by Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Tamara’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, are arguing over Lavinia. Aaron the Moor interrupts and suggests that instead of trying to woo her, that they simply take her by force. Titus, meanwhile, has organized a hunt in the forest for Saturninus, during which the now Empress Tamora slips away to find her lover Aaron. Discovered by Bassianus and Lavinia, Tamora gets her two sons to murder Bassianus, after which they drag off Lavinia. Aaron then lures two of Titus’s sons, Quintus and Martius, into the pit where Bassianus’s body has been dumped, and calls for Saturninus. The brothers are further implicated by a letter (fabricated by Aaron), and Saturninus orders their execution. Meanwhile, in another part of the forest, Lavinia, who has been raped and had her hands and tongue cut off, is discovered by her uncle Marcus.
How horrific was that? Another dead, two more on their way to be killed, Lavinia raped and mutilated, and yet, there were times I had to laugh at the sheer outrageousness of it all – as I suspect was Shakespeare’s goal. How can one not laugh at Saturninus calling for Martius and Quintus to be taken away: “Sir, drag them from the pit unto the prison./There let them bide until we have devised/Some never-heard-of-torturing pain for them”? Or the slapstick inability of Quintus to get Martius out of the pit? Or even, Demetrius and Chiron’s mockery of Lavinia:
Chiron: An, ‘twere my cause, I should go hang myself.
Demetrius: If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.
Viewed one way it’s unbelievably tragic, viewed another, it’s so tragic, so nearly inhumanly tragic, that outraged laughter is a very viable response.
But what exactly is going on here?
“The playgoers of Shakespeare’s time would have been far more familiar with Roman history and classical mythology than is a modern audience. The examples of the Greeks and Romans were used as models for history writing, and the popularity of works like Sir Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s Parallel Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (1579) gave rise to the idea that a third set of lives, those of the English kings and heroes, might be seen as ‘parallel’ to those of the ancients. The depravities of Tarquin and Nero, like the excellences of Caesar, were frequently cited; no book other than the Bible, North suggested, was so important a guide. Politicians and theorists, and the Queen and her counselors, looked to classical Rome as the pattern for the English nation and its nascent imperial power.
The classical myths were well known through readings of Ovid – a basic text in grammar school education [MY NOTE: Shakespeare would have been very familiar with Ovid’s works] – Virgil, and other ancient poets. For Elizabethans, these were not arcane or obscure texts. References to Tereus, Philomela, and Procne, to Dido and Aeneas, would have been part of the common store of knowledge, as is clear from those many moments in Shakespeare’s plays when ‘low’ characters joke about mythological figures.
Shakespeare’s audience would also know, far better than we, the recent history of the stage, including the popularity of revenge tragedies like Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe’s Jew of Malta. Titus’s ‘mad’ fantasy that the disguised Tamora is a personified spirit of Revenge would evoke memories of the figure of Revenge in Kyd’s highly successful play. The main character of The Spanish Tragedy, Hieronomio, loses a son to murder and goes mad in consequence, staging a play to try to trap his enemies; in many ways he is like Shakespeare’s Titus, once honored, then disregarded and reviled. The main character of The Jew of Malta, Barabas, is a Machiavellian villain with a twisted sense of humor, full of revenge fantasies and bitterly angry against those who condemn him because he is a Jew; in some ways he may be said to resemble and to anticipate Aaron, Shakespeare’s witty and vengeful Moor. [MY NOTE: Or, from another perspective, Aaron can be seen as Shakespeare’s attempt to move beyond Marlowe, to rid himself of his influence by out…villainizing him. I’ll have more on later in the week.] When Aaron boasts to Titus’s son Lucius that ‘he must talk of murders, rapes and massacres,/Acts of black night, abominable deeds,/Complots of mischief, treason, villanies,’ he sounds very much like Marlowe’s Barabas.
And the vogue for Seneca, a Roman ‘closet-dramatist’ who wrote for readers or declaimers rather than for the onstage performance of live actors would have rendered both familiar and appealing the long speeches and broad gestures indicated in Shakespeare’s text which was, of course, designed for performance. Indeed, much of the punning, doubled language about the loss of ‘hands’ in this play of mutilation and maiming addresses not only the instrumental but also the rhetorical loss incurred by those who suffer physical punishment. “How can I grace my talk,’ wonders Titus, “Wanting a hand to give it actions?’ Lavinia’s horrendous injuries ‘her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished’ (stage direction, act 2, scene 4), make it impossible for her to speak or gesture, causing her desperate interrogators to plead with her to ‘talk in signs.’
So, much that seems strangest or most arcane with us in Titus Andronicus would have been well within the cultural reach of a contemporary audience: the story of the heroic and doomed Andronici; the horrific fate of Lavinia, the mutilations and humiliations of her father, Titus [MY NOTE: Skipping a bit to avoid giving too much away.] These appalling spectacles, which uncannily resemble the events of a modern horror film, are not what we are used to thinking of as “Shakespearean.” Shakespeare for twenty-first century readers is a playwright associated with subtle language, architectonic plots, and the precise delineation of character, not with brutal and elemental acts of violence. In particular, the use of what our time has come to call ‘black humor’ or moments of ‘absurdist’ or ‘existential’ comedy may seem out of place in the lexicon of Shakespeare best known to many readers for his emotional verisimilitude and his psychological acuity. But in the shape, characters, and domestic situations of Titus, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, can be seen not only harbingers of future tragic plots of the family, from Hamlet to King Lear; but also an extraordinarily powerful story in its own right – one that may serve, in our consideration, as the root or radical form of all Shakespearean tragedy.
…Titus Andronicus is so often undervalued or misunderstood, regarded as a Shakespearean stepchild rather than a legitimate heir. Even those critics who celebrate the play – and there have been many, especially in recent years – often applaud its exceptionalism in the canon. But to look closely at this play is to see not only Shakespeare in the raw, or Shakespeare in the rough, but Shakespeare very much in command of both his theater and his plot. The word ‘plot,’ indeed, will recur throughout the play…It is a relatively new term in the drama.
The play begins with a conflict over power, of a kind that will become familiar in other early plays of Shakespeare. Two brothers are competing for the right to be named emperor: one, Saturninus, is the elder and thus has the legal and lineal right to the throne, but he lacks the requisite moderation and judgment. The other, Bassianus, is more fit to rule by temperament and moral qualities, but his claim is less strong in law. The choice between them will fall upon the war hero Titus Andronicus, with whose daughter, Lavinia, Bassianus is in love. All this is sketched by the playwright, with typical economy and skill, in the first sixty lines. It is the kind of scenario we will often find at the beginning of his plays, from Romeo and Juliet to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Richard II – two rival factions and a judge whose judgment cannot contain the impending strife.
The entry of Titus, accompanied by his four living sons and the body of a son recently killed by the Goths, disrupts the action for a moment. Here we might think ahead to the two short scenes that precede the entry of King Lear, which similarly turn on the ruler’s choice between legal right and personal merit in his sons-in-law Albany and Cornwall, and on a rivalry between Edmund and Edgar the two sons of the Duke of Gloucester. Titus, it turns out, has lot twenty-one of this twenty-five sons in the war, and he brings with him in triumph to the tomb of his ancestors Tamora the captive Queen of the Goths, her three sons, Alarbus, Chiron, and Demetrius; and her lover, Aaron the Moor. Despite Tamora’s pleas, the Romans’ demand for vengeance will lead to the sacrificial death of her eldest son (‘Alarbus’ limbs are lopped,’ reports Titus’s son Lucius) in retribution for Titus’s loss. Vengeance begets vengeance, and this act will open the way to all the deaths and mutilations to come.
But this is as yet only a foreboding for the future. As Titus is welcomed by his brother Marcus, the tribune, and given the white candidate’s robe of office, his power and honor seem assured. He is to ‘help to set a head on headless Rome’ by choosing the emperor, and he does so, against what the audience clearly perceives as both love and merit, electing the elder brother, Saturninus, and granting his wish to make Lavinia, Bassianus’s beloved, his empress. The double-tongued nature of Saturninus, whose name suggests a ‘saturine,’ or sullen, temperament, is evident in his remarks of acknowledgement, which – like everything in this play – contain the seeds of discord and portend ironic reversal:
Thanks noble Titus, father of my life.
How proud I am of thee and of thy gifts
Rome shall record; and when I do forget
The least of these unspeakable deserts,
Romans, forget your fealty to me.
Saturninus is proud, but of himself, not of Titus, and he will indeed forget the ‘deserts’ he so artfully calls ‘unspeakable.’ We might note here than, at this early point in the play, words like ‘headless’ and ‘unspeakable’ are metaphors and metaphors only, parts of the ordinary language of imagery with which we ornament our daily conversation. Before long, when the play’s action turns to tragedy, these dead or sleeping metaphors will come to grisly life, with famous (or notorious) stage directions like ‘Enter a Messenger with two heads and a hand.’
The image of the ‘body politic’ familiar from Renaissance political theory is casually invoked in the figure of the emperor as the ‘head’ of Rome. By structuring his tragedy so that their very language turns against his characters. Shakespeare builds not only irony but also reflexiveness into the dramatic action: in this play of multiple revenges, every word, however careless, counts. This story of a long-ago hero and his unimaginable losses is also a story about consequence and consequences; about what follows from misjudgment in high places.
No sooner has Saturninus attained the throne than he casts a lustful eye on Tamora, and pardons her and her remaining sons. But Titus intends for Saturninus, (now the Emperor) to marry Lavinia, since he had expressed the wish to do so, and when Bassianus attempts to ‘bear his betrothed away,’ assisted by her brother (and Titus’s son) Mutius, Titus without hesitation kills his own son for his act of ‘dishonour.’ In a moment Saturninus’s feigned respect for Titus turns to scorn, and he defiantly names ‘lovely Tamora, Queen of Goths,’ to be his bride and empress. For his part, Titus, increasingly stubborn, refuses to allow Mutius to be buried in the tomb of the Andronici, despite the pleas of his brother Marcus and his own remaining sons. By choosing emperor over kindred, impersonal law over personal affection, Titus has made the kind or error that, in Shakespearean tragedy, is irreversible.
Rape (from the Latin rapina, abduction, robbery) is abduction by force, not necessarily forced sexual intercourse. But this figure, too, will soon turn appallingly literal, when Tamara’s sons Chiron and Demetrius – urged on by the vengeful Aaron – commit their sexual assault on Lavinia. For although Tamora (rightly styled ‘the subtle Queen of Goths’ by Marcus Andronicus) pretends to plea for Titus’s sons and for Bassianus, using the language of the body we have seen is endemic to the play (‘Titus, I am incorporate in Rome,/A Roman now adopted happily’), she whispers her desire for retribution in Saturninus’s eager ear. The stage is set for the playing out of these various fantasies of vengeance, and, as if in a nightmare, the stage itself becomes that ‘other scene’ that literalizes what lies below the surface.
In a shift from court to countryside reminiscent of the landscape of a comedy, the action now moves to a nearby wood, where the newly married couples (Bassianus and Lavinia, Saturninus and Tamora) are to go hunting. But as Aaron tells the lustful Chiron and Demetrius,
The forest walks are wide and spacious,
And many unfrequented plots there are
Fitted by kind for rape and villainy.
‘Plots’ is another doubled word here, signifying both land and scheme: the design of the play is deliberately exposing itself to view. And the objective here is also double: to get rid of Bassianus, and to rape and silence Lavinia.
It is not an accident, nor a heavy-handedness on the part of the playwright that we find mentions of both “Lucrece’ and ‘Philomel’ before the rape of Lavinia that will so closely mirror the fates of those two classical figures, the one raped by the emperor Tarquin, the other, in a tale told by Ovid, raped by Tereus, and, like Lavinia, deprived of her tongue, and thus of the power to tell her story.
The boys are to ‘revel in Lavinia’s treasury’ protected by woods that are ‘ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull’ while the villainous Aaron stashes a bag of money under a tree. The two ‘treasures,’ her sexuality and his gold, are made analogous, and each is a kind of lure or trap. (The device of the hoard of gold beneath a tree that lures young men to their death can be found, in a powerful form, in Chaucer’s ‘Pardoner’s Tale.’)
The major feature of this wood is a deep pit, variously described as ‘this abhorred pit’; a ‘subtle hole…/Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briars’; an ‘unhallowed and bloodstained hole,’ a ‘den’ into which one can ‘look down’ and ‘see a fearful sight of blood and death’; ‘a detested, dark, blood-drinking pit’; a ‘fell devouring receptacle,/As hateful as Cocytus’ misty mouth’ (the mouth of the river of hell); a ‘gaping hollow’ and so on. It does not take a Freudian to see that this feature of the landscape is also an allegorical figure for the female body, and explicitly for a woman’s genitals, the vagina dentate, or devouring sexual ‘mouth’ of legend. [MY NOTE: Until she started listing all the descriptions of the pit, I have to admit I never made the connection. Now, of course, it seems obvious.] The trapdoor in the middle of the Elizabethan stage would serve admirably. First the two young Goths stab Bassianus and tumble him into the pit (‘Drag hence her husband to some secret hole,/And make his dead trunk pillow to our lust’); then Aaron leads Titus’s two sons there and watches while one falls in and pulls in the other:
Quintus: Reach me thy hand, that I may help thee out,
Or, wanting strength to do thee so much good,
I may be plucked into the swallowing womb
Of this deep pit, poor Bassianus’ grave.
The salient point here is not that Shakespeare was capable of so graphic and nightmarish an image of female sexuality, not that Freud was not the first to invent Freudianism, [MY NOTE: I’ll be talking about Freud and Shakespeare more as we go along.] but rather that the play – and the stage – opens up to become a living metaphor, a dream landscape all too aptly representing the key events that have just taken place: the marriage of Saturninus and the lustful Tamora, the murder of Bassianus, and the rape of Lavinia. This imaginative use of the stage as a figure for the psyche, a geographical literalization of illicit desire, may hark back in some ways to medieval theater practice and the ‘hell mouth’ of the early stage. It calls to mind as well the technique of a painter like Hieronymous Bosch, whose devils are often glimpsed entering or exiting from monstrous body parts. In any case, the audience of Titus Andronicus is put on notice, by the rape of Lavinia and by the ‘pit,’ ‘womb,’ or ‘bloodstained hole’ that swallows up the young Andronici, that we have entered a new kind of theatrical world, one in which imagery, staging, and dramatic action work together to create a visceral effect of lust and horror.
No clearer indication of this new dramatic world could be dreamt of, perhaps than the spectacle presented by Lavinia after the rape. As they mock her appearance, Tamora’s two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, explain the reason for her mutilation:
Demetrius: So, now go tell, and if they tongue can speak,
Who ‘twas that cut thy tongue and ravished thee.
Chiron: Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
Demetrius: See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl:
Chiron: Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.
Demetrius: She hath no tongue to call nor hands to wash,
And so let’s leave her to her silent walks.
Robbed of the means either to speak or to write, Lavinia becomes an object rather than a subject – ‘this object kills me,’ says her brother Lucius when he first sees her condition – an object of pity and terror. Lavinia’s appearance becomes the occasion for interpretation and embellished lamentation, until a way is found for her to ‘speak.’
Elsewhere in Shakespeare we will encounter the phenomenon of speechlessness as a sign of the loss – or abdication – of full human capacity, whether in Iago’s defiant refusal to speak at the end of Othello (‘from this time forth I never will speak word’) or in the speaking silence of the ‘infant’ Perdita in The Winter’s Tale (the Latin word infans means, literally, ‘unable to speak’). But in Lavinia’s case the violently silenced woman is neither a villain nor an infant. Her silence is more like that of Hero, the wronged bride in Much Ado About Nothing, who appears muffled and disguised after her private disgrace, and must be brought back to speech and life by her lover’s recantation – or, indeed, like that of Lear’s daughter Cordelia, whose self-imposed silence (‘What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent’) unwittingly precipitates tragedy. In this early tragedy, the daughter’s silence is forcibly imposed from without, but it has the same structural role, and it signifies a living death.
Her uncle Marcus comes up on her in the wood, and slowly realizes the extent of her injuries:
Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Hath lopped and hewed and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As half thy love. Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath,
But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee…
Marcus’s language is worth pausing over for a moment, because it will give us some clues about the larger play and its strategies. The balance and reversal of ‘gentle’/’ungentle’ in the first line cited here is typical of the Shakespeare of the early period (compare ‘Thou hadst a Richard, till a Richard kill’d him’ in Richard III) or ‘My only love sprung from my only hate!’ in Romeo and Juliet), and it suggest something about the rhetoric of revenge and payback that is built into Titus at every level. That the ‘ungentle’ hands are those of supposed gentlemen, the sons of Tamora, makes their cruelty worse. The phrase ‘lopped and hewed’ in the next line, which seems a particularly grotesque way of describing Lavinia’s injuries, in fact directly echoes what was said about the state execution of Alarbus, Tamora’s eldest son, in the very first scene of the play: ‘Alarbus’ limbs are lopped’. The executioners in that case were the sons of Andronicus, so the ‘lopping’ of Lavinia is an explicit act of revenge. The grotesquerie of Marcus’s imagery increases as his horror increases, first imagining the (absent) arms of Lavinia embracing a kingly lover, then transmuting the blood from Lavinia’s severed tongue into a river, a fountain, and her gory mouth into a sweet-smelling garden, in a dreadful inversion of the conventional language of love poetry. When Marcus supplies the obvious mythological reference (‘But sure some Tereus hath deflowered thee’), he brings the barely buried story to the surface, and he will then elaborate on the myth and its applications in ways that look forward to a later scene (4.1) where Lavinia locates her own story in her nephew’s copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Here is Marcus:
Fair Philomel, why she but lost her tongue
And in a tedious sampler sewed 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 sewed than Philomel.
I’ll have more to say about Shakespeare, Ovid, and uncle Marcus in my next post, Tuesday evening/Wednesday morning.
But in the meantime…what are you thinking? Are you enjoying the play? Is it what you expected? What’s your reading of it so far? And are we going too fast? Too slow? Is there anything I’m not including in my posts you’d like to see? Anything I’m including in my posts that you don’t want to see?
The next reading: