Women’s Body and Voice in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus
Through in-depth studying and interpretation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the two voices of Lavinia and Tamora are not only visibly present to the audience, but completely different of how women’s voice were portrayed during that time in history. Lavina’s voice is depicted through her physical actions whereas Tamora’s voice is her physical speech, but uses her own power for more evil doings. Though Lavinia’s voice is affected from her bodily defects, her voice remains more powerful than Tamora’s physical speech and actions throughout the play. Not only does Lavina’s voice begin to define new rape laws, but Tamora’s character stands for barbarism, savagery, and ultimate ruthlessness. Tamora’s character plays to the opposite effect of Lavina’s especially through her sexual appetite in the play that was seen as threatening or as a masculine fear of femininity.
These issues of Tamora’s body play against her voice and to the advantage of Lavina’s. An article written by Emily Detmer-Goebel called ““The Need For Lavinia’s Voice: Titus Andronicus and the Telling of Rape”, detailed the changing laws of rape victims during the time of this play, but also highlighted how this made men more uncomfortable with the rape victim as it could have protected the rapist from the family. Before the sixteenth century, statutory rape laws stated that the “right to accuse a person of rape did not rest with the victim, but instead with her male relatives” (Detmer-Goebel, 88). As laws changed, women were expected to claim their own rape therefore the men of the family couldn’t enact revenge if they choose to remain silent creating this discomfort within the patriarchy. This discomfort illustrates that men desired, but no longer had control of a women’s language, reading, and interpretation which is seen through Lavina. The power struggle that underlies this story is that Lavina is dependent upon the males in her family to help tell her story through the usage of her physical body, but the males also are dependent on Lavina as they can’t know or revenge the rape without her consent (Detmer-Goebel 85).
Through Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare only pictures two female characters and each of them has a voice and the use of it in their distinct ways. Tamora, the other female character, has an opposite purpose for her voice. She pushes Aaron, her lover for sex in Act II, Scene ii where he then refers to her as Venus which is the Greek goddess associated with sexual desire. After Tamora and her lover are caught in the act by Lavina who almost taunts her, she decides to let her sons take her away to rape her. Lavina compares her future attackers to tigers, lions, and ravens. Ravens are usually connected with moral blackness or even the word itself (ravenishing) can mean ‘devouring’. Her words almost coincide with what is about to occur to her body. As Lavina begs for forgiveness of her Father from Tamora, Tamora harshly states, “The worse to her, the better loved of me” (Shakespeare 167). Tamora’s words are powerful and directly go against the only other female in this play. Lavina points out this exact issue through her words, “No grace? No womanhood? Ah, beastly creature, The blot and enemy to our general name” (Shakespeare 182-183). These lines are a direct aim at the clear difference in the two women’s voices. Lavina tells her that she is an enemy of the reputation of all womanhood.
Some of her last words that Shakespeare writes her shows a bigger issue of voice especially through this time period and in today’s culture. While there is limited females in this play, Tamora goes against the only same sex character leaving Lavina vulnerable and helpless. Though these lines shows Tamora’s significant power within the play, it doesn’t necessarily show how well she uses that feminine voice. By the end of Lavinia’s last plead she remarks “Confusion fall -” before her entire speech is cut off by Chiron who covers her mouth. These last words give a horrific foreshadowing to what will become of her voice. The word “confusion” can have the perception of ruin, putting to shame, mental distress, or throwing into disorder which all happen to Lavinia due to the voice Tamora holds within the scene. These final two words show a shift in the authority of her voice. Without her actual speech, Lavinia must find a way to have “voice” through her physical body which fluctuated her power. Through Act II, Tamora shows her wickedness and extreme brutality against Lavinia and womanhood as she encourages her sons to rape Lavinia for revenge. As her sons cut off her tongue and hands, they not only humiliate her, but revoke any source of communication for her to confess her own rape to her father. Lavinia may be lacking the ability to form or write words with hands, she still uses her physical being in the beginning of Act IV to reveal her rape. The stage notes read “she takes the staff in her mouth, and guides it with her stumps, and writes” (Shakespeare 76). With her body, Lavinia is able to break her ‘silence’, but is still silenced by the men of her family. Immediately following the reveal, they command, “Lavinia, kneel,” to make her swear to enact revenge against her rapists (Shakespeare 87). This line brings the last screeching halt to Lavinia’s voice. Lavinia fought through the danger and embarrassment of revealing her rape to only have the remaining power of punishment taken from her. Through the statutory rape laws discussed in the article by Detmer-Goebel, Lavinia should have been able to pick whether she wanted to have her father seek revenge or punishment within a courtroom. As the readers eventually reads, she is given no choice and killed by Titus because of his ‘mercy’. The little power Lavinia had left by the means of her own body was eventually taken away by her own father. She fights to keep her voice, but finds herself ultimately paralyzed by masculine decisions.
So how does voice and body exactly relate to Tamora’s character in comparison to Lavinia’s? Tamora’s voice is primarily seen throughout the use of her body just in a more sexual manner in the play. Deborah Willis through a journal article she wrote called “The gnawing vulture: Revenge, Trauma Theory, and Titus Andronicus” details that Tamora is centered around sexuality and barbaric actions in the play. Tamora tries to make her body a presence on stage as a piece of her “voice”, but was almost distracted by her own sexuality. Willis argues that Tamora was written as a sexual character to show how the use of her body could be used for revenge and connects her entire family to one another between herself, her lover, and her rapist sons (Willis 39). Willis explains how Tamora’s sexuality works to get what she most desires and how that is the “voice” we see projected from the character during the play. As Tamora uses her voice to tell Lavinia that she “cannot rob her sweet sons of their fee”, she is then able to immediately find her lover (Shakespeare 179). By pushing Lavinia towards her rape, it creates this twisted purpose for herself and her own family. Tamora may seem more powerful in her voice throughout the story, but purely through her sexuality. To an audience of Shakespeare’s time, this could have been seen more as a prostitute than a women’s freedom of their sexuality. Lavinia, on the other hand, uses her body in the opposite way by opposing to the sexual acts that were forced upon her body. This not only shows the difference in the use of female body, but how power shifts through one’s own sexuality and unwanted sexual acts. Tamora is seen on stage as a women who uses her sexuality for power against others, while Lavinia’s use of body brings about an almost persuasive presence that warns women against using their sexuality.
Shakespeare’s only two depicted female characters in Titus Andronicus are not only highly debated to this day, but show a huge difference in using body for voice on stage and still in society today. Through the lines of Titus Andronicus, Lavinia knows she is about to be “ravished”, but begs for death over rape. Her body in the latter scenes reflect how brutal her rape was, but also calls into question how her body still serves as her voice in its entirety. Tamora, nonetheless, encourages the rape and finds her power through her body’s use of sexuality. Through the society that this play was written, women and sexuality were something not encouraged and who claimed their rape was being called into subject. Titus Andronicus definitely served the purpose of voice during a weird transition in history. Not only was a women’s voice a common theme in that era, but it continues to create an issue in today’s society making it more relevant than ever.
Detmer-Goebel, Emily. “The Need for Lavinia’s Voice: Titus Andronicus and the Telling of Rape.” Shakespeare Studies, vol. 29, 2001, pp. 75-88.
Shakespeare, William, and Jonathan Bate. Titus Andronicus. ser. 3rd, The Arden Shakespeare, 2015.
Willis, Deborah. “‘The gnawing vulture’: Revenge, Trauma Theory, and Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 53, no. 1, 2002, pp. 21-32.
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Through in-depth studying and interpretation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, the two voices of Lavinia and Tamora are not only visibly present to the audience, but completely different of how women’s […]