The earliest of William Shakespeare’s ten tragedies Titus Andronicus has been dated between 1589 and 1592, written when Shakespeare was in his mid to late twenties. The young dramatist chose the traditionally embraced form of the revenge tragedy to launch himself as a commercial playwright, a style of theater popular in his time on account of playwright Thomas Kyd hugely successful The Spanish Tragedy which debuted in 1585 (Blake 2010).
The revenge tragedy represents a bloodthirsty form of theater – the equivalent of today’s slasher flick – and as a revenge tragedy, Titus Andronicus is stunningly bloody and violent. Critic Albert H. Tricomi called it “a significant dramatic experiment” full of “spectacularly self-conscious images that keep pointing at the inventive horrors in the plotting” (Tricomi 1974).
This essay will approach the revenge tragedy Titus Andronicus as a historical document that offers detailed experience and insight as to how the Elizabethan audiences of Shakespeare’s time viewed the other races represented in the play, namely through the black character Aaron and the Goth or “barbarian” characters Tamora, Alarbus, Demetrius and Chiron.
In Titus Andronicus it is not entirely clear whether or not the Goths and the Moor Aaron are complete villains, or whether or not the dramatist has a deeper more subtle message in mind which he explores through the action of the play.
Given that the play is a revenge tragedy, how Shakespeare treats the Goths and Aaron the Moor, and how he subtly compares their actions to the actions of the Romans, creates a murky distinction as to whether or not the acts of revenge committed by both sides are justified.
This essay furthers the thesis that Titus Andronicus functions ultimately as an indictment of revenge, since the barbarism occurs and escalates apace among the “civilized” Romans and the “barbaric” Goths. In essence both parties become equally deplorable in Titus Andronicus.
Though an Elizabethan audience certainly enjoyed a good performance of excessive violence, Titus Andronicus “ran the risk of disgusting the audience,” (Blake 2010).
Particularly in the story of Titus’ daughter Lavinia and the rape and mutilations she endures at the hands of Tamora’s sons, the language and the scene it describes would have appalled even the most hardened Elizabethan: “what stern ungentle hands/ Hath lopped and hewed and made thy body bare/ Of her two branches” and “a crimson river of warm blood/ Like to a bubbling fountain stirred with wind/ Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips” (Shakespeare 1887).
In Titus Andronicus, the reader witnesses the dramatist’s view that any act of revenge necessarily dehumanizes its participants, to the point that civilization completely erodes. The play stands as a warning that civilized Elizabethans could end up on the same footing as their “barbaric” conquests, if they allowed themselves to be overtaken by bloodlust and descend to the level of vengeance.
The inciting incident of Titus Andronicus is Titus’s inflexible sacrifice of Alarbus, the eldest son of captive Goth queen Tamora, to his soldiers, an action which forms the engine of the narrative and the justification for the ensuing outrage against Lavinia in the play’s later acts.
Tamora begs for mercy from her captor: “Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror, 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! Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome, To beautify thy triumphs and return, Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke, But must my sons be slaughter’d in the streets, For valiant doings in their country’s cause? O, if to fight for king and commonweal, Were piety in thine, it is in these (Shakespeare 1887).
We witness in this passage the appeal to the commonalities that exist between all humans – captive and captor – the desire to save one’s children at all cost.
Titus, however, sides with his soldiers, and this decision to essentially forego fatherhood and facilitate barbarism becomes his undoing. Interestingly, at this early stage of the play Shakespeare also intersperses some ironic discussion of the theme of the barbarism presumed inherent to the Goths, as Tamora’s sons marvel at the viciousness and heartlessness of their captor in the face of their mother’s pleas.
Chiron remarks “Was ever Scythia half so barbarous?” while Demetrius sews the seeds of revenge in his brother’s heart: “Oppose not Scythia to ambitious Rome, Alarbus goes to rest; and we survive, To tremble under Titus’ threatening looks, Then, madam, stand resolved, but hope withal, The self-same gods that arm’d the Queen of Troy, With opportunity of sharp revenge, Upon the Thracian tyrant in his tent, May favor Tamora, the Queen of Goths, When Goths were Goths and Tamora was queen, To quit the bloody wrongs upon her foes” (Shakespeare 1887).
Thus begins the slow descent into rape, murder, mutilation and cruelty as “avengers and victims become indistinguishable…and are alike destroyed in the cruel and ultimately mindless bloodbath that follows Alarbus’s execution” (Blake 2010).
Titus, once a sane and respected leader of his people, loses his mind, his rule, his authority and his daughter. The state of Rome implodes, until order returns – again, in a highly ironic fashion – restored by the “barbaric” Goths deemed incapable of any such civilizing activity at the play’s inception (Shakespeare 1887). In the words of the critic Robert Blake, Titus Andronicus “is a powerful testament to the irrationality of revenge, or even of justice untempered by mercy, as a moral imperative” (Blake 2010).
In order to understand how the play treats the different ethnicities represented within it, it is important to locate the play in its historical context. Shakespeare was very much a writer of his time – he wrote about the world around him – thus Titus Andronicus stands as an important and vital time capsule that sheds light on the racial attitudes prevalent in Shakespeare’s day and among his contemporaries.
As the critic and scholar Imtiaz Habib points out in Racial Impersonation on the Elizabethan Stage: The Case of Shakespeare Playing Aaron, Shakespeare himself would have played the Moor, and “in the racial discourse of an early colonial environment, a key crowd winner is the impersonation of a racialized life on the stage, as is witnessed by the fact that according to the payment records in Henslowe’s Diary Titus Andronicus was performed five times between 1593 and 1594, with the fattest takings on his hosts for each of those occasions, including sometimes three times per week” (Habib 2007).
Racialized depictions of exotic colonized cultures and their inhabitants represented a lucrative source of revenue for theater producers, and there was also a lesser obvious but equally vital political relevance to the activity of representing the black culture as well as the barbaric cultures – the Irish, for instance – as beyond the ken of civilization on the Elizabethan stage.
This was a time of high colonial expansion; the Elizabethan conquest of the Americas was afoot. Thus, as McVeigh and Rolston (2009) aptly observe, civilization became a euphemistic term applied to economic expansion and colonialism, and the appellation of the term “barbaric” to the peoples whose lands and resources the English were stealing served the ideological and political interests of the crown and the rising merchant class (McVeigh & Rolston 2009).
In the words of McVeigh and Rolston (2009): “construction of civilisation is [hardly] neutral – civilisation only makes sense as a dialectical concept which carries with it an ‘uncivilised’ other.
It immediately denies ‘complexity’ to other societies….These constructions of civilisation and barbarism were at the heart of colonial domination, justifying expansion and control (McVeigh & Rolston 2009). The Elizabethan audience watching Titus Andronicus would have witnessed “haphazard attempts made by the authorities” to adapt to the company of Africans within their society (Ungere 2008).
Of particular import to these audiences was the issue of miscegenation. As Ungere (2008) asserts, the presence of blacks in and among the Elizabethans “raised anxieties about interbreeding that asked to be addressed,” particularly in the years between 1592 and 1594, when Titus Andronicus was written, and the British government was simultaneously involved in numerous scandals instigated by the slave trade and the “illegal importation of slaves from Guinea” (Ungere 2008).
Habib (2007) observes also that the Elizabethan audience watching the play would have had some experience and familiarity with the “travel writings of Richard Hakluyt, Richard Eden, and others…as well as the more novel experiential encounters with the small but growing numbers of captured African populations in London” (Habib 2007).
Shakespeare’s Aaron, universally understood as the dramatist’s first villain, is characterized as a merciless savage who laughs at the torments that befall his captors. Both Aaron and Tamora “laugh…gleefully as [they] picture…chaste Lavinia being ravished and mutilated by Chiron and Demetrius; the rapists in turn express their pleasure when they have violated and mutilated her” (White 1996).
This “pleasure” would have sent ripples of fear through Shakespeare’s audience, and further justified the subjugation of the blacks, Irish and other conquered peoples that the crown and state were busy uprooting at the time. The “demonizing” of Aaron then “functions obscurely as a kind of virtual solidarity with the marked-down black subject who is by that very representation added to the protocolonial English society’s circuit of visibility” (Habib 2007).
The demonizing performance of the black savage would have “taught” the audience how to treat the blacks in their midst, while simultaneously informing the blacks and the Goths of their place in Elizabethan society.
These ideas about civilization, and the inherent barbarism of non-European peoples, have persisted since the inception of imperialism, and evolved to largely underpin and sustain the ideological structures of discrimination which continue to shape the mindset behind power relationships to the present day (McVeigh & Rolston 2009).
The treatment of the black and Goth peoples and culture in Titus Andronicus therefore formed the core structural basis for the validation and rationalization of colonialism.
Blake, R.G. (2010). Titus Andronicus. Masterplots. 4th ed. New York, Salem Press, 1-5.
Habib, I. (2007). Racial impersonation on the Elizabethan stage: The case of Shakespeare playing Aaron. Medieval & Renaissance Drama in England, 20, 17-45.
McVeigh, R. & Rolston, B. (2009). Civilising the Irish. Race Class 51, 2, 3-20.
Shakespeare, W. (1887). Titus Andronicus. London: J.B. Alden.
Tricomi, A.H. (1974). The aesthetics of mutilation in Titus Andronicus. The Cambridge Shakespeare Library: Shakespeare criticism. C.M. S. Alexander ed. Cambridge, UK, Cambridge University Press.
Ungere, G. (2008) The presence of Africans in Elizabethan England and the performance of Titus Andronicus at Burley-on-the-Hill, 1595/96.(Report). Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England 21, 19-56..
White, J.S. (1996). Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Explicator, 54, 4, 207-210.