Language Block Walls of Shakespeare
Charles Forker argues that Marcus Andronicus, upon discovering the maimed, raped and mutilated Lavinia, “erects a barrier of fanciful language between himself and the object of his contemplation.” It is an interesting question: does Marcus create an elaborate metaphor comparing Lavinia to a “lopped and hewed” tree in order to escape the horrifying reality of her condition, or does he address a horrific situation directly with the aid of typical Shakespearian dialogue? By comparing the scene in Titus Andronicus to similar scenes in King Lear and Hamlet, one can only conclude that this elaborate style of speech is only typical of Shakespeare and does not serve as a distraction from the action on the stage.
In King Lear, Lear finds himself betrayed by his daughters Regan and Goneril, and captured by his enemies. Sent to prison with his daughter Cordelia, he has no reason to be anything other than painfully depressed at the grim future awaiting him in the dungeons, yet he launches into a beautiful and wholly inappropriate ode to his daughter:
No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing I’ll kneel down
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,–
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;–
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones
That ebb and flow by the moon. (24:7-19)
Notice that despite a sweet metaphor comparing himself and his daughter Goneril to a pair of songbirds locked up in a cage, Lear does address the reality of the situation: they are being locked up in prison for likely the rest of their lives. The “fanciful language” Forker cites can be found here as well, but it does not detract from the meaning of the speech. On a purely literary level, Shakespeare does his work a service by offering an alternative viewpoint to the expected “woe is I” philosophy, and flourishing it with a beautiful metaphor that contrasts the scene to perfectly makes the play a joy to the reader.
In Hamlet, Hamlet has an opportunity to offer up a mournful lamentation when he discovers that his love, Ophelia, is dead. He does not live up to the proportions of Lear and Marcus when he cries:
What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wand’ring stars and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I,
Hamlet the Dane (5:1:250-255)
Perhaps the reason that Hamlet does not offer a more elaborate speech is because of the context. At this point in the play, Hamlet is trying to make everybody believe that he is actually insane, so a long, lucid speech to his dead love may have given him away. After all, it is only a few lines later when Hamlet tells Laertes that he will “eat a crocodile” (5:1:273). A better example of mourning in Hamlet is found at the beginning of the play when Hamlet first finds out the truth about his father’s death, his murderous uncle, and his incestuous mother:
O all you host of heaven! O earth! What else?
And shall I couple hell? O fie, hold, hold, my heart,
And you, my sinews, grow not instant old,
But bear me stiffly up. Remember thee!
Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee!
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter. Yes, by heaven!
O most pernicious woman!
O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables — meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain!
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark. [He writes.]
So, uncle, there you are. Now to my word:
It is “Adieu, adieu! remember me.”
I have sworn’t. (1:5:92-111)
Hamlet does a number of things in this long-winded speech: he calls up heaven and hell to help him in his revenge, he demeans the villains, he promises his father’s ghost that he will not forget him, and he begins to take action. While Hamlet does not create a metaphor in his speech, this elaborate style is very typical of Shakespeare, especially when coming from a character in emotional distress.
When Marcus speaks to Lavinia (or himself, depending on the production of the play), he does the following: he describes her wounds, he mourns, he demeans the villains who did her injury, he calls himself to action, and he moves forward. This same progression of action can be seen in Hamlet. Describing the “crimson river of warm blood” that “rise[s] and fall[s] between [Lavinia’s] honeyed lips” brings the horror of the mutilated beauty to the forefront of the audience’s attention; he invites the world to mourn with them by telling of “such a sight [that] will blind a father’s eye”; he compares her attackers to Tereus, the King who raped Philomela; he invites Lavinia to stay with him and to “not draw back” so that they they can “mourn with [her]”; and then he takes her away to her father (3:1:11-51). While not fitting perfectly in the mould of Hamlet’s speech, one can see that Marcus’ speech is more than simply fanciful language to avoid reality. It is elaborate, but it is multi-faceted and works to spur the characters to action. One can not easily imagine Marcus walking away from Lavinia and speaking to himself here, these words directly address her and her injuries. Marcus’ speech is comparable to later Shakespeare in its structure and ability to move towards action.
Wells, Stanley and Gary Taylor, eds. The Complete Oxford Shakespeare. New York: Oxford UP, 1987.
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Charles Forker argues that Marcus Andronicus, upon discovering the maimed, raped and mutilated Lavinia, “erects a barrier of fanciful language between himself and the object of his contemplation.” It is […]