultural production and allowing an insidious concoction of social and moral value judgements to infiltrate the supposed 'impartiality' of the law.

Every week our newspapers and televisions carry, in varying combinations of outraged morality and salacious detail, actual or fictional accounts of rape, the court's judgement, the sentence, and the adequacy of the law to police the crime. On the surface they might appear to be simple variations of the tales recounted by Christine de Pisan, of Lucretia, of the Queen of the Galatians and of the Lombard Virgins. But the interest in and the control of rape vary in their intensity depending upon the particular social and cultural value systems of the period which produces them. As Anna Clark writes in Women's Silence, Men's Violence:

Rape is not an unchanging consequence of male biology, for the way sexual violence functions as a means of patriarchal domination, and indeed patriarchy itself, varies historically. Sometimes economic deprivation, or political powerlessness, may be more important features in the repression of women; at other points violence, and sexual violence, come to the foreground as a means of male domination.

Rather than being located within a static position, the issue of rape appears to emerge into the foreground of legal and sexual discourses in relation to a variety of social and cultural forces. These fluctuations can be traced through the spasmodic and infrequent changes in rape legislation. However, as sexual identity, especially feminine identity, is indissolubly bound to the idea of rape, similar shifts of interest occur in other ideological fields of play. It follows that in the first pages of this essay I am able to quote from two recent works on rape, because post-1970s feminism has opened up the whole issue of women's sexual identity and has liberated my own critical discourse. Consequently, I have been able to undertake an analysis of rape in a Shakespearan play, yet this task in its turn is dependent upon the problematising of sexual identity which occurred in the late sixteenth century and upon the ensuing conjunction of legal and literary discourses.

The early history on the law of rape is minimal, since there are very few acts of Parliament to cover, but one of the most significant changes occurred in 1597, about four years after the staging of Titus Andronicus, a play which has at its heart one of the most horrific rape scenes in English drama. The 1597 act legislates that:

Whereas of late times divers women, as well maidens as widows and wives, having substance, some in goods moveable, and some in lands and tenements, and some being heirs apparent to their ancestors, for the lucre of such substance been oftentimes taken by misdoers contrary to their will, and afterward married to such misdoers, or to others by their assent, or defiled, to the great displeasure of God, and contrary to Your Highness laws, and disparagement of the said women, and great heaviness and discomfort of their friends, and ill example of others; which offences, albeit the same made felony by a certain Act of Parliament made in the third year of King Henry the seventh, yet for as much as Clergy hath been heretofore allowed to such offenders, divers persons have attempted and committed the said offences, in hope of life by the Benefit of Clergy. Be it therefore enacted … that all and every such person and persons, as at any time after the end of the present session of Parliament… shall in every case lose his and their Benefit of Clergy, and shall suffer pains of death.

The act is primarily concerned with the 'benefit of clergy', which meant that a man who could claim certain clerical skills had the right to be tried by an ecclesiastical rather than a civil court. Although this had originally functioned with a degree of probity, it became open to vast abuse and particularly favoured the nobility, who were more likely to be literate. By 1576, the only penalty incurred by a rape conviction was imprisonment for a year or less. When the 1597 act withdrew the benefit of clergy it gave the state authority to punish, or legally enact vengeance upon, the perpetrator of the crime, a power hitherto denied. Apart from this strengthening of retributive powers, the act tacitly accepts that the crime committed is one against the corporal person of the woman, rather than one of theft against her family.

In medieval Europe a woman was often abducted and sexually penetrated in order to force an unwanted or unsuitable marriage, thereby enabling her abductor to take possession of her lands and inheritance. Legally this was seen as the theft of property by one man from another, and once wedlock occurred very little redress was obtainable; indeed, the marriage redeemed the offender from any punishment. Henry VII's act of 1486 had removed this matrimonial protection, thereby allowing the family to reclaim its possessions, but the criminal went unpunished through benefit of clergy. Elizabeth I's act of 1597 makes the crime against the woman's person more important, and punishable regardless of the property element. The simple presence of rape legislation after a century's inactivity reveals a peak of interest in, and concern about, sexual assault, but the change enacted suggests a greater signification for the female identity as a whole in late sixteenth-century England. From this point on a woman's body in its sexual sense was seen legally to be her own possession and not that of her nearest male relative. Although this legal gesture towards female self-determination was hardly adhered to in practice, its very existence suggests that by the 1590s the idea of women as independent subjects was sufficiently substantial to be encoded within a legal text. It is hardly surprising, then, that the fissure which had opened up between property and independent female subject should be seen on the public stage as well as in the civil courts of Elizabeth I.

Rape is a crime primarily enacted by men against women, but in all circumstances it is used to assert the absolute authority of one being over another. In one of the most influential and pioneering cultural analyses of rape, Against Our Will: Men, women and rape, Susan Brown-miller suggests that 'Rape became not only a male prerogative, but man's basic weapon of force against woman, the principal agent of his will and her fear', and she explicitly associates rape with social control, property and the domination of women. Moreover, as sexual identity in the early modern period was inextricably bound to personal identity, the violation of the body became an invasion and domination of the inner subject, an absolute depersonalising. There can hardly be a dramatic scene more redolent of feminine repression and the annulment of the subject than when Lavinia staggers onto the stage, her body violated by rape, her tongue cut out so that she cannot speak and her hands severed so that she may not write. The Empress's sons proceed to taunt their victim:

    So now go tell, an if thy tongue can
   Who 'twas that cut thy tongue and ravished

    Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning
    An if thy stumps will let thee play the
            scribe …
    An 'twere my cause, I should go hang

    If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the
                                (II, iv, 1-4, 9-10)

Not only is Lavinia denied the means of self-expression, but her ability to claim death and the absence it creates, with all its purport of deconstructive power, is eliminated. Her function as a meaningful entity appears to end, although her role is immediately metamorphosed in Marcus's subsequent speech. The denial of individual identity is clearly part of the assault on Lavinia, but it is important to bear in mind that the play never once lets us forget the physical horror of rape, even through the grotesque inversion of Ovidian rhetoric.

While provoking our repugnance, however, the play gradually appears to offer the audience a satisfying (only in that it is just) conclusion: when Lavinia participates in the revenge against Chiron and Demetrius. This would have had greater impact on an Elizabethan audience, steeped as it was in the conventions of revenge tragedy. More usually the revenger was a man, and the violated woman, as in the stories of Christine de Pisan, would kill herself for the sake of 'honour'. But by the end of the play Lavinia is no longer 'Rome's rich ornament' (I, i, 52), the idealised feminine beauty possessed by a patriarchal Rome; instead she becomes an active participant in the revenge, who, while her father cuts the throats of Demetrius and Chiron

… 'tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives [their] guilty blood.
                                      (V, ii, 182-3)

By accessing the convention of revenge tragedy, normally assigned to male characters, Lavinia seems to evade containment within the sign of property and lays claim to an independent self, unrestricted by gender conventions. Whether this device can successfully undermine the dominant ideological circumscription of female sexuality remains a moot point, but what is clear is that the play briefly offers up this subversive possibility as an acceptable, indeed desirable, alternative.

That rape is an essential theme in Titus Andronicus cannot be questioned: the word is mentioned fifteen times in the play compared to five times in all of Shakespeare's other works, including The Rape of Lucrece. Still, the associations between this latter poem and the play are numerous: their composition dates are, at the most, two years apart; both deal with a threat to civic order through the political allegory of a Roman setting; they link rape to revenge; poetically both employ an exaggerated rhetoric to describe brutal violence; and, most strikingly, the history of Lucrece is specifically referred to in the play (II, i, 109, and III, i, 297). Coppélia Kahn, in her intelligent and forthright article 'The rape in Shakespeare's Lucrece' [Shakespeare Studies, 1976] asserts that

the poem's insistent concern [is] with the relationship between sex and power. That relationship is established by the terms of marriage in a partriarchal society. The rape is ultimately a means by which Shakespeare can explore the nature of marriage in such a society and the role of women in marriage.

Whereas in Lucrece female identity is centred exclusively upon marriage, in Titus it is seen in a broader familial context; women are mothers and daughters first, wives second. The political import of an emphasis on lineage, rather than matrimony, foregrounds the importance of women in genealogical terms and raises questions about the validity of inheritance and descent. When rape occurs it inevitably threatens the values of the patrilineal society and necessitates a breakdown of its value systems and laws. Both texts engage in the problem of rape, Lucrece within the more intimate confines of marriage and Titus in the glare of lineage and political accountability.

Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece are not the only works written in the early 1590s which carry overtones of sexual assault: Venus and Adonis inverts the traditional gender roles and makes Venus the attacker: 'Her lips are conquerors, his lips obey' and 'her blood doth boil, / And careless lust stirs up a desperate courage' (549, 555-6). Like the paradigmatic rapist, Venus uses force to overcome her victim, while her powerful sexuality carries a covert threat of castration. Whatever the metaphor, however, Venus cannot rape Adonis biologically, and the poem continually sidles into the comic absurdity that this realisation must provoke. What seems to me intriguing is that the idea of rape is related to a powerful, mature woman in an analogous fashion to the rape in Titus, which is condoned and encouraged by Tamora, herself a character of independent political power and forceful sexuality. Indeed, in Thomas Nashe's The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), which has clear linguistic parallels with Titus, the rape victim is Roman and 'a noble and chaste matron' with grey hair. It almost seems as if we are being offered the well-worn dichotomy of virgin and whore, the abused and depersonalised maidens—Lavinia and Lucrece—and the threatening sexuality of a puissant woman—Tamora and Venus.

The importance of strong, but older, female characters in late sixteenth-century texts is further evinced by a unique and contemporary representational response to Titus by Henry Peacham. The Longleat manuscript consists of a drawing which illustrates Tamora begging for the lives of her sons, and several lines from the play. These extracts include the Empress's plea (I, i, 104-20) and Aaron's catalogue of his crimes (V, i, 125-44). The two central figures in the cartoon are not dressed in contemporary costume; Titus wears Roman garb, while Tamora appears in stately robes and wearing a crown, as befits her role as queen of the Goths. The figure of Aaron is set to the side, and he is outstanding in that Peacham has chosen to colour his face and limbs a matt black. The two prominent speeches recorded are by Tamora and Aaron. Peacham's choice of the Moor is understandable, partly because of the artistic novelty of representing a negro, and partly because he provides an archetypically villainous counter-part to Titus on the page. Tamora, however, poses a more intriguing response. She is dressed as a queen and the lines quoted are both touching and pure; this is not the woman who rejects Lavinia's claims for pity, or the incarnation of revenge who tries to drive Titus mad. Why, then, did Peacham choose to depict Tamora as royal and sympathetic?

It is now a critical commonplace that Rome often stands as a mirror of the Elizabethan world for Shakespeare and his contemporaries, and on these grounds we can well imagine Tamora as a distantly refracted image of Elizabeth I. Titus, however, is too awkward a play to settle exclusively into close political allegory. This movement towards complexity rather than neat identifications recurs in the play's rejection of the common stereotyping of women into virgins and whores. Instead, it appears both to enact and to confuse these treatments of women: feminine power and female sexuality are inextricably linked, simultaneously provoking and repressed. Titus is about the limits of these identifications and the point at which woman as subject is confronted with a destructive depersonalisation. The rape of Lavinia is the physical enactment of a more pervasive assault in the play on that which is feminine, and on the manifold metaphors drawn from the female body.


Since rape is a central theme of Titus Andronicus, it seems darkly appropriate that one of the corporal symbols of the play should be the womb. While Act I is set in the imperial city, Act II offers the alternative world of a wooded valley, at the heart of which lies a 'detested, dark, blood-drinking pit', an 'unhallowed and bloodstained hole' 'whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers,/Upon whose leaves are drops of new shed blood' (II, iii, 224, 210 and 199-200). The imagery is blatant, the cave being the vagina, the all-consuming sexual mouth of the feminine earth, which remains outside the patriarchal order of Rome. This is the 'swallowing womb' (239) that links female sexuality to death and damnation. The association is not unique in Shakespeare, the most famous example being Lear's condemnation of women and his description of their wombs:

There's hell, there's darkness, there is the
  sulphurous pit—
Burning, scalding, stench, consumption.
                        King Lear, IV, vi, 128-9)

An analogous description occurs in Romeo and Juliet, when the tomb is described as 'detestable maw' and a 'womb of death' (V, iii, 45). The association of hell, death and consumption with the womb clearly evokes a concept of woman's sexuality that is both dangerous and corrupting. The identification was not a purely artistic one: the physiological suppositions concerning the uterus in the medieval and Renaissance periods saw it as something alien. For example, Plato's description of the womb as an animal in its own right was often cited, and the organ was thought to be dominated exclusively by external forces, such as the imagination and the moon. Moreover, since the prevalent ideas on the body were governed by a theory of humours, it was clear that these physical manifestations had psychological implications [discussed by Ian MacClean in The Renaissance Notion of Woman, 1980]. The first mention of the 'abhorred pit' in Titus is made by


They told me here at dead time of the night
A thousand fiends, a thousand hissing snakes,
Ten thousand swelling toads, as many urchins,
Would make such fearful and confused cries
As any mortal body hearing it
Should straight fall mad.
                                (II, iii, 99-104)

The Empress suggests that it is herself who will fall victim to this fate. The womb of the ultimate mythic female body—the earth—threatens to make Tamora mad, as in Renaissance beliefs any woman's uterus weakened her mind and made her susceptible to lunacy. But in Titus this is not the case; on the contrary, Tamora fabricates the tale of injury and is in no danger of madness. And although Demetrius and Chiron threaten to rape Lavinia in this 'secret hole' (II, iii, 129), they take her offstage rather than incarcerating her in the pit, which remains in full view of the audience. Instead, the cave consumes Bassanius's corpse and the bodies of the doomed Martius and Quintus. The 'swallowing womb' does carry the promise of death, but for men and not women. Its power is to castrate, not to madden.

The womb is not only the centre of female sexuality, but also the repository of familial descent. Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality, writes that the rules governing sexuality in the early modern society in France and England were determined by blood relations, and that it was through them that the mechanisms of power were able to function. Control of the womb was paramount to determining a direct patrilineal descent, and when this exercise of power failed and women determined their own sexual appetites regardless of procreation, the social structure was threatened with collapse. This is exactly what happens in Titus when Tamora seeks amorous gratification with Aaron, and the subsequent presence of the half-caste child menaces 'Our Empress' shame and stately Rome's disgrace' (IV, ii, 60). The 1597 rape legislation, with its suggestion of female self-determination, is a parallel validation of this same independent sexual control. Although it manifestly did not bring about the collapse of Elizabethan society, its very existence suggests a need to answer the same worrying concerns about women's identity as those evinced in Titus Andronicus.

The control of the female subject is not achieved only through the policing of her sexuality, since orality too is an important aspect of self-construction. The pit in Titus functions as both a womb and a consuming mouth. As the play attempts to repress female sexuality through rape, so it denies female speech when Lavinia has her tongue cut out. Tamora's unheeded plea for her sons is likewise a reminder of women's muted state. Yet it is through the 'consumption' of a pen that Lavinia regains the power of communication, and at the end of the play Tamora will literally eat her children. The play persistently empowers its female characters with a hard-won freedom of self-expression, only to have it rebound in a final reassertion of male dominance.

I have already suggested that the act—rape—and the acted upon—the womb as sign for the female body—pursue, through metaphor, multifarious and often uneasy incarnations. These fields of rhetorical play serve to test the limits of dismemberment and thrust before the audience a series of almost unacceptable collusions. The issues so pinned down are not solely concerned with the female subject, but she penetrates several of them.


In one respect, familial, social and political stability in a patrilineal society resides in the policing of a woman's womb. The essentiality of this premise recurs throughout the Shakespearean canon from Gratiano's comic recognition that

    while I live, I'll fear no other thing
So sore as keeping safe Nerissa's ring.
            (The Merchant of Venice, V, i, 306-7)

to the destructive and ultimately tragic actions of the base-born Edmund in King Lear. The pervasive impact which occurs when this control breaks down is traced [in Shakespeare Studies, 1981] by Robert Miola who, perhaps rather tellingly, translates the bloody rape of Lavinia into 'a direct assault on the Andronici family and the Roman virtue which it represents [and an expression of] the perversion of normal familial relations and values in Rome's royal household. The fundamental issue is assurance of blood descent, a point clearly indicated by pre-1597 rape legislation, but in Titus the issues are divided. Lavinia, who signifies the blameless victim and eradicated subject, remains barren, whereas Tamora, who acts as a symbol of egressive female sexuality, bears the subversive blacka-moor child. By emphasising the illegitimate fruits of female rather than male sexual transgression, the play appears to hold guilty the lust of women rather than of men for any social breakdown.

The extent of Tamora's vitiosity is evident in the metaphoric import of her child's black skin as well as in her displacement of the father in relation to her sons, Dometrius and Chiron. It was the Empress who 'unadvised' gave her sons swords, rather than the more acceptable gift of a book which young Lucius receives from his mother and which is read by his aunt. Military activity is a masculine trait to be passed between father and son, culminating in honourable triumph such as is enjoyed by Titus and his sons at the start of the play. The sword given by Tamora, even as its distorted source prefigures, leads only to the debased dismembering of Lavinia. The privileging of paternal over maternal value systems is most persuasive in the comparison of Tamora's and Titus's pleas for their children. At the beginning of the play the Empress begs Titus not to sacrifice her son:

Stay, Roman brethren, gracious conqueror,
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
For valiant doings in their country's cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
                                  (I, i, 104-115)

Titus is forced to make a similar request when his sons are condemned for the murder of Bassianus:

Hear me, grave fathers. Noble tribunes, stay.
For pity of mine age, whose youth was spent
In dangerous wars, whilst you securely slept;
For all my blood in Rome's great quarrel shed,
For all the frosty nights that I have watched,
And for all these bitter tears which now you see,
Filling the aged wrinkles in my cheeks,
Be pitiful to my condemned sons,
Whose souls is not corrupted as 'tis thought.
                                              (III, i, 1-9)

The physical actions of mother and father are the same: both prostrate themselves and shed tears. Both begin their speech in a commanding tone with brief phrases, and with a similar call to familial sympathies. Both refer to honourable battle and ask for pity for their offspring. Moreover, Titus's poignant plea for his sons is as vain as that Tamora addressed to him earlier in the play. But the narrative construction appears to deploy the audience's sympathy, even if it leaves those on stage unmoved. Although both sets of progeny are innocent, we have been party to the events of the Andronici's condemnation and are aware that deceit and treachery have been involved, not impersonal militarism. After the Goth is put to death Tamora improves her position and becomes empress, whereas our sympathy for Titus is wrenched still further in our foreknowledge, and then experience, of his meeting with the mutilated Lavinia. The audience seems to be tacitly aligned with a familial discourse which enshrines male power. We are still left, though, with the disconcerting pictorial response of the Peacham manuscript, which depicts the plea of Tamora and not of Titus.

The deconstructive power of this single image is reinforced by the ambiguous elevation of Aaron's love for his son. The Moor, who repudiates all moral standards and stands in the play as an incarnation of evil, will risk everything for the sake of his child:

My mistress is my mistress, this myself,
The vigour and the picture of my youth:
This before all the world do I prefer.
                                   (IV, ii, 107-9)

The sympathy aroused by Aaron in this scene can hardly be reconciled with the Moor's demonic role, and it results in a simultaneous humanisation of the individual character and a devaluation of the paternal value systems of the play. The imaginative and ideological shifts required of the audience to encompass both a fatherly and a devilish Aaron fissure the patrilineal dominance irretrievably. Doubts about Titus's function as the archetype of fatherhood lurk around his sacrifice of his own son, Mutius, in the name of imperial loyalty, and about his conference of the king-ship on grounds of primogeniture rather than election and individual worth. Both acts are in error and set in motion a series of familial and royal deaths which culminate in his own. When set in a dualism of mother/Tamora and father/Titus the value of a patrilineal society seems at first unquestionable, but the play slides into unexpected similarities and contrasts which compel a reworking of expected and perhaps accepted gender identities.


Primogeniture not only determined familial inheritance but was the basis of royal descent in the early modern period. Ensuring that there was a male heir to further the line was a persistent concern of the monarch and his/her statesmen. However, in late sixteenth-century England the determining of a successor was a paramount source of disquiet and a promise of, rather than an insurance against, future political turmoil. The first scene of Titus opens upon similar political worries, with an ungoverned Rome and the decision of the tribunes, through Marcus, to offer the crown to Titus:

   … help to set a head on headless Rome.

      A better head her glorious body fits
      Than his that shakes for age and feebleness.
                        … this suit I make,
      That you create our emperor's eldest son,
      Lord Saturnine, whose virtues will, I hope,
      Reflect on Rome as Titan's rays on earth,
      And ripen justice in this commonweal.
      Then if you will elect by my advice,
      Crown him and say, 'Long live our
                                 (I, i, 186-8, 223-9)

The Roman citadel and state are envisaged as a headless feminine body, a motif which is repeated at the end of the play when the contrasting office of governorship is offered to Lucius (V, iii, 66-75). Nor is the image of a dismembered female body singular within the play. The horrific violence which is enacted upon Lavinia demands by analogy a brutal visualisation of an otherwise common metaphor for the body politic. In Titus, as in the best traditions of horror, the figurative tends to become the actual [according to Albert H. Tricomi, Shakespeare Survey, 1974]. Apart from forcing a brutal vision of a political future without an assured and worthy ruler, the speech also calls into question the adequacy of public discourses to handle the impending crisis. If Rome begins and ends the play as a mutilated female form, then Titus's resolution of primogeniture can hardly be adequate.

The importance of public and political ideologies to the play is evident from the opening scene, with its panoply of the most renowned physical structures of civic Roman life: the Capitol, the Pantheon, the city walls and gates. The action occurs in a series of ceremonies, public orations and almost pageant-like entries. The females are acted upon within this formal setting, allotted according to the wishes of the patriarchy: Titus gives both Lavinia and Tamora to Saturninus, with as much proprietorial assurance as he gives away Rome. His doctrines are strikingly redolent of the pre-1597 act, when rape was a law of theft against the family, the women being regarded as possessions of their dominant male relations rather than as autonomous beings. Still, his actions in the play will prove misguided, and previously unquestioned ideologies are disrupted within the subsequent lack of moral or social determinants. Titus presents us with a conundrum: the civil dismemberment endemic upon a female body politic set against the total inadequacy of the formal patriarchal solution of primogeniture. In contemporary allegory, how can one ensure the inheritance of the throne by a non-existent eldest son of a virgin Queen? This was not a question located solely in literary discourses, and the active public debate which accrued about the succession had far-reaching implications for a more general understanding of what constituted a state.

In his detailed and well-researched account, The Body Politic, David Hale traces the arguments around this metaphor, from the organic and hierarchical body to the idea of the 'social contract'. The most commonplace treatment of the image is found in Sir Thomas Elyot's The Governor, where he writes that 'A publike weale is a body lyvyng, compacte or made of sondry estates and degrees of men.' The 'sondry estates' begin with the monarch at the head and end with the peasants at the feet; all align in a natural and unchallengable order. Shakespeare uses this organic analogy more than any other playwright. At the beginning of the 1590s, however, a Jesuit argument arose which suggested that a monarch had to keep faith with his/her subjects, as the head must look after the other members of the body. This initiated a series of political pamphlets which utilised the analogy of the body in a debate about the natural or elected state of the monarchy. This same argument is enacted throughout the first scene of Titus, where Titus's assertion of inherited status confronts the election of the Roman emperor on grounds of worth:

    Princes that strive by factions and by
    Ambitiously for rule and empery,
    Know that the people of Rome, for whom
            we stand
    A special party, have by common voice,
    In election for the Roman empery,
    Chosen Andronicus, surnamed Pius,
    For many good and great deserts to Rome.
                                    (I, i, 18-24)

Shakespeare's use of Roman political history to enact the conceptual debate between imperialism and republicanism is commonly accepted. What Titus contributes is a disturbing gender dialectic. The metaphor of the body politic here gives us a female state and city governed by a man whose inheritance rests on primogeniture and not on personal worth. This combination fails utterly. By analogy, if Marcus was right in suggesting self-determinism for the state, and indeed it seems he was, then the female body, human rather than civic, also has a valid right to independent choice. It was just such a freedom from the patriarchal ownership of their own sexuality that the 1597 rape legislation gave women, while our own horror at Lavinia's fate subtly nurtures the audience's complicity with this judgement.

The use of Rome in the context of contemporary political discourse also raises the spectre of imperialism. For an Elizabethan audience accustomed to the propagandist panoply of Tudor myth, which claimed dynastic descent from Aeneas, the legendary founder of Rome, the political resonance of empire would have been readily imparted to the sixteenth-century diplomatic arena. When Titus first appears on stage in a triumphal entry bearing with him the conquered royal family of the Goths, he encapsulates an image of military triumph and imperial domination. The contemporary parallels of nationalistic victories are overt; Titus procures for the audience a parallel self-image dependent upon the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, together with the territorial claims of Drake in California in 1579 and Raleigh's in Roanoke in 1585. On stage the terms of conquest would have been transformed into a gender dialectic of Titus and Tamora, male and female. The importance of this association may be seen from its elision in the comparable text, The Tragical History of Titus Andronicus, where the Goths are led by their king, Tottilius, who is not even mentioned in Shakespeare's play. Coppélia Kahn [in Shakespeare Studies, 1976] draws a similar gender parallel from The Rape of Lucrece: 'The heroine becomes an image for two fields of political conquest, the expanding Roman empire and the New World.' Tamora and Lavinia fulfil equivalent functions: Tamora as the conquered Queen of the Goths, a slave 'brought to yoke', and Lavinia as an imperial treasure to be disputed over by rivals for the imperial throne (I, i, 69, 52). Enslaved nations must always act as the identifying 'other' of imperial expansion; Tamora's gender accentuates this difference, while Aaron's race removes the Goths still further from the Roman victors and their signification in contemporary allegory. The interweaving parallels and contrasts which abound in Titus also occur between Aaron and Tamora, for not only are both captives of Rome, they are also mutually enslaved in physical passion:

                              So Tamora;
        … whom thou in triumph long
Hast prisoner held, fettered in amorous
And faster bound to Aaron's charming eyes
Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus.                             (II, i, 9, 14-17)

The use of slavery as a metaphor for binding love in Titus belongs to a romantic discourse, but it must also provoke political associations of power even as the hunt scene, while evoking Petrarchan parallels, ends in rape. Through the forced awareness of jarring affinities, the ownership and control of women—here Aaron's of Tamora—are seen to permeate the play. The hell-like associations of the womb and Tamora's bond with the demonic Moor confirm this identification.

While using the audience's repugnance at, and fascination with, dominance and violence, Titus explores the idea of the independent subject, both corporal and metaphoric, but it never entirely overthrows the patriarchal values of the political system. Although Lavinia and Rome may be pitied, Tamora almost stands for a misogynistic stereotype of the scheming woman perversely taking political power and sexual freedom. Nor is she alone, for as Lavinia is set against the Empress, so the natural world of the forest with its 'swallowing womb' may be contrasted with Rome.


The concept of the organic body politic with its acceptance of blood descent carries, in the Elizabethan period, overtones of the feminine, and this is reinforced in Titus by identifying the organic and elemental images in the play with the quintessentially female earth. The disturbing and threatening associations of the forest scene, with its 'swallowing womb' centre stage, are made throughout the play, as for example when Titus tells Chiron and Demetrius their fate:

Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,
And with your blood and it I'll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
                                  (V, ii, 186-91)

Titus's metaphor is conventional and refers to the idea of the earth assimilating her children, that is humankind, when they are buried. But although Tamora is once more linked to the powerful otherness of the natural body, both are here perverted so that the consumption is unnatural; a preciptious doom, rather than humankind's allotted and inevitable return to dust.

The symbolic signification of the forest and its female associations can, however, be read in quite another manner: Albert Tricomi in his article on 'The mutilated garden in Titus Andronicus' [Shakespeare Studies, 1976] acknowledges that 'the forest … eventually becomes synonymous with barbarism and chaos', but he also points out that it is initially described in pastoral and romantic terminology. More significantly, he shows, through the repetition of lily, deer and fountain motifs, that 'Lavinia and the forest in Titus Andronicus are imagined as one or nearly one throughout the play.' The chaste Lavinia cannot easily be reconciled with the overt and intimidating sexuality of the 'swallowing womb' and Tamora, but her close ties to the natural imagery of the forest demand that such an association be made. This fusion of opposite female stereotypes is compounded by Aaron's 'rape' of the earth, thus linking it in turn to the violated Lavinia. Mining for gems and precious metals is often described as rape; and this occurs in Titus when the Moor digs for gold in Act II, scene iii. The earth is both castrating and raped, consumed and consuming.

The slippage between nurturing and disordering organic symbols still resides within the feminine, but Titus's famous 'I am the sea' speech to Lavinia, when he has been cruelly deceived by Aaron into sacrificing his hand, self-consciously dissolves all delineations of difference:

If there were reason for these miseries,
Then into limits could I bind my woes;
When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threat'ning the welkin with his big-swoll'n face?
And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?
I am the sea. Hark how her sighs doth blow!
She is the weeping welkin, I the earth;
Then must my sea be moved with her sighs;
Then must my earth with her continual tears
Become a deluge, overflowed and drowned;
For why my bowels cannot hide her woes,
But like a drunkard must I vomit them.
                                  (III, i, 218-30)

This speech is one of the cruxes of the play, set at a point of narrative crisis where the audience realises Titus has been duped, but where he remains hopeful. Moreover, the mythic language and solemn tone make it one of the most powerful and poignant speeches of the play. When our pity and sympathy become overwhelming this figurehead of patriarchy, whose stubborn adherence to the most conservative ideologies initiates the tragic action of the play, turns to his mutilated daughter and denies difference, elemental and gender. The complexity of Titus's identifications and the rapidity with which he changes them are sufficient to commingle the elements in the audience's imagination. But as the speech moves towards its end, a fatalistic sense of total breakdown becomes apparent. Titus's sea 'must' be affected by Lavinia's wind, but then his earth loses its separate identity and becomes liquid like her tears; he is 'overflowed and drowned'. The stark inevitability of this merging is emphasised by the biblical resonances of 'deluge'; there is no mystical metamorphosis into an idealised hermaphrodite. Instead we are faced with the appaling consequences of tragedy, which perforce takes identity beyond its limit to a point where gender overflows itself into another. Then as Titus returns to the body imagery this excessive unity becomes unbearable, as it must in a material world, and gender returns to otherness. The female is perceived as within and belonging intimately to the male, but only until disgorged. Limits are breached in their connotation of dividing different forms as well as in the sense of containment and control. The overburdening and excessive nature of events—familial and social tragedy figured in the elemental symbolism—collapses the hierarchical and differential structures which retain order. Like the central image of the 'swallowing womb', Titus's speech evokes the utter and unquenchable forces of nature. In its biting evocation of grief it comes to the very brink of allowing the 'deluge' full sway, before retreating behind the sandbags of conventional gender difference. The utter pathos of this speech, which gives authenticity to this desperate immersion in the magnetic power of symbolism, lies in the knowledge of the audience that events will indeed get worse.


The determination to empower the figurative aspects of poetic language that we see so forcefully asserted in Titus's speech is one of the recurrent features of Titus Andronicus. It often becomes apparent in inappropriate textual composites, the most famous example being Marcus's display of fine Ovidian rhetoric on seeing the mutilated Lavinia. Similarly, the female body with its sexual threat and violation is expected to stand as a metaphor for organic as well as social forms. Then again, while Titus's elemental speech conflates difference, the contemporary allusions in the play demand precise definition, yet both coexist. I have already indicated several areas of late sixteenth-century allusion, commencing with the focus upon rape, and I have also suggested that Tamora may be partially identified with Elizabeth I. Significantly, this latter correlation is based not only on their similar regal states, but on emblematic repetitions, such as allusions to Phoebe/Diana and to the sun (I, i, 316; II, iii, 57-9; II, i, 1-9), which were commonly used synonyms for Elizabeth herself. A more tenuous political comment may be made in the age difference between the Empress and Saturninus (I, i, 332), which could allude to the similar discrepancy between Elizabeth and Essex. The allegory appears to be almost unacceptable in political terms, but Titus does work on the limits of the countenanced. The play deconstructs stereotypes so that the dualism of chaste Lavinia/Lucrece and lustful Tamora/Venus are collapsed into one another, while simultaneously encompassing contemporary allegory. Repeatedly the play confronts its audience with oppositions rather than reconciliations.

This essay has taken as its premise the containment and repression of women, and has dealt with the tensions and challenges to this convention as dramatic appurtenances. Woman as a physical entity to be possessed and controlled within sexual, familial and political discourses, as well as in the metaphoric figures of city, state, empire and the earth itself, is seen to be consumed by the patriarchal ideologies of late sixteenth-century England. Yet at the same time the strain produced by the pathologically strict adherence to these determinants necessitates a modulation of demarcations. Titus's 'I am the sea' speech suggests a way in which this collapse of differentiation may be attained, a way in which division might be unified, the female incorporated into the male. But it would be wrong to assume that the female characters of the play lack self-expression or fail to make claims for independent subjectivity. The play does not rest solely upon me father-daughter relationship of Titus and Lavinia.

The importance of authoritative women is refracted through the character of Tamora. She resembles Venus from Venus and Adonis, is related to me all-powerful mother earth, in political allegory recalls Elizabeth I, and it is she whom Peacham depicts at the centre of his drawing. In addition she is compared in the play to Dido, Hecuba and Semiramis (II, iii, 22; I, i, 36; I, i, 22), and Waith traces her name to Tomyris, a Scythian queen. Yet Lavinia does not stand as an unambiguous sign for female repression either; she too is compared to Hecuba (IV, i, 20), and she is the foremost instrument in me initiation of revenge against her rapists. Further links occur between the two women through associations with Virgil's Aeneid; Tamora is related to Dido, and Lavinia suggests her own name-sake who founds the imperial Roman dynasty. But the most curious textual semblance is drawn from Ovid.

The account of Lavinia's rape and me memod of its discovery are taken from the tale of Philomela, a debt which is acknowledged several times in me play. A copy of Metamorphoses is even brought on stage in the fourth act. Ovid's story tells of how Philomela is raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, who tries to conceal the assault by cutting out her tongue. However, she portrays me events in a tapestry and sends it to her sister, Procne. The two sisters are united and revenge themselves upon Tereus by killing his son and serving up the flesh for him to eat. Tereus tries to slay them but all three are metamorphosed into birds. The resemblance to Lavinia's experiences is manifest, but those of Tamora in the last scene of me play also recall the Ovidian text.

The final speech of Titus is given to Lucius, who heralds me new age of order and expunges the old. Lavinia is buried in the family tomb, and

As for that ravenous tiger, Tamora,
No funeral rite, nor man in mourning weed,
No mournful bell shall ring her burial;
But throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey;
 Her life was beastly and devoid of pity,
And being dead, let birds on her take pity.
                                   (V, iii, 194-9)

The threat posed by the Empress is such mat she must be expurgated altogether from Rome to the organic and inherently feminine world of me earth, with its 'swallowing womb'. Her fate seems an almost inevitable return to mat with which she has been so closely associated, and me method of her expulsion recalls Titus's vomiting up of feminine woes. It is the excess of Tamora's subversive signification which demands that she be finally removed and the breach repaired, while Lavinia is disempowered by being safely interred within the patriarchal vault. A choice of destinies awaits the egressive woman: if she may be reintroduced into the patriarchal value system, then she will be awarded an identity within that structure. But if her irregularities prove too virulent, too ingrained, then she must be ejected from the system altogether. The last speech thus enacts a final circumscriptive locating of women in relation to the dominant male body—corporal and politic; they can either be consumed or, if they prove indigestible, they can be 'disgorged'.

Yet even at the close of the play Titus remains ragged and uncontainable, refusing to rest upon such formulaic dialecticisms. The birds are left to consume Tamora's carrion, thereby metamorphosing her body into the creatures which subsequently proceed to pity her; their actions recall for the audience the heavy indebtedness to Ovid. Tamora and all she represents may be eliminated from the public and political voices of Rome, but in the last line she accesses a literary discourse which perforce takes the audience back to one of the most dramatic moments in the play.

The scene where Lavinia takes the staff in her mouth and writes the names of her violators in the sand is the narrative fulcrum of Titus Andronicus (IV, i). From this point the revenge of the Andronici has purpose and the play's conclusion can be foreseen. In a text so redolent with images of eating and sexual penetration the act is startling. She takes in her mouth—that is, she consumes—the means of self-expression, thus encompassing what has been a masculine prerogative of subjectivity, and transmutes it into a feminine rhetorical practice. That she relates herself to the Ovidian text simply affirms our expectations of change and difference. But the action is also threatening, for the female mouth in Titus must also signify the womb, and the link between pen and phallus inevitably follows. Lavinia's mouth appears to reenact the swallowing womb of Act II when she consumes the masculine signifier, whether pen or phallus, and takes over the textual discourse, thereby castrating the source of male power.

The action does not convey this simple message of liberated female language, however, for Titus reads what Lavinia has written; he transmits her text to the audience, thereby once again attempting to confuse the issues of gender and production. The words—'Stuprum. Chiron. Demetrius' (IV, i, 77)—become the location of mutual production and consumption, rebounding between Lavinia, Titus and the audience. The breakdown of traditional actor/audience response is redolent of Titus's elemental speech, where limits likewise collapse under the pressure of personal grief. Yet in this instance the audience wills the rapid pursuance of complicity, the union of minds, so that, when recourse to official channels fails, the injured can enact vengeance for themselves.

This essay began with a discussion of the injustices of rape legislation from the medieval period to the present day and, more particularly, the relevance of the 1597 rape act to the contemporary location of female sexual identity. Titus Andronicus participates in a corresponding discourse of disruption and revision; it draws upon the horror of rape and throws into sharp relief the difference between the sexual constraint and sexual self-determination of women. Like the legal encodement, the play at times appears to offer women control over their own corporal identities, but it reaches beyond the confines of the formal document into a multiplicity of interpretations and consequences. At times the play politically empowers Tamora, offers Lavinia a means of self-expression, weights the play with contemporary allegory which privileges an aged queen, allows the audience to focus upon the symbolic centre of the 'swallowing womb' and promises redemption for women through the metamorphosing power of Ovidian rhetoric. Yet at the same time as proffering an independent subject position for women, Titus shores the very fissures that it has mined. Moreover, it achieves this retrenchment through its figurative depiction of the violation and destruction of women. What both legal and dramatic discourses open is a distorted image of female sexuality, where its very independence is bound up in the brutal denial of its existence, where women can be both consumed and consuming. While the language of the parliamentary act remains coolly impartial, what the play forces recurrently before our eyes is an evocation of rape so horrific that, while we recognise its ideological location, we cannot help but question the values of a society which allows such a violation to occur.

The Classical Tradition

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 35117

Andrew V. Ettin (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare's First Roman Tragedy," in ELH, Vol. 37, 1970, pp. 325-41.

[In the following excerpt, Ettin suggests that in Titus Andronicus Shakespeare uses his Roman setting and sources to explore the limitations of received artistic and intellectual ideas.]

Even the many critics who regard Titus Andronicus as definitely a work of Shakespeare find it in many respects atypical. Yet I believe we can detect in this early work a characteristically Shakespearean habit of mind: the exploration of the conflicts, contradictions, and insufficiencies in received artistic and intellectual traditions and images. Always fascinated with testing the literary conventions that attempt to structure experience, Shakespeare seldom permitted them to remain simple "counters" that could conveniently signify an expected set of responses. One need think only of the ways in which he tests and complicates the mode of pastoral romance in As You Like It, or of the complex relationship he evolves between the Henry IV plays and the traditional dramatic chronicles of Tudor ascendancy. That this tendency was not a late development should be obvious from Shakespeare's poems. Venus and Adonis, based of course on Ovid, is generally discussed in terms of its affinities with the pornographic and comic love poetry of the period. But if we bother to ask why the genre should have attracted two of the greatest living poets, and interested them sufficiently to produce its two masterpieces, we must conclude that the poetic stance of irony toward the mocked tradition was (as we might have guessed) congenial to Shakespeare and Marlowe and permitted them to work in a way similar to their theatrical endeavors.

It was often the Roman theme that prompted Shakespeare to probe the complexities of the received idea. Rome in The Rape of Lucrece is made to contain Lucrece, Lucretius, Brutus, Collatine, and Tarquin; therefore the banishment of Tarquin can be read symbolically to only a limited extent, because so many of those who are not banished clearly would not belong in an austere Rome. Rome, in other words, is a state that cannot suppress the violent passions of humanity, even through exile; passions are part of the entire fabric. Even more apposite to the discussion of Titus Andronicus are three later Roman plays in which Shakespeare has mastered the skills necessary to develop complex images, skills we see him beginning to develop in his first "Romaine tragedie." In Julius Caesar it is the name of Caesar himself, in Coriolanus Rome again, in Antony and Cleopatra the cluster of names associated with Egypt that serves to bind the antinomies on which the play is centered. And among the most prominent of those antinomies is the multi-faceted nature of the idea represented by "Rome." Titus Andronicus, its flaws notwithstanding, affords us a glimpse of the young artist realizing and attempting to embody in art the complexities he sees in a traditional idea. Of course this is not what the play is about; but the soul of the play is contained therein.

The concept signified by "Rome" in this play is thus not a simple one. Alan Sommers, in an otherwise acute analysis [in Essays in Criticism, 1960], sees it as the embodiment of civilized values; but certainly the Elizabethans, who knew Seneca the dramatist as well as Seneca the moralist, would not have been so certain, and it seems obvious that the author of Julius Caesar was not. We cannot ignore a central fact which Shakespeare takes pains to call to our attention in the early play: the literary sources for the most shocking images of "unregenerate barbarism" in the play are in fact products of the "Roman" imagination, Ovid's Metamorphoses and Seneca's Thyestes. One of the most remarkable features of Titus Andronicus, one that may not be immediately obvious to the reader but which cannot help influencing our total impression of the dramatic experience, is the fact that the numerous allusions to Roman mythology almost invariably stem from the darker, crueler, uncivilized reaches of the Roman mind.

Particularly revealing are the allusions to the writings of Vergil, especially but not exclusively the Aeneid, for Vergil is one of the writers responsible for our notion of Rome as civilized and virtuous. Vergil is brought to mind early in the play, in the first speech of Marcus Andronicus to the feuding patricians.

Princes, that strive by factions and by friends
Ambitiously for rule and empery,
Know that the people of Rome, for whom we
A special party, have by common voice,
In election for the Roman empery,
Chosen Andronicus, surnamed Pius
For many good and great deserts to Rome.
                                    (I.i. 18-24)

The epithet "pius," in a Roman context, seems designed to evoke in the mind of the educated listener the recollection of "pius Aeneas." Vergil was the celebrator (one is tempted to say the inventor) of the Augustan virtues: Aeneas' piety lay of course in his devotion to the obligations placed on him by the gods, but more specifically in his willingness to forego personal desires for public imperatives. We are being asked then to compare the poetry exhibited by Titus with that for which Aeneas was famed. We must not forget, though, that the poetic world of the Aeneid is not defined solely by the hero's piety; its boundaries reach to the ends of human and divine passions, fears, superstitions, jealousy, hatred, vengeance, love, in the midst of which Aeneas, like a still center, seems unique. War in Troy and war in Latium form the beginning and the end of the Aeneid. The allusions to Vergil's epic in Titus Andronicus show us the world that surrounds Aeneas, the non-Augustan aspects of Vergil's poetic universe: the sorrows of the Trojan War, the passion of Dido, the enigma of the Sybil, the mysteries of Hades.

Titus, in his first speech, over the coffin of his slain sons, mentions that he had had twenty-five, "Half the number that King Priam had" (I.i.80), and subsequently addresses himself in words that closely echo Vergil,

Why suffer'st thou thy sons, unburied yet,
To hover on the dreadful shore of Styx?
                                     (I.i. 87-88)

Professor Maxwell, in his note on these lines, cites Lee's suggestion of the Aeneid, VI. 325-329, as the source: "haec omnis, quam cernis, inops inhumataque turba est … volitantque haec litora circum." He adds, "The closeness of hover to volitant suggests an actual echo." The dead sons of Priam and the ghosts on the shores of the Styx; these rememberances as well as pietas are Rome's legacy.

Most of the other allusions to the Aeneid are to the moments of sadness and pain in the story of Troy and are of course generally spoken by Titus:

Speak, Lavinia, what accursed hand
Hath made thee handless in thy father's sight?
What fool hath added water to the sea,
Or brought a faggot to bright-burning Troy?

Ah, wherefore dost thou urge the name of hands,
To bid Aeneas tell the tale twice o'er,
How Troy was burnt and he made miserable?

Or we are reminded twice of the Sybil, the chilling prophetess of a decidedly pagan religion, and both times (IV.i.104 and V.ii. 10) she is recalled because of the imagistic relevance of the most famous legend about her, that her prophecies would often be scattered by the wind and confused or lost. Both times this becomes an image for Titus' fear that his revenge will be frustrated. Even Titus' one apparent—and characteristically bitter—affirmation of religious faith recalls the Aeneid in a most striking way. His lines,

And sith there's no justice in earth nor hell,
We will solicit heaven and move the gods
To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs.
                                  (IV.iii. 49-51)

are in fact a reversal of the malevolent Juno's denial of faith: "flectere si nequeo superos, Acheronta movebo." With what almost seems to be deliberate perverseness Shakespeare has evoked from Vergil the moments of sorrow, of anger, of futility, of danger. They are moments appropriate for the mood of Titus certainly, but reflect a Vergil different from the expected stereotype, moments that display in the Latin poet's works whatever it is that lies on the side of the Roman soul opposite to forbearance and pietas.

Shakespeare clearly understood early in his career what Marlowe had discovered about allusion, that it could be used to complicate our response toward what we see and hear on the stage. The latent image of Rome early in the first act is captured in the Captain's description of Titus as "Patron of virtue, Rome's best champion" (Li. 65), and in the evocation of Aeneas. Rome is apparently the center of morality and nobility: Titus, after all, is surnamed "Pius" for his service to the state, and Bassianus (who represents, as Mr. Sommers has shown, the ideal ruler) can speak of the Capitol as "to virtue consecrate,/To justice, continence, and nobility" (Li. 14-15). The image begins to change, I believe, after Titus, whom "the people of Rome … have by common voice" (I.i. 20-21) chosen emperor, arrives with his prisoners and his dead. As soon as Titus concludes his opening speech, with its moving apostrophe to the tomb that holds the bodies of so many of his sons, Lucius, one of the survivors, makes a special request.

Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh.
                                    (I.i. 96-98)

Titus immediately acquiesces, but Tamora, in her speech for the life of her son, states some overpowering arguments.

O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these:
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful;
Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge:
Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son.
                                     (I.i. 114-120)

To this Titus makes a reply that is both morally and dramatically ineffective when weighed against Tamora's plea and the Renaissance commonplaces on which it rests:

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.
                                     (I.i. 121-124)

He expects her to recognize the overwhelming social imperatives, which he perceives as just cause for the deaths of his own sons. When Martius and Quintos are later executed for their "crime," Titus, in a situation analogous to Tamora's, finally loses his confidence in the right of the state to demand human sacrifices; but until that point his "piety" extends so far as to rob him of human sympathy for Tamora. Shakespeare is unequivocal in his representation to the audience of the personal savagery in Lucius' desire for revenge, savagery that makes Titus' pious acceptance of the sacrifice even more disturbing: "Let's hew his limbs till they be clean consum'd" (I.i. 129), Lucius says, leading Alarbus off; and upon returning he announces,

See, lord and father, how we have perform'd
Our Roman rites: Alarbus' limbs are lopp'd,
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire,
Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky.
                                 (I.i. 141-145)

This sequence of speeches makes it difficult for us to regard Rome as the image of civilized humanity. Shakespeare deliberately has Lucius urge the ritual execution with the appropriate and traditional Latin phrase, "ad manes fratrum," and later emphasizes, through language and stage action, the idea that the sacrifice was a recognized and in fact prescribed part of "our Roman rites." As the Senator in Timon of Athens says, "The fault's bloody." We are not allowed to overlook the cruel and violent nature of the Roman rite. Even the argument that the sacrifice is necessary "T' appease their groaning shadows that are gone" (I.i. 126) seems insufficient, though "pious," because of the obvious sadism that is manifest in Lucius' representations of the act. His speeches are filled with the brutal and dehumanizing images that will later dominate the entire play. The smoke of the sacrificial fire "like incense doth perfume the sky": in the words of Lucius we feel the force of the Roman potential for brutality. And remembering how he addresses Titus, we should ask in what sense he is the son of his pious father.

Let us turn back to Titus' first speech, which begins most impressively,

Hail, Rome, victorious in thy mourning weeds!
Lo, as the bark that hath discharg'd his fraught

Returns with precious lading to the bay
From whence at first she weigh'd her anchorage,
Cometh Andronicus, bound with laurel boughs,
To re-salute his country with his tears,
Tears of true joy for his return to Rome.
                                      (I.i. 70-76)

Titus had been described by the Captain as returning "With honor and with fortune" (I.i. 67); he is now on stage, crowned with laurel for his victory, and accompanied by his prisoners (probably richly bedecked to make evident their royalty) and by the coffin of his sons. Something is strangely amiss in his opening lines, something that will be momentarily obscured by Titus' subsequent moving lines addressed to the crypt but quickly registered again in the assignment of Tamora's son to sacrifice. Rome is, though in mourning, primarily "victorious," rather than sorrowful. The formal, classical simile that next invites us, through the mere fact of being a simile, to compare the picture that the words delineate with the stage picture that Titus seemingly describes, reveals an irony that Titus does not intend. The barque obviously is Titus, but we must work to unravel the correlative of "precious lading." The solution determines to a large extent our reading of lines that are important to our understanding of Titus' character:

To re-salute his country with his tears,
Tears of true joy for his return to Rome.
                                       (I.i. 75-76)

We are tempted by the verse to believe that Titus alludes at first to his dead sons when he mentions tears—the coffin is on stage and prominent—but then corrects himself in the name of decorum. But to be tempted is not necessarily to succumb, and I believe that Shakespeare wants us merely to be tempted, to perceive the possibility I have just suggested. For the careful verbal preparation (though of course not the dramatic preparation) has been unequivocal, beginning with Marcus' panegyric upon his brother's imminent return:

And now at last, laden with honour's spoils,
Returns the good Andronicus to Rome,
Renowned Titus, flourishing in arms.
                                                  (I.i. 36-38)

These are echoed by the Captain's words, "With honour and with fortune is return'd." It should not be surprising, then, that Titus' own simile describing his return is that of a commercial venture, for such seems to be the habit of mind of these Romans. We recognize through the context of the verbal imagery that Titus cannot intend "precious lading" to refer to the coffin. The tears are not in fact tears of mourning but precisely what Titus says they are, "Tears of true joy for his return to Rome." The Roman general is a Roman first, a father second; and in these circumstances Shakespeare forces us to recognize that Titus' piety robs him of a full measure of human sympathy.

"Half the number that King Priam had" was the total of Titus' sons. Shortly after Andronicus makes the remark Demetrius, one of Tamora's surviving sons, counsels his mother,

Then, madam, stand resolv'd, but hope withal
The self-same gods that armed the Queen of
With opportunity of sharp revenge
Upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent
May favor Tamora, the Queen of Goths.
                                (I.i. 135-139)

Titus compares himself to Prima, Tamora is compared to Hecuba. But the author has very carefully defined which of Hecuba's roles Tamora is to play: not the mother of the heroes killed in the defense of Troy but the avenging mother of a son killed for personal reasons, Hecuba of Euripides and of the Metamorphoses. The opposition is a clear one, between the loss in public service to which Titus alludes and the private loss of which Demetrius speaks. Andronicus appears the very image and ideal of the Roman public man, "surnamed Pius/For many good and great deserts to Rome." From five campaigns he has returned

Bleeding to Rome, bearing his valiant sons
In coffins from the field,
                                           (I.i. 34-35)

prepared always to make the necessary sacrifice. His literary predecessor to the title "pius," Aeneas, also earned the accolade for selfless devotion to the public weal, but Titus' piety has as a corollary both public and personal pride that leave him inflexible in the face of the human demands that confront him on his return to Rome. He barely recognizes that life may be personal. Tamora thrusts the word "piety" back at him in her plea for her son's life:

O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
                                       (I.i. 114-115)

Shakespeare is deliberately using this particular honorific word of Roman virtue as the focal point for a challenge of Titus' "Roman virtue." The general's reply, then, has a particular ironic edge that we and the Goths perceive: the surviving sons, he claims, "Religiously … ask a sacrifice" (I.i. 124). Shakespeare has been at pains both to establish the fact that this is an integral part of the Roman rites and to graphically reveal its savagery. Tamora's response becomes our own: "O cruel, irreligious piety!" (I.i. 130).

Yet both the cruelty and the irreligious piety are part of the Roman tradition. This is, after all, also the tradition of Seneca (the putative father of the Elizabethan revenge tragedy) and of Ovid; it is the tradition from which arise Titus' murders of his son and daughter, whose slaying he justifies by the precedent of Virginius. The Senecan borrowing late in the play, the feast which has its dramatic origin in the Thyestes, will demonstrate once again the Roman and Elizabethan willingness to countenance horror. The tragedians Elizabethans were most likely to turn to for stories, lines, and dramatic rules were, after all, Euripides, rather than Aeschylus or even Sophocles, and—more pertinently for Shakespeare—Seneca. In fact the author of Titus Andronicus is clearly indebted more than once to both these dramatists. Seneca, more than any other playwright, was the model for tragedy in Elizabethan literature and as such he constituted a major aspect of their vision of Rome. How ironic Marcus' words to the irate Titus must be in this play: "Thou art a Roman; be not barbarous" (I.i.378). In this line the idealized view of Rome—Rome as fundamentally humane—confronts the reality of the Roman who has murdered his own son and now refuses his body burial in the ancestral tomb.

It is a Vergilian allusion in Titus' praise of this very tomb that provides us with another perspective on the action.

In peace and honour rest you here, my sons;
Rome's readiest champions, repose you here in
Secure from worldly chances and mishaps.
Here lurks no treason, here no envy swells,
Here grow no damned drugs, here are no storms,
No noise, but silence and eternal sleep.
                                     (I.i. 150-156)

The phrase "here grow no damned drugs" recalls Georgics II, 152, in the praise of Italy, "nec miseros fallunt aconita legentes" [J.C. Maxwell, ed., Titus Andronicus, 1957]. Praise for Italy has been transformed into praise for the tomb that offers sanctuary from Italy and from the rest of the world. Because these lines immediately follow Lucius' fulfillment of his "Roman rites," we cannot help discerning an irony that Titus does not intend in such a line as "Secure from worldly chances and mishaps." Titus is describing what Marcus only a few lines later calls "Solon's happiness" (I.i. 177), alluding to Solon's retort to Croesus' boasts of happiness, "Call no man happy till he is dead." Andronicus' words are the first statement of a view of life that will become increasingly valid and meaningful as the play progresses, but they already have a special implication for us. They imply a view of death that devalues life, a view of life as devalued. One of the most striking facts about Titus' words is that they emanate from no apparent objective cause thus far in the play: there seems to be no special reason, that is, for Titus to mention at this point treason, envy, poison, storms. There is no doctrine here and no integral dramatic cause for the speech, only the long-suffering soldier's contempt for life and equanimity toward death, correlatives perhaps of "piety" but obviously suggesting a disturbing hardness toward the claims of life and of the human heart. And after the demonstration of the cruelty accepted in Titus' world, we too are prepared to grant the merits of the tomb as sanctuary from the life we are watching.

Andronicus' "Roman virtues" of piety, then, and pride must be seen in part as faults, though they are also the sources of his personal nobility. He sees societal order as founded primarily on hereditary right and nobility, secondarily on personal merit deriving from selfless service, and above all on the national imperatives over the individual. These values obviously circumscribe his judgment and sense of justice when pitted against the imperatives evolved in the play. He immediately chooses for Rome's ruler the less satisfactory of the two candidates, the one whose claim is founded on the rights of primogeniture rather than on personal merit. He kills his own son because the boy dares oppose his father, even his father's injustice; and it is perhaps appropriate to recall Tamburlaine's slaying of his weak son Calyphas, a device by which Marlowe challenges our admiration for the hero and Tamburlaine's virtu itself. Titus' failures lie at the extremities of his virtues; they are not clearly separable.

Without meaning to imply that Titus Andronicus is a debate with Roman culture—the very idea sounds un-Shakespearean—I am suggesting that the play is intimately involved with an exploration of the values inherent in the literature that was so vital to writers of Shakespeare's own day, the literature of Rome. We do not need to argue surely that the play is fundamentally Senecan. We need only point out that many other Elizabethan plays were Senecan (or so the Elizabethans liked to think), that Titus bears enough of the characteristics thus to have been called, and borrows quite blatantly from Seneca. Even more persuasive is Professor Waith's discussion of the Ovidian origin of the play [in Shakespeare Survey, 1957]. Writing of Ovid's narrative and rhetorical distancing devices that create a "psychic distance" between the phenomenon described and the audience, he says,

What may seem at first an incongruous elegance is prefectly suited to the process of transforming a character into an emotional state. Violence, as Ovid describes it, is an emblem of the transformation. In a sense, it is itself transformed in the process into an object of interested but somewhat detached contemplation.… even if these devices were considered very moving [in Renaissance England], the effect they produced was less that of sharing a great emotional experience with another human being than of wonder at the extraordinary manifestations of familiar emotions raised to a most unfamiliar pitch.

It is obvious of course that there is one major source for the central incident of the play, the story of Philomela in the Sixth Book of the Metamorphoses. Only a careful reading, however, will reveal that most of the mythological and legendary names in Titus Andronicus can also be found in Ovid, along with the legends about them that make them functional in the play's rhetoric: Prometheus, Semiramis, Diana and Actaeon, Pyramus, Typhen, the Centaurs, Titan, and the several personages from the "matter of Troy" who figure in similes throughout the play. The drama is fraught with similes for the major characters that themselves verge on the metamorphic. We are invited to see Tamora, for instance, as Phoebe, Jove, Prometheus, Semiramis (twice), and Diana, while in metaphors she is a tiger (twice), raven, lion, bear, cow, and hell-hound. And of course Lavinia "becomes" Philomel (the usual analogue), Lucréce, the daughter of Virginius, and is compared with Cressida (by Saturnine) and Hecuba (by her nephew). This allusive richness accounts to a large extent for the artificial, literary quality that has been noted in the play; for to consciously depict characters repeatedly in mythological or bestial terms is to create the sort of "psychic distance" that Professor Waith has described as being at the core of the Metamorphoses.

In order to develop this idea, let us turn to Marcus Andronicus' famed lines describing the "metamorphosis" of his niece not into a bird but into something otherwise inhuman. I shall quote just a few lines from this long speech.

If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake
If I do wake, some planet strike me down,
That I may slumber an eternal sleep!
Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Hath lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to
  sleep in,

Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.

And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with three issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encount'red with a cloud.
                                           (II.iv. 13-32)

Let us set beside this for comparison Ovid's description of the multilated Philomela as translated by Golding.

But as she yirnde and called ay upon hir fathers
And strived to have spoken still, the cruell tyrant
And with a paire of pinsons fast did catch her
  by the tung,
And with his sword did cut it off. The stump
  whereon it hung
Did patter still. The tip fell downe and quivering
  on the ground
As though that it had murmured it made a
  certaine sound.
And as an Adders tayle cut off doth skip a
  while: even so
The tip of Philomelaas tongue did wriggle to and
And nearer to hir mistresseward in dying still
  did go.

Despite their differences, the two passages evince a close resemblance in their treatment of poetic description. In fact, the narrators demonstrate analogous poetic sensibilities. Interest is focused on an individual object, which thereby assumes a presence unrelated to its meaning in terms of the entire scene. Ovid can achieve a stance of aesthetic objectivity that enables him to contemplate the tongue of Philomela as simply an object, and to describe it in terms of its physical appearance alone, not as part of a scene in which it would normally function as a highly charged emotional entity. The tongue can be compared with an adder's tail only if we regard it as a disembodied object that has no inherent signification other than that which we attribute to it from its physical appearance. It cannot be an adder's tail if we see it as the tongue of the ravished Philomela. Compare Marcus' phrase "lopped and hewed" (II.iv. 17) with the description of Alarbus' dismemberment earlier in the play. Surely Marcus is not speaking with savage delight, as Lucius was. Rather, he uses the words as an interested spectator who sees something that strikes him with wonderment and seeks a metaphor to express the spectacle. The tone, I stress, is that of wonderment at the scene, the physical manifestation of the dehumanized human creature. Marcus can describe Lavinia's handless condition with a tree metaphor because the shock of the sudden extreme metamorphosis has left him incapable of truly giving vent to his emotions, which "burn the heart to cinders where it is" (II.iv. 37).

Professor Waith traces the fountain image to Ovid's description of the death of Pyramus (mentioned by Shakespeare at II.iii. 231-232), in which "the bloud did spin on hie/As when a Conduite pipe is crackt."

These pleasant and familiar images … bring the horror that has been committed within the range of comprehension. They oblige us to see clearly a suffering body, yet as they do so they temporarily remove its individuality, even its humanity, by abstracting and generalizing. Though not in themselves horrible, they point up the horror; though familiar, they point up the strangeness. The suffering becomes an object of contemplation.

He goes on to complain that the technique, though effective in narrative, is inappropriate for drama because the description is in competition with the presence of the stage image. While I completely agree with this observation, I differ from Professor Waith over one absolutely crucial issue: I believe Shakespeare also was fully aware that this method was inappropriate to drama.

Let us look closely at Marcus' fountain metaphor:

Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.

Consider for a moment the stage action that is apparently being described. To picture this action is to realize that it would be ludicrous: Lavinia, head thrown back, spouting blood—but we must pause here, for it is difficult to see how a "crimson river" can at the same time be "like to a bubbling fountain"—blood that is being blown by the breeze and which springs from "rosed" lips (apparently colored by the blood), rising out of her mouth and falling back again with each honey breath. These lines obviously cannot be intended as a literal depiction of the stage scene. Not even an inexperienced bad author could be so clumsy. Clearly they must be read as a poetic exornation that purposely contrasts shockingly in tone and meaning with what we see. The actual spectacle becomes merely an occasion for poetic embellishment or fantasy. "The suffering becomes an object of contemplation." But something even more important happens: the sufferer herself becomes a mere object of contemplation. The similes oblige us to see the physical manifestation of the suffering, rather than a suffering person. Indeed they do destroy the individuality of the sufferer, even her humanity, by abstracting and generalizing, by demonstrating the reduction of person to object.

Shakespeare is not primarily concerned with faulting Marcus in particular. Insofar as the language he uses adequately represents his inability to realize internally the full force of what has happened, Marcus is shown most sympathetically. There is a deliberate disparity, however, between the speaker's intentions and the effect of his words. Marcus intends to express tenderness, but he cannot, because he is amazed. The sudden metamorphosis produces the emotion of astonishment that, in a somewhat more impersonal form, accompanies the Ovidian narrator's recognition of a remarkable phenomenon. The emphasis is on the physical change, rather than the inner suffering, because the physical metamorphoses are themselves so astonishing. Marcus' reaction is, at least in a Roman context, an appropriate reaction to the phenomenon. It follows, therefore, that his "admiration" should be expressed naturally in formal, basically Ovidian style.

But when the detached, objectifying Ovidian rhetoric is confronted, on a stage, before a live audience, with an image of unspeakable horror, we discover something about the language. The rhetoric, as Waith says, is in fact narrative, and it implies a kind of transcendence of experience; but it is one that does not withstand the confrontation with physical reality. At its best on stage it confesses the speaker's (or perhaps at times the author's) inability to emotionally internalize unpleasant reality; at its worst it implies an inability to sympathize, an ability only to brutalize: one can easily but distastefully imagine Marcus' speech devoid of any redeeming touches of humanity. Marcus' description is in fact clearly more elegant, more gracefully turned than Ovid's; but we are forced by the stage scene to realize that greater elegance is hardly appropriate to this situation. At the core, then, the Ovidian technique expresses a wonderment at reality that functionally avoids confronting reality. Marcus' speech is appalling to us because the real situation is forced on our consciousness and we must find the language aesthetically and morally inadequate to the circumstances. That is the basis of Shakespeare's challenge to the Ovidian literal and rhetorical metamorphoses.

I believe that Shakespeare, by testing the implicit values of Roman literature and culture, was testing as well the limits of the Renaissance writer's models for literature. If characters in the play can suggest that we imagine both Lavinia and Tamora as Hecuba, if Lavinia can be compared to Cressida (the "changing piece" of Peele's A Tale of Troy) and Aaron with Aeneas (II.iii.22 ff.), if Tamora can be compared in the space of twenty-two lines with Jove, Prometheus, and Semiramis (II.i. 1-22), the lessons of classical antiquity threaten to dissolve into chaotic uselessness. Perhaps Shakespeare recognized also that the tradition of Ovide moralisé—of which Golding was a part—was intrinsically false to the experience of reading Ovid, false even to the nature of the stories themselves. The tradition was based on convenient obliviousness to anything that might cast doubt on the applicability of the imposed moral schema to Ovid's stories: Waith cites, for instance, the fact that the perfect married lovers Ceyx and Alcyone, as well as the principals in the Philomela story, were changed to birds. There was a proper literary use for Ovid, and Shakespeare avails himself fully and effectively of the literary and dramatic resonances in the analogy between his story of Lavinia and that of Philomela. But he also reveals the emotional and therefore moral inadequacy of the Ovidian stance. Titus in the madness of grief has been compared, with some justice I believe, to Lear; and the sort of mad transcendence of experience that somehow encompasses experience, which Titus and Lear share, differs greatly from the Ovidian transcendence that excludes involvement. Shakespeare was always acutely aware of the relationship between rhetoric and ethics. As he does with the virtues of Titus, he probes the implications of the Metamorphoses and in fact the ramifications of modern use of classical mythology.

Professor T. J. B. Spencer, in an important article discussing "Shakespeare and the Elizabethan Romans" [in Shakespeare Survey, 1957], has shown that the Elizabethan concept of Rome more closely resembled the "other" Rome that I have been discussing than the Augustan or Plutarchan Rome, and that in fact it was Suetonius and his imitators, rather than Plutarch, who provided the principal sources of ideas—including dramatic ideas—about the Romans. In this connection he remarks that "… in many respects, Titus Andronicus is a more typical Roman play, a more characteristic piece of Roman history, than the three great plays of Shakespeare which are generally grouped under that name." The reason for this, he says, is that although Titus does not deal with the political situation in Rome at any particular moment in history,

it is … a summary of Roman politics. It is not so much that any particular set of political institutions is assumed in Titus, but rather that it includes all the political institutions that Rome ever had.… It seems to be a quintessence of impressions derived from an eager reading of Roman history.… Still, I think that Titus would easily be recognized as typical Roman history by a sixteenth-century audience.…

I also believe we can see Titus as a quintessence of Elizabethan impressions of classical Rome, but one which clearly reveals the perils to the spirit that are part of the Roman heritage in the writings of Vergil, Seneca, Ovid, Suetonius.

We need not be puzzled, then, about the relevance of the last allusion to the Aeneid in the play, the lines spoken by Marcus to the new leader of Rome, the dramatic ancestor of Alcibiades in more ways than one, Lucius:

Speak, Rome's dear friend, as erst our ancestor,
When with his solemn tongue he did discourse
To love-sick Dido's sad-attending ear
The story of that baleful burning night
When subtle Greeks surpris'd King Priam's
Tell us what Sinon hath bewitch'd our ears,
Or who hath brought the fatal engine in
That gives our Troy, our Rome, the civil wound.
                                   (V.iii. 80-87)

Lucius tells the tale of woe, but he cannot tell, because he cannot perceive, "who hath brought the fatal engine in." To do this, to truly reveal the source of "the civil wound" that has devastated the Roman leadership, he would have to have a power beyond his capabilities: the power to fully understand his Roman nature. The destruction in the play stems at least as much from Titus, Lucius, and Saturnine as from Tamora and Aaron. But of course Titus and, in the last acts, Lucius have much more to offer than destruction.

Thus Shakespeare, at the beginning of his career, turns in what must be his first tragedy to an exploration of the possibilities for themes, stories, rhetoric, allusions, and therefore to an examination of models of various sorts. It is not surprising that at this point in literary history he should first test the ramifications of using classical Roman sources, nor is it surprising that Shakespeare, even at this early stage in his development, should probe these implications with uncommon acuity. In the Ovidian frame-work of horror stories, of transformations so grotesque they can produce only astonishment, the actions of Titus and the words of Marcus are expected; but it is typical of Shakespeare to force us to recognize the severe limitations of this framework. Always aware of the richness and complexity of the many traditions which feed his art, he tests here the nature and meaning of the Roman legacy.

Ronald Broude (essay date 1970)

SOURCE: "Roman and Goth in Titus Andronicus," in Shakespeare Studies: An Annual Gathering of Research, Criticism, and Reviews, Vol. VI, 1970, pp. 27-34.

[In the following excerpt, Broude relates Shakespeare's depiction of Romans and Goths in Titus Andronicus to Elizabethan perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of the two cultures. The alliance of Romans and Goths that restores order to Rome, he suggests, represents a providential joining of the virtues of both cultures.]

A number of Shakespearean scholars have remarked the importance of political themes in Titus Andronicus, and have observed that the ending of this early Shakespearean tragedy, in which the Romans and Goths are united under the empery of Lucius, signals the regeneration of the Roman commonweal. Nevertheless, the case for the centrality of political concerns in Titus has never been altogether satisfactory, for the conclusion of the play has never seemed thoroughly convincing. The incorporation of the Goths into the Roman state appears an arbitrary last minute adjustment, an only partially successful attempt finally to bring into focus the confusion of shifting alliances which sees Tamora ally herself with her former enemies the Romans while Lucius leads to victory over his native city the very Goths he had once helped to vanquish.

In part, our uneasiness with the characters' apparent readiness to exchange "friends" and "enemies" may be due to the lingering tendency to read Titus as melodrama, to see the play in terms of the oversimplified dichotomies which that genre seems to require—in short, to assume that Rome represents goodness, civilization and order, and the Goths evil, barbarism and chaos. Is not such an assumption hidden behind such readings as H. T. Price's characterization of the Romans in Titus as "a people of rugged simplicity, pious, loyal, and brave," and the Goths as "everything the Romans are not"? [Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 1943]. This tendency to oversimplify the relationship between Romans and Goths depends, perhaps, less on what we find in the play than on what we bring to it—the equation of the word "gothic" with rudeness, uncouthness and barbarity, and the image of the Goths as a savage people who toppled the Roman Empire, smothering its brilliant culture and spurning its venerable institutions. The audience for which Titus was written, however, brought to the play conceptions of the Romans and Goths somewhat more complex and less susceptible to "black and white" interpretation than our own. Renaissance interest in the Romans and Goths was not purely academic: both in England and on the Continent, the political, religious and cultural environment rendered Classical history a discipline with immediate and practical value, able to sustain the sort of intellectual activity which attracted scholars and statesmen as well as a more general reading public.

As T. J. B. Spencer has indicated [in Shakespeare Survey, 1957], Elizabethan thought about Rome and her empire was rich and varied, formed by admiration for Rome's many accomplishments on the one hand and a thorough knowledge of her vices on the other. Significantly, sixteenth century England preferred Suetonius and Tacitus, chroniclers of the intrigues and excesses of the Caesars, to Plutarch, with his nostalgic picture of the Republic. Elizabethan histories of Rome, works such as William Fulbecke's An Historicall Collection of the Continuali Factions, Tumults, and Massacres of the Romans and Italians and Richard Reynoldes' Chronicle of all the noble Emperours of the Romaines, … Setting forth the great power, and devine providence of almighty God, concentrated likewise on the grim power struggles of the late Republic and the Empire, drawing from the vicissitudes of Roman politics and political careers object lessons in religion, morality and statecraft. As Spencer tellingly concludes, "The ordinary stuff of Roman history in the sixteenth century does not lend itself to chatter about the majesty of the Roman people."

Samuel Kliger's admirable study The Goths in England [1952] suggests how considerable was the range of ideas which formed Elizabethan attitudes towards the Goths. Frequently encountered, of course, was the cliché of the Goths as cruel and stupid barbarians—a cliché fostered by Italian humanists, who cried down Gothic culture in order to cry up their own rinascita. Side by side with this tradition, however, there existed an image of the Goths as a people whose vitality and nobility were in marked contrast to the Romans' effeteness and decadence. Indeed, as Kliger explains, the conquest of the Empire could be seen as "a world rejuvenation or rebirth due to the triumph of Gothic energy and moral purity over Roman torpor and depravity."

This important inversion of the more familiar barbarous-Goths-civilized Romans tradition had behind it a lengthy history. It had found an early exponent in Tacitus, who, in Germania, his idealized portrait of the Germanic tribes, stressed the pastoral purity of the Germans, setting it off against the sophistication and corruption of Rome. St. Augustine's providential interpretation of the fall of Rome to the Visigoths in 410 as well deserved punishment for Roman wickedness made the Goths agents of God, and counteracted the picture of Gothic conquests as the wanton wasting of a noble civilization. A lost work by Cassiodorus, commissioned by Theodoric to extol Gothic virtues and thereby reconcile Rome to Gothic rule, served as the basis for Jordanes' influential De origine actibusque Getarum, an encomium of the Goths, cataloguing examples of Roman perfidy in dealing with Germanic tribes and concluding with the marriage of the Gothic queen Mathesuentha to the Roman patrician Germanus. The Renaissance was well aware of the strength of pro-Germanic sentiment among writers of antiquity. Joannes Boemus, in his popular Mores, leges, et ritvs omnivm gentivm, demonstrates familiarity with Tacitus; Richard Verstegen is able to cite Dion, Herodote, Seneca, Dionisius and Arrianus, among others, as "testimonies of ancient authors on the woorthynesse of the Germans"; and Abraham Ortelius bases his survey of the ancient Germans' customs on upwards of thirty Classical authorities. Moreover, not only were the familiar Gothic virtues stressed, but faults traditionally attributed to the Goths were called into question: thus, Samuel Daniel challenges the commonplace of Gothic lack of learning, asserting that the Goths, Vandals and Lombards "left vs stil their Lawes and Customes, as the originals of most of the prouinciall Constitutions of Christendome, which being well considered with their other courses of gouernment, may serue to cleere them from this imputation of ignorance."

The Gothic virtues—vitality, valor, integrity and love and freedom—were often explained by a curious theory of climate current in the Renaissance, a theory which had the additional advantage of accounting for Roman vices. Warm climates, so this theory held, were conductive to the development of peoples lacking in industry and susceptible to tyranny, while cool climates produced nations industrious and freedom-loving. All naturalists affirm, writes William Slatyer [in The History of Great Britaine, 1621]

the more Southerne peoples to be subtill, politique, and ingenious: neither can they deny, … but that al our part of the North, being but the Temperate Zone, affordeth peoples ingenious, bold, & warlike and for outward lineaments of body, strong, goodly, and beautiful; that no Nation can deservedly have greater prayses, then they have at all time purchased.

This naive bifurcation of Gothic virtue and Roman depravity had, besides the usual attractions which all such oversimplifications share, the benefit of a unique combination of circumstances to recommend it to Englishmen of the 1580s and 90s. Etymological confusion, religious controversy and political struggles united to give this theme more weight in Elizabethan thought than its own merits warranted.

Used correctly, the word "Goth" denoted but one of the several Germanic peoples which swept across Europe during the Age of the Great Migrations. Elizabethan usage, however, was not always precise, and "Goth" was often employed as a synonym for "German." This confusion, begun by Jordanes, was compounded by English writers who sometimes confounded the Goths not only with the Germans but also with the Gaets and the Jutes. English antiquarianism, the development of which was encouraged by recently emergent nationalism, popularized the idea of the Angles, Saxons and Jutes as a Germanic—and hence "Gothic"—people. Unfortunately, not all historians were of the calibre of a William Camden, careful to distinguish among the various Germanic tribes, and so, even as late as the end of the seventeenth century, so sophisticated a scholar as Sir William Temple could still write of "the ancient Western Goths, our ancestors." Elizabethan belief that the Goths of antiquity were a kindred people thus encouraged acceptance of the primitiveand-pure-Goth topos.

English antagonism toward contemporary Rome, fanned by religious differences and brought to a blaze by overt and covert Catholic aggression in the 80s and 90s, combined with "racial" ties to co-religionists in Germany to influence Elizabethan attitudes towards the Romans and Goths of antiquity. For Englishmen and Germans alike, ideas and emotions generated by the "racial," religious and political conflicts were most satisfyingly compressed in the translatio imperii ad Teutonicos, a tradition by which Roman dominion was understood to have passed to the Germans with the crowning of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. The idea that the moral and military virtues of the Germans made them more fit protectors of Western Christendom than were the descendants of the old Romans was developed during the struggle between Emperor and Pope in the Middle Ages, and was re-interpreted in the Renaissance by German reformers, who began to see the Gothic overthrow of the Roman Empire as prefiguring the Protestant break-away from the Roman Catholic Church. Thus the Goths' conquest of Rome in the fifth century came to be seen by many as the political equivalent of religious events in the sixteenth, Gothic virtue, boldness and love of freedom winning out in both ages over Roman vice, policy and tyranny. Popularized by Protestant humanists in Germany, men such as Matthias Flacius Illyricus, Johann Carion and Joannes Sleidanus, the translatio had gained such currency by the 1580s that, at the request of Gregory XIII, Cardinal Bellarmine undertook a lengthy defense of the Catholic position, which was published in 1589. Translations of Carion's Chronica (1550) and Sleidanus' De statu religionibus commentarli (1560) and De quatuor summis imperiis (1563) as well as contact between English reformers exiled during Mary's reign and German Protestants helped familiarize England with the translatio.

Although the events represented in Titus Andronicus have no basis in historical fact, Shakespeare's depiction of the Romans and Goths is otherwise quite in keeping with informed Renaissance English thought on these peoples. Titus' Rome is Rome as seen by Elizabethans, the familiar Roman virtues mingling with the equally familiar Roman vices. But it is also Rome in a period of crisis and transition, menaced by two of the very problems which the real Rome had had to face and overcome—the replacement of an ailing dynasty and the assimilation of a conquered people into the Roman commonweal.

Rome's difficulties are evident from the moment Titus begins. The play opens with a scene of civil disorder—an evil which, as Elizabethans knew, all too frequently plagued Rome. Two mobs, partisans of rivals for the empery of Rome, confront each other. One supports Saturninus, whose title derives from the principle of primogeniture; the other follows Saturninus, younger brother Bassianus, who grounds his claims on merit. They are met by a third group, headed by Marcus Andronicus, who announces that his brother Titus has been elected emperor by "the people of Rome." The horrors of civil war are averted—only temporarily, it transpires—when Titus, abiding by the law of primogeniture, refuses the crown, and gives his voice to Saturninus.

This encounter is followed shortly by an example of the cruelty for which pre-Christian Rome was noted, the sacrifice of Alarbus. In fact, human sacrifice was rarely if ever practiced during the Empire, but Elizabethans do not seem to have been aware of this. From the description of Pallas' funeral in the eleventh book of the Aeneid as well as from other sources, the Renaissance had gained familiarity with the pagan belief that the spirits of the violently slain needed to be appeased with the blood of their slayers lest they return to haunt their relatives who had been remiss in performing their duties. Shakespeare is careful to explain the sacrifice of Alarbus in these terms, making Lucius demand

            the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh
Before this earthy prison of their bones,
That so the shadows be not unappeas'd,
Nor we disturb'd with prodigies on earth.

Unmistakable is the inhumanity of these "Roman rites," inhumanity which Shakespeare emphasizes by giving Tamora an eloquent plea for mercy and an astute condemnation of the injustice done her son. She rightly assesses his sacrifice as "cruel, irreligious piety" (I.i.130), and Chiron significantly adds, "Was never Scythia half so barbarous!" (I.i. 131). Titus, however, puts by Tamora's arguments, and, loyal to Roman custom, orders that the sacrifice proceed.

The familiar figure of the Roman tyrant is represented by Saturninus. Alternately cowering and blustering, weak-willed and willful, Saturninus lacks those qualities which the Renaissance considered desirable in a ruler. He is ungrateful, quickly forgetting benefits received from the Andronici. (Ironically, in thanking Titus he prophetically licenses his own overthrow with the words, "When I do forget / The least of these unspeakable deserts, / Romans, forget your fealty to me" [I.i.255-257]). He is unconstant, turning his eye to Tamora even before Bassianus has claimed Lavinia ("A goodly lady, trust me; of the hue / That I would choose, were I to choose anew" [I.i.261-262]). Most important of all, he fails to administer justice. Overhasty in condemning Quintus and Martius, he allows them no trial—nor even a word in their own defense. Indeed, there is never much hope that he will be a fair and impartial ruler, for he begins his reign by vowing revenge on Titus, and, with Tamora's counsel, he pursues his course by dissimulation. During his empery, murder, rape and civil war plague his commonweal, and Terras Astraea reliquit. His state is given up to Tamora and Aaron, and the forfeiture of his rights and responsibilities is symbolized by the blackamoor child which his empress bears not to him but to her Moorish lover.

In this chaotic state of affairs, the traditional Roman virtues are as likely to produce harm as good. In themselves the old Roman ways are no longer valid, for they presuppose a healthy state and a static political situation. What is required is not rigid adherence to time-honored values but rather flexibility, the willingness to adjust to changing conditions and the readiness to supplement the old virtues with new ones appropriate for a new Rome. Thus, Titus' unthinking acceptance of the principle of primogeniture saves Rome from civil war only to deliver it up to the tyranny of Saturninus; his unyielding fidelity to the gods sends Alarbus to the sacrificial altar, bringing Tamora's revenge down on the Andronici; and his insistence upon absolute obedience from his sons leads him to slay Mutius in what Lucius rightly calls a "wrongful quarrel."

Potential for regeneration lies in the combination of elements both inside and outside Rome—inside in such Romans as the Andronici, and outside in the Goths. Unable to effect reform within the existing framework of the state, the Andronici require the vitality and power of the Goths to exert external pressure, topple the passive and corrupt Saturninus and replace him with an emperor both active and just.

Shakespeare's attitude toward the Goths, instruments in Rome's regeneration, is neutral. This in itself is significant, for it shows that Shakespeare in depicting this Germanic people did not have in mind the cliché of the "barbarous" Goth. (Indeed, it is the Romans who seem the more barbarous during the course of the play.) There is generosity in the Goths' acceptance of the banished Lucius, and commendable efficiency in the way they wage their campaign against Rome. The Gothic quality most stressed is valor, and the epithet most frequently used to describe them is "warlike" (II.i.61; IV.iv.110; V.ii.113 and V.iii.27). Gothic villainy in Titus is, in fact, the villainy of three Goths alone—Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius—who are, after all, tutored by the Moor Aaron. The Goths as a people are no more to be judged by the crimes of their queen than is all Rome to be condemned for the vices of her emperor.

We are, then, not unjustified in accepting the amalgamation of Goths and Romans under Lucius as an appropriate resolution of the crisis which faces Rome. The sequence of events by which Rome is returned to health in Titus is thus seen to be similar to the regenerative process undergone by ailing commonweals in other Shakespearean plays, most notably Richard III, written within a year or so of Titus, in which the reconciliation of Yorkists and Lancastrians under Richmond—with the concomitant promise of a prosperous future for England—closely resembles Lucius' joining of the Goths and Romans—with happy implication for the future of Rome.

Nor are we unjustified in seeing at work in Titus the same Providence which so carefully guides England's destiny through the two Tetralogies. The Rome of the first two acts of Titus is venerable but sterile, unable fruitfully to deal with the death of Saturninus' father and the conquest of the Goths, impotent to punish the murder of Bassianus and the violation of Lavinia. However, from the revelation and revenge of the secret crimes, effected, in accordance with the revenge play convention, by the heavens, there springs a new and viable social order. The presence of the gods is first apparent in the suggestion of the grisly device which enables Lavinia, mutilated to prevent her identifying her ravishers, to expose Chiron and Demetrius: Marcus, having asked the gods to "inspire" him, is immediately able to instruct Lavinia to take the staff, to write and "here display at last / What God will have discovered for revenge" (IV.i.73-74). Indeed, the whole point of this macabre scene lies in the Elizabethan commonplace that the heavens bring secret crimes to light in remarkable ways. The mark of Providence is also to be seen in Tamora's fall, brought about by her desperate disguise, the failure of which turns the empress into the agent of her own destruction, "snared," like the wicked whose doom the Psalmist foretells, "in the work of her own hands." The holocaust which results from Tamora's misguided scheming removes the principals of the old order—Titus as well as Saturninus—leaving the ground clear for the growth of a new Rome around Lucius.

The tragedy of the Andronici lies in the suffering they must undergo in fulfilling their appointed function. Instruments of Providence, they bring about the regeneration of Rome in much the same way that, in Shakespeare's later revenge play, Hamlet, acting as "scourge and minister," operates on Denmark's "hidden impost-hume." The connection between the fate of the Andronici and the fortunes of Rome is underlined in the play's final passages, as personal and political crises are simultaneously resolved with the crowning of Lucius. The political implications of the Andronici's triumph are stressed in the last speeches: Marcus wishes to teach his countrymen

                       how to knit again
This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf,
These broken limbs again into one body,
Lest Rome herself be bane unto herself,

and Lucius hopes to

                             govern so,
To heal Rome's harms, and wipe away her woe.
                                (V.iii.70-73, 147-148)

In the Second Quarto and all subsequent texts, Lucius ends the play by promising

              to order well the state,
That like events may ne'er it ruinate.

For Elizabethans, whose opinion of the Goths was not, like ours, unflattering, and who were familiar with the tradition of the regeneration of the Roman Empire by the Goths, the ending of Titus need have seemed neither puzzling nor forced. Rather, to many in Shakespeare's audience, Titus Andronicus may have appeared historically plausible, if not altogether accurate, its conclusion both comprehensible and satisfying when seen in terms of the familiar patterns of providential historiography and dramatic convention.

Emrys Jones (essay date 1977)

SOURCE: "Shakespeare and Euripides (I): Tragic Passion," in The Origins of Shakespeare, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1977, pp. 85-107.

[In his book The Origins of Shakespeare, Jones studies the relationship between Shakespeare's Tudor plays and the cultural milieu in which they emerged. In the following excerpt, he presents evidence that several plays of Euripides were widely known and admired in sixteenth-century England, and notes structural and textual similarities between Titus Andronicus and Euripides' play Hecuba.]

After being more or less denied Shakespearian authorship for two hundred years, Titus Andronicus is now firmly back within the canon. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, or regret, most scholars now accept it as Shakespearian. And for many playgoers the production in 1955 at Stratford and London helped to confirm the scholarly swing towards reinstating it: the play works in the theatre even today—or rather, if done with imagination and conviction (and preferably genius) it can work—so as to make its popular success on the Elizabethan stage comprehensible as never before. Even the late Professor Dover Wilson, who in his edition of Titus [1948] put forward the view that it was a sort of barbarous burlesque, changed his mind when he saw Peter Brook's production and Olivier's performance.

The play is altogether less perplexing than it was. A number of critics have looked at it unflinchingly and found much that they could positively admire if not candidly like. In particular Hereward Price [in Journal of English and Germanic Philology, 1943] has approached it with a refreshing freedom from the usual prejudices and shown that some of its rhetorical and dramaturgical skills are superior to anything in Marlowe, Kyd, Peele, and Greene, and in his opinion stamp it as authentically Shakespearian. Others have described the play's literary style (or styles), and especially its cultivation of Ovidian manner. The study of its sources has made comparable advances: as well as Seneca and Ovid, the play draws on Plutarch [R. A. Law, Studies in Philology, 1948]. But the biggest step forward in this field was Ralph Sargent's discovery of the chap-book which probably contains a version of the chief narrative source: a short tale called The Tragical History of Titus Andronicus [see Studies in Philology, 1949]. The tale throws valuable light on Shakespeare's aims and methods in this early tragedy: it also helps to free the play from the Senecan label which has traditionally and somewhat misleadingly been attached to it. The most obviously 'Senecan' feature of the play has always seemed the cannibalistic banquet with which it ends. But this feature is present in the chapbook, not taken direct from Thyestes as was usually assumed before the chap-book was found. Of course there are undeniable 'Senecan' elements in Titus Andronicus—some quotations (or misquotations)—and the banquet itself may well have been considered Senecan even though its source was not. But we cannot get very far by attempting to explain the play with reference to the author of Thyestes.

In recent years a few critics have gone further than any before them in finding Titus Andronicus not only historically interesting but important for our understanding of Shakespeare. One of them [A. C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare, 1967] says, 'It foreshadows the later tragedies because it is their archetype. Instead of being dismissed as an immature tragedy written for its age, it deserves to be approached as a central and seminal play in the canon of Shakespeare's works.' While another, comparing it with Lear remarks: 'they have more in common with each other probably than either has with any other of Shakespeare's plays.' He goes on: 'There is, in fact, a tremendous inventiveness and intelligence active in this often despised play' [Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, 1968]. Both these critics seem to me to be right—though we need not think the play a living, or even a dormant, classic: it is not that, and no amount of historical interpretation will make it one. It is, for Shakespeare, too academic, too bookish; though never dull, it is altogether too far removed from English life. But as Shakespeare's earliest attempt at a formal tragedy, it is of unique historical interest. This is what Shakespeare, at the age of (as I take it) twenty-five or twenty-six, was capable of in the most exacting of dramatic kinds.

But if Titus Andronicus is less perplexing than it was, there is still something mysterious about it. Scholars have traced the derivation of many of its details of plot and character and diction, but they have not asked where Shakespeare's over-all conception of tragic form came from: the fundamental shape of the play's action. I can best frame the question by first describing the play's basic dramatic procedure and then asking some further questions about Shakespeare's intentions.


At a performance of Titus Andronicus it will be found, I think, that the play falls into two clearly marked movements, the first of which occupies the first three acts, the second the last two. And each act is itself given to a clearly marked phase in the action. The first act is an elaborate and very resourcefully dramatized expository movement, which ends with all the characters in position for the main action. Titus has already turned Tamora, Queen of the Goths, into an implacable enemy by ritually sacrificing her eldest son, and followed that up by antagonizing the new emperor Saturninus. In the second act Tamora and Aaron the Moor plot the down-fall of Titus' family: his son-in-law is murdered, his two sons are accused of the crime, and his daughter Lavinia is raped and mutilated. In the third act the threads are all brought together, and we are shown, in a single scene, the acuteness of Titus' sufferings. Lavinia is brought to him; he vainly tries to save the lives of his two condemned sons, losing a hand in the process; and his last remaining son Lucius is banished from Rome. If we allow for the ramifications of intrigue and the various stressing of episode, during these first three acts we witness a persistent decline in the fortunes of the hero—from his triumphal return home to Rome at the beginning, through his brief phase of folly and crime (his choice of Saturninus for the Emperorship, his sacrifice of Tamora's son, and his slaying of his own son Mutius) into a longer drawn-out series of stages marked by increasing pain and suffering. This last phase of suffering fills the third act, which forms the climax of the play's first movement. This is not the place to analyse the passion scene (III. i), with its carefully gradated ascent to the climax of feeling with Titus' hysterical laughter. But what must be observed is the way we are prepared for the play's massive change of direction. The Messenger has just shown Titus the heads of his two sons and his own severed hand, and Titus is silent, in a state of deep emotional shock. His brother Marcus remonstrates with him:

Marcus. Now is the time to storm; why art thou
Titus. Ha, ha, ha!
Marcus. Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with
    this hour.
Titus. Why, I have not another tear to shed;
    Besides, this sorrow is an enemy,
    And would usurp upon my wat'ry eyes
    And make them blind with tributary tears.
    Then which way shall I find Revenge's
                                (III. i. 264-71)

This is the first emphatic announcement by Titus of his new preoccupation: revenge. He goes off with Marcus and Lavinia, leaving Lucius, now a banished man, alone. Lucius' short soliloquy brings this first movement of the play to a close. He too ends with the thought of revenge:

Now will I to the Goths, and raise a pow'r
To be reveng'd on Rome and Saturnine.

Revenge is the chief concern of Acts Four and Five, the play's second movement. Saturninus, Tamora, and her two sons blindly deliver themselves into Titus' hands, thinking him harmless; his project is successful, and he duly takes his revenge. So the play's main change of direction is one from passivity and passion to purposeful waiting and sudden action, from acute suffering to actively planned and executed revenge.

This fundamental change in the nature of the hero's emotional experience—and consequently in the emotion geerated in the audience—is perhaps one which critics concerned only with reading the play as a literary text will not find much to say about; possibly it will escape their attention altogether, or seem too obvious to be worth mentioning. But in a performance of the play—in a successful one, at any rate—the audience will find itself harassed by succeeding waves of anxiety during the second and third acts and finally driven to an almost intolerable pitch of feeling with Titus' desperate attempts to save his sons' lives. And the undertones of barbarous farce, with Aaron watching his victim writhe merely for the fun of it, will serve only to intensify the audience's response: one's feelings will have an ambiguous, hysterical quality—laughter is very close. It is at this point, with a sure command of audience emotion, that Shakespeare makes Titus first of all speak the single line, his only verbal response to the sight of his sons' heads—

When will this fearful slumber have an end?

—and then, in reply to Marcus' attempts to make him vent his grief in lament, break out into laughter. Titus' feelings can go no further in that direction—helpless acceptance of bad news, ghastly pain, frightful grief. Such emotion must be converted into something else; relief of some sort must be found. What Titus does is first to withdraw into an equivocal state of apparent insanity, itself a partial relief, and then having failed to secure justice from the gods to proceed with his own satisfyingly horrible revenge. The emotions experienced by the audience, however, though dependent on Titus', will of course be of a rather different nature. Whereas Titus withdraws into a kind of insanity, the audience withdraws into a measure of emotional detachment, a state of mind which does not preclude feelings of excitement and suspense, though far less intense than those aroused by the passion scene of Act Three. In that scene Titus aroused close sympathy; but in the last two acts of the play he becomes more and more of a monster, until the Thyestean feast removes him into a ghastly realm of lunatic ingenuity and insensibility. A member of the theatre audience during this final scene will no doubt experience feelings of horror and a kind of wonder, and his viewpoint will imperceptibly merge with that of Lucius, who has returned from the outside world into the madhouse of Rome. It is with Lucius that we finally view the horrid spectacle, pity mingling with an intellectual understanding of the events which led up to it.

In retrospect, if we trace the course of our feelings during a performance of Titus Andronicus we shall, I think, be aware of something like the swing of a huge perdulum, first moving in one direction—the direction of tragic grief—and then turning on itself to swing back, first slowly, then with increasing momentum, until finally the relief-giving pleasure of revenge is savoured by the hero and, with altogether more moderate intensity, indeed with increasing detachment as it emerges from the spell of the action, by the audience. To speak in these terms is to address oneself only to the fundamental layer of the theatrical experience; of course the drama engages and stimulates the mind in a wide variety of other ways. Nevertheless this two-part movement of feeling, however we choose to describe it, this intensification of tragic grief until it is converted into the ferociously gleeful pleasure of wrath spending itself in a hated victim, constitutes the essential dramatic experience afforded by Titus Andronicus. This is the basic form of the play, a grand powerful structure, containing parts various and complex in themselves, but as a whole making an impact elemental in its simplicity.

What I want to stress, since my argument is going to be conducted very largely in structural terms, is the clarity and decisiveness with which the emotional stages of the action are articulated, and particularly the rapid yet convincing transition from the first movement to the second, from grief to revenge. Immature though we must of course consider the play, this form seems remarkably effective and assured.


The following is (or was) a famous story from the history of Troy. During the Trojan war Priam and Hecuba sent their young son Polydorus into the protection of the Thracian king Polymestor; a heap of gold was sent with him to secure him from want if Troy should fall. After the city's capture, while the Greek army was waiting to set sail for home, the ghost of Achilles appeared, demanding that Polyxena, the daughter of Priam and Hecuba, should be sacrificed to him. And despite the pleas of Hecuba, who was now a captive in the Greek camp, Polyxena was sacrificed. While still in a state of extreme grief, Hecuba was preparing to wash her daughter's body before burying it, and sent her attendants to the sea-shore for water. They discover a corpse floating at the water's edge. When Hecuba sees it she recognizes it as her last remaining son Polydorus. He has been murdered by his protector Polymestor for the gold. Hecuba now feels astonishment and rage rather than grief and can think of nothing but how to revenge herself on her son's murderer. She sends word to Polymestor that he should come to her tent where he will find something to his advantage. He arrives with his two sons and is invited by Hecuba into her tent. There he is set upon by her women; his sons are put to death, while Polymestor's eyes are gouged out with brooches. In his blindness Polymestor foretells that Hecuba will be metamorphosed into a howling glaring dog.

This story was dramatized by Euripides in his tragedy Hecuba, which I wish to propose as Shakespeare's chief dramatic model for Titus Andronicus.

It has so often been denied that Shakespeare shows any knowledge of Greek tragedy that the case for it will have to be argued afresh. Virgil K. Whitaker states summarily [in Shakespeare's Use of Learning] that 'there is no evidence that Shakespeare knew a single Greek play even in translation', and Whitaker's position is the orthodox one. No item of unimpeachable objective evidence has apparently come to light since Whitaker wrote his book; what evidence exists was probably known to him as to other authorities on the subject. If I differ from them it is because the evidence can be interpreted in more than one way: connections can be made which have not been made. Our opinion of the opportunities open to Shakespeare will depend on our conception of Tudor literary culture.

All the extant Greek tragedies were made available in editions and in Latin translations during the sixteenth century, so there is no question but that they would have been accessible to anyone with not much more than a moderate reading ability in Latin. This last is something which not all scholars have been willing to allow Shakespeare; but the following remark from F. P. Wilson's essay, 'Shakespeare's Reading' [in Shakespearian and other studies], gives temperate and indeed cautious expression to a view which is probably now widely accepted:

Few who have read through T. W. Baldwin's treatise on William Shakspere 's Small Latine & Lesse Greeke will have the strength to deny that Shakespeare acquired the grammar-school training of his day in grammar, logic, and rhetoric; that he could and did read in the originals some Terence and Plautus, some Ovid and Virgil; that possessing a reading knowledge of Latin all those short-cuts to learning in florilegia and compendia were at his service if he cared to avail himself of them; and that he read Latin not in the spirit of a scholar but a poet.

But if it can be assumed that Shakespeare might have got through, with more or less fluency, the relatively easy Latin of the sixteenth-century translations, it does not follow that he would have directed himself to those tragedies which modern judgement and taste have especially favoured. On the evidence of frequency of translation and imitation Euripides was, of the three Greek tragic dramatists, by far the most congenial to sixteenth-century taste—no doubt for many reasons, including his choice of subjects, his style, and his prominent use of rhetorical argument and debate. Even so some of the Euripidean tragedies most highly valued today seem to have been ignored in the sixteenth century (e.g. The Bacchae, which may have seemed incomprehensibly or uninterestingly remote). In the case of some other of his plays, like Medea and Hippolytus, Euripides may have been neglected in favour of Seneca, who had written his own versions of these Euripidean themes. On the other hand, some plays which are commonly given a low place today were much admired in the sixteenth century. Among these were Hecuba and Phoenissae. But both these plays, it should be noted, were highly popular in late antiquity and both kept their place as reading texts in the Byzantine schools. The sixteenth century was not being eccentric in admiring them; on the contrary, it was being faithfully traditional. It is only in more recent times that these two plays have fallen out of critical favour.

In his survey Euripides and his Influence, F. L. Lucas noted the exceptional popularity (if that is the word) of Hecuba in the sixteenth century, judging from the number of translations into Latin, Italian, French, and Spanish. But to Lucas this preference for Hecuba was a sign of the bad taste of the age, and he tried to explain it by referring to the play's physical atrocities: 'Horrors in particular … were in the age of the Borgias an essential tragic convention'. But this explanation is superficial and quite unconvincing. The Bacchae is quite as 'atrocious' as Hecuba, but seems to have made no appeal to 'the age of the Borgias'. In any case Hecuba is not verbally stimulating or titillating: there is nothing to compare, in the account of the killing of the two boys and the blinding of Polymestor, with the revolting descriptions of Seneca's Thyestes. What Lucas Oddly failed to recognize is that Hecuba had been admired for centuries, so that by the time it came down to the sixteenth century it was accepted as being quite obviously one of the chief masterpieces of Euripides. According to Stiblinus, who edited him, Euripides was 'princeps tragicorum', while Hecuba held the principal place among his tragedies ('principem locum tenet'). The critical tradition which thus extolled the play may be itself open to criticism, but Hecuba's vogue in the sixteenth century has nothing to do with a depraved taste for horrors.

In The Senecan Tradition in Renaissance Tragedy H. B. Charlton learnedly argued that Greek influence on Renaissance tragedy was so slight as to be negligible. If Greek themes percolate through by way of translations they are, according to him, inevitably 'Senecanized'. But, in passing, he too noted the prominent place taken by Hecuba in translations from the Greek, although the Senecan explanation is again put to use:

And although the already noted greater familiarity with Euripides is marked by the publication before 1541 of ten editions of Latin translations of two of his plays and three of one, it is significant that all the thirteen editions confine themselves to the Hecuba and Iphigenia in Aulis; it is more significant for our purposes, too, to note that whereas both plays occur in ten editions, the Hecuba is the one chosen for issue in all three of the editions of one play only; for the Hecuba by the atrocity of its theme, the signal proportion of set lamentations, and the simplicity as opposed to Aristole's complexity of plot, is the most Senecan of Euripides' plays.

I have quoted this sentence for the evidence it incidentally supplies for the frequency with which Hecuba was reprinted during the sixteenth century, although Charlton's explanation of its popularity seems to me as unacceptable as Lucas's. No convincing reasons are given for describing it as 'the most Senecan of Euripides' plays'. As I have said, other plays are at least as given to atrocities, some surely more so. Indeed if Hecuba really is the most 'Senecan' of the plays, it is odd that Seneca himself was not as attracted to it as he was to Heracles and Medea, in each of which a parent personally kills his or her children. Like Lucas's, Charlton's explanation of Hecuba's appeal to scholars and scholarly minded dramatists on the grounds of its one scene of off-stage physical atrocity is more than a little absurd.

It is more relevant to recall that Hecuba had been considered for centuries as the supreme example of tragic grief.

Chaucer thinks of her in this light; so do the authors of Gorboduc; and so does Hamlet. In Titus Andronicus itself Young Lucius says:

For I have heard my grandsire say full oft,
Extremity of grief would make men mad;
And I have read that Hecuba of Troy
Ran mad for sorrow.
                                  (IV. i. 18-21)

Hecuba could be seen as the heroine of the tragic tale of Troy; and mythical-minded Britons (or Italians of Frenchmen) who thought of themselves as being ultimately of Trojan stock would have had something of a proprietary interest in her. All this should be recalled, quite apart from the fact that Euripides' tragedy is after all one of considerable power. Commentators on the play agree that the episode of the willing self-sacrifice of Polyxena is an inspiringly noble one, and the prologue, spoken by the Ghost of Polydorus, is delicate and poignant. Lucas and Charlton allude to the scene in which Polymestor is blinded and his sons murdered as if Euripides were pandering to a crude appetite in his audience. The scene is certainly horrifying, but the physical violence is used in a far more responsible way than it ever is in Seneca (indeed there is no comparison). The scene comes immediately after that in which Hecuba has persuaded her new master Agamemnon to allow her to avenge herself on the Thracian tyrant, who—as she has just discovered—has treacherously murdered her last remaining son. Agamemnon is already feeling guilty that he has made the priestess Cassandra his concubine, and he agrees to let Hecuba do as she wishes, provided that his army is not let into the secret. The context of the atrocity is therefore characteristically Euripidean in its harsh irony, and the familiar Euripidean themes are sounded: the aftermath of war in which all, victors and defeated, are degraded; the shabby, conniving compromises of those in authority; and the power of suffering to destroy the personality. The tragedy of Hecuba is far from being a piece of grand guignol; in performance it can be moving and morally interesting as well as theatrically exciting. It was a powerful performance of Hecuba that brought out for me not only the play's own quality but also its profound kinship in emotional progression to Titus Andronicus.

Scholars have established the currency of Hecuba in the sixteenth century by referring to the number of editions and translations; but it can also be demonstrated from the critical writings of the period. It is noteworthy, and for my argument significant, that Scaliger [in his Poetices, 1581], Minturno [in L'Arte Poetica, 1563], and Sidney [in his Apology for Poetry, 1581-83] all illustrate their theories by referring to it.…

Since I shall be arguing that Hecuba served Shakespeare as a structural model, it is worth pointing out here that all three critics, Scaliger, Minturno, and Sidney, discuss Hecuba from a structural point of view—the aspect most useful perhaps to a practising playwright.

I have kept until now one fact which is of the utmost importance for the case I am arguing. This is that a translation into Latin of Hecuba and Iphigenia in Aulis had been made by Erasmus. The fact is important because of Erasmus' unique position as the presiding genius of Tudor school education. Indeed it is hardly too much to say that Tudor literary culture until the third quarter of the sixteenth century is overwhelmingly Erasmian in inspiration. His influence is everywhere. (One of his proverbs is quoted in the last scene of Titus Andronicus ['For when no friends are by, men praise themselves.']) His Euripides translations had besides a special English connection: they were dedicated to William Warham, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the small 1507 volume containing the two plays ends with a poem by Erasmus whose title runs: Erasmi Roterodami de laudibus Britanniae, Regisque Henrici Septimi ac regiorum liberorum … These Latin versions of Euripides were reprinted throughout the century, sometimes bound up with other Latin translations from the Greek (I have already quoted Charlton's reference to ten editions of both plays and thirteen of Hecuba before 1541). Evidence is lacking that the two plays were studied in Tudor schools or universities, but Lodge mentions them in his Defence of Poetry (1579) in an allusive way which suggests that they were well known: 'What made Erasmus labor in Euripides tragedies? Did he indevour by painting them out of Greeke into Latine to manifest sinne unto us? or to confirme us in goodness?' We can, I think, assume that with Erasmus' imprimatur on them both his Hecuba and his Iphigenia would have stood a strong chance of being widely read for educational purposes (particularly perhaps in the middle decades of the sixteenth century, when his influence was especially strong). This needs to be stressed, since historians of the Elizabethan drama have never made any connection between Erasmus' translations and the rise of Shakespearian tragedy, nor has Hecuba ever figured in discussions of the Elizabethan revenge play.


I have said that Titus Andronicus consists of two movements of feeling, the first dominated by passionate suffering, the second by purposeful revenge. It is in such a simple dynamic form as this that the play is likely to be felt by a member of an audience: suffering intensified to an intolerable pitch, followed by the relief of aggressive action.

It is in this context that Hecuba becomes relevant. The structural divisions of Hecuba are very clearly marked: they will be apparent even to a careless reader, and to the playgoer they will be inescapable. This is because the play falls into two clear parts, and so clear is this division that the question of the play's unity has been repeatedly raised by commentators. A modern critic's description of Hecuba as 'a loose play of two independent actions' is representative of a whole critical tradition [Madeleine Doran, Endeavors of Art, 1954]. In his study of Euripides [The Drama of Euripides, 1941] G. M. A. Grube meets the traditional charge by examining the sequence of episodes and finds that, unlike for example the Andromache, Hecuba possesses 'dramatic and emotional unity'. He begins his discussion:

he play does fall into two parts; the first is concerned with the sacrifice of Polyxena upon the tomb of Achilles, the second with vengeance on Polymestor for killing Polydorus. Some formal connexion, at least, there obviously is between the two events: the ghost of Polydorus speaks the introductory monologue, and he mentions the fate of Polyxena; his body is later found upon the beach by the attendants whom Hecuba sends to wash raiment for the funeral of Polyxena; the two bodies are buried together at the end. These, however, are mere technical devices, and, unless they correspond to a real dramatic connexion, they are of little value.

Grabe goes on to argue that there is a true dramatic development, not an arbitrary succession of episodes:

The growing of sorrow into hatred and of lamentation into a desire for vengeance is a theme that attracted Euripides. It is the story of Medea, of Phaedra and Alcmene. But whereas in Medea we have the gradual development from one to the other, here the change is abrupt; (from 750 on, all Hecuba's thoughts are of vengeance).

He then goes on to show how the arrangement of the play's episodes helps to express the meaning of the tragedy as a whole: the order of events as we have seen it in Hecuba is, he argues, far more effective dramatically than it would have been if Euripides had placed the discovery of Polydorus' body before the sacrifice of Polyxena:

we see Hecuba first as the suffering queen; after Polyxena has gone, all her hopes are concentrated upon the life of her last son: and he has been foully murdered. Then something snaps. She loses all dignity and nobility in her thirst for vengeance and is to become, as is foretold at the end, a hound of hell baying upon the plains of Troy. Euripides took that tale in its crude form and turned it into a great play. As in The Trojan Women he depicts the deterioration of the conquerors themselves and puts a new meaning into the old formula of insolence and punishment, so here we have the moral degradation of the conquered and the close connexion between sorrow and vengeance, two elements that appear in all his plays on war and conquest. The first part of Hecuba is dominated by sorrow and the second by vengeance. Both together give us the complete picture of the so pitiful and yet so terrible queen upon whom the greatest burden has fallen: she has right on her side, but, because she has suffered more than human nature can bear, she becomes less, bot more, than human.

Grube's account brings out clearly the basic form of Hecuba as well as the strong appeal the tragedy can exert for a sympathetic reader. What also emerges for a reader of Shakespeare is the close resemblance of its form to that of Titus, both having an action divisible into two parts, the first dominated by grief, the second by revenge, in both the transition from first to second part being similarly rapid and decisive. Moreover, the relation between the two parts is also very similar, for the Euripidean theme of 'the growing of sorrow into hatred and of lamentation into a desire for revenge' finds a strong echo in Shakespeare.

A close look at the central sequence of each play will show that they are both constructed with a view to a comparable effect: in each case we witness the emotional collapse of a heroically powerful character. Hecuba has two chief maternal interests: Polydorus and Polyxena. Euripides might have told his story in the form of a loose series: first Polyxena, then Polydorus, finally Polymestor. But the form he chose, as far as the two children are concerned, is more like a chiasmus, a criss-cross arrangement: a, b, B, A. That is: (1) the announcement of Polydorus' death (told by the Ghost in the Prologue); (2) the announcement of Polyxena's death; (3) Polyxena's death; (4) Polydorus' death. This arrangement sees to it that the deaths of both children are broken to Hecuba one after the other. And it is the close proximity of the two blows that precipitates her into madness (if madness it is). In his second and third acts, Shakespeare shows a similar desire to expose Titus to a rapid succession of calamities which will also have the effect of precipitating him into a vengeful insanity. In the source tale the crucial events are strung out in a loose sequence. In Chapter Three the prince (i.e. Bassianus) is murdered; in Chapter Four Titus' sons are arrested for the murder, they are executed, and Titus' hand is cut off; in Chapter Five Lavinia is raped and mutilated. What Shakespeare does is to weave these separate events into a complex sequence, so that Lavinia's rape (for example) comes before the two sons are arrested. By doing this he prepares for the great passion scene of III. i in which Titus endures one appealling event after another. Although the narrative circumstances of the plays are widely different, the psychological and emotional processes involved are closely similar.

The moment of change, during which Hecuba and Titus make the decisive move from passivity to activity, is dramatized in each case by a short interval of silent selfcommuning and withdrawl. Hecuba speaks to herself in a long aside, during which Agamemnon tries to make her answer him; but she is entirely self-absorbed, conceiving her plan of revenge. Titus is similarly withdrawn, silent for a few moments until he bursts into laughter. Moreover the drying-up of Titus' grief ('Why, I have not another tear to shed') is not unlike Hecuba's reply to Agamemnon:

Agamemnon. Poor Hecabe! What boundless
  suffering you have borne!
Hecabe. My heart is dead now; there is no heart
  left to suffer.

The context of these remarks in both plays is one of exhausted near-calm, after the passions and laments of the first part, and before the action has moved into the second movement with its quest for revenge.

There is finally another feature in the situation of Euripides' Hecuba which finds a close parallel in Titus and throws light on Shakespeare's conception of his hero. When she discovers Polydorus' body, Hecuba reaches an extreme point, a kind of ne plus ultra, of grief in that she has now lost the last of her fifty sons. And it is this—the loss of her last son—following on the loss of Polyxena, that transforms her into a savage revenger. The loss of Polydorus is the last in a long series of griefs; now she has lost everything. This heaped-up, peculiarly desperate, intensity of grief is matched, on an admittedly smaller scale, in Shakespeare's presentation of Titus. If Hecuba, supreme in grief, had fifty sons and lost them all, Titus had twenty-five, of whom only Lucius (Shakespeare's addition to the chap-book tale) survives. Titus himself draws the parallel in his first speech, not it is true with Hecuba, but with Priam:

Romans, of five and twenty valiant sons,
Half of the number that King Priam had,
Behold the poor remains, alive and dead!

The comparison is with the father of the Trojan royal family—Shakespeare's grizzled warrior hero could hardly compare himself with the aged mother-queen of legend. But in his accumulated griefs which later culminate in dry-eyed insensibility and a single-minded desire for revenge he is to follow the pattern set by Hecuba (as Young Lucius serves to remind us). We shall not properly appreciate the play unless we see that Shakespeare's Titus is in essence nothing else than a male Hecuba.…


In the thirteenth Book of his Metamorphoses Ovid had retold the story of Hecuba, Polyxena, Polydorus, and Polymestor, clearly using Euripides. Shakespeare's knowledge of the Metamorphoses is quite certain: the poem is actually named in Titus Andronicus (IV. i. 42), and in the same scene Young Lucius makes his reference to 'Hecuba of Troy'. This reference, together with that a little later to Ovid's 'tragic tale of Philomel', makes it look as if Ovid is the author borne in mind for the whole of this scene. (In fact the phrase Ovid uses of Polymestor when Hecuba goes to him—'vadit ad artificem dirae, Polymestora, caedis', 'she went to the contriver of the vile murder, Polymestor'—is taken over by Titus in this scene; 'till the heavens reveal / The damn'd contriver of this deed'; IV. i. 36). It might therefore be argued that the presence of Ovid makes the Euripidean hypothesis unnecessary.

In the first place we are not faced with a choice between Euripides and Ovid, since no one denies Ovidian influence. The choice is between Ovid alone and Ovid together with Euripides. Study of Shakespeare's source materials for his other plays has taught us that he habitually used multiple sources: they made for complexity and richness; perhaps he thought they made for truthfulness. The same, I think, applies here. The main reason for supposing Shakespeare to have made use of Euripides is that Euripides could give him what he could perhaps find nowhere else: a famous, highly esteemed tragedy with a successful stage history, whose structure was of a kind which could be imitated and adapted to a modern theatre. The structure of Ovid's episode, on the other hand, is one proper to narrative poetry, not drama. The tale reads very much like a summary of Euripides: Ovid skims rapidly over the main points of the story (it takes only 146 lines), jumping from one key point to another, giving emphasis to Polyxena's last speech before her death and Hecuba's long lament, but foreshortening the final stages of the revenge on Polymestor. At the very end the narrative movingly opens out with Hecuba's metamorphosis and the pity felt for her by everyone—Trojans, Greeks, gods, even Juno. But despite good moments, the episode as a whole is not a particularly strong speciment of Ovid's art. It seems one of those places in the Metamorphoses where the existence of a previous work of high quality has had the effect of inhibiting Ovid's inventiveness; it reduces him to a kind of brisk second-hand perfunctoriness, with only one or two touches of his characteristic power and pathos. However, that may be, reading what he makes of the story is a very different matter from reading Euripides' Hecuba (or seeing it performed). The difference is not only a matter of length (the fact that the play is over ten times as long as Ovid's tale), though that has something to do with it; it is rather a matter of the posture which Hecuba assumes as the protagonist of a drama, free-standing before us, and of the drgree of identification she elicits from us. And there is finally the superb swing of the action which Euripides—after all a great master of dramatic construction—devised for his play and which Shakespeare seems to have imitated. It is this which more than anything else persuades me that Euripides probably had a place in the composition of Titus Andronicus.

A small detail remains which needs mentioning. In the first act of Titus Tamora pleads for the life of her eldest son, but he is led away to be sacrificed. One of her, two remaining sons, Demetrius, offers her comfort:

Then, madam, stand resolv'd, but hope withal
The self-same gods that arm'd the Queen of
With opportunity of sharp revenge
Upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent
May favour Tamora, the queen of Goths—
When Goths were Goths and Tamora was
To quit the bloody wrongs upon her foes.
                                  (I. i. 135-41)

J. A. K. Thomson comments on these lines [in Shakespeare and the Classics, 1952]: 'The reference is to a scene in the Hecuba of Euripides in which the eyes of Polymestor, a Thracian tyrant, are destroyed by Hecuba the Trojan queen. The story is related by Ovid … and one would have little hesitation in saying that the source of the English poet here is Ovid, were it not for the addition of the words "in his tent". Ovid says nothing about a tent but it is in his tent that Polymestor is blinded in Euripides.' In fact Polymestor is blinded in Hecuba's tent, not his own. The phrase 'in his tent' may be either a slip on Shakespeare's part or—much more probably—a calculated distortion of the story: he changed the tent from Hecuba's to Polymestor's in order to invent a new parallel between Hecuba and Tamora. Just as Hecuba, says Demetrius, revenged herself upon Polymestor in his tent, so Tamora will revenge herself upon the 'barbarous' Roman Titus in his home city. One might compare another deliberate distortion of history for poetic purposes at III. i. 295-8: Lucius is prophesying his revenge on Saturainus:

If Lucius live, he will requite your wrongs,
And make proud Saturnine and his emperess
Beg at the gates like Tarquin and his Queen.

Here Tarquin's queen seems invented only to complete the parallel with 'Saturnine and his emperess'. However, the detail of the tent is interesting in that it points towards Euripides, though in itself it is hardly conclusive: Shakespeare might have picked up the detail from some other place (such as a mythological handbook or dictionary). Dramatically, the passing comparison of the wicked Tamora with Hecuba shows Shakespeare's usual firm grasp on the ethical principle of reciprocity. Tamora at this moment is to Titus what Titus is later to be to her. Later—indeed for most of the play—it will be his turn to play Hecuba.


It is not my purpose to prove beyond doubt that Shakespeare made use of Euripides in writing Titus Andronicus: conclusive evidence does not exist. It is enough if a case has been formulated. It may be that he had never read Hecuba; he may have chanced to see it, or a version of it, acted. We know that Peele translated an Iphigenia while he was still at Oxford, which was acted with success at Christ Church. Some Shakespearian scholars persist in seeing traces of Peele's authorship in Titus Andronicus, and it may be that it was through Peele that Shakespeare was introduced to Hecuba. But all this is mere conjecture. We are on firmer ground in saying that we have assented too uncritically to the notion that the violence and ferocity of certain Elizabethan tragedies can be sufficiently described as 'Senecan'; the dramatic influence of Seneca's tragedies, while perfectly real, has been exaggerated. Ascham's opinion in The Schoolmaster (1570) is well known: ' … the Grecians Sophocles and Euripides far over match our Seneca in Latin, namely in Oikonomia et Decoro, although Senecaes elocution and verse be verie commendable for his time'. It need not be supposed that Ascham, who was himself an influence to be reckoned with, was alone in thinking so. In Shakespeare's case it may be that we have not had enough faith in his reading ability in Latin—though it is not clear why Shakespeare, whose genius was above all linguistic, should have been daunted by the relatively easy Latin used by the translators of his own century.

One of H. B. Charlton's arguments against Greek influence in Renaissance tragedy was that translators into Latin or the vernaculars invariably 'Senecanized' their Greek subjects. It is admittedly true that if we look at the only Elizabethan version of a Greek play published in the sixteenth century, the result does at first seem obviously 'Senecan'. This is the play called Jocasta by Kinwelmersh and Gascoigne, which was based on Dolce's Italian version of the Phoenissae of Euripides (in turn based on a Latin version). But it does not follow that if it seems 'Senecan' to us, it also seemed 'Senecan' to its first audiences and readers. They may well have taken for granted the qualities we call 'Senecan', but have been all the more alert to those other qualities which were unfamiliar to them—the 'Greek' ones. It seems unlikely that those who saw Jocasta performed were quite unconscious of its Euripidean qualities. They would presumably have believed that they were seeing a Greek play, and—despite the many departures from the original text—they would have been right: they would have been seeing something essentially Euripidean; they may even have been closer to the spirit of the original play than we can be. Charlton's argument falters perhaps through a failure to grant the sixteenth century the chance of making its own leaps into the past despite what a modern classical scholar might consider the crudity of its means.

Titus Andronicus is similarly a classical play whose Greek qualities may not have been as imperceptible to its contemporaries as they have been to modern readers. Despite its stylistic use of Latin idiom, its references to Roman history and myth, and the quite exceptional number of times it mentions Rome, it is not a Roman tragedy in the sense usually implied of Shakespeare's later three Plutarchian plays. It is not committed, as they are, to a disciplined interpretation of a single historical period. This is one reason perhaps for supposing it to precede the Henry VI trilogy: it was written before the invention of the Shakespearian history play with its responsible historical presuppositions. As Professor Terence Spencer observed of it [in Shakespeare Survey, 1957]: 'The play does not assume a political situation known to history; it is, rather, a summary of Roman politics. It is not so much that any particular set of political institutions is assumed in Titus, but rather that it includes all the political institutions that Rome ever had. The author seems anxious, not to get it all right, but to get it all in.' Furthermore, although a Roman play in this looser compendious sense, Titus is often Greek in feeling—if we take 'Greek' in one of the ways Elizabethans might have understood the term. Its setting is Roman, but the story it tells is one of Thracian violence—for in Greek mythology Thrace was a land of wild passions and fierce inhuman cruelty. Shakespeare must have seen in the chap-book narrative of Titus a fusion of two stories each involved with Thrace: the rape of Philomel by the Thracian tyrant Tereus and the revenge of Hecuba on another Thracian tyrant Polymestor. In keeping with this Thracian pattern, Shakespeare worked in a reference to 'the Thracian poet' Orpheus (II. iv. 51) as well as giving the Moor the name Aaron, probably by a link with Marlowe's villainous Ithamore in The Jew of Malta: according to Num. 4: 28 [in Narrative and Dramatic Sources of Shakespeare, Vol. VI, ed. G. Bullough, 1966] 'Ithamar' was 'the son of Aaron the priest', and Marlowe's Ithamore is said to have been born in Thrace.

The play's first act of barbaric violence is Titus' own—his sacrifice of Alarbus, son of Tamora. This act of human sacrifice, an addition to the source, is itself not Roman but Greek. Shakespeare is probably thinking of Greek stories of human sacrifice such as he could have found in the Hecuba of Euripides, or in Seneca's adaptation in Troades, or in Ovid's episode of Hecuba. The 'lopping' of Alarbus' limbs in order to 'appease the groaning shadows' of the dead, is placed emphatically near the beginning of the play. It distances the subsequent action into a barbaric and alien world, wholly in accord with the ambitiously classical aims of Shakespeare's first attempt at tragedy.

Grace Starry West (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Going by the Book: Classical Allusions in Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus," in Studies in Philology, Vol. LXXIX, No. 1, Winter, 1982, pp. 62-77.

[In the following excerpt, West considers the discrepancy between violent action and lyrical language in Titus Andronicus as a means of conveying the characters' dependence on literary precedents and the limitations of literature as a source of moral and ethical guidance.]

Although it has recently found some guarded approval, Titus Andronicus is still generally considered Shakespeare's worst play. There is a connection between the modern reader's dislike of the play and the presence of an exceptional number of classical allusions. Allusions make up a significant part of the play's highly rhetorical language, contributing to an overall tone which one scholar has aptly termed "cool and cultured" [M. C. Bradbrook, Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, 1935] and another, just as aptly, "irrepressibly witty" [Albert H. Tricomi, Shakespeare Survey, 1974]. The trouble with this tone, however, is its apparent inappropriateness to an action which can only be characterized as horrible and brutal in the extreme. Even the infrequent defenders of Titus have usually taken refuge in dubbing it a brilliant "experiment," and hence a dubious success.

Recent inquiries have centered around the disparity between the beautifully polished surface of the language, replete with learned allusion and metaphor, and the gory events of the play: human sacrifice, rape, mutiliation, and cannibalism. But explanations for this incongruity are primarily concerned with style. The young Shakespeare, we are told, is trying to adapt the techniques of narrative poetry to drama and does not succeed in creating believable action and dialogue [Nicholas Brooke, Shakespeare's Early Tragedies, 1968]. Even Eugene M. Waith's perceptive observations on Shakespeare's use of Ovid [in Shakespeare Survey, 1957] attribute firmly to the poet Shakespeare the responsibility for every allusion, every metaphor, every severed head and hand in the play. Of course the dramatist chooses words and actions, but he speaks through characters who display the individual natures which he has created for them. It is not Shakespeare, but Marcus Andronicus who compares Lavinia's wounds to "… a conduit with three issuing spouts" (II.iv.30), Titus Andronicus, indulging his morbid wit, who says, "Speak, Lavinia, what accursed hand / Hath made thee handless in thy father's sight?" (III.i.66-7), and Demetrius the evil Goth who learnedly compares his mother to Troy's Queen Hecuba (I.i.135-41) but then barbarously rapes and mutilates Lavinia. In short the characters of the play speak beautifully, wittily, and learnedly, but then commit terrible crimes.

Once we have distinguished the poet from his characters, we are free to ask why he has created characters so literary and yet so brutal. One reason may be that Shakespeare wishes us to connect these characters with the world of the play in which they move: imperial Rome in decay, threatened by barbarian invasions and struggling for survival. Although critics usually view Titus Andronicus under the rubric of "early tragedy" or "tragedy of blood," it is perhaps more profitable to take the Roman setting into account. Without insisting on the inclusion of Titus in the category of "Roman plays," we can easily see that the characters of Titus, unlike those of other plays about Rome, heavily rely on famous books of the Roman literary tradition both in their speech and in their actions. For them ancient Rome is a tradition in which they have been schooled through school books: the works of Horace, Vergil, Ovid, and Seneca. The juxtaposition of delicately allusive speech and villainous action in a play about Rome at the twilight of its greatness suggests that Shakespeare is exploring the relationship between Roman education—the source of all the bookish allusions—and the disintegration of the magnificent city which produced that education. Although everyone in the play, whether Roman or Goth, is evidently educated in the best Roman books, the moral excellence which one would expect to be the fruit of such study is missing. On the contrary, Roman education, which seems to stand for Roman tradition in general, has been twisted to become the teacher and rationalizer of heinous deeds.

This thesis can be illustrated through an examination of the allusions surrounding the central events of the play: Lavinia's rape and its subsequent revelation. Aaron, the empress Tamora's lover and the deviser of many of the crimes portrayed in the play, plans the murder of Bassianus and the rape of his bride Lavinia. Aaron does not advise Chiron and Demetrius to cut off Lavinia's hands and tongue, but clearly has something of the sort in mind later when he mentions the plan to Tamora with a mythological allusion:

This is the day of doom for Bassianus;
His Philomel must lose her tongue today,
Thy sons make pillage of her chastity,
And wash their hands in Bassianus' blood.

It seems that for Aaron thoughts of rape lead to thoughts of Ovid's Philomela and Tereus. A brief summary of Metamorphoses 6.412-674 may be helpful. During a visit to his father-in-law, Tereus sees his wife's sister Philomela and falls madly in love. He rapes her and then cuts out her tongue to keep the deed secret. He then tells his wife Procne that Philomela is dead, but Philomela weaves a tapestry picturing the crime and sends it to Procne. After rescuing Philomela, Procne determines to take revenge; she murders Itys, her son by Tereus, and serves him to his father for dinner. When Philomela throws Itys' head into his face, Tereus realizes what has happened. As he pursues the women to kill them, all three are changed into birds.

After Tamora's sons, Chiron and Demetrius, have raped Lavinia, they lead her onstage. The stage directions reveal what no action could. Lavinia has been raped as well as mutilated: "Enter … Lavinia, her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd." The brothers taunt her wittily, especially for inability to write:

Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if they stumps will let thee play the scribe.
See how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.

Immediately after the rapists leave the stage, Lavinia's uncle Marcus finds her and addresses her with a speech highly offensive to most critics (II.iv. 16-51). Marcus' speech is filled with metaphor, simile, and allusion, much of it high-flown and grotesquely inappropriate. It is quite clear, however, that, rather as thoughts of rape remind Aaron of the tongueless Philomela, the sight of the mutilated Lavinia reminds Marcus of the same story. Interestingly enough, whereas Aaron speaks first of mutilation, then of rape, Marcus reverses the order:

But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy

After elaborately digressing on Lavinia's feelings and his own, Marcus returns to the earlier allusion:

Fair Philomel, why, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.

Even in the midst of his grief and wonder, Marcus cannot help wittily acknowledging the refinement in cruelty achieved by Lavinia's ravisher. The modern criminal has improved upon the ancient version of the crime; "a craftier Tereus" has profited from Tereus' mistake, and has cut off Lavinia's hands.

It is noteworthy that Marcus sees the loss of Lavinia's hands in terms of their beautiful accomplishments: sewing and playing the lute (44-51). Of course sewing connects thematically with Philomela's tapestry, and playing the lute is part of a double comparison with "the Thracian poet" (51): Lavinia sang and played better than Orpheus. Still, we notice the discrepancy between Marcus' emphasis and the rapists' reference to writing ("See how with signs and tokens she can scrowl"). Marcus is so caught up in his literary conceits that it does not occur to him to lament the loss of an ability which, though mundane, might give him a clue to what has happened. Although Lavinia's mutilation is obvious to Marcus, rape is not. His alusions to Tereus and Philomela indicate that he initially understands that she has been raped, but his later speeches and actions reveal that he does not know. He seems to have become lost in his enthusiasm for commenting allusively on Lavinia's situation and has thereby forgotten the significance of his own allusions. Rape and rapists are not revealed until Act IV.

Poetic allusions were present in the planning of the rape and in Marcus' discovery of the mutilated Lavinia. Allusions also play a major role in Lavinia's exposure of the crime and identification of the culprits. But there is a difference. Lavinia at last is able to communicate what she has suffered through the book which is the source of the earlier allusions, Ovid's Metamorphoses. The physical appearance of Ovid's book at the center of this allusion-ridden play reminds us that allusions always have a source and that the source is often a poem, recorded in writing. It is striking, however, that the characters of this play are dependent on books for their allusions no less than we. This is not Oberon speaking of Cupid as a contemporary of his or, for that matter, Philomela herself as Ovid portrays her, living in a time before writing. Moreover, throughout this play Shakespeare has been quite careful to point out that the characters both read and write; in fact, there is almost an obsession with writing things down. In the first instance there is Aaron's false letter to the huntsman, exhorting him to kill Bassianus (II.iv.268-75). Titus writes in the dust his grief for his condemned sons (III.i.12-13); later he writes letters to the gods in a mad attempt to bring back justice, and he sends a personal letter to the Emperor Saturnine (IV.iii). The people of Rome write letters of support to the exiled Lucius (V.i); Aaron claims he has carved "Roman letters" on the skins of corpses (V.i.138-40). After Lavinia writes her message in the sand, Titus cries:

And come, I will go get a leaf of brass,
And with a gad of steel will write these words,
And lay it by: the angry northern wind
Will blow these sands like Sibyl's leaves abroad,
And where's our lesson then?
                                           (IV.i. 102-6)

Soon afterward he sends his grandson to the rapists with a quote from Horace wrapped around some weapons (IV.ii.1-31). Later, when Tamora foolishly tries to convince Titus that she is Revenge incarnate, she finds him in his study writing down his plans for revenge "in bloody lines" (V.ii.9-15). This emphasis on writing directs our attention again to the relationship between word and deed in the play, but within a particular context: the effect of "Roman letters," that is, Roman literature, the written wisdom of the ancients, on the characters' actions.

As mentioned earlier, Lavinia is unable to identify her torturers until she is confronted with the book, Ovid's Metamorphoses, in which a similar event is presented, Tereus' rape and mutilation of Philomela. Along with Aaron and Marcus, Lavinia is reminded of the tale by her own situation. Significantly, Shakespeare makes it clear that Ovid's Metamorphoses is a book one reads in school.

When Titus sees Lavinia desperately trying to take little Lucius' school books, he thinks she seeks "to beguile [her] sorrow" (IV.i.35) by reading; since she is "deeper read and better skill'd" (33) than the young boy, he offers her his whole library, which would presumably contain more mature fare. Finally, Titus and Marcus realize that she wants Ovid's book, not books in general. She finds the place, "the tragic tale of Philomel" (47); then they realize she was raped. The book cannot in itself reveal the rapists; Marcus prays to the gods and shows Lavinia how she might write with her stumps, guiding a staff with her mouth. Following his example, she "writes" Latin in the dust: "Stuprum [rape]. Chiron. Demetrius." Marcus attributes the revelation to God (74). But clearly the gods need help, a help which Ovid's book supplies.

The ancient poet, by this time enshrined in the Roman educational canon as a child's school book, has disclosed the crime. But it is also likely that he inspired the crime. It was Aaron, the contriver of the rape, who first mentioned Philomela losing her tongue. Chiron and Demetrius have elaborated Tereus' barbarity in an effort to fore-stall the tapestry solution. Finally, the wisdom of the ancient poet also provides the means of punishment. As Titus calls for a permanent written record of the letters in the sand ("leaf of brass … gad of steel") because he fears this new wisdom will be lost like "Sibyl's leaves," he says to his grandson, "And where's our lesson then? Boy, what say you?" (IV.ii.106). He wants to send young Lucius with a message for the rapists. As if it were a lesson he has learned in school, the boy says he will deliver the message "with my dagger in their bosoms" (118). Titus responds, "No, boy, not so! I'll teach thee another course" (119). This course, as it turns out, is also learned from Ovid's book. When Titus, about to kill Chiron and Demetrius, gloatingly details his plan to bake their heads in a pie for their mother Tamora, no one can any longer doubt the source of his revenge:

For worse than Philomel you used my daughter,
And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd.
                                   (V.iii. 194-5).

His next words, "And now prepare your throats—Lavinia, come,/ Receive the blood … ," contain a double Ovidian reference. Ovid's Philomela "prepared" her own throat when she hoped in her shame that Tereus would kill her ( … iugulum Philomela parabat, Meta. 6.553); later she slit Itys' throat ( … iugulum ferro Philomela resolvit, 6.643).

Horace is the other ancient poet who is pressed into the service of revenge. After the rape is discovered, Lucius, following Titus' orders, delivers a message to Chiron and Demetrius. The message is a bundle of weapons with this inscription:

Integer vitae scelerisque purus
Non eget Mauris iaculis nee arcu.

(He who is virtuous in life and free from
crime does not need Moorish javelins or a bow.)

These are the first two lines of Odes 1.22. In the ode virtue is its own protection. Titus wants Chiron and Demetrius to see that he knows they are not virtuous in life or free of crime; they do need Moorish javelins and a bow; they do need the protection of weapons, for they lack the protection of virtue. Moorish javelins are a direct shot at Aaron the Moor. Chiron and Demetrius receive this message in perplexity; as Demetrius reads it aloud, Chiron says:

O, 'tis a verse in Horace; I know it well;
I read it in the grammar long ago.

Aaron, however, reveals his own superior understanding:

Ay, just; a verse in Horace; right, you have it.
[Aside] Now, what a thing it is to be an ass!
Here's no sound jest! the old man hath found
  their guilt,
And sends them weapons wrapp'd about with
That wound, beyond their feeling, to the quick;
But were our witty empress well afoot,
She would applaud Andronicus' conceit.

"No sound jest.…" The gruesome crime against Lavinia, her father's understanding of it, and Aaron's understanding of Titus' understanding are all reduced to a witty conceit! Still, Aaron is right. It is witty. Titus cannot refrain from a frivolous and potentially dangerous allusion even in so serious a matter.

Aside from the tastelessness of this allusion and the many others which scholars deplore on Shakespeare's behalf, what is the point? Clearly Shakespeare shows us that his characters are well educated, at least in the sense that they have read and remembered the ancient poets. Aaron, the black man with the Jewish name, Chiron and Demetrius, Greeks in Gothic clothing, know as much about Roman poetry as the Romans of the play. Whether specifically alluding to an ancient poem or not, they all have the education—and the erudition—to speak as if they were characters in a beautiful book. But the inappropriateness of their sometimes beautiful, often learned, almost always witty speeches to the barbaric events raises these questions for us: What is the end of education? Or, to restate Titus' question, not "where's our lesson then," but what is the lesson? What is it that the characters of the play have learned from their educations?

Chiron and Demetrius, the dullards of the play, have at least read Horace in school and make allusions to Ovid and Seneca. But they miss the point of the Horace quote. Although Chiron says, "I know it well," he does not truly know, for he cannot grasp its meaning in the present context of the allusion; that is, he cannot see its moral reference to himself. Moreover, neither brother understands Ovid. If, as some believe, the highest purpose of all poetry is to instruct, Chiron and Demetrius have completely distorted the meaning of instruction. Whether Ovid intends to educate his readers or merely wishes to entertain them (and there is much current controversy about his purpose), he surely does not present Tereus' crime as something one might do if one could only get away with it. Shakespeare's medieval predecessors see a strong didactic element in the Metamorphoses. In any case, modern critics who find the poem a rather silly though entertaining handbook on mythology, useful to poets and the bane of schoolboys, can learn something from Shakespeare, who has his former schoolboys, Chiron and Demetrius, use Ovid as a manual for successful crime. They have learned from Tereus' mistake as reported by the source and have cut off their victim's hands in addition to her tongue. Their brutal understanding and its pitiful results certainly ought to make us pause, those of us at least who believe education and learning always make men better, more civilized, and, ultimately, wise. These Goths are as civilized and as humane as Roman letters can make them. Yet their learning does not lead to wisdom; it only enables them to add refinement to their barbarism.

Aaron the Moor, though much more intelligent than the Goths, is no better. He understands the Horace quote. Still, he can unfeelingly say of Lavinia, "His Philomel must lose her tongue today." He has formed his plan of murder and rape; now rape reminds him of Philomela. The only discernible result of his poetic education is his ability to speak wittily about Lavinia's impending misery. Aaron may be a connoisseur of literature; he is certainly an accomplished conniver of evil. Although we need not infer that the one disposition follows from the other, it is obvious that for the Moor the ancients are not teachers of moral virtue.

Finally, even the Romans of the play are more limited than liberated by their educations. Marcus expresses his horror at Lavinia's plight by fanciful similes and literary allusions. Lavinia herself hastens the rape when she angers Tamora with indiscreet speeches which sound as though they came from a book and are dangerously inappropriate to her own situation. Afterwards, she cannot name the crime or the criminals without the aid of her nephew's library. Even Titus, when he alerts his enemies that he knows of their crime, does so with a classical allusion. When he is about to murder the Goths, he joins himself to them in their refined barbarity through his reference to "Progne."

Many have noticed that the distance between the beautiful language and the horrible events of this play creates a distance between the play and the audience. In the view of most critics, neither the characters nor the actions are believable and, hence, we cannot for a moment, or at least not for many moments, believe in the play. Because of their literary language the characters appear unconvincingly thin. Shakespeare has failed in his effort to create the impression of "real" people and "real" actions.

This assessment misses Shakespeare's remarkable accomplishment in the play. He has in fact portrayed people who are unable to fit their thought to their speech and actions in any appropriate or original way. For these late Roman personages the filter of their literary past, that is, their education, always gets in the way. As Marcus Andronicus' first speech to Lavinia shows, he is apparently incapable of having a thought that does not either immediately point to some literary precedent or take its inspiration from an event made beautiful by literature. The event may be horrible, such as the Thracian barbarian Tereus' rape and mutilation of Philomela, but, just as Ovid describes it beautifully, so Marcus looks at the pitiful Lavinia from a poetic distance, then speaks to her and of her in a thoroughly literary way. His obsession with beautiful speech has made him silly and ineffectual.

It is ridiculous that Shakespeare's villains, Chiron and Demetrius, seem to believe that they will prevent Lavinia from writing down the crime and their names simply by correcting the error in the crime in the book: they cut off her hands. There is no reason why she could not identify them on the spot by writing with her stumps, as she in fact does in the chapbook version . Amazingly, however, their plan almost works because Shakespeare's Lavinia is as dependent on books as they are. It never occurs to her to attempt to write until after she has identified the appropriate passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Of all the characters in the play Titus himself seems most bound to his education. He is literally a literate Roman. He cannot simply think out his plans of revenge and rely on memory; he must write them down, or else lose them forever "like Sibyl's leaves." Titus is not simply mad when he insists on a permanent record of Lavinia's wrongs or fears that his studies in revenge will come to nothing if the "sad decrees" written in blood should "fly away." When he does go mad, his madness takes an educated and curiously literate form. He does not beg the gods aloud for justice; he writes letters to them. He is so confined by an education which substitutes erudition for wisdom that he cannot even invent the form of his own revenge. He can only be revenged by imitating the "Progne" of Ovid's story.

A complete interpretation of Shakespeare's play might be worked out along the lines I have suggested. It is likely that Shakespeare is using the emphasis which the characters place on the written word, particularly the written word of their literary past, as a metaphor for the past in general. This would bring us to a consideration of Shakespeare's assessment of the wisdom of relying on the past, not only on the Roman literary past but on Roman tradition as models for speech and deed. We should remember that the Rome of Titus Andronicus is Rome after Brutus, after Caesar, and after Ovid. We know it is a later Rome because the emperor is routinely called Caesar; because the characters are constantly alluding to Tarquin, Lucretia, and Brutus, suggesting that they learned about Brutus' new founding of Rome from the same literary sources we do, Livy and Plutarch, finally, we know that this Rome is old because the Augustan poet Ovid is a schoolbook, his story of Philomela so ingrained that it is second nature to the characters to think of it. The barbarians have been educated in Roman ways—as so many barbarians really were—through Roman literature, but they have put their understanding to evil and brutal purposes. Still, we cannot say that the Romans are ultimately any more civilized than the Goths and Aaron the Moor. Paradoxically, this highly civilized Roman literature provides them not only with beautiful speech but barbarous ways.

Shakespeare's portrayal of characters who so literally go by the Roman books may be designed to show the limits of Roman tradition as well as Roman literary education. Although by no means every event in the play is attached to a literary allusion, it is striking that several decisive actions are tied to Roman tradition in general: Titus' foolish choice of Saturnine over the younger, but better brother Bassianus is presented as hallowed Roman practice; so also is Lucius' gloating insistence on human sacrifice ad manes fratrum which earns the Andronici family the un-dying enmity of Tamora. It is surely significant that none of the non-Romans ever seems to draw upon his own tradition for a brutal act; it is always a Roman source or in some way connected with Rome. For example, even when Aaron recites his ghoulish, fantastic list of crimes near the end of the play, Shakespeare is careful to have him say that he carved messages on the skins of corpses in Roman letters (V.i.139).

Often in the course of the play we are made to sense that Roman literature is the same thing as Roman tradition. The connection is implicitly made on several occasions. At the end of the play the verbose Marcus again comes forward to "teach," as he says, the people of Rome to accept his nephew Lucius as emperor. In a speech laden with allusions he in effect compares Lucius to "our ancestor," Aeneas, specifically the Vergilian Aeneas who tells Dido the tale of Troy's destruction (V.iii.80-3). By this association the sorrows of the Roman Andronici are becoming a part of Roman tradition as well as a literary "tale" right before our eyes. Finally, as the young Lucius bids his dead grandfather farewell, his father Lucius, now emperor of Rome, fondly eulogizes the old man's love for the boy:

Many a story hath he told to thee,
And bid thee bear his pretty tales in mind,
And talk of them when he was dead and gone.
                                  (V.iii. 164-6)

We are aware of some of these "pretty tales." Little Lucius knows all about Hecuba going mad with grief (IV.i. 18-21); his uncle Marcus exhorts him to consider himself "the Roman Hector's hope" (IV.i.88).

One wonders whether Shakespeare is using this inept allusion to the destruction of Troy to tell us what we can expect from the new union of Goths and Romans. There is surely not much to hope for if young Lucius is to be a new Astyanax, the little boy who, according to the ancient poets, was hurled to his death from the walls of Troy by conquering Greeks. It is perhaps significant here that Chiron and Demetrius, the two brutal Goths, have Greek names. Baked in the pie and served to their mother, they are certainly not victors. Yet their actions have prompted a ghastly revenge in Titus, the man who was exhorted, "Thou art a Roman; be not barbarous" (I.i.380). Titus' failure to live up to this suggests that the barbarians are the ultimate conquerors of Rome, not only from without but from within. Roman tradition either prevents actions appropriate to the present situation or makes these actions barbarous.

It is a moral and intellectual decline, then, which Shakespeare indicates by the classical allusions surrounding Lavinia's rape and its revelation. Although the barbarians turn out to be just that, barbarous and brutal, we realize that they have learned to be even worse than they already were through their Roman educations. For within the beautiful expressions of Roman poetry is the content, which, as we learn from the play, is capable of being distorted into a handbook on crime, the Thracian horrors of Ovid's Philomela story as well as the apparently innocuous ode of Horace. Finally, we find the supposedly educated, civilized Romans eagerly embracing the same interpretation of the meaning of education as the Goths, when Titus, taking his cue from the rapists' use of literature, declares that he will be "worse than Progne." The important word here is "worse." By giving Titus such a revenge Shakespeare shows us the horrifying emptiness of Titus' Rome. One is tempted to see in Shakespeare's presentation of the Romans of this play an ironic and gloomy response to his brother poet Horace, who has such high hopes for Rome if its people will only acknowledge and follow the Roman poets as the best teachers of moral and intellectual virtue. In Titus Andronicus the Romans, even the most well-read, have become as barbaric as their enemies.

Shakespeare also reveals through his use of Ovid in this play a startling interpretation of that Roman poet's effect, if not his purpose. It is not a question, Shakespeare seems to say, of Ovid's intending to teach or alternately merely to entertain since in fact he does both. The characters of Titus Andronicus perceive him most clearly as an entertainer, as when Titus thinks Lavinia chooses the Metamorphoses because she wishes to be diverted from her sorrows (IV.i.35). However, Ovid's more important role in the play is as teacher, albeit teacher in a way that no medieval moralizer of the Metamorphoses would have envisioned. Shakespeare's characters do learn from Ovid's book; but they learn how to be evil, not good. Through this anomaly Shakespeare is showing us Rome at the end of its civilized greatness, ready to sink into barbarism precisely because its citizens, no less than its Roman-educated enemies, insist on going by the book, but have forgotten, if they ever knew, what books are truly for.

Maurice Hunt (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Compelling Art in Titus Andronicus," in Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol. 28, No. 2, Spring, 1988, pp. 197-218.

[In the following excerpt, Hunt examines the tendency of characters in Titus Andronicus to use literary models as patterns for behavior and explores the relationship between art and divine providence in the play.]

In the judgment of many critics, the Ovid of the Metamorphoses—like the proverbial candle for the moth—possessed a fatal attraction for a Shakespeare groping at times for literary models capable of becoming drama. "With Scene iii of Act II," Reuben Brower writes of Titus Andronicus [in Hero and Saint: Shakespeare and the Greco-Roman Heroic Tradition, 1971], "heroic history gives way to literal enactment of myth. The first difficulty occurs when the rape of Philomel, the sufferings of Io, the vengeful feasts of Philomel and Procne and Thyestes, are spelled out on the stage. Though neither the rhetorical style nor the horrors can be entirely blamed on the Latin poets, some of the more outrageous passages are like Seneca in their cool use of gory language and even more like Ovid in combining physically painful images with startling metaphors." In his concluding opinion, Brower may owe a debt to Eugene Waith, who—in an often-quoted essay [in Shakespeare Surrey, 1957]—claimed that the boiling mixture of Titus contains raw bits of the Metamorphoses, mainly stylistic features (sweet verse), never reworked for the rough mode of revenge tragedy. For Brower and Waith, Shakespeare's playgoers essentially stand in the same relationship to the unsavory play as Tamora does to the grisly "pastie" served up by Titus. For one camp of critics, authoritative art on occasion compelled a young Shekespeare to literalize source material, giving birth either to an unremarkable copy or—as in the charge against Titus—to a somewhat malformed off-spring.

Nonetheless, Shakespeare's characters' use of Ovidian myth to comprehend or order experience may comment more upon their world view than upon the relative quality of their creator's technical skills. In other words, the compulsive use of artistic prototypes may at times pertain to them rather than to Shakespeare; they—not the playwright—may deserve Brower's criticism. In the last two acts of Titus in particular, Shakespeare repeatedly dramatizes his characters' self-conscious reversion to literary models as patterns for their chaotic lives, at first with a certain ignorance on their part of the models' interpretive power and then later with an obsession bred of their belief that the present repeats the stories of the past. A corollary of Shakespeare's staging of the relationship of art to life in Titus involves the divine use of art as a means of revelation. In fact, when Titus in Act IV cannot recognize a saving message of divine art, he becomes overtly destructive in his complusive imitation of certain models of classical art. In this respect, the protagonist hurtles to his doom partly because he is unable to "read" the signs of heavenly art.

Chiron and Demetrius's brutal rape and mutilation of Lavinia involve the first self-conscious use of Ovidian story by characters in the play to determine their reality. Even though they are barbarians, Aaron and Tamora's sons, living in the world of the late Empire, have read Roman authors. For example, Aaron alludes to Ovid's famous tale of the nightingale when, in Act II, he tells Tamora,

This is the day of doom for Bassanius;
His Philomel must lose her tongue to-day,
Thy sons make pillage of her chastity.

Struck in their reading of the Metamorphoses by muted Philomela's sewing of her rapist's name in a sampler, Chiron and Demetrius have profited devilishly from their exposure to Ovid; they not only cut out Lavinia's tongue but lop off her hands as well, thyus barring Titus's daughter from the mythic character's means of discovery. In case his audience has missed the point, Shakespeare makes the association explicit. Seeing the ravaged girl, Marcus exclaims:

But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy

Fair Philomel, why, she but lost her tongue.
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.

At this stage of the dramatic action, Marcus's allusion to the Ovidian myth can only be conjectural on his part. Still, neither Chiron nor Demetrius is such a "craftier Tereus" that he can prevent Lavinia's eventual discovery of the crime and its actors. In fact, her means of revelation is the very book that originally suggested the nature of her mutilation to the criminals.

At the beginning of Act IV, grotesquely maimed Lavinia pursues her terrified nephew, who drops the books he has been carrying under his arm. Seeing his daughter feverishly turning pages with her stumps, Titus dimly apprehends that she seeks an artistic analogue to the outrage committed upon her, a pattern that might clarify it:

Soft, so busily she turns the leaves!
Help her: what would she find? Lavinia, shall I

This is the tragic tale of Philomel,
And treats of Tereus' treason and his rape;
And rape, I fear, was root of thy annoy.

Lavinia's excitement confirms Titus's guess. "See, brother, see," Marcus states; "note how she quotes the leaves" (IV.i.50). Titus continues more confidently:

Lavinia, wert thou thus surpris'd, sweet girl,
Ravish'd and wrong'd, as Philomela was,
Forc'd in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods?
See, see!
Ay, such a place there is, where we did hunt,—
O, had we never, never hunted there,—
Pattern'd by that the poet here describes,
By nature made for murthers and for rapes.

Titus's ecstatic "See, see" indicates that ambiguous signs reveal clear truths when related to literary prototypes. In Titus's account, Ovid's tale of Philomela even includes a vivid portrayal of a woodland scene like that in which Lavinia was raped and disfigured. Ironically, the leaves of a book disclose a crime hidden by the leaves of a forest; Art is more powerful than Nature. In Shakespeare's staging, Ovid possesses prophetic powers greater than those of the Cumaean Sibyl herself, the writer of enigmatic messages on scattering leaves. And yet the Metamorphoses remains a selva oscura until experience—represented here by Lavinia's pregnant gestures—provides the code for reading the message latent in the dark leaves. While art can illuminate life, life in turn on occasion renders intelligible prophetic art.

It is important to realize that Shakespeare, in this episode of Titus, is not simply dramatizing a case of art imitating (or mirroring) life. The "place … where we did hunt" is "pattern'd by that the poet here describes." Given Titus's "pattern'd," an uninformed auditor might think that Ovid wrote either contemporary with or after the fact of Lavinia's rape, copying, in the latter case, his account of Tereus's wood from the forest of Shakespeare's play. And yet of course it is the setting of the play and the details of the crime committed on Lavinia that providentially resemble those of Ovid's prior story. Life imitates (or follows the pattern of) art. At least that appears to be Shakespeare's Wildean suggestion in Act IV of Titus. The question remains whether Ovid's art, which has been used in Shakespeare's tragedy both as a formula for evil and as a key to potential justice, finds a place in a larger design.

The providential aspect of compelling art appears almost immediately in the continuation of the episode from Titus under discussion. After Titus intuits that legend provides the means for clarifying Lavinia's personal tragedy, he pleads,

Give signs, sweet girl, for here are none but
What Roman lord it was durst do the deed:
Or slunk not Saturnine, as Tarquin erst,
That left the camp to sin in Lucrece' bed?

Titus's instincts are right in seeking a literary model for the identity of Lavinia's ravisher, even though he is mistaken in his choice of story. Marcus, however, apparently benefits from divine inspiration:

Sit down, sweet niece: brother, sit down by me.
Apollo, Pallas, Jove, or Mercury,
Inspire me, that I may this treason find!
My lord, look here; look here, Lavinia:
This sandy plot is plain; guide, if thou canst,
This after me. He writes his name with his staff
              and guides it with feet and mouth.

                     I have writ my name
Without the help of any hand at all.
Curs'd be that heart that forced us to this shift!
Write thou, good niece, and here display at last
What God will have discovered for revenge.
Heaven guide thy pen to print thy sorrows plain,
That we may know the traitors and the truth!

Marcus discovers God's stratagem for revealing hidden vice. Despite his unorthodox method, Marcus's writing in sand duplicates the act of Ovidian Io. Titus's brother realizes the artistic, especially the literary, medium by which the deity communicates with mankind. Lavinia in turn quickly emulates her uncle's method. After tracing "Stuprum. Chiron. Demetrius " (IV.i.78) upon the "plain" earth, she aptly, in light of our subject, concludes with some verses from Seneca's Hippolytus, which, in her mind, comment upon her disaster. Titus reads "Magni dotninator poli, / Tarn lentus audis scelera? tarn lentus vides? " ("Ruler of the great heaven, art thou so slow to hear and see crimes?"). Lavinia believes that she finds in art's mirror a thought for exactly realizing her despair over the rape. Contrary to her sentiment, however, the God of Titus has not been slow to divulge secret crimes.

Interestingly, Marcus refers to the deity in the singular as "God"; certainly his prior allusions to Apollo and Mercury suggest that he addresses the supreme god Jove. Since we have no evidence for Shakespeare's seeing the quarto text of Titus through the press, and since Renaissance printers often capitalized important nouns, we have little reason to assume that marcus ironically evokes the Christian God. Still, his use of the singular in naming divinity, coupled with the late-Empire setting of the play, permits a fleeting, ironic allusion to the non-pagan deity. In fact, Marcus's allusion creates the kind of dramatic ambiguity that Shakespeare shows a fondness for in other Roman plays when he places Christian references in the mouths of ancient speakers. Because Titus is the only Roman play historically set in the world after Christ, references to an elder tree growing by hell-pit (II.iii.277)—the tree associated with Judas—and to a "ruinous monastery" (V.i.21) where Aaron is captured do not represent clear instances of religious anachronism, as, for example, do Caesar's thirty-three wounds, which recall Christ's traditional age at the Crucifixion ([Julius Caesar] V.i.53-54).

Whatever the case, the first three acts of Titus present no evidence for resolving the ambiguity inherent in Marcus's allusion. However, by inspiring the Romans to discover Lavinia's rapists, the God of Titus—whether pagan or Christian—poses an ethical dilemma for the protagonist. For Marcus, the problem is easily solved—swift vengeance:

My lord, kneel down with me; Lavinia, kneel;
And kneel, sweet boy, the Roman Hector's hope;
And swear with me, as with that woeful fere
And father of that chaste dishonoured dame,
Lord Junius Brutus sware for Lucrece rape,
That we will prosecute by good advice
Mortal revenge upon these traitorous Goths,
And see their blood, or die with this reproach.

By invoking the Troy story and the legend of Lucrece, Marcus, appropriating the newly revealed divine modus operandi, finds cues for action in literary patterns. By recollecting Hector and Junius Brutus, Marcus gives the elder Lucius and Titus artistic models to imitate for heroic and bloody deeds. For Titus, however, the moral dilemma created by divine revelation appears stronger.

When Titus tells the boy Lucius that he has presents for Chiron and Demetrius, Lucius surmises that they will be daggers for their hearts (IV.i.118). "No, boy, not so," Titus exclaims; "I'll teach thee another course" (IV.i.l 19). Marcus, speaking to himself, in a sudden change of attitude can only admire Titus's apparent forswearing of blood revenge:

Marcus, attend him in his ecstasy,
That hath more scars of sorrow in his heart
Than foemen's marks upon his batt'red shield,
But yet so just that he will not revenge.
Revenge the heavens for old Andronicus!
                                  (IV.i. 125-29)

Marcus's final sentiment is orthodox Tudor myth—trusting God to rectify in His own time and inscrutable way injuries inflicted by tyrants. Titus temporarily solves his dilemma by using art in an attempt to compel the villains to destroy one another, while the remains relatively blameless.

Once in court, the boy Lucius tells Aaron, Chiron, and Demetrius that

My grandsire, well-advis'd, hath sent by me
The goodliest weapons of his armoury
To gratify your honourable youth,
The hope of Rome, for so he bid me say;
And so I do, and with his gifts present
Your lordships, that, whenever you have need,
You may be armed and appointed well.

Titus's gifts consist of weapons strangely wrapped in Latin literary verses. His hand will not drive daggers into rapists' hearts; presumably the criminals themselves will do so under the compulsion attending an artistic insight on their part. Titus has chosen the Latin poetry so that it comments ironically upon Chiron and Demetrius's crime. For example, Demetrius, examining the paper wrapping a weapon, reads part of a Horatian ode: "Integer vitae, scelerisque purus, / Non eget Mauri iaculis, nee arcu " (IV.ii.20-21). "O, 'tis a verse in Horace; I know it well," Chiron naively claims; "I read it in the grammar long ago" (IV.ii.22-23)—so long ago in fact that he does not grasp the poetry's bearing upon his fragile safety. A translation of the Latin—"The man who is pure of life and free from crime needs not the arrows or bow of the Moor"—reveals Titus's awareness of Tamora's sons' crime against Lavinia and Aaron's role in it. Reading the verse, whose message argues for a breaking of relationship between the man and the Moor, Chiron and Demetrius might, flattered by the hope of a pure life ensuing, turn upon Aaron and kill him. Conversely, Aaron, aware of Titus's knowledge and the poetry's relevance, might decide to kill the boys before they slay him, or before they act in a way divulging his role in the crime. Whatever the bloody outcome, Titus assumes that art, once understood, will exert a savage but just retribution for his daughter's violation, fulfilling divine will in a way that keeps him free from guilt.

Titus's inclination to use art as an agent of vengeance may spring from his perception that the deity has employed artistic means to reveal truths seemingly demanding retaliation. However, Titus's artistry goes awry when Tamora's dull sons miss their bloody cues and when Aaron regards the scheme only as a bravura display of Renaissance wit. "Now, what a thing it is to be an ass! / Here's no sound jest! the old man hath found their guilt" (IV.ii.25-26), the Moor exclaims. "But were our witty empress well afoot," he continues, "She would applaud Andronicus' conceit" (IV.ii.29-30). Apparently God intends to use Titus directly as an avenger of evil, perhaps judging that his pitiless sacrifice of Tamora's guiltless son at the play's beginning qualifies the old man to be divinity's selfdestructive agent—a "scourge," in short, like Hamlet. Still, Titus's art indirectly begins working good when it compels Aaron to break with his conspirators and seek personal safety in flight, a flight ending, significantly, in his capture in a monastery's ruins.

Our next view of Titus shows him continuing to use art in an attempt to compel behavior. Equipped with a bow and arrows with letters attached, Titus petitions the heavens for relief. "Terras Astraea reliquit"—"Astraea, goddess of Justice, has left the earth"—reads one of the winged letters. Since in Titus's opinion justice dwells among the gods, retribution must proceed from above, perhaps in the form of a thunderbolt or a plague, rather than from man's hand. In other words, Titus's artistic conceit reflects his persisting desire to avoid personal revenge and trust divine providence. Because Titus's verse is taken from Book I of Ovid's Metamorphoses, the poetry testifies to his enduring belief that literary images can suggest meaningful patterns for behavior—in this case divine behavior. Publius believes that flattering Titus's humor will ease his madness. Consequently, when Titus asks if Publius has found Astraea, the latter Roman construes reality as a literary fable: Pluto "sends word" that Justice is employed, perhaps in heaven, but that Revenge is on call from hell (IV.iii.37-41). Unaware of Titus's belief that art molds life, Publius cannot understand the force of his personifications or the impact of his fiction on the old warrior. Convinced that "there's no justice in earth nor hell" (IV.iii.49), Titus again resolves to "solicit heaven and move the gods / To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs" (IV.iii.50-51):

Ad Jovem, that's for you: here, Ad Apollinem
Ad Martem,
that's for myself:
Here, boy, to Pallas: here, to Mercury:
To Saturn, Caius, not to Saturnine;
You were as good to shoot against the wind.

These pleas divinity apparently does not stoop to answer. "In this context," David Palmer remarks [in Critical Quarterly, 1972], "the last age of Rome under Saturninus in Shakespeare's play is something akin to a blasphemous parody, in which the 'Virgo' becomes neither Astraea nor Mary, but the violated chastity of Lavinia … while the son that is born into this world of woe is no redeemer, but Aaron's bastard." Still, Shakespeare introduces the more tender virtues associated with Christianity into this late Roman world as values that Romans fail to appreciate or adopt.

This is made clear by the Clown-pigeon episode, which has usually been regarded by critics as dramatic filler. Titus's prayers are answered—not by a deus ex machina of Jupiter (like that staged in Cymbeline)—but by a heavenly response nonetheless (albeit a disguised one). Soon after the bizarre arrow-shooting, a country fellow carrying a basket containing two pigeons enters. Titus himself creates the context for valuing this interlude when he shouts,

News, news from heaven! Marcus, the post is
Sirrah, what tidings? have you any letters?
Shall I have Justice? What says Jupiter?

"Ho, the gibbet-maker?" the Clown whimsically exclaims, coining a kind of pun that captures ironically the vindictiveness of the classical gods. Distraught Titus repeats his question, "Why didst thou not come from heaven?" (IV.iii.87). Naturally the Clown protests: "From heaven? alas, sir, I never came there. God forbid I should be so bold to press to heaven in my young days" (IV.iii.88-90).

Nonetheless, Titus's madness has hit upon a veiled truth. The Clown, while obviously not a literal messenger from heaven, incarnates a heavenly ethos potentially redemptive for the wilderness of Titus. "Why, I am going with my pigeons to the tribunal plebs, to take up a matter of brawl betwixt my uncle and one of the emperal's men" (IV.iii.90-92), he continues. Clearly, the rustic intends the pigeons as a peace offering. In this respect, he represents the values of forgiveness and reconciliation, values which quickly would turn tragedy into divine comedy if adopted by Romans. The presence of the pigeons gives these values a Christian coloring; sixteenth-century iconography often employs pigeons—doves—as symbols for the Holy Ghost. Titus's strange artistry has provoked a veiled response from a God unrevered by fourth-century Romans. That Titus—not to mention most viewers of the play—misreads God's dark conceit is not surprising. Only the audience that grasps the mimetic interplay between art and life understands that Shakespeare's God responds in kind; he challenges Titus and playgoers to interpret his symbols, his dark conceits, even as he has answered Titus's witty, artistic method of prayer. Titus's failure to fathom God's art, to imitate the model of the Clown's intended behavior, suggests a solipsistic blindness to anything that does not directly promote his revenge.

But does Titus really have a choice? Recently several critics have argued that the Rome of Titus, in its primitive customs of blood revenge, is no more enlightened than savage lands like that of Tamora's Goths. In their view, Shakespeare weaves a mysterious Christian Providence through the play's events, pacifying both Goth and Roman, to bring forth a less tyrannous Rome represented in part by a crucial willingness to forgive seen in Lucius at the play's end. His pardoning of Aaron's son does break the cataclysmic series of filial sacrifices in the play. In this argument, Titus becomes the necessary scourge making possible a Rome superior to Saturninus's wracked city. Titus's eye-for-an-eye sacrifice of Alarbus can qualify him as the corrupt agent who, in God's scheme, destroys greater evil—and yet himself in the process too. Providence thus, in a certain economy of goodness, fully sweeps away corruption before forming a conciliatory society. In this respect, the special message of the Clown remains for the onstage and theatrical audiences—a message about a man hardened of heart, unable to embrace the reconciliation his role as scourge will help bring about in the character of Lucius.

In fact, the perversity of Titus's treatment of the well-meaning if bumbling Clown stamps him as the scourge worthy of ruin. "By me thou shalt have justice at his [the emperor's] hands" (IV.iii.102), Titus predicts, secretly ordering Marcus to fold the Clown's knife in a bitter oration specially penned by Titus for Saturninus. "Then here is a supplication for you," Titus states, "and when you come to him, at the first approach you must kneel; then kiss his foot; then deliver up your pigeons; and then look for your reward" (IV.iii.107-10). "God be with you, sir; I will" (IV.iii.118), the innocent wishes as he departs to his brutal death, his final blessing on Titus clinching his piety. That the Clown is meant in his death to be thought of as a kind of martyr is signalled by his allusion to a Christian prototype in his greeting to Saturninus: "Tis he. God and Saint Stephen give you godden. I have brought you a letter and a couple of pigeons here" (IV.iv.42-44). "Go, take him away, and hang him presently" (IV.iv.45), Saturninus snarls, angered by Titus's claim in the delivered letter that the emperor has butchered Titus's sons.

Thus the Clown-pigeon episode, while revealing God's symbolic artistry, casts Titus as unappreciative of its message—and so not worthy to be saved by grace. The larger art of Providence directs Titus one way, while, for a moment, God's local art fashions a spectacle for those uncorrupted enough to learn from Titus's example.

At the beginning of Act V, the arch villainess Tamora, stung by the report that Titus's son, Lucius, leads an army of vengeful Goths against Rome, decides to use Titus in a scheme to thwart this new threat. Her plan involves concocting a little allegory based on the conventions of the recently established sub-genre of Elizabethan revenge tragedy. Approaching Titus's villa, she verbally creates a popular aesthetic context for the ensuing episode:

Thus, in this strange and sad habiliment,
I will encounter with Andronicus,
And say I am Revenge, sent from below
To join with him and right his heinous wrongs;
Knock at his study, where they say he keeps,
To ruminate strange plots of dire revenge;
Tell him Revenge is come to join with him
And work confusion on his enemies.

With a cruel irony for Titus, Tamora's proposed drama fleshes out Publius's earlier, patronizing fable. Titus, however, first sees the empress Tamora, not the figure of Revenge (V.ii.25-26). "Is not thy coming for my other hand?" (V.ii.27), he awkwardly asks. Despite this question, Tamora, persuaded of Titus's blinding madness, insists on her delusion:

Know thou, sad man, I am not Tamora;
She is thy enemy, and I thy friend:
I am Revenge, sent from th' infernal kingdom
To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind
By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes.

This artistic conceit, Tamora's playlet, apparently takes in Titus. It is as though he and Tamora had noted well Revenge's dramatic assurance to the Ghost of Don Andrea at the beginning of The Spanish Tragedy. "Art thou Revenge? and art thou sent to me," Titus queries, "to be a torment to mine enemies?" (V.ii.41-42). Seemingly bewitched by Tamora's artistry, Titus allegorizes Chiron and Demetrius, who have accompanied their mother in her ruse:

Do me some service ere I come to thee.
Lo, by thy side where Rape and Murder stands;
Now give some surance that thou art Revenge:
Stab them, or tear them on thy chariot-wheels,
And then I'll come and be thy waggoner,
And whirl along with thee about the globe.

"And day by day I'll do this heavy task," Titus repeats, "so thou destroy Rapine and Murder there" (V.ii.58-59). Has distracted Titus been completely fooled by Tamora's playlet so that he cannot tell fact from fancy? Has he become so persuaded that art models experience that he credits a destructive fiction, ready to act according to its aesthetic dictates? Or is Titus slyly engineering Chiron's and Demetrius's deaths at their mother's hand (perhaps trying to absolve himself of the penalty for vengeance), by turning the logic of Tamora's allegory against itself?

Whatever the case, Titus and Tamora at this point engage in a struggle for art as an instrument of the will and a means for ordering experience for just or unjust ends. "These are my ministers," Tamora replies to Titus's suggestion, implying that Revenge cannot destroy its own agents for success. "Are these thy ministers?" Titus asks; "what are they call'd?" (V.ii.61). "Rape and Murder," Tamora answers; "therefore called so / 'Cause they take vengeance of such kind of men" (V.ii.62-63). J.C. Maxwell, in an appendix to his New Arden edition of the play, has argued that, in Tamora's mind, disguised Chiron and Demetrius lacked namable identities when they approached Titus's villa with her (pp. 131-32). Titus—not Tamora—first personified them in keeping with the iconography of Revenge. At length asking Revenge their names, he learns that he has correctly allegorized them. In doing so, Titus may have wrenched artistic direction of Tamora's playlet from the authoress herself. In other words, Titus may be reshaping an artistic pattern for experience rather than having his actions molded by it. "Good Lord, how like the empress' sons they are" (V.ii.64), Titus concludes:

And you the empress, but we worldly men
Have miserable, mad, mistaking eyes.
O sweet Revenge, now do I come to thee;
And, if one arm's embracement will content
I will embrace thee in it by and by.

Shakespeare carefully builds suspense by not quickly resolving the question of whether a deadly art deludes Titus or a clever protagonist knows it for an illusion, employing it secretly for the Goths' ruin. Tamora has cast herself as Revenge simply to gain Titus's confidence; she knows that he has been looking for Revenge everywhere. "See, here he comes," she concludes, "and I must ply my theme" (V.ii.80). "Show me a murtherer, I'll deal with him" (V.ii.93), Demetrius states in the spirit of his assigned identity. "Show me a villain that hath done a rape, / And I am sent to be reveng'd on him" (V.ii.94-95), Chiron iterates. Ironically, Tamora's sons are damning themselves as murderer and rapist; Chiron as Rape and Demetrius as Murder will destroy Chiron the rapist and Demetrius the murderer. Shadowed forth is a dynamism of just self-destruction, thrust upon the young men by means of a compelling artistry. Trusting ad-lib Machiavellian policy becomes risky when art orders life; little room exists for improvisation. Suddenly caught up in an allegory escaping their control, Chiron and Demetrius find themselves subject to the righteous logic of the art. These points are not lost upon Titus:

Look round about the wicked streets of Rome,
And when thou find'st a man that's like thyself,

Good Murther, stab him; he's a murtherer.
Go thou with him; and when it is thy hap
To find another that is like to thee,
Good Rapine, stab him; he is a ravisher.

Moreover, Titus's direction of art's retributive working includes Tamora herself:

Go thou with them; and in the emperor's court
There is a queen attended by a Moor;
Well shalt thou know her by thine own
For up and down she doth resemble thee:
I pray thee, do on them some violent death;
They have been violent to me and mine.
                                 (V.ii. 104-109)

Hoodwinked, Tamora agrees to let Rape and Murder remain with Titus while she promises to bring the queen and Saturninus to Titus's banquet. Martha Rozett has argued [in The Doctrine of Election and the Emergence of Elizabethan Tragedy, 1984] that "Tamora, by pretending to be a temptation figure, does in fact become one, by offering Titus the opportunity to seize her two sons. The very elements that make this scene seem so contrived to a modern audience might have served as evidence to a sixteenth-century one that Providence was indeed intervening, turning Tamora into the agent of her own destruction and Titus into the instrument of the revenging gods." Finally, Titus, in a dramatic aside, ends the uncertainty over Tamora's disguise: "I knew them all, though they suppos'd me mad, / And will o'erreach them in their own devices" (V.ii. 142-43). Art will undermine art. Once alone with Tamora's sons, Titus summons his friends Publius, Caius, and Valentine:

Tit. Know you these two?
Pub. The empress' sons, I take them, Chiron and
Tit. Fie, Publius, fie, thou art too much deceiv'd;
      The one is Murder, and Rape is the other's

The artistry of the young men's disguise is so mediocre that they are easily recognizable. Tamora's understanding of the complex degree of artistry necessary for determining experience proves faulty. The question remains whether Titus's mastery is sufficient for his success.

Generally, Titus's Ovidian pattern for revenge exhibits decorum. He tells the bound criminals, "For worse than Philomel you us'd my daughter, / And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd" (V.ii. 194-95). In revenge for Tereus's rape of her sister, Procne served him a meal made up of his son's flesh; similarly, Titus plans to cut Chiron's and Demetrius's throats:

Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,
And with your blood and it I'll make a paste,
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads,
And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,
Like to the earth swallow her own increase.
                                  (V.ii. 186-91)

Titus's imitation of Ovid's story of Philomel and Procne reveals originality when Tamora ignorantly eats her slaughtered sons' remains, justly illustrating Appetite's self-consuming nature. Amorally greedy for absolute power, Tamora has cut down anyone standing in her ambition's way. A creature of earthy passions, she enacts a role in Titus's playlet in which she aptly swallows her own personified sins, grossly punishing herself in the process. This original enactment appears to be the "worse" (for the villains) in Titus's resolve to out-imitate his artistic model.

Shakespeare reserves the crowning blow of Titus's artistry for the play's final scene. Entering costumed "like a cook," Titus clearly plans to play a part in his final performance. Marcus expects that Titus's banquet will resemble a convivial feast, perhaps like that celebrated by Plato in the Symposium, or—at least from the audience's viewpoint—perhaps like that communion of brothers typified by the Last Supper: "The feast is ready which the careful Titus/Hath ordain'd to an honourable end,/For peace, for love, for league, and good to Rome" (V.iii.21-23). For a fleeting moment, the life-renewing values seen in the Clown are recalled. And yet before they can crystallize, intersecting the play's drive toward tragedy, Titus forces a grim pattern upon events:

My lord the emperor, resolve me this:
Was it well done of rash Virginius
To slay his daughter with his own right hand,
Because she was enforc'd, stain'd, and

Editors wrestle gamely with the sense of these verses. According to G. Blakemore Evans, "this Roman centurion killed his daughter to prevent her rape. Either the dramatist has got the story wrong or he is failing to convey the idea that Titus has a better case for killing Lavinia than Virginius had for killing his daughter." Surely the point lies otherwise. Titus has learned to adapt artistic patterns for his own advantage; in fact, he learned when the identities of Lavinia's rapists were discovered that God works in such a way. For the moment, Saturninus replies to Titus's question about Virginius's homicide:

Sat. It was, Andronicus.
Tit. Your reason, mighty lord?
Sat. Because the girl should not survive her shame,
     And by her presence still renew his sorrows.
Tit. A reason mighty, strong, and effectual;
     A pattern, president, and lively warrant
     For me, most wretched, to perform the like.
     Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee;
     And with thy shame thy father's sorrow die!
     [He kills her.]

Saturninus's horrified reaction represents that of most members of the audience: "What hast thou done, unnatural and unkind?" (V.iii.48). Art's logic is not life's logic. God employed artistic patterns to reveal truth, promote justice, and build a foundation for a better Rome; Titus adapts the Virginius story as a model for action in order to satisfy his perverted sense of honor. Clearly, Lavinia's death in Titus's staging is gratuitous. In this respect, Act IV, scene iv of The Spanish Tragedy most likely inspired Shakespeare's dramaturgy.

There, Hieronimo, the master artist, adapts a play—The Tragedy of Soliman and Perseda—for the festivities following Balthazar's and Bel-imperia's wedding, which unites the Spanish and Portuguese kings. An aesthetic vehicle for Hieronimo's revenge, the drama requires Lorenzo to play a knight of Rhodes; Bel-imperia Perseda, the knight's beloved; and Balthazar Soliman, the heathen Sultan also in love with Perseda. Hieronimo himself will play a bashaw in the Sultan's service. Hieronimo's play demands that the bashaw (Hieronimo) stab the knight (Lorenzo) on command of the wildly jealous Soliman (Balthazar). Enraged Perseda (Bel-imperia) then kills Soliman. During the court performance, the knives and blows are real, sending gullible Lorenzo and Balthazar to their dooms for their murder of Hieronimo's son, Horatio. Hieronimo's art conforms to the gory reality of the Spanish court; the protagonist kills the man most guilty of his son's murder while Bel-imperia slays the Portuguese prince who killed her first love, Don Andrea. In essence, Hieronimo's play-within-the-play provides a pattern for vengeance upon actual deeds.

When Hieronimo revises the ending of The Tragedy of Soliman and Perseda so that Bel-imperia might live, he reveals not only a vestige of humanity but also the fact that he works with an actual tragedy written in Toledo by himself many years earlier (IV.i.70-79). Admittedly, Kyd's audience may hesitate to accept Hieronimo's account of the origin of his tragedy. One could argue that Hieronimo simply slapped together a play, fulfilling his and Belimperia's need for a vehicle for their notion of justice, and then misled his victims by persuading them that the drama represents a work completed in the days when Hieronimo, in his own words, "plied" himself to "fruitless poetry" (IV.i.71). After all, the coincidence of crimes in The Spanish Tragedy to the fictional events of an old student tragedy would be extremely remote. Nonetheless, Kyd indicates that such a coincidence has occurred. After stabbing Balthazar, Bel-imperia suddenly kills herself, directly contrary to the preservation that Hieronimo rewrote into his play's ending. "Poor Bel-imperia missed her part in this," Hieronimo confesses; "For though the story saith she should have died, / Yet I of kindness, and of care of her, / Did otherwise determine of her end" (IV.iv. 140-43). Hieronimo's confession makes sense only if he in fact has resurrected an old play and revised its ending. And yet Bel-imperia chooses to ignore that revision and kill herself; experience in the Spanish court has in fact fully conformed to an artistic pattern created long ago in Hieronimo's youth.

However, with Bel-imperia's suicide, Hieronimo loses control of his art. In a mad act of violence, Hieronimo kills the duke of Castile, Lorenzo's and Bel-imperia's father, seemingly because the revenger regards him as his alter ego—a man left heirless by crime. Hieronimo does stab himself and the duke in virtually one motion with the same knife. The senseless killing of the duke of Castile suggests that the tragic protagonist who uses art as his model for experience can become so carried away by the spirit of his re-enactment that unjust outrages occur, bringing further damnation upon the artisan's head. It is this dimension of Kyd's staging that Shakespeare may have noticed and developed in the catastrophe of Titus. In fact, Shakespeare's inspiration for Titus's shocking killing of Lavinia may have come from Hieronimo's pointless murder of the duke of Castile. Both deaths warn against the danger of becoming compulsively caught up in acting out deadly artistic patterns.

Nonetheless, in Shakespeare's play Titus provides a rationale for his wild deed. In reply to Saturninus's question—"What hast thou done?"—he attempts to justify Lavinia's death:

Kill'd her for whom my tears have made me
I am as woeful as Virginius was,
And have a thousand times more cause than he
To do this outrage; and it now is done.

When Saturninus infers from Titus's repeated allusions to the Virginius story that Lavinia suffered rape, he asks Titus to name the criminals. The protagonist, however, after identifying the empress's sons, gruesomely points out that they may be sought in the pie which Tamora has eaten: "Why, there they are, both baked in this pie; / Whereof their mother daintily hath fed, / Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred" (V.iii.60-62). The final verse of Titus's speech stresses the previously mentioned moral about Appetite that prompted Titus's application of the Procne-Tereus story to the details of his revenge. In Titus's mind at least, this grisly moral marks the conclusion of an artistic pattern. His playlet over, he then stabs Tamora to death, receiving his death blow from Saturninus, who in turn is killed by the elder Lucius.

Amid the carnage, Marcus struggles to understand seemingly random acts of brutality. Not surprisingly, he does so by applying to them the pattern of art most tragic in the Renaissance mind. Addressing Lucius, Marcus states:

But if my frosty signs and chaps of age,
Grave witnesses of true experience,
Cannot induce you to attend my words,
Speak, Rome's dear friend, as erst our ancestor,
When with his solemn tongue he did discourse
To love-sick Dido's sad-attending ear
The story of that baleful burning night
When subtle Greeks surpris'd King Priam's
Tell us what Sinon hath bewitch'd our ears,

Or who hath brought the fatal engine in
That gives our Troy, our Rome, the civil wound.

Here's Rome's young captain, let him tell the
While I stand by and weep to hear him speak.

For Virgilian Rome, the tragic story of Troy became a tale of rebirth; Aeneas's founding of Rome was considered the rebuilding of Priam's great city. By comparing Lucius to Aeneas, Marcus unintentionally converts a tragic pattern of art into a redemptive legend. According to Reuben Brower, even the less-learned viewer of Titus "would have seen the point in the restoration of peace and order under Lucius," who was also "the 'first Christian king of England', as he 'was presented' in Foxe's Book of Martyrs, one of the more widely read works of Elizabeth's reign." By identifying the Roman Lucius with the English Christian Lucius, Shakespeare suggests that the patterns of the past need not inexorably shape the future. By sparing Aaron's blackamoor child, Roman Lucius realizes, for an instant, the distinctively Christian virtue of mercy, breaking the deadly chain of eye-for-an-eye executions of sons—the catalyst to most of the disaster in Titus. In his momentarily refined character, Roman Lucius, before lapsing into his terrible sentence upon Aaron, predicts his Christian namesake, who began a dynasty that would eventually bring Astraea back to earth in the form of Queen Elizabeth. By recognizing the art of God's Providence in this design, Shakespeare's viewer gains insight into an aesthetic prototype more worthy of endorsement than Ovid's grim formulas. In fact, that awareness appears to be one of the more important dramatic effects intended by the creator of Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare's detached, often ironic perspective upon compelling art in this popular revenge tragedy makes charging him with naively imitating the works of Roman masters extremely difficult. Even at an early age (perhaps even in his late twenties), Shakespeare displays his remarkable ability for cooly exploring in his characterizations certain problems of art often committed by less thoughtful authors in their own persons.

Heather James (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: "Cultural Disintegration in Titus Andronicus: Mutilating Titus, Vergil, and Rome," in Themes in Drama, Vol. 13, 1991, pp. 123-40.

(In the following excerpt, James suggests that Shakespeare employs Vergilian and Ovidian models in Titus Andronicus to perform a critique of Roman traditions and values.]


The impulse to dismember and devour pervades this revenge drama: it motivates not only the revenge plots of Titus and Tamora, but also Shakespeare's curious handling of literary authorities, particularly Vergil and Ovid. In treating the classical texts of imperial Rome, Shakespeare replicates the tragedy's patterns of competition, mutilation, and digestion—the latter a term for imitations which absorb and transform their sources. His purpose, in part, is to 'overgo' Vergil and Ovid, as well as the classicizing and violent dramas of Kyd and Marlowe. But Shakespeare's aemulatio and digestio go further to perform a critique of imperial Rome on the eve of its collapse. Re-enacting literary history, Shakespeare first invokes the Aeneid as the epic of empire-building, order, and pietas, and then allows Ovid's Metamorphoses to invade, interpreting the fundamental impulses of Vergil's poem as chaotic, even apocalyptic. Simply put, the founding acts of Empire turn out to contain the seeds of its destruction. As we shall see, the turning point from Vergil to Ovid is the rape of Lavinia. This grisly fulcrum functions logically in the poetics of cultural disintegration, for as Shakespeare knew, Rome was founded on rape: the rape of the Sabine women, the rape of Lucrece, the rape of Ilia, Aeneas' dynastic marriage to Lavinia, which threatened to repeat the rape of Helen of Troy, and, with considerable and distressing ambiguity, the seduction of Dido. (Dido's fall is overdetermined to a degree that makes it impossible to isolate agency or responsibility.) The rape of Lavinia, however, alludes to that of Ovid's Philomela, which is disturbingly spliced onto those Great Rapes which helped found Rome, and particularly—as we shall see—onto the fall of Dido. Such a conflation allows Shakespeare to perform an Ovidian critique of Rome, whose imperium was not, after all, sine fine.

This is a lot to claim for a play whose overwrought rhetoric and violent excesses have brought down on Shakespeare's head the famous charge [by Edward Ravenscroft, in Titus Andronicus, 1686] that it is 'a most incorrect and indigested piece', and 'rather a heap of Rubbish than a Structure'. Critics are understandably affronted by Titus, which of all Shakespeare's plays cites the most Latin yet hacks up the most bodies, trades on puns and body parts, and revels in a treasury of rhetorical wit, yet perversely drags on stage the physical and horribly literal signs of its 'trim invention'—such as the 'trimmed' Lavinia, who stands in ghastly contrast to the alchemical poetics her uncle Marcus produces from her maimed body. Albeit hard to stomach, such perverse links between language and action, rhetoric and violence, bear the stamp of cultural—and Ovidian—decadence. Ovidian poetics, which complicates and politicizes the referential nature of the sign, glances proleptically at the disintegration of Roman culture. I shall first discuss the play's invocation of Vergil; then the Ovidian plot and critique, which unravel Vergilian values; and finally, the play's concluding attempt to remember Vergil and to reintegrate the crumbling heritage of Roman patriarchy, a process which apparently depends on containing internal threats figured as female. For, despite Aaron's prominent role in devising plots, the plays's Allecto is Tamora, and while all violence performed on Titus' family devolves on Titus himself, nonetheless it is Lavinia's raped and mutilated body that stands as the most terrible sign of social disorder. The play's discourse of cultural disintegration is writ large in the two extreme signs of violation, Tamora's Pit and Lavinia's body, twin loci of violent mayhem and of literary contamination. As apocalyptic conflations of Vergil and Ovid, they are metaphors which transport Roman origins to their end.

As the Aeneid begins with the famous storm which comes to stand for furor, understood as both political and emotional upheaval, so Titus Andronicus begins with a political tempest whose passionate storms, thunders, and furies are heard throughout the play. Rome is beleagured not only by the Goths, but by its own legal institutions and its worn out myths—particularly, its latter-day Romulus and Remus, who vie for the imperial seat and for Titus' daughter. The last Caesar has died, and his sons rally their factions to determine the succession. Saturninus invokes primogeniture, while Bassianus appeals to free election and to 'virtue consecrate,/ To justice, continence, and nobility' (I.i.14-15). The people, however, elect as the true successor to Rome's military Caesars, Titus, who enters Rome and the stage directly from his military victory over the Goths. Titus also brings with him the cool breath of authority and order. As he formally greets Rome, then his family tomb, he has the effect of Vergil's Neptune, or more properly, of the august civic official in Vergil's simile, whose mere appearance calms the impassioned Roman mob.

The Andronici, in fact, known for their 'uprightness and integrity' (1.i.48), virtually claim the Aeneid as family history. When Marcus announces that the people 'have by common voice,/ In election for the Roman empery,/ Chosen Andronicus, surnamed Pius' (1.i.21-3), he establishes Titus' spiritual descent from the pius Aeneas and embarks on an epideictic speech which refers its values to the Aeneid. For ten years—the duration of the Trojan war—Titus has fought 'weary wars against the barbarous Goths' and 'chastised with arms/ Our enemies' pride' (I.i.28, 32-3). His military acts against the Goths and their Queen, Tamora, satisfy Anchises' instructions to Aeneas in the Underworld, and invite an analogy of Rome's recent wars to those against Carthage, the arch-enemy civilization which in Vergil's fiction was founded by another queen, Dido: tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento/ (hae tibi erunt artes), pacique imponere morem,/ parcere subiectis et debellare superbos ('Remember, Roman, by your power to rule the people (for these will be your arts), to impose the custom of peace, spare the conquered, and battle down the proud'). He is, moreover, the 'Patron of virtue', and has for Rome's sake buried twenty-one of his twenty-five sons, 'Half the number that King Priam had' (I.i.80). He further boasts a daughter named after Aeneas' Latin bride: Lavinia, 'Rome's rich ornament', for whom Saturninus and Bassianus fight. To crown his Vergilian achievements, Titus even enters Rome with a conquered Cleopatra: Tamora, Queen of the Goths, who is 'brought to Rome/ To beautify [his] triumphs'.

Yet Vergilian pietas has ossified over the centuries. Titus' religious, patriotic, and familial observances conform to the letter rather than the spirit of the law. Titus' obsession with form is emblematically entwined with death, to judge by the Andronici's prominently displayed 500-year-old tomb, which Titus has 'sumptuously re-edified' (I.i.351). But Titus' actions speak loudest. Before he buries those sons who died in the wars, he interrogates his own piety:

Titus, unkind, and careless of thine own,
Why suffer'st thou thy sons, unburied yet,
To hover on the dreadful shore of Styx?

Yet his question is rhetorical, an occasion for an allusion to the souls of the unburied in Book VI of the Aeneid: haec omnis, quam cernis, inops inhumataque turba est… volitantque haec litora circum ('This crowd you see here, poor and unburied … flutter about the shore', VI.325-9). The citation of Vergil serves less to initiate a burial rite than to authorize a dubious instance of piety, the ritual sacrifice of Tamora's eldest son, despite her plea for pity. Next, after rejecting imperial power for himself, he gives his support to Saturninus, presumably because he is elder, but gratuitously includes his daughter, who is already betrothed to Bassianus. Finally, when Bassianus, aided by Titus' sons, seizes suum cuique, Titus exhibits the full rigor of his pietas: he apparently holds no grudge against Bassianus, who seized his own 'injustice', but he kills his son Mutius for disobedience, recalling that most uncompromising Roman father, Manlius Torquatus. Tamora's memorable cry, 'O cruel, irreligious piety!' is an Ovidian oxymoron which signals the destructive rigidity of Titus and, by extension, the Roman ethos summed up in pietas. Titus' 'by-the-book' judgements turn sympathy toward Tamora, who fluctuates between roles as a seductive Cleopatra (she marries the newly crowned Saturninus) and as a Hecuba, justified in avenging the death of her son. Her son Demetrius invokes 'The self-same gods that arm'd the Queen of Troy/ with opportunity of sharp revenge/ Upon the Thracian tyrant' (I.i. 136-8).

The Aeneid suffers its greatest warping in the next act, whose plot turns on repeated displacements of Dido's seduction. To celebrate the supposed reconciliations of Tamora and Titus, Saturninus and Bassianus, the court arranges a royal hunt which will prove as fateful and more dire than the one which brought Dido and Aeneas to that famous cave in which they consummated their desires (Dido's, at any rate). The plot begins when Aaron finds Tamora's two sons, Demetrius and Chiron, mooning over Lavinia and ludicrously acting out Rome's fratricidal motif famously modeled by Romulus and Remus and the Aeneid's contenders for the original Lavinia. When Demetrius boasts of his cuckolding techniques, 'What, hast not thou full often stroke a doe,/ And borne her cleanly by the keeper's nose?' (II.i.93-4), Aaron wrenches the figure of speech into a rally call to rape Lavinia during the next days's hunt:

The forest walks are wide and spacious,
And many unfrequented plots there are
Fitted by kind for rape and villainy:

Single you thither then this dainty doe,
And strike her home by force …

The boys jubilantly adopt Aaron's twisting of the metaphor from adultery to rape, crowing later, 'we hunt not, we, with horse nor hound,/ But hope to pluck a dainty doe to ground' (II.ii.24-5). The metaphor gains its power to chill the blood partly because it has been so violently wrenched from its original context in Vergil's famous simile of the impassioned Dido as a wounded deer:

uritur infelix Dido totaque vagatur
urbe furens, qualis coniecta cerva sagitta,
quam procul incautam nemora inter Cresia fixit
pastor agens telis liquitque volatile ferrum
nescius: illa fuga silvas saltusque peragrat
Dictaeos; haeret lateri letal is harundo.

Unhappy Dido burns and, frenzied, wanders through the city, even as an unwary doe, struck by an arrow, whom a shepherd hunting with darts in the Cretan woods has unwittingly pierced from far off, and left in her the flying steel. She, fleeing, wanders through the woods and dales of Dicte; the fatal shaft clings to her side.

The image, which appears in the Aeneid just before the fateful hunt during which Dido abandons her chastity, resurfaces again in Titus when Marcus presents the violated Lavinia to her father, saying he 'found her straying in the park,/ Seeking to hide herself, as doth the deer/ That hath receiv'd some unrecuring wound' (III.i.88-90). Titus takes this opportunity to pun in both Latin and English. Opening up the latent pun on cura, a word Vergil uses to identify a beloved or dearest 'care', Titus says, 'It was my dear, and he that hath wounded her/ Hath hurt me more than had he kill'd me dead', and, further, that of all wrongs, 'that which gives my soul the greatest spurn/ Is dear Lavinia, dearer than my soul' (III.i.91-2, 102-3). By means of puns on deer and cura, Titus translates the metaphor of Lavinia as a wounded deer into his own 'unrecuring wound'. The resurgence of Dido's simile is a startling reminder of the Aeneid and the changes it has suffered, particularly since it comes in the thick of the Ovidian plot of Philomela's rape, which should properly have nothing to do with the losses calculated into empire-building and pietas.

The echoes of Dido's simile are simultaneously confirmed and distorted in the plot involving Tamora. Her first appearance as a Dido figure comes when Saturninus woos her as 'lovely Tamora, Queen of Goths,/ That like the stately Phoebe 'mongst her nymphs/ Dost overshine the gallan'st dames of Rome' (I.i.315-17). The compliment alludes to the moment in Book One of the Aeneid when Dido first appears in a simile comparing her to Diana as she leads her chorus of nymphs and 'overshines' them all:

qualis in Eurotae ripis aut per iuga Cynthi
exercet Diana choros, quam mille secutae
hinc atque hinc glomerantur Oreades; illa
fert umero gradiensquee deas supereminet omnis.

As on Eurotas banks or Cynthus ridge Diana trains her dancers, and a thousand followers, mountain-nymphs, on each side gather about her; she bears her quiver on her shoulder and as she steps, overshines all the goddesses.

During the hunt in the next act, Tamora gains bow and arrow, the only circumstantial attributes of Phoebe in Vergil's simile that Saturninus does not mention (Diana's chastity and Tamora's lack of it become issues shortly). Tamora is Dido again in those woods which are, for Lavinia, 'ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull', but are a haven for the Queen of the Goths, who lyrically solicits Aaron the Moor to enjoy the locus amoenus such as 'The wandr'ing prince and Dido once enjoyed,/ When with a happy storm they were surpris'd,/ And curtain'd with a counsel-keeping cave' (II.iii.22-4). As Aaron attempts to shift Tamora's passions to revenge, pat on cue enter Lavinia and Bassianus. The pair taunts Tamora, transforming her into an obscene parody of Vergil's famous Venus armata—Venus, goddess of love, disguised as Diana, virgin goddess of the hunt. The Renaissance, which never tired of the figure who synthesized eroticism and chastity, may never have witnessed so violent a yoking together of Venus and Diana. The queen, 'This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,/ This siren', is accosted by ironic comparisons to Diana, presumably in erotic drag:

Who have we here? Rome's royal empress,
Unfurnish'd of her well-beseeming troop?
Or is it Dian, habited like her,
Who hath abandoned her holy groves
To see the general hunting in this forest?

Tamora, however, is no slouch at barbed classical allusions, and counters with Diana's threat to Actaeon:

Saucy controller of my private steps!
Had I the pow'r that some say Dian had,
Thy temples should be planted presently
With horns, as was Actaeon's; and the hounds
Should drive upon thy new-transformed limbs,
Unmannerly intruder as thou art.

With renewed lust for revenge, she rouses her sons to kill Bassianus and throw him in a pit, and sanctions their plan to rape Lavinia. Revenge satisfies Tamora's voracious sexual appetite: this, she says, is 'the honey we desire'.

The next scene replaces the rape of Lavinia with the fate of Titus' two sons, who are swallowed up in the pit, the 'subtle hole … Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers,/ Upon whose leaves are drops of new-shed blood/ As fresh as morning dew distill'd on flowers' (II.iii.198-201). It is a 'very fatal place' (line 202), an 'unhallow'd and blood-stained hole' (line 210), a 'detested, dark, blood-drinking pit' (line 224), and 'this fell devouring receptacle,/ As hateful as Cocytus' misty mouth' (lines 236-7). The pit, into which Chiron and Demetrius have thrown Bassianus' body, sends chilling sweats through the trembling joints of Titus' sons until they grow faint and are 'pluck d into the swallowing womb (line 239) much as Lavinia the dainty doe is at that very moment being plucked to the ground in another part of the woods. The 'subtile hole', by the combined powers of metaphor and synecdoche, stands for the 'subtile Queen of Goths', and the scene represents a comically gruesome consummation of Tamora's lust for revenge.

Ovid's tale is introduced to complete the cycle of violation when Lavinia enters, 'her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd'. When her uncle Marcus finds her, he calls upon Ovid's tale of Philomela to make some kind of sense of the spectacle and of his own emotions.

   sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy
  tongue …
Fair Philomel, why she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;
A craftier Tereus, cousin hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.
                                     (II.iv.26-7, 38-43)

Here is the act's final violation, one performed upon the audience. It is one thing to read a piece of aesthetic gore, but what is one to make of seeing Lavinia's mutilated body while hearing Marcus speak of Philomela's 'tedious sampler' and of Lavinia's body made 'bare/ Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,/ Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in' (lines 17-19) or her 'crimson river of warm blood,/ Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind' (lines 22-3) and her cheeks 'red as Titan's face/ Blushing to be encount'red with a cloud' (lines 31-2)?

Marcus has inadvertently produced the play's most bizarre conflict of rhetoric and referent, and contributed the final addition to the bizarre semiotics of the pit, which is seen metamorphically to assume the shapes of Tamora, Lavinia, Philomela, and Dido, Dido's cave, the Classical Underworld, and even the Andronici's tomb, the 'sacred receptacle' retaining Titus' sons. Marcus' speech identifies both the Ovidian text that will replace Vergil's as the definitive or shaping myth of this late Roman society, and the violent poetics that separates decorative signifiers from their gruesome referents. Here, Lavinia's body is a horribly real sign of violation which Marcus attempts to contain by aestheticizing her wounds. Lavinia's body, however, is a spectacle which sucks up and annihilates his golden poetry: it is the final version of that pit. The pit and Lavinia's body condense the play's tendency to conflate and warp literary sources; as signs, moreover, they violate the norms of representation, since they both produce and consume meaning. They are semiotic black holes.


If Shakespeare's play and especially the pit and Lavinia's body seem compulsively to contaminate and digest literary sources and, indeed, all possible referents, they share with Ovid the practice of polemical conflations. In the tale of Tereus, Procne, and Philomela, Ovid does not single out the Aeneid as a rival, yet his imitations tend also to be interrogations. When Philomela is raped, she is 'like the wounded Lambe which from the Wolves hore teeth/ New shaken, thinkes hir selfe not safe', or 'as the Dove that seeth/ Hir fethers with hir own bloud stayned'; Dido's fall and simile as a doe wounded by the arrow of an unwitting shepherd becomes, in the retrospective view of Philomela's rape and simile, a scene of violation in which responsibility cannot be omitted. Even the most conspicuously Ovidian indulgence in the grotesque, the description of Philomela's tongue as it writhes like a snake in its dying attempt to return to its mistress throws into relief disturbing aspects of violence in the Aeneid, for it parodies the death paroxysms of Larides' severed hand, whose dying fingers pulsate and grope for a sword (te decisa suum, Laride, dextera quaerit / semianimesque micant digiti ferrumque retractant) (10.395-6). In a more seriously critical allusion, Tereus cuts out Philomela's tongue indignant and calling on her father's name (indignantem et nomen patris usque vocantem, 6.556), words which recall the death of Turnus: after he invoked his father's name in a vain attempt to rouse Aeneas' mercy, Turnus' spirit flew to the Underworld indignata—resentful of an unworthy act.

If Shakespeare had an awareness of, and sympathy for, Ovid's critical deployment of Vergil, he could not have chosen to contaminate two more startlingly relevant episodes than those treating Philomela and Dido: Dido's agentless seduction turns to Philomela's rape; Aeneas' pietas to Tereus' impietas (a word which pervades Ovid's tale); Dido nourishing the wound of love changes to Tereus and his concrete cibus furoris—food of passion or madness; the silencing of Dido gives way to the cutting out of Philomela's tongue; and Dido's curse to Procne and Philomela's revenge. I would not have thought to treat this particular tale as a critique of Dido's function in the Aeneid, yet a violent wrenching of the epic's purpose is precisely what Shakespeare accomplishes in his contaminatio. While I am not prepared to hold Shakespeare responsible for all the patterns set in motion, we can be reasonably certain that he designed the pit to represent this wild proliferation of meanings. Shakespeare, I suggest, found in Ovid's Metamorphoses a narrative and critical practice which he assimilated to the semiotics of the pit, which substitutes, inverts, confuses, appropriates, swallows up, and engenders meanings. The most significant difference between Shakespeare's and Ovid's practices of polemical literary conflations is that Shakespeare, in Titus, genders and metaphorizes the politics of imitation: the audience is brutally confronted with the art of contamination in the pit and Lavinia's body, both signs of social disorder. In the next section, I shall discuss Titus' brand of semiosis, and especially his practice of metaphorizing and gendering literary imitations. For through feats of literalism and displacement, Titus intends to exact poetic justice, a social destruction equal to the familial and ideological violence that has caused him to suffer. It will be immediately clear that Titus does not become an Ovidian author indulging in a liberating play of significations. Instead, he engages in a simpler form of subverting referentiality in order to wreak havoc on his enemies and, more importantly, on the system of values, as encoded in Augustan literature, which has disappointed him.


Once we have entered into the Ovidian woods of the second act, where physical and epistemological violence may and does occur at any moment, we—the audience as well as the play's characters—never return to secure Vergilian foundations. In the beginning of the play, Titus exemplified the stoic belief that, in the words of [Jonathan Dollimore, Radical Tragedy, 1984] 'to endure misfortune is to reveal one's true self—a pure essence of virtus—and, simultaneously, to discover that the universe is significantly ordered'. The epic genre which had consecrated the imperial origins of Rome offered the mode of self-containment and cosmic order to Titus, the triumphant warrior but grieving father who entered Rome with an epic simile on his lips:

Hail, Rome, victorious in thy mourning weeds!
Lo, as the bark that hath discharg'd his fraught
Returns with precious lading to the bay
From whence at first she weigh'd her anchorage,
Cometh Andronicus, bound with laurel boughs,
To re-salute his country with his tears.

The linguistic, cultural, and psychological integrity that Vergilian authority represents for Titus, however, fragments in those 'ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull woods' and even in his beloved Rome, which is 'but a wilderness of tigers' (III.i.54) for Titus once his sons are condemned to death for the murder of Bassianus. At the turning point of the play, Titus finally loosens his hold on the Andronican 'uprightness and integrity': although Aaron had persuaded Titus that sacrificing his hand would buy the lives of his sons, a messenger returns to Titus bearing the severed hand and his children's heads. Marcus drops the reins of stoicism and attempts to rouse an epic fury in his brother—'Now is a time to storm' (III.i.263), he cries—but Titus, whose unexpected response marks his generic metamorphosis, is no longer an epic hero: 'Ha, ha, ha!' (III.i.264). Titus comes undone in puns which strikingly contrast with the formal decorum of his former, Vergilian identity. When Marcus foolishly mentions the word 'hands', after Titus has lost his, Titus cries out that Marcus bids him, like Aeneas, to 'tell the tale twice o'er/ How Troy was burnt and he made miserable'—and then produces one of the play's worst puns, 'O, handle not the theme, to talk of hands' (III.ii.27-9). At such moments, the Aeneid looms as a dismembered, mutilated text of Rome's former greatness.

Marcus, who fails to comprehend Titus' laughter, consistently serves to point up the shift in genre that Titus has undergone. When Marcus, Titus, and his grandson discover the identities of Lavinia's ravishers, Marcus conjures them to kneel and swear revenge, calling young Lucius 'Roman Hector's hope' and invoking the paradigmatic rape of Lucrece to guide the Andronici's revenge: he and Titus are to swear 'as with the woeful fere/ And father of that chaste dishonoured dame,/ Lord Junius Brutus sware for Lucrece's rape/ That we will prosecute by good advice/ Mortal revenge upon these traitorous Goths' (IV.i.89-93). Titus, however, evades his brother's rite (he had, after all, already sworn revenge upon his severed hand and his sons' heads) and rejects the model of resurrection offered by the figures of Astyanax and Junius Brutus. While Titus, like Brutus, feigns imbecility, he models his actions not on those of Rome's early champion against tyranny and injustice, but on the revenge of Procne, whose domestic tragedy is antithetical to epic. Marcus assumes, when Titus steers his grandson away from heroic action—young Lucius is prepared to deliver Titus' message to the empress' sons 'with my dagger in their bosoms' (IV.i.18)—that Titus has committed himself to a course of stoic patience. Yet when Titus says he will teach 'another course', he means to take up unusual weapons: the literature that encodes Rome's celebrated virtues. He seeks his revenge in exploiting the elastic nature of Roman examples and models—signs absurdly prone to hyperbolic expansion and satiric reduction.

His first lesson is inscribed in a revision of a celebrated Augustan poem: Titus sends to Chiron and Demetrius a bundle of arrows wrapped in a scroll with Horace's famous ode, Integer vitae, scelerisque purus,/ Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec arcu (IV.ii.20-1). He produces, quite literally, a barbed allusion. The poem has degenerated into little more than a schoolboy's verse, which Chiron 'read … in grammar long ago' (IV.ii.23); as an allusion, however, it produces fresh meaning. Titus trusts that the ode will appear as a mere tag proclaiming a musty Roman virtue, and that the boys will fail to see the obvious referents: themselves, Aaron the Moor, and Titus, who is no longer physically whole (integer) and does not intend to remain free of crime. Titus' principle of inversion indicates that he is not recreating, but stripping meaning from the poem. Although he now recognizes a dead metaphor when he sees one, he apparently feels compelled to strike the final blow.

In perhaps the strangest scene of the play, Titus gathers his family to solicit the gods for justice, using an innovative method: using bow and arrow, they send petitions to the Zodiacal signs on the Capitoline Hill. Titus is actually staging an elaborate attack, not a supplication. Yet it is unclear who are the targets: Saturninus and the court or the Zodiacal signs themselves. After shooting arrows at Jove, Apollo, Pallas, and Mercury, Titus cracks the first topical joke: 'To Saturn, Caius, not to Saturnine;/ You were as good to shoot against the wind' (IV.iii.56-7). The Andronici then unite in hurling shafts of wit at the court: Lucius strikes Virgo's lap and Publius shoots off one of Taurus' horns, providing Marcus with the occasion to complete a round of cuckolding jokes:

This was the sport, my lord: when Publius shot,
The Bull, being gall'd, gave Aries such a knock
That down fell both the Ram's horns in the
And who should find them but the empress'
She laugh'd, and told the Moor he should not
But give them to his master for a present.

Titus' arrows accomplish their mission: they not only undermine the pretensions that Saturninus and his queen might have to divine status as represented by the Zodiacal signs, but also strip the Zodiac of its power to refer to, and support, the traditional Roman sense of cosmological order the justice. Shot in the lap, the goddess of justice, Astraea, has been anatomically exposed as the whoring queen of Goths.

In the most flamboyant of revenge plots based on literalism, Titus is willing to take at face value Tamora, disguised as Revenge, requesting only that she include in the allegory her sons, as Rapine and Murder. Yet it is Lavinia's body which bears most of Titus' literalisms. When Titus gathers his remaining family to swear revenge, he holds the head of one son, gives the other to Marcus, and sets in Lavinia's mouth his severed hand:

The vow is made. Come, brother, take a head;
And in this hand the other will I bear.
And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employ'd in these
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy

Titus transforms his family into a sign of mutilation, and places Lavinia at its center. As Coppelia Kahn points out [at a lecture series for Shakespeare Santa Cruz's performance of the Roman plays], Lavinia literally represents the handmaind of revenge.

Titus insistently focuses his macabre play with literalizing signs on Lavinia's body, which serves as the figurative ground for refashioning his cultural myths, his course of action, and his very identity. He calls her a 'map of woe, that thus dost talk in signs', and further says, 'Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven,/ Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,/ But I of these will wrest an alphabet,/ And by still practice learn to know thy meaning' (III.ii.12, 42-5). Her body, inscribed with Philomela's fate, suggests to Titus the course of his revenge and, comically, prepares for the dramatic appearance of the book itself. For, the play advertises its bookishness to the point of trotting a copy of the Metamorphoses on stage: Lavinia chases her nephew around the stage until she can lay hold of it and turn to Philomela's tale. Lavinia thus provides Titus with an authoritative text to replace his Vergil, and Titus concocts his revenge from Ovid's plot—a faithful act of literary digestion. 'Worse than Philomel you us'd my daughter', he says to Chiron and Demetrius, 'And worse than Progne I will be reveng'd' (V.ii. 194-5). He serves up to the Queen her two sons, their flesh baked in a piecrust of their ground-up bones—a dish appropriately called 'coffin'.

As Lavinia's body serves to inspire Titus' literary revenge, so it provides his text to reveal and complete it. Titus issues his challenge to Saturninus in the form of a deadly logical proof:

Tit. My lord the emperor, resolve me in this:
    Was it well done or rash Virginius
    To slay his daughter with his own right
    Because she was enforc'd, stain'd, and
Sat. It was, Andronicus.
Tit. Your reason, mighty lord?
Sat. Because the girl should not survive her
    And by her presence still renew his sorrows.
Tit. A reason mighty, strong, and effectual;
    A pattern, president, and lively warrant
    For me, most wretched, to perform the like.
    Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee;
    And with thy shame thy father's sorrow die!
    [He kills her]

It takes only fifteen more lines for Titus to clarify the exact natures of his revenge and the meal Tamora has just eaten, and a further three for Titus to kill Tamora, Saturninus to kill Titus, and Lucius to kill the emperor. These acts are riveting, but no more than the aftershocks of Titus' murder of his daughter. It seems inevitable, on reflection, that Titus should kill Lavinia; that he should use her as part of a logical proof, especially one involving a great Roman precedent which shifts responsibility to Saturninus; and that he should not place any real value in his stated textual authority. Titus regards Virginius as 'rash' and himself as 'wretched'; he had not, moreover, shared Virginius' severity when he learned of Lavinia's mutilation or its cause. Rather, he had experienced his most humanizing moment in the play: Marcus presented her, saying 'This was thy daughter', to which Titus answered simply, 'Why, Marcus, so she is' (III.i.64).

Titus' final act is perversely both to subvert and to affirm Roman paradigms of virtue. His citation of Virginius constitutes an attack on that momentous event in Roman history; for even if Titus placed value in Virginius' act, which he apparently does not, he cannot escape the fact that the heroic dimensions of the original do not pass into the repetition. One cannot monumentalize an action twice. Titus' final act has none of the wit of his earlier literary skirmishes because he has drawn his daughter into his heroic-demonic feats of emptying Roman paradigms of their virtue. Yet Titus, with equal perversity, affirms the value of his uncited exemplum, that of Lucrece. Titus knows that if his sorrows die with his daughter's shame, it is only because his revenge guarantees his own death. By killing Lavinia, he can commit suicide by proxy; by appropriating her rape as an outrage committed on him (an extension which Tamora fully intended), he can assume the role of Lucrece. In slaying Lavinia, Titus commits his most alienating act. Yet if Titus gains any sympathy at the end of the play, it is paradoxically because he killed his daughter, whom he called the 'cordial of my age to glad my heart' (I.i.167). The pun on cordial and heart came early enough in the play to emphasize identity instead of disjunction, and while it testifies to paternal devotion, it also anticipates Titus' terrible inability to distinguish between himself and his children. In killing Lavinia and in casting himself as the violated Lucrece, Titus proves that his experiences in loss and injustice have failed to change him from the father who killed his son Mutius for disobedience.

In the concluding move of the play to restore order, Vergil is called upon to perform the last rites. Marcus requests Lucius to address the Senate

            as erst our ancestor,
When with his solemn tongue he did discourse
To love-sick Dido's sad attending ear
The story of that baleful burning night,
When subtile Greeks surpris'd King Priam's
Tell us what Sinon hath bewitch'd our ears.
Or who hath brought the fatal engine in
That gives our Troy, our Rome, the civil wound.

Although the Senate places its hope in the healing powers of the Aeneid, master code of the Roman Empire, Vergil can do no more than bandage the civil wound. The motivations and sources of authority—literary, political, ethical—have been hopelessly confused. Titus himself, although a man more sinned against than sinning, nonetheless stands as a monument to the failings of the Roman imperial machine. No Sinon insinuated the 'fatal engine' into Rome, although that is the tale Lucius will gravely unfold. As in the first scene of the play, when Titus sacrificed Tamora's and his own sons to the rigid code of pietas, Roman institutions and values are dramatically emptied of all meaning. Vergil's noble rhetoric and values sound hollow; he reappears not to rejuvenate Rome, but to receive, like Titus' dead body, the last kiss of his sons. A final note: Vergil's vision of disorder and the inescapability of furor—madness and passion—may be sacrificed or overlooked in the Renaissance in order to gain an unambiguous champion of political order. Yet it is also possible that Shakespeare presents Rome in the late Empire as a state which made a fatally reductive icon of Vergil's poem, and ignored the double meaning of a monument—not just a tribute, but a warning.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 15629

Albert H. Tricomi (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "The Aesthetics of Mutilation in 'Titus Andronicus,'" in Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakepearian Study and Production, Vol. 27, 1974, pp. 11-19.

[In the following excerpt, Tricomi remarks on the close relationship between metaphor and action in the play and suggests that Titus Andronicus represents an experiment in unifying poetic language and dramatic action.]

When T. S. Eliot so flamboyantly denounced Titus Andronicus as 'one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written' [in Selected Essays, 1917-1932, 1932], he naturally invited rebuttal. But while an apology for Titus can certainly be erected, the fact is that the imputed stupidities of the tragedy attract far more interest than any of its mediocre achievements. Indeed, if we would only persist in the study of those very 'stupidities' that many critics would rather forget, we would discover that the ways in which the figurative language imitates the literal events of plot makes The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus a significant dramatic experiment. In the play's spectacularly self-conscious images that keep pointing at the inventive horrors in the plotting, in its wittily-obsessive allusions to dismembered hands and heads, and in the prophetic literalness of its metaphors, Titus reveals its peculiar literary importance.

The peculiar language of Titus Andronicus is particularly apparent in the literalness of its central metaphors. In a play preeminently concerned with the mutilation of the human body, Titus makes nearly sixty references, figurative as well as literal, to the word 'hands' and eighteen more to the word 'head', or to one of its derivative forms. Far from being divorced from the action as many critics claim, the figurative language points continually toward the lurid events that govern the tragedy. The figurative language, in fact, imitates the gruesome circumstances of the plot, thus revealing that Shakespeare subordinates everything in Titus, including metaphor, to that single task of conveying forcefully the Senecan and Ovidian horrors that he has committed himself to portraying.

Such a relationship between language and event is really quite strange. Ordinarily metaphor is endowed with the capacity of extending almost infinitely the imaginative compass of a play. Through its embedded metaphors especially, a play usually translates its immediate events in images that reach far beyond the poor limitations of the stage. In Titus Andronicus, however, metaphor, for the most part, draws its images directly from the narrower events of plot. It becomes literalized. This is a very daring and even dangerous enterprise to undertake. Deliberately relinquishing its natural prerogatives, metaphor strives instead to unite language and action in an endeavour to render the events of the tragedy more real and painful.

When Marcus offers Titus the throne, for example, he employs a peculiar metaphor, saying, 'And help to set a head on headless Rome' (I, i, 186). Since Titus is being offered the throne of Imperial Rome, Marcus's statement seems to be a happy one. As such, the metaphor appears to be just that, an embellished phrase, a polished, if affected, mode of speech. But, as it happens, this mere metaphor, with all its ominous overtones, is later raised to factual reality when Saturninus, ironically made that 'head' of Rome through Titus's support, beheads two of Titus's sons. In a more specific sense as well, the figures employed direct our perceptions toward isolated parts of the human body. When in the first act Lavinia asks her father to bless her, she uses the rather precise phrase, 'with thy victorious hand' (I, i, 163), and Bassianus does likewise when he explains how Titus, 'With his own hand' slew his youngest son (I, i, 418). In both instances the figurative phrasing points ahead to the mutilations of future events, to the shearing off of Lavinia's hands, and then, to Titus's willing sacrifice of his own hand when bargaining for the lives of two of his sons.

But while the keen critic may discover a rather brutal principle of retribution in Titus's loss of a hand for having killed—with his own hand—one of his sons, I am more concerned here with the oddly alluring relationship between language and event. Constantly pointing toward and underlining the events that we witness upon the stage, metaphor in this tragedy strains to keep the excruciating images of mutilation ever before our imaginations even when the visual spectacle is no longer before us. The words 'hand' and 'head' appear copiously as figures of speech whose effect is to saturate every aspect of the play with remembered or foreshadowed horror. Following the scene of Lavinia's mutilation, Marcus presents his niece to Titus whose first words to her,

Speak, Lavinia, what accursed hand
Hath made thee handless in thy father's sight?
                                     (III, i, 66-7)

recreates the horrible event in the imagination. Of course, the literate response is so artificial as to invite derision, and, no doubt, the whole idea of asking the dumb to speak is a questionable way of inviting pathos. But the pun on hands, which is equally self-conscious and full of artifice, is not without its redeeming features. Titus's paronomasia rests on two notably dis-similar kinds of usage. When he refers to 'the accursed hand', he employs a simple form of synecdoche, but when he speaks of Lavinia's handlessness, he alludes to nothing but the visual reality before him. Furthermore, the paronomasia draws our attention to the image of the rapist using his hand in the act of shearing off Lavinia's own, effectively underlining, Hamlet-like, the 'unkindness' and unnaturalness of the act. So while we may argue that Titus's self-conscious word-play largely replaces genuine personal response, we must acknowledge that the bitter contrast between the mere metaphor and the experienced reality of Lavinia's handlessness is powerfully conceived.

This remark of Titus's illustrates one of the play's basic concerns—exploring the gulf between metaphoric descriptions of events and the irrefutable realities they purport to communicate. Shakespeare's interest in these matters, so abstract in its way, appears grounded, however, in the dramatist's involvement in the relative merits of words as contrasted with dramatic events. So concerned is the play with the deceptive powers of poetic description that it offers several instructive lessons contrasting the vacuous rhetoric of rape and the palpable reality of Lavinia's ravishment, hands lopped off, mouth bleeding. As the play opens, Saturninus, who has just announced his betrothal to Lavinia, finds that Bassianus has already married her and berates him in an exaggerated rhetorical outburst, saying, 'Thou and thy faction shall regret this rape' (I, i, 404). Bassianus, sensitive to the proper signification of words, rejoins hotly,

Rape call you it, my lord, to seize my own,
My true-betrothed love …?
                                           (I, i, 405-6)

In this way the play continually investigates the chasm between the spoken word and the actual fact, an investigation, incidentally, whose meaning is fully experienced only when Lavinia appears before us raped and bleeding in fact. Similarly, this ironic denigration of metaphor occurs again when Lucius, hearing the villainous Aaron explain how,

They cut thy sister's tongue and ravish'd her,
And cut her hands and trimm'd her as thou
                                             (V, i, 93)

seizes on the disgustingly prettified figure and retorts, 'O detestable villain! call'st thou that trimming?' (V, i, 93). Far from being used inadvertently then, the language self-consciously focuses upon itself so as to demonstrate the manner in which figurative speech can diminish and even transform the actual horror of events. But since the purpose of the tragedy is not to dilute but to highlight the nightmare that befalls the Andronici, the play deliberately 'exposes' the euphemisms of metaphor by measuring their falseness against the irrefutable realities of dramatized events. On these occasions, the play turns its back on metaphor, rejecting it as a device that tends to dissipate the unremitting terrors of the tragedy. Only in the literalization of its metaphors, it appears, does the tragedy seem to be at ease with itself.


Such a self-consciously didactic use of metaphor is really quite distinctive in Elizabethan drama, to say nothing of Elizabethan tragedy, but far more strange is the deliberate constriction of the figurative language as it binds itself to the gory plot. So firmly does the figurative language yoke itself to the action of Titus that mere rhetorical flourishes tend, prophetically, to realize themselves in actual events. In the scene where Titus first bears witness to his daughter's mutilation, for example, he expresses his grief, not unexpectedly, in hyperbolic outburst,

My grief was at the height before thou cam'st,

Give me a sword, I'll chop off my hands too,
For they have fought for Rome, and all in vain
                                   (III, i, 70-3)

To be sure, the unusual nature of the event goes far to justify the strained pitch of the rhetoric, but the speech fully realizes its tragic possibilities only in subsequent events. For while Titus begins by speaking an exaggerated language of sorrow, Shakespeare forces his hero to live up to the terrible potential of his hyperbolic outburst. Shylock-like, the dramatist takes Titus's speech out of the realm of mere rant and exacts of him the pound of flesh he promises. That is to say, the exaggeration of Titus's rhetorical figure is, through an act of the dramatist's imagination, realized in terms of a hyperbole of plot, which acts as if it were a figure of speech brought to monstrous birth. Thus, in a vain effort to save his two imprisoned sons, Titus renders up his hand to the ravenous Emperor of Rome. The words he speaks at the time explain precisely the bizarre relationship between language and events that typifies the method of the play. 'Come hither, Aaron … ' he says, 'Lend me thy hand, and I will give thee mine' (III, i, 186-7).

Since The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is predicated on the notion that the most excruciating horrors pertain to the experienced reality of events, the metaphoric impact of the tragedy can only be realized by forcing the metaphors to take on dramatic life. Accordingly, hands become powerful dramatic symbols, not simply because they are mentioned sixty times in the text, but because they become images in action whose significance we experience visually and not merely verbally, in abstraction. Stated metaphorically, the most profound impulse in Titus is to make the word become flesh. That the literary symbolism of hands indeed becomes flesh is obvious, not only in Titus's hand-lopping scene, but also in the scene in which Titus's son Quintus offers to assist his brother Martius after the latter has fallen into a pit that the cunning Aaron has prepared. Trapped inside, Martius implores Quintus's aid, crying, 'O brother, help me with thy fainting hand' (II, iii, 233), and Quintas in tarn replies, 'Reach me thy hand, that I may help thee out' (II, iii, 237). After his first effort fails, Quintas again underscores the dramatic significance of hands, saying,

Thy hand once more; I will not loose again,
Till thou art here aloft, or I below.
Thou canst not come to me—I come to thee.
[Falls in.]
                                    (II, iii, 243-5)

Here the hands of Titus's kin, vainly stretched to help one another, epitomize a central tragic movement in the play. Symbols of Rome's defense, civic pride, and filial love, the hands of the Andronici are, in the aftermath of the Gothic war, rendered useless, not metaphorically, but literally.

Moreover, even while Quintus's allusion to hands attunes us to future events, his specific remark about 'loos[ing]' hands becomes, by virtue of the hand mutilations that are to follow, a visual, theatrical device for dramatizing the helplessness of the Andronici. Like Titus's witticism on Aaron's lending him a hand and like his imaginative question to Lavinia, 'What hand hath made thee handless … ,' Quintus's remark reveals again Shakespeare's unstinting exploration of the gap between a metaphoric use of language and a referential use of language anchored in the affictions of actual events. Indeed, considering the contrast that exists between Quintus's fear of 'losing' his brother's outstretched hand and the actual lopping off of Lavinia's hands, which immediately follows this first event, we must admit that Shakespeare confers upon the ghoulish notion of losing hands, not one, but several literal meanings!


This unrelieved and, in truth, witty exploration of the relationship between language and event marks a notably disinterested, even detached, involvement in the values of language with respect to dramatic events. This cool distance between the playwright and his materials helps to explain one of the distinguishing features of Titus Andronicus—the odd way that this tragedy leaps with an inextinguishable wittiness toward the multiple perceptions that ordinarily belong to the world of intellectual comedy. From incidents like the one in which Titus asks his mute daughter to speak or like the one in which he wonders whether the Andronici should

       bite our tongues, and in dumb shows
Pass the remainder of our hateful days
                                    (III, i, 131-2)

it becomes obvious that these gruesomely ironic perceptions are rooted in an irrepressible wittiness. This witty impulse expresses itself further in a hideously satanic atmosphere that permeates the unbelievable events of the tragedy, and the personification of this atmosphere is Aaron, whose satanic drollery is not unworthy of his spiritual brother, Richard Crookback. When the fiendish blackamoor instructs Tamora's oafish sons to ravish Lavinia in the woods, he employs an evocatively poetic language that lasciviously focuses upon the image of physical violation:

The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull.
There speak, and strike, brave boys, and take
  your turns;
There serve your lust, shadowed from heaven's
And revel in Lavinia's treasury.
                                  (II, i, 128-31)

The source of Aaron's wittiness, we find, emerges from the deliberate exposure of the literal meanings that underlie our figurative use of language. The poetic decorum of the clause, 'And revel in Lavinia's treasury' is savage in that it simultaneously creates, in prurient delight, a literally-imagined picture of Lavinia's ravished chastity at the moment of violation. Enveloped as it is in a dark language of hushed expectancy, the picture creates an ugly beauty. Like Iago and Richard III, Aaron relishes poetic language because he can force it to serve the baser appetites, which is to say that Aaron appropriates the beauties of language for foul purposes, rapes it as it were, so that it may serve the literalness of his own coarse imaginings.

This deliberate transformation of the beauties of lyrical poetry into a house of horrible imaginings is, however, not just Aaron's, but Shakespeare's, for in Titus Andronicus brutality, which is always conceived with the utmost literalness of imagination, continually parades in the parodic disguise of metaphoric loveliness. In the scene where Titus rouses the court and bids them to join him in the sport of hunting a proud panther, Demetrius declines the invitation, saying to his brother,

Chiron, we hunt not, we, with horse nor hound,
But hope to pluck a dainty doe to ground
                                     (II, ii, 25-6)

Expecting to use his time to rape Lavinia in the forest, Demetrius riddles shallowly on the instrument with which he and his brother will 'hunt' Lavinia. But the couplet is more than indecent; it is brutal and obscene. The venereal suggestiveness of the hunt itself, combined with the image of the 'pluck[ed]' doe being brought to the ground, focuses with salacious relish on the anticipated act of violation. Here again, the poetry, which seems at first to offer only a metaphoric suggestion of Lavinia's rape, is in reality shackled—through the salacious wit—to the literal ugliness of the rape itself.

Whatever we may think about the success of this use of figurative language, there is no escaping the fact that Titus Andronicus is, in the broadest sense of the term, a very witty play. It is, in fact, as witty in the circumstances of its plotting as it is in its exploitation of metaphor and in its evocation of atmosphere. The two outstanding cases in point occur in the handlopping scene in the third act and in the special technique Lavinia uses to reveal her assailants in act IV. The former instance comes about when Aaron convinces Titus to cut off his right hand as ransom for his two sons imprisoned by the Emperor. Throughout the scene Aaron displays an odd kind of detached artistry, a lunatic humor. After Aaron chops off Titus's hand, he commends the old warrior, saying,

                      for thy hand
Look by and by to have thy sons with thee
[Aside.] Their heads, I mean.
                                  (III, i, 201-3)

A crude joke indeed. In a play filled with the devices of metonymy and synecdoche, especially on the subject of the human body, Aaron employs the same device with respect to the action. Metaphorically speaking, Aaron does engineer the return of Titus's sons in that he returns the part for the whole. Like a literary artist Aaron has created an act of synecdoche. For the two sons he has returned a metaphor!

This irrepressible wit of plotting is, however, only partly explicable as an expression of Aaron's personality, which in some important measure derives from the ingenious vice figures of the medieval moralities. The wit of plot is, finally, much larger than Aaron's; it is Shakespeare's, and it is worth noting that the scene most universally scored for its ludicrous flight of lyric poetry, the one in II, iv, where Marcus first spies the ravished Lavinia wandering in the woods, keeps pointing to its own achievements in rendering Ovid's pathetic tale of Tereus's rape of Philomel even more pathetic:

Marcus. Fair Philomel, why, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind;
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee.
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.
                                     (II, iv, 38-43)

The explicit allusions to Ovid's tale invite comparison. That 'craftier Tereus' Marcus speaks of is really Will Shakespeare laying claim to having out-witted the Roman poet in the telling of a tale. In Titus the young playwright even invites the audience to ponder how Lavinia, his heroine, unable to 'sew her mind' as Ovid's Philomel did, will be able to reveal her ravisher's identity. Lavinia's rapists, unschooled as they are, make quite a bit of the problem they have raised:

Chiron. [to Lavinia]
Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
And if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
See how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.
                                    (II, iv, 3-5)

But if the shearing off of Lavinia's hands raises a kind of suspense because we are uncertain how she will be able to expose her assailants, the solution to this puzzle is that much more unexpected and original than Ovid's. In having Lavinia scrawl out the names of her ravishers by holding a pole between her stumps and grasping the pole's end inside her mouth, Shakespeare effects a most witty poetic justice. Lavinia's lips do speak; her handless hands, indeed, do write!


In this witty competition with Ovid and Seneca, Shakespeare is just what Greene said he was, 'an upstart Crow' striving to overreach his masters in their own vein. In Titus the especial competition with Ovid fully insinuates itself into Shakespeare's poetic statement and is one of the basic reasons why the tragedy sometimes runs aground on the shoals of Ovidian lyricism. As Eugene Waith points out [in Shakespeare Survey, 1957], the play apparently fails to transpose a narrative tale of horror into a convincing dramatic story. The characters, he observes, respond to events with poetic declamations that lack psychological appropriateness or verisimilitude. Yet, the problem is not one of dramatic ineptitude, pure and simple. The scenes derived from Ovid's story are confidently aware of their transposed existence in the added dimension of drama [A.C. Hamilton, The Early Shakespeare, 1967] When Titus first beholds his ravished daughter, he laments,

Had I but seen thy picture in this plight
It would have madded me; what shall I do
Now I behold thy lively body so?
                                  (III,, i, 103-5)

So too, when Marcus first spies the mutilated Lavinia wandering in the woods, his monologue effectively underlines the dramatic mode of Shakespeare's story:

Cousin, a word; …

Speak, gentle niece …
… Why dost not speak to me?

Shall I speak for thee? Shall I say 'tis so?
                                     (II, iv, 12-33)

That the anticipated dialogue is denied Marcus only emphasizes how effectively Shakespeare has exploited the visual resources of drama. Moreover, inasmuch as dialogue is necessarily impossible in this episode, Shakespeare casts the greater focus upon the visual spectacle of the mutilated Lavinia. Through Marcus who acts as commentator on the event, Shakespeare forces us to see, detail by descriptive detail, the spectacle that we are already beholding:

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Hath lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bare
Of her two branches …?

Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
But, sure, some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And, lest thou should'st detect him, cut thy
Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame!
And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood …
                                           (II, iv, 16-29)

Clearly enough, the visual image is intended to be so powerfully immediate that the characters themselves believe the image of Lavinia must be imaginary. Among Marcus's first words in the above speech are, 'If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me' (II, iv, 13). Later, Titus complains, 'When will this fearful slumber have an end?' (III, i, 252). The fact that the characters often react to the play's events as if they had been transported into another realm altogether demonstrates Shakespeare's endeavor to reach the utmost verge of realizable horror. By utilizing Ovid's already affecting narrative in a theatrical context that exploits Lavinia's presence upon the stage, Shakespeare reaches to outdo the Roman poet for pathos, and Seneca as well for horror.

But despite the resourcefulness of this theater of horrors, there are unavoidable limits in Titus Andronicus to dramatic spectacle. For all the severed heads, for all the poignance of Lavinia's mutilated beauty, the one horror the dramatist could not depict upon the stage was the fact of Lavinia's violated chastity, which loss was to Titus the worst violation of all,

                      that more dear
Than hands or tongue, her spotless chastity
                                   (v, ii, 176-7)

In overcoming this necessary limitation, however, Shakespeare chooses to identify Lavinia's violation with the violation of Rome and of all civilized value. It is upon this enlarged conception of violation—Lavinia's and Rome's—that Shakespeare does confer visual life by introducing the enduring and theatrical symbol of the middle acts, the pit. As Tamora's premonitory speech indicates—

And when they show'd me this abhorred pit,
They told me, here, at dead time of the night,
A thousand fiends, a thousand hissing snakes,
Ten thousand swelling toads, as many urchins,
Would make such fearful and confused cries,
As any mortal body hearing it
Should straight fall mad, or else die suddenly
                                  (II, iii, 98-104)

—the pit symbolizes an inferno of evil and is directly associated, as Professor Hamilton has shown, with the classical underworld [in The Early Shakespeare, 1967]. The demonic portentousness of the pit is further highlighted by vinia's own ironic protestations, made before her captors. Fearing rape, she begs of Tamora,

                     one thing more
That womanhood denies my tongue to tell:
O, keep me from their worse than killing lust,
And tumble me into some loathsome pit.
                                (II, iii, 173-6)

Speaking a language of chaste circumlocution, Lavinia asks to die rather than to be sexually defiled, but her inadvertent pun upon the word 'tumble', meaning, as Eric Partridge records [in Shakespeare's Bawdy, 1947] 'To copulate with (girl or woman), to cause to fall backward, ' ironically prophesies the circumstances of her later violation. Just ten lines later Lavinia is dragged off the stage to her rape, and the pit, just alluded to, becomes the central image upon the stage.

In the passage immediately following, Bassianus's bloody corpse is heaved into the pit and Lavinia's brothers, Martius and Quintus, deceived by the cunning Aaron, become entrapped within it. Already depicted vividly by Tamora as an abyss in which a world of evil spawns, the pit is now described as a womb, malignant and devouring. Pictured by Quintus and Martius as 'this unhallow'd and blood-stained hole' (II, iii, 210), then as a

fell, devouring receptacle,
As hateful as Cocytus' misty mouth
                                   (II, iii, 235-6)

and, finally, as

the swallowing womb
Of this deep pit
                                   (II, iii, 239-40)

the pit reveals the dark recesses of evil and also carries at least a suggestive reminder of the rape of Lavinia that is simultaneously transpiring off-stage. Moreover, with Bassianus's blood upon it, his body within, and the two entrapped Andronici accused of his murder trapped inside, the pit—that is, the trap door at the front of the Elizabethan stage—becomes not only a symbol of the demonic power, but a theatrical embodiment of it. Grotesque then as the image appears, the pit creates, by virtue of its visibility and concreteness as a device of theater, a powerful and synthesizing poetic image of the horrible fecundity of evil.

This éclat in exploiting the resources of the stage is just what we should expect from a wit-enchanted and ambitious poet who has lately discovered the wider world of theater. Just as the young Shakespeare endeavors to out-plot Plautus in The Comedy of Errors by doubling the number of identical twins, and just as he tries to out-marvel Marlowe by creating in Richard III a villain more joyous in the performance of evil than Barabas, so in Titus Andronicus Shakespeare seeks to outdo both Seneca and Ovid by utilizing his living stage in the telling of a tale more horrifying and pathetic than that of either of his models. Small wonder that the characters in this earliest of Shakespeare's tragedies appear to participate actively in the dramatist's own ambitious search for ever more fabulous events:

      shall we cut away our hands like thine?
Or shall we bite our tongues, and in dumb
Pass the remainder of our hateful days?
What shall we do? let us that have our tongues
Plot some device of further misery,
To make us wonder'd at in time to come.
                                  (III, i, 130-5)

Whatever our final aesthetic judgment concerning the merits of Titus Andronicus, we must understand that we are dealing, not with a paucity of imagination, but with an excess of dramatic witness, with a talent untamed. However flawed the tragedy may be in other respects, we must grant that the playwright has exploited the language of the stage with inventive brilliance and has taxed the resources of drama in making death and mutilation vivid to us.

If we wish, we can, of course, treat this tragedy with orthodox sobriety in order to demonstrate its thematic integrity, but the real vitality and interest of Titus Andronicus lies, it seems to me, in just those parts that are in some ways speculative, or even impossible dramatically. By shackling the metaphoric imagination to the literal reality of the play's events, the tragedy strives for an unrelieved concentration of horrific effect. Through its prophetic allusions to physical dismemberment, its incurably literalized figures of speech, and its ambitious use of the stage as a dramatic metaphor, Titus Andronicus strives to exhaust the language as well as the events of tragedy. We do not all have to like the tragedy, but we ought to recognize that Titus is a uniquely important experiment in drama, for in it Shakespeare is exploring the resources inherent in a referential use of metaphor and is trying to integrate the power of the poetic language with the immeasurable potential of dramatic action itself.

Lawrence Danson (essay date 1974)

SOURCE: "Introduction: Titus Andronicus," in Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language, Yale University Press, 1974, pp. 1-21.

[In the following excerpt, Danson explores Shakespeare's concern in Titus Andronicus with the possibilities and limitations of language as a means of expressing identity and experience.]

Ben Johnson, with his career to protect in 1614, had reason to be contemptuous of a curde old play like Titus Andronicus. There were playgoers who could swear that Shakespeare's Titus or Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy "are the best playes, yet"; such a one "shall passe unexpected at, heere, as a man whose Iudgement shewes it is constant, and hath stood still, these five and twentie, or thirtie, yeeres." But if we today share a smile at Jonson's backhanded compliment [in Bastholomew Fair], we should do so uneasily, for we have learned not to be complacent about that audience whose taste for blood and bombast made possible, not only Hieronimo and Titus, but Hamlet and Lear as well. That Titus Andronicus could find a responsive auditory well into the Jacobean period is a telling fact in its favor.

It is a fact that leads immediately to a curious consideration. For this play which could elicit an audience's sympathetic response is one that presents to us the image of a world in which man's words go unheeded and his gestures unacknowledged, a world unresponsive to his cries, demands, prayers. The tragic world is a nightmare world; and in Titus the nightmare is that widely familiar one of the unutterable scream, the unattainable release from horror through outcry or gesture.

Now there is a relationship to be observed between these two facts, that (on the one hand) the play found a responsiveness in its audience and that (on the other) the material with which the play deals is the characters' inability, within the world of the play, to find an adequate hearing. It is a relationship bearing upon a basic aspect of tragic theory: that things painful to behold in life can yet give us pleasure when transmuted into art. And to find that relationship we will have to turn to the play itself and trace its pattern of withered gestures and virtual silence.

First, however (since Titus Andronicus is for me, as it was for Shakespeare, prologue to the tragedies that follow it), I want to glance at some ways in which the situation in this early play adumbrates a persistent Shakespearean concern—and to show, incidentally, some of my own concerns as well. All of Shakespeare's tragic heroes share with Titus a self-expressive task: as they suffer greatly they must speak greatly, their eloquence matching their pain. But everywhere, although not so obviously as in Titus, the great difficulty of that task is apparent. If we recall from Hamlet the perfect utterance of "Absent thee from felicity awhile," we recall, too, the frequent communicative tangles that have preceded it, when Hamlet fails to make himself understood by the other characters or, really, by the audience. In his intricate punning, and in his rages when he falls "a-cursing like a very drab," Hamlet himself is almost reduced to "inexplicable dumb shows and noise." Similarly, we recall Lear's beautiful dream of a life in prison with Cordelia—"We two alone will sing like birds i' th' cage"—but also the mad ramblings on the heath, and at the start of all, the ritual love-test that silences the communion it was meant to establish. What we watch in a Shakespearean tragedy, then, is not only man speaking, but man trying to speak, trying to create the language that can denote him truly.

A presupposition here is that Shakespeare, supremely the user of language, thought about the use of language, and that he was fully self-conscious about his own strange enterprise, the massing of words into fictive worlds. In my discussions, then, I shall consider the tragedies not only as dramas written in words but about words as well; and I shall be as much interested in the difficulties Shakespeare's characters encounter in their search for adequate expressive modes as in their eventual possible triumphs. But my concern will not be with words alone; it will not be a linguistic analysis in any technical sense. For Shakespeare, as a consummate man of the theater, had to conceive the art of expression as involving also movement, costume, scenery, and so on. He had to see man as homo ludens (in the special sense drama adds to that phrase), and to discover (in the phrase of Florio's [translation of Montaigne's Essais, 1603]) that "there is no motion, nor jesture, that doth not speake."

The variety of expressive modes, the need to speak and to be understood; the great importance of the self-expressive task and its tragic precariousness: these are among the radical facts of Shakespeare's tragedies. Thus, Titus Andronicus is engaged in a definitively Shakespearean action (despite the grotesquerie of the situation) when he swears to his speechless daughter Lavinia:

Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet
And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.

To "wrest an alphabet" from the human form and to find a language that will speak adequately of the complexities of human existence are central tasks, for Shakespeare, his characters, and his audience.

Montaigne's phrase (quoted above) comes from a passage that has a beguiling pertinence to this discussion. In it, an exuberant display of rhetorical copiousness is enlisted to prove the superiority of a language of gesture to one of words. Dazzling verbal profusion is made to express skepticism about the efficacy of words—but a skepticism which, as the passage unrolls its apparently endless bounty, ironically threatens to disprove itself in its very assertion:

What doe we with our hands? Doe we not sue and entreate, promise and perforine, call men unto us, & discharge them, bid them farewell, and be gone, threaten, pray, beseech, deny, refuse, demaund, admire, number, confesse, repent, feare, be ashamed, doubt, instruct, commaund, encite, encovrage, sweare, witness, accuse, condemne, absolve, injurie, despise, defie, despight, flatter, aplaude, blesse, humble, mocke, reconcile, recommend, exalt, shew-gladnes, rejoyce, complaine, waile, sorrow, discomfort, dispaire, cry-out, forbid, declare silence and astonishment? And what not? With so great variation, and amplifying, as if they would contend with the tongue. And with our head, doe we not envite and call to-vs, discharge and send away, avowe, disavowe, be-lie, welcome, honour, worship, disdaine, demaund, direct, rejoyce, affirme, deny, complaine, cherish, blandish, chide, yeeld, sub-mit, brag, boast, threaten, exhort, warrant, assure, and enquire? What do we with our eye-lids? And with our shoulders? To conclude, there is no motion, nor jesture, that doth not speake, and speakes in a language, very easie, and without any teaching to be vnderstood: nay, which is more, it is a language common and publicke to all: whereby it followeth (seeing the varietie, and severall vse it hath from others) that this must rather be deemed the proper and peculier speech of humane nature.

The ambivalence enacted here toward the language of words is common to Shakespeare's time and place. That it was (on the one hand) a period of great excitement about the possibilities of the English language is a point that needs little belaboring. One could adduce a work like Richard Carew's The Excellency of the English Tongue (1595-96?), or the numerous "defenses" of poetry, or encyclopedias of rhetoric like Puttenham's The Arte of English Poesie (1589). The Elizabethan interest in translation is another measure of this excitement; the passage I have quoted from Florio's Montaigne almost convinces us, despite its witty disclaimer, that there is nothing words cannot do.

The theater, of course, had its place in all this; Thomas Heywood made it an important part of his Apology for Actors (1607?; published 1612) that, "our English tongue, which hath ben the most harsh, vneuen, and broken language of the world … is now by this secondary meanes of playing, continually refined, euery writer striuing in himself to adde a new florish vnto it; so that in processe … it is growne to a most perfect and composed language, and many excellent workes, and elaborate Poems writ in the same, that many Nations grow inamored of our tongue (before despised)." And indeed, as Heywood suggests, the best proof of the Englishman's infatuation with his language comes from the arts themselves: from Spenser's immeasurably ambitious epic, to Prince Hal's intoxicated report to Poins of his anthropological field-work "with three or four loggerheads amongst three or fourscore hogsheads," the literature of the age bears everywhere the mark of its linguistic exuberance.

Less obvious, however, is the way in which all this confidence and linguistic assertiveness might imply, for the thoughtful poet, its own opposite. The mere technician would revel in his powerful new tool; the authentic discoverer, however, might feel, along with his exhilaration, the potential threat in this, as in any, great new force. Thus Shakespeare, near the end of his career, shows us in The Tempest the triumph of the word-magician; but still Prospero's renunciation of his art has affinities with the hysterical promise of Marlowe's earlier, damned magician, "I'll burn my books!" And in all his plays, even from the early and light Love's Labour's Lost (where the very subject is words, their use and abuse), Shakespeare shows his awareness of what is at best the inadequacy, at worst the real danger, in our great linguistic enterprise.

In Titus Andronicus (to which we now return) the latter, tragic attitude toward the possibilities for human expressiveness is most—one might say horribly—evident. For here it is not a question (as it is in the passage by Montaigne) of the tongue versus other expressive organs; rather, the image that dominates the play (most infamously in the person of Lavinia) is of humanity tongueless and limbless, sunk in a world inimical to its fundamental need to be understood, yet still trying by every means to speak. Lavinia's plight, like much in the play, teeters on the brink of the ludicrous—for Titus (like King Lear) is a play that deals so insistently with humanity in extremis that the comic grotesque is always available to relieve us from the burden of its inordinate vision. Thus, at the beginning of Act IV, young Lucius enters fleeing from his aunt Lavinia: deprived of tongue and hands, Lavinia, by her incomprehensible gestures, can only terrify the child as she tries to calm him. Now Titus and Marcus enter and interpose for Lavinia:

Tit. Fear her not, Lucius, somewhat doth she
See, Lucius, see how much she makes of thee.
Somewhither would she have thee go with her.
Ah, boy, Cornelia never with more care
Read to her sons than she hath read to thee
Sweet poetry and Tully's Orator. [IV.i.9]

Lucius is carrying his copy of Ovid; in it Lavinia directs their attention to "the tragic tale of Philomel," and then painfully writes in the sand the names of her ravishers.

Now amidst all this pathos, the egregious touch is the reference to "Sweet poetry and Tully's Orator." For Tully's Orator is, in all probability, Ad M. Brutum Orator, the epistle in which Cicero depicts his ideal orator. And the reference underscores how hearly Lavinia has been reduced to the barely human, the almost monstrous: her grotesque inability to communicate sets her at the opposite pole from Cicero's orator, the man who is able to bring to bear all the distinctively human characteristics in the accomplishing of his high art. In its context, the reference might almost seem a cruel joke—but it is not meant to be one, for to the Elizabethans this matter of speaking well, of oratory, was a matter of the highest seriousness: "Oratio next to Ratio, Speech next to Reason, [is] the greatest gyft bestowed vpon mortalitie" [Sir Philip Sidney, "An Apologie for Poetrie"]. The idea ran deep: in the earliest English-language textbook of logic, Thomas Wilson's Rule of Reason (1551), the example given of "an undoubted true proposition" is, "Homo est animal ratione praeditum, loquendi facultatem habens. A man is a liuing creature endewed with reason, having aptnesse by nature to speake."

We shall have to return to this question of oratory and rhetoric later; here it is only necessary to realize what it means to be deprived of the humanizing gift of speech. The image of the silenced Lavinia haunts the play. Suffering humanity is faced with an expressive imperative—to make known its pain and thus (by the act of making it known) its humanness to gods and fellow men—yet is successively deprived of its "proper and peculier speech."

It would be tedious to record all the instances of beseeching and petitioning in Titus; there are too many of them. It is, however, worth noting that the first disappointed petitioner is the (temporarily) conquered queen of Goths, Tamora, and that it is Titus to whom she prays for her son's life:

Stay, Roman breathren! Gracious conqueror,
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.

Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son
                                          [I.i.104, 120]

But what Tamora calls a "cruel, irreligious piety" demands the sacrifice of her son; and the only response to her entreaty is the announcement (in what may be Shakespeare's worst half-line), "Alarbus' limbs are lopp'd" (143). Within the same act, Titus's sons and brother kneel and beseech him to allow Mutius's burial (which, grudgingly, he does), and Titus, his sons, his brother, and Tamora plead for favor from Saturninus.

One may be tempted to say that all the succeeding instances of Titus's own inability to receive an adequate response to his entreaties arise from that first instance of his deafness to Tamora—as (to take a comparable example) one might be tempted to say that Lear's sufferings all result from his willful deafness to Cordelia's expressive silence. But that would be too narrow a view of either play. Like Lear's, Titus's punishment so far exceeds the crime that the prevailing deafness to the human voice in its cries for mercy or justice is made to seem endemic to the play's world, beyond any one man's causing. In Act II, Lavinia's mutilation takes place against the ironically gay noise of dogs and horns (II.ii.1-6); but for Aaron the Moor, "The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull" (II.i.128), and there Chiron and Demetrius are to "strike her home by force, if not by words" (118). As Tamora had pleaded, now Lavinia pleads:

Lav. O Tamora! thou bearest a woman's face—

Tam. I will not hear her speak; away with her!


And even as Chiron and Demetrius (offstage) rape and mutilate Lavinia, it becomes Titus's turn to plead. Aaron has arranged matters so that Titus's sons seem guilty of Bassianus's murder; and like Lavinia's plea, Titus's plea on their behalf is cut off in mid-cry:

Tit. High Emperor, upon my feeble knee
I beg this boon, with tears not lightly shed,
That this fell fault of my accursed sons—
Accursed if the fault be prov'd in them—
Sat. If it be prov'd! You see it is apparent.

The need to find a satisfactory response to these interrupted pleas becomes (as the incidents of frustration mount) an overwhelming concern. Lavinia, "her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish 'd, " is, as we have seen, the monument that most forcefully figures this need. But we must notice, too, the response of the other Andronici to Lavinia. Marcus, for instance, is the first to encounter his mutilated niece, and he gives us one of the clearest statements of the motif:

Shall I speak for thee? Shall I say 'tis so?
O, that I knew thy heart, and knew the beast,
That I might rail at him to ease my mind!
Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is.

Lavinia's plight, Marcus says (in one of the numerous echoes of the Ovidian tale), is worse than Philomela's:

Fair Philomel, why she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind;
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee.
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met.…

The means of expression being lost to Lavinia, the burden of expression now falls on others: "Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee; / O, could our mourning thy misery!" (II.iv.56).

And on Titus himself the burden of expression falls heavily. At the opening of Act III, we find Titus pleading with the judges and senators for his sons' lives. When words fail, he falls upon the ground to write in dust, heart's deep languor and my soul's sad tears" (III.i.13). Although the tribunes will not heed Titus, "yet plead must," and,

Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones;
Who though they cannot answer my distress,
Yet in some sort they are better than the
For that they will not intercept my tale.

Now Lavinia is brought before Titus. The imperious for relief through expression, which has already led his writing in dust and pleading with stones, leads now to the contemplation of a further series of fantastic actions:

Shall thy good uncle and thy brother Lucius
And thou and I sit round about some fountain,
Looking all downwards to behold our cheeks
How they are stain'd, like meadows not yet dry,
With miry slime left on them by a flood?
And in the fountain shall we gaze so long,
Till the fresh taste be taken from that clearness,
And made a brine-pit with our bitter tears?
Or shall we cut away our hands like thine?
Or shall we bite our tongues, and in dumb
Pass the remainder of our hateful days?
What shall we do? Let us that have our tongues
Plot some device of further misery
To make us wonder'd at in time to come.

Titus's final lines—"Plot some device of further misery / to make us wonder'd at in time to come"—deserve special attention. In them is found the motivation for many of the grotesque actions that follow. And in them, too, is found an important nexus binding the characters' existential concerns with the playwright's esthetic ones. To "plot some device" can mean simply to plan a clever trick; but both "plot" and "device" have other connotations, of a specifically artistic and dramatic nature, which indicate that Titus's injunction has significance for the playwright's as well as the revenger's craft. The word plot is, of course, especially common in this double sense throughout the drama of the period, and needs no special comment here. Device, as Titus uses it, carries a related double sense which can yield further insights into the relationship of playwright's craft to revenger's. According to the OED (whose definitions I quote at length because they form a relevant progression from a type of nonverbal expression to purely verbal to verbal and gestural combined), device can mean: "8. Something artistically devised or framed; a fancifully conceived design or figure. 9. spec. An emblematic figure or design, esp. one borne or adopted by a particular person, family, etc., as a heraldic bearing, a cognizance, etc.: usually accompanied by a motto. 10. A fanciful, ingenious, or witty writing or expression, a 'conceit'. 11. Something devised or fancifully invented for dramatic representation; 'a mask played for private persons,' or the like."

In Titus Andronicus (as well as in the play Jonson aptly bracketed with it, The Spanish Tragedy— indeed, in most tragic drama from the late 1580s and the 1590s) we find these various forms of expression (the related sense of device) in more or less uneasy mixture. Hieronimo's "play … in sundry languages," with which The Spanish Tragedy culminates, is a device in the final sense cited from the OED. And throughout the play Kyd has introduced other devices that figure forth the play's central concerns. What is for our purpose most interesting to observe, is how many of Kyd's devices comprise more or lass static conceits for the difficulty Hieronimo and others find in achieving satisfaction through the use of words—as if the variety of dramatic techniques were mirroring the characters' wrestlings with the problem of expression. To cite only a few examples: an old man who has lost his son pleads for redress to a Knight Marshall who has lost his son; Pedringano goes blithely to his death while a messenger points to an empty box that is supposed to contain a written pardon; Bel-imperia, who knows the truth of Horatio's murder, drops a message written in blood to Hieronimo—who suspects a trick (or "device" in the related sense) and fails to heed its contents.

Titus Andronicus similarly contains a series of devices that adumbrate the frustrated need to speak. The mutilated Lavinia is, as we have seen, the central such device, a conceit for the nearness of man to monster when deprived of the humanizing gift of expression, and (more narrowly) an emblem for the plight of the voiceless Andronici in a now alien Rome. The responses Titus proposes—to weep all day into a fountain, to pass their days in dumb-shows—are related devices, here with the added implication of dramatic spectacle. A bare recital of the actions that do follow will sound ludicrous unless we recognize them for the devices they are: intentionally conceited, emblematic—and each related to the same basic problem of expression needed but denied.

For instance: Titus sacrifices a hand to save his sons' lives; thus mutilated, he and Lavinia pray to heaven—and receive his sons' severed heads in reply. Lavinia writes the names of her ravishers in the sand, and Titus proposes transferring the words to more durable brass. At Titus's bidding, the Andronici shoot petitioning arrows at the gods; and because Terras astraea reliquit, Titus proposes searching for the goddess at sea or underground. Finally there is Titus's revenge itself, in all its elaboration (for here the sense of dramatic performance or masque is most strong) and apparent excessiveness (involving his own and Lavinia's deaths); but of this example, where tableau, words, and gesture combine in a culminating expressive action, we must reserve discussion until we can explore the latter part of Titu's injunction: "Let us that have our tongues / Plot some device of further misery / To make us wonder 'd at in time to come."

Here I must acknowledge an anomaly that will in any case have been apparent. Titus Andronicus, I have said, is a play about silence, and about the inability to achieve adequate expression for overwhelming emotional needs; but the thing we may notice before all else in it, even before its physical horrors, is its extreme, obtrusive rhetorical elaboration. But if there is something absurd about Titus's loquacity—his endless talking and endless elaboration about his inability to make his cries for justice heard—the absurdity was not lost on Shakespeare. Shakespeare (as we shall see) is entirely conscious of the disparity between Titus's rhetorical copiousness and his ineffectuality in the realm of action, and in fact makes of it a central dramatic motive.

For Shakespeare knows (to adapt a phrase of Jonas Barish [Stratford-upon-Avon Studies, 1966]) not only "the pleasures," but also the "perils of rhetoric." And this self-consciousness in regard to his medium points toward the very close but uneasy relationship between drama and rhetoric in his period. To the Elizabethans, indeed, orator and actor were essentially the same; in one of his additions to The Overburian Characters, for instance, John Webster asserts that "Whatsoever is commendable in the grave Orator, is most exquisitly perfect in ['An Excellent Actor']." Curiously, it seems to have been as much the use of action as of words which established this identity; the Overburian sketch justifies its comparison of actor and orator by noting that "by a full and significant action of the body, he [the actor] charmes our attention." This apparent anomaly, that action should be the quality which links orator and actor, is taken up by Francis Bacon in his "Of Boldness":

It is a trivial grammar-school text, but yet worthy a wise man's consideration. Question was asked of Demosthenes, what was the chief part of an orator? he answered, action: what next? action: what next again? action. He said it that knew it best, and had by nature himself no advantage in that he commended. A strange thing, that that part of an orator which is but superficial, and rather the virtue of a player, should be placed so high, above those other notable parts of invention, elocution, and the rest; nay almost alone, as if it were all in all.

The commonness of the relationship is worth noticing here, but so too is Bacon's contemptuous tone. For by "action" (that "virtue of a player") Bacon means only the particular gesture of hand and body that must accompany speech. It is a merely technical skill, the suiting of the action to the word and the word to the action that Hamlet recommends to his players; and it is a sufficiently limited notion of action to justify Bacon's contempt.

Most importantly for us, this relationship between oratory and acting, based on a rather mechanical notion of "action," indicates a real danger for the dramatist. In some of the devices we have noticed in Titus and The Spanish Tragedy the danger is apparent, for such passages tend toward the static: they are speaking pictures unnaturally situated within the frame of the surrounding action. If drama was in debt to "Tully's Orator" and the other textbooks of rhetoric that were at the heart of Elizabethan education, it was also possible that drama would perish beneath the burden of the loan. Much drama did in fact succumb: Gorboduc, for instance, although Philip Sidney (since he was not a playwright) could afford to luxuriate in its "stately speeches and well sounding Phrases," is dead to us because it remained rhetoric and found no really organic way to suit its words to its actions.

Inevitably, therefore, it became the superior playwright's task to broaden the notion of "action" beyond the particular gesture until it encompassed the whole play, to find the action—now in a sense closer to Aristotle's (in the Poetics) than to Bacon's—that would convert the raw materials of drama (including language) into the form of drama. In Titus Andronicus we see that conversion taking place before us. Here the struggle is in the open, the struggle to turn the language of words into the language of action, to convert (even by way of rhetoric) rhetoric itself into dramatic, and specifically tragic, form.

We see Shakespeare's recognition and handling of the problem in the paradoxical ineffectuality of the play's rhetoric—paradoxical because, however stirring it may be to the audience, it is useless to the character in achieving, in his fictive world, the results he intends. Titus has cried out to the heavens (having exhausted the world of men, of dust and stones) and, through elaborate imagery, has sought to involve the most elemental forces of nature in his lament. His words are of no avail, yet he must speak:

If there were reason for these miseries,
Then into limits could I bind my woes.
When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth
If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,
Threat'ning the welkin with his big-swol'n face?
And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?
I am the sea; hark how her [Lavinia's] sighs do
She is the weeping welkin, I the earth;
Then must my sea be moved with her sighs;
Then must my earth with her continual tears
Become a deluge, overflow'd and drown'd;
For why my bowels cannot hide her woes,
But like a drunkard must I vomit them.
Then give me leave; for losers will have leave
To ease their stomachs with their bitter tongues.
  Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a


Here again is recognition that "Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd, / Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is." But though action may be the chief part of oratory, for Titus it is the vast gap between even the most rhetorically elaborate speech and effective action which is most painfully noticeable. The stage direction that breaks off Titus's lament is one of the play's most horrifying devices for that gap. Titus's lament is compulsive: men in such extremes must speak out; but it is also, apparently, useless.

And it can be worse. For as the need to find relief through expression becomes more pressing, and as the responding rhetoric becomes more extreme and obtrusive, we find that from the heights of linguistic invention we are plunged into the nadir of madness and mad-speech. Thus Titus, having sought to ease his stomach with his bitter tongue and receiving his sons' severed heads and his own hand in response, is for a moment ominously still; Marcus prompts him: "Now is a time to storm"—but Titus's only reply is the laughter of the mad (III.i.264).

There may, however, be another way of looking at this descent into madness: the plunge may be, like Gloucester's from the cliffs at Dover, no plunge at all; it may be a mere step in an inevitable progression from lingustic elaboration to the dissolution of language itself. What is it, after all, that disturbs us about the rhetorical showpieces? Is it not that, in them, the sheer prominence of language breaks the expected bonds between words and world until we feel that the former has gained mastery over the latter? Mad-speech is, similarly, a language that has lost its connections with objective reality, words without referents in the shared world of the sane. The art of rhetoric, which can be the index of man's reason, can also, when it grows to a surfeit, be the token of madness.

The question of madness and mad-speech is crucial to an understanding of Shakespearean tragedy. We shall recur to it [later] with Hamlet and Lear and (to a lesser extent) with other plays. Here I would point to only one aspect of the matter—the fact that madness isolates, and that mad-speech, therefore, subverts an essential function of language, the bringing together of men in the communion of a shared tongue. In Titus Andronicus we have already seen moments when a speaker's words reveal him locked in the privacy of his obsessions; and those moments of actual or near-madness are precisely those of the fullest, most magniloquent rhetorical elaboration. We have encountered such a moment in Titus's conceit of himself as earth and Lavinia as "weeping welkin." And we have encountered a more subtle and significant example in Act III, scene 2; it begins with Titus's promise to the silenced Lavinia that she will still somehow be heard:

Speechless complainer, I will learn thy thought;
In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
As begging hermits in their holy prayers.
Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet,
And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.

It is a noble speech in its determination that human ingenuity can overcome the barbarity that has silenced Lavinia; and here Titus's rhetorical copiousness is appropriate and moving. But almost immediately the optimism is shattered: Marcus strikes at a fly that has settled on his dish, and Titus launches into a series of fantastic speeches that seem still to have been reverberating in Shakespeare's mind when he came to write King Lear:

Tit. Out on thee, murderer, thou kill'st my heart!
Mine eyes are cloy'd with view of tyranny;
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus' brother. Get thee gone;
I see thou are not for my company.
Marc. Alas, my lord, I have but kill'd a fly. Tit. "But"! How if that fly had a father and
How would he hang his slender gilded wings,
And buzz lamenting doings in the air!
Poor harmless fly,
That with his pretty buzzing melody
Came here to make us merry! And thou hast
  kill'd him.

With Marcus's explanation that "it was a black ill-favour'd fly, / Like to the Empress' Moor," Titus swings violently about. Now killing the fly becomes "a charitable deed," and Titus demands,

Give me thy knife, I will insult on him,
Flattering myself as if it were the Moor
Come hither purposely to poison me.
There's for thyself, and that's for Tamora.

Titus's prosopopeia on the harmless fly, with his "lamenting doings" and "pretty buzzing melody," is an extraordinary thing—purposefully sentimental, beautifully realized as poetry. And considering Titus's emotional state, one is even able to forgive the illogic by which a murdered fly laments his parents' bereavement. Fine. But what has become of Lavinia in all this? And what of the effort to "wrest an alphabet" from her gestures? The possibility of communion is shattered as Titus wanders off in his acrid smoke of rhetoric. At the very moment that the need for human communication is most forcefully presented, we witness words destroying their natural function.

The nexus of characters' concerns and playwright's here becomes clearest. The playwright in the world of his craft, and his characters in their created world, are faced with an analogous problem: how to break out of rhetoric, that high gift which has become a prison, and achieve the action which will suffice? For the playwright, as I have said, that action must be one broadly conceived, sufficient to transform the language of words into the language of drama. And how this can be achieved is indicated by Titus's desire to "Plot some device of further misery / To make us wonder'd at in time to come."

The theatrical implications of the first part of Titus's lines we have already glanced at; and we may notice that, as the moment of Titus's revenge approaches, such double entendre becomes more frequent: Tamora, creating a masque-like device of her own (she is disguised as Revenge, Chiron and Demetrius as Murder and Rape), comes to where Titus "ruminate[s] strange plots of dire revenge" (V.ii.6); Titus plans to "o'erreach them in their own devices" (V.ii.143); and when he has killed Chiron and Demetrius, he announces as the next part of his plan that "I will play the cook" (V.ii.205). Through such suggestions of a play-within-a-play, the world of reality and the world of the stage begin to merge in a way that animates Ralegh's poetic cliché, "Thus march we playing to our latest rest, / Only we die in earnest; that's no jest." In Titus Andronicus the earnest of death becomes inextricably bound up with the jest of playing.

But in what way can the play's "plot of dire revenge," which includes the deaths of Lavinia and Titus himself, satisfy the demand that it be a plot "To make us wonder'd at in time to come"? Again we must attend to a special sense of Titus's language. According to J. V. Cunningham [in Woe or Wonder, 1951], the word wonder (the normal translation of the Latin admiratio), in a tradition descending from Aristotle, was closely associated with the particular emotion supposed to derive from tragedy. "The effect of astonishment or wonder is the natural correlative relative of unusual diction, as it is of the unusual event," Cunningham writes; in particular, "the high style, the forceful, the grand—the style of Demosthenes and Aeschylus—will evoke that wonder which is akin to fear, and will be especially appropriate to tragedy."

But we have already seen that Titus Andronicus carries with it, just as it is exploiting the language of wonder, the recognition that even the most unusual diction and the highest style will not suffice: action, and that a very special action, must animate the otherwise imprisoning rhetoric. And the action that will not only fit but transform the words is death: for the Elizabethan tragedian, death is what can provoke "wonder" in time to come. J. V. Cunningham explains:

The tragic fact is death. Even the most natural death has in it a radical violence, for it is a transition from this life to something by definition quite otherwise; and however much it may be expected, it is in its moment of incidence sudden, for it comes as the thief in the night, you know not the day nor the hour. Hence the characteristics of suddenness and violence which are attached to death in tragedy may be viewed as artistic heightenings of the essential character of death: the unnaturalness of the tragic event is only pointed and emphasized by the unnatural precipitancy of its accomplishment.

In this play, when words have done their uttermost and failed, Titus breaks through the barriers of incommunicability with the gesture which, because it is the gesture most provocative of wonder, is definitive of Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedy. He takes the final step from rhetoric through madness to death.

It may seem an anticlimax to conclude this … discussion with the mere fact of death, especially since everyone knows (even those who have never read or seen the play) that Titus Andronicus is a "revenge tragedy"—and hence, by definition, that its finale must be, in every sense, deadly. But [Hamlet] is also a revenge tragedy: and merely to put together the names of Titus Andronicus and Hamlet suggests the need for a more searching examination of the related questions of death and revenge than the circularity that only tells us you can't have one without the other.…

Revenge, I would suggest, is only one of the various routes by which Shakespeare approached his real destination, the culminating action that may bring "wonder" out of rhetoric in time to come. Through his extended pursuit of revenge, the tragic hero plays out the ritualization of death which permits his tragedy to conclude with the expressiveness of a consummatum est. The sense of something attained after great travail, something at once fearful and wondrous, is the dramatic solution to a problem that haunts much of Renaissance literature, be it sonnet or tragedy—the problem (to use Spenser's word) of mutability. The resolution in death is necessary to assure the sort of enduring memorial Titus and his creator seek, and is an integral part of the play's expressive form.

The demand for permanence explains a function of those somewhat dazed survivors who preside over the tragic close, the Horatios and Edgars, with their promise to remember the events and report them "aright / To the unsatisfied." In Titus, it is true, the remaining Andronici are annoyingly wordy, a fact perhaps forgivable under the circumstances: they have been effectually voiceless in Rome long enough. Still, this is a long way from the more honest ending of King Lear, its bathetically simple "Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say," with its recognition that not all the words in the world can balance the weight of the action we have just witnessed. Shakespeare's great tragedies—whether of revenge, blood, or tragedy pure—culminate, like their important precursor Titus Andronicus, in the acting out of death; and the rest is, necessarily, silence.

S. Clark Hulse (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: "Wresting the Alphabet: Oratory and Action in 'Titus Andronicus,'" in Criticism, Vol. XXI, No. 2, Spring, 1979, pp. 106-18.

[In the following excerpt, Hulse suggests that in Titus Andronicus Shakespeare dramatizes the inability of rhetoric to communicate passionate emotion, which can find adequate expression only in a "language of action."]

Even among revenge tragedies Titus Andronicus is especially brutal. It has 14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity, and 1 of cannibalism—an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines. While to its sheer license the play owes much of its power, this "aesthetic of mutilation" keeps Titus at a distance from Hamlet, with which it shares so many stage conventions. The action of one seems so starkly external, of the other so internal, that readers have been tempted to find in them a paradigm of false and true tragedy.

If one has nagging doubts about this view of Titus, they derive from the demonstrable success of the play on the stage. Dr. Johnson observed that "the barbarity of the spectacles, and the general massacre which are here exhibited, can scarcely be conceived tolerable to any audience; yet we are told by [Ben] Jonson, that they were not only borne but praised." The fact is that the condemnation of Titus is advanced by the learned and the literary, so that its stage popularity merely becomes evidence of the drooling sadism of the London mob. When performed by capable and imaginative modern companies, Titus Andronicus shows some of the power that kept it current on the Elizabethan stage for decades. Robert Speaight [in Shakespeare on the Stage, 1973] called Peter Brook's 1955 production "all in all, perhaps, the greatest Shakespearian production of our time, as Oliver's Titus was arguably his greatest performance—the most intense exhibition of sheer suffering that even this actor has given us." The striking feature of this and other productions is their avoidance of blood; mere carnage cannot explain the play's impact. A second and stranger dimension that these productions add to our understanding of the play's effect is the fact that the audience often laughs through many of those tortures that so offend readers—a distant echo perhaps of the amusement that Ben Jonson felt with the play in 1614. Cruelty and suffering seem to have become as familiar and entertaining to Jacobean audiences as they are to modern ones. Any sensible assessment and interpretation of the play, then, must account for the seeming difference between the play as read and the play as seen.

Examining the "play as seen" involves reconstructing a hypothetical Elizabethan production out of hints in the text as well as tracing the play's subsequent stage history. Yet these tell us only what physical things are seen, not how they are seen, how the visual elements of the play are taken to represent interior actions. The major evidence for interpreting the visual action of Titus Andronicus, as of any play, is its text; and the text of Titus examines in a coherent way the very distinction, between the exterior action of the player and the interior action of the learned reader, that seemed to make its case so hopeless. Opening with the pageantry of a Roman civil order erected on the foundation of public oratory, the action of the play moves in Acts I and II to a "wilderness of tigers" in which spoken language sickens and decays, leaving only the mute visual signs of wounds and gashes. "Speak hands for me!" cried another of Shakespeare's Romans; but the Andronici are without words or hands, seemingly deprived of the capacity for verbal pathos in which Prince Hamlet abounds. In this failure of language, as Lawrence Danson has recently recognized [in Tragic Alphabet: Shakespeare's Drama of Language, 1974], lies a paradoxic tragic power, for Titus must turn his acts and words outward toward the audience, to make of himself a visual spectacle, a "device of wonder." Danson concludes that "we see Shakespeare's recognition and handling of the problem in the paradoxical ineffectuality of the play's rhetoric—paradoxical because, however stirring it may be to the audience, it is useless to the character in achieving, in his fictive world, the results he intends." To advance on this analysis, we need a more complicated sense of the ending of the play, where Titus, through the fact of his linguistic failure, becomes one of drama's most effective revengers. As Titus learns to "wrest the alphabet" of his mangled daughter, he learns a new language of action that supplants the old Roman oratory, because it alone can simultaneously probe the inner wounds of the spirit, and inflict outer wounds on his enemies.

The movement of the play from civilization to wilderness begins as an orderly retreat through the outlands of crumbling visual symbols and empty social gestures. Act I is organized scenically around the Senate House, represented by the area "aloft," and the tomb of the Andronici, probably represented by a stage property, for we know from Henslowe's diary that prop tombs were in use on the popular stage in 1598. While the Senate House becomes a symbol of military prowess and civic order, Titus apostrophizes the tomb as a "Sweet cell of virtue and nobility," so that the stage as a whole is an emblem of the Roman civic virtues that are about to be destroyed. The scenic effect is reinforced by the opening debate between Saturninus and Bassianus, which invokes the Ciceronian oratory so fundamental to Roman virtue. At the focus of this oratory is Titus himself, who is at first pleaded to, then pleaded for, and finally becomes himself a pleader. The centrality of pleading to both text and scene is reaf-firmed by the Peacham sketch, the only surviving illustration of a Shakespeare play on the Elizabethan stage, which shows Tamora, hands clasped in prayer, kneeling to Titus to beg in vain for the life of her son. Particularly interesting is that Titus is shown in the sketch wearing the toga of a citizen, even though he has arrived straight from the wars. These and subsequent scenes in the act show the plea as an action performed with at least the appearance of reason, and heard with the semblance of rational judgment.

At the opening of Act II, Aaron announces an abrupt scenic shift:

The Emperor's court is like the house of Fame,
The palace full of tongues, of eyes, and ears;
The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull.
                                    (II. i. 126-8)

While oratorical Rome has been set before us visually, the silent woods are, paradoxically, depicted through words and sounds. Two places alone are specified, a pit and a tree, represented, one may assume, by the trap and a stage post (though again Henslowe's inventory of the Admiral's Men mentions prop trees). To this bare staging is added a cacophony of woodland noises: the stage sounds of hounds and horns, and the chanting birds and hissing snakes with which Tamora plays a Gothic overture. The gap between the city and the forest is bridged by a continuity of action, as Lavinia pleads to Tamora to avert her rape; yet the action is inappropriate and futile in a setting dominated not by human artifacts and the human voice, but by animal sounds and images:

Lavinia. 'Tis true, the raven doth not hatch a
 Yet have I heard—O, could I find it now!—
 The lion, mov'd with pity, did endure
 To have his princely paws par'd all away.
 Some say that ravens foster forlorn children
 The whlst their own birds famish in their
 O, be to me, though thy hard heart say no,
 Nothing so kind, but something pitiful! Tamora. I know not what it means, away with
                               (II. iii. 149-57)

Lavinia's first line recognizes reality, but the string of proverbs that follows it runs down into a babble, with the opposite of its intended effect. It is the wrong argument, directed to the wrong audience.

In Act III, as the wilderness enters Rome, Titus himself becomes the pleader for his ensnared sons, but the force of words is lost in a mockery of legal oratory. Titus cries out in the streets as the judges and senators file past, falls on his face, and babbles to the blocks and stones. The setting for this and all the succeeding scenes in Act III and Act IV is no place in particular—on the road somewhere, from the forest or to the place of execution. Divorced from the fixed world of Roman institutions, the plea wanes into futility.

It was Titus himself who first smashed Rome's veneer of civic order when with "cruel irreligious piety" he sacrificed Tamora's son and refused to be won by her words. The mounting inadequacy of rhetoric in the face of violence culminates at the end of Act II when Lavinia appears, "her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravish'd." The response of her uncle Marcus to the sight is a formalized declaration:

Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath.
But sure some Tereus hath deflow'red thee,
And lest thou shouldst detect [him], cut thy
Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame!
And notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with [three] issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encount'red with a cloud.
                                   (II. iv. 22-32)

Marcus might be describing a broken water main, not his niece, for all the emotional weight or interior reference his words seem to carry. In the peculiar and seemingly undramatic language of the passage, the horror of the moment is made familiar and comprehensible by the images of cloud, fountain, and conduit, only to have this poetic transformation frustrated by the physical presence of the actor gushing blood [Eugene Waith, in Shakespeare Survey, 1957]. The irrefutable reality of the stage action seems to block the transforming power of poetry—or is it that the unemotional language of Marcus frustrates the visual development of an empathie response? In either case, the presumed gulf between language and action disappears if we allow that the change in the language of the play is met by a corresponding change in the action. The classical oratory of Act I has given way to a new formal rhetoric, in which physical appearance is given symbolic vestments. While language, the vehicle of the soul, at this point lies useless to the characters of the play, the motions of the body become the tool for expressing the inner person.

In the new language that Marcus has used, the parts of the body are repeatedly named and allegorized. At the beginning of Act II, the pit that will hold Bassianus, Martius and Quintus becomes a satanic womb. At the end of Act II, in the infamous "bubbling fountain" speech, hands, once instruments of valor or of the soft arts of music and embroidery, are transformed into emblems of woe:

Marcus. A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute,
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touch'd them for his
                                    (II. iv. 41-7)

While this is as "rhetorical" as the verse of Act I, there is nothing here of the objective, public, moral emblems of Senate House and tomb. These are subjective emblems of human passion. Lavinia is presented as a tableau vivant, her mutilation recast in formal and mythological terms, so that the attendant horror and sorrow appear as fixed qualities of the physical objects, hands, rather than as transient motions of the soul.

When Titus first sees his mangled daughter, he commands her to speak. When she cannot, he resorts to the language of formalized woe to express their mutual grief:

Shall thy good uncle, and thy brother Lucius,
And thou, and I, sit round about some fountain,
Looking all downwards to behold our cheeks,
How they are stain'd like meadows yet not dry,
With miry slime left on them by a flood?
And in the fountain shall we gaze so long
Till the fresh taste be taken from that clearness,
And made a brine-pit with our bitter tears?
Or shall we cut away our hands like thine?
Or shall we bite our tongues, and in dumb
Pass the remainder of our hateful days?
What shall we do? Let us that have our tongues
Plot some device of further misery,
To make us wonder'd at in time to come.
                                       (III. i. 122-35)

Titus's tableau vivant is a paradigm of the whole action of the play. In the water's mirror the Andronici contemplate themselves—not an introspection, but an externalizing of their state: the self projected onto the fountain, which weeps in sympathy; transformed into theatrical action; then to vengeful action; and finally elevated to marvel and myth.

The first result of this elevation is that the Andronici identify themselves with the external world:

Titus. I am the sea; hark how her sighs doth
She is the weeping welkin, I the earth:
Then must my sea be moved with her sighs;
Then must my earth with her continual tears
Become a deluge, overflow'd and drown'd.
                                 (III. i. 225-9)

This is, in a sense, merely the pathetic fallacy, or an invocation of the old correspondence of microcosm and macrocosm. But the fact that something is a literary convention does not mean that it is unremarkable or even "normal" psychologically. The pathetic fallacy is pointedly used here as a sign of rising passion, of personality disturbance and obsession. Madness, indeed, is so rampant that when the heads of his nephews arrive, even Marcus, that counselor of reason, can sound like Lear on the heath:

Now let hot Aetna cool in Sicily,
And be my heart an ever-burning hell!
                                   (III. i. 241-2)

Throughout his career, Shakespeare grappled with the problem of representing dramatically extreme states of private emotion; prelude to Hamlet's cry that "I have that within which passes show" (I. ii. 85) is Richard II's lament:

… my grief lies all within,
And these external [manners] of laments
Are merely shadows to the unseen grief
That swells with silence in the tortur'd soul.
                                     (IV. i. 295-8)

Though its inspiration is Senecan, Titus belongs to that moment of dramatic experiment in the late 1580's and early 1590's before classical staging had quite conquered the morality and interlude. It calls on a dramatic medium in which Shakespeare can create a stage space both personal and emblematic, stripped of precise geographical identity and capable of breaking down entirely the barriers between the inner and outer worlds. While Shakespeare has gone in Acts I and V of Titus a long way toward the "real" space of the later stage, he still retains the option of mingling localized and unlocalized scenes. Indeed, in the plays written for the Globe between 1599 and 1609, fully 60% of the scenes still employ a space that is only generally localized [Bernard Beckerman, Shakespeare at the Globe, 1599-1609, 1962]. This is the basic mode of Acts II-IV of Titus, all of which occur either in the forest or in Rome, but with precise locales undefined, and the settings developed primarily as embodiments of emotion, scenic analogues to the rhetoric of woe. The mad Titus, obsessed with his suffering and his revenge, looks at every object around him for the reflection of his personal state. The rhetoric of Acts II and III has mythologized those objects of the external world, so that whenever Titus moves a hand, he is able not just to represent, but to see his suffering. As Titus goes mad, the world of the play becomes the world of his insanity.

The climax of the play, then, comes in a series of scenes in Act III in which Titus completes his movement from the inner reference of speech to the outer reference of signs. Presented with the heads of his sons, he falls still, as tongueless as his daughter. At the beginning of the play, he carried the epithet "Pius," like Rome's Trojan founder. Now he refuses the role, lest like Aeneas at Carthage he be bid to "tell the tale twice o'er/How Troy was burnt and he made miserable" (III. ii. 27-8). At the same moment, his silent daughter becomes to him eloquent:

Titus. Speechless [complainant], I will learn thy
In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
As begging hermits in their holy prayers.
Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a
But I, of these, will wrest an alphabet,
And by still practice learn to know thy
                                 (III. ii. 39-45)

Titus lectures Marcus on the proper theatrical gestures to express outwardly their passion—folding the arms, standing and sitting, beating the breast. In the fly-killing scene, they debate the meaning of this new visual code: "thou kill'st my heart!" says Titus, identifying the fly with himself, until Marcus reminds him that the fly was black, and so better glosed as Aaron the Moor. So too, young Lucius tells us aside that Demetrius and Chiron are "decipher'd," although they cannot in turn decipher Titus' meaning.

It is no coincidence that both Hamlet and Titus reach their climaxes in acts built around dramas-within-dramas. The Mousetrap of Act III of Hamlet, showing a nephew killing his uncle, is both a recollection of the crime of Claudius and an announcement of Hamlet's own coming vengeance. The tableaux vivants of Act III of Titus formalize the horror of the plot, metamorphizing the Andronici into characters of "dumb shows," "devices," and wonders. They are narcissi, simultaneously actors and audience, practicing a sadistic voyeurism as they contemplate the sexual violence inflicted on them and which they shall inflict on others. It is this sadistic voyeurism, so central to the meaning of the play, that has made more than one audience or reader uneasy about his own response to the play. Hamlet isolates at a different level of dramatic reality the reflective moment in which real crimes are presented as entertainment. Titus rams the levels together, and the inner world of madness and obsession breaks all hold on the world of peace and order for characters and audience alike.

Once the barriers are down, the interior grief of the Andronici is no longer distinguishable from the exterior action of their revenge. Titus tells the suffering Lavinia to

… get some little knife between thy teeth,
And just against thy heart make thou a hole,
That all the tears that thy poor eyes let fall
May run into that sink, and soaking in,
Drown the lamenting fool in sea-salt tears.
                                  (III. ii. 16-20)

Literally, this is suicide, but in this new realm, the advice foreshadows the final revenge, where a knife indeed brings an end to her torment. So in Act IV, the mad Titus shoots messages tied to arrows to the silent gods, but Marcus more wisely directs the arrows not at the heavens, but at the court, to make them into offensive weapons.

While the plot of a revenge tragedy is conventionally reflexive, one group of plotters initiating a situation exploited by the other [Fredson Bowers, Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy, 1587-1642, 1940], the action of Titus is doubly reflexive: the inventions of Tamora fall on her own head as she, Demetrius, and Chiron appear as Revenge, Murder, and Rape:

Titus. Look round about the wicked streets of
  And when thou find'st a man that's like
Good Murther, stab him, he's a murtherer.
Go thou with him, and when it is thy hap
To find another that is like to thee,
Good Rapine, stab him, he is a ravisher.
Go thou with them, and in the Emperor's court
There is a queen, attended by a Moor;
Well shalt thou know her by thine own
For up and down she doth resemble thee.
I pray thee do on them some violent death.
                               (V. ii. 98-108)

In their obsession with crime, Tamora and her sons have put on disguises that both reveal their inner natures and inflict punishment on them. By partaking in the Andronican rhetoric of tableaux vivants, they have provided their enemy the means of turning his rhetoric of helpless woe into a rhetoric of vengeful action. Titus tells us soberly that he is not mad, and so can exploit their tactical error, but Titus's behavior is normal only in that he can perceive clearly and act effectively in a city where Revenge, Murder, and Rape stroll about the streets. He has at the height of his madness asked, "Then which way shall I find Revenge's cave?" (III. i. 270). Now Revenge matter-of-factly knocks at the door of his study.

With that knocking, the play returns to a localized setting, for we stand at the door to Titus's own house. While the localized setting of Act I worked as an emblem of the public and moral virtues of Rome, the study of Titus completes the objectification of private emotions. In the Globe plays, the enclosure commonly served as the "study," but Tamora's line, "therefore come down and welcome me" (V. ii. 43) suggests that Titus first appears above, and, in the course of an eleven-line soliloquy by Tamora (V. ii. 70-80), descends and enters through a stage door that represents the entrance to the study. Titus has himself already punned on the word, asking Tamora:

Is it your trick to make me ope the door
That so my decrees may fly away,
And all my study be to no effect?
                                    (V. ii. 10-12)

His study (the building) is his study (the object of his contemplation—his grief and revenge), just as his house is called "my woeful house" (V. ii. 82) and "old Titus' sorrowful house" (V. iii. 142). Titus's house is the spatial extension of himself, his sedes or mansion, as surely as in a morality play.

Dressed up in his cook's outfit, Titus performs the final murders there in a mood of gleeful playacting, delighting in his role at last. As they commit their mass murder, Titus and Lavinia simultaneously tell o'er their woes and avenge them, recounting their suffering not in words, but in visual images. Lavinia took a staff in her mouth when she named the rapists, enacting fellatio, or, if we take seriously the pun that Act II made on hell-mouth, re-enacting her own violation. Titus now slits the throats of Demetrius and Chiron while their blood spills into Lavinia's basin, a second visual recapitulation both of her rape, and of the death of Titus' sons. Finally, Tamora devours the pasties in which their heads are baked, returning the fiends to her womb, and reversing the birth of her black son in Act IV. Titus then has only to slay both Lavinia and Tamora, the pitiful and the pitiless, to signify the depth of his grief and to complete the action of the play.

With the final ritual of slaughter, the conflict that has pushed the Andronici beyond the limits of normal action is removed. The sacrifice of Titus restores Roman order, and with it restores the ordinary function of language. Lucius, his heir, can mount the rostrum like a classical orator to address his eager audience:

Marcus. Speak, Rome's dear friend, as erst our
 When with his solemn tongue he did discourse
 To love-sick Dido's sad attending ear
 The story of that baleful burning night,
 When subtile Greeks surpris'd King Priam's
                                  (V. iii. 80-84)

If Lucius is now like Aeneas, he can win tears from his listeners with his oratory, as Titus could not. And if Lucius is the new Aeneas, then Titus becomes a younger Priam, and has melted wholly into the stuff of a legendary past.

The formal language of the middle acts of Titus Andronicus seems undramatic only if we cling to a naturalistic sense of dramatic action; its very formality is part of its theatrical impact, moving us toward a visual enactment of inner sorrow, and forcing the protagonist into action against his enemies. Hamlet at first opposed the mere acting or outward show of grief to the action that springs from true grief. He found himself finally able to take action, though, through acting, by feigning madness and by producing a play. Similarly, Titus finds oratory to fail where only revenge will do, but can strike back only in a complaint uttered in the alphabet of signs. Still, if the language of Titus is in this sense dramatic, it forces on the play a peculiar aesthetic mood, mingling the tragic and the absurd, in which only a few works have been able to succeed. This is nonetheless a common mood in the revival of the revenge tragedy in 1600. Marston's Antonio and Mellida and Antonio's Revenge are, if R. A. Foakes is right [in Philological Quarterly, 1962], meant to sound ludicrous in the mouths of the boy actors for whom they are written. Hamlet, the greatest of the type, has madcap murder, death in disguise, and torturous play-acting. All call on a psychological truth about the human ability to comprehend suffering—at a certain point, the only way to cope with pain is to laugh.

Still, the occasional absurdity of Titus is an inadvertant result of a necessarily rhetorical style, not a conscious calculation as in Marston's plays or in Hamlet. Titus achieves its success by an unlikely marriage of Latinate rhetoric and early English theater conditions, in which the rhetoric transforms the stage, props and actors in symbolic tableaux, and the staging gives theatrical significance to the poet's rhetoric. Yet ten or fifteen years later, these very elements seemed comically incompatible, and have remained so. While Hamlet looks askance at Marston's boy actors, it joins in the parody of the old Senecan fustian and stiff action with "The Murder of Gonzago." As a first experiment with the shifting levels of dramatic action, and their capacity to portray the depravity of human action, Titus is a worthy predecessor to Hamlet. But, as Shakespeare and Ben Jonson alike remind us, the strict formality that brings that success had begun, within a generation, to ring strangely on the ears of its audience.

Further Reading

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Charney, Maurice. "Titus Andronicus." In his All of Shakespeare, pp. 211-18. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.

A brief summary of the plot, characters, themes, and critical history of Titus Andronicus.

Dessen, Alan C. Titus Andronicus. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989, 123 p.

Comparative study of several of the most successful productions of Titus Andronicus, emphasizing the range of interpretations to which the play lends itself.

Green, Douglas E. "Interpreting 'Her Martyr'd Signs': Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus." Shakespeare Quarterly 40, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 317-26.

Examines the roles of Lavinia and Tamora, as female "Others," in relation to Titus's development as a tragic figure.

Haaker, Ann. "Non sine causa: The Use of Emblematic Method and Iconology in the Thematic Structure of Titus Andronicus." Research Opportunities in Renaissance Drama XIII-XIV (1970-71): 143-68.

Suggests that Shakespeare enhanced the thematic content of Titus Andronicus by using scenes and settings derived from sixteenth-century emblems that had well established connotations.

Hunter, G. K. "Sources and Meanings in Titus Andronicus." In Mirror Up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G. R. Hibbard, edited by J. C. Gray, pp. 171-88. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

Rejects suggestions that Shakespeare based Titus Andronicus on a contemporary ballad or prose history and argues that the play reflects political themes and historical events treated in the Roman histories of Livy and Herodian.

Kendall, Gillian Murray. "'Lend Me Thy Hand': Metaphor and Mayhem in Titus Andronicus." Shakespeare Quarterly 40, No. 3 (Fall 1989): 299-316. Reprinted in Shakespearean Criticism, Vol. 13. Detroit: Gale Research Inc., 1991, pp. 225-34.

Relates the violent events of Titus Andronicus to "a violence inherent in the nature of language." The play's figurative language, Kendall argues, displays a persistent tendency to become grotesquely literal, revealing the extent to which language conditions our perceptions and actions.

Liebler, Naomi Conn. "Getting It All Right: Titus Andronicus and Roman History." Shakespeare Quarterly 45, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 263-78.

In identifying the disintegration of cultural identity as a major theme in Titus Andronicus, Liebler suggests sources for the version of Roman history found in the play and discusses some of the issues raised by attempts to relate literary works to specific source materials.

Marshall, Cynthia. "'I Can Interpret All Her Martyr'd Signs': Titus Andronicus, Feminism, and the Limits of Interpretation." In Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama, edited by Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, pp. 193-213. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press, 1991.

Explores political and ethical implications of the act of interpreting Lavinia's role, with a view to achieving a feminist reading that would avoid the dangers of cooptation and aesthetic superiority.

Miola, Robert S. "Titus Andronicus: Rome and Family." In his Shakespeare's Rome, pp. 42-75. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

Studies the significance of Rome, its history, and its literary traditions in Titus Andronicus and relates the play to Shakespeare's subsequent Roman tragedies.

—. "Senecan Revenge." In his Shakespeare and Classical Tragedy, pp. 11-67. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992.

Details Shakespeare's use of Senecan models in Titus Andronicus.

Rowe, Katherine A. "Dismembering and Forgetting in Titus Andronicus." Shakespeare Quarterly 45, No. 3 (Fall 1994): 279-303.

Examines the dismemberment of hands in Titus Andronicus in terms of sixteenth-century discursive and iconographic traditions in which the hand figures as a symbol of martial, marital, and genealogical bonds.

Waith, Eugene M. Introduction to Titus Andronicus, by William Shakespeare, edited by Eugene M. Waith, pp. 1-69. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1984.

Discusses the play's critical and performance history and the debate over its authorship and sources.

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


Titus Andronicus (Vol. 43)