When I promised that I would read every single Shakespeare play known to man this year, I meant every single one. And that is how I came to possess a copy of Titus Andronicus, a play that is rarely discussed, and one that had never crossed my radar more than once before.
Last quarter, my Shakespeare professor asked us about our favorite plays. My answer was quick, because I’ve known for years: “Richard III.” A girl across from me couldn’t quite remember the title of her favorite play, so she began to describe it. It was very violent, she said, and someone loses their tongue. “Titus Andronicus is your favorite play?” the professor asked in disbelief. “Titus Andronicus? What is wrong with you?”
The exchange was a teasing one, as was very characteristic of my professor. That was the first time I had heard someone talk about Titus Andronicus.
So you may be wondering how I feel about the play. The answer to that is: I don’t know. All I know is that I spent two days filled with morbid curiosity and was unable to look away until I had gone through the entire thing. Titus Andronicus is like a train wreck – you really don’t want to look, but you can’t help it.
I want to talk about Lavinia, because although she is rendered silent, I love her. I felt her sweetness and purity of heart through the pages, and I could not stand to see her beg for Tamora’s pity.
O, let me teach thee! For my father’s sake,
That gave thee life when well he might have slain thee,
Be not obdurate; open thy deaf ears.
Hadst thou in person ne’er offended me,
Even for his sake I am pitiless. –
Remember, boys, I poured forth tears in vain
To save your brother from the sacrifice,
But fierce Andronicus would not relent.
Therefore away with her, and use her as you will;
The worse to her; the better loved of me.
O, Tamora, be called a gentle queen,
And with thine own hands kill me in this place!
For ’tis not life that I have begged so long;
Poor I was slain when Bassianus died.
What, begg’st thou, then? Fond woman, let me go!
I cannot get over the image of Lavinia grasping at Tamora, begging her for mercy. I cannot accept that this conversation is happening between two women. Tamora knows what awaits Lavinia, but she has no pity. Her heart is stone, and all the begging in the world won’t move her. Poor Lavinia is sobbing her heart out, asking a fellow woman to help her, but it’s no use. She is raped and mutilated by Tamora’s despicable sons.
Are Tamora’s actions justified? She is a grieving mother, who had her son torn away from her. I understand why she is seeking revenge against Titus, but her refusal to protect Lavinia from the ultimate violation is just sickening.
And Titus – poor Titus! I was indifferent toward him at the beginning of the play, but every time Rome took something from him, I felt my heart soften. He cuts off his own hand in an effort to save Martius and Quintus from being wrongfully executed. And for what? For this?
Enter a Messenger with two heads and a hand.
Worthy Andronicus, ill art thou repaid
For that good hand thou sent’st the Emperor:
Here are the heads of thy noble sons,
And here’s thy hand in scorn to thee sent back.
Thy grief their sports, thy resolution mocked,
That woe is me to think upon thy woes
More than remembrance of my father’s death.
Now let hot Etna cool in Sicily,
And be my heart an everburning hell!
These miseries are more than may be borne.
To weep with them that weep doth ease some deal,
But sorrow flouted at is double death.
Ah, that this sight should make so deep a wound
And yet detested life not shrink thereat!
That ever death should let life bear his name,
Where life hath no more interest but to breathe.
[Lavinia kisses Titus.]
Alas, poor heart, that kiss is comfortless
As frozen water to a starvèd snake.
When will this fearful slumber have an end?
Lavinia kissing Titus was what really broke my already destroyed heart. She is silent, and yet her actions speak volumes.
Titus has spent his entire life fighting for Rome, and this is what he has to show for it? Twenty-five sons reduced to one, and his precious Lavinia torn to shreds.
Aaron is arguably the primary antagonist of this play, and I’m afraid that I’m not skilled enough to eloquently analyze him. But I’d like to try, so I would appreciate it if you’d bear with me. It is important to understand what exactly white people in Elizabethan England would have associated with blackness. Stereotypes such as lustful, illiterate, and violent were often applied to Africans, especially since there was an influx of African immigrants in Shakespeare’s time. So what stereotypes does Aaron fall into, and what barriers does he break?
It is difficult to understand where Shakespeare stood on these issues. On one hand, Aaron is constantly associated with sex (being Tamora’s lover), and he often uses euphemisms in his speech (for example, the repeated use of the word ‘mount’ when discussing his affair). On the other, he is clearly incredibly smart. He makes constant references to literature, and is very eloquent, despite being incredibly evil.
Aaron is a violent character, and he encourages violence. He helps guide Chiron and Demetrius in their plan to rape and mutilate Lavinia, and even by the end of the play, his only regret was that he could not have done more to ruin the others:
Art thou not sorry for these heinous deeds?
Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day – and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse –
Wherein I did not some notorious ill,
As kill a man, or else devise his death;
Ravish a maid or plot the way to do it;
Accuse some innocent and forswear myself;
Set deadly enmity between two friends;
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and haystalks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
And yet, Aaron is fiercely protective of his son. His violent nature does not really seem to leave space for paternal instincts, but they are there. Aaron is evil, but he is also incredibly complicated. He is a slave, oppressed by the Romans, looked down upon. He is also inherently evil, and yet extremely dedicated to his own. Perhaps his multi-faceted personality came as a shock to Elizabethan theatre-goers. Perhaps their perception of black men was slightly challenged – and I say slightly only because Aaron still falls into some stereotypes that were popularly believed at the time.
This play is incredibly bloody – the image of Lavinia with blood pouring out of her mouth and from the stumps where her hands used to be gave me literal nightmares – and I didn’t think it could get any worse, until this:
Why hast thou slain thine only daughter thus?
Not I; ’twas Chiron and Demetrius.
They ravished her and cut away her tongue,
And they, ’twas they, that did her all this wrong.
Go fetch them hither to us presently.
Why, they are there, both bakèd in this pie,
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
‘Tis true, ’tis true! Witness my knife’s sharp point.
Because I’m an innocent fool, I did not anticipate cannibalism playing into this story. To avenge poor Lavinia, Titus uses the blood and ground up bones of Tamora’s sons to make a pie. He stabs Tamora, Emperor Saturninus stabs Titus, and Lucius stabs Saturninus. Meanwhile, I just sat there, absolutely stunned.
Before Titus stabbed Tamora, he turned his knife on Lavinia. I was shocked, but reasoned that if I were Lavinia, I would not want to be alive in such a state. Titus meant to free both him and Lavinia from their sorrow and shame, which I can understand. Poor Lavinia, though. With no tongue, we will never know how she truly felt, and whether or not she wanted to live.
Lucius, who I see as this play’s Henry V figure, becomes Emperor. He and Marcus are all that’s left of the Andronici – as for the rest of Rome, I’d like to use a line from the very first act: “no noise, but silence and eternal sleep.”
Titus Andronicus is incredibly disturbing. Disturbing enough that it caused five people to faint at Shakespeare’s Globe in 2014. I think I could stomach it, personally, but who knows? I may just be tempted to see it if I ever get the chance.
Next month, we start with something completely different from the gory Titus Andronicus. We’ll be talking about Romeo and Juliet! Grab your tissues, and I’ll see you in a few weeks.