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. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/theatre-dance/news/globe-theatre-takes-out-100-audience-members-with-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.
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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 […]