on 11 July 2016
This play by Shakespeare is a founding play in his career. He will never accumulate that much physical cruelty in another play, preferring psychological or mental cruelty to such gross and even sickening horror.
One element has to be emphasized. The role of “pairs of brothers” in this play. Titus Andronicus has a brother Marcus Andronicus who plays a major role in the plot. Titus Andronicus had twenty-five sons and only four (presented as two pairs: Martius-Mutis and Lucius-Quintus) come back from war alive accompanying one dead brother to represent the twenty-one who died. Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, is Titus’s prisoner and she has three sons: Alarbus, Chiron and Demetrius. The late Emperor had two sons, and the two brothers are crucial since they want to succeed their father. They are Saturninus and Bassianus.
The play starts with the decision of Titus Andronicus to have Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus, sacrificed to pacify the spirits of his dead sons. Alarbus is then, off stage, dismembered alive and then disemboweled alive and the arms and legs, then the entrails are burned on a sacrificial pyre before the still not completely dead body of Alarbus is burned hence still alive, as a full report tells us. We can note it is close to what happened to William Wallace. This reduces the triplet to a simple pair of brothers
Titus Andronicus chooses Saturninus to succeed his father and Saturninus then announces he chooses Lavinia, Titus’s daughter, as his future wife. Titus then offers Tamora and her two remaining sons to Saturninus who decides to make Tamora his mistress, maybe more, with Lavinia’s agreement. Bassianus then declares Lavinia his betrothed and seizes her with the agreement of her brothers but against Titus’s own decision to return her to Saturninus.
But Saturninus declares Titus an accomplice in the abduction to get rid of this popular general and he announces Tamora will be his wife, hence the new empress. This should then lead to Titus being declared guilty and eliminated but Tamora pleads for him, though she is only postponing her vengeance. The end of this first act then announces two weddings: Saturninus with Tamora and Bassianus with Lavinia.
It is important to insist on the role of Aaron, the Moor as Shakespeare calls him, who is Tamora’s adviser and lover. He is obviously by his name a Jew. We can wonder what a Jew is doing with the Queen of the Goths, the northern Germanic tribes. We have also to understand we are after the diaspora imposed by the Romans in the first century after Christ and these dispersed Jews were quite able to move to Germanic tribes outside the Roman Empire itself, with even some vengeful intention. Then the name of Moor is justified in a way since for Shakespeare Moor covers all those from the south and east of the Mediterranean Sea, including black Africans, and we can even think the Turks or Ottomans are included leading to a religious meaning bringing together Judaism and Islam: strangely enough in the period when Shakespeare was living and writing the Ottoman Empire took slaves from Europe, men as prisoners of war, and women for the harems of the upper class (the most famous of these slaves could be John Smith, the pioneer who went on the 1607 expedition to what was to become Virginia. This Aaron advises Tamora’s surviving sons Chiron and Demetrius who lust for Lavinia, to rape her on the following day after the wedding ceremonies during the planned hunt in the forest.
On Aaron’s advice Tamora suggests her sons to kill Bassianus before raping Lavinia. They thus kill Bassianus on stage and take Lavinia away for the rape scene. Then Aaron devises a fake letter to have Titus’s sons Martius and Quintus accused for the murder of Bassianus and the emperor Saturninus has the two brothers sentenced to death.
Then Chiron and Demetrius bring Lavinia back. They have cut off her tongue for her not to be able to speak and cut off her hands for her not to be able to write, so that she cannot tell what happened. She is discovered by Marcus, Titus’s brother.
The third act starts with the Senate being consulted on the sentence against Martius and Quintus (note one brother of each pair as presented at the beginning of the play). The sentence is confirmed and the two brothers are taken away for execution. Lucius is banned from Rome because he tried to interfere with the execution of his brothers. It is then that Lavinia is brought in by Marcus. Then Aaron comes in to announce Saturninus has decided to commute the death sentence of Martius and Quintus if their father’s severed hand is brought to him in exchange for their life. Lucius, Titus’s eldest son, and Marcus, Titus’s brother, suggest their own hands be taken instead of Titus’s but Titus refused and Aaron helps him have his hand chopped off. After Aaron has left with Titus’s hand a messenger arrives with Martius’s and Quintus’s heads. Titus then gets into a rage and sends Lucius to the Goths to raise an army against Saturninus and Tamora.
The third act is peaceful since it only contains one symbolical murder. Marcus kills a fly and justifies his act by the fact the fly resembled Aaron. Symbolical and ironically or sarcastically cathartic.
In the fourth act Lavinia is able to reveal to Titus and Marcus the identity of her rapists by directing them to the story of Philomel in Ovid’s Metamorphosis. They put two and two together and understand the culprits are Chiron and Demetrius when she writes their names in sand with a stick between her teeth.
But in the mean time (against all possible chronological logic, Tamora is announced pregnant and she delivers a black baby who is brought by the nurse to Aaron for killing since the child cannot be the Emperor’s son. Aaron kills the nurse and leads Chiron and Demetrius into buying the white son of some countryman, Muliteus, to replace the black baby that he then sends to the Goths for safekeeping.
Some insane imbroglio involving Titus and a passing clown ends up with the clown being hanged on order from Saturninus, when it is announced that Lucius is arriving with a Goth army and is approaching the capital. Tamora pretends she can persuade Titus to withdraw Lucius from the Goth army.
The fifth act starts with Aaron and his black child being captured by Lucius who sentences them to be hanged, but Aaron exchanges the life of his son against the truth: he confesses his role in all the crimes from Bassianus to Lavinia and the role played by Chiron and Demetrius on his advice. His death sentence is confirmed.
Then a messenger from Saturninus arrives with the proposition of a parley at Titus’s house. Lucius accepts. Meanwhile Tamora and her sons, Chiron and Demetrius, come to Titus’s to convince him she is going to help him in his vengeance against Saturninus. He lets her believe he agrees and asks for her sons to stay with him. As soon as she is gone he has the two sons gagged, killed, and cooked into a meat pie he intends to serve to Tamora. Lucius arrives then with Aaron he hands over to Marcus for execution. Saturninus and Tamora arrive. Titus tells a story about a father killing his raped daughter and he just does that to Lavinia. Saturninus asks for the names of the rapists. Titus waits for the meat pie to have been honored by Tamora to reveal the identity of the meat in the pie, and he stabs Tamora. Satunrinus then kills Titus and Lucius kills Saturninus. Lucius is declared the new emperor and Titus is exonerated. Aaron is then brought up and Lucius decides he has to be buried up to the neck and abandoned to starve to death. He reveals his true nature in his opening remark before the cannibalistic banquet and in his concluding remark right at the end and before he is executed:
Some devil whisper curses in mine ear,
And prompt me that my tongue may utter forth
The venomous malice of my swelling heart!
O, 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
We can wonder if S. Clarke Hulse's count is right, that states Titus Andronicus is a play with "14 killings, 9 of them on stage, 6 severed members, 1 rape (or 2 or 3, depending on how you count), 1 live burial, 1 case of insanity and 1 of cannibalism--an average of 5.2 atrocities per act, or one for every 97 lines." (“Wresting the Alphabet: Oratory and Action in Titus Andronicus," S. CLARK HULSE in Criticism, Vol. 21, No. 2 (Spring 1979), pp. 106-118, Published by: Wayne State University Press, Stable URL: [...], Page Count: 13). But one thing is sure it is more than “aesthetic of mutilation” invoked by S. Clark Hulse. It is in totally phase and agreement with practices that were only starting to evolve in the 16th century in England. Shakespeare in later plays will be less intense in such events but systematic elimination of all contenders of a criminal situation are common in Hamlet, or Macbeth, or many other plays, even a sentimental tragedy like Romeo and Juliet with four deaths, two by sword and two by poison on stage. Even the lyrical poem Venus and Adonis is very graphic about Venus’s love for Adonis and Adonis’s death under the tusks of a wild boar, raped to death in a phallic way since he refused to be raped by Venus.
So enjoy the play.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU