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Should we avert our minds when it comes to Titus Andronicus? Should we avert our minds when it comes to any horror?

In his introduction to Shakespeare the Thinker, A.D Nuttall writes about his time at a conference in Stratford, at which point he left the group and wandered through Shakespeare’s hometown, ruminating. I could not help conjure up, as I read this section around midnight while waiting for a bus, a kindly old man with white hair leaning on his walking stick. I never met the late scholar: he may have very well been kindly: he did not have white hair: and there was no mention of a walking stick. But throughout his work (written towards the end of his life) we are presented with a sentimental man. And I do not mention all of this to provide any critique of Nuttall, or to muse on a great scholar, but to provide some initial impressions to Shakespeare’s first tragedy Titus Andronicus (Titus). Nuttall spends roughly a page discussing this play, and most of that is taken up by Marlowe’s influence. Nuttall mentions the disgustingness of the play, likening it to modern film or TV, and at the end of this he writes “I wish at once to avert my mind” before shifting quickly to Love’s Labour’s Lost – which is very clever as I will show in my follow up post on Love’s Labour’s Lost. So either Titus affronts Nuttall’s sensibilities to such an extreme he cannot write about it, or, like Harold Bloom, he doesn’t consider the play worth his time. I’m inclined to believe it is the latter, except for his use of the word “avert”. Not only does he have to avert his mind, like someone stumbling upon a horrible scene (incidentally, Marcus did anything but avert his mind when he came upon Lavinia, but I’ll get to that) but he must at once avert his mind – Titus presents an immediate threat that cannot be considered. Titus presents a gut reaction that cannot be tolerated – it violates the sanctity of tragedy by eliminating catharsis! But of course I can’t claim to know the veracity of this thought because the scholar so abruptly averted his mind. Bloom is a little more detailed in his analysis of Titus, while he slightly shifts in his position, wrestling with disgust (intellectually rather than viscerally) but acknowledging fascination at times – he finally concludes with the thought.

Titus Andronicus performed an essential function for Shakespeare, but cannot do very much for the rest of us. – Bloom, Shakespeare: Invention of the Human.

So what exactly are we dealing with when it comes to Titus? For those not familiar with the play, here it is.

In a slightly fictional period of late Roman history, Titus Andronicus – great warrior and great procreator – returns to Rome with Tamora Queen of Goths, her three sons, and secret lover Aaron (the Moor) as captives. In a relatively few lines, Titus has his sons sacrifice one of Tamora’s sons: has his brother Marcus, Tribune of the People, proclaim Saturninus Emperor of Rome: pledges his daughter Lavinia to the new emperor: finds out Lavinia is in a relationship behind his back with Saturninus’ brother: kills one of his own sons for supporting this relationship: pisses everyone off. At the end of this scene Tamora swears vengeance for her dead son, but does little. It is Aaron (the Moor) who seems to take the initiative, for no more reason that he enjoys it. Iago has more motive for vengeance than Aaron does, but his character gets mixed in with Tamora’s so most people assume his acts are a reflection of her desires. It is not hard to draw such a conclusion with such lines as:

So Tamora:
Upon her wit doth earthly honour wait,
And virtue stoops and trembles at her frown.
Then, Aaron, arm thy heart, and fit thy thoughts,
To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress,
And mount her pitch, whom thou in triumph long
Hast prisoner held, fetter’d in amorous chains
And faster bound to Aaron’s charming eyes
Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus.
Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts!
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I? to wanton with this queen,
This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Rome’s Saturnine,
And see his shipwreck and his commonweal’s.
Holloa! what storm is this? (Titus II.i)

Aaron is trying to be the orchestrator of her desires because his one desire is her.
So the revenge begins with Aaron and Tamora killing Bassianus and Lavinia because they know about Tamora and Aaron (who doesn’t though?). Tamora has her two living sons – Demetrius and Chiron – stab Bassainus and kill Lavinia. They do stab Bassianus but don’t kill Lavinia. Instead they rape her and cut of her arms and tongue – you can see why Nuttall loved this play.
Next, through one of Aaron’s convoluted plots, two of three of Titus’ remaining sons are accused of killing Bassianus. Aaron tells Titus that for one of his hands he can save his sons. Titus sends his chopped off hand and a messenger sends back his hand with his sons’ heads. This prompts one of the most gruesome lines in the play:

Come, brother, take a head;
And in this hand the other I will bear.
Lavinia, thou shalt be employ’d: these arms!
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth. (Titus III.i)

Bloom points to this as clear evidence that the play is a parody. We shall see. Also, Titus’ remaining son, Lucius, is banished and goes to the Goths to raise an army.

Act IV is a strange one and can be summed up with: Aaron (the Moor) goes through great lengths to protect his (and Tamora’s) lovechild. This also prompts one of the most mature lines in Shakespeare’s works:

CHIRON
Thou hast undone our mother.
AARON
Villain, I have done thy mother. (Titus IV.2)

While this is happening, Titus – who has learned the truth about Lavinia’s rape, orchestrates a plea to the gods in the form of arrows with messages reigning down on Rome. Saturninus is none too pleased, but Tamora urges him to smooth things over because news of Lucius’ march on Rome has come. She arranged for a great feast to be held in Titus’ house. Next Act.

The one time when Tamora tries to take revenge into her own hands, she dresses herself up as Revenge, and her sons as Murder and Rape, and goes to provoke Titus in his madness. He plays along but is not fooled. He agrees to the banquet, keeps Tamora’s sons, kills them, bakes them into a pie, feeds that pie to Tamora before killing her, but not before he has killed Lavinia, Saturninus is none too pleased so he kills Titus, Lucius kills the emperor (who was not guarded?) and is the new emperor. In some editions the stage direction indicate, after Lucius killed Saturninus, “confusion follows” – because everything up to this point has been nice and calm.

The play finishes with the following speech, delivered by Lucius:

Some loving friends convey the emperor hence,
And give him burial in his father’s grave:
My father and Lavinia shall forthwith
Be closed in our household’s monument.
As for that heinous tiger, Tamora,
No funeral rite, nor man m mourning weeds,
No mournful bell shall ring her burial;
But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey:
Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;
And, being so, shall have like want of pity.
See justice done on Aaron, that damn’d Moor,
By whom our heavy haps had their beginning:
Then, afterwards, to order well the state,
That like events may ne’er it ruinate. (Titus V.iii)

Here’s the interesting part: the final four lines do not appear in the first quarto (considered the authentic version of c. 1594). They were added in the second quarto of 1600, and their validity is questionable. Still, the compositors of the third quarto, the first folio, and most subsequent editions print these final lines. Why? Probably because “Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;/And, being so, shall have like want of pity” is the worst end couplet you can find in Shakespeare. The added lines are not much better, but they are better.

To bring everything together: at first glance, we have a play that has the most gruesome act (rape): the most immature line (did you pick up on my sarcasm earlier?) and the worst final couplet – you might be able to see why Nuttall averts his mind, and Bloom dismisses the play’s value. It’s an early work – it shows where Shakespeare came from, not what he is capable of. Enough said.

But…..

There’s one thing that really intrigues me about Titus. There is an intriguing relation between parents and children in this play. Shakespeare centres a few plots on the relation of parent to child: Henry IV, Hamlet (sort of), King Lear, Tempest to name a few. Titus explores the relation in an interesting way.

I think we can agree that there is no one in the older generation in this play that is truly innocent, and not a little bit monstrous. Even Marcus, the voice of reason and sentimentality, savagely murders the fly.

MARCUS strikes the dish with a knife

What dost thou strike at, Marcus, with thy knife?

MARCUS ANDRONICUS

At that that I have kill’d, my lord; a fly.

TITUS ANDRONICUS
Out on thee, murderer! thou kill’st my heart;
Mine eyes are cloy’d with view of tyranny:
A deed of death done on the innocent
Becomes not Titus’ brother: get thee gone:
I see thou art not for my company.

MARCUS ANDRONICUS
Alas, my lord, I have but kill’d a fly.

TITUS ANDRONICUS
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!
Poor harmless fly,
That, with his pretty buzzing melody,
Came here to make us merry! and thou hast
kill’d him. (Titus III.ii)

and then of course, they launch into racism – but that is another matter. Marcus, as intent on revenge as Titus, is not above the murder of the innocent (even a fly). When it comes to their children, however, these villains are protective, and at their most genuine and sincere.

The play opens with a contrast to this idea: two brothers (Saturninus and Bassianus) argue over their father’s legacy (the crown) with no regard to the man. The first mention of the late emperor comes early enough, in line 5, but in the lines

I am his first-born son, that was the last
That wore the imperial diadem of Rome (Titus I.i)

The late emperor is reduced to the subject of his son. He is further reduced to a pronoun. We never learn the emperor’s name. Bassianus is even worse

If ever Bassianus, Caesar’s son,
Were gracious in the eyes of royal Rome (Titus I.i)

Here the father is dissolved into Rome itself. He is, as they all are, Caesar, and Bassianus is not concerned with his favour or honour, bot Rome’s. While the sons have no respect for the father, fathers (and mother) place their children (for the most part) above all. When Titus returns to Rome, he does not speak of his victories, but says:

Romans, of five and twenty valiant sons,
Half of the number that King Priam had,
Behold the poor remains, alive and dead!
These that survive let Rome reward with love;
These that I bring unto their latest home,
With burial amongst their ancestors: (Titus I.i)

Only a few moments later, we shift back to the beginning, with a son (Mutius) disrespecting his father (Titus). Yes, Mutius is probably in the right here, but he, like Bassianus, places his father below his state – and is stabbed for it.
In between Titus praising his sons and killing his son, we have Tamora’s first speech – a plea for her son:

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother’s tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O, think my son to be as dear to me!
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome,
To beautify thy triumphs and return,
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke,
But must my sons be slaughter’d in the streets,
For valiant doings in their country’s cause?
O, if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful:
Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge:
Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son. (I.i)

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We have no impression of Tamora prior to these lines, except that she is a Goth, the enemy of Rome, and is conquered. Still, it is hard not to find some sincerity in her pleas. She can swear revenge, and order to the deaths of Bassianus and Lavinia quite easily, but she is not heartless. Titus stabbed his son, but he was willing to chop of his hand to save his other two. There is a strange dichotomy between the villainy of these characters and the humanity they display when their children are in danger. Or maybe it is a synecdoche. If you are in a war, and kill an “other”: this is a casualty of war, and an unavoidable reality of the situation. If you kill your own, this is murder – a heinous crime. What is the difference in the act? Why is one so quickly brushed off and the other received with a visceral reaction? And consider the fact that we have Romans, Goths, and a Moor crammed on the same stage: and the majority of killings are by an “other.” Is Lavinia’s rape a casualty of war?

The most drastic dichotomy of character is Aaron (the Moor). He, who when asked if he is not sorry for his heinous deeds, says:

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 hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
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.’
Tut, 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. (Titus V.i)

Just a few lines before, however, he makes Lucius swear to God that his child will be safe. Why?

Stay, murderous villains! will you kill your brother?
Now, by the burning tapers of the sky,
That shone so brightly when this boy was got,
He dies upon my scimitar’s sharp point
That touches this my first-born son and heir!
I tell you, younglings, not Enceladus,
With all his threatening band of Typhon’s brood,
Nor great Alcides, nor the god of war,
Shall seize this prey out of his father’s hands.
What, what, ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys!
Ye white-limed walls! ye alehouse painted signs!
Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean
Can never turn the swan’s black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood. (Titus IV.ii)

Can we trust these lines? Tamora seems sincere in her pleas, we have seen Aaron do too much to believe this to be anything but empty rhetoric. But there is no arguing the truth in the lines. He would kill all of Rome’s children, but his child must live. This is a perversion of humanity.
In a year or so, Shakespeare will reiterate the sentiment, through Old Capulet in Romeo and Juliet:

An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;

And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in
the streets,
For, by my soul, I’ll ne’er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good: (Rom. III.v)

So long as the victim is an “other”, the limits of one can do to them is endless. The rape of Lavinia is gruesome, but Tamora does not need to feel any pity, because she is not hers. Tamora is as distant as we are: guiltless. Even Marcus reduces her to an “other” in his ekphrastic speech. He talks about Lavinia in the same way Shakespeare will later write about his mistress’ eyes and lips in Sonnet 130. Toward the end of the speech, Marcus says

Come, let us go, and make thy father blind;
For such a sight will blind a father’s eye (Titus II.iv)

He did not say that he was made blind, or overcome by sorrow – she is not his. The horror of Lavinia’s rape can only be felt by a parent. As long as there is some othering, there is safety and freedom from blame.

What are the possible consequences of these thoughts? There are two that I have touched on: the political, and the theatrical.

The political consequence is simpler. The Spanish Armada, and its defeat, was fresh in Shakespeare’s (and England’s) mind when this play was written. By great luck (let’s call it what it is), the Spanish Armada sunk and there was much rejoicing. This was a glorious victory. Who made up this Armada? Who cares? They were the enemy, and they are dead. Shakespeare was not silent about the casualties of the ordinary man in the face of the rhetoric of war. It appears as early as I Henry VI, and is reinforced in Henry V, and Hamlet. As long as we allow ourselves to be swept in the rhetoric of our state, we will continue to overlook the death, murder, and rape of the ordinary subservient people of this state. It would not be until Napoleon’s campaigns that such a notion was considered on a larger political scale – and not until WWI that was treated with any concern.

But the theatrical notion is more interesting. As audience members, we are blameless for anything that occurs on stage. We watch the tragedy in order to expel our own guilt and concerns. We seek catharsis at the cost of (albeit fictional) suffering. What does this say about us? We are able to watch Lavinia hobbling around after being raped and, some may avert their minds, but many will be fascinated as Marcus was. We see Titus plot to chop Tamora’s sons into a pie and then feed it to her and we are filled with such sadistic pleasure. They are the others, we cannot help them, so we might as well enjoy the show, right? Who are we? Marcus or Aaron?

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