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Titus Andronicus /

A Modern Perspective: Titus Andronicus

By Alexander Leggatt

At the end of Act 2 of Titus Andronicus Lavinia enters, “her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out, and ravished” (2.4.0 SD). The rapists Chiron and Demetrius come onstage with her, taunting her: “So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak, / Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravished thee” (2.4.1–2). They have not only raped her; they have taken her language. In the source myth Shakespeare found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Tereus rapes his sister-in-law Philomela and cuts out her tongue; but she weaves a tapestry that tells her story, and her sister takes revenge. Lavinia has no hands; there is, seemingly, no way she can tell her story. The mutilation also figures externally the shame that attends a raped woman in the play’s patriarchal society: Lavinia is now ruined forever. Critics up to the middle of the twentieth century saw Titus Andronicus as a pointless horror show, so bad that it was probably not by Shakespeare. But Lavinia’s fate has been a key factor in the recent rehabilitation of the play, in the theater as well as in criticism. Violence against women, the denial of women’s language—these are issues to which we are now, with good reason, particularly alert; and when Lavinia enters, raped, mutilated, and speechless, it is as though in the middle of a high-flown, consciously literary tragedy someone has pulled a fire alarm.

In our own time, when some act of seemingly random violence hits the headlines—gunfire sprays a school cafeteria, a public building is blown up—we feel both the shock of the unexpected and a grim awareness that the roots of the violence run deep in the society whose peace has just been disrupted. So it is with the rape of Lavinia. The attack takes place in the woods, established as a place of terror outside the bounds of society. Yet looking back, we can see that the act does not come out of nowhere. The rape sequence begins with the two Gothic brothers quarreling over Lavinia, a quarrel Aaron the Moor settles by pointing out that they both can have her. The play likewise began with a competition between two brothers, Saturninus and Bassianus, for the possession of Rome. Bassianus in particular makes Rome sound like a woman whose honor is at stake: “And suffer not dishonor to approach / The imperial seat, to virtue consecrate” (1.1.13–14). Aaron in turn makes Lavinia sound like a captured city, telling Chiron and Demetrius to “revel in Lavinia’s treasury” (2.1.139).

The parallel between Lavinia and Rome is strengthened when Saturninus and Bassianus turn from competing for the empire to competing for her. Her father, Titus, makes Saturninus emperor; Saturninus then offers to marry Lavinia, an offer Titus accepts. But she is betrothed to Bassianus, who with the support of the rest of Lavinia’s family seizes her and carries her off to marry her. The primary meaning of rape in our time is sexual assault, but it can also mean seizure; and in that sense Lavinia is raped twice, once in Rome and once in the woods. Saturninus and Bassianus debate the word, Saturninus declaring “Thou and thy faction shall repent this rape” and Bassianus retorting “ ‘Rape’ call you it, my lord, to seize my own, / My true betrothèd love and now my wife?” (1.1.412–14). Throughout the sequence the emphasis is on Bassianus’s rights, and throughout the sequence Lavinia herself is silent. This is not the enforced silence of the second rape, and we could read many different meanings into it. But we have to do the reading, and the parallel has a disturbing effect. Raped and silenced in the woods, she has already been raped and silent in Rome. The atrocity may be not so much an outlaw act as a revelation of the male pride and possessiveness that have already erupted in Rome itself.

Lavinia’s father is very much a creature of that male world. The father as well of twenty-five sons, now mostly dead in the wars against the Goths to which he has led them, Titus has spent his life serving Rome. At the start of the play he has returned to bury the latest group of dead sons in the family tomb that exemplifies his standing in Rome and his service to it. He is a creature of habit, his values fixed, his decisions automatic. At the request of his eldest son, Lucius, he sacrifices the Gothic queen Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus, to give the souls of his own sons passage across the Styx. Tamora pleads for her son’s life; rejecting her plea, Titus gives no sign that he has even listened to it. He is then given the responsibility of picking the next emperor. Without pausing to think, he chooses Saturninus, simply because he is the late emperor’s elder son. He accepts Saturninus’s offer to marry Lavinia as an honor done to him, with no thought of Lavinia’s feelings or Bassianus’s rights. When the rest of the family carries her off he tries to pursue, and kills his own son Mutius for blocking his way, thinking only of the challenge of the moment: “What, villain boy, / Barr’st me my way in Rome?” (1.1.295–96). Titus is a creature of armor and leather, with thought processes to match.

When Saturninus turns against him and marries Tamora, Titus suddenly feels disoriented, a stranger in the city he thought was his. But it is the return of Lavinia from the woods that breaks him open, presenting him with a sight for which nothing has prepared him, for which no automatic reaction will serve. Marcus, who has discovered Lavinia in the woods and tried to deal with the shock in a long, lyrical speech that turns her wounds into poetry, presents her to her father with the words “This was thy daughter.” Ruined and disgraced, Lavinia is finished, no longer a person. Titus’s reply, “Why, Marcus, so she is” (3.1.65), restores her to humanity and to relationship. It is as quick as his reactions in Act 1; but those reactions were destructive, and some of them were decisions to kill. This is a decision to keep life going.

Its consequences, however, are far from simple. Titus is now desperate to do something for Lavinia, but when he asks her what he should do, his questions break against silence. (It is part of Lavinia’s ordeal that those who are tending her persistently ask her to speak.) Titus offers to create a tableau of grief, the whole family sitting around a fountain until their weeping turns the water salt; he asks if they should cut away their own hands and tongues. His helplessness finally explodes in one unanswerable question: “What shall we do?” (3.1.135). Once a man of action and quick decisions, he can think only of multiplying Lavinia’s afflictions in static spectacles. His language expands, giving it a cosmic reach it never had before—but it is filled with images of flood and drowning, images of helplessness.

Aaron fools Titus into cutting off his own hand to save the lives of his sons Quintus and Martius (falsely accused of Bassianus’s murder); when in response a messenger enters with the severed hand and the two sons’ severed heads, Titus’s agony reaches its breaking point. He bursts out laughing. Emotion has gone so far in one direction that it runs into reverse. The laugh is also a turning point for Titus; like a stroke of lightning it clears the air. Tears, he declares, blind his eyes: “Then which way shall I find Revenge’s cave?” (3.1.275). The man of action is back; he knows now what he has to do. But there is still nearly half the play to come, and in the tradition of Elizabethan revenge plays (exemplified by Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy [c. 1585] and, with variations, by Hamlet) the final deed is held off while the hero, seemingly mad, questions the world that makes revenge necessary. Titus has his relations dig in the earth, fish in the sea, and fire arrows with messages to the gods, all to seek for Justice and to demonstrate that she is nowhere to be found. The answer is revenge. Language was made helpless in the silencing of Lavinia and in Titus’s floundering attempts to find the right thing to say to her. Now it is not only restored but linked with violence: Titus sends messages to the court, but he wraps them around weapons. When he captures Chiron and Demetrius, Titus has them silenced (as they silenced Lavinia) and forces them to listen to a long speech in which he outlines their fate: he will cut their throats, bake them in pies, and serve them to their mother, Tamora. Almost literally, he talks them to death.

Titus’s revenge, like the act it avenges, has its roots in the myth of Philomela, whose sister Procne feeds Tereus his own son at a banquet. Within the play itself the act is grimly appropriate: Titus will “make two pasties of [their] shameful heads” (5.2.193), recalling the severed heads of Quintus and Martius. He will “bid that strumpet, [their] unhallowed dam, / Like to the earth swallow her own increase” (194–95). Central to the atrocity in the woods is the pit in which Chiron and Demetrius dropped the body of Bassianus, and into which Aaron lured Lavinia’s brothers. The pit, like the tomb of the Andronici, is a dark hole that swallows life; now Tamora will be made to imitate it. Quintus also describes the mouth of the pit as stained with blood (2.3.200–202), making it an image of the assault on Lavinia that is taking place as he speaks. The Gothic brothers are entering her body as her own brothers fall into the pit. In revenge Titus compels Chiron and Demetrius to enter Tamora’s body, making her the final image of the hole in the earth that swallows men.

That the revenge is imaginatively so like the rape itself may seem to be part of its justice; but it is also part of its horror. It is another turn in a cycle of atrocities from which there appears to be no escape. We may question what relief, if any, it brings Lavinia. Up to a point, she has recovered language. She uses a copy of Ovid, opened at the tale of Philomela, to tell her family she was raped. Coached by Marcus, she puts his staff in her mouth, guides it with her stumps, and writes in the sand the name of the deed and the names of the doers. In one sense she is restored in this moment: she uses language again, and by writing her attackers’ names she gains power over them. But to do so she puts Marcus’s staff into her mouth, creating a displaced image of the rape itself. She thus describes the rape only at the cost of symbolically reenacting it. The moment recalls one of the play’s most disturbing images: at the end of 3.1 Titus places his severed hand in Lavinia’s mouth (“Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth”; 287–88). In Titus’s tending of Lavinia there has been both genuine affection and a certain invasiveness as he tries to read her thoughts and speak for her. Now that invasiveness is externalized in an image that, like the sight of Marcus’s staff in her mouth, reenacts the original atrocity, just as the initial rape in Rome anticipated it.

When in the final scene Titus kills Lavinia, he does so after confirming with the Emperor that the story of Virginius gives him a precedent for his act. Roman honor is satisfied. But what is in Lavinia’s mind as her father commands “Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee, / And with thy shame thy father’s sorrow die” (5.3.46–47)? It is easy to assume that Titus is releasing Lavinia from a life that has become intolerable, and that death is what she wants. Some productions stage the scene as a ritual in which Lavinia not only consents but gives the signal for her death. Yet in Titus’s act we feel the weight of the patriarchal society he has always served, in which Lavinia earlier seemed to be a pawn. He is preoccupied not with her grief but with her shame; the grief that matters is his own. The last we hear of Lavinia is Lucius’s command to bury his father and sister in the family tomb. She is released from an intolerable life, but she is also absorbed into the patriarchal world that was implicated in her suffering.

Titus’s revenge, like the rape it avenges, also sends us circling back into Act 1 for a realization that it is not the play’s first revenge action. When Tamora pleads for Alarbus, she appeals to her captors as “Roman brethren” and asks Titus to see himself mirrored in her: “And if thy sons were ever dear to thee, / O think my son to be as dear to me” (1.1.104, 107–8). Titus rejects her plea, never acknowledging its force. In Act 2, when Lavinia appeals to Tamora, as one woman to another, to prevent Chiron and Demetrius from raping her, Tamora ignores this appeal to fellow feeling as Titus ignored hers. Tamora has a son to avenge, as Titus will have a daughter. Tamora meets cruelty with cruelty, and Titus will do the same. Disguised as Revenge, Tamora comes to visit Titus, playing on what she thinks is his madness. When Titus welcomes her with a one-armed embrace, the moment has a double significance: Titus is embracing Revenge but he is also embracing Tamora—and the act conveys, more than Titus realizes, how much he and his victim have in common.

Titus has spent ten years fighting the Goths, policing the border of Rome. But in the course of the play, that border becomes remarkably porous; and the distinction between the city and its enemies, between Us and Them, collapses. Titus brings Tamora and her sons to Rome as captives; by the end of Act 1 Tamora is married to Saturninus, installed as Empress of Rome. The enemy is in the citadel. When his son Lucius is sent into exile, Titus makes one of his snap decisions: “Hie to the Goths and raise an army there” (3.1.291). In the last scene Lucius is proclaimed Rome’s emperor, charged with restoring Rome and healing its wounds. Yet he has entered at the head of an army of Goths. Restoration is also enemy invasion: again the border has collapsed.

The character who mounts the most telling challenge to any sense of otherness is Aaron the Moor. He appears at first to be the play’s ultimate Other: a Moor in the service of the Goths (and how did that happen?), he is doubly foreign in Rome. His blackness sets him apart visually, and his cruel wit gives him detachment of another kind. Telling Lucius of the attack on Lavinia, he describes it as a trip to the barber: “Why, she was washed, and cut, and trimmed; and ’twas / Trim sport for them which had the doing of it” (5.1.96–98). It was Aaron who fooled Titus into cutting off his hand, and helped him do it. He describes the aftermath from his own perspective:

I pried me through the crevice of a wall

When, for his hand, he had his two sons’ heads,

Beheld his tears, and laughed so heartily

That both mine eyes were rainy like to his.


The extravagance of the play’s action takes it to the edge of grotesque comedy. For Aaron, peering through the wall that signifies his detachment, it is a comedy.

Aaron seems not to have noticed that in this scene Titus laughs too, the laugh that clears away his grief and turns him to revenge. However, when Titus sends seemingly mad messages to the court, Aaron is the only one who notices Titus’s wit, and he applauds it. The play itself moves into Aaron’s territory in 3.2, a scene that appears for the first time in the Folio and may have been added by Shakespeare as an afterthought. Marcus casually kills a fly. After Titus rebukes him, invoking the grief of the fly’s parents, Marcus appeases his brother by saying “It was a black, ill-favored fly, / Like to the Empress’ Moor. Therefore I killed him” (67–68). Titus then grabs a knife and stabs away at the tiny body. Two of the play’s key ideas, grief and revenge, spin into absurdity, and the sense of humor at work is not unlike Aaron’s own. Proudly listing his crimes, Aaron declares “I have done a thousand dreadful things / As willingly as one would kill a fly” (5.1.143–44). If the fly-killing scene is indeed a later addition, it may have its origin in that line.

When Tamora gives birth to a black baby, the result of her affair with Aaron, Chiron and Demetrius are shocked and disgusted. Aaron’s response is telling: “He is your brother, lords” (4.2.126). The line resonates beyond its immediate effect in the scene. It is not so much a plea for common humanity as a challenge to recognize in the self the evil that is too easily projected onto the Other. It brings into focus other such connections: the common ground between Tamora and Titus, the eerie similarity between Lavinia’s marriage and her rape, the echoing of Aaron’s laughter and Titus’s on either side of the wall. Announcing the punishment of Aaron and Tamora at the end of the play, Lucius uses the same phrase, “ravenous tiger,” to denounce them both (5.3.5, 197). They are foreign, other, not human. But earlier in the play Titus himself, when the outrages against his family are only just beginning, declares “Rome is but a wilderness of tigers” (3.1.55). The atrocity committed against Lavinia happened outside society, in the wilderness; but the more we reflect on it, the more we find the distinction between Rome and the wilderness dissolving.