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.
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