Enter Titus Andronicus with a knife, and Lavinia with a basin.

Titus Andronicus

Act Five

By Dennis Abrams


Act Five:  Believing that Titus has gone mad, Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius show up at his housed dressed up as Revenge, Rape and Murder.  Titus, realizing who they are, agrees to summon Lucius to dine with the Emperor and Emperess.  But after Tamora leaves, Titus begins to get his revenge:  First he kills Chiron and Demitrius (cutting their throats while Lavinia kneels below to collect the blood in a basin), and bakes them in a pie (the crust made from their ground up bones and blood) which he then serves to Tamora and Saturninus.  Titus kills Lavinia, and after revealing the recipe for the pie, stabs Tamora.  Titus is immediately killed by Saturninus, who, in turn, is himself killed by Lucius.  Elected as Emperor, Lucius orders that Aaron be executed “Set him breast-deep in earth, and famish him,/There let him stand and rave and cry for food,” and as  Tamora’s punishment, “But throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey./Her life was beastly and devoid of pity,’ And being dead, let birds on her take pity.”


And so happy endings abound…

A couple of things I’d like to point out.  First off, it’s interesting to compare Titus’s lament for the dead fly when one considers that the play’s human characters are often treated like meat (literally given the fate of Chiron and Demetrius).   Even Lucisu’s closing promise as he stands over the “poor remainder of Andronici” to “knit again…These broken limbs into one body,” is a kind of bitter joke.  It can be said, I think, that the one of the things that makes the play so fascinating is that it ranges across the range of human emotion – from black humour or comedy to genuine sorrow and back again.  Titus laughs because he has “not another tear to shed;” if we find some of the elements of the play difficult to understand, perhaps it’s because it explores so much.

And to go back to Shakespeare’s use of Ovid.  If he in fact provides Shakespeare’s “pattern,” ”Lavinia, wert thou thus surprised, sweet girl,/Ravished and wronged as Philomela was,/Forced in the ruthless, vast, and gloomy woods?/See, see.  Ay, such a place there is where we did hunt –/O, had we never hunted there!–/Patterned by that the poet here describes,/By nature made for murders and for rapes,” then even the woods are playing out their predetermined role.  Lavinia, it could be said, is sacrificed to her source.  In fact, even her death at Titus’s hands on the classical hero, Virginius, who killed his own “enforced, stained, and deflowered daughter” – so spare her shame – “a reason mighty, strong, effectual,” as Titus himself grimly exclaims:

A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant

For me, most wretched, to perform the like.

But it isn’t enough for Titus to kill his daughter like a character in Livy, he also has to provide reasons for doing so, like a good schoolboy.

And critics have noted other classical parallels at work in Titus.  In this play, Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy, he adopts many of the motifs of revenge drama, then all the rage on the Renaissance stage.  Much like Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (the Cats of its day), this play contains a cycle of revenge, which involves three protagonists, Tamora, Aaron and Titus – all done along the lines of the Roman tragedian, Seneca, whose own retellings of revenge were a strong influence on Renaissance drama.  Again, though, Shakespeare isn’t one for subtle remodeling.  As with Lavinia’s much (perhaps over) stressed parallels with poor Philamel, Tamora attempts to trap Titus not by acting out her revenge, but by actually acting Revenge, assuming that he is mad enough to believe her.  Disguised in her “strange and sad habiliment,” she boldly announces “I am Revenge,”

sent from th’infernal kingdom

To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind

By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes.

Come down, and welcome me to this world’s light.

Confer me with murder and of death.

There’s not a hollow cave or lurking place,

No vast obscurity or misty vale

Where bloody murder or detested rape

Can couch for fear, but I will find them out,

And in their eats tell them my dreadful name…

She has read the script, it seems, as has her lover Aaron, who in one of his most over-the-top, cartoonishly villainous moments threatens “murders, rapes, and massacres./Acts of black night, abominable deeds.”


A visual break.  Since I’m currently slightly obsessed with Jessica Lange due to her amazing work on American Horror Story, a compilation of her best moments as Tamora in Julie Taymor’s Titus:


Harold Bloom, after a careful comparison of speeches by Marlowe’s Barabas and Shakespeare’s Aaron has this to say:

“Shakespeare wins (although the agon remains Marlowe’s), because Marlowe’s wonderful hanged man with the long great scroll pinned upon his breast is undone by the Moor’s carving his greetings directly on the skins of dead men, [“And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,/Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,/’Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.’”], and setting them upright at the door of their dear friends.  Aaron combines with Tamburlaine’s rant Barabas’s talent for making the audience his accomplices.  The result is a Marlovian monster more outrageous than anyone in Marlowe.  Without Aaron, Titus Andronicus would be unendurable, the first act seems to stretch on forever, because he does not speak in it, though he is on stage.  In Act II, he suggests to Tamora’s sons that they settle their quarrel about Lavinia by gang-raping her.  They blithely accomplish this, first killing her husband, and then using the corpse as the bed for violating her.  Slicing off her hands and tongue, they thus render it rather difficult for her to identify her tormentors, and Aaron successfully shifts the blame for murdering her husband to two of Titus’s three surviving sons.  Even summarizing this wedges us between shock and defensive laughter, though not to the extent of the antithetical reaction that we undergo when Titus urges his brother and Lavinia to help him carry off the severed heads of two of his sons, and his own severed hand:

Come, brother, take a head,

And in this hand the other will I bear.

And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d

Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.

This beggars commentary, but I do urge all scholars who think Titus Andronicus a sincere and serious tragedy to read these lines out loud several times in a row, with particular emphasis on “Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.”   Shakespeare, after all, had already written The Comedy of Errors and The Taming of the Shrew, and was about to compose Love’s Labour’s Lost [NOTE:  Bloom puts the plays in a slightly different chronological order, especially the earliest ones, than many others do.], his genius for comedy was highly evident, both to the public and himself.  To call Titus Andronicus a mere send-up of Marlowe and Kyd hardly seems sufficient; it is a blowup, an explosion of rancid irony carried well past the limits of parody.  Nothing else by Shakespeare is so sublimely lunatic; it prophesies not King Lear and Coriolanus, but Artaud.

As it moves towards its absurd conclusion, it becomes more surrealistic, even irrealistic.  In Act III, Scene ii, Titus and his brother use their knives to kill a fly, their dialogue concerning occupies thirty lines of fantasy.  Baroque as it is, it is tame in contrast to Act IV, Scene I, where the muted Lavinia uses her stumps to turn the leaves of a volume of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, until she comes to the tale of Philomel, ravished by Tereus.  Holding a staff in her mouth, and guiding it with her stumps, she inscribes in the sand stuprum (Latin for ‘rape’) and the names of the culprit sons of Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius.  Titus responds by quoting from Seneca’s Hippolytus, the same play that furnished Demetrius with a tag preluding the rape and mutilation of Lavinia.

Ovid and Seneca serve not so much as literary allusions as they do further distancing from mimetic realism for the preposterous sufferings of Titus and his family.  It therefore seems appropriate that Titus stages an attack upon the imperial palace in which visionary arrows rain down, each marked as being directed to a particular god.  Curious as this is, Shakespeare surpasses the irreality when Tamora, disguised as a personified Revenge, makes a social call upon Titus, accompanied by her sons Demetrius, in the guise of Murder, and Chiron, as Rape.  Their ostensible purposes is to urge Titus to give a banquet for Tamora and her husband, the dubious emperor Saturninus, at which Titus’s one surviving son, Lucius, will also be present.  Summarizing all this is like telling the plot of a soap opera, but the action of Titus Andronicus essentially is a horror opera, Stephen King turned loose among the Romans and the Goths.  Titus allows Tamora-Revenge to depart, doubtless to get properly attired for the banquet, but he detains Murder and Rape.  Bound and gagged, they stand ready even as we enjoy the frisson of a grand stage direction:  Enter Titus Andronicus with a knife, and Lavinia with a basin.  Titus’s speech, his first cheerful utterance in the entire play, does not disappoint us:

Hark, wretches, how I mean to martyr you.

This one hand yet is left to cut your throats,

While that Lavinia ‘tween her stumps doth hold

The basin that receives your guilty blood.

You know your mother means to feast with me,

And calls herself Revenge, and thinks me mad.

Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,

And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste,

And of the paste a coffin I will rear,

And make two pasties of your shameful heads,

And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed damn,

Like to the earth swallow her own increase.

This is the feat that I have bid her to,

And this is the banket she shall surfeit on;

For worse than Philomel you us’d my daughter,

And worse than Progne I will be reveng’d.

And now prepare your throats – Lavinia, come,

Receive the blood and when that they are dead,

Let me go grind their bones to powder small,

And with this hateful liquor temper it,

And in that paste let their vile heads be bak’d.

Come, come, be everyone officious

To make this banket, which I wish may prove

More stern and bloody than the Centaurs’ feast.

[He cuts their throats.

So, now, bring them in, for I’ll play the cook,

And see them ready against their mother comes.


As Titus indicates, he has Ovidian precedent in the supper served by Progne, Philomela’s sister, to the rapist Tereus, who unknowingly devoured his own child, and there may hover also Seneca’s Thyestes, with its climax in the sinister feast of Atreus.  Shakespeare improves upon his sources, what with a coffin-like piecrust, and the amiable vision of Demetrius’s and Chiron’s heads reduced to tasty meat pies.  We are ready for the banquet, with Titus in a chef’s hat setting the table.  First dispatching poor Lavinia, Titus then stabs the more deserving Tamora, but only after informing her that she has devoured her sons.  Doubtless a touch sated, Shakespeare does not allow Titus a grand death scene.  Saturninus kills Titus, and in turn is slain by Lucius, last of twenty-five brothers and the new emperor of Rome.  Aaron the Moor, after bravely saving the life of his black baby by Tamora, is buried breast-deep in the earth, so as to starve to death.  Shakespeare, who probably shares our desperate affection for Aaron, allows him the dignity of unrepentant last words, in the mode of Marlowe’s Barabas:

Ah, why should wrath be mute, and fury dumb?

I am no baby, I, that with base prayers

I should repent the evils I have done;

Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did

Would I perform, if I might have my will

If one good deed in all my life I did,

I do repent it from my very soul.

The English production of Titus Andronicus that I attended was Peter Brook’s abstractly stylized production in 1955, which at least had the virtue of keeping the gore at a symbolic distance, though at the expense of Shakespeare’s parodistic excess.  I don’t think I would see the play again unless Mel Brooks directed it…or perhaps it could yet be made into a musical.”

I agree with Bloom on many of his points, but I’m not sure that I buy Aaron as having the audience’s “desperate affection,” although I might be able to accept his contention that the play would be unendurable without him.  Thoughts?



From Jonathan Bate, going back for a moment to the forest, pit and rape:

“If the onstage/offstage counterpoint of pit and rape is bold, how much bolder is the following scene in which the elaborate language of Marcus is juxtaposed onstage to the physical image of Lavinia’s mutilated body.  the best account of the effect is by D.J. Palmer, and is well worth a long quotation:

‘Marcus’ lament is the expression of an effort to realize a sight that taxes to the utmost the powers of understanding and utterance.  The vivid conceits in which he pictures his hapless niece do not transform or depersonalize her:  she is already transformed and depersonalized, as she stands before him the victim of a strange and cruel metamorphoses…Far from being a retreat from the awful reailty into some aesthetic distance, then, Marcus’ conceits dwell upon this figure that is to him both familiar and strange, fair and hideous, living body and object:  this is, and is not, Lavinia…Lavinia’s plight is literally unutterable…Marcus’ formal lament articulates unspeakable woes….Here and throughout the play, the response to the intolerable is ritualized, in language and action, because ritual is the ultimate means by which man seeks to order and control his precarious and unstable world.'”

And this:

“Titus’ first words to his mutilated daughter are ‘what accursed hand/Hath made thee handless in thy father’s sight?’  Features such as the relentless play on the word ‘hands’ from this point onwards have led some critics to suppose that the whole play is ‘a huge joke,’ a parody in which Shakespeare watched the groundlings ‘gaping ever wider to swallow more as he tossed them even bigger and bigger gobbets of sob-stuff and raw beef-steak.’  (Dover Wilson)  This is a wrongheaded but understandable reading.  There is a lot of comedy in the second half of the play — but that does not make it a parody.  Rather, what it does is to blur the conventional distinctions between tragedy and comedy, grieving and laughing.  As the decorums of Roman honour disintegrate, so do the decorums of dramatic expectation.

What do you do when twenty-one of your sons have been killed in battle, you’ve killed the twenty-second in a fit of pique, your daughter has been raped and had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, two further sons have been wrongly accused of murdering your son-in-law and the remaining one sentenced to exile, you’ve been told that the two who are condemned will be reprieved if you chop off your hand, and you so do, only to have the hand and the heads of the two sons sent back to you in scorn?  Dramatic decorum dictates that you should rant (‘Now is a time to storm,’ says Marcus).  But human nature does not obey dramatic decorum.  What Titus says is much more true:  ‘Ha, ha, ha!’  At the end of the scene, he and Marcus carry off the heads; but, so as to be sure that Lavinia is not left out, he says, ‘Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.’  This is a visual joke, for it shows that she has become the handmaid of Revenge (a role which will atler involve her in dextrous work with a basin between her stumps).  If we laugh at Titus’ line, as the audience in all three productions I have seen certainly did, we are sharing in Titus’ experience.  By laughing with him, we also participate in what he calls the ‘sympathy of woe.’  When Lear has his Fool and then the company of Poor Tom, Titus and Hamlet play their own fools; in each case, the moments of laughter intensify rather than diminish the passionate fellow-feeling of tragedy.

Titus certainly gets the last laugh against his enemies.  He spends the fourth act sending jokey messages, first to Chiron and Demetrius, then to Saturninus via arrows and Clown.  He turns the tables on Tamora in the scene in which she impersonates Revenge and he then enjoys himself playing the cook.  Comedy depends on a sense of satisfaction, of one thing answering neatly to another.  So there is a kind of comic satisfaction in the gagging of Chiron and Demetrius and the slitting of their throats; it answers exactly to their gagging of Lavinia and cutting of her tongue.  It is no coincidence that the two biggest speeches in the play are Marcus’ address to the raped Lavinia and Titus’ address to her rapists prior to his act of retribution. Furthermore, in the preceding scene, Aaron has bragged of his villainy in what Palmer calls a ‘parody of the need under which Titus ritualizes suffering in speech and action,’ so that ‘tragedy is transformed into jest’ (the trick is learnt from Marlowe’s Jew of Malta).  Aaron’s ‘bitter tongue’ torments his enemies until, like other tongues in the play, it is gagged and stopped.”

And one last bit from Bate:

“The encounter between Titus and Tamora in 5.2 is a brilliant piece of theater because of the way that one character takes over the other’s plot, and turns it against the inventor.  By a superb act of improvisation, Titus expands the cast of the masque-like show, making Tamora’s companions into what they are, Rape and Murder; by the end of the scene, the vehicle of Tamora’s revenge against Titus for the death of Alarbus has become the vehicle of Titus’ revenge against Tamora for the rape of Lavinia and the deaths of Bassianus, Quintus and Martius.

By trumping one character’s performance with another’s, Shakespeare makes the point which he went on making throughout his career:  that we are all role-players.  By representing Revenge as a character’s device rather than a ‘reailty’ outside the action..he suggests that retribution is a matter of human, not divine will.  This is a world in which people make their own laws; as in Lear, the gods are frequently invoked but never reply.  When the post comes with the answer to the letters which Titus shoots into the heavens, it is in the form not of some message from the gods of the sort we get in Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale, but of a Clown with a basket and two pigeons.  Jupiter is replaced by a gibbet-maker and the poor fool is hanged.

In George Peele’s The Birth of Alcazar, there is a bloody banquet complete with dish of heads, but it is performed in dumb-show and therefore has the same status as that play’s other insets, such as its show of Nemesis and three Furies.  In Titus Andronicus, however, the show is put on by a character instead of Peele’s extra-dramatic ‘Presenter.’  Nemesis comes from within, not from without.  Titus is an unusual dramatist in that he knocks up a pie rather than a curtain; he plays the cook, not the author and the actor.  But a dramatist he is none the less:  he has written the script for the climax of the play.  He doesn’t hesitate to list his literary authorities for it, such as the myth or Progne and the story of Virginius.  Like Hieronimos’ play in sundry languages at the climax of The Spanish Tragedy, Titus’ banquet serves to render violence structured and ritualistic instead of arbitrary and chaotic.  It is no coincidence that the later plays in the revenge genre, notably The Revenger’s Tragedy and Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge perform their retributions by means of that most structured and ritualistic Renaissance form, the masque.

Would playgoers have drawn comparisons between the revenger’s ritualized violence and the ritualized violence that they were familiar with in real life?  Is there a paradoxical sense in which self-conscience performance serves to say not ‘this is only a play’ but ‘this is just like life?’  The ritualized violence which an Elizabethan audience would have know best was public execution, itself a highly theatrical activity.  Consider a typical sentence passed on a nobleman found guilty of treason in 1549.

‘That he should be conveyed to the Place from whence he came, and from thence to the place of Execution, and there to be hanged until he were half dead, his Members to be cuff off, his Bowels to be cast into the Fire, his Head to be cut off, his Quarters to be divided into four several parts, and to be bestowed in four several Places.’

Such dismemberment takes us very close to the world of Titus Andronicus.  Furthermore, it could elicit the same kind of black wit as that of Shakespeare’s play — on being told at the end of his trial that his head and quarters would be disposed at her Majesty’s pleasure, Essex replied:  ‘I think it fit my poor Quarters that have done her Majesty true Services in diverse parts of the World, should be sacrificed and disposed of at her Majesty’s Pleasure.’  Essex plays on quarters and parts very much in the manner of Titus’ puns on hands.”


From Tanner:

“Here, again, this is where the tragedy prefigures King Lear.  But another play, too, when Titus seems to mad.  He shoots arrows to the gods with letters attached, asking for justice and revenge.  (“There’s not a god left unsolicited.”)  But there is method in his madness for, of course, the arrows and letters fall in Rome, as Saturninus recognized, ‘blazoning our unjustice everywhere…As who would say, in Rome no justice were.’  That is exactly what Titus is saying – he has already called Rome ‘a wilderness of tigers,’ definitively confounding the conventional culture – nature distinctions.  But if he is mad – deranged with grief – he is also steely sane.  During Tamora’s final, grotesque, attempt to trick him (pretending she is ‘Revenge, sent from below’), in an aside Titus says,

I knew them all, though they supposed me mad;

And will o’erreach them in their own devices…

This anticipates Shakespeare’s most famous character.  Titus Andronicus is a ‘revenge’ play and shows some of the crudities of that genre, but by the time Shakespeare has finished transforming that genre, we will have Hamlet.

The final Act depicts Titus’s revenge, as, in the last ghoulish incident in the play, he serves up to Tamora her sons baked in a pie.  (‘Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred’) – a feast, incidentally, described by the unwitting Marcus as ‘ordained to an honorable end,/For peace, for league, and good to Rome.’  Honorific terms are by now taking a hiding.  The play ends in a rout of deaths and killings (but so does Hamlet – ‘This quarry cries on havoc,’ cries Fortinbras).  More interesting, perhaps, is the spectacle of what we may call the radical shift, or inversion, of allegiance.  The great defender and saviour of Rome becomes its most implacable enemy as Titus’s son, Lucius, goes off to raise an army of Goths to attack Rome.  This, of course, is to be the great theme of Shakespeare’s last Roman play, Coriolanus.  But here it is, from the start.  When Lucius is banished, Titus says:

How happy are thou then,

From these devourers to be banished!

Lucius himself has some rather Coriolanus like lines:

Lastly, myself unkindly banished,

The gates shut on me, and turned weeping out,

To beg relief among Rome’s enemies…

I am the turned-forth…

What does it mean, what does it portend, when Rome ‘turnsforth’ its bravest and most illustrious defender heroes?  When a Goth can say:

the great Andronicus,

Whose name was once our terror, now our comfort,

Whose high exploits and honorable deeds

Ingrateful Rome requites with fond contempt…

Where is the authoritative voice now?  With the Goths rather than the Romans?  Can a ‘terror’ so quickly become a ‘comfort’ – and, presumably, vice versa?  Here are problems of inversion, reversibility, even inter-changeability, to which Shakespeare was clearly extraordinarily well attuned.  Now a Roman, now a Goth – handy-dandy, which is which?

This is not to say that Shakespeare erases all differences between the Romans and the Goths, between the city and the forest.  There is always the possibility – in patriarchal, cruel, and—yes – ‘barbaric’ Rome – of law, order, stability, degree.  Though if Saturninus is Emperor, one feels that Romans might as well head for the forest.  But the forest offers no possibility of law.  The emergence of the ravished and mutilated Lavinia from the forest is an apt image of what the realm encourages and permits.  The continuous presence of Marcus – just, rational, decent, humane – is a reminder of what Rome can produce and what it might stand for.  If – if – it can get the words right it can, could, be the place and source of honour, virtue, nobility.  If.  At the end, Lucius is the new Emperor of Rome and seems to bespeak or promise a restoration of true justice and order.

may I govern so,

To heal Rome’s harms and wipe her woe!

But the actual, and dramatic, ending has Rome disgorging itself of the body of the female Goth, Tamora, which had been so disastrously ‘incorporated’ into the city.  Rome’s ceremony ends here – there are no commemorative, funereal rites:

But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey.

Her life was beastly and devoid of pity,

And being dead, let birds on her take pity.

But Rome has been shown to be ‘devoid of pity’ – where was ‘mercy’ in scene one?  The issues are not clear cut, and Shakespeare makes very sure that we see that.

So what of the play as a whole?  Famously, Edward Ravenscroft in 1687 described it as ‘a heap of rubbish.’  It has been described as black comedy, Grand Guignol, and melodrama (by H.B. Charlton, who found in the play no ‘inner world’ of the characters).  Because the particularly horrifying episodes are quite explicitly ‘quotations’ as it were, from Ovid (Lavinia’s mutilation repeats the story of Tereus and Philomena) and Seneca (the children in the pit comes from Thyestes out of Aeschylus), Muriel Broadbook offered the opinion that ‘Titus Andronicus is a Senecal exercise, the horrors are all classical and quite unfelt, so that the violent tragedy is contradicted by the decorous imagery.  The tone is cool and cultured in its effect.’  I can understand this response, but do not share it.  Modern readers will, of course, make up their own minds; but, while the play is marked by harsh oratory rather than the sinuous and subtle speech of psychological revelation, it seems to me to touch on issues of great moments – for the Elizabethans and for us.  Not least – what does our Roman heritage – and we in the West are all inheritors of Rome – really comprise and stand for?  And – is it possible, ever, to delimit and demarcate the ‘barbarians?’


And finally, from Marjorie Garber:

“Lucius’s exile from Rome is a characteristic mode for Shakespeare:  the young political surviver, exempt from some of the psychological agonies of the middle of the play, returns to impose order from without.  We might think here of Duncan’s son Malcolm, who flees to England to raise a power against Macbeth, or of young Octavian, who enters the action of Julius Caesar at the close to implement a political solution in the name of the murdered Caesar.  But we might also notice the way in which the concept of ‘revenge’ has been split in two.  Titus will seek the allegorical personage Revenge, and his remaining son and successor Lucius will seek revenge as instrumentality.  Or, to put it another way, Titus will give himself over to tragedy, and Lucius, to history.

How are we to take this quest for Revenge on the part of Titus?  When he first mentions her, he has not yet learned, from Lavinia, the full particulars of her rape.  When it becomes clear, through Lavinia’s writing in the sand, that ‘[t]he lustful sons of Tamora’ are the ‘[p]erformers of this heinous bloody deed’ he sends his grandson to them with a bundle of weapons, on which he has attached a scroll with a pointed allusion from Horace:  ‘Integer vitae, scelerisque purus/Non eget Mauri iaculis, nec aru’ (The man of upright life and free from crime does not need the javelins or bows of the Moor.)  This famous quotation appeared in the standard grammar school textbook of the period, as Chiron will note.  (The play is full of deliberate anachronisms of this kind, allowing a Goth from the time of ancient Rome to know the contents of a 1540 English schoolbook.  In a later scene another Goth will ‘gaze upon a ruined monastery,’ destroyed in the time of Henry VIII.)  But again the technique here is one of conscious literalization, since the ‘Moor’ of Horace’s ode is a generalized type of exotic warrior, and the phrase by that time had become a cliché, whereas Aaron the Moor is highly particular, and manifestly neither of ‘upright life’ nor ‘free from crime.’  The dead metaphor again comes to life.  Indeed, Aaron himself, standing by, gets the point the duller sons miss:

The old man hath found their guile,

And sends the weapons wrapped about with lines

That wound beyond their feeling to the quick.

But were our witty Empress afoot

She would applaud Andronicus’ conceits.

A version of the same event takes place again in the next scene, when Titus supervises Marcus, Young Lucius, and others as they shoot arrows into the air and dig with tools into the earth, in a vain search for the gods of justice.  Here Shakespeare borrows from a scene from Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy, where the mad Hieronimo plunges his dagger into the ground and shouts for justice; the line he quotes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, ‘Terras Astraea reliqut’ (Astrea [the goddess of Justice] has left the earth), as Jonathan Bate notes, is cited twice:  in English, in the same play (Spanish Tragedy).

The mutilations, tortures, and assorted horrors of this play had for some years earned it a place among Shakespeare’s works somewhere between Elizabethan horror genres and poetic allegory.  To take its events ‘straight’ – from the handless, tongueless Lavinia to the ground-up sons of Tamora, baked in a pie and served to their unsuspecting mother – seemed, for a while at least, to strain credulity.  Later Shakespearean tragedies, though they contain key moments of unspeakable bodily violation (the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear; the massacre of Macduff’s wife and children in Macbeth), often tend to translate and internalize such physical degradations as metaphors, rendering them metaphysical (‘filial ingratitude./Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand/For lifting food to’t?’)  But Titus Andronicus is in a way the radical – the root – of Shakespearean tragedy, the dreamscape or nightmare world laid out for all to see, not disguised by a retreat into metaphor.  The more we learn about the events of twentieth- and twenty-first-century warfare, the less easy it becomes to consign such appalling physical terrors and mutilations into the realm of either a barbaric past or a poetic imagination.  Like all Shakespeare plays set in the historical past, Titus has three, perhaps four, ‘times’ of reference:  ancient Rome, Elizabethan England, the shifting contemporary time of each performance – and the literary ‘time’ of its poetic models, from Ovid and Livy to the Elizabethan revenge tragedies like Kyd’s Spanish Tragedy and Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.  But in many ways, from its almost Brechtian mode of staging physicality to its unrelenting pileup of horrors, Titus is the most modern play of Shakespeare’s that we have.  What was once regarded as alien is all too recognizable as an unwelcome aspect of ‘human nature.’”


So what do you think?  Tragedy or black comedy?  Over-the-top mistake or a prophetic look at things to come?  Post your thoughts on the play and let us know!

Next post:  Tuesday evening – Sonnet #29

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6 Responses to Enter Titus Andronicus with a knife, and Lavinia with a basin.

  1. GGG says:

    I wasn’t sympathizing with Aaron so much as worrying about the baby! The baby is last mentioned exiting in the arms of an attendant. Do we assume that Lucius keeps to his word?

    Also, in the world of Shakespeare’s parallels–Titus the father versus Aaron the father: Titus kills Mutius and Lavinia because of honor/shame; Aaron barters anything (and kills anyone) he can to keep the baby alive.

    And in terms of comedy, it reminded me of Two Gentlemen of Verona, when Valentine becomes leader of the outlaws immediately–and Lucius also becomes leader when the Goths say “Yeah, he’s a great soldier guy–OK, he’s our leader!”

    I think i’m going with Tragedy–or maybe tragi-comic…

    Maybe one more parallel: the pit in the forest and all its meaning and the quote you have above from Titus: “And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam, Like to the earth swallow her own increase.”

    • GGG: I think you got everything exactly right. And I would assume that Lucius keeps to his word — he’s one of the “old-school” so to speak noble Romans, and since he is brought back to restore order, I’ve got to believe (since Shakespeare didn’t hint otherwise) that he is a man of his word.

  2. Mahood says:

    Titus Andronicus is a fascinating play. From all the (excellent) background reading that’s been provided here (thanks Dennis!), there just seems to be too much going on to dismiss it as ‘a heap of rubbish’ (as Edward Ravenscroft said). All the ingredients appear to be there which point to the more famous ‘polished’ plays that followed (Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet etc.).

    For me though, what resonates is Marjorie Garber point that ‘the more we learn about the events of twentieth- and twenty-first-century warfare, the less easy it becomes to consign such appalling physical terrors and mutilations into the realm of either a barbaric past or a poetic imagination’. It reminds me of the (re)assessment that’s currently going on with regard to the writings of Marquis de Sade. Texts like ‘120 Days of Sodom’, shocking as they are, suddenly seem more ‘relevant’, ‘contemporary’ and ‘modern’, in light of recent and current atrocities against humanity (the Taiping Rebellion, the Holocaust, Pol Pot’s regime, Rwanda, North Korea, Mao, Yugoslavia and many many more).

    It looks like Titus Andronicus (in this regard) is undergoing a similar re-evaluation.

    • What I find so interesting is that a play written in the late 1500s, which would have had meaning “x” to its Elizabethan audience, is read and viewed (and legitimately so, in my view) entirely differently today. Rereading the play was a great experience for me, and finding the different critical takes on the play helped me to see things in the play I’d never seen before (the “pit”/vagina references in the forest scene) — so many ways of viewing a play which, on the surface, seems to be nothing but a horror show.

  3. GGG says:

    Your comment made me think of a book we read in our book club: Painter of Battles by Arturo Perez-Reverte. A war photographer looks back on his life and the photos he has taken of atrocities around the world. Most of the book club found it grim and depressing. I found it grim and depressing too, but really good. Interesting in the light of reading Titus–how the artist interprets brutality–whether the photographer taking pictures of war or the playwright writing a grisly story.

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