In 2000, in order to finish my Bachelor of Liberal Art degree, in which I focused on English, I had to pen a research paper. For my topic, I chose to discuss Shakespeare’s use of violence in his first tragedy, Titus Andronicus.
Shakespeare’s first tragedy, Titus Andronicus, has occupied an uneasy place in the canon of the Bard of Avon. Although it was, by all accounts, a runaway hit in Shakespeare’s own time, it fell into disrepute after his death. During the 18th and 19th Centuries, Titus Andronicus was not only absent from the stage, it was also absent from critical consideration. The most attention the play had long received was a disputation of its authenticity as an actual Shakespeare play.
At first glance, it is not difficult to see why Titus Andronicus has long been treated as the embarrassing black sheep of Shakespeare’s dramatic oeuvre. Primarily, the neglect of Shakespeare’s first tragedy resulted from the frequent acts of violence in the play. In the first act alone, there are two occurrences of graphic violence. Albarus, one of Tamora’s sons, is ritually sacrificed (including instructions from Titus to “hew his limbs till they be clean consumed”) a scant 130 lines into the act. Titus, in a fit of rage, kills Mutius, one of his own sons. Further acts of violence include the rape and dismemberment (of hands and tongue) of Lavinia (II.i); the murder of Bassianus (II.iii); the dismemberment of Titus’s hand (III.i); the beheading of Quintus and Martius (III.i); the murder of Tamora’s nurse (IV.i); the murder of Chiron and Demetrius (V.ii); a cannibal-feast (V.iii); and finally, the murders of Titus, Tamora, Saturninus, and Lavinia (V.iii). this list is in itself a mind-numbing catalogue of violence. Compounding it is the fact that the majority of these acts take place on stage; in the later tragedies, Shakespeare kept much of the violence offstage, choosing instead to have the acts mentioned by the other characters (the beheading of Macbeth, the executions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, et al.)
Starting in the early 20th Century, critics began to take Titus Andronicus into consideration on a regular basis. A good deal has been written on the reasons for Shakespeare’s exhaustive use of violence in the play. In the course of this paper, I will present and discuss some of the explanations critics have offered in reference to this plethora of violence. Following this presentation, I will offer my own consideration of the violence of Titus Andronicus, argue that Shakespeare was intentionally writing a comedy of violence, and show its connection to modern cinematic exercises in black comedy.
II. Critical Treatments of the Violence in Titus Andronicus
What critics have had to say about the violence of Titus Andronicus runs the gamut from the plausible to the obscure, all of which will be discussed in this section. It is important at the outset to bear in mind two important and critically accepted facts: this was Shakespeare’s first attempt at penning a tragedy, and he was just under the age of 30 when he wrote the play, which received its initial performance in 1594. It would be eight years and fifteen plays before the first performance of Hamlet, the first of the so-called Great Tragedies, in 1602. (Matters of chronology are taken from The Riverside Shakespeare.) Only six plays predate Titus Andronicus, so allowances must be made for the play’s flaws (subject matter for another paper) due to the immaturity of Shakespeare the playwright. I point this out as a defense of the play against the critical opinions given below that treat Titus Andronicus as a much more sophisticated play than it actually is.
There are the many arguments that Titus Andronicus is an exercise in Senecan Tragedy, which was a direct antecedent to the revenge tragedies of the Elizabethan Age. In all, Seneca, a 1st Century Roman philosopher wrote nine of these so-called Senecan Tragedies. The characteristics of the Senecan Tragedies include “long declamatory, narrative accounts of action…obtrusive moralizing…bombastic rhetoric…detailed accounts of horrible deeds and…long reflective solilquies.” (“Senecan Tragedy”) Some of these characteristics are certainly evident in Titus Andronicus. I have already mentioned the detailed accounts of horrible deeds. Bombastic rhetoric abounds throughout the play; barely has Act I begun before Marcus Andronicus is making his case for Titus as rightful emperor. Of Titus, Marcus says
A nobler man, a braver warrior,
Lives not this day within the city walls.
He by the senate is accited home
From weary wars against the barbarous Goths,
That with his sons, a terror to our foes,
Hath yok’d a nation strong, train’d up in arms.
Ten years are spent since first he undertook
This cause of Rome, and chastised with arms
Our enemies’ pride; five times he hath return’d
Bleeding to Rome, bearing his valiant sons
In coffins from the field,
And now at last, laden with honor’s spoils,
Returns the good Andronicus to Rome,
Renowned Titus, flourishing in arms.
From the purple prose spoken by his brother, one would be inclined to think that Titus and Sons single-handedly defeated the entire army of a race of peoples. These words of Marcus are only one example of the flowery dialogue and speeches that abound in Titus Andronicus right up to the play’s end, when Aaron the Moor delights in being unrepentant
Ah, why should wrath be mute and fury dumb?
I am no baby, I, that with base prayers
I should repent the evils I have done.
Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did
Would I perform if I might have my will.
If one good deed in all my life I did,
I do repent it from my very soul.
There is ample evidence in Titus Andronicus of bombastic rhetoric and detailed accounts of horrible deeds, but the other characteristics of Senecan Tragedy are not in evidence. Rarely is there a character alone onstage to deliver a soliloquy. The exception to this is Aaron the Moor, and his one soliloquy at the beginning of Act II is hardly self-reflective’ he does not have the anguish of Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be,” but rather he has the plotting machinations of
Then, Aaron, arm thy heart, and fit thy thoughts,
To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress…
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I? to wanton with this queen…
Nor is there obtrusive moralizing in Titus Andronicus. As the body count climbs and acts of violence are perpetrated, Shakespeare offers no moral judgment, no reason for his extreme use of violence. At the end of the play, the reader does not experience a catharsis, as is appropriate in tragedy; rather, the reader is left numb.
No less a critic than the poet T.S. Eliot refused to allow Titus Andronicus to be considered a Senecan tragedy:
It must be admitted that the greater number of horrors [in Elizabethan revenge tragedy] are such as Seneca himself would not have tolerated. In one of the worst offenders, indeed one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all… – in Titus Andronicus – there is nothing really Senecan at all. There is a wantonness, an irrelevance, about the crime of which Seneca himself would never have been guilty. Seneca’s Oedipus has the traditional justification for blinding himself … In Titus, the hero cuts off his own hand [sic] in view of the audience, who can also testify to the mutilation of the hands and tongue of Lavinia … There is nothing like this in Seneca. (Metz, page 47)
A more obscure critique may be found in Katherine A. Rowe’s “Dismembering and Forgetting in Titus Andronicus.” Rowe chooses to confine herself to a study of the acts of violence that entail dismemberment, and even more specifically, the dismemberment of hands. It is through this lens that Rowe views Titus Andronicus, for “hands, more than other body parts, figure the martial, marital, and genealogical bonds so much at risk in the play.” (Rowe, pg. 280)
Even as far back as Aristotle and Galen, the hand has been accorded more dignity and study than any of the other appendages of the human body. Galen regarded the hand as the ultimate instrument of human will and reason, the ultimate connection between agency and action. Rowe writes:
As instrument of reason, obviously voluntary in its motion, the hand serves as the physical link between intention (or volition) and act. It is peculiarly both the object world (that of tools and weapons that Galen imagines it as employing) and (as the physical metonym for those tools) the world of interiority, intentions, and inventions – that of the self. Living in these two worlds, the hand defines a relation between intention and acts and gives this relation a physical locus, naturalizing personal agency in the human form. (Rowe, pg. 282)
During the Medieval Age, the hand and its actions were a regular motif in many arenas of life. The shaking of hands between two parties could cement the settling of a contractual agreement; the actual paper document was secondary to the shaking of hands. The clasping of hands was also a common image of the marital bond between a man and a woman. A third common motif of the hand was in the martial arena: the hand clasping a sword, ready for battle.
It is these three common motifs of the hand that Rowe argues were employed by Shakespeare symbolically throughout Titus Andronicus. When Titus loses his hand in Act III, he no longer has the capacity for action; as an agent, he has lost the primary instrument of his free will. He becomes politically useless, as he is unable to settle contractual agreements; he becomes useless in marital matters, as he is unable to form a bond with a female; and he is martially useless, as he is unable to use a weapon in battle. Titus’s dismemberment makes it impossible for him “to construct a politically powerful and dynastically ensured identity – the kind so much as risk in Rome…” (Rowe, pg. 294)
The dismemberment of Lavinia is unsettling in that, without either hand, she is unable to perform even the most commonplace actions associated with the hand, such as washing and eating. Even more disturbing is the fact that Lavinia is unable to communicate who her assailants were – a unique twist on the myth of Philomela, who was able to sew the story of her attack into a sampler. Without the capacity for agency, “Lavinia this conveniently represents to her family nothing more than their own experience.” (Rowe, pg. 295)
While Rowe’s study of Titus Andronicus is interesting, it falls short of explaining what Shakespeare was up to when he included the extensive violence prevalent in the play. No doubt the young playwright was well aware of the motific imagery of the hand, and he may very well have included the dismemberment of Titus and Lavinia with this imagery in mind. What Rowe leaves unexplained are the many other acts of violence that Shakespeare puts on stage. It is impossible to take into academic consideration only one of the violent acts of Titus Andronicus, so pervasive are they throughout the play.
Gillian Murray Kendall provides a provocative explanation for the violence of the play in her essay, “‘Lend me thy hand’: Metaphor and Mayhem in Titus Andronicus.” Kendall studies the relationship between the acts of physical violence, the acts of verbal violence, and the acts of violence done to metaphor:
The world of Titus is not simply one of meaningless acts of random violence but rather one in which language engenders violence and violence is done to language through the distance between word and thing, between metaphor and what it represents. But the violence done to metaphor is only one aspect of violence associated with language in the play. Words in Titus distort the way characters view their world, and the patterns of previous fictions and myths influence, transform, and mutilate the action of the play. (Kendall, pg. 299)
In the opening passages of Titus Andronicus, metaphorical language is simply that: metaphorical. Images of a “headless Rome” abound. However, metaphoric language soon clashes with literal language, often in the same sentence, as when Titus says, “A better head her [Rome]glorious body fits/Than his [Titus] that shakes for age and feebleness.” (I.i.187-188) As the play progresses, this juxtaposition of language becomes more and more frequent, keeping the audience on the edge of their seats wondering which metaphorical expression of violence will be made literal, as when Titus tells Aaron: “Lend me thy hand, and I will give thee mine.” (III.i.187) Kendall points out that “this sounds like a greeting between old friends about to clasp hands – and that, of course, is exactly what Aaron and Titus are going to do – but in a troubling, double sense.” (Kendall, pg. 301)
In addition to the disjunction between metaphoric language and literal action, the characters of Titus Andronicus allow their paradigm of the action within the play to be shaped by preexisting myths, particularly that of the Rape of Philomel. When Marcus first encounters Lavinia after her rape, mutilation, and dismemberment, he immediately sees her as Philomela, going so far as to describe her mutilated body with the poetic language that Ovid used in describing Philomela. “Here,” writes Kendall, “the tale of Philomela becomes simply part of a series of mythic references divorced from what Marcus actually sees before him.” (Kendall, pg. 308)
There is also a juxtaposition between the way characters in Titus Andronicus view physical reality. The ways individual characters describe a physical setting vary depending on their perception of the world. In Act II, Titus optimistically sees “the field…fragrant and the woods…green,” (II.ii.2) in spite of the violence already committed at this point in the play. Tamora echoes these sentiments in the third scene of Act II when speaking to Aaron, but moments later tells her sons:
A barren detested vale you see it is;
The trees, though summer, yet forlorn and lean,
Overcome with moss and baleful mistletoe;
Here never shines the sun, here nothing breeds…
This constant disjunction between physical reality and metaphoric language has a dizzying effect on the audience, as they have “no objective reality to hold up against the rhetoric.” (Kendall, pg. 310)
Was Shakespeare, as Kendall argues, writing a play that would show “the reflection of a violence inherent in the nature of language”? (Kendall, pg. 316) It certainly serves as an effective and academically interesting explanation of the violence that pervades Titus Andronicus. I would agree with Kendall that Shakespeare was intentionally juxtaposing metaphorical language with physical reality, but not as an end in itself. Rather, Shakespeare created this disjointed reality in service of writing a ‘comedy of violence.’ And so, I now turn to the final section of my paper, wherein I present my own interpretation of Shakespeare’s use of violence in Titus Andronicus.
III. Titus Andronicus as a ‘Comedy of Violence’
At the outset of this section of my paper, it is necessary to define what I mean as a ‘comedy of violence’. ‘Comedy of Violence,’ as I choose to employ the phrase, is any mode of literature or film in which humor has its source in acts of violence and is about acts of violence. Such comedies of violence are much more prevalent in 20th-Century entertainment, in such films as Fargo and Pulp Fiction. While comparisons to such films, especially the latter, would be tempting, Titus Andronicus is a much deeper piece of fiction. Julie Taymor, director of a 1999 cinematic adaptation of Titus Andronicus, said that the play is “about how we make entertainment out of violence….Pulp Fiction is all surface…” (Bates)
I take my cue in arguing Titus Andronicus as a comedy of violence from literary critic Harold Bloom. In his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, Bloom writes:
The young Shakespeare delighted himself, and his contemporary audiences, by both mocking and exploiting [Christopher] Marlowe in Titus Andronicus: “If they want bombast and gore, then they shall have it!” seems the inner impulse that activates this bloodbath, the Shakespearean equivalent of what we now respond to in Stephen King and in much cinema. I would hesitate to assert that there is one good line in the play that is straight; everything zestful and memorable is clearly a send-up. (Bloom, pg. 78)
When viewed from this paradigm, the acts of violence in Titus Andronicus start to come more into focus as elements of a comedy of violence.
One of the most darkly humorous sections of the play occurs in the first scene of Act III, beginning with the entrance of Aaron the Moor at line 151, and running through line 287. Aaron brings word that Saturninus will spare the lives of Titus’s sons in exchange for the lopped-off hand of Titus, Marcus, or Lucius.
What ensues is a heated debate between the three as to which one should cut off his hand. Lucius argues that Titus cannot send his hand, as Titus’s hand has served Rome so well in battle; Marcus returns that his own hand has done nothing of use, while Titus and Lucius both used their hands in battle. Shakespeare seems to be mocking the ancient Roman virtue of Honor: none of the three tries to get out of chopping off his hand, they are all three trying to get in to chopping off his hand! Like a frustrated parent, Titus blows up at them:
Titus: Agree between you, I will spare my hand.
Lucius: Then I’ll go fetch an axe.
Marcus: But I will use the axe.
As soon as Marcus and Lucius have left the stage, Titus contradicts his own word and has Aaron chop off his hand with a sword. Marcus and Lucius return to find Titus dismembered; one can easily picture them holding an axe and looking disappointed that neither would get to lop off his own hand.
When a messenger enters with the hand of Titus and the severed heads of his two sons, Marcus sums up the acts of violence so far and rages at Titus’s inaction:
Now farewell, flatt’ry; die, Andronicus.
Thou dost not slumber; see, thy two sons’ heads,
Thy warlike hand, thy mangled daughter here,
Thy other banish’d son, with this dear sight
Struck pale and bloodless, and thy brother, I,
Even like a stony image, cold and numb.
Ah, now no more will I control thy griefs.
Rent off thy silver hair, thy other hand
Gnawing with thy teeth, and be this dismal sight
The closing up of our most wretched eyes.
Now is a time to storm, why art thou still?
Tit: Ha, ha, ha!
Marc: Why dost thou laugh? It fits no with this hour.
Tit: Why, I have not another tear to shed…
Titus’s reaction is insightful, and perhaps sums up best what Shakespeare was up to in the writing of Titus Andronicus. Violence was a commonplace element in the life of Elizabethan England, and Shakespeare seems to be telling his audience that, when all else fails, one can always laugh at the grotesque and the violent.
When Titus and company are ready to depart at the end of the same scene, they must first gather up all the severed body parts before they exit. The humor takes on an element of the absurd when Titus gives the following directions in a straightforward manner:
…Come, brother, take a head,
And in this hand the other I will bear;
And, Lavinia, thou shalt be employed;:
Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth.
As the violence in Titus Andronicus escalates, so too does the humor, spinning further and further into absurdity. This reaches its climax in the final scene of the play, the third scene of Act V. Unbeknownst to Tamora, Titus has slain her two sons, Chiron and Demetrius, and baked them into meat pies. Tamora and Saturninus arrive at Titus’s for a banquet, and Titus enters, according to the stage direction, “like a Cook.” In the aforementioned film adaptation, director Julie Taymor chose to place a 20th-Century apron and chef’s hat on Titus during this scene, a disturbingly funny image given what he has been baking; Titus becomes a sort of deranged Elizabethan Martha Stewart.
Titus is cheerful to a fault:
Welcome, my lord; welcome, dread queen;
Welcome, ye warlike Goths; welcome, Lucius;
And welcome, all. Although the cheer be poor,
‘Twill fill your stomachs, please you eat of it.
He bustles about the banquet room, more than eager to play the gracious host to his guests, all of whom are unaware of what the entrée actually is. And the revelation of what is contained in the meat pies is at once horrifying and hysterical:
Tamora: Why has thou slain thine only daughter thus?
Titus: Not I, ‘twas Chiron and Demetrius:
The ravish’d her, and cut away her tongue:
And they, ‘twas they, that did her all this wrong.
Saturninus: Go fetch them hither to us presently.
Titus: Why, there they are, both baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
Is there a moral to be learned in Shakespeare’s employment of violence for comic effect? One would be tempted to ascribe a lesson about the moral evil of violence, but as critic Donald Stauffer wrote, “…in spite of its loud protestations – perhaps because they are so loud – no one can take it seriously as a presentation of moral evil.” (Stauffer, pg. 17) Film critic Roger Ebert, in describing what Quentin Tarantino accomplished in Pulp Fiction, made a comparison that could be equally applicable to the Shakespeare of Titus Andronicus: “[He] is the Jerry Lee Lewis of [theatre], a pounding performer who doesn’t care if he tears up the piano, as long as everybody is rocking.” (Ebert)
Stauffer, in his book Shakespeare’s World of Images: The Development of His Moral Ideas, offered what I found to be the most insightful critical observation of Titus Andronicus:
He [Shakespeare] is so eager and ambitious. His audience must be impressed. Almost like a dog retrieving oddments to drop at his master’s feet, he presents his classical gleanings…What studied nonchalance in referring to Tully’s Orator! The University Wits must be matched, and Seneca and Ovid quoted without gloss in their own Latin. And what delight to contrive a scene which can quote Horace’s “Integer vitae” as an integral part of the plot!...
The humorless and the idolaters suspect Shakespeare’s authorship because of the revolting subjects. On the contrary, the frank simplicity of the treatment makes it more than ever the work of the gentle Shakespeare. … It should make splendid theatrical entertainment today … The audience might even place bets, as in reading horror stories or detective fiction, about who would die next or what the total number of the slain would be. Shakespeare used his inventiveness to think up some funny shockers, and some excellent examples of bathos, where one must admit Shakespeare again outdoes all rivals. (Stauffer)
Does Titus Andronicus deserve the same critical respect and attention that many of his other plays receive? The answer to that is ‘no.’ While the play is highly entertaining and provocative, it does not contain the many layers and possibilities of interpretations as Hamlet and King Lear, to name but two. At the same time, it is not a play that deserves to be ignored, as it was for two centuries, regarded with embarrassment and derision by critics. It also does not deserve much of the critical treatment that it has received in the 20th Century – to see Titus Andronicus as a tragedy is to miss the point.
Acts of violence were a commonplace element of the 20th Century, and continue to be now at the beginning of the 21st Century. The World Wars, the atomic bomb, the Vietnam War, the shootings at Columbine High School, the war in Iraq – violence is as commonplace today as it was in Elizabethan England, and Titus Andronicus continues to speak to society. The play does not condone violence, despite the fact that it is a comedy of violence. Our reaction to contemporary violence may well be the same as Titus’s reaction to the violence of his world: laughter, because we have no more tears to shed.
Is it a desperate laughter, a mocking laughter? Again, the answer is ‘no.’ Rather, it is a cathartic laughter; traditionally, catharsis comes through tears, cleansing the spirit of the human being. In contemporary society, it is laughter that must be used to cleanse the spirit. And after the spirit has been cleansed, action must be taken. As Lucius says at the end of Titus Andronicus:
Then, afterwards,…order well the state,
That like evens may ne’er it ruinate.
- Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.
- Calderwood, James L. Shakespearean Metadrama. University of Minneapolis: Minnesota Press, 1971.
- Evans, G. Blakemore, editor. The Riverside Shakespeare. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1974.
- Kendall, Gillian Murray. “‘Lend me thy hand’: Metaphor and Mayhem in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly Volume 40, Number 3 (1989): 299-316.
- Metz, Harold G. Shakespeare’s Earliest Tragedy: Studies in Titus Andronicus. Madison: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1996.
- Rowe, Katherine A. “Dismembering and Forgetting in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly Volume 45, Number 3 (1994): 279-303.
- Spurgeon, Caroline F. E. Shakespeare’s Imagery (And What it Tells Us). Cambridge: The University Press, 1958.
- Stauffer, Donald A. Shakespeare’s World of Images: The Development of His Moral Ideas. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1949.