Historically among the most poorly regarded of Shakespeare's plays, Titus Andronicus has for the majority of its critical history elicited the ridicule of critics, among them T. S. Eliot, who called it "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written." Indeed the play, a bloody revenge tragedy set in imperial Rome, appears to have been popular in Shakespeare's day largely as a sensationalistic and visceral piece. And, although many scholars have endeavored to disprove Shakespeare's authorship of the work, evidence to the contrary appears to be overwhelming. Critical consensus sees Titus Andronicus as an example of the playwright's early apprenticeship, a play in which he synthesized the popular neo-Senecan revenge drama with other classical sources, including the writings of Ovid and Livy, for the Elizabethan stage. In the latter half of the twentieth century enlightened performances of the play, including Peter Brooks' 1955 Stratford production, have done much to revive serious critical interest in Titus Andronicus, proving the work to be a viable stage drama and a site of scholarly inquiry. Among the most fruitful of these explorations continues to be the study of its themes of violence, rape, and mutilation, while other areas, such as gender and textual issues, the play's sources, and its place in Shakespeare's canon as an early Roman play, continue to be of perennial interest.
The subject of violence in Titus Andronicus has proved to be almost critically unavoidable. Very few explorations of the play have been able to ignore its multiple mutilations, countless murders, and the sadistic rape of Lavinia that form the centerpiece of its thematic action. Many of the studies of violence in Titus Andronicus have focused on the play's stark imagery. Katherine A. Rowe (1994) has examined the plentiful images of severed hands in the play, and has linked them to the work's theme of failed or ineffective political action. Elsewhere, David Willbern (1978) has detailed the imagery of violence and sadism that colors the play throughout. Several critics have concentrated on the rape and mutilation of the innocent Lavinia done by Demetrius and Chiron (the two amoral sons of the captured Gothic queen Tamora), drawing parallels between Lavinia's violation and the social, linguistic, and interpretive shifts in the play. Derek Cohen (1993) has described Lavinia's rape as an indication of female victimization in a male-dominated society, while Karen Cunningham (1990) has argued that the rape calls into question the notion of justice and the accessibility of truth. Mary Laughlin Fawcett (1983) has traced the implications of Lavinia's rape and subsequent mutilation. She contends that with her hands chopped off and tongue ripped out, Lavinia symbolizes the limitations of language and adumbrates Shakespeare's complex theory of language, texts, and bodies.
Interrelated questions of gender and textuality are also of common interest to many critics. Douglas E. Green (1989), among them, has examined the primary female characters in Titus Andronicus, Lavinia and Tamora—archetypal victim and avenger, respectively—who symbolically wrest textual control from the central male figure in the play, Titus himself. The attack upon patriarchal and textual authority is additionally pursued by Heather B. Kerr (1992), who sees in the contrasting feminine figures of Tamora and Lavinia a subversion of male society and of the fabric of textual signification.
The subject of the Roman sources and subject matter of Titus Andronicus has additionally elicited much critical interest in recent years. Many scholars have particularly studied the considerable influence of Ovid's Metamorphoses on both the story and theme of Shakespeare's play. Leonard Barkan (1986) has concentrated on Ovid's telling of the classical story of Philomel as a touchstone to Titus Andronicus. Eugene M. Waith (1957) has likened Shakespeare's dramatization of the transformative power of violent emotion in the play to that in Ovid's tragic stories. While outlining Ovidian influences in Titus Andronicus, A. C. Hamilton (1963) was one of the first to point out the importance of the drama as it foreshadows the mode of Shakespeare's later tragedies. Hamilton uses King Lear as an example. A parallel line of thought perceives Titus Andronicus as a prototype of the Roman plays Shakespeare composed later in his career—Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus. Robert S. Miola (1983) has highlighted Shakespeare's incisive depiction of Rome and the prevalent themes of civil turmoil, political duty, revenge, and military honor that inform Titus Andronicus as well as the Roman plays. Miola argues (against many prior commentators) the affinities of these works with one of Shakespeare's fledgling and most frequently disparaged dramas, and typifies the general contemporary attitude to Titus Andronicus, which, despite its flaws, finds it a compelling and rewarding work.
Douglas E. Green (essay date 1989)
SOURCE: "Interpreting 'her martyr'd signs': Gender and Tragedy in Titus Andronicus," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 40, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 317-26.
[In the following essay, Green examines the intertwined workings of gender, revenge, and victimization in Titus Andronicus.]
Today we are questioning the cultural definitions of sexual identity we have inherited. I believe Shakespeare questioned them too, that he was critically aware of the masculine fantasies and fears that shaped his world, and of how they falsified both men and women.1
. . . by text we mean not something that is self-same on the page, not the intertness of an implacable letter, but rather those slippages and multiplications which determine and fix only to unmoor again, making all places provisional, all sites relational, all identity a matter of differences scarcely perceivable because forever changing.2
In Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus the parallels to other popular plays of the period are evident: bits of Marlowe and Kyd, for instance, abound. Shakespeare introduces Titus (1.1.70-295) as a Roman Tamburinine, with trumpets, triumphs, chariots, and domestic murders, but places this martial heroism in the context of a revenge tragedy.3 The analogies with plays like The Jew of Malta and The Spanish Tragedy are too many and too obvious to ignore. Shakespeare employs and comments on theatrical conventions, recreates them, re-produces them with a difference.
4 With Shakespeare the motives for so doing are undoubtedly various: crime may not pay, but it does pay off.
Still, as Jonson's singling out of The Spanish Tragedy and Titus Andronicus suggests, Shakespeare's first experiment in the revenge mode is, however old-fashioned, both exemplary and memorable.5 As is so often the case, Shakespeare touches the limits of the genre and exposes its limitations. In trying to come to terms with Titus as revenge play, critics are debating even today the relative influence of Ovid and Seneca. Titus' culinary preparations and the banquet scene recall both Seneca's Thyestes and the Ovidian story of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne.6 Because of the play's Ovidian rhetoric and its use of the Metamorphoses as a stage prop, recent interest has focused on Ovid. Thus, for Leonard Barkan, "in a very real sense, the presence of the book of Ovid generates the events of Titus"; he notes that the characters seem to have read the work even before the book appears on stage. John Velz sees a general "interest on Shakespeare's part in Ovidian disjunctions of all kinds" and in this case "the juxtaposition of elaborated descriptive rhetoric with violent and bloody action."7 But the play is also indebted to the native dramatic tradition and to the medieval and early Renaissance narrative tragedies, as well as to Ovid and Seneca. In this Polonian pastiche, heroic, pastoral, elegiac, revenge, and tragic fragments combine, like the combatants of a morality psychomachia, to illustrate the progress of Titus' soul.8 Like emblems, visible mutilations signify hidden violations, both physical and spiritual.
In Titus Andronicus almost every spectacle, deed, and character is absorbed into the titanic presence of the protagonist. Certainly Lavinia and Tamora, as utter victim and as consummate avenger, threaten to usurp Titus' centrality. But just as Elizabeth's gender was submerged, in interludes and entertainments, "in the complex iconography of her paradigmatic virtue," always in accord with patriarchal notions of her power as prince,9 so Shakespeare's notable and notorious female characters are here made to serve the construction of Titus—patriarch, tragic hero, and, from our vantage point, central consciousness. But contradictions beset this enterprise. I maintain that the pressures of Shakespeare's characterization of Titus, of creating this tragic protagonist, are evident in the Others—notably Aaron, Tamora, and Lavinia—who surround the revenge play's central Self.10 In the case of Tamora and Lavinia, on whom I will focus, gender both marks and is marked by Shakespeare's first experiment in revenge tragedy. It is largely through and on the female characters that Titus is constructed and his tragedy inscribed.
This closing with him fits his lunacy.
We can assume that any theory of the subject has always been appropriated by the "masculine.""
Stereotypes define what the social body endorses and what it wants to exclude.12
Tamora is one pole on the female scale by which we measure Titus—but as one might expect of this "lascivious Goth" (2.3.110) and monstrous woman, hers is a double measure. On the one hand, she stands as Titus' direct opposite, marking his strength by her own status as victim, as well as his goodness by her own evil. Her desperate plea to save her son Alarbus acknowledges that her captivity is the sign of Titus' power: "Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome / To beautify thy triumphs, and return / Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke . . . ?" (1.1.109-11). Titus' coolly formal reply to Tamora's emotional appeal ratifies that acknowledged authority: "Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me" (1.1.121). Her evil, too, manifests itself early, before she takes any action or admits malign intent, in that Saturninus' lust-at-first-sight represents Tamora as the very occasion of sin: "A goodly lady, trust me, of the hue / That I would choose were I to choose anew" (1.1.261-62).13 Tamora's aside to Saturninus exposes the dangers of this woman's subtle power—"My lord, be rul'd by me, be won at last, / Dissemble all your griefs and discontents" (1.1.442-43)—and exposes as well her intention to "find a day to massacre them all [the Andronici], / And rase their faction and their family" (1.1.450-51). We know Titus by his opposite; if he has erred in killing Alarbus, at least the motive, we are to believe, is "piety"—albeit, from the perspective of the queen of the Goths, a "cruel, irreligious piety" (1.1.130).
On the other hand, Tamora also illustrates and demarcates the extremes of Titus' character, measures the evil to which this patriarchal avenger has resorted and must resort. Her comment on the barbarity, the "cruel, irreligious piety," of Roman religion suggests as much: it inadvertently excuses Titus' error as a product of benighted pagan belief but also implicates Titus in a whole range of human blindness, imperfection, and crime. The murder of Mutius gives weight to her view of Titus' Roman moral code—his strict adherence to the oppressive laws of his fathers and his own claim to absolute paternal authority. We know Titus, and sometimes Titus even knows himself, by his mirror image in Tamora.
Near the end of the play, for example, when Titus receives Tamora and her sons disguised as Revenge, Murder, and Rapine, he obviously sees through the charade but also plays along, feigning a lunatic blindness to the facts. His words and actions are instructive:
Good Lord, how like the Empress' sons they are!
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 thee,
1 will embrace thee in it by and by.
Titus' lines and actions here, though localized in a grotesque, specific moment, bespeak the ambiguity surrounding Tamora and Titus' relation to her throughout the play. Titus certainly sees her as she is, comprehends her motives in a way she does not intend. He also acknowledges his own "embracement" of Revenge, of the vengeance she is merely counterfeiting in this scene, albeit as part of her own plans for revenge. In Titus' one-armed union with Tamora-Revenge, Shakespeare gives us the emblem of the avenger's tragedy: the avenger mirrors the enemy, commits the very evils for which retribution is sought.14
And perhaps there is a further implication linked to those "miserable, mad, mistaking eyes" of Titus: if his "mistakings" in the first act are any indication, "worldly men" like Titus are indeed questionable wielders of the absolute power to which they aspire. In a sense the words and the scene remind us that Titus' judgment and one-armed justice against his own son Mutius are little more than willful vengeance and, like his support of Saturninus over Bassianus (for emperor and for son-in-law), examples of faulty reason and blindness. The rule of "worldly men," despite the play's ending, is shown as problematic so long as men are fallible. Perhaps our recognition of this fact contributes to an initially uncertain response to Tamora, in that her maternal plea for mercy is understandable, moving, and just. Moreover, when Tamora reappears as Revenge, she reminds us not only that her own unforgiving will, so cruel in the scene with Lavinia, has made her the very essence of evil, but also that she has had as much cause for vengeance as has Titus—a fact from which the play keeps trying to deflect our own "miserable, mad, mistaking"—and complicit—eyes. In one sense, then, Tamora embodies dangers already inherent in the rule of men like Saturninus, Titus, and even Marcus.
Tamora is all the more effective at this double duty because of her gender. Every desire she voices threatens Titus, Rome, and the patriarchal assumptions of the audience. Here her link with Aaron is crucial. In Act 1 the Moor is a silent, disturbing presence in the queen's party; at the beginning of Act 2, however, he declares that he will "wanton with this queen, / This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph, / This siren that will charm Rome's Saturnine, / And see his shipwrack and his commonweal's" (2.1.21-24). This declaration not only confirms the threats Tamora has voiced in her aside to the emperor but also shifts the audience's attention away from Tamora's original motive. By having Aaron voice Tamora's designs at this point, Shakespeare forces a judgment against Tamora; thus, when Lavinia pleads for mercy (2.3), Tamora's reminder that she herself once "pour'd forth tears in vain" (2.3.163) cuts both ways: it establishes Titus' error as the source of Lavinia's plight, but it also transfers Titus' inhumanity to Tamora's unwomanly, "beastly" nature in the present circumstance (2.3.182).
Titus' reflection in—and of—Tamora reveals that, as Catherine Belsey puts it, all "revenge exists in the margin between justice and crime"; Betsey's statement that, as "an act of injustice on behalf of justice, [revenge] deconstructs the antithesis which fixes the meanings of good and evil, right and wrong"15 applies even to Titus. But the "justice" of Tamora is theatrically embodied in the villainous Moor, with the result that, to Elizabethan eyes, she seems as if in league with a devil; Titus, though mirrored in and sometimes mirroring her, is kept at one remove from her apparent complicity with the devil. The evil of Titus is displaced onto Tamora: thus his death is made to seem, though deserved, nonetheless tragic; hers, merely the rewarding of just deserts.
But the construction of stereotypes cannot ensure permanent stability, not only because the world always exceeds the stereotypical, but also in so far as the stereotypes themselves are inevitably subject to internal contradictions and so are perpetually precarious.16
If woman has always functioned "within" the discourse of man, a signifier that has always referred back to the opposite signifier which annihilates its specific energy and diminishes or stifles its very different sounds, it is time for her to dislocate this "within," to explode it, to turn it around, and seize it; to make it hers, containing it in her own mouth, biting that tongue with her very own teeth to invent for herself a language to get inside of.17
Lavinia is the other pole of the scale—and the more telling. Her mutilated body "articulates" Titus' own suffering and victimization. When he sums up all his losses and pains, Titus ends with "that which gives my soul the greatest spurn /. . . dear Lavinia, dearer than my soul" (3.1.101-2): "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?" (3.1.103-5). Like Marcus' much-decried and much-excused "conduit" speech (2.4.11-57),18 Titus' speech re-presents Lavinia as both the occasion and the expression of his madness, his inner state. Their "sympathy of woe . . . , / As far from help as limbo is from bliss" (3.1.148-49), transforms her irremediable condition into the emblem of his.
But there is in Lavinia a greater, though less conspicuous, threat than in Tamora: she mirrors Titus not only humbled but also superbus, though without Tamora's obvious taint. Initially the silent pawn in the struggle between her father, on the one hand, and her brothers and fiancé, on the other, she later reveals a proud, baiting wit as she rebukes Tamora for her "raven-colored love" (2.3.83):
Under your patience, gentle Emperess,
Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning,
And to be doubted that your Moor and you
Are singled forth to try thy experiments.
Jove shield your husband from his hounds today!
Tis pity they should take him for a stag.
Lavinia's speech here caps a series of dialogue references to the Diana-Actaeon story: Bassianus ironically compares Tamora to Diana the Huntress; Tamora retorts, wishing Actaeon's fate on Bassianus; Lavinia's speech outdoes the queen by turning her own witty remark against her. Certainly there is no parity between such verbal besting and Lavinia's fate, nor is there justification for the rape or for Tamora's goading on her sons to brutality or for her sanctioning the rape even when Lavinia pleads for death instead (2.3.168 ff.). But the blind pride with which Lavinia speaks, as if assuming her own moral rectitude and consequent power, mirrors Titus' mistaken assumption about his own omnipotence: "I will restore to [Saturninus] / The people's hearts, and wean them from themselves" (1.1.210-ll). What follows on Titus' claim exposes his hubristic will to power, most notoriously in the murdering of his son Mutius. Similarly, concurrence in Bassianus' decision to tell Saturninus of Tamora's infidelity—"Good king, to be so mightily abused" (2.3.87)—mirrors Titus' (and her husband's) self-righteousness; at the same time, it also reveals her as the victim of a false sense of security, of a belief that virtue (or at least good intentions) are their own defense. As Lavinia finds out, there is no impermeable self; raped and mutilated, she embodies the very lesson the proud conqueror Titus is forced to learn.
Lavinia's muteness, too, is complex. It, of course, signifies powerlessness.19 But oddly, in this case, it also belies any simple evocation of pathos in an audience. Because of what Lavinia knows, her voice must be silenced. Just as her tongue might speak of the premediated violence of the rapists, so an autonomous Lavinia might tell of the thoughtless cruelty of her father, which had undone her betrothal and united her temporarily with an unworthy man. Indeed, Lavinia's speech—or any uncurtailed mode of signification on her part—could expose to the public (and to the audience) her subjection to the arbitrary wills of men, to the contradictory desires of father, husband, rival fiance, brothers, and rapists. Her voice might not only bring down Chiron, Demetrius, Aaron, and Tamora but might also accuse Titus as well. For Lavinia to speak now would undermine the play's design—the reconstitution of patriarchy under Lucius. But the play makes us aware of the price that this reconstitution, this order, exacts from women (and younger sons, and those without power, or those who are otherwise peripheral): they, their pain, and all their experiences are consigned to silence and illegibility.
Nonetheless, as I have already suggested, Shakespeare's recollection of the Ovidian myth brings into the play more than Lavinia's victimization. On the one hand, as noted above, the text thoroughly circumscribes Lavinia's "speech" because it might threaten the reestablishment of order; on the other hand, it suggests that Lavinia, like Philomela, can and should overcome the severest of restrictions on communication, restrictions the perpetrators are the first to mock (2.4). Since her "signs and tokens" (2.4.5) are incomprehensible to most of the other characters, Marcus begins the process of articulating Lavinia's meaning: "Shall I speak for thee? shall I say 'tis so?" (2.4.33). He is the one who lights upon the Ovidian myth as an explanation, a reading to which she assents by averting her face "for shame" (2.4.28). But I would like to suggest that the process of articulation begun by Marcus is never entirely certain.20 To be sure, his explanation fits the facts, the plot; nevertheless, the play is always trying to exclude the possibility of "polysemic" signs:21 "Perchance she weeps because they [her brothers] kill'd her husband, / Perchance because she knows them innocent" (3.1.114-15). Titus dispels such ambiguities by establishing a "sympathy of woe" between himself and his daughter; we are to believe that his pain comprehends hers in every sense: "I understand her signs. / Had she a tongue to speak, now would she say / That to her brother which I said to thee" (3.1.143-45). Lavinia mirrors Titus—his present loss and pain—but Titus' words determine what her image, her "signs and tokens," mean: "But I, of these, will wrest an alphabet, / And by still practice learn to know thy meaning" (3.2.44-45).22 At one and the same time, Titus acknowledges the integrity and otherness of Lavinia's experience and intentions and yet claims the power to determine their meaning—along with her whole system of signs.
The young Lucius' fearful flight from his maimed aunt, however, suggests something beyond her appropriation to her father's or even the playwright's ends. There is some excess beyond the Ovidian pages that she "quotes" with her stumps and that Titus identifies as the "tragic tale of Philomel" (4.1.50, 47).23 When Marcus must teach her to write in the "sandy plot" by guiding the staff with her mouth and feet, the significance of the revelation—"Stuprum—Chiron—Demetrius" (4.1.78)—lies not only in what is written but in how. The scene ostensibly confirms the centrality of Titus, of the father, in that, though Lavinia names crime and criminals, only Titus and the other male family members can decide on revenge;24 as is suggested by the scene in which Lavinia carries off his hand between her teeth, Titus is the center of the—in this case, of her—revenge plot. The fragmentary writing that others must read to us, that must fast disappear from the "sandy plot," is all the language allowed the victim. Yet despite the interpretive distractions that surround the attempt to express herself, for one moment Lavinia recreates and embodies the act of violation, signals the painful point these men keep missing, expresses what can only be hinted at through Ovidian myths and named in Latin.
As Clark Hulse has noted, "Lavinia took a staff in her mouth when she named the rapists, enacting fellatio, or, if we take seriously the pun that Act 2 made on hell-mouth [i.e., 'this fell devouring receptacle, / As hateful as Cocytus' misty mouth' (2.3.235-36)], reenacting her own violation."25 Our attention is at least partially displaced from this subtle enactment of Lavinia's suffering, produced by her attempt to express it, to the written words interpreted by Titus, Marcus, and the family's heir, young Lucius. Nevertheless, as sign, Lavinia is polysemie and disruptive: a sign of the passive suffering attributed to women (like Philomela) by authorities (like Ovid), a sign of impotence roused to active vengeance (a metamorphosis attributed to women by the same authority in the story of Procne), and a sign beyond complete containment by the patriarchal assumptions of Shakespeare's time—and in some ways our own.
Lavinia's "alphabet" may provoke morose laughter in modern-day performances, but such macabre mirth arises, I would argue, as much from patriarchal disease as from a sense of aesthetic failure. In spite or perhaps because of Shakespeare's circumscription of Lavinia's voice, Titus confronts its audience with the devastating portrait of a woman's attempt to articulate her experience in a society that ignores and prohibits her self-expression: as Irigaray says in a more general context, "'she' comes to be unable to say what her body is suffering. Stripped even of the words that are expected of her upon that stage invented to listen to her."26 Indeed, Elizabethan laughter at Lavinia's suffering,27 as well as modern refuge in aesthetic superiority, may in fact signify the extent to which both English Renaissance and modern audiences, with their particular patriarchal assumptions, find Lavinia's attempt to speak, to write, uncalled for.
Ah, why should wrath be mute and fury dumb?
Aaron, the racial Other, is still speaking at the end of the play, even after the women, good and bad, have been killed—silenced and finally fixed. The unrepentant words of Aaron, though they cannot prevent his punishment, undercut Lucius' pronouncements. The restoration of patriarchal power cannot undo all that has been done, cannot contain it absolutely, however much such power aims to do so. Lavinia may ultimately be absorbed by and into that restoration, but the live burial of the still-railing Aaron and the casting forth of Tamora's body signify what this patriarchy cannot digest. The unassimilable elements—racial as well as sexual otherness, and all that issues from such difference—crystallize in the sign of other life: at the end, whether dead or alive, whether an absence or a silent presence, the child of Aaron and Tamora, the infant for whom the Moor gave himself up, cannot be contained by Lucius' new order or by Shakespeare's play.
1 Coppélla Kahn, Man's Estate: Masculine Identity in Shakespeare (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1981), p. 20. This quotation may seem incompatible with the deconstructive passage from Goldberg that follows and inconsistent with much that the new historicism has taught us, but I include this statement because its feminist stance counters the ostensibly apolitical approach of much deconstruction and some historicism.
2 Jonathan Goldberg, "Shakespearean inscriptions: the voicing of power" in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory, eds. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman (New York and London: Methuen, 1985), pp. 116-37, esp. p. 130.
3 All quotations from Titus Andronicus are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare, ed. G. Blakemore Evans (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). From his entrance through the murder of Mutius, Titus' appearance and actions resemble, in miniature, both the magnificent Tamburlaine of Part I and the tyrannical Tamburlaine of Part II, who kills his slothful, cowardly son, Calyphas. See Tamburlaine the Great, Parts I and II, in Drama of the English Renaissance, eds. Russell A. Fraser and Norman Rabkin, 2 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1976), Vol. I, 205-61, especially Tamburlaine, Part II, 4.1. Though Titus' son Mutius is no ignoble Calyphas, Titus believes him a traitor and therefore kills him. Obviously, the name of this laconic offspring—who says a few lines, does what he must, and is then silenced—resonates throughout the play.
4 For instance, in "Early Shakespearian Tragedy and Its Contemporary Context: Cause and Emotion in Titus Andronicus, Richard III and The Rape of Lucrece," Shakespearian Tragedy, Stratford-upon-Avon Studies 20 (London: Edward Arnold, 1984), A. R. Braunmuller discusses how "Shakespeare includes as dramatic characters the structural, framing elements that his contemporaries, even Marlowe, often made allegorical and/or extra-dramatic" (p. 112).
5 In 1614, about twenty years after the composition of Titus, Jonson wrote that "He that will swear Jeronimo or Andronicus are the best plays yet, shall pass unexcepted at, here, as a man whose judgment shows it is constant, and hath stood still, these five and twenty, or thirty, years" (Induction to Bartholomew Fair, ed. Edward B. Partridge [Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 1964], p. 10).
6 Though Titus has been variously accused of Senecan horrors and undramatic Ovidian verse, most critics argue for the primacy of either Seneca or Ovid as its inspiration. The play obviously recalls in many details Ovid's famous story of Tereus, Philomela, and Procne (see 6.424-674 in Vol. I of Ovid's Metamorphoses, trans. F. J. Miller, 3rd ed., rev. G. P. Goold, 2 vols. [Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984], 316-35). But Book VI of the Metamorphoses also alludes obliquely to the cannibalism of the house of Tantalus, who fed his son Pelops to the gods (6.172-73, 403-11). Such references and parallels might very well have sent Shakespeare to another well-known precedent for the banquet scene, this one also a revenge tragedy in dramatic form—Seneca's Thyestes, which begins with the ghost of Tantalus and details Atreus' gastronomic revenge on Thyestes (see Volume II of Seneca's Tragedies, trans. F. J. Miller, Loeb Classical Library, 2 vols. [New York: Putnam, 1917], pp. 89-181). Indeed, since Seneca's Thyestes alludes to the tale of Procne, Philomela, and Tereus (pp. 96-97, 114-15), settling on either Ovid or Seneca as the source of this Shakespearean tragedy's staged banquet seems rather arbitrary (see Douglas E. Green, "Seneca's Tragedies: The Elizabethan Translations" [Ph.D. diss., Brown University, 1984], pp. 1-12, especially pp. 4-8). The most sophisticated assessment of Seneca's contribution to English Renaissance drama is Gordon Braden's recent Renaissance Tragedy and the Senecan Tradition: Anger's Privilege (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 153-223, 247-54.
7 See Leonard Barkan, The Gods Made Flesh: Metamorphosis and the Pursuit of Paganism (New Haven and London: Yale Univ. Press, 1986), p. 244. In a fascinating argument, Barkan treats Titus as Shakespeare's response to an Ovidian "myth of competitive mutilation," which is simultaneously "a myth about communication"—"a myth about the competition amongst media of communication as Philomela becomes a walking representative of them" (pp. 244-45). See also John Velz, "The Ovidian Soliloquy in Shakespeare," Shakespeare Studies, 18 (1986), 1-24, esp. p. 3. Though his discussion of the influence of the Ovidian soliloquy, especially Medea's, on "Shakespeare's meditative soliloquies" (p. 1) does not apply to Titus, which lacks this kind of deliberative monologue, Velz notes the distancing effect of Ovidian description on the violence in> Titus—"the outrages in Titus Andronicus are to be seen through a rhetorical screen" (p. 9). Both Barkan (p. 347) and Velz (p. 3) acknowledge Eugene Waith's article, "The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus " Shakespeare Survey, 10 (1957), 39-49, for focusing on Ovidian elements as central to the play. For Waith Titus is an aesthetic failure: "In taking over certain Ovidian forms Shakespeare takes over part of an Ovidian conception which cannot be fully realized by the techniques of drama" (p. 48). Recently Waith has tempered this view by examining "The Ceremonies of Titus Andronicus" in Mirror up to Shakespeare: Essays in Honour of G.R. Hibbard, ed. J. C. Gray (Toronto: Univ. of Toronto Press, 1984), pp. 159-70: "The double vision provided by this elaborate picture [in Marcus' famous speech to Lavinia (2.4.11-57)] is neither rationalization nor wishful thinking but may be a desperate effort to come to terms with unbearable pain" (p. 165). In the same collection of essays, G. K. Hunter's "Sources and Meanings in Titus Andronicus" questions the hypothetical ancestor of an eighteenth-century chapbook as the narrative source for Shakespeare's version of Roman history in this play (pp. 171-88).
8 In Shakespeare's Early Tragedies (London: Methuen, 1968), pp. 13-47, Nicholas Brooke's analysis of Titus suggests a generic, poetic, and tonal hybrid. S. Clark Hulse summarizes the play's debt to the native medieval roots of Elizabethan drama, especially in the handling of space and characterization ("Wresting the Alphabet: Oratory and Action in 'Titus Andronicus,'" Criticism, 21 , 106-18, esp. p. 113). Frank Kermode's introduction to Titus in The Riverside Shakespeare provides a sensible view of the background material (pp. 1019-22).
9 See Lisa Jardine, Still Harping on Daughters: Women and Drama in the Age of Shakespeare (Sussex: Harvester Press; Totowa, N.J.: Barnes & Noble, 1983), p. 177; see also p. 195.
10 On the terms "Other" and "Self," see Linda Bamber's Comic Women, Tragic Men: A Study of Gender and Genre in Shakespeare (Stanford, Cal.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1982), pp. 27-28.
11 Luce Irigaray, "Any Theory of the 'Subject' Has Always Been Appropriated by the 'Masculine,'" Speculum of the Other Woman, trans. Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press, 1985), pp. 133-46, esp. p. 133.
12 Catherine Belsey, The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and difference in Renaissance drama (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 165.
13 These lines are usually marked "aside," but there is no reason why the lines cannot be spoken aloud as courtly compliment to the captive queen of the Goths, even in front of Lavinia, Saturninus' betrothed (Brooke, p. 25). In fact, if they are spoken aloud, they underscore the ironic import of Saturninus' subsequent question: "Lavinia, you are not displeas'd with this?"(1.1.270).
14 In discussing Ovidian metamorphosis, Leonard Barkan suggests that "it follows from the metaphor of transformations that human experience is a series of contagions. If things turn into other things, then so do individuals, concepts, rules, emotions. . . . If objects and persons contain secret histories, then they have secret relations to each other" (p. 91). Titus' embracing Tamora as Revenge reproduces the physical and metaphysical correspondence between Tamora and Revenge or, to borrow Barkan's metaphor, spreads the contagion. The "secret intimacies of different things" that Barkan finds in Ovid (p. 91) may also operate in the world of Titus—for instance, in the corresponding methods, motives, and aims of righteous avenger and hardened villain.
15 p. 115.
16 Belsey, p. 165.
17 Hélène Cixous, "The Laugh of the Medusa" in New French Feminisms, eds. Elaine Marks and Isabelle de Courtivron, trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen (1980; New York: Schocken, 1981), pp. 245-64, esp. p. 257.
18 In "The Ceremonies of Titus Andronicus" Eugene Waith has recently revised his estimate of the scene: "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 that Marcus substitutes for the mangled body of his niece provide a way of holding the experience off rather than expressing the emotion it arouses" (p. 165).
19 John Velz notes that "the fugitives from rape in the early books of the Metamorphoses are languageless sufferers" and compares Lavinia to Philomela, "another Ovidian languageless victim" (p. 4).
20 In a paper delivered at the 1988 MLA Annual Meeting and entitled "Performance versus Text: Emblematic Tragedy in Titus Andronicus," Maurice Charney reminds us that this play is in many ways more engaging on the stage than on the page; he also discusses how Marcus' words imply certain actions and gestures by Lavinia. Textually, then, Marcus' words intimate the way an Elizabethan boy or a modern woman should interpret the part; moreover, without Lavinia's theatrical presence, these words virtually determine a reader's conception of Lavinia. But the presence of a skilled actor like Sonia Ritter in Deborah Warner's 1987 production (Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon) can complicate the effect. Though her actions matched Marcus' words, one could never be quite sure whether Lavinia's turning away "for shame" (in which sense of the word?) ratified Marcus' lighting upon the apt Ovidian analogy or sought to avoid this painful contact altogether or indicated rejection. Here indeed was a powerful instance of the ways in which women's playing parts originally meant for boys has historically altered readings of the text. At times this production, rather than cutting the offensive rhetoric as other productions have done (see Waith, "Ceremonies," p. 165), dramatized the disjunction between Marcus' Ovidian rhetoric, however well-intentioned or ceremonial, and Ritter's physical responses as rape victim and perhaps familial chattel. For a somewhat different view, see Alan C. Dessen's excellent review and analysis of Warner's production in Shakespeare Quarterly, 39 (1988), 222-25.
21 See Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics (London and New York: Methuen, 1985), p. 158.
22 Barkan sees a Shakespeare fascinated with the "language-denying metamorphosis" that compels Ovidian victims like Philomela "to create a new medium, a composite of words and pictures." Furthermore, the "alphabet" that Titus is wresting from Lavinia "represents the beginnings of a definition of Shakespeare's medium and his art: part picture, part word, part sound; part ancient book, part modern dumb show; part mute actor, part vocal interpreter" (p. 247). But though this scene thus suggests a parallel between Shakespeare and Titus as writers (and readers), the vehemence of the search for Lavinia's meaning recalls the wrath, if not the destructive motives, of Tereus.
23 See Barkan's discussion of quoting, deciphering, and reading in the play (p. 246). The Riverside edition (4.1.50) uses the word "cotes" (their variant of Ql's "coats") instead of F's "quotes."
24 In this respect Lavinia resembles Bel-Imperia in Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy. The strong-minded Bel-Imperia is subject to her brother's will, to the will of an unwanted suitor, to wars and rivalries (among men) that kill first one lover and then another, and to the whims of a sluggish avenger. In order to spur the latter on, she writes Hieronimo a letter in blood, which, like Lavinia's writing, initiates the revenge (see especially 3.2.24-52 of The Spanish Tragedy in Fraser and Rabkin, Vol. I, 167-203). In this case, as with Ovid and Seneca, Titus attempts to outdo its model—whether in the mode of vengeance or in the difficulty the victims have in making themselves heard and understood, particularly the women. Needless to say, in Shakespeare's play Lavinia herself becomes the "bloody writ" (The Spanish Tragedy, 3.2.26).
25 Hulse, p. 116. See Velz, p. 4, on the Ovidian source of this scene in the story of Io (Metamorphoses, 1.647-50).
26 p. 140.
27 Clark Hulse argues that laughter "has been an appropriate and necessary response to the play since 1600" (p. 107, n. 5). See also pp. 117-18.
Emily C. Bartels (essay date 1990)
SOURCE: "Making More of the Moor: Aaron, Othello, and Renaissance Refashionings of Race," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. 41, No. 4, Winter, 1990, pp. 433-54.
[In the following excerpt, Bartels discusses the figure of the racial "Other" in Titus Andronicus—the Moor, Aaron.]
In the catalogue for the 1983 exhibition of the Association of Artists of the World contre/against Apartheid, Jacques Derrida offered what he hoped would someday, after the abolition of apartheid, be "Racism's Last Word" ( "Le Dernier Mot du racisme "), one that would record the name ("apartheid") of what no longer would be there to be named.
1 Derrida's introduction and the exhibition would be the only things left to give the term meaning, or rather, to signal its ultimate meaninglessness and to prove its boundaries false. While the language of racism pretends to be descriptive, Derrida writes, it is instead prescriptive: "It does not discern, it discriminates." It "occupies the terrain like a concentration camp" and "outlines space in order to assign forced residence or to close off borders." It "concentrates" difference as something absolutely and abominably Other.
2 As the allusion to Nazi Germany suggests, within states obsessed with securing their monolithic supremacy, a prime target of racism becomes not the outsider but the insider, the population that threatens by being too close to home, too powerful, too successful, or merely too present.
In Renaissance England the rise of cross-cultural interest and exchange was accompanied by an intensified production and reproduction of visions of "other" worlds, some handed down from classical descriptions, others generated by actual encounters and recorded as travel narratives, others shaped by dramatic and literary conventions already in place. While "racism" as a named ideology emerged only in the early twentieth century, what Michael Neill has described as a "racialist ideology" was taking shape within such representations alongside and "under the pressures of (Neill suggests) the nation's "nascent imperialism."3 Whether England's cross-cultural discourse was designed "to mediate the shock of contact on the frontier," to justify colonialist projects or instantiate England's professed supremacy, to explore and exhibit "spectacles of strangeness," or to effect some other conscious or unconscious agenda, its early visions began to outline space and close off borders, to discriminate under the guise of discerning, and to separate the Other from the self.4
One such Other was the Moor, a figure who was becoming increasingly visible within English society in person and in print, particularly in descriptions of Africa, in travel narratives, and on the stage. While blackness and Mohammedism were stereotyped as evil, Renaissance representations of the Moor were vague, varied, inconsistent, and contradictory. As critics have established, the term "Moor" was used interchangeably with such similarly ambiguous terms as "African," "Ethiopian," "Negro," and even "Indian" to designate a figure from different parts or the whole of Africa (or beyond) who was either black or Moslem, neither, or both.5 To complicate the vision further, the Moor was characterized alternately and sometimes simultaneously in contradictory extremes, as noble or monstrous, civil or savage.6 Consider the difference in Peele's The Battle of Alcazar (1588), for example, between Muly Hamet, the prototypical cruel black Moor, and his uncle Abdilmelec, the Orientalized "dignified 'white' Moor";7 or the differences within Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations between the "cruel Moores" of one account, who detained Europeans "in miserable servitude," and the two "noble" Moors of another account, one "of the Kings blood," who were themselves taken to England.8
Yet although, if not because, the Moor was sometimes assumed to be civilized rather than savage, white or tawny rather than black, he was nonetheless circumscribed as Other. For what emerges as a key focus of "othering" within Renaissance depictions of Moors is behavior that paradoxically (but in line with Derrida's comments on racism) showed them too like the English—behavior that might undermine England's claim to a natural dominance and superiority.9 Two of the most prominent of these representations circulating in England during the mid-sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries were Hakluyt's Principal Navigations (1589) and John Leo Africanus's A Geographical Historie of Africa (which was circulated throughout Europe, primarily in Latin but also in Italian and French, from 1550 onwards and was translated into English in 1600 by John Pory).10 While each of these texts produces a multi-faceted Moor, each is marked by a tendency to demonize not only, or necessarily, this Other's exotic customs, appearances, or behaviors but also traits or responses that appear more familiar than strange, more "ours" than "theirs."11
As Shakespeare fashions a Moor from the materials of his culture, he creates two figures, Aaron in Titus Andronicus and Othello, whose differences reflect the discrepancies and contradictions within those materials.12 Aaron figures as the consummate villain, who has done "a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly" (5.1.141-42) and who curses those few days "wherein [he] did not some notorious ill: / As kill a man or else devise his death, / Ravish a maidor plot the way to do it" (11. 127-29).13 In contrast, although Othello is (and has proven) more difficult to categorize, he nonetheless emerges as a "valiant" general (1.3.48), clearly above the absolute villainy of lago. What links these representations together, and to Africanus's and Hakluyt's texts, is that each dramatizes the cultural resistance to normalizing visions of the Moor—Titus Andronicus by resistantly demonizing the Moor, Othello by exposing such demonizations as resistance. For while Shakespeare stereotypes Aaron as Other, even and especially as he gains power from inside the court, in Othello he presents Iago's implementation of a similar process as a self-defensive strategy provoked by the Moor's status as an "insider," not his difference as an "outsider."
Leo Africanus's A Geographical Historie of Africa continues to be proffered as an important intertext for Othello because of parallels not only between the two texts but between Africanus and Othello.14 Both are Moors who have travelled extensively in Africa, who have been Christianized and embraced within European society, and who have become Europe's own very eloquent authorities on Africa. Claims for a precise or intended correlation between Africanus and Othello, or even between the Historie and the play, however, seem speculative at best. For one thing, Africanus is strongly identified in England with his Moslem past, whereas Othello's religious past is unclear. For another, while the play's knowledge of Africa or the Moor may correlate with the vision the Historie disseminates, that knowledge is part of a larger discourse extending back to classical times and not necessarily limited to Africanus's text.15 Yet whether or not Othello responds directly to the Historic both are clearly connected as part of the same discourse and contribute to the same body of knowledge, although in different ways and to incompatible ends.
From the Renaissance onward the Historie has been lauded for its objectivity, perhaps because of its author's extensive firsthand experience in Africa, his inclusion of substantial detail, and his exclusion of the exotic myths—of cannibals, Anthropophagi, "men whose heads / Grew beneath their shoulders," and the like—commonly reported in contemporary descriptions of Africa.16 Yet what has also been singled out as particularly vital to the text, by Africanus as well as by critics, is its author's identity as a Moor. Despite its apparent objectivity, Africanus himself admits that his Historie is consciously shaped to reflect that identity. But while he insists that his intention is to valorize his African subjects and to affirm and display his loyalty to his African heritage, his strategies work to the opposite effect; for the text produces an author who seems instead to be securing his Christian, European self at the expense of his "Other" identity as a Moor.
Though born in the newly acquired Spanish colony of Grenada, Africanus was raised as a Moslem, in Moslem territories, and he travelled extensively in Africa before being schooled and Christianized in Rome (where he wrote the Historie).17 Before linking the subjectivity of his text to his self-conception, he explains his bias towards his nationality, confessing, "When I heare the Africans euill spoken of, I wil affirme my selfe to be one of Granada: and when I perceiue the nation of Granada to be discommended, then I professe my selfe to be an African."18 The dichotomy that he seems to establish here, between a European and an African heritage, is deceptive; for while Grenada had become a Christian, European colony, his upbringing there had been Moslem. (He was, in fact, named "AI-Hassan Ibn Mohammed Al-Wezâz Al-fâsi" and only became "John Leo" after Pope Leo X baptized him in Rome; he was called "Africanus" after his work.) By alternately denying allegiance to Grenada and Africa, he effectively undermines his allegiance to both and distances himself from the two places that mark his non-Christian, non-European past.
This same ambivalence (and perhaps antipathy) towards his past is evident, too, as he describes how he will shape his material. He promises, as a loyal African, to record only the native people's "principali and notorious vices" and to omit "their smaller and more tolerable faults."19 While he presents this shaping as a means of favoring his subjects, the effect promised and produced by his statement is the amplification of his subjects' faults and the enforcement of their difference. What will be erased—and hence not tolerated—is behavior that qualifies as "tolerable" within his own (Christian, European) social sphere, behavior, that is, which is more "ours" than "theirs."20 In its execution the plan produces Moors who, though sometimes civil, appear nonetheless as Other, not only because their defining characteristics are represented in extremes but also because they are set forth inconsistently. Africanus describes Barbary, the region identified with the Moors, as "the most noble and worthie region of all Africa" and its inhabitants as a "most honest people," "destitute of all fraud and guile," and "imbracing all simplicitie and truth." Because of their excessive civility and modesty, he reports, "it is accounted heinous among them for any man to utter in companie, any bawdie or unseemely words." Conflictingly, however, as he describes the rampant "venerie" of other groups (the Negroes, Libyans, and Numidians), he adds that "the Barbarians," in their addiction to this "vice," "are the weakest people of them all."21 What Renaissance readers received as the vision of the Moor within the Historie is complicated by John Pory's popular English translation, for Pory renamed the Africans of various regions "Mores" in order to indicate (and to emphasize the presence of) Moslems.22 Consequently, perhaps the clearest part of this vision is of Africanus himself, who at once claims the Moors as "ours" and rejects them as "theirs" and enforces his own Christian, European present by othering what hits and threatens closest to home: his Mohammedan, African past.
As Pory refashions Africanus's text, he reproduces as well its implicit discrimination; for while lauding its author, he nonetheless "concentrates" Africanus's difference (particularly his religious difference) and closes off borders between the African world and his own. Pory frames the text with an introductory letter and a conclusion that make clear his anti-Moslem bias and his use of the text as anti-Moslem propaganda. For him the Historie instantiates the "wonderfull work" of a Christian God, the fortuitous result of its author's divinely directed conversion to Christianity from the "accursed religion" of Mohammedism.
23 Yet even as he valorizes Africanus as an exemplary product of Christian, European civilization, he continues to emphasize his difference. He promises the reader that although the author is "by birth a More, and by religion for many yeeres a Mahumetan," his "Parentage, Witte, Education, Learning, Emploiments, Trauels, and his conuersion to Christianitie" should make him "not altogither . . . unwoorthy to be regarded."24 To reinforce Africanus's worth as "a most accomplished and absolute man," Pory compares him to Moses, who "was learned in all the wisdome of the Egyptians" just as Leo was learned "in that of the Arabians and Mores," and reinforces Moorish inferiority that he simultaneously denies. And not only does Pory emphasize the threat of Mohammedism by adding references to "Mores" throughout; he also amplifies their savagery. He "maruell[s]" at how the author ever "escaped so manie thousands of imminent dangers" and "how often was he in hazard to haue beene captiued, or to have had his throte cut by the prouling Arabians, and wilde Mores. "25 In associating the Christianized and Europeanized author of this "wonderfull work" with a world where Mohammedism and Moors thrive and threaten, Pory keeps Africanus's difference always in view and his assimilation always in check.26 While his ostensible purpose is to bound off the Other who threatens from "out there," beyond European domains, his framing, like Africanus's own representations, also bounds off the Other who threatens from within.
It is as difficult to determine what qualifies as discourse on the Moor in Hakluyt's Principal Navigations as it is to identify such discourse in the Historie, precisely because of the indeterminacy of the term. Hakluyt's descriptions of Africa are filled with "Africans," "Negroes," and "Ethiopes" who are not always kept distinct from each other and whose nationality, and sometimes color, ally them with the Moors. Yet the latter are nonetheless given a somewhat separate space within the text. Just as Richard Eden initially maps out the divisions of the continent in his "briefe description" of Africa, so Hakluyt also marks a division within its people: like Africanus but more explicitly, he assigns the Moors to a particular geographical region, the "hither part" of Africa, which is "now called Barbarie."27 Accordingly, it is in accounts of Barbary, for the most part, that Moors appear. Beyond this regional difference their singularity amidst other Africans is less consistent and less clear (and...
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A. C. Hamilton (essay date 1963)
SOURCE: "Titus Andronicus: The Form of Shakespearian Tragedy," in Shakespeare Quarterly, Vol. XIV, No. 3, Summer, 1963, pp. 201-13.
[In the following essay, Hamilton examines Ovidian influences on Titus Andronicus, and calls the play the archetype of Shakespeare's later tragedies.]
In this essay I shall challenge the usual reading of the play as expressed in Dover Wilson's judgment that it is "some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses", and in T. S. Eliot's remark that it is "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written."1 One word may sum up the reasons for...
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Robert S. Miola (essay date 1983)
SOURCE: "Titus Andronicus: Rome and the Family," in Shakespeare 's Rome, Cambridge University Press, 1983, pp. 42-75.
[In the following essay, Miola considers the Roman setting, themes, and sources of Titus Andronicus.]
Probably the most striking feature of modern critical reaction to Titus Andronicus is the persistent refusal to consider it one of Shakespeare's Roman plays. Early in the century, the abundant bloodletting and lurid action caused John M. Robertson to discern various hands in the play and to deny it a place in Shakespeare's canon.1 The disintegrationist furor having died...
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David Willbern (essay date 1978)
SOURCE: "Rape and Revenge in Titus Andronicus," in English Literary Renaissance, Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring, 1978, pp. 159-82.
[In the following essay, Willbern surveys Shakespeare 's imagery of sadistic sexuality and revenge in Titus Andronicus.]
Fresh from his recent victory over Hamlet, T. S. Eliot challenged Titus Andronicus. He must have found the play unworthy of critical combat, since he merely pronounced it to be "one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written," and left it to die from the blow.1 Edward Ravenscroft, the seventeenth-century playwright who loosed the...
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Barker, Francis. "A Wilderness of Tigers: Titus Andronicus, Anthropology and the Occlusion of Violence." In The Culture of Violence: Tragedy and History, pp. 143-206. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Offers an anthropological look at Titus Andronicus as a depiction of a "barbarous" and "primitive" Roman society.
Dessen, Alan C. "Two Falls and a Trap: Shakespeare and the Spectacles of Realism." English Literary Renaissance 5, No. 3 (Autumn 1975): 291-307.
Examines the difficulties in staging the "pit" scene in Act II scene iii in Titus Andronicus and claims the scene "could work on the modern stage if the actors...
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