The late afternoon sun washed the Italian cypresses and eucalyptus trees in gold. A light wind made a lazy melody in the chimes. From a neighboring yard somewhere over the rolling, low-desert hills, a horse occasionally neighed. Except for the dogs, twitching their ears at far-off stirrings in their half-asleep sunning, no one else was home. I topped off my glass of a big red from a local vineyard. My in-laws’ Southern Californian porch was a perfectly peaceful place for “Human sacrifice. Gang rape. Ritual butchery. Mother-son cannibalism,” as my Norton Shakespeare introduces it.
The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a most violent play.
In Henry V, I was struck by the vivid violence of the king’s battle speeches. In Titus Andronicus, I was struck by the bald brutality of the stage directions. For this project, I usually favor personal reflection over plot summary, but Titus Andronicus is just, well, let me take you through it, blow by bloody blow, in selected stage directions.
Please note: the brackets in the following stage directions indicate the work of editors, whose incredible efforts have helped render the texts that we read today. And forget spoiler alerts: Titus Andronicus warrants parental advisories and trigger warnings. There’s also some strong language ahead.
Exit Titus’ sons with ALARBUS
Enter [QUINTUS, MARCUS, MUTIUS, and LUCIUS,] the sons of Andronicus, again, with bloody swords
After Titus defeats the Goths, he sacrifices Alarbus, one of the sons of Tamora, the conquered queen, against her desperate pleas.
OK, one kill. It’s Shakespeare. It’s Ancient Rome. I can handle this so far.
[He attacks MUTIUS]
[TITUS] kills him
[Exit with Mutius’ body]
Enter MARCUS and TITUS’ son [LUCIUS, QUINTUS, and MARTIUS, carrying Mutius’ body]
They put [MUTIUS] in the tomb
Though the people call for him to serve as the new emperor, Titus nobly cedes to Saturninus, the late emperor’s eldest. Saturninus wants – and Titus gives over – Lavinia as his wife, an honor to the Andronici clan. But Lavinia is already engaged to Bassanius, Saturninus’ brother. Did neither of them know this?
To defend Lavinia, some of her brothers abscond with her, which Titus feels brings them dishonor. Naturally, Titus kills off Mutius, one of his sons. Um, what the fuck, Titus? Titus even tries to stop his sons from burying Mutius in the family tomb, feeling it would further dishonor to his clan. Meanwhile, Saturninus marries Tamora instead.
[He] stab[s BASSANIUS]
[He stabs BASSANIUS, who dies.
[DEMETRIUS and CHIRON cast BASSANIUS’ body into the pit and cover the mouth of it with branches, then exeunt dragging LAVINIA]
Tamora’s surviving sons Chiron and Demetrius lust after Lavinia, but they have to get her alone. So, while the emperor is out on a hunt with his imperial retinue, including Titus, the two kill off Bassanius, the scheme pushed along by Tamora and her lover, Aaron, a slave and Moor.
Enter the Empress’ sons, [CHIRON and DEMETRIUS,] with LAVINIA, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, and ravished.
Slow down there, Shakespeare. Just slow down. Not only do they rape her, but they chop off her hands and tongues, so she can’t reveal who has mutilated her.
Enter the Judges, [Tribunes,] and Senators with Titus’ two sons, [MARTIUS and QUINTUS,] bound, passing [over] the stage to the place of execution, and TITUS going before, pleading
He cuts off Titus’ hand.
What? More severed hands? In revenge for Titus’ sacrifice of Alarbus, Tamora and Aaron plotted to frame Martius and Quintus, two of Titus’ sons, for the death of Saturninus’ brother. Aaron says he will accept one of Titus’ hands in lieu of executing the alleged murderers.
Enter a MESSENGER with two heads and a hand.
[He sets down the heads and hand]
Psych. Aaron manages two heads – and one hand. Needless to say, Titus goes full Walter White. His son, meanwhile, rallies Goths to lead a siege in Rome.
[He takes a knife, and strikes.]
That’s just Titus’s brother, Marcus, killing a fly…because it’s “coal-black” like Aaron, the Moor (3.2.77). Oh, you better believe there’s some raging racism in this revenge play.
Lavinia turns the books over with her stumps
He writes his name with his staff, and guides it with feet and mouth
She takes the staff in her mouth, and guides it with her stumps, and writes
After instruction from her uncle, Lavinia uses her remaining appendages, with gut-wrenching exertion, to expose her assaulters to her family.
Enter NURSE with a blackamoor child
He kills her
Yup, “blackamoor.” Aaron and Tamora have a lovechild, which Tamora has ordered Aaron to kill. So his son can live, Aaron kills the nurse instead, one of the few people who know about the bastard, and steals back his baby. To keep his son safe, Aaron tries to swap his own for another, whiter child.
[PUBLIS, CAIUS, and VALENTINE bind and gag CHIRON and DEMETRIUS]
He cuts their throats.
The remaining Andronici capture Chiron and Demetrius. Titus kills them. But his revenge – his twisted revenge – is not complete.
He kills her
Nope, not Tamora. Titus kills Lavinia in front of Saturninus, Tamora, and their many noble guests as they are eating for dinner. Her rape, according to those most compassionate Ancient Roman codes of honor, has only brought shame down on the Andronici. Titus is also a cook in this scene, as he wanted to make a special dish to show his continued loyalty to emperor. The secret ingredient?
[revealing the heads]
I’m going to quote some actual text at this point. But before continuing, go tell your parents, children, significant other, or, hell, whoever’s in the same room as you that you love them.
“Why, there they are,” Titus says, revealing the heads of Chiron and Demetrius.
both baked in this pie
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred (5.3.59-62)
Shakespeare even makes a rhyme of this diabolical cannibalism. A jaunty, little rhyme.
In the previous scene, we saw Titus salivating at his pièce de résistance:
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 [pastry] 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. (5.2.185-90)
He stabs the Empress
Titus kills Tamora.
[He kills TITUS]
Saturninus kills Titus.
He kills SATURNINUS. Confusion follows.
Lucius kills the emperor.
Confusion “follows”? The whole scene’s sheer madness.
Lucius closes the play for us with some lethal lines. First, he metes out Aaron’s judgment: “Set him breast-deep in earth and famish him. / There let him stand, and rave, and cry for food” (5.3.178-79). Then, as Saturninus is comparatively unbloodied in this savage shit-show, Lucius has him buried in his family’s grave, Titus in his. And for Tamora? No funeral rites are to honor her:
As for that ravenous tiger, Tamora,
…throw her forth to beast and birds to prey.
Her life was beastly and devoid of pity,
And being dead, let birds on her take pity” (5.3.194-99)
Exeunt with the bodies.
Holy shit, Shakespeare. The Bard is well over 400 years of Saturday, but he can make Game of Thrones seem tame.
On the one hand, Titus Andronicus seems so gratuitous by modern standards. It’s why ISIS’ beheadings are so scary and such effective propaganda. “We are not like them,” we say of suicide bombers, mass killers – and they say of their victims. “Thou art a Roman; be not barbarous,” as Titus’ brother Marcus exhorts him when Titus tries to block his son’s own burial (1.1.375). Violence compels tribal identification.
On the other hand, there have been seven films in the Saw franchise, for instance. There’s a perverse pleasure many of us take in all the gore that drenches our TV, film, and video games. In this violence, perhaps we play out primordial fantasies of vengeance, of justice, of restoring some sort of an essential order in an unfair universe by the strength of our own arms. “I am Revenge,” Tamora attempts to trick Titus, “sent from th’infernal kingdom / To ease the gnawing vulture of thy mind / by working wreakful vengeance on thy foes” (5.2.30-32) In violence, there’s catharsis, but also calibration and equilibration. Exeunt with bodies.
As I mentioned previously, Titus Andronicus has stumped me. For all its shocking carnage, I was able to read it quickly. But since, I’ve been unable to write up a response. I just haven’t known what to make of all its carnage. I’ve not found a personal way in to understanding its violence – until I realized that it’s not the violence of the play that has challenged me. It’s the fictions.
These fictions don’t grow on trees or flow in rivers. Their only habitat is in the mind of man.
The man-written fiction of honor codes compel Titus to hold respect for the emperor above his own son, to kill his daughter for the ‘shame’ Ancient Romans believed rape victims brought on their families. The fiction of revenge, of retaliatory and retributive justice. These don’t grow on trees and flow in rivers. Their only habitat is in the mind of man.
Now, I’ve not lost anyone, knock on wood, to a drunk driver, to a rapist, to a murderer, to a mass shooter, to a suicide bomber. So I can’t speak to the loss, the grief, the horror, the dishonor. But what’s interesting to me is that the characters in Titus Andronicus don’t really speak to what it feels like. To how honor and revenge rankle in their souls and drive them to extreme ends. Titus and Tamora describe the act and fact of revenge, say, but I never felt any visceral insights into underlying sense of violation they’ve suffered.
Interestingly, the closest to any interiority we get is actually from Aaron, the North African slave, when he steals his child (whom Tamora orders killed, as his skin color will betray their affair) from the nurse. In this moment, he stops to reflect on race:
What, what, ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys,
Ye whitelimed walls, ye alehouse painted signs,
Coal-black is better than another hue
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean
Can never tun the swan’s black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood. (4.2.96-101)
Curiously, Aaron also repents before he’s being quasi-buried alive, although I imagine there’s a very Christian subtext to this penitence.
But, back to the main. I think the real horror of Titus Andronicus turns out not to be the violence as it’s staged: It’s in the violence as it is not staged. The interior violence: the shame, the hate, the pain, the passion that we sacrifice ourselves over to for honor and revenge. Titus Andronicus shows us the consequences of pursuing these fictions, but he leaves us to imagine what it would be like if we were so violated. Of how far we would – and can – go if we’re and our own are so horribly wronged. It’s that violence, perhaps caged in all our hearts, that can be most startling.
I’d say a little wine and California sunshine sound really nice right about now.