Moving Towards Disaster: The Motif of Revenge in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

February 22, 2019 by Essay Writer

Titus Andronicus, the first tragedy written by William Shakespeare ca. 1590, is one of his most ambitious plays, full of recognizable themes and motifs which were later incorporated in his more mature works. Yet Titus Andronicus differs greatly from its successors, mainly due to the overt application of revenge perpetrated by its numerous and dangerous characters. As Eugene M. Wraith sees it, Titus Andronicus as a tragedy swiftly moves “towards a disaster for which the cause is established in the first minutes of action” (8).Shakespeare accomplishes this movement towards disaster through the idiosyncrasies, actions and reactions of many characters bent on revenge via a long list of reasons. For instance, when Titus Andronicus, known for his victories over the barbarian Goths and candidate for the emperor of Rome, decides to sacrifice Alarbus, Tamora’s eldest son, to appease the spirits of the Roman gods, the plot immediately commences on a full throttle movement towards revenge via Tamora, queen of the Goths and her two surviving sons, Demetrius and Chiron. This action then prompts Bassianus, the son of the late emperor of Rome, to kidnap Lavinia, the only daughter to Titus Andronicus, which sets into motion additional vengeance.These prime examples are just a few of the intricate and at times excessively violent paradigms maintained by the characters in Titus Andronicus as they strive towards their individual goals and destinies. It should be pointed out, before commencing on a closer look at the vengeance scenarios of the characters through Shakespeare’s dialogue, that Titus Andronicus has been widely regarded as being heavily influenced by the tragic plays of the Roman dramatist Seneca, such as Thyestes and The Trojan Women. Thus, Titus Andronicus contains multiple murders, human sacrifice, dismemberment, rape and cannibalism, traits directly taken from Seneca’s Thyestes. In this vein, as Kenneth Muir relates, “it is a nice irony that Shakespeare’s most shocking play should be closest in spirit to the classics” (10). In essence, Seneca has taught Shakespeare the true breadth of revenge, for the ultimate revenge cannot be perpetrated without the involvement of criminality.With this movement towards disaster in mind, when Lucius, the son of Titus Andronicus, in Scene I, Act 1, demands “Give up the proudest prisoner of the Goths (being Alarbus)/That we may hewn his limbs, and on a pile/Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh” (lines 96-98), a series of plot-related rituals are initiated which set into motion all the other vengeance-based actions of the characters. Also, these lines by Lucius introduces the reader to the utter brutality of the so-called patrician members of ancient Rome and is supported by the response from Titus Andronicus: “I give him to you–the noblest that survives/The eldest son of this distressed queen” (lines 102-03), which indicates that Titus is the main instigator of all the vengeance which accrues from this point on.Following this, Tamora, the grief-stricken mother of the sacrificial Alarbus, pleads for the life of her eldest son (“A mother’s tears in passion for her son,” line 106) but only receives harshness in return, for Titus, in all his Roman glory, replies “and die he must/To appease their (the Goths) groaning shadows that are gone” (lines 125-26). And to make the situation even worse, proud Lucius declares “Away with him! And make a fire straight;/And with our swords, upon a pile of wood,/Let’s hew his limbs till they be clean consum’d” (lines 127-29).Furthermore, as Bassianus, son of the late emperor, declares his love for Lavinia, now betrothed and crowned the empress to Saturninus, he suddenly decides to flee with her aided by the sons of Titus (” Lord Titus, by your leave, this maid is mine,” line 177). Amid the turmoil of this activity, Titus turns to his son Mutius, the “villain boy” who stands in his way and in a fit of rage stabs him to death. This action invariably leads to multiple forms of revenge via an entire series of avengers, each pursuing the other and devising increasingly brutal means of retribution.In Act II, Scene 2, Tamora, queen of the Goths, and Aaron, her Moorish lover, meet in the forest, where Aaron announces that Bassianus will soon die. Aaron, the “embodiment of evil” according to Waith (13), and Tamora are then joined by Bassianus and Lavinia who question Tamora about being with Aaron. To make matters worse, Demetrius and Chiron appear, whereby Tamora tells them that Bassianus has threatened her (“They call’d me foul adulteress/Lascivious Goth and all the bitterest terms,” lines 109-10). With this, Demetrius, in defense of his mother and her plea to avenge the alleged slights, stabs Bassianus which prompts Chiron to follow suit (“And this for me, struck home to show my strength,” line 117). Thus, Bassianus falls dead, an innocent victim of Tamora’s falsities. As with Act I, this action furthers the tension and propels the plotline into additional acts of brutality with a foundation in personal vengeance.By far, the most violent and seemingly ambiguous perversion in Titus Andronicus is the rape of Lavinia by Demetrius and Chiron near the pit where the dead body of Bassianus is dumped and left for carrion. When Lavinia begs Tamora to be spared from the fate that awaits her (“O Tamora, be call’d a gentle queen/And with thine own hands kill me in this place!/For ’tis not life that I have begg’d so long. . . ” lines 168-70) and is cast into the waiting arms of her villainous sons, the motif of revenge in Titus Andronicus shifts to the far end of the Shakespearean spectrum. The motivations of Demetrius and Chiron as to the rape of Lavinia appears to be twofold. First, it may be linked to Tamora’s self-avowed pledge in Act I to one day massacre the entire Andronicus family as a result of her capture by Titus, and second, Demetrius and Chiron may be acting out of sheer perverseness in order to satisfy their lust for Lavinia.Yet this situation becomes ever more ghastly in Scene 4 when Demetrius and Chiron, in another part of the forest, take great pleasure in cutting off Lavinia’s hands and tongue in order to assure that she never relates to a living soul, either in writing or speech, the names of those responsible for such atrocities. The repartee between Demetrius and Chiron (Demetrius: “So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak”–Chiron: “And if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe”–Demetrius: “See how with signs and tokens she can scrowl”–Chiron: “Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands”) clearly demonstrates how “the distinction between good and evil is blurred, thus creating the symptoms of an unstable society whose values have started to dissolve” (Waith 69).Also, the dismemberment of Lavinia’s hands and tongue act as foreshadowing devices for what is to come, i.e. the pledging of Titus, Lucius and Marcus to have their own hands cut off in response to Lavinia’s horrible situation. In Act III, Scene 1, Marcus, Titus’s brother and a tribune of Rome, confronts Titus and Lucius with the ravaged Lavinia by his side. Marcus then declares “Which of your hands hath not defended Rome/And rear’d aloft the bloody battle axe” (lines 169-70), whereby Titus, who at this point in the play is beginning to show signs of madness, pledges his own hand but is curtailed by Marcus and Lucius, both of whom pledge their own hands. This prompts Lucius to set off in search of an axe (“Then I’ll go fetch an axe,” line 187) as Marcus insists “But I will use the axe” (line 188). All of this posturing tends to illustrate a morbid preoccupation with torture and mutilation, especially when a seemingly sane person such as Marcus agrees to cut off his own hand in order to appease his emotional response to Lavinia’s dismemberment. Kenneth Muir explains this situation with “Marcus, Lucius and Titus all echo the absurdity of existence for a terrible moment and then proceed to retreat to the formalized ritual of revenge, just like conventional heroes in a revenge tragedy” (13). Yet in all this, Titus is revealed to be not only the noblest of the Romans but also the most insane, for while Marcus and Lucius search for the sacrificial axe, Titus, after being goaded by the malevolent Aaron, cuts off his own hand, thus making him the engine that drives all the other characters closer to disaster.But then, in Act IV, Scene 2, something quite bizarre occurs at Titus’s house which does not seem to fit with the on-going movement towards disaster. After Tamora has given birth to a son, the nurse appears with the baby (“A joyless, dismal, black and sorrowful issue/Here is the babe, as loathsome as a toad,” lines 68-69) and hands it to Aaron, for he is apparently the father, due to the baby being “black and sorrowful.” As a result, the nurse declares her intentions to kill the baby in order to protect her mistress Tamora from shame and humiliation. But Aaron, the “embodiment of evil,” convinces the nurse not to kill the baby then proceeds to kill the nurse instead after she tells him that “Cornelia the midwife and myself/And no one else but the deliver’d empress” (lines 143-44) were witness to the child’s birth. Yet Aaron is not content with this action, for he then sends for the midwife so that she can join the nurse in death (“But send the midwife presently to me,” line 169). Eugene Wraith observes in regard to this that “the potentially comic quality of this display cannot be denied; excess threatens to turn into parody and the multiplication of avengers diminishes the emotional impact. . . in the search for retribution” (70), a keen observation which demonstrates why Titus Andronicus has often been referred to as a “revenge farce.”In Act V, Scene 2 (Rome. Before TITUS’S House), the penultimate retribution occurs and terminates in utter disaster for the main culprits. Tamora, Demetrius and Chiron, dressed and disguised as Revenge, Rape and Murder, confront Titus as messengers of revenge, yet Titus recognizes them (“I am not mad; I know thee well enough,” line 21). He then orders Demetrius and Chiron to be bound and gagged and what follows is surely one of the most atrocious acts in all of Shakespeare’s tragic plays, for Titus tells Demetrius and Chiron that “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” (lines 186-89). Titus then slits their throats as Lavinia catches their blood in a basin.What then follows culminates in supreme horror–Titus cooks the blood and bodies of Demetrius and Chiron and as Tamora and Saturninus sit down to dinner, they begin supping on pies composed of the flesh of Lavinia’s perpetrators.In the final scene of Titus Andronicus, this cycle of disaster ends with numerous deaths–Titus kills Lavinia to end her shame and suffering then kills Tamora; Saturninus kills Titus and Lucius kills Saturninus. This murderous and barbaric finale in the play, as Kenneth Muir understands it, “enforces the perversion of ritual and revenge,” especially with “Aaron being buried alive and Tamora’s corpse thrown outside the city walls as prey to ravenous birds” (72). Thus, the motif of revenge which dominates the actions in Titus Andronicus overthrows the basic divisions between good and evil, just and unjust and proves that, according to Seneca in his Thyestes, “Great crimes you don’t avenge, unless you outdo them.”Works CitedMuir, Kenneth. The Sources of Shakespeare’s Plays. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1978.Waith, Eugene M., ed. Titus Andronicus. London: Oxford University Press, 1984.

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