One of the great trademarks of Shakespeare’s plays is the way that the fools and clowns of the various plays are the deliverers of so much wit and wisdom. From the erudite fool in King Lear via the midpoint of the humour of the Porter in MacBeth to the comic turn that is Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant of Venice, the collected works are full of them.
So you’d expect that there would be a fool in Titus Andronicus and indeed there is and we’ve not yet looked at his role. The simply-named “Clown” does not arrive on the scene until Act 4 Scene 3, line 76.1. He is asked by Titus to deliver a message to Saturninus, the Emperor. He tells us no hidden truth and aside from one strong joke which would be understood by the audience of the day, he has no particularly witty words to give us and he understands less. By scene 4 of the same Act, he delivers his message and by line 48 of that scene he is led away to his death. Don’t shoot the messenger, indeed!
If this was a late play in the Shakespearean writings, then you might think that old Will is ironically dispelling our expectations. After a career of using the fools of the theatre company to deliver insight, here is one who has nothing to say and only a brief moment upon the stage ending in his own death. But Titus Andronicus, as far as we know, is the earliest of the Shakespearean tragedies. So what are we to understand through this?
Well, perhaps, Shakespeare is pointing out that in corrupt society even truth dies. Even the hidden channels by which truth sometimes comes are closed off. In the scene that has Clown’s appearance, old Andronicus is firing arrows into the heavens (no mean feat with one good arm) with messages attached, hoping to contact the Divine who seems to have hidden his face. He then proceeds to fire them towards the Emperor’s palace in the hope of at least notifying him of his complaint. Neither tactic seems to produce much (except a bird that falls from the heavens) so Titus depends on the Clown to deliver his message for him.
The final channel for truth in this corrupt society is stopped and is hung upon the gallows. Redemption, if there is any, must come from without.