Titus Andronicus and its Classical Origins
Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, sets the foundation for most of his future works. According to the scholar Danielle A. St. Hilaire, throughout the whole play, Shakespeare uses quotes from Greek and Latin works of literature both to show that he, as his contemporary, had a solid background on classical studies and to bestow credibility to the Ancient Rome setting (316). Moreover, by quoting Roman authors as Seneca and Ovid, Shakespeare can foresee and justify the characters’ actions, as well as, he can express the characters’ feelings and thoughts.
At the beginning of the play, Saturninus, who has just been proclaimed emperor, decides that he is going to marry Lavinia, who was already betrothed to his brother Bassianus. Even if his role of emperor legitimates his decision, Bassianus doesn’t want to renounce to his beloved; there is nothing they can do to make Bassianus change his mind. However, the Roman traditions need to be respected, and as Marcus explains “Suum cuique is our Roman justice” (1.1.280). Directly quoting the words of Marcus Tullius Cicero that have become a precept of Roman law (Treccani), Marcus is not only strengthening Saturninus’ role, but also legitimating an immoral action as a legal one. Bassianus cannot refuse to act according to the law, especially if the law is embodied by his brother. It is, indeed, to legitimate immoral action that Shakespeare quotes and mention Latin works. If Ovid had not written about Philomel being raped and mutilated by king Tereus, Aaron would have never come out with the idea that “[Bassianus’] Philomel must lose her tongue” (2.3.43), or if Seneca had not written about Atreus revenge towards Thyestes, Titus would have never “baked in that pie” (5.3.61) Demetrius and Chiron so that their mother could eat them. Both Aaron and Titus’ ideas are immoral and cruel; however, they have a literary antecedent that makes them seem reasonable. Moreover, the simple fact of having a literary antecedent make the audience feeling more distant from these actions which are recognized as merely works of art even while they are acted on stage.
Yet literary antecedents are not only sources used to reinforce the play credibility, but also the literary device used to explain a character’s feelings and thoughts. For instance, Lavinia’s pain is not idiosyncratic, but it is characteristic of the human condition since it is as strong as the pain Aeneas feels while telling “the tale twice o’er /How Troy was burnt and he made miserable” (3.2.27-28). Both Aeneas and Lavinia’s sufferings, who are respectively the founder of the colony that will later become Rome and the personification of the city of Rome in the play, are a metaphor for the misery that the empire of Rome is going through in the whole play. Rome, indeed, is subject to the greatest misfortune it could have ever happen to it: it is been governed by an emperor who decides to marry a Goth making the enemy be in charge of the empire.
Moreover, it is through the use of literary antecedents that Lavinia’s family can understand what has happened to her. By reading Ovid’s metamorphosis that Young Lucius keeps carrying around, Titus understood that “Lavinia, wert thou thus surprised, sweet girl, / Ravish’d and wrong’d, as Philomela was” (4.1.52-53). As a consequence, Latin literature becomes a means of communication not only between the character in the play but also between the characters and the audience. The general plot of the tragedy would not have had sense without knowing all the literary antecedents Shakespeare is referring to. These literary antecedents, indeed, represent the essential narrative scaffolding for Titus Andronicus.
Horace, Ovid and Seneca had the same inspirational role for Shakespeare as the muses had for them. It is thanks to these Latin authors that Shakespeare had the possibility to develop the events that will make the plot complete. Without Ovid’s metamorphosis Shakespeare would have never written about Lavinia’s rape and mutilation, and without Seneca’s Thyestes Titus revenge would have not been so cruel. Without the references to these Latin authors, Titus Andronicus would have been a very different tragedy; it would have been less bloody and less criticized, but it would not have set the foundation for many of Shakespeare future masterpieces.
Lucas, Gerald R. “Ovid’s Metamorphosis – World Literature – Medium.” Medium, World Literature, 21 Dec. 2013, medium.com/world-literature/ovids-metamorphosis-fc48da0d84d3. Seneca, Lucius Annaeus, and Thomas H. Corcoran. Seneca. W. Heinemann, 1971. Shakespeare, William, and Jonathan Bate. Titus Andronicus. Bloomsbury Arden Shakespeare, an imprint of Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, 2018. Virgil, and David Ferry. The Aeneid. The University of Chicago Press, 2017.
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Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, sets the foundation for most of his future works. According to the scholar Danielle A. St. Hilaire, throughout the whole play, Shakespeare uses quotes from […]