Why Not Have a Few Dozen Kids so They Can Join Your Army? Contrasting Representations of Parenthood in Titus Andronicus
William Shakespeare is not well-known for presenting perfectly typical, well-functioning, Leave It to Beaver-esque families, which made his work much more appealing to audiences who were enthralled by unpredictable drama. His representations of both emotionally realistic loving and hate-filled familial dynamics have contributed to his works’ lasting literary and cultural significance, and they often have the same effects on contemporary audiences that they did on their original viewers. Titus Andronicus, which was written in the early 1590s, was Shakespeare’s first tragedy. The revenge play certainly set a precedent for his dysfunctional families to come. In Titus Andronicus, Titus, Tamora, and Aaron each have remarkably different relationships with their children that have significant effects on their individual characterizations.
The tragic hero of the play, Titus Andronicus, is a Roman general who has just successfully defeated the Goths at the start of the first act. Early on, it appears as though Titus is not primarily concerned with preserving the livelihoods of his children. He tells his Roman audience that he took “five-and-twenty valiant sons” to war with him, twenty-one of whom died in battle (1.1.82). Titus views their deaths as virtuous (as death for one’s empire is the greatest honor that a Roman soldier can achieve) and brings them back with him to be buried in the family tomb. However, his affection for them is not as powerful as his desire for political strength. There is further evidence for this in Titus’ decisions regarding Lavinia. In great contrast to his 25 sons, Titus has a very close and sympathetic relationship with his daughter, the singular girl of the family. Titus’ relationship with Lavinia as his only daughter is special, and this combined with her chastity and desirability leads to him viewing her as a novelty. However, although Titus reserves the most love for his daughter, this affection is still not boundless. Titus is quick to give Lavinia over to Saturninus in marriage, a political move that would further solidify his relationship with the newly-appointed emperor. When Mutius attempts to stop Titus from reaching Lavinia, Titus asks, “What, villain boy, barr’st me my way in Rome?” and kills his son without hesitation (1.1.295-6). There are several possible reasons why Titus is able to do this so easily. It could be solely because his thirst for power and political gain conquers his other emotions. It is also possible that Titus views his sons as disposable since there was such a vast number of them. Or perhaps he is numb to their loss since so many have already died.
However, as the plot progresses, Titus begins to exhibit more visceral emotional reactions as he faces the reality of what is happening to his family. A turning point is when Titus is faced with the deaths of Quintus and Martius. He begs the tribunes to spare them, despairing that “For two-and-twenty sons I never wept, Because they died in honour’s lofty bed” and proclaiming that Rome has become “a wilderness of tigers” (3.1.10-11, 54). When Aaron offers to trade a hand for the young men’s lives, Titus readily agrees. Soon after, a messenger arrives to reveal Quintus and Martius’ severed heads, and Titus laments that he has “not another tear to shed” (3.1.267). When young Lucius kills a fly that evening, Titus is strongly emotionally affected, projecting the losses of his sons onto the insect, telling his grandson that “Thou kill’st my heart…A deed of death done on the innocent Becomes not Titus’ brother” (4.1.54-7). Titus is also deeply affected by Lavinia’s rape, but reacts calmly, simply requesting the presence of Tamora’s sons as he formulates a greater revenge. In a shocking turn of events in the final scene, Titus suddenly stabs Lavinia, claiming to kill his sorrow with her shame. Since Titus can never really live with what he has done, however, Saturninus immediately frees him with death.
When Tamora is first presented to the audience, she does not appear to be dangerous or evil. Rather, she is a desperate mother begging for the life of her, son, Alarbus, whom Titus has selected as the Gothic prisoner of war to sacrifice in the name of his lost children. It is clear that Tamora has a very powerful and genuine love for her son, as she pleads, “Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed, A mother’s tears in passion for her son! And if thy sons were ever dear to thee, O, think my son to be as dear to me” (1.1.108-12). However, it soon becomes clear that, like Titus, Tamora’s aspirations of power are her utmost priority, as she quickly recovers in her loss and revels in her good fortune when Saturninus chooses her to be his bride. This sentiment remains true for Tamora, who has a more consistent relationship with her adult children throughout the play than Titus does, showing them affection, but using them as henchmen in her revenge plots. She exerts a great amount of power over Chiron and Demetrius, who are more than happy to act on her orders, including when she commands them to stab Bassianus, urging him to “Revenge it as you love your mother’s life, or be ye not henceforth called my children” (2.2.114-5).
In a kind of poetic injustice, the audience never gets to see Tamora’s reaction to learning that she has just eaten the bodies of her sons because Titus stabs her immediately after revealing the truth, but one can take the liberty to assume that this was the worst moment of her life, albeit a brief one. However, it is soon revealed that this motherly love is conditional. Although Tamora has an emotional connection to her Goth sons, she is appalled to give birth to a dark-skinned infant, a symbol of both her infidelity to Saturninus and the impropriety that was believed to exist in a sexual relationship with a Moor. Even the nurse who delivered the infant describes him as, “O that which I would hide from heaven’s eye, Our empress’ shame and stately Rome’s disgrace” (4.2.60). As one of her only decisions that isn’t influenced by Aaron, Tamora’s most evil deed in the play is ordering that her own innocent child be murdered simply for existing.
Although Aaron has the least interaction with his child of these three characters, his relationship may be the most unexpected and fascinating. When Aaron learns that Tamora has given birth to a black son in act four, he is filled with affection immediately takes responsibility for the child, fiercely defending his blackness. He threatens to kill anyone who touches his “first-born son and heir,” and proclaims that no one “Shall seize this prey out of his father’s hands…Tell the empress from me I am of age To keep mine own, excuse it how she can” (4.2.98-107). As a character who has been shown to be cold and calculating and has not demonstrated genuine affection for anyone throughout the narrative, Aaron’s turn in character is shocking. For example, it can be contrasted with the earlier scene of Tamora and Aaron in the woods. Tamora wants to take a break and celebrate their victory, but Aaron is easily able to refuse her sexual advances in favor of focusing on their plan. His reasoning is that “though Venus govern [Tamora’s] desires, Saturn is dominator over mine” (2.2.30-1). Aaron’s revenge plans are forgotten only when he is concerned about the wellbeing of his child.
At the end of the play when Aaron faces his punishment, he insists that the Goths “Touch not the boy, he is of royal blood” (5.1.49). Although it seems as though having a child may have fundamentally changed Aaron, his multiple soliloquies about how he only wished that he had been more evil during his lifetime leave the audience with an uncertain understanding of who he is and what governs his morals. The fact that Aaron is arguably the best and most loving parent in the play is indicative of a deeper message about which kinds of people are truly the savages in the play’s Roman society. Shakespeare’s choice to leave the fate of the innocent infant ambiguous further contributes to this message.
In his earliest and bloodiest tragedy, Shakespeare presents a complicated image of family and parent-child relationships. Titus, Tamora, and Aaron represent three uniquely different approaches to parenting, each of which evolve with the story. None of these character’s methods are presented as correct, as each has moments that elicit genuine sympathy while still being exhibiting moral corruption for most of their arcs. As always, Shakespeare leaves it up to the reader to critically approach the content and decide how to interpret these relationships and what to take away from the story.
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William Shakespeare is not well-known for presenting perfectly typical, well-functioning, Leave It to Beaver-esque families, which made his work much more appealing to audiences who were enthralled by unpredictable drama. […]