Examining The Violent Language In Titus Andronicus English Literature Essay

5105 words (20 pages) Essay in English Literature

5/12/16 English Literature Reference this

Disclaimer: This work has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work produced by our Essay Writing Service. You can view samples of our professional work here.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of UK Essays.

Titus Andronicus (ca. 1593-94), an early tragedy penned by Shakespeare, is known among literary critics as the goriest of his plays. They attribute this feature through the spectacle of mutilation and murder that beset its characters. This paper argues that the violence of the play is situated subtly in its language, and not primarily in the actions. The illocutionary nature of language makes the violence possible through the use of animal imagery and intertexuality. Lavinia becomes the violent site of a disrupted homosocial relation.

O, why should nature build so foul a den,

Unless the gods delight in tragedies? 4.1.58-59

If physical pain were the gauge for calling a play a tragedy, then Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s most tragic [1] play because of the many mutilations that happen to its characters. For instance, the pitiable state of Lavinia’s maimed body is made more miserable by her tongue-less mouth gushing with blood. Titus’ left hand is cut in vain because Saturninus has not really asked for it as a ransom for Quintus and Martius. When Aaron announces the deal for the release of both sons, the audience-more or less-is given a rationale for the amputation as a viable option for the restoration of order. Although Titus believes hesitatingly Aaron’s words, nevertheless, such hesitations are framed as doubts based on the Moor’s color. For the modern audience, the amputation is becoming more of a viable reason compared to hesitation based on racial discrimination. A few lines later when a messenger brings Titus the heads of his sons, we feel a sense of brutality and goriness that lead to nothing but inhuman wastage. With Titus as the hero who has to suffer the death of his innocent sons, the play situates him on the verge of the greatest misfortune, making him less a human and more of a personification of misfortune itself. Classical theories on tragedy have often functioned as universalist explanations for human fate [2] . The atrocities in the play reinforce the idea of tragedy as a universalist notion or else how do audience make sense out of it, aside from doubting its Shakespearian authorship or explain it away as Shakespeare’s parody of his contemporaries’ revenge tragedies [3] . But if we look at the Early Modern theater from its historical point of view, the stage is indeed, like our own, is a microcosm of the world. However, its cosmology is more immediate than ours because it is a political microcosm of the world-unlike us who see the stage as microcosm at an aesthetic level. [4] 

Get Help With Your Essay

If you need assistance with writing your essay, our professional essay writing service is here to help!

Find out more

For Aristotle, tragedy depicts a great person-usually a nobleman-whose fate changed from good to bad (peripateia) due to some tragic flaw in his character (hamartia). For instance, Oedipus’ hubris motivates him to insist on the prophet to reveal the cause of pestilence. There is a sense of nobility in his persistence to know and to punish. The play ends with him “knowing” (anagnoresis) about life, more than he expects (the knowledge about the culprit’s identity). Hegel looks at tragedy as conflict between two ethics, two equally weighty sets of ethical standards, and the character is utilized by the playwright as a site for the dialectic. In a Hegelian sense, Titus is a tragic hero because at the middle of the play, the agglomeration of the sufferings of his children has transformed him into a revenge hero who, at the beginning of the play, is a patriot who unhesitatingly places loyalty to the Emperor over blood relations, thus proving it by killing Mutius at the first act. A Roman hero now turned into revenge hero, Titus represents two ethical gauges: one’s loyalty to the Emperor or one’s devotion to the family. The clash cannot but result to tragedy: “These tragic figures cannot do good without doing evil; they are doomed, not be a random predestination of bad luck, but by a situation in which all roads lead to wrong. [5] For Nietzsche, tragedy is the reconciliation between the Apollonian (civilization, reason) and the Dionysian (nature, emotion) through the acceptance of the terror of reality, or amor fati. [6] In Shakespearian criticism, Bradley is a descendant of these thinkers who saw tragedy as a universalist enterprise which could be explained across history and culture because “evil exhibits itself everywhere as something negative, barren, weakening, destructive, a principle of death. It isolates, disunites, and tends to annihilate not only its opposite but itself. That which keeps the evil men prosperous, makes him succeed, even permits him to exist, is the good in him.” [7] 

Despite the “agglomeration of atrocity” [8] going extreme in Titus, tragedy in its goriest aspect-even to the point of being a spectacle-has a function to play. Watson looks at tragedy as an acknowledgment of the presence of the violations against us, with the characters as our stand-ins. [9] 

Shakespeare’s play is based on a number of sources written across historical periods. Book VI of Ovid’s Metamorphoses is highly evident in the story of Philomela being used as a parallel to Lavinia’s rape. The Ballad of Titus Andronicus registered in 1594 at the Stationer’s register and a popular tale of a wicked Moorish servant, whose English version was entered in the Stationer’s Register in 1569-1570 could have served as sources for Shakespeare’s play [10] . The humanist movement had its influence in the style of the play too. In 1581, Thomas Newton edited the complete tragedies of Seneca in English. [11] His tragedies appealed to the English for several reasons: the theme of shortness of life and change of fortune; the play as a study of the tyrant’s characteristics; the five-act structure; its spectacle; an emphasis on a single character or two, hence making the play more comprehensible compared to Euripides who would create a lot more round characters; a reduction of a character to a single passion; and the rising importance of rhetoric in the European courts. [12] Despite Euripedes’ influence on Seneca, according to McDonald, the similarity between Euripedean and Senecan tragedies are superficial because Seneca has less poetic spark and more moralistic declamations in his plays. [13] Hence, a number of Latin declamatory lines are spread throughout Titus Andronicus [14] . Examples of Latin lines intertwine with English:

Sit fas aut nefas [15] till I find the stream

To cool this heat, a charm to calm these fits,

Per Stygia, per manes vehor [16] .

An adaptation from the lines of Hippolytus, a Senecan play about a stepmother’s illicit love for her stepson, adorns the tragic yearning of Titus:

Magni dominator poli,

Tam lentus audis scelera, tam lentus vides? [17] (4.1.80-81)

Latin also serves as an opportunity for oratorical declarations. This line is taken from Metamorphoses: Terras Astraea reliquit [18] (4.3.4). Compared to his later plays, indeed Titus Andronicus lacks the poetic luster of Hamlet-a revenge tragedy also-as seen by the frequency of his proverbial expressions: “But metal…steel to the very back” (4.3.48) or “Ay, like a black dog, as the saying is” (5.1.122). Shakespeare might have written mainly for a literary audience due to his frequent references to classical literature. [19] Senecan plays-also known as closet plays-lent well to the declamations common to rhetorical schools. [20] In case Titus Andronicus is far different in style from the later Shakespearian plays, Waith suggests that at times there are styles which are common to most writers belonging to a certain historical period, or writers were adept in using more than one style. [21] Despite criticisms about this play, Watson argues that it would be “wrong to dismiss these plays as misguided or trivial works merely because of their sensationalism; there is a necessary genius behind the misprision and exploitation of Senecan violence” [22] .

Before 1698, Titus Andronicus has been frequently performed until distaste for horror and doubt of its authorship waned the public interest towards the play. [23] The Victorians also staged the play without the rape and mutilation of Lavinia. [24] In America, an advertisement for Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia reads: “The manager, in announcing this play, adapted by N.H. Bannister from the language of Shakespeare alone, assures the public that every expression calculated to offend the ear, has been studiously avoided, and the play is presented for their decision with full confidence that it will merit their approbation” [25] . To avoid goriness, scenes of Lavinia had to be presented with aesthetic stylization. [26] Peter Brook’s performance at Stratford in 1955 downplayed brutality. Titus’s hand is carried by Lavinia’s arms (in the original, Lavinia has to carry it with her mouth) and Chiron and Demetrius’ murder is done offstage. [27] A formalist approach to these scenes has also been done to mitigate the violence of the play. Gerald Freedman’s 1967 production has sidestepped brutality to the point of defamiliarization [28] 

Find out how UKEssays.com can help you!

Our academic experts are ready and waiting to assist with any writing project you may have. From simple essay plans, through to full dissertations, you can guarantee we have a service perfectly matched to your needs.

View our services

Julie Taymor’s production suggests a Brechtian project by aiming to deconstruct movie violence within a violent movie. [29] The extreme brutality in the play is almost close to unreality; the spectacle has become comic-especially when Titus asks Lavinia to carry his hand in her mouth. But audience could be mixed. In Sunday Times dated Novemeber 11, 1951 Harold Hobson reports that he “found practically the whole company waving gory stumps and eating cannibal pies… really splendid” [30] . Eric Shorter, in a Bristol New Vic performance in 1978 said that it “it proved surprisingly unlaughable … until the closing cannibalistic supper” [31] .

Why this much violence? Where does atrocity lurk? Productions and criticisms have often emphasized the spectacle as a performance-just as the imagination reenacts the scenes even during silent reading. The bloody actions have frequently been foregrounded to the extent that the play indeed proves itself to be goriest. Since plays are indeed meant to be performed and watched, the spectacle leaves the mind preoccupied with the external brutality to the point of judging it a the most violent of the Shakespearian plays-the judgment based on the physical performatives like stabbing, maiming, cutting, baking and raping.

This paper aims to locate the violence in the motif used in the play. Such violence in the language through its use of imagery that are inherently negative or images thought of as positive but used negatively in the play make the play more violent than ever thought before. It is more violent on two grounds. First, the violence of the words further sanctions the violence to be acted out. As speech acts, declarations-which are inherently verbal-have to precede the actions. Hence, words give “truthfulness” (in an empirical sense because the action corroborates the declaration) to the actions-regardless of their characteristic. The words bind the character to perform the declared action, or else his identity crumbles and it attains an instability caused by lies and incapacity to legitimize his utterance. This point is very important especially when we look at Titus as a Roman hero who must give truth to his words through actions. In the first scene, he arrives victorious in Rome. Although he enters later than Saturninus who immediately opens up the conflict in the emperorship, Titus has declared his identity as a Roman first and a father next. In the pre-play (before the play begins), he has already sacrificed sons for the empire and he is ready to let go of the emperorship as long as Rome would just remain in harmony. As pledge to his loyalty to the empire over his family, he kills Mutius-as a form of legitimization of his words. Second, because words are less tangible on stage compared to the performance, the play becomes more violent because the violence is couched in the rhetorical floridness of Senecan tragedies. Although his closet plays indeed uses spectacle and reversal of fortune as theme for his Stoic philosophy, Seneca also had close ties with the Greek Classical World which lent his plays a sense of traditional continuity with Euripides’. With the rebirth of the classics also burgeoned the desire for a perfect form. The five act structure was considered as the ideal theatre form, which also influenced later seventeenth-century French dramas. Since these features of Senecan tragedies and the subsequent Early Modern tragedies he influenced were emphasized, certain traces of the violence inherent in the language of the plays-in this particular case, Titus Andronicus-became less conspicuous than their spectacle. Even then, the goriness seemed to be blanketed by the rhetoric and Latin lines that suggest the validity of brutality in so far as it was couched in the Roman orderliness. More so, brutality was not an end in a Senecan performance: it was a means to show the twist of fate and an instruction on living a good life. Moralizing in tragedy coincided with the Puritan obsession with hell and ethics. I don’t mean to say that there was no conflict between Puritanism and the theater. That is a preposterous statement which does not take into account the location assigned to the early theaters. There was a conflict between theater and Puritanism, but it was a conflict that surprisingly met halfway. Subsuming the theater under the Puritan obsession with didacticism, the former absorbed the discourse of the latter so that it its justification-even though it was only a permission to exist in the geographical fringes of London-was based on the very obsession of Puritanism. As a spectacle physically performed on stage, Titus Andronicus was an artifact among other idiosyncratic brutalities of the Elizabethans like bear-baiting and the inhumane treatment of the insane. Nevertheless being spectacles as seen (and not read) by the naked eye, Shakespeare’s early play was no match to the goriness realistically offered by other Elizabethan “diversions.” Only in its language could Titus Andronicus match-or even outperform-these entertainments in their violence. But this insidious characteristic of the play’s violence all the more makes it more atrocious because of its subtlety-in a sense that actions are more tangible than words at the outset. Since violence has embedded itself in the words, violence becomes reiterable in a linguistic sense. Transcribed into paper, they ironically lend themselves more tangible through time-compared to performances-and perpetuate linguistic violences across historical periods and cultures.

If Cleanth Brooks locates the “naked babe” as the motif for the violence perpetrated in Macbeth, the play Titus Andronicus situates its imagery in animals [32] and their connotations like hunting and sacrifice. Hamlet is also a revenge tragedy, but it situates its conflict in the play put up by the tragic hero. Therefore, the recognition of the stage as the central to the anagnoresis is almost at the middle of the play already. Titus Andronicus, on the other hand, immediately introduces the locus for the tragedy-the revenge against “irreligious piety” (1.1.130). The death of Alarbus foreshadows the later violence to come like the rape of Lavinia, the death of Chiron and Demetrius, and eventually the end of Titus. Something quaint about this play comes from its inversion of signals. If the motif is based on animal imagery consistently sprinkled over the play and its connotation of sacrifice, then Shakespeare used the person of Alarbus to introduce the animals to be named henceforth in the play. It suggests that Alarbus functions as a signifier for the animals (signified). As a linguistic component that precedes the idea it signals, the signifier-from the point of view of the audience-comes first because its utterance would fish out signifieds familiar to the listeners. Such inversion of signals implies two things. First, Alarbus is equated to an animal itself because the signifier should be parallel-even in one semantic sense-to the signified. The barbarity of the Goths is confirmed here as it was “confirmed” on them in the pre-play. The juxtaposition between Rome and the land of the Goths-with Tamora bringing with her a Moor-is a clue to the audience notion of the non-Romans as barbarians. [33] No other signal could be used to preclude the rest of the minor animal images from claiming centrality except the sacrifice of Alarbus. Second, his death also spurred the rest of the characters to a revenge binge so that they also share in the animalistic character of the sacrificed. Lucius killing Alarbus, Tamora seeks revenge in her subtle way. Bassianus is a casualty to the plan against Lavinia, Martius and Quintus are framed up, and Chiron and Demetrius are turned into pasties. Hence, Titus’s claim that Rome has become a “wilderness of tigers” (3.1.54) encompasses most of the characters.

Second, obsession for blood is contained also in the notion of hunting: “I would we had a thousand Roman dames/At such a bay [hunt [34] ], by turn to serve our lust” (4.1.41-42). As a means to subsistence, hunting functions also as a higher form of sustenance through communication with the deity. Something caught in a hunt is offered to the higher being as a pact to sustain the relationship between the supplicant and the god. The Elizabethans are familiar with the Biblical basis of sacrifice. The book of Judges (11:30-40) tells about Jephtah who sacrifices his daughter as an offering for a victorious war. In fact, the sacrifice of Abraham is a favorite during the Reformation. [35] As the Europeans encountered different religious practices in the New World, the notion of sacrifice had to be rethought so that the Biblical sacrifices had to be distinct from the pagan sacrifices recounted by the explorers. If the Biblical sacrifices were to be proven legitimate, Early Modern paradigm should accept the existence of various sacrifices due to religious differences. From there, it could make a distinction between ethical and unethical sacrifices based on its conformity to the natural law. [36] An Aristotelian-Thomistic concept, the natural law was a comfortable concept to assuage uneasiness in the realization of how the Bible and the New World practices were similar. Natural law is different from the law of nature. The latter governs biology and physics like the law of gravity, alimentary concerns, and anatomical preoccupations. Natural law, on the other hand, is supposedly a notion of right and wrong imbedded in the soul at the moment of conception-regardless of whether it has been baptized or not. The universality of the natural law justified the Ten Commandments-like the law against killing, stealing, etc.-and proved the essentialist notion of conscience (or synderesis, according to Aquinas). Intended or not, this ethical-theological concept of synderesis would also spur an imperialist project for colonial domination under the aegis of enlightening the natives, upon whose hearts the natural law was already present but remained dormant because of paganism.

Even the gentle Lavinia is called a “wasp” (2.3.132) who might sting her rapists once she squeals on them. Tamora, who has called Lavinia an insect, also gets her share of metaphor at the end of the play:

But throw her forth to beasts and birds of prey;

Her life was beastly and devoid of pity,

And being dead, let birds on her take pity. (5.3.197-199)

Proverbial, trite images are also employed in so far as they connote animals. The nurse, when she hands the baby to Aaron, calls it “as loathsome as a toad” (4.2.67). Such expression stings because of its trope and also its triteness parallels the insignificance of the baby’s life from the point of view of the nurse. Another way Shakespeare uses animals is by juxtaposing contrasting animals to create irony. For instance, when Titus sees Aaron coming from the palace to tell him about the emperor’s bargain, Titus exclaims: “O gracious Emperor! O gentle Aaron! / Did ever raven sing so like a lark” (3.1.157-158). The blackness of the first bird is a racial innuendo that, like a shrill cry, adds insult to injury by contrasting it against the melodious lark. A sense of doubt pervades Titus’ lines that ascend the contrast to racial tropes. The raven and the lark do not just signify the quality of news-death in the case of raven, and hope in the case of the lark-but also a racial distinction between skin colors, whose simulacra are the feather shades. Insects could also displace the hated person. For instance, when the Andronici learned about the death of Martius and Quintus, Marcus stabbed the fly with his knife: “At that I have killed, my lord-a fly” (3.2.53). Titus, surprised with Marcus’s act, inquires. Justifying his act of cruelty as a topicality to the recent news of his nephews’ death, he replies: “Pardon me, sir; it was a black ill-favoured fly, /Like to the Empress’ Moor; therefore I killed him” (3.2.66-67). Notice the use of the pronoun “him.” A mere insect is given a higher life form that transforms it into a person. Yet this change of subjectivity-if we may lend such to an insect-is easily denigrated through its association with the Moor, thus leading to its death. The insect in this passage simultaneously undergoes both absorption-in Greenblatt’s sense-and displacement because it stands in as a representation of Aaron and Marcus’ scapegoat for the unbridled angry he holds against the black man.

The intertextuality of the play also boils down to animals and passion. As a framework for the crime, Ovid’s Metamorphoses recounts the story of Philomela who is raped by Tereus, the husband of her sister Procne. Philomela is abandoned in the woods tongueless. When her sister found out, both Procne and Philomela devises a plan for revenge. Procne kills Tereus’ son Itys and serves the boy to his father. Learning about it, Tereus vows vengeance over the sisters. But the gods transformed Procne into a swallow, Philomela into a nightingale, and Tereus into a hoopoe. The presence of Metamorphoses serves as a sanction to imitate the violence read in the book. The effect of the book is so subtle and potent that anyone connected to it also shares in the spirit of revenge. This could be likened to Umberto Eco’s masterpiece The Name of the Rose, where those who desire the manuscript fall into obsession leading to death. Lucius’s son, the owner of the book, succumbs to anger in both the tale and its contemporary reenactment. His asides during the errand show hostility. If Ovid’s tale pervades the textual atmosphere of the play, the setting also invites gloom: “Here never shines the sun, here nothing breeds,/ Unless the nightly owl or fatal raven” (2.3.96-97). The hole that serves as the grave of Bassianus is a site for both a lie and a mutilation. Tamora provokes her sons when she tells them about Bassianus’ threat to throw her into the hole, she deceives her sons with “A thousand hissing snakes,/ Ten thousand swelling toad, as many urchins (2.3.100-101).

After looking into the intertexuality and the setting which breed violence, it is but proper we look into the concerns of medicine during the Classical and Early Modern periods to evaluate how medical discourse could be utilized to understand the violence which centers on Lavinia. According to Maclean, medicine during the Greek period until the sixteenth century studied women to answer the following basic questions: What is the origin of semen? Do both sexes produce it? Which part of the body develops in the fetus first? What determines sex and resemblance of children to parents? [37] Medicine being coupled with philosophy, the notion of women was subject to speculative and cultural understanding. Aristotle’s Metaphysics contains the Pythagorean opposites which govern the world and the individual. [38] The paradigm of opposites that situate it on the difference in anatomy has been oppressive in both medical and literary productions. In Timaeus, one of Plato’s dialogues, he says that women are reincarnations of dissolute men. This negative image of women is connected to the “lack” that Aristotle and Galen saw: women are less developed, lacks heat for reproduction, sexual organs internal, cold and moist as dominant humors, unable to concoct perfect semen from the blood. Such attribution of heat in the body became a trope for psychological attributes: courage, liberality and moral strength for men, and weakness, hysteria, and dissolution for women. [39] Aristotle’s Historia Animalium, IX.l connects biological observations with gender “truths” on the differences between sexes. [40] A “scientific” account of animals whose characteristics were transported to humans have informed the medical world until the Middle Ages. Although theology, through Aquinas, admitted the equality of the sexes in the spiritual world, it did not account for the inequality apparent in the lived world. [41] Hence, the Thomistic notion of equality was just a tokenism that meant no change in the society.

Against this cultural backdrop, the woman then became a cause of the tragic life and theater was the site for tragedy that reenacted her condemnation. In Theatrum Mundi, Pierre Boaistuau posits that human tragedy starts at the “uncleanenesse” [42] of the womb. As bane for humanity, she was also the cause for disharmony. In Titus Andronicus Lavinia’s rape is symptomatic of the destruction of Roman political order. [43] As a symptom to be eliminated altogether with the disease, Lavinia’s death then is an important step-for the patriarchy-for the restoration of the status quo. A heroine could sometimes function as a gauge for feminine virtue and at the same time she is a demonstration of the effects of disorder. A woman whose speech is equipped with the patriarchal discourse is considered a threat because “to have a tongue is at one level to be equipped with a phallus” [44] . In the case of rape, a woman’s capacity to speak about her ravishment must conform to the procedures imposed by the patriarchy-she must maintain an image of herself as a good, chaste woman. If some conditions were not met, then her accusation of abuse may backfire against her. [45] Lavinia’s rape could take on two types-both of which she has to endure. The first one is done by Tamora’s sons. But prior to that, her facticity has also been raped by the pact Titus, her father, and Saturninus agree on. Lavinia, the obedient daughter, becomes the chattel for exchange. Titus, trying to procure a reassurance of his loyalty to the empire, buys Saturninus’ approval by trading off Lavinia: “Lavinia will I make my empress,/ Rome’s royal mistress, mistress of my heart,”(1.1.240-241). If the transaction happens between two males, then the relationship between both parties is characterized by a homosocial exclusivity which, when broken by either party, is a transgression against another male. For instance, Lavinia’s rape is not just a transgression of Lavinia by Tamora’s sons. More so, it is a transgression against Bassianus by Tamora’s sons. If Lavinia is a chatt

Cite This Work

To export a reference to this article please select a referencing style below:

Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.
Reference Copied to Clipboard.

Related Services

View all

DMCA / Removal Request

If you are the original writer of this essay and no longer wish to have the essay published on the UK Essays website then please:

Related Lectures

Study for free with our range of university lectures!