Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand.

Titus Andronicus

Act Three

By Dennis Abrams

Act Three:  Titus pleads in vain for the lives of his sons, Quintus and Martius, to be spared, and another son, Lucius, is banished for trying to rescue them.  Marcus then enters with the ravished and mutilated Lavinia, and Titus and Lucius are horrified.  Aaron interrupts with a message from the Emperor Saturninus:  he will release Quintus and Martius IF either Titus, Lucius, or Marcus cut off one of their hands.  Titus agrees to the condition, but his dismemberment is in vain – his hand is returned to him along with the heads of his two sons.  Titus’s response is shocked laughter.  Later that evening, when Marcus kills a fly, Titus denounces the act as murder.


“Tragedy is when I cut my finger.  Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die.” — Mel Brooks

What I’m finding particularly striking about Titus, particularly as I read Act Three, is the veering between what is legitimately tragic and what strikes me at least, as painfully funny.  To go from:

Titus:    Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones,

Who, though they cannot answer my distress,

Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes,

For that they will not intercept my tale.

When I do weep, they humbly at my feet

Receive my tears and seem to weep with me,

Rome could afford no tribunes like to these.

A stone is soft as wax, tribunes more hard than stones:

A stone is silent and offendeth not,

And tribunes with their tongues doom men to death.

to the somewhat ludicrous image of Marcus handing Titus a handkerchief to dry his eyes, to the argument between Marcus, Titus and Lucius as to whose hand will be cut off,

Lucius:              Then I’ll go fetch an ax.

Marcus:            But I will use the ax.

(Imagine this enacted by, as in Camille Paglia’s suggestion, two drag queens…)

to Titus’s speech to Aaron immediately after cutting off his own hand, to the stage direction “Enter a Messenger with two heads and a hand,” to Titus’s explosion of laughter to his anguished farewell to his son to his command to his daughter, “And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employed…/Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between my teeth,” to the meal and the discussion of the use of the word “hands” when it comes to Lavinia, to Titus’s admonishment when he sees Marcus kill a fly, “Out on thee, murder!  Thou kill’st my heart…,” to Titus’s forgiveness when Marcus compares the fly to Aaron the Moor…How exactly can one read this?  It’s certainly amazing and powerful and funny…is it, as I’m beginning to think, balanced precisely at the point where comedy and tragedy meet?

From Tanner:

“Act II starts with a shock – the black Aaron standing alone in front of the palace in Rome.  We have seen the northern barbarians – the Goth – made ‘incorporate’ in Rome, and now here is the southern barbarian – the Moor – in the same city.  He immediately announces his determination to ‘wanton’ with Tamora, the new Queen of Rome, and cause the ‘ship-wrack’ of the whole state.  Aaron, of course, is the villain – lustful, infinitely sadistic, delighting in the cruelest tricks and stratagems (for example, persuading Titus to cut off his hand in the deluded belief it will save the life of his son), incapable of remorse and completely committed to evil.  Characteristically, he says such things as ‘Aaron will have his soul black like his face,” and:

But, I have done a thousand dreadful things

As willingly as one would kill a fly.

And nothing grieves me heartily indeed,

But that I cannot do ten thousand more.

(V, I, 141-4)


If one good deed in all my life I did,

I do repent it from my very soul…

(V, iii, 189-90)

We may find the racist implications disturbing, but Aaron’s soul is meant to seem the same ‘hue’ as his body –‘Spotted, detested, and abominable.’  He takes such a ghoulish pleasure in committing or arranging atrocities that some people have claimed to find him a comic figure – and indeed, faced with the horrors he contrives, that may be the most comforting strategy.  But I doubt that was how it struck the Elizabethan audience, and I’m not sure it should us.  Certainly, he is an extreme and in some ways crudely outlined figure (probably owing something to Marlowe’s Barabas), but as Titus is an early Lear, so Aaron foreshadows Iago (there is a premonitory hint of this when on one occasion he threatens “I’ll speak no more but “Vengeance rot you all!’”.  He is an embodiment of that phenomenon, awesome to Shakespeare, of almost motiveless and utterly uncontainable evil, though Shakespeare does add one rather surprising touch…[I won’t give this away]  There is no such blurring of the figure of Iago.

After the solo appearance of Aaron at the start of Act II, we move to ‘A forest near Rome.’  Shakespeare was to make much of the juxtaposition of the different realms of court and forest (or city and country), and in this play, where Rome was undoubtedly dominated by men and ‘law’ and ceremony, the forest offers the release of the barbarous – it is dominated by Tamora and Aaron, the woman and the savage, and is the place of lustful sexuality and the hunting of animals, literal and metaphorical.  The occasion is a supposedly celebratory panther hunt.  And here again, Shakespeare seems to be adding a deliberate anachronism, or non-historical incongruity, for his own purposes – there was no panther-hunting in ancient Rome.  But in enables him to relate the literal pursuit of animals to all the sexual pursuit going on (‘as if a double hunt were heart at once,’ as Tamora says), and have them converge horribly on the ‘doe,’ Lavinia, who is first ravished, then hideously mutilated.  The forest is the ideal realm for Aaron’s operations.  As he says:

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…

It is there he can ‘wanton’ with Tamora, and it is there he digs the pit which will fatally trap Quintus and Marcus.  That pit itself becomes the image of frightening female sexuality, as is made tolerably explicit:

What subtle hole is this,

Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers,

Upon whose leaves are drops of new-shed blood…

It is also described as ‘this detested, dark, blood-drinking pit’ and ‘this fell devouring receptacle;’ and while one part of the forest is full of animal life, in the dark part where there is the ‘abhorred pit,’ as sexual and fecund Tamora says – ‘here nothing breeds.’  That Shakespeare felt a nausea, a fear, at certain aspects of female sexuality becomes clear in later plays.  But here, thus early, he identifies or equates this kind of ravenous, negative female sexuality – it ‘devours’ rather than ‘breeds’ – with treachery, murder, death.

Thus, the forest is made to appear the complete opposite of the city.  And yet, perhaps not quite so, either.  The Capital has its murders, and the palace has its ‘wantonness’ and irrational cruelties, as we have seen.  Limbs are ‘lopped’ in Rome as they are, less ‘ceremoniously’ in the ‘ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods’, as Titus describes the forest.  Confronted with the appalling spectacle of the tongueless, handless Lavinia, ravished and maimed in the dark part of the forest, the good Marcus asks:

O, why should nature build so foul a den,

Unless the gods delight in tragedies?

(IV, I, 59-60)

But you cannot blame tragedy on terrain, and as in King Lear, the invoked ‘gods’ are not remotely in evidence.  It is men who ‘foul’ the den.

The rest of the play takes place in Rome, mainly in or near the house of titus – though there is a scene on ‘a plain near Rome.’  We watch the intensification and acceleration of the horrors visited on Titus and his family (through the devices of Aaron and Tamora and the willing participation of Saturninus).  We witness the apparent madness of Titus as the multiplication of atrocities passes way beyond the bearable.  When he is confronted with his mutilated daughter, Lavinia, he reacts with powerful tropes:

What fool hath added water to the sea,

Or brought a faggot to bright-burning Troy?

My grief was at the height before thou can’st.

And now like Nilus it disdaineth bounds.

It is all, simply and literally, too much – Titus’ grief is as uncontainable as Aaron’s evil.  Shakespeare was always drawn to the study of what ‘disdaineth bounds’ – excess of all kinds – and with the image of the rampant, overflowing Nile, we already have an adumbration of his greatest drama of excess – Antony and Cleopatra.  Marcus, the balanced humane Marcus, laments that ‘These miseries are more than may be borne!’ and Titus’ son Lucius refers to his father as ‘The woefull’st man that ever lived in Rome!’”


And from Maurice Charney:

“It is interesting to note that Titus Andronicus should be much more successful with audiences than with readers.  This alerts us to something powerfully nonverbal and presentational in the play that eludes readers too concerned with the heightened, even flamboyant, tragic style steeped in classical allusion.  The role of Lavinia, Titus’ daughter, is a case in point.  At the beginning of act 2, scene 4, she appears as a mute emblem of horror and despair:  ‘her hands cut off and her fingers cut out, and ravished.’

Her speaking part ends at this scene and, for readers, she more or less disappears from the play.  But for audiences her pantomimic role is crucial for the tragedy from this point on.  She is a ‘Speechless complainer’ (3.2.39), and her father vows to learn her thoughts.  ‘in thy dumb action will I be so perfect/As begging hermits in their holy prayers.’  From all of her mute signs, Titus ‘will wrest an alphabet,/And by still practice learn to know thy meaning.’  Lavinia’s alphabet is vital to the play.

She is on stage for most of Titus’s big scenes, and her reactions guide the audience to its tragic apprehsion.  At one point, in an important stage ritual, she kisses her father (3.1.249) and presumably vows him to revenge.  Titus’s next line is one of the most moving in the play and marks his affinity with Lear:  ‘When will this fearful slumber have an end?’  This is followed by the grotesque, mock-military procession of the Andronici off the stage, bearing the heads of Titus’s executed sons, Quintus and Martius, and Titus’s hand.  As Titus says with mad urgency:  ‘Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.’  [I’ll skip the next line to avoid giving away too much of the plot – let’s just say the hand-bearer becomes a basin-bearer]

Lavinia is strongly indebted to the story of Philomela, Procne, and Tereus, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which enters metadramatically into the action of Titus in 4,1, when Lavinia reveals the identity of her attackers.  It is not surprising that Francis Meres declared in 1598 that ‘the sweete wittie soule of Ouid liues in mellifluous & hony-tongued Shakespeare.’  The young Shakespeare is eager to display his indebtedness to Ovid in Titus Andronicus by frequent allusions and by a highly wrought, decorative style.  Many quotations in Latin both from Ovid and from others are meant to give weight and dignity to Shakespeare’s first attempt at tragedy, but these quotations are unusually sententious commonplaces (like Horace’s ‘Integer vitae’ 4.2.20), and slightly misquoted.  Sometimes the quotation is inappropriate for the speaker, as when Demetrius ends the first scene of act 2 with lines derived from Seneca’s HippolytusSit fas aut nefas,…Per Stygia, per manes vehior’ (2.1. 133,135).  Be it right or wrong to pursue Lavinia, he will press on, carried through the regions of Styx, through the shades of the underworld.  The cloddish Demetrius is an odd speaker of lines that are so classically grandiloquent about the brutal rape and dismemberment of Lavinia.

The influence of Ovid on this play is felt in an erotic nostalgia and indeterminacy that color the action, or at least in Shakespeare’s sense of Ovid’s lyrical intensity and strangeness.  Marcus’s reaction when he first comes upon his brutalized niece in the forest is typically Ovidian.  His long and eloquent oration has been much criticized for its lack of attention to the actual situation, but I think this criticism fails to take account of the dramatic context.  Marcus speaks a gravely mellifluous and elegiac lament for Lavinia:

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.

[MY NOTE:  And of course the ‘fountain’ theme is carried on in Act 3, scene 1, 122-135, when Titus says to Lavinia, “Gentle Lavinia, let me kiss thy lips,/Or make some sign how I may do thee ease./Shall they good uncle and thy brother Lucius/And thou and I sit around some fountain,/Looking all downwards to behold our cheeks…”]

To ask the practical question why marcus, like  medical corpsman, doesn’t go to the aid of his niece who is bleeding at the mouth [MY NOTE:  And, I’m assuming at her wrists], is to misunderstand the Ovidian quality of this scene.

We not only see the pitiful figure of Lavinia before us but also her powerful reaction to her uncle’s discourse.  In the stage picture we cannot legitimately separate Marcus’s words from Lavinia’s highly emotional reactions.  “Ah, now thou turn’st away thy face for shame?’  The scene is constructed like a reversed pieta.  Marcus is memorializing Lavinia as she once was, and his words introduce an aspect of comfort and of celebration.

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 touched them for his life!

As in Ovid, Marcus’s oration is lyric, nostalgic, evocative, and supremely ambiguous about the mystery of things.  The image of broken music dominates Marcus’s lament.

We can see the closeness of Titus Andronicus to Shakespeare’s long narrative poem, The Rape of Lucrece, which must have been written right after the play (or right before it).  In some says the mute Lavinia has advantages over Lucrece, who discourses endlessly about her condition.  Lucrece, unfortunately, is deprived of a dramatic context so that nothing can be represented or enacted without words.  Both works use the Trojan War significantly as a background of chaos and disruption.  The play and the poem show a similar conception of rape as destroying the value and personal identity of the woman, even though she had no complicity in her undoing.  Family honor can only be retrieved by death, and Lavinia at the end of the play is as eager for death as is Lucrece.  In terms of Renaissance values, no other solution exists.

Like Lear, Titus is a man ‘More sinned against than sinning’  He is overwhelmed and driven mad by an endless torrent of grief that makes us sympathize with his sufferings.  As a tragedy, Titus is powerful in performance.  It doesn’t follow Aristotelian criteria for the tragic hero (nor does any play of Shakespeare except perhaps King Lear), but it is full of mystery and astonishment at the fall of princes and the capriciousness of fortune.  In the first act, Shakespeare is at pains to show us the worst side of Titus.  His hubris (tragic insolence) is developed at great length.  He agrees to the ritual slaughter of Alarbus, the oldest son of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, who is his prisoner.  To the great surprise of his brother Marcus, he refuses the Roman empery that is offered to him as a great military hero.  He supports the foolish Saturninus as Roman emperor instead of his much better brother, Bassianus, and he even slays his own son Mutius while he is supporting the wrongful cause of Saturninus.  By the end of act 1, Tamora’s revenge has already begun with the aid of Aaron and Saturninus.

Titus is the great man cast down.  Before act 1 is over he has alienated the audience almost completely by the savage murders of Alarbus and Mutius.  Like Lear, Titus recovers his stature through suffering.  His sons, Quintus and Martius, are trapped by Aaron and soon executed.  His daughter Lavinia is raped and dismembered.  In another sardonic plot by Aaron, Titus offers up his hand to free his sons, but it is returned with mocking scorn.  The griefs accumulate with inevitable and shocking pressure, and Titus is soon distracted, if not mad.  In this early revenge tragedy, Shakespeare uses madness cleverly as an outlet for violent and uncontainable emotions in Titus.  He is mad and not mad as the situation seems to warrant, and in this respect the presentation of Titus looks forward to Hamlet.  Lear also follows Titus’s course closely, and there is an additional analogy between Lavinia and Cordelia.

Like Horatio in Hamlet, Marcus is the reasonable, moderate, unheroic man who tries to rein in his brother and keep him from violating the restraints of reason.  But the unmitigated evil of Aaron, Tamora, and Saturninus cannot be comprehended by reason, morality, and justice.  The assault on reason is at the heart of this tragedy.  These issues are prominent in act 3, scene 1, although the justice theme also runs throughout the play (as it does in King Lear).  Marcus pleads with his brother to ‘speak with possibility,/And do not break into these deep extremes’ but Titus argues from the magnitude of his griefs:

Is not my sorrow deep, having no bottom?

Then be my passions bottomless with them

[MY NOTE:  Keep this in mind when we get to Bottom’s dream in A Midsummer Night’s Dream]

When Marcus still insists that reason should ‘govern thy lament’ Titus attacks reason as irrelevant:

If there were reason for these miseries,

Then into limits could I bind my woes

Where heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o’erflow?

From this point Titus goes on to exclaim ‘I am the sea’ and to vent his fury like a force of nature.

When Marcus finally realizes the futility of reason, Titus is already far gone in distraction and fixed in a kind of exaltation of grief.  Speaking in the lyric high style of Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, he seems to be touching on the metaphysical underpinnings of tragedy.  Marcus is literal while his brother is prophetic, so that there is an unbridgeable gap between their discourses.  Marcus forswears any further attempt to ‘control thy griefs,’ and he is surprised by the silence of his once voluble brother.  ‘Now is a time to storm, why art thou still?’  At this point, in a surprising reversal of our expectations, Titus laughs:  “Ha, ha, ha’  Marcus objects, ‘Why dost thou laugh?  It fits not with this hour,’ but Titus explains with tragic appropriateness, “Why, I have not another tear to shed.’  This is like Cleopatra’s scene-closing advice to Charmian.  ‘Pity me, Charmian,/But do not speak to me.’  Heroic and nonheroic persons are mysteriously separated from each other in a division that cannot be explored.  Titus’s laughter seems to move the tragedy one step further to revenge and resolution.

The Fly Scene (3,2), which was added to Titus Andronicus sometime after its original composition (and appears for the first time in the Folio), contains the same spirit of madness and lyric intensity, and a frenzy and hysteria bordering on the farcial.  We may consider it, stylistically, either a crucial scene to set a certain tone and mood or, from the point of the view of the narrative, completely unnecessary for the movement of the action.  During a frugal family meal (or ‘banket’), we see the Androcini indulging their mutual grief.  Titus puns wildly and grotesquely on ‘hands’ ‘O, handle not the theme, to talk of hands,/Lest we remember still that we have none.’  Suddenly, Marcus strikes the wooden dish (or ‘trencher’) he is eating from with his knife and impales a black fly.

This sets the unstable Titus off on a tragic speech in the high style that is more than faintly ridiculous in its context.  ‘Out on thee, murderer!  Thou kill’st my heart,/Mine eyes are cloyed with view of tyranny.’  Marcus protests, ‘I have but killed a fly’ but Titus is inexorable in his flight of fancy:

‘But!’  How, if that fly had a father and mother?

How would he hang his slender gilded wings,

And buzz lamenting doings in the air!

The young Shakespeare lets himself go to ‘buzz lamenting doings in the air,’ and Titus’s madness continues on to the real object of his lamentation, as he strikes wildly at the fly ‘That comes in likeness of a coal-black Moor.’  This scene foreshadows the violence, both real and metaphorical, of the grieving Titus.  The madness mediates between high flown imaginings and shocking deeds.”


Next post:  Thursday evening/Friday morning

Next reading:  Titus Andronicus, Act 4


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11 Responses to Enter a Messenger, with two heads and a hand.

  1. GGG says:

    Personally, I am having an easier time reading the Shakespeare plays (last done in college) than I thought I would–despite the gruesome nature of Titus! I’m glad I found your blog because I had wanted to read all the plays, but felt intimidated and this blog is making it interesting and fun.

    When I watched the Taymor movie clip you included, I had a hard time understanding some of Anthony Hopkins lines, especially when he was shouting. I’ve found that happening for me with Shakespeare performed live sometimes–it’s almost as though at some points the actors are speaking gibberish and I would like a screen above the stage with a translation, like many operas now have. Maybe the actors have a hard time too, and some react by just getting through the lines as quickly as possible–which makes it worse! Am I the only one with this reaction?

    Maybe it’s because spoken Shakespeare is now a foreign language in so many ways, whereas reading it you can slow down (and read the footnotes.)

    How do modern acting companies deal with this? Do they abridge Shakespeare?

    Somewhat off topic, but just wondering…..

    • GGG: Not off topic at all. It’s definitely a subject I’m going to want to get into — performance vs. reading, the whole Shakespearean performance issue. Of course, Hopkins shouts a lot anyway…

  2. Chris says:

    Maybe I am one sick kitty, but this play has appealed to me much more than the first two. I am completely engrossed by the vivid imagery and absorbed by the depth of passions, horror, lust and loss. The “fly” scene was powerful and revelatory; it moved me. Could it have been Titus’s flicker of enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, the barest opening of his Third Eye before it snapped shut again? This aging warrior, who has justified every sort of killing / murder in the name of revenge, honor, politics, anger, and human sacrifice is now so vulnerable in grief that he apprehends the Oneness of the Universe and feels (momentary) compassion for the “parents” of the hapless fly killed capriciously by Titus’s own brother.

    • I agree — I’m loving reading this again. I’m astonished that even in such an early play (and with such ridiculous levels of violence and horror — Lavinia carrying off her father’s chopped off hand in her teeth?) that the writing, imagery and poetry carry you through. I’ve never gotten to see it on stage — but I know now that I REALLY need to.

      • Eddie Chism says:

        Yeah, I have to admit I enjoyed it this time, despite my earlier feeling that I didn’t even want to reread it. Much better than I remembered.

      • I agree — and tend to agree with Garber that given the history of the 20th and 21st centuries, it seems very much a play of (or for) our time.

  3. Mahood says:

    The absurdity of the ‘fly scene’ (3,2) in Titus reminded me of the absurdity of the ‘flea scene’ in the play Endgame:not exactly like for like but worth a comparison all the same – In Endgame, the initial discussion of the profundity of existence is reduced to a farcical scene where Clov and Hamm try desperately to kill a flea, for fear that it might ‘reproduce’ and cause the human race to continue…

    CLOV (impatiently):
    What is it?
    We’re not beginning to… to… mean something?
    Mean something! You and I, mean something!
    (Brief laugh.)
    Ah that’s a good one!
    I wonder.
    Imagine if a rational being came back to earth, wouldn’t he be liable to get ideas into his head if he observed us long enough. [Voice of rational being.] Ah, good, now I see what it is, yes, now I understand what they’re at!
    (Clov starts, drops the telescope and begins to scratch his belly with both hands. Normal voice.)
    And without going so far as that, we ourselves…
    (with emotion)
    …we ourselves… at certain moments…
    To think perhaps it won’t all have been for nothing!
    CLOV (anguished, scratching himself):
    I have a flea!
    A flea! Are there still fleas?
    On me there’s one.
    Unless it’s a crab louse.
    HAMM (very perturbed):
    But humanity might start from there all over again! Catch him, for the love of God!
    I’ll go and get the powder.
    (Exit Clov.)
    A flea! This is awful! What a day!
    (Enter Clov with a sprinkling-tin.)
    I’m back again, with the insecticide.
    Let him have it!
    (Clov loosens the top of his trousers, pulls it forward and shakes powder into the aperture. He stoops, looks, waits, starts, frenziedly shakes more powder, stoops, looks, waits.)
    The bastard!
    Did you get him?
    Looks like it.
    (He drops the tin and adjusts his trousers.)
    Unless he’s laying doggo.
    Laying! Lying, you mean. Unless he’s lying doggo.
    Ah? One says lying? One doesn’t say laying?
    Use your head, can’t you. If he was laying we’d be bitched.

  4. Catherine says:

    I also have found Titus Andronicus entertaining and dramatic, despite the ridiculous amount of violence. Because it’s so overboard and because it’s a play somehow it doesn’t seem as gruesome as it could be.

    I’m doing fine with the pace of reading but have a harder time keeping up with your posts. Wish they weren’t quite as long especially when reading on my mobile, but then again I appreciate everything your posts add to my appreciation and understanding.

    I try to read the assigned act, then watch the BBC performance with my book in hand. I also have trouble understanding the actors but found Titus much easier than Taming or Gentlemen.

    How about art work related to Shakespeare’s characters? I haven’t looked for much yet but am thinking of seeking some out. I do have the illustrated complete works, but have seen some other stunning pictures so know there must be more out there. Anything to recommend?

    • Catherine: There are also some great recording of the plays that might be worth investigating and reading along with. I like the idea of the art work — I’ve been trying to post an older illustration or still from a stage production, but I’ll try adding more of them.

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