The Purpose of Violence in Titus Andronicus
T.S. Eliot once said that Titus Andronicus “is one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.” This was an amusing choice of words on Eliot’s part, as one of the most disturbing scenes in the play is when Lavinia’s hands are cut off, and in fact, it is this very scene that had audience members unable to continue watching the performance when the play ran in 2014 at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London (Clark). After Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, finish killing Lavinia’s husband, Bassianus, and raping her in the forest, they cut her tongue out and her hands off, rendering her unable to identify them as her or her husband’s attackers. They leave her helpless and covered in blood. Marcus, her uncle, happens upon her in the forest, and he picks her up and takes her to Titus, who, upon seeing his daughter, is devastated. He says: But that which gives my soul the greatest spurn Is dear Lavinia, dearer than my soul. Had I but seen thy picture in this plight, It would have madded me; what shall I do Now I behold thy lively body so? Thou hast no hands to wipe away thy tears, Nor tongue to tell me who hath martyred thee. (3.1.101-107) Despite the fact that William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is categorized as a revenge tragedy and, as such, expected to be littered with blood and gore, it is said by critics of the play that it is excessively violent, with the only possible purpose that Shakespeare intended with the violence is shock value. They may even point to Lavinia’s horrific scene to prove their arguments.
However, while it does contribute to the shock value in Titus Andronicus—some drama is necessary; this is a play, after all—it is needed in the piece because it aids in achieving a greater meaning overall, as the above passage demonstrates. Logically, people who experience such a traumatic event like rape, may suffer from a decline in mental health, and perhaps slip into a deep depression. As such, victims may not want to care for themselves. They may neglect themselves in the form of the refusal to practice hygiene, eat, or sleep. The victims might feel like their voice has been taken from them and that they can’t speak out against their attackers, or if they did speak out, that they might not be believed or accused that it is their fault. Shakespeare translates this into Titus Andronicus with the mutilation of Lavinia’s body. When she is raped, her attackers steal away her innocence (she had not even consummated her marriage yet) and leave her with extremely deep emotional scars. To show this profound emotional change, Shakespeare writes that Chiron and Demetrius mutilate her body. In the above passage, Titus is quoted as saying, “Thou hast no hands to wipe away thy tears, / Nor tongue to tell me who hath martyred thee” (3.1.106-107). Lavinia is left with the inability to care for herself, or even make herself feel better as she can’t wipe away her tears or speak out against her attackers, which is how many people might feel if something so traumatic and life changing happened to them.
People who are raped do not bear their scars on their body (unless, of course, their attacker physically harms the outside of their body in some form), but instead, the pain is held on the inside. Therefore, people who look at the victim do not always know that they have been hurt and do not feel the need to treat such individuals any differently than they would a stranger off the street. As such, victims of traumatic events like rape may have the ability to emotionally recover, even if that recovery might be extremely difficult, because they do not have to suffer through the pity, shame, and rejection that they might otherwise have to face if people were visibly aware of their trauma. This is not the case for Lavinia. When Chiron and Demetrius cut off her hands and cut out her tongue, they have effectively made it possible for everyone who ever looks at Lavinia, including Lavinia herself, to see that something terrible has happened to her. It is Titus, again, who says: But that which gives my soul the greatest spurn Is dear Lavinia, dearer than my soul. Had I but seen thy picture in this plight, It would have madded me; what shall I do Now I behold thy lively body so? (3.1.101-105) Every time Titus looks at his daughter, he is reminded of the hurt and pain she has had to endure, and it causes him pain as well, or, as Shakespeare would put it, a spurning of his soul. To see her father’s reaction, as devastating as it is, causes Lavinia to weep from her shame and guilt, as most daughters probably would react from feeling so terrible at being the source of their father’s grief. In addition, people who see Lavinia will treat her differently, if they do not completely avoid her altogether, which would most likely cause her even more shame from the embarrassment and rejection, deterring any recovery process she might go through. Furthermore, every time Lavinia looks in a mirror, tries to speak, or sees her stumps where her hands are supposed to be, she will be reminded of that terribly traumatic event, rendering it virtually impossible for her to ever recover. The emotional recovery process for a traumatic event is probably a long and arduous process, made that much more difficult with the physical evidence on her body to remind her of the attack every single moment of her life. Through the violence done to Lavinia’s body, Shakespeare shows that her rape has forever changed her, and she will never be able to recover from it, as it probably happens with most people who undergo such an experience. At the very least, Shakespeare is showing the extreme uphill battle victims undoubtedly face during the recovery process.
In addition to the violence of deforming Lavinia translating on a deeper level, Shakespeare plays with political metaphor through the severing of body parts. Titus Andronicus is set in Rome, which operates under what is known as a body politic, meaning that a group of people is governed by a single person (Merriam-Webster). In Rome’s case, that head of government is called an emperor. In the beginning of Titus Andronicus, Rome is left without an emperor, and Marcus urges Titus to take over. Marcus states, “Be candidatus then, and put it on, / And help to set a head on headless Rome” (1.1.185-186). Titus refuses, handing the job over to Saturninus, which sets in motion the decline of Rome and the increase in violence throughout the play. Shakespeare, not one to miss an opportunity for word play, dismembers a total of six body parts, all belonging to citizens of Rome, throughout the duration of Titus Andronicus, and with each severed body part, he deepens this body politic metaphor. Rome is in a steady disarray in the play as Saturninus, the “head,” dismembers and kills citizens, the “body” of Rome. Near the end of the play, Shakespeare completes his body politic metaphor by killing off the head of the body of Rome. In a mirror image of the beginning of the play, Marcus seeks to unify Rome again under a new ruler, this time asking Lucius, Titus’ son, to take over as emperor. As well as mirroring Marcus’ initial request using a body metaphor at the beginning of the play that an Andronicus take the seat of the throne, Shakespeare sneaks in one last body politic joke with Marcus’ lines: You sad-faced men, people and sons of Rome, By uproars severed, as a flight of fowl Scattered by winds and high tempestuous gusts, This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf, These broken limbs again into one body. (5.3.67-72) While Marcus is speaking metaphorically about the broken state of Rome, the joke here, dark as it may be, is that the play has been strewn with severed limbs. Shakespeare is also speaking on a deeper level here concerning forgiveness using the people, or “body,” of Rome moving on from the violence and revenge that has occurred throughout Titus Andronicus and coming back together as one empire under a new governmental head.
While many people might agree with T.S. Eliot’s statement that Titus Andronicus is “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written” and argue that the violence throughout the play is excessive and unnecessary, Shakespeare was working through the blood and gore to reach a greater meaning and truth. Through Lavinia’s dismemberments, he was showing the emotional suffering people may experience when they go through traumatic events such as rape. He was also showing the extreme difficulties victims most likely face when trying to overcome such an experience. In addition, Shakespeare was using the violence in Titus Andronicus to play with the political metaphor of the body politic state that was Rome and to show that people can come together in unity after hardships and learn to forgive.
“Body Politic.” Merriam-Webster.com. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/body%20politic. Accessed 6 Feb. 2018.
Clark, Nick. “Globe Theatre takes out 100 audience members with its gory Titus Andronicus.” Independent Digital News & Media. https://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/news/globe-theatre-takes-out-100-audience-members-its-gory-titus-andronicus-9621763.html. Accessed 6 Feb. 2018
Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Edited by David Bevington. 7th ed., Pearson, 2014, pp. 966-1004.
The Complexities of Evil: The Evolution of Shakespearean Villains in Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice
A common trope found in most Shakespeare plays is that of using a character from a racial or ethnic minority as a villainous scapegoat. In his time, Shakespeare’s audiences would have been primarily white Christians, and thus any character in his plays who fell outside of these parameters made for an easily targeted “other”. By analyzing the plays Titus Andronicus and The Merchant of Venice, it becomes apparent that Shakespeare made no attempts to move away from this negative portrayal of members of minority groups, however his representation of them did improve. Shakespeare’s earliest villains such as Aaron in Titus Andronicus are two-dimensional characters who are inarguably underserving of sympathy and show virtually no signs of humanity. Later in his writing career, we see examples of far more complex villains such as Shylock in The Merchant of Venice who has clear motivation behind his actions, and has distinct moments of humanity which earns him audience sympathy. Though Shakespeare’s villains continued to be primarily members of minority groups who were easy targets to direct hatred towards, he made them much more complex in their motivations, humanity, and ability to be sympathized with.
In the first half of Titus Andronicus, Aaron delivers a soliloquy which allows the audience to gain a deeper understanding of his goals and motivations. Speaking his thoughts out loud, he reflects on Tamora’s rise to power as a result of her marriage to the Emperor of Rome, Saturnitus. He feels that this will benefit him greatly as he is Tamora’s secret lover, and believes that her new position will give him the power he needs to destroy Rome. Speaking outside of the Senatehouse, Aaron says of this advancement of his social status;
So Tamora. / Upon her wit doth earthly honor 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, fettered 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 emperess. / 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 shipwrack and his commonweal’s (Tit. 2.1.9-24).
Aaron’s expression of his desire to destroy Rome makes the audience aware that he will be the main villain of this play. In fact, though other characters do act in villainous ways, Aaron is truly the only villain as he is at least in part responsible for instigating and encouraging every single heinous act portrayed in the play. Moreover, though the audience is made aware that Aaron has this intense desire to bring about the downfall of an empire, they are never given any indication as to what his motivation for wanting to do this is. Thus, it appears that Aaron is evil for the sake of being evil, and his character need not be any more complex than that. Reflecting the societal attitude of the time, the implication also seems to be that Aaron’s black skin makes him inherently evil. This idea is reinforced in numerous instances throughout the play such as when Bassianus tells Tamora that her honour is; “Spotted, detested, and abominable” (Tit. 2.3.74), just like Aaron’s skin.
By contrast, Shylock in The Merchant of Venice has very clear motives. Though his intention of harming Antonio is quite reprehensible, the reason behind his ill-will is at least made apparent to the audience. When Antonio comes to Shylock to ask to borrow money for Bassiano, Shylock agrees to provide the loan interest-free for three months and says;
If you repay me not on such a day, / In such a place, such sum or sums as are / Expressed in the condition, let the forfeit / Be nominated for an equal pound / Of your fair flesh, to be cut off and taken / In what part of your body pleaseth me (MV 1.3.158-63).
Antonio agrees to these terms and thus, when he fails to be able to repay his debt, Shylock is entitled to one pound of his flesh. One might still view plotting to cut one pound of flesh off of someone’s body over a monetary debt as unjustifiably evil, however the debt is not Shylock’s only motivation. The two men are in fact enemies, and Antonio has been cruel to Shylock on numerous occasions with no remorse. Of this, Shylock says; “You call me misbeliever, cutthroat dog, / And spet upon my Jewish gaberdine” (MV 1.3.121-22). Antonio’s justification for this hatred and abuse is that Shylock is a Jewish money-lender who charges interest on his loans, and both his religion and occupation are inexcusable in Christian society. Shylock has been frequently scorned by Antonio, and thus he sees the opportunity to take a pound of flesh as a means of getting his revenge. While the audience may not like Shylock as a character and may still feel that his intentions are reprehensible, it is apparent that he has valid motives. This makes him a far more complex character than Aaron is, as it shows he is not villainous without a cause.
In Titus Andronicus, Aaron is written with no redeemable characteristics, and no sense of humanity. He is very aware of the fact that he is evil, and he finds joy in being that fact. After tricking Titus Andronicus into sacrificing his hand, Aaron gleefully states; “O, how this villainy / Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it! / Let fools do good and fair men call for grace; / Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (Tit. 3.1.205-8). It is apparent here that he sees his evil as one of his best virtues, and that he believes “good” behaviours to be reserved for fools. He expresses how the thought of his villainy brings him great joy and that he aspires to have a soul as dark as his face — another reference which implies that his evil tendencies are a direct result of his race, and nothing else.
The only instance where Aaron is made out to have something with a remote resemblance to humanity is when he finds out that Tamora has birthed his illegitimate child. The Nurse reveals that Tamora has ordered the baby be killed so that her husband does not find out about her infidelity, and Demetrius volunteers to be the person to carry out his mother’s wishes. Aaron takes the baby away from the Nurse and Demetrius and says;
Sooner this sword shall plow thy bowels up! / 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 firstborn son and heir. / I tell you, younglings, not Enceladus / With all his threat’ning band of Typhon’s brood, / Nor great Alcides, nor the god of war / Shall seize this prey out of his father’s hands (Tit. 4.2.91-100).
Immediately following this, he kills the Nurse in order to ensure that she cannot accidentally tell anyone about the baby. He then he reveals to Chiron and Demetrius that he will bring the child to live with a poor family in the countryside in order to save his life. At first glance, this seems to be a redeeming moment for Aaron. He feels the need to protect this child — even if that means killing Demetrius who seems perfectly willing to kill the baby — when he had previously only ever been concerned about making sure his own needs and desires were met. However, this initial impression is quite misleading as Aaron really has no concern for the infant as its own being. He makes no indication that killing the baby would be cruel because it is a human deserving of life, but instead makes it clear that his desire to save the child is because it is his “flesh and blood” (Tit. 4.2.87). Aaron’s desire to save the baby’s life is still self-serving, as he wants to ensure he has a surviving son to carry on his name and legacy. This selfishness is coupled with the fact that his choice to save one life leads him to murder the Nurse in cold blood in order to ensure no one ever finds out about his heir. These two observations make it quite clear despite this moment in which Aaron seemingly exhibits some form of humanity, he is in face wholly irredeemable.
In The Merchant of Venice on the other hand, Shylock is given moments in which he is painted as a highly sympathetic character. In arguably one of the most striking moments of the play, when Salarino asks what interest he would possibly have in taking a pound of Antonio’s flesh, Shylock responds;
To bait fish withal: if it will feed nothing else, / it will feed my revenge. He hath disgraced me, and / hindered me half a million; laughed at my losses, / mocked at my gains, scorned my nation, thwarted my / bargains, cooled my friends, heated mine / enemies; and what’s his reason? I am a Jew. Hath / not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, / dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with / the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject / to the same diseases, healed by the same means, / warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as / a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? / if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison / us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not / revenge? If we are like you in the rest, we will / resemble you in that. If a Jew wrong a Christian, / what is his humility? Revenge. If a Christian / wrong a Jew, what should his sufferance be by / Christian example? Why, revenge. The villany you / teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I / will better the instruction (MV 3.1.52-72).
This monologue reflects many of Shylock’s frustrations, not only with Antonio, but with Venetian and European society as a whole. He lists the cruel behaviour Antonio has exhibited towards him, and highlights the fact that these cruelties are based not only on the fact that he is a money lender, but primarily on the fact that he is a Jew. By saying that a Jew has eyes, organs, feelings, and all the same needs as any other person — namely Christians — he draws attention to his humanity. This destroys the audience’s ability to see him as an “other”, and forces them to see him as a person, like them in many ways. Shakespeare takes this one step further, and writes Shylock’s monologue in a way that draws comparisons between Christians and Jews. Shylock explains that if Jews and Christans are the same in all physical aspects of humanity, then it follows that they are similar in the psychological and emotional aspects of humanity. Thus, if it is permissible for a Christian to seek revenge upon a Jew who wronged him, it is as permissible for a Jew to seek revenge upon a Christian who wronged him. These physical and psychological parallels would have forced a primarily Christian audience to look at the Jewish villain and acknowledge that they shared many similarities. While this humanization of Shylock may be interpreted as Shakespeare calling into question societal views of Jews at the time this play was written, it is improbable that that was his intention. Given the overarching anti-Semitic themes in The Merchant of Venice, it seems far more likely that Shakespeare was trying to create more complex, relatable villains which would cause unrest in his audience. Though he still paints an ethnic minority as the villain in this play, he writes him as far more complex, relatable, and redeemable than had written Aaron in Titus Andronicus.
Over the course of his career, Shakespeare learned to write villains who demonstrate complexity in their motivations, humanity, and sympathetic qualities. In Titus Andronicus, Aaron is evil for the sake of being evil and is reprehensible in every aspect of his overly-simplistic being. He looks out only for his own selfish interests and is consumed entirely by his desire to cause harm. Later on, we see complexity of character such as that demonstrated by Shylock in The Merchant of Venice who has clear motivations behind his actions and has moments in which he is shown to be deeply human. Still, it is unlikely that Shakespeare was attempting to challenge societal attitudes by humanizing these characters as these later works are still littered with Eurocentric racism. Despite the fact that he still opted to paint his minority characters as evil, he learned that even the most evil characters can have thoughts and desires that stretch beyond villainy. Through this realization and the development of complex villains, Shakespeare drastically improved his writing and overall unfolding of the plot of his plays.
Women’s Body and Voice in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
Through in-depth studying and interpretation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the two voices of Lavinia and Tamora are not only visibly present to the audience, but completely different of how women’s voice were portrayed during that time in history. Lavina’s voice is depicted through her physical actions whereas Tamora’s voice is her physical speech, but uses her own power for more evil doings. Though Lavinia’s voice is affected from her bodily defects, her voice remains more powerful than Tamora’s physical speech and actions throughout the play. Not only does Lavina’s voice begin to define new rape laws, but Tamora’s character stands for barbarism, savagery, and ultimate ruthlessness. Tamora’s character plays to the opposite effect of Lavina’s especially through her sexual appetite in the play that was seen as threatening or as a masculine fear of femininity.
These issues of Tamora’s body play against her voice and to the advantage of Lavina’s. An article written by Emily Detmer-Goebel called ““The Need For Lavinia’s Voice: Titus Andronicus and the Telling of Rape”, detailed the changing laws of rape victims during the time of this play, but also highlighted how this made men more uncomfortable with the rape victim as it could have protected the rapist from the family. Before the sixteenth century, statutory rape laws stated that the “right to accuse a person of rape did not rest with the victim, but instead with her male relatives” (Detmer-Goebel, 88). As laws changed, women were expected to claim their own rape therefore the men of the family couldn’t enact revenge if they choose to remain silent creating this discomfort within the patriarchy. This discomfort illustrates that men desired, but no longer had control of a women’s language, reading, and interpretation which is seen through Lavina. The power struggle that underlies this story is that Lavina is dependent upon the males in her family to help tell her story through the usage of her physical body, but the males also are dependent on Lavina as they can’t know or revenge the rape without her consent (Detmer-Goebel 85).
Through Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare only pictures two female characters and each of them has a voice and the use of it in their distinct ways. Tamora, the other female character, has an opposite purpose for her voice. She pushes Aaron, her lover for sex in Act II, Scene ii where he then refers to her as Venus which is the Greek goddess associated with sexual desire. After Tamora and her lover are caught in the act by Lavina who almost taunts her, she decides to let her sons take her away to rape her. Lavina compares her future attackers to tigers, lions, and ravens. Ravens are usually connected with moral blackness or even the word itself (ravenishing) can mean ‘devouring’. Her words almost coincide with what is about to occur to her body. As Lavina begs for forgiveness of her Father from Tamora, Tamora harshly states, “The worse to her, the better loved of me” (Shakespeare 167). Tamora’s words are powerful and directly go against the only other female in this play. Lavina points out this exact issue through her words, “No grace? No womanhood? Ah, beastly creature, The blot and enemy to our general name” (Shakespeare 182-183). These lines are a direct aim at the clear difference in the two women’s voices. Lavina tells her that she is an enemy of the reputation of all womanhood.
Some of her last words that Shakespeare writes her shows a bigger issue of voice especially through this time period and in today’s culture. While there is limited females in this play, Tamora goes against the only same sex character leaving Lavina vulnerable and helpless. Though these lines shows Tamora’s significant power within the play, it doesn’t necessarily show how well she uses that feminine voice. By the end of Lavinia’s last plead she remarks “Confusion fall -” before her entire speech is cut off by Chiron who covers her mouth. These last words give a horrific foreshadowing to what will become of her voice. The word “confusion” can have the perception of ruin, putting to shame, mental distress, or throwing into disorder which all happen to Lavinia due to the voice Tamora holds within the scene. These final two words show a shift in the authority of her voice. Without her actual speech, Lavinia must find a way to have “voice” through her physical body which fluctuated her power. Through Act II, Tamora shows her wickedness and extreme brutality against Lavinia and womanhood as she encourages her sons to rape Lavinia for revenge. As her sons cut off her tongue and hands, they not only humiliate her, but revoke any source of communication for her to confess her own rape to her father. Lavinia may be lacking the ability to form or write words with hands, she still uses her physical being in the beginning of Act IV to reveal her rape. The stage notes read “she takes the staff in her mouth, and guides it with her stumps, and writes” (Shakespeare 76). With her body, Lavinia is able to break her ‘silence’, but is still silenced by the men of her family. Immediately following the reveal, they command, “Lavinia, kneel,” to make her swear to enact revenge against her rapists (Shakespeare 87). This line brings the last screeching halt to Lavinia’s voice. Lavinia fought through the danger and embarrassment of revealing her rape to only have the remaining power of punishment taken from her. Through the statutory rape laws discussed in the article by Detmer-Goebel, Lavinia should have been able to pick whether she wanted to have her father seek revenge or punishment within a courtroom. As the readers eventually reads, she is given no choice and killed by Titus because of his ‘mercy’. The little power Lavinia had left by the means of her own body was eventually taken away by her own father. She fights to keep her voice, but finds herself ultimately paralyzed by masculine decisions.
So how does voice and body exactly relate to Tamora’s character in comparison to Lavinia’s? Tamora’s voice is primarily seen throughout the use of her body just in a more sexual manner in the play. Deborah Willis through a journal article she wrote called “The gnawing vulture: Revenge, Trauma Theory, and Titus Andronicus” details that Tamora is centered around sexuality and barbaric actions in the play. Tamora tries to make her body a presence on stage as a piece of her “voice”, but was almost distracted by her own sexuality. Willis argues that Tamora was written as a sexual character to show how the use of her body could be used for revenge and connects her entire family to one another between herself, her lover, and her rapist sons (Willis 39). Willis explains how Tamora’s sexuality works to get what she most desires and how that is the “voice” we see projected from the character during the play. As Tamora uses her voice to tell Lavinia that she “cannot rob her sweet sons of their fee”, she is then able to immediately find her lover (Shakespeare 179). By pushing Lavinia towards her rape, it creates this twisted purpose for herself and her own family. Tamora may seem more powerful in her voice throughout the story, but purely through her sexuality. To an audience of Shakespeare’s time, this could have been seen more as a prostitute than a women’s freedom of their sexuality. Lavinia, on the other hand, uses her body in the opposite way by opposing to the sexual acts that were forced upon her body. This not only shows the difference in the use of female body, but how power shifts through one’s own sexuality and unwanted sexual acts. Tamora is seen on stage as a women who uses her sexuality for power against others, while Lavinia’s use of body brings about an almost persuasive presence that warns women against using their sexuality.
Shakespeare’s only two depicted female characters in Titus Andronicus are not only highly debated to this day, but show a huge difference in using body for voice on stage and still in society today. Through the lines of Titus Andronicus, Lavinia knows she is about to be “ravished”, but begs for death over rape. Her body in the latter scenes reflect how brutal her rape was, but also calls into question how her body still serves as her voice in its entirety. Tamora, nonetheless, encourages the rape and finds her power through her body’s use of sexuality. Through the society that this play was written, women and sexuality were something not encouraged and who claimed their rape was being called into subject. Titus Andronicus definitely served the purpose of voice during a weird transition in history. Not only was a women’s voice a common theme in that era, but it continues to create an issue in today’s society making it more relevant than ever.
Detmer-Goebel, Emily. “The Need for Lavinia’s Voice: Titus Andronicus and the Telling of Rape.” Shakespeare Studies, vol. 29, 2001, pp. 75-88.
Shakespeare, William, and Jonathan Bate. Titus Andronicus. ser. 3rd, The Arden Shakespeare, 2015.
Willis, Deborah. “‘The gnawing vulture’: Revenge, Trauma Theory, and Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, 2002, pp. 21-32.
The Silencing of Women in Titus Andronicus and Jane Eyre
To what extent do literary texts silence the voices of women? Discuss with reference to William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1589-94) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847).
Through questioning the extent to which literary texts silence female voices without particularising time period or genre, the title question allows critics to provide their own specifications. Theorists such as Sharon Wilson and Jack Zipes argue that fairy tales are ‘the foundation of literary forms’,  and I believe that this makes the genre an interesting place to examine the silencing of women generally. Therefore throughout this essay, I will argue that William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus (1589-94) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1847), utilise evolved forms of traditional fairy tale conventions, and that the extent to which women’s voices are silenced/amplified within the texts comes through adherence and lack thereof to these conventions. Numerous academics have suggested that fairy tales act to silence women, so logically the text which most reflects norms of the genre will most silence women. Revenge, the focal theme of Titus Andronicus, (1589-94), and the motivation for the majority of the play’s action, also acts to link it with the fairy tale genre; Maria Tatar contends that fairy tales ‘delighted in the possibilities of describing divine revenge’, and Katherine Roberts asserts that ‘[fairy tale] justice is primarily retributive’. The nature of revenge enacted on the characters of Lavinia and Tamora particularly, within Titus Andronicus is telling of the silencing of women, with both of their ‘punishments’ being reliant on gender roles. The assault of Lavinia by Chiron and Demetrius is a crucial point within Titus Andronicus. In both the play’s Roman setting, and Shakespeare’s Elizabethan era, societal norms dictated that women remained chaste; indeed, Lavinia is described in terms of chastity throughout, (‘this minion stood upon her chastity’, ‘nice preserved honesty’, ‘some Tereus hath deflowered thee’). In taking this from her, her rapists take the majority of her identity, transforming her instead into the ‘innocent persecuted heroine’ archetype, common within the fairy tale genre from which it emerged. By reducing Lavinia’s character to this trope, she becomes anonymised, and thus silenced. Furthermore, by physically silencing Lavinia through removing her tongue – which Lori Schroeder notes is emphasised by Marcus’ soliloquy upon finding her – she is initially unable to identify her rapists, and as often occurs to wronged females in fairy tales, she ‘is obliged to bear the responsibility for sexual violation’. Moreover, once Lavinia has identified her rapists, Titus murders her, indicating that once ‘ravaged’ her only purpose was helping him achieve vengeance for her lost virtue. Comparatively, the retribution inflicted upon Tamora exploits the maternal gender role. Motherhood is stripped from her through her sons’ murders, the trauma of which is intensified through her unknowing participation in cannibalising them. As much as Lavinia personifies chastity, ‘Tamora is an intense embodiment of motherhood’; depriving her of this deprives her of her womanhood, socially supressing her. Similarly, Jane Eyre can also be regarded as subscribing to fairy tale conventions, with Jane’s rise from orphan to nobleman’s wife reflecting the ‘rags to riches’ narrative; ‘fairy tales trace a development from … from punishment to reward… the dissolution of one nuclear family to the formation of a new one’. However, the influence of early Feminism on Brontë is evident; far from behaving as the ‘innocent persecuted heroine’, Jane takes on the conventionally masculine hero role, where ‘from an initial position of social inferiority, the heroes recover their social status while at the same time putting brides in their proper places’. Certainly, from even Rochester and Jane’s initial encounter, he is unconventionally presented as being reliant on her, having injured himself. Jane ‘saves’ him during the fire in his bedroom, and when she leaves Thornfield, Rochester is blinded, suggesting a helplessness without her. Indeed, academics such as Covert have argued that Jane acts as both a moral and physical saviour. This analysis, far from reading Jane as being ‘silenced’, suggests Jane has a strong, narrative voice, positioning her as not only equal to Rochester, but superior. However, researchers such as Carl Plasa, Andrew Bennett, and Nicholas Royle, have noted that regardless of whether Jane is silenced, Bertha, Rochester’s apparently mentally ill first wife, is inevitably more silenced as a racially other woman. Creole Bertha is dehumanised throughout the novel; when describing Bertha to Rochester, Jane uses the non-human pronoun ‘it’, and describes her as a ‘vampyre’. This description generates connotations of the folkloric ‘succubus’ to exploit and reinforce the ‘unchaste Creole woman’ empire stereotype, dismissing Bertha as being a ‘drain’ on the empire, as a succubus was said to ‘drain’ men’s health and sexuality. In Titus Andronicus also, the silencing of ethnic minority women is relevant. Similarly to Brontë’s dehumanisation of Bertha, Shakespeare uses animalistic imagery in describing ‘enemy of Rome’ Tamora; her son is murdered sacrificially, as if he is an animal, she is described as a ‘tiger’, ‘raven’, and ‘lion’, and her body is discarded in the wilderness, to be consumed by animals. The effect of this is a conveyance of Eurocentrism; since she is not from ‘civilised’ Rome, Tamora isn’t human. By dehumanising Tamora, Shakespeare renders her unsympathetic. Thus, though literary critics can empathise with the actions of Titus, blaming his murders on grief over Lavinia’s rape, or suggesting that – as Titus Andronicus is a renaissance play – his ‘hamartia’ is responsible, they rarely afford the same empathy for Tamora’s actions; her motivations are silenced. Dehumanising Tamora also means that though the rape of Roman Lavinia is presented as a horrific act, when the young male character of ‘boy’ encourages the rape of Tamora – ‘their mother’s bedchamber should not be safe’ – he is applauded by Marcus. Tamora, despite having been widowed by the Romans, abducted by the Romans, and having had her son murdered by the Romans, is dismissed as a ‘Machiavellian and monstrous monarch’. Within both texts, the process of dehumanising ‘racial others’, can be seen as an evolution of the fairy tale genre; where previously literal animals acted as villains, (bears, wolves, etc.), in Jane Eyre and Titus Andronicus, Bertha and Tamora assume the roles of the ‘non-human’ antagonists. In writing this essay, I aimed to consider how Brontë and Shakespeare utilised conventions of the fairy tale within their work, and how this affected the extent to which women were silenced within their respective texts. Within Titus Andronicus, women are silenced through means of revenge – a common fairy tale motif – which rely on feminine norms of virginity and motherhood; Jane Eyre, uses a traditional fairy tale narrative but challenges the notion of masculine heroes rescuing feminine damsels, and amplifies women’s voices through its use of a female main character. Both writers use tactics of dehumanisation to silence women who fall outside of a contemporary Eurocentric view of the world, with Brontë referencing a folkloric creature to do so, and Shakespeare describing his ‘racial other’ in terms of animals. Both of these literary devices leave the characters comparable to the non-human villains of traditional fairy tales. Conclusively, that Titus Andronicus is more conformative to fairy tale conventions than Jane Eyre, and that women are silenced to a much higher extent within the play, must be recognised. However, it should also be recognised that both texts silence racially other women, indicating that whilst Charlotte Brontë may be slightly more unwilling to silence British women through fairy tale conventions, ‘the foundation of all literary forms’ does indeed still provide a foundation for Brontë’s limited ‘amplification’ of women overall.
The Absence of True Justice in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
Many scholars and critics alike view Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, believed by many to be his first tragedy, as an emulation of the bloody, gory revenge plays that were prominent and popularized during the sixteenth century. The play’s plot is driven entirely by revenge; when one of the characters is wronged, he or she immediately turns towards revenge to obtain a solution, which continues cyclically throughout the entirety of the play. Sir Francis Bacon once called revenge, “a kind of wild justice;” however, it is not justice that the characters of Titus Andronicus seek. Justice provides balance, is achieved through logic, is neutral, and leads to closure. Revenge, on the other hand, provides injury, is achieved through emotion, is driven by egocentrism, and cyclically leads to more revenge. With these definitions in mind, revenge becomes the antithesis of justice, and, through close analysis of Tamora’s and Titus’ responses to tragedy, it becomes readily apparent that the characters of Titus Andronicus are ultimately seeking revenge, not “wild justice.”
Justice restores balance, whereas revenge is meant to cause pain and injury to others, whether it be physically or emotionally. Throughout the entirety of Titus Andronicus, characters are plotting to physically harm one another in order to gain retribution for others’ wrongdoings. The first instance the readers see of this occurs in the very first scene. After returning from battle with Tamora and her sons in tow, Titus states that her eldest son, Alarbus, must be sacrificed (1.1.102-103). At this, Tamora begins to cry, falling to her knees and begging Titus to spare her son (1.1.104-120). However, Titus proceeds with the sacrifice, and Alarbus is slain, beginning this play’s cycle of revenge. After becoming the soon-to-be emperor, Saturninus’, fiancé, Tamora begins plotting: I’ll find a day to massacre them all, And raze their faction and their family, The cruel father and his traitorous sons To whom I sued for my dear son’s life, And make them know what ‘tis to let a queen Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain (1.1.447-452). Through her use of the word “massacre,” the reader can infer that Tamora fully intends to hurt, and most likely murder, Titus and his family, rooting her plot for revenge in pain and injury. She does not solely want Titus to feel the emotional toll of having a child killed; she also wants him to be physically and quite bloodily harmed, proving that she is after revenge as opposed to justice.
This notion of revenge rooted in pain and injury carries through the entire play and therefore can be seen again in the fifth act. Similar to Tamora, Titus also plots revenge enriched with harm when he faces Demetrius and Chiron, Tamora’s sons, who raped and mutilated Lavinia, his only daughter. After convincing Tamora, dressed as “Revenge,” to let her sons stay with him after she exits, Titus binds and gags them and invites Lavinia into the room with a basin (5.2.159-160). After grabbing a knife, Titus delves into a monologue, part of which becomes fairly gory: “This one hand yet is left to cut your throats, / Whiles thet Lavinia ‘tween her stumps doth hold / The basin that receives your guilty blood” (5.2.180-183). Here, Titus makes Demetrius and Chiron fully aware that he is about to mercilessly murder them. He is not only carrying out this revenge to make amends for the crimes committed against Lavinia but also specifically to cause them pain. Having them imprisoned and punished is not enough; he wants to see them in physical pain and ultimately death, a want that only revenge can provide.
Justice is achieved through logic and reason, whereas revenge is driven purely by emotion. In many tragedies, characters are motivated purely by emotion, and Titus Andronicus is not an exception. Throughout the entire play, the characters, especially Tamora and Titus, act on emotion and impulses, not logic and rationality. One of the most glaring examples of this can be seen when Tamora decides to dress up as “Revenge” in order to get into Titus’ study (5.2.2-8). After she enters, Titus immediately recognizes it is Tamora; however, she attempts to ease his alarm: I am not Tamora. She is thy enemy, and I thy friend. I am Revenge, sent from th’infernal kingdom To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind By working wreakful vengeance on thy foes (5.2.28-32). After multiple attempts, Tamora believes she has finally convinced Titus that she is “Revenge” and her sons are “Rape” and “Murder.” However, after a bout of clever acting on his part, Titus reveals his true thoughts and intentions in an aside towards the audience before Tamora exits the stage, stating, “I knew them all, though they supposed me mad, / And will o’erreach them in their own devices – / A pair of cursed hell-hounds and their dam” (5.2.142-144). Through this quote, Titus is letting the audience know that he is fully aware that it is Tamora and her sons in his room, not “Revenge,” “Rape,” and “Murder,” however, he is going to play along so that Tamora will leave her sons alone with him and he can exact his revenge. In this scene it becomes apparent that in order to get revenge on Titus, Tamora completely disregards any logic and reason and relies solely on her main emotion: anger. This blinds her better judgment and causes her to follow through with an ineffective plan, which ultimately results in her sons’ murders.
However, it is not only Tamora who is driven by emotion when attempting to get revenge. When Titus finally gets Demetrius and Chiron alone, he begins plotting his revenge on both them for raping and mutilating Lavinia and on their mother for killing Quintus and Martius, two of his many sons. In order to hurt Demetrius, Chiron, and Tamora simultaneously, Titus devises a plan and declares it in a monologue: 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 dam, Like to the earth swallow her own increase. This is the feast that I have bid her to And this the banquet she shall surfeit on (5.2.185-192). In this excerpt, Titus explains that in order to exact his revenge, he is going to kill and bake Demetrius and Chiron and serve them to their mother. Logic and reason cannot be found anywhere in this plot for revenge; it is driven entirely by emotion. There is no logical reason why two men should be killed, baked into pastries, and served to their mother, no matter what wrongdoing or how much pain they caused. Additionally, there is no logical reason why a mother should be subjected to eating her sons; however, Titus follows through with this plot regardless, revealing the heads of Tamora’s two dead sons as she eats the pastries made from their bodies: Why, there they are, both baked in this pie, Whereof their mother daintily hath fed, Eating the flesh that she herself half bred. ‘Tis true, ‘tis true, witness my knife’s sharp point (5.3.59-62). After delivering these final lines, Titus stabs Tamora, which inevitably leads her husband, Saturninus, to stab and kill him. Titus has faced so much death and tragedy throughout the course of this play, by the final act he is no longer acting in accordance with logic and reason but instead is relying on his emotions and impulses, leading to his death and culminating in revenge, not justice.
Justice is neural and impartial, whereas revenge is driven by egocentrism. When one strives to obtain justice, he or she is not motivated by any outside force; the main goal is to restore balance. However, revenge is almost always driven through self-interest and self-satisfaction, as it is for both Tamora and Titus. The first example of this facet of revenge can be seen in Act One when Tamora is delivering her aside to her husband, Saturninus. After explaining that she is going to “massacre” Titus and his family, she additionally states how she wants to affect their emotions, saying “And make them know what ‘tis to let a queen / Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain” (1.1.451-452). Tamora wants revenge for the sacrifice of her son, Alarbus; however, she also wants revenge due to the fact that Titus subjects her to public humiliation. She was once a powerful queen but is now being forced to beg and plead. She does not want revenge for her son’s life, as one may believe, but for her own reputation and prestige, proving that her vision of revenge is rooted in self-interest.
Similar to Tamora, many of Titus’ motivations behind his plots for revenge lie in egocentrism as well. After binding and gagging Demetrius and Chiron, his daughter’s rapists and mutilators, he begins a monologue in which he reprimands these two men and details how he is going to get revenge (5.2.171-192). After explaining to Demetrius and Chiron that he is going to bake them into pastries and feed them to their mother, he reveals his true motives behind getting revenge, stating, “For worse than Philomel you used my daughter / And worse than Progne I will be revenged” (5.2.193-194). After his entire monologue detailing how Demetrius and Chiron harmed his daughter, Titus utters these two lines, and it becomes readily apparent that he wants revenge for himself. The first glimpse that the readers get of Titus’ real motives behind revenge lies within the phrase “my daughter.” He could have said, “you used Lavinia;” however, as opposed to addressing her by name and giving her agency, he refers to her as “my,” or his, establishing her first and foremost as a possession. He then goes on to state, “I will be revenged,” blatantly asserting that it is he who needs the avenging, not his raped and mutilated daughter. Both claiming her as a possession and proclaiming that he is the one that needs to be “revenged” prove that his idea of revenge is rooted entirely in self-interest.
Justice leads to closure, whereas revenge leads to a never-ending cycle of more revenge. This is the ultimate reason that Titus Andronicus is a revenge tragedy, as opposed to a story of justice. The play’s entire plot is driven exclusively by revenge. The first conflict that arises is the sacrifice of Alarbus, Tamora’s son (1.1.102-103). After this sacrifice, Tamora wants revenge on Titus and his family not only for killing her son but also for subjecting her to public humiliation (1.1.447-452). She gets this revenge by employing Aaron, her lover, to create a plot in which Titus’ sons, Quintus and Martius, look as if they killed Bassianus., the Emperor’s brother (2.3.268-280). This plan works and Quintus and Martius are sent to await execution (2.3.301-303). Tamora then employs Aaron to tell Titus that his sons’ lives can be spared if he severs his own hand (3.1.150-156). After doing so, the stage directions state that a messenger enters with two heads, a hand, and a message: Worthy Andronicus, ill art thou repaid For that good hand thou sent’st the Emperor. Here are the heads of thy two noble sons, And here’s thy hand in scorn to thee sent back – Thy grief their sports, thy resolution mocked (3.1.233-237). Through this plot, Tamora gets her revenge both by killing two of Titus’ sons and, with Aaron’s help, trick Titus into severing his own hand. Because revenge is cyclical, Tamora’s revenge on Titus leads Titus to plot revenge on Tamora. Not only does Titus want revenge for the death of his sons and the loss of his hand, he also wants revenge for the rape and mutilation of his daughter, Lavinia, by Tamora’s two sons, Demetrius and Chiron. He achieves both of these goals by killing Tamora’s sons, baking them into pastries, and serving them to her at a banquet (5.3.59-62). He then kills Tamora, which causes Saturninus, her husband, to kill Titus as an act of revenge, which then causes Lucius, one of Titus’ sons, to kill Saturninus as an act of revenge. This all sounds very mechanical and recurrent but serves a purpose in illustrating the repetitive essence inherent in revenge. The play begins with one death, the sacrifice of Alarbus, and ultimately culminates in a grand total of fourteen deaths, nearly all due to the cyclical nature of revenge.
Revenge and justice are terms often used interchangeably; however, by analyzing why and how each is achieved, it becomes apparent that they are conflicting ideas. Justice is balanced, logical, neutral, and definite; Revenge is harmful, emotional, egocentric, and cyclical. Sir Francis Bacon once called revenge, “a kind of wild justice.” With this definition in mind, one could argue that Titus Andronicus is a play embedded in fervent justice. However, close analysis of the differences between revenge and justice and the characters of Tamora and Titus, Titus Andronicus becomes a true revenge tragedy, rooted in vengeance and retaliation as opposed to justice.
Aaron and Othello: Shakespeare’s Moorish Characters
While certain of William Shakespeare’s plays have so ingrained themselves into popular culture as to be ubiquitous, others are rarely performed or read and are, in fact, largely ignored. Shakespeare’s Othello, one of the former, and Titus Andronicus, one of the latter, are vastly different plays in setting and style, but their subject matter is much more similar than it first appears. Othello’s titular character is famously a Moor and generally depicted as black, despite debate over what exactly Shakespeare meant by “Moor.” Titus Andronicus also features a Moorish character, Aaron, but his characterization brings to mind more of Iago’s villainy than any traits of Othello’s. The ten-year separation between the writing of the two plays seems to have brought about an abrupt shift in Shakespeare’s characterization of the Moor, but the impact that this shift has on the differing notions of race and otherness within both works is immensely complex. The characterization of Aaron in Titus Andronicus and Othello differ with regards to notions of masculinity, inherent barbarity, and animalism, but both plays highlight the “otherness” of their Moorish characters. In addition, both plays have strangely warped timelines and duration, which, although quite possibly mere coincidence, also contributes to the othering of Aaron and Othello.
Although Aaron of Titus Andronicus and Othello are both most certainly Moorish characters, what is meant by “Moorish” is not abundantly clear. As Emily Bartels establishes in the introduction to her work “Making More of the Moor,” the term was used during the Renaissance interchangeably with a variety of other racially ambiguous words “to designate a figure from different parts or the whole of Africa (or beyond) who was either black or Muslim, neither, or both” (434). Much of early criticism on Othello denied that the character could be black (448) and was instead intended to be Arabic, but racial epithets hurled at Othello focus on blackness; Iago refers to him as “an old black ram” (1.1.88). Aaron’s skin color is also fixated upon throughout Titus Andronicus. He himself states that he “will have his soul black like his face,” while “a black ill-favoured fly” reminds Marcus and Titus painfully of “the Empress’ Moor,” Aaron (3.1.204, 3.2.65-66). Both Aaron and the other characters in the play constantly call attention to skin color, but in Othello, Iago is the instigator of nearly all racial language (Bartels 447-48). Shakespeare’s Moorish characters are both black, and skin color plays heavily into the larger issue of power, and where it lies.
Titus Andronicus, the earlier of the two plays, depicts a much more heavily stereotyped “barbarous” black character in Aaron, who is unabashedly and undeniably evil, than does Othello. Aaron “is the one character in this play whose malignant differentness is consistently recognized and easily categorized by all, including himself and his allies,” (Bartels 442) and indeed his malignancy is practically his only personality trait. Aaron, much like Othello’s Iago, exemplifies the brooding villain, often revealing his schemes to the audience through monologues or asides. Joseph Porter notes Aaron’s similarity with Iago in his linguistic examination of the texts, “Belleforest’s ‘Vn Escalue More’ and Othello.” He appears alone in 2.1 and summarizes the action of the first act, afterwards revealing his sexual intention “to wanton with” and “mount aloft with [Tamora],” newly made empress of Rome (2.1.1-25). The lewdness of his lines here are typical of his racially charged depiction as a scheming villain, almost cartoonish to a modern audience. This near-cartoonish effect, however, is banished shortly thereafter when Aaron orders Demetrius and Chiron to “serve [their] lust, shadowed from heaven’s eye, / And revel in Lavinia’s treasury,” that is, to rape and mutilate Titus’ daughter (2.1.131-132). Aaron strews destruction across Rome and across Titus Andronicus, but “that [he] had not done a thousand more [heinous deeds] / Even now [he] curses the day” (5.1.124-125). Titus Andronicus is a play concerned with subverting sympathies and uprooting normalcy, but in its depiction of Aaron, it firmly cements a racial stereotype (Bartels 442). Shakespeare’s initial depiction of a Moorish character is one of undeniable and stereotypical barbarity and differs heavily from Othello, whose Moorish character is much more ambiguously depicted.
Barbarity is far less racially cut-and-dry in Othello. Far from a barbarous figure, Othello is educated and worldly, and woos Desdemona with tales of his travels. However, much of the critical discourse surrounding the play is concerned with the ease with which Othello is persuaded to “monstrous thought and action,” as Emily Bartels puts it (448). “Valiant Othello,” as the Duke of Venice calls him, tells such compelling tales of his life and travels that Desdemona “with a greedy ear / Devours up [his] discourse” and “loved [him] for the dangers [he] had passed” (1.3.48, 148-49, 166). This is not a picture of a barbarous man, but Iago in his jealousy associates him with a devil (2.1.221), and thus with barbarity. In private, Iago turns Brabantio and Roderigo against Othello using racial associations with devils and “black rams,” but at court, where “at the least [Othello’s] martial prowess takes precedence over race … Iago knows better than to demonize the Moor” (Bartels 448-449). Barbarity, here, is far less strongly associated with the play’s Moorish character than in Titus Andronicus. In addition, the idea that Othello has some inherent barbarism that eases Iago’s persuasion is refuted by Iago himself, who admits that Othello “is of a free and open nature / That thinks men honest that but seem to be so” (2.1.381-82). Although he claims to Roderigo that “these Moors are changeable in their wills,” implying Iago’s belief in Othello’s racial inferiority, Iago preys upon Othello’s apparently trusting nature, weakening the already faint association between Moors and barbarism (1.3.339). The contrast between the brave general Othello and the man who so easily falls prey to Iago’s deception draws attention to Othello’s otherness (Bartels 448) but he is less overtly othered by simple barbarism, as is Aaron in Titus Andronicus.
Although similar to or perhaps simply a subcategory of barbarism, animalism is a separate trait associated with Moorish characters in both Othello and Titus Andronicus, and the language of animal traits merits a separate examination. The animalistic language used in both plays is more similar than that of barbarism, but is still distinct. Joseph Porter engages with the language of bestial traits in his article concerning the phrase “I took by the throat the circumcised dog,” present in Othello but not in Titus Andronicus, despite the fact that both works have Moorish characters, to whom the epithet is applied, and that the epithet originates in Titus’ source text (Porter 194). Despite this omission, the language of animalism is present elsewhere. As previously mentioned, Aaron is associated with “a black ill-favoured fly” that Marcus swats, and Titus is enraged at this waste of life until Marcus brings to mind the Moor, at which point Titus asks for a knife, intending to “insult on him, / Flattering [himself] as if it were the Moor” (3.2.66-72). Additionally, although “circumcised dog” is absent from Titus Andronicus, Lucius compares Aaron to an “inhuman dog,” as well as a “ravenous tiger” (5.3.14, 5). Aaron’s method of execution also brings to mind the animal kingdom; he is buried “breast deep in earth,” head emerging from the ground like a worm, until he dies of dehydration, starvation, or exposure (5.3.178-182). In animalism, as in barbarism, Aaron’s association with such traits is somewhat simpler than Othello’s, and he is a more obvious racial stereotype of a Moor.
The language of bestial traits, like that of barbarism in Othello, is largely found in the mouth of Iago, and typically in private or in asides. As Joseph Porter notes in his short work concerning the source text of Titus Andronicus, words and phrases from this source filter into Shakespeare’s Othello ten years later, particularly the epithet “circumcised dog” (Porter 195). Aside from this particular phrase on which Porter focuses, Othello is compared to “an old black ram” and is accused of being as willing “to tenderly be led by th’ nose / As asses are,” (1.1.88, 2.1.383-384). Iago, of course, utters both of these epithets. However, in the third act it might be said that Iago’s words begin to creep outwards to Othello himself, who “had rather be a toad / And live upon the vapour of a dungeon / Than keep a corner in the thing I love / For others’ uses,” that is, Desdemona’s love (3.3.274-277). Whether or not caused by association with Iago, Othello’s shift here to comparing himself to a toad is representative of his ongoing descent into jealous fever. Iago’s use of bestial and racial insults in private, although typically disapproved of in court, helps to turn other characters, like Brabantio and Roderigo, against Othello (Bartels 449). Compared to animalistic language in Titus Andronicus, it is significant that such speech is limited to Iago’s private moments alone or with specific other characters, and its effect is to less overtly associate Othello with the animal while still using this association to aid his downfall.
Ever-present in Shakespeare’s plays, as well as Renaissance literature in general, is the obsession with cuckolding and masculinity, which of course intersects with depictions of race in Titus Andronicus. Although Othello is perhaps more concerned with issues of sexuality and masculinity, as suspicions of adultery drive the plot, such issues are also present in Titus Andronicus. Unlike Othello, who is convinced he is a cuckold, Aaron does the cuckolding in Titus. Tamora, with whom Aaron conducts an adulterous affair, compares their illicit romance to that of Dido and Aeneas. She begs Aaron to lie with her amidst the “yellowing noise” of the ongoing hunt in Act 2, Scene 3, as “the wand’ring prince and Dido once enjoyed / When with a happy storm they were surprised / And curtained with a counsel-keeping cave” (2.3.20-24). Further proof of Tamora’s liaisons with Aaron comes with the birth of her child, which the nurse delivers to Aaron and describes as “a joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful issue / … as loathsome as a toad” (4.2.66-67). The child, obviously, does not belong to Tamora’s husband, Saturninus, but to Aaron. Although Aaron has henceforth had little regard for human life, he murders the nurse and presumably the midwife to protect the life of his illegitimate child (4.2.140-167). In a turn somewhat incongruous with his previous characterization, Aaron spends the final act of the play carrying his infant son. This image of parent and child is commonly associated with femininity, somewhat upending Aaron’s hyper-masculine, adulterous image. In Titus Andronicus, he who cuckolds the emperor is in turn feminized by the result of his own adultery, his child.
Masculinity is, as with many of these traits, much more complex in Othello. Iago preys on Othello’s fear of being cuckolded, which is the essential driver of the plot. Sexuality, and by extension masculinity, in Othello is an issue of power, just as race is also an issue of power (Bartels 447). Iago convinces Othello that he is a cuckold, but at the same time Iago’s private speech about Othello is hyper-sexualized, part of the Moorish stereotype that Iago attributes to Othello. Iago is convinced that “’twixt [his] sheets / [Othello] has done [Iago’s] office,” that is, had extramarital sex with Iago’s wife, Emilia (2.1.169-170). This, coupled with the fact that Othello has chosen Cassio for his lieutenant, affronting Iago’s masculinity, has lead him to “hate the Moor” (2.1.168). Iago’s insecure masculinity leads him to prey upon Othello’s equally insecure masculinity, of which Iago is well aware. Othello woos Desdemona with his worldliness and tales of his travels, not with “loveliness in favour, sympathy in years, manners, and beauties, all which the Moor is defective in,” according to Iago (2.1.223-225). Iago is not the only character obsessed with Othello’s sexuality and masculinity; Brabanzio, Desdemona’s father, is also deeply concerned with Othello’s sexual conduct. He claims that Othello must have Desdemona “in chains of magic … bound” for her to have married him (1.2.66) and he is outraged at the idea that she has lost her virginity to Othello, even though he is her lawful husband. Masculinity, it appears, is a toxic cycle. Iago perceives a threat to his masculinity and power and in turn convinces both Brabanzio and Othello of threats to their power, Brabanzio of the threat to his daughter and Othello that to his wife.
Finally, and most tangentially, the representation of the passage of time in both Shakespeare’s Othello and Titus Andronicus, while perhaps merely coincidental, contributes to the otherness of the Moor. Othello’s “dual time schemes” are well known (Cohen 2096). Literally speaking, the events of the play take place in a matter of days and Othello murders his wife less than a week after their marriage, but he also accuses her of a long-standing affair with Cassio, which is impossible (2096). Similarly, the time frame of Titus Andronicus is ambiguous. Supposedly, Titus returns from the Gothic war with Tamora and Aaron in tow and in the same day Tamora marries Saturninus, becoming empress. Titus then requests that Saturninus join him in a hunt if “tomorrow … it please [Saturninus] / To hunt the panther and the hart with [him]” (1.1.488-490). The action of this next day includes the murders of Bassianus, Quintus, and Martius, as well as the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. This day is also presumably the day of conception of Aaron’s illegitimate child with Tamora, as the audience sees their sexual banter throughout the hunt (2.1-3). There is no indication that Tamora is pregnant prior to this scene, and yet the child is born seemingly a few days later (4.2). The simplest explanation would be that there is a large jump in time from Act 3, Scene 1 to Act 3, Scene 2, but it would make little sense for the action of this and later scenes to take place conveniently nine months later. In 4.1, for instance, Marcus has Lavinia reveal the identities of her attackers by writing in the sand “without the help of any hand at all,” using her mouth and a stick (4.1.70). This is a fairly simple concept, one that would not likely take nine months to come to mind. The gestation period of Aaron’s child, it would seem, is a matter of days, just as it takes a mere forty-eight hours or so for Othello to be incited to murder his wife. This warping of time, although a small detail, endows Shakespeare’s Moorish characters with vague sub-human qualities, as though the temporal laws of humanity do not quite apply here.
Through the interaction of his Moorish characters, Aaron of Titus Andronicus and Othello, with issues of barbarity, animalistic language, sex and masculinity, and temporality, Shakespeare depicts two characters that, although they are the same race, are very differently othered in their respective plays. Both characters stand outside of the power structures driving the plots of their respective plays, but are set apart from these power structures in different ways. For Othello, it is through issues of the masculinity of others that he is “othered,” and indirect and private accusations of barbarism and animalism separate him from power. In Titus, Aaron is more directly characterized as an ugly Moorish stereotype, set apart from the very beginning of the play and remaining apart throughout. He begins the play as a traditionally masculine figure but ends it as a caricature of a feminine mother figure holding an infant, separating him from what little power he has. Although Othello is a much more complex and well-known work, comparison to Titus Andronicus is valuable in showing the relative nuance with which Othello is depicted compared to Aaron. By modern standards, of course, both plays are incredibly racially insensitive, but Othello treats its Moorish character with more finesse than a modern audience would have cause to expect based on the precedent set by Titus Andronicus.
Bartels, Emily C. “Making More Of The Moor: Aaron, Othello, And Renaissance Refashionings Of Race”. Shakespeare Quarterly 41.4 (1990): 433. Web.
Cohen, Walter. “Othello”. The Norton Shakespeare. William Shakespeare. 1st ed. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1997. 2091-2099. Print.
Porter, Joseph A. “Belleforest’s “Vn Esclaue More” And Othello”. Shakespeare Quarterly 47.2 (1996): 194. Web.
Shakespeare, William. “The Tragedy Of Othello The Moor Of Venice”. The Norton Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt. 1st ed. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1997. 2100-2174. Print.
Shakespeare, William. “Titus Andronicus”. The Norton Shakespeare. Stephen Greenblatt. 1st ed. New York: WW Norton and Co., 1997. 379-434. Print.
Why Not Have a Few Dozen Kids so They Can Join Your Army? Contrasting Representations of Parenthood in Titus Andronicus
William Shakespeare is not well-known for presenting perfectly typical, well-functioning, Leave It to Beaver-esque families, which made his work much more appealing to audiences who were enthralled by unpredictable drama. His representations of both emotionally realistic loving and hate-filled familial dynamics have contributed to his works’ lasting literary and cultural significance, and they often have the same effects on contemporary audiences that they did on their original viewers. Titus Andronicus, which was written in the early 1590s, was Shakespeare’s first tragedy. The revenge play certainly set a precedent for his dysfunctional families to come. In Titus Andronicus, Titus, Tamora, and Aaron each have remarkably different relationships with their children that have significant effects on their individual characterizations.
The tragic hero of the play, Titus Andronicus, is a Roman general who has just successfully defeated the Goths at the start of the first act. Early on, it appears as though Titus is not primarily concerned with preserving the livelihoods of his children. He tells his Roman audience that he took “five-and-twenty valiant sons” to war with him, twenty-one of whom died in battle (1.1.82). Titus views their deaths as virtuous (as death for one’s empire is the greatest honor that a Roman soldier can achieve) and brings them back with him to be buried in the family tomb. However, his affection for them is not as powerful as his desire for political strength. There is further evidence for this in Titus’ decisions regarding Lavinia. In great contrast to his 25 sons, Titus has a very close and sympathetic relationship with his daughter, the singular girl of the family. Titus’ relationship with Lavinia as his only daughter is special, and this combined with her chastity and desirability leads to him viewing her as a novelty. However, although Titus reserves the most love for his daughter, this affection is still not boundless. Titus is quick to give Lavinia over to Saturninus in marriage, a political move that would further solidify his relationship with the newly-appointed emperor. When Mutius attempts to stop Titus from reaching Lavinia, Titus asks, “What, villain boy, barr’st me my way in Rome?” and kills his son without hesitation (1.1.295-6). There are several possible reasons why Titus is able to do this so easily. It could be solely because his thirst for power and political gain conquers his other emotions. It is also possible that Titus views his sons as disposable since there was such a vast number of them. Or perhaps he is numb to their loss since so many have already died.
However, as the plot progresses, Titus begins to exhibit more visceral emotional reactions as he faces the reality of what is happening to his family. A turning point is when Titus is faced with the deaths of Quintus and Martius. He begs the tribunes to spare them, despairing that “For two-and-twenty sons I never wept, Because they died in honour’s lofty bed” and proclaiming that Rome has become “a wilderness of tigers” (3.1.10-11, 54). When Aaron offers to trade a hand for the young men’s lives, Titus readily agrees. Soon after, a messenger arrives to reveal Quintus and Martius’ severed heads, and Titus laments that he has “not another tear to shed” (3.1.267). When young Lucius kills a fly that evening, Titus is strongly emotionally affected, projecting the losses of his sons onto the insect, telling his grandson that “Thou kill’st my heart…A deed of death done on the innocent Becomes not Titus’ brother” (4.1.54-7). Titus is also deeply affected by Lavinia’s rape, but reacts calmly, simply requesting the presence of Tamora’s sons as he formulates a greater revenge. In a shocking turn of events in the final scene, Titus suddenly stabs Lavinia, claiming to kill his sorrow with her shame. Since Titus can never really live with what he has done, however, Saturninus immediately frees him with death.
When Tamora is first presented to the audience, she does not appear to be dangerous or evil. Rather, she is a desperate mother begging for the life of her, son, Alarbus, whom Titus has selected as the Gothic prisoner of war to sacrifice in the name of his lost children. It is clear that Tamora has a very powerful and genuine love for her son, as she pleads, “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” (1.1.108-12). However, it soon becomes clear that, like Titus, Tamora’s aspirations of power are her utmost priority, as she quickly recovers in her loss and revels in her good fortune when Saturninus chooses her to be his bride. This sentiment remains true for Tamora, who has a more consistent relationship with her adult children throughout the play than Titus does, showing them affection, but using them as henchmen in her revenge plots. She exerts a great amount of power over Chiron and Demetrius, who are more than happy to act on her orders, including when she commands them to stab Bassianus, urging him to “Revenge it as you love your mother’s life, or be ye not henceforth called my children” (2.2.114-5).
In a kind of poetic injustice, the audience never gets to see Tamora’s reaction to learning that she has just eaten the bodies of her sons because Titus stabs her immediately after revealing the truth, but one can take the liberty to assume that this was the worst moment of her life, albeit a brief one. However, it is soon revealed that this motherly love is conditional. Although Tamora has an emotional connection to her Goth sons, she is appalled to give birth to a dark-skinned infant, a symbol of both her infidelity to Saturninus and the impropriety that was believed to exist in a sexual relationship with a Moor. Even the nurse who delivered the infant describes him as, “O that which I would hide from heaven’s eye, Our empress’ shame and stately Rome’s disgrace” (4.2.60). As one of her only decisions that isn’t influenced by Aaron, Tamora’s most evil deed in the play is ordering that her own innocent child be murdered simply for existing.
Although Aaron has the least interaction with his child of these three characters, his relationship may be the most unexpected and fascinating. When Aaron learns that Tamora has given birth to a black son in act four, he is filled with affection immediately takes responsibility for the child, fiercely defending his blackness. He threatens to kill anyone who touches his “first-born son and heir,” and proclaims that no one “Shall seize this prey out of his father’s hands…Tell the empress from me I am of age To keep mine own, excuse it how she can” (4.2.98-107). As a character who has been shown to be cold and calculating and has not demonstrated genuine affection for anyone throughout the narrative, Aaron’s turn in character is shocking. For example, it can be contrasted with the earlier scene of Tamora and Aaron in the woods. Tamora wants to take a break and celebrate their victory, but Aaron is easily able to refuse her sexual advances in favor of focusing on their plan. His reasoning is that “though Venus govern [Tamora’s] desires, Saturn is dominator over mine” (2.2.30-1). Aaron’s revenge plans are forgotten only when he is concerned about the wellbeing of his child.
At the end of the play when Aaron faces his punishment, he insists that the Goths “Touch not the boy, he is of royal blood” (5.1.49). Although it seems as though having a child may have fundamentally changed Aaron, his multiple soliloquies about how he only wished that he had been more evil during his lifetime leave the audience with an uncertain understanding of who he is and what governs his morals. The fact that Aaron is arguably the best and most loving parent in the play is indicative of a deeper message about which kinds of people are truly the savages in the play’s Roman society. Shakespeare’s choice to leave the fate of the innocent infant ambiguous further contributes to this message.
In his earliest and bloodiest tragedy, Shakespeare presents a complicated image of family and parent-child relationships. Titus, Tamora, and Aaron represent three uniquely different approaches to parenting, each of which evolve with the story. None of these character’s methods are presented as correct, as each has moments that elicit genuine sympathy while still being exhibiting moral corruption for most of their arcs. As always, Shakespeare leaves it up to the reader to critically approach the content and decide how to interpret these relationships and what to take away from the story.
The Symbol of the Roman Body Politic
One dominant idea that is recurrent throughout Titus Andronicus is the symbolism of the ‘body of Rome’, which acts as a metaphorical parallel to the events of the text. This motif follows the changing statuses of the characters and power structures within the play and emphasises the downfall of the Roman Empire. The play follows the leader of the Roman army, Titus Andronicus, and his struggle for power after corruption within the empire’s ruling force. Despite the text extrinsically focussing on Rome it also presents ideas about the English monarchy of the Elizabethan era. The incompletion of the body in the first act can be labelled as the defining factor in the events of the play and the cause of the eventual crumble of the empire, furthered by the continual severing of body parts and bloodshed. The body of Rome metaphor present in Titus Andronicus demonstrates the tearing apart of Rome’s body politic by power imbalances and civil unrest.
The exposition of the play is paralleled by the motifs used in Titus Andronicus, which also explain the rise and downfall of the central characters and thus the Empire. The ‘body of Rome’, more importantly the head of this body symbol emphasises the gravity of the events that take place through its constantly changing depiction and link back to the motif. At the beginning of Shakespeare’s first revenge tragedy Titus is asked to undertake the position of Emperor of Rome and in a sense “help to set a head on headless Rome.” This pivotal point in the play demonstrates a promise of restoration of order and a prosperous future, however, this is quickly deteriorated by Titus’ refusal and handover of power to Saturninus, the previous emperor’s eldest son. As Titus was the people’s preferred leader the power he has vested in Saturninus is felt to be illegitimate and unlawful, rapidly proven by the unfolding events in the remainder of the text. The head is the most vital branch of the body motif, reiterated by the immediate demise of the rest of the body politic. The relation of a chief authority figure links back to the context of the time of publication and Queen Elizabeth’s monarchist rule over England. The importance of a ‘head’ on Rome, which is revealed as the empire continues to crumble as the plot progresses, reinforces the necessity of the power structures of the 16th century. The first act of the play sets the stage for the unfolding occurrences, made obvious to the audience through the use of the parallel body symbol.
The power imbalance and beheading of Rome resulting from act one in the text continues to cause repercussions that are continually reflected in the body motif. The frequent dismembering of body parts is a figurative maintenance of the disintegration of the Roman body politic and promise of a fall from grace of a majority of the central characters. Titus Andronicus contains nearly eighty mentions of hands and frequent relations to the tongue, highlighting the importance of these body parts in relation to the body metaphor as a whole. After Titus first sees his daughter Lavinia after her rape and mutilation by the unlawful leaders of Rome, Chiron and Demetrius, sans a tongue and hands, he states that this is fortunate, as his hands’ service to Rome had revealed itself to be futile and fruitless: “Tis well, Lavinia, that thou hast no hands;/ For hands to do Rome service is but vain.” In this scene hands are used as a symbol of physical effort, which when given to the empire gives nothing in return. This break down of the body motif is sustained through the decapitation of two of Titus’ sons, an event which he is manipulated into believing to be preventable through the cutting off of his own hand. This again reflects the ineffectiveness of dedication to the state, and on a symbolic level the intertwined nature of the body politic. The numerous relations to body parts, largely hands, remind the audience of the crumbling state of the Roman Empire in Titus Andronicus.
The resolution of Titus Andronicus happens amongst the aftermath of the climatic scene and gives the audience assurance of restoration of the former glory of the Roman Empire. Again, this information is presented through the use of the body motif, which, after falling apart through its figurative ‘murder’, is guaranteed to have the ability to be returned to its former power and strength. The climax of the text takes place as a banquet held by Titus for the emperor and empress of Rome. This scene sees Tamora, the empress who has exacted her revenge on Titus throughout the course of the play, unintentionally eat her own sons: “Why there they are, both bakèd in this pie, / Whereof their mother daintily hath fed, / Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.” After this final act of vengeance Titus kills his daughter Lavinia, who he sees as already dead after losing her chastity, tongue and hands, stabs Tamora, and then proceeds to be murdered by Saturninus, which is followed rapidly by this act being avenged by Titus’ only remaining son, Lucius. This slaughter results in a decrease in the number of remaining central characters, including the key holders of power, with the exception of Lucius, Aaron and Marcus, the latter of which promises to correct the actions of the former leaders that resulted in the demise of the empire, linking this to the body motif used frequently in the play: “O let me teach you how to knit again / This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf, / These broken limbs again into one body.” This speech ties together the repercussions of the conflicts in the play by suggesting that the broken-apart body politic can be reassembled into what it was before. The final scene of the play links the resolution to the body politic, implying that both this and on a literal level, the crumbled empire, can be returned to their former state.
The use of a recurring motif in a text can further the audience’s comprehension of the gravity of key events in the relation to the plot as a whole. Titus Andronicus, amongst other symbols, uses the idea of the body politic to reinforce the consequences of character decisions, focussing on different features as the play goes on in order to demonstrate the disintegration of the body politic due to civil unrest. The head is used to represent the ruler of the Roman Empire and the pivotal nature of Titus’ rejection of the title. Following this occurrence the rest of the body follows in suit, slowly breaking down parallel to the dissolving state of the Roman Empire. With the resolution of the play comes a promise of a remedy for Rome and a re-joining of its symbolic body parts. These aspects combine together to form a single fluid comparison of the key events and provide a higher level of plot presentation to the audience, following it steadily from the exposition, focussing on the head of the body metaphor, through the central conflict using repetition of the hand motif and finally to the resolution which demonstrates assurance of complete resolve after the crumble of the Roman Empire and its corresponding body politic.
Wikipedia. (2012). Themes in Titus Andronicus. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Themes_in_Titus_Andronicus#Breakdown_of_political_order
GradeSaver. (2013). Titus Andronicus Themes. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from GradeSaver: https://www.gradesaver.com/titus-andronicus/study-guide/themes
Shmoop. (2013). Titus Andronicus – Body Parts. Retrieved April 5, 2014, from Shmoop: https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/literature/titus-andronicus-shakespeare/analysis
Where’s The Motivation?
Often instead of the gallant, chivalrous hero, it is the deceptive, wicked villain that leaves a lasting imprint on the audience. The subversive and incorrigibly horrendous actions of the villains in Shakespeare’s Othello and Titus Andronicus, especially when compared to the helpless protagonists, demonstrate how a character can leave a deep impression on the reader and audience member. Iago and Aaron the Moor, although distinct in their fashion of wreaking havoc on the lives of their victims, do share one horrifying quality that ensures their literary reputation as true agents of evil; they lack motive. Although Iago claims that his hatred of Othello stems from the alleged adultery in which his commander and wife engaged, this reason is never substantiated nor expounded upon. As Iago creates his traps, it becomes clearer to the reader that he is a man intent on destroying Othello simply because he wants to. Just like Iago, Aaron is devoid of a clear motive for why he seeks to annihilate Lavinia and her father, Titus. He fervently plots to bring the Andronicus family to a horrible end, simply because he can. It is because these villains lack a motive and appear as malevolence incarnate that the audience is truly horrified and cannot, unlike the antagonists in other Shakespearean plays, downplay their actions and locate some tenable justification. At the conclusion of each play, the audience feels uneasy as to the fate of the villain. Though the persons of Iago and Aaron are sentenced to death, their introduction of pure wickedness into the world of the play’s characters seems to remain indefinitely. At the beginning of Titus Andronicus, Aaron seems to play an auxiliary role to his lover, the Queen of the Goths. He initially acts in the capacity of a quasi-jester – he puns and provides witty insight into the proceedings leading up to the “marriage” of Saturninus and Tamora. As the play progresses, however, his role as villain begins to surface with the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. In initiating what could be almost morbidly considered as cliché villainy, Aaron, apparently consulting the villain’s playbook, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, suggests to Tamora’s lustful sons to rape Lavinia and cut off her tongue and both hands. The similarities between the actions of the characters in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and those of Tamora’s sons are shocking and serve to show that evil actions, even those as inconceivable as the ones perpetrated by Chiron and Demetrius, are always recurring. Aaron revels in his sin and, as he mentions many times throughout the play, regrets being revealed only because he cannot commit a thousand more horrors. In the third act of the play, Aaron tricks Titus into cutting off his own hand to save two of his sons. After Titus detaches his hand, the audience sees he was tricked. Titus is left with only one hand and the heads of his two sons. Aaron’s following aside supports the lack of motive for his deceit and spiteful actions. He declares that, while good men will attempt to perform justly, “Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (3.1.204). The mention of a soul implicitly suggests that Aaron, in his capacity as an evil force, is immortal and though evil’s incarnation may eventually perish, evil itself will remain. The comparison between the darkness of his soul and his complexion not only hints at Shakespeare’s stereotype of Moors as essentially bad men, but it also connects the invisible and despicable qualities of Aaron with his perceivable physicality. As he indicates to the audience in his aside, the villain grows by perpetuating acts of painful trickery, stating “O, how this villainy/ Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!” (3.1.201-2). As is indicated by the scoundrel himself, his soul and his face both darken merely by committing such acts; it seems as if he desires to do evil because, by doing so, he becomes ever increasingly the very embodiment of the vile. As Aaron’s “confession” in act five illustrates, he no longer is simply a man doing bad things and, by virtue of his inability to do good, he is marked as evil. As his language indicates, he is in fact incapable of doing anything but that which is considered horrendously dreadful. After enumerating the deeds of which he is most proud, in particular exhuming dead bodies and setting “them upright at their dear friends’ door,” he states that he has done all this “As willingly as one would kill a fly” (5.1.136,142). This passing analogy goes to say that just as a regular human being, if the bug were presented as a vex, would kill a fly without thinking, so does Aaron commit murder, rape, scandal and all other unmentionable horrors. The audience and reader’s reaction must be the shocking realization that this is truly no man, for within the mind of a person there should exist a battle of good thoughts versus evil thoughts. For Aaron, and unfortunately for the Andronicus family, there is no such mental dichotomy; just as one could swat away a fly, Aaron as easily presents himself as absolutely wicked. In the same way that Aaron fails to cite any particular grievance that would fuel his plot of ruining Titus and his family, Iago commits his treachery without any discernable reasons. At the beginning of the play, Iago alleges that he has a “peculiar end” which drives his plan to destroy Othello for, as “it is thought abroad,” the Moor had “’twixt [Iago’s] sheets/ He has done [Iago’s] office” (1.1.60, 369-70). There is only one more mention of this allegation said in passing later in the play; since it is only rumor as Iago himself admits, the audience member and the reader cannot count on this proposed reason as particularly valid. In a statement which echoes Aaron’s aside to the audience in Titus, Iago declares that his “outward action doth demonstrate/ The native act and figure of my heart” (1.1.61-2). Just as Aaron’s face will darken as his sins accrue, Iago’s appearance, as his “heart” begins to blacken, will relate to the other characters what he plans. In the second act of the play, Iago speaks to the audience after advising Cassio to plead with Desdamona in order to be reinstated as lieutenant. When Cassio exits and Iago is left alone, he begins by jesting “And what’s he then that says I play the villain,” when, he feels, he has provided Cassio with only the most truthful of advice and council (2.3.310). Superficially it appears as if this joke is meant to be an earnest entreat to the audience to find Iago to be, in fact, an honest person and the farthest thing from an evil man. But, keeping in mind his frightening preoccupation with torturing any and all of the other characters in the play, one can see that the joke is made tongue in cheek. Iago knows he is a villain, and since he has readily assumed the position of such, he can joke about his status as the antagonist. He partakes in a small confession in this scene, but the confession is not offered in hopes of reconciling his naughty ways; Iago is utterly proud of his treachery. Any other individual would perhaps still be proud that his or her plot had been successful thus far, but he or she would expectedly attempt to justify the reasons during his speech directed at the audience; Iago makes no attempt to do this. Iago refuses to try and rationalize his hatred because he doesn’t want to and, more importantly, he cannot; he has become the embodiment of unadulterated malice. The plays Othello and Titus Andronicus achieve their dramatic effect not through grandiose speeches or the noble and gallant actions of their protagonists. Quite oppositely, it is through that which remains unsaid that the audience is profoundly disturbed. The motivation that should logically drive the malicious actions of the villains remains undisclosed and, upon analysis of the language of Aaron and Iago, appears to be entirely nonexistent. Each antagonist thrives upon the accumulation of sin and, as Aaron explicitly states, his only regret is being unable to perform “a thousand more” (5.1.124). The ability and desire to do evil is the only motivating factor that drives the action of Iago and Aaron, and as they create more and more chaos within the lives of their victims, their despicable natures become physically visible on their persons. They eventually become a reflection of their minds; Aaron is as dark as his soul, and Iago, as the reader can imagine, can barely contain his glee at witnessing Othello’s demise.
Aaron as a Purely Evil Character
“The function of wisdom is to discriminate between good and evil” -Cicero- There are villainous characters throughout the history of literature that capture our utmost fears of hatred, vengeance, and psychotic behavior. The complexity of the characters one comes to adore, though, arise when abruptly, the character manifests some sort of moral condition, or provides understandable reasoning for their psychotic actions. From Shylock in William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (who later gained some sympathetic reviews from the audience because he was discriminated against, and his conflicts with his daughter) to even modern day villains such as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Thomas Harris’s The Silence of the Lambs (who was discovered to find love for his protÃ©gÃ©), these characters symbolize humanity, and give optimism to readers in that everything and everyone is not purely concentrated evil or good, rather, there is a little of both emotions inside even the most psychotic villains. Aaron the Moor, from Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, however, is portrayed as nothing more than a treacherous and detestable individual who encompasses everything which is truly diabolical and malevolent in humanity. Aaron’s character does not show any sympathy for those around him, including his own flesh and blood, unless there a greater benefit for himself in the process. Moreover, though Aaron was faced with all of his crimes in the end, he never once showed remorse, and manifested a lack of empathy towards his victims, which establishes him as a modern day sociopath. Although Aaron was not the sole scoundrel in Titus, the other characters were motivated by their own cause to pursue a malicious path (for example, Tamora developed into a spiteful individual when her son was sacrificed in front of her). Nevertheless, Aaron was the only character who never rationalized his actions, or even attempted to give reasoning for his behavior. Through his persona, villainous deeds, dialogue, Aaron is truly portrayed as the utmost and paramount symbol of evil. Aaron is the stereotypical epitome of pure sin and immorality. He possesses qualities which are frowned upon society, and considered ungodly and malevolent. Firstly, an imperative characteristic which Aaron posses that makes him purely evil as well is that he is black, and proud to be so. The color black, specifically in Shakespeare’s time, was considered that which is unholy and mysterious, as well as being associated with the devil. Aaron is fully aware of this, and when his son is referred to as diabolical because of his skin color, Aaron replies with, “Zounds, ye whore, is black so base a hue?” (line 71 4.2) and “Coal-black is better than another hue” (line 98). He perceives himself and his son superior in comparison to the white Romans, and his sense of dominance and arrogance in that era, where skin colored truly was paramount, aided the audience in perceiving him and evil.Also, Aaron was utterly perverse in his conversations, never once allowing an opportunity to pass in which he did not make an allusion to a crude sexual act and so forth. For instance, in lines 13-14 in Act 2, Scene 1, “To mount aloft with they imperial mistress, and mount her pitch who though in triumph long…” or lines 95-96, “Why then, it seems some certain snatch or so would serve your turn”. By speaking so perversely in front of the audience, and even in front of the female characters, Aaron is perceived and vulgar and crude, alluding to any regular dirty slave or lower class trash. This is imperative, however, because by adding a myriad of dimensions of immorality (from the trivial vice of a corrupt mouth) to his persona, Aaron is understood to just be completely evil, rather than acting upon revenge or so forth. His mouth is a fountain of wickedness. He convinces Tamora’s sons, Chiron and Demetrius, to rape Lavinia through persuasive conversation, and guides the audience through his villainous acts through soliloquies and speeches. He also completely manifests his devoid for any pity with his infamous line, “But I have done a thousand dreadful things as willingly as one would kill a fly, and nothing grieves me…that I cannot do ten thousand more” (line 141-144 5.1) Aaron was also very perverse and malevolent in his physical dealings. Firstly, he was Tamora’s love slave, which constituted adulterous behavior between the two of them, regardless of the fact that Tamora was married to the Emperor of Rome, and obviously it was frowned upon. Secondly, it was Aaron who tricked Titus into cutting his own hand for the sake of his children, though it was a lost cause. Later on in the play, Aaron himself admitted that he was tickled upon completing his villainous task, “When for his hand he had his two sons’ heads, beheld his tears, and laughed so heartily” (line 113 5.1), showing no signs of compassion. Hands are often a symbol in a myriad of cultures as the givers and by having Titus cutting of his hand, he is voiding Titus of accomplishing simple tasks, as well as even symbolically taking away the hand in which Titus fought so many of Rome’s wars with. Aaron, unremorsefully doing this, aids to his character being perceived as pure evil.Various critiques have been written linking the passion Aaron has to saving his only child to that of caring for another life beside his own, as well as having paternal instincts, and hence somewhat of a good heart. However, if one analyzes the dialogue Aaron utilizes in talking to his son, one realizes that Aaron never uses any terms of endearment for his child. Rather, Aaron perceives the child as “tadpole”, “thick-lipped slave”, and so on. Furthermore, Aaron states that he will raise the child “to be a warrior and command a camp”. He never perceives the child as his son, which he will love and care for. Rather, he is the future emperor of Rome, and as long as he is alive, he is Aaron’s meal ticket and salvation. Aaron has much to benefit with keeping this child alive, and even though he protects the child, no emotions ever stir within him to promote pity or remorse for his previous actions. In the end of the play, even, when he is condemned to a lonesome death, he never once pleads for his life to care for his child, or even makes an attempt in drawing sympathy. Instead, he states, “If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul” (line 188, 5.3). To be so incredibly unapologetic and unsympathetic to all the lives which he devastated, even when his own life is at risk, without any rationalized cause, proves him to be the ultimate in pure evil. In conclusion , through his insensitive and heartless actions, words, and emotions, Aaron might just be the cruelest and fundamental villain in Shakespearean literature. Aaron is perverse, crude, and never regrets anything he has done. He aided in the rape of an innocent girl, tortured an old Roman hero with the death of his sons, killed a nurse, and brought an unwanted bastard into the world. He ultimately was the cause of all the conflict in the play, and, rather than pleading for mercy in the end, as a true villain, he takes all of his deeds with him as accomplishments and proof of how gullible and idiotic the human race is, as if he were of a different class of species altogether, not just between Roman and Moor. It did not take Aaron to be anything but human to commit all of this treachery and villainous actions, for as Joseph Conrad once said, “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; men alone are quite capable of every wickedness”.