*quote from Act 5 Scene 3 Line 130
When I started reading and studying Titus Andronicus I thought I would spend about a month with it – in the end I’ve been working with it for more than double that time. When I started life seemed in a reasonable, steady place. At the moment life seems as bad as it can get. Time moves on but it is now time to put the book to bed.
In Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare has produced a play in which the themes and ideas are timeless. This is remarkable given that at times it has all but lost its audience. Moreover, he seems to have conceived that the themes should have a timeless applicability. I have already talked much in previous journal entries about the fact that the play shows that empires and nations rise and fall with the quality and morality of its people. They are not eternal. Consequently, the pattern of the play casts clear links between ancient Greek myth and the events which it sets in ancient Rome. However, the speakers constantly remind us that they are actors in a later day by the allusions to more contemporary events. This is Shakespeare’s way of showing that any society can fall as its people lose their way. Therefore, the players speak in the manner of people living in Reformation times even though they are ostensibly Romans watching their empire fall to the enemy they have defeated and brought within their walls.
Aaron, the villain of the piece, accuses Lucius (the coming emperor) of having a conscience which carries with it “twenty popish tricks and ceremonies” (5.1.76), a clear allusion to the vanquished Catholicism of Shakespeare’s time. At another point, a Goth explains his late arrival by saying that he “stray’d to gaze upon a ruinous monastery” (5.1.21). The “Romans and Goths” are walking in 16th century England and their fall is one that Shakespeare’s generation is also in danger of.
But what is the nature of this fall? As I mentioned in an earlier entry, the Romans have defeated the Goths at the beginning of the play but only by becoming like them. When Tamora (the Queen of the Goths) begs Titus for the life of her sons, he is deaf to her pleas. They are taken away to be sacrificed to the gods. Rome has lost its humanity and its compassion.
But life is not simple, the Goth leaders are as bad as they seem. Rome as indeed become like them. Rule cannot simply pass to them. Tamora and her remaining children and fellows are lost in a web of concealment. She loves the evil Aaron but has married Saturninus and proclaimed love for him in order to gain influence in Rome. When her offspring, Chiron and Demetrius are schooled by Aaron (and by extension by Tamora herself) in the idea of raping and molesting Lavinia, they are taught to cover their actions by the cutting out of Lavinia’s tongue and the cutting off of her hands.
But the plotters have overstepped themselves and Tamora gives birth to a baby who is clearly not Saturninus’ but rather Aaron’s. She describes it to her Nurse as a “dismal, black and sorrowful issue” (4.2.66) and the Nurse repeats her words to her lover, Aaron. She suggests that Aaron should “christen it with thy dagger’s point” (4.2.70). There is a lack of humanity in anyone who can speak like this of anyone especially their own child and even the vile Aaron cannot co-operate.
Consequently, the playwright must find a third party to pass the throne to at the play’s conclusion. After an orgy of death in Act 5 Scene 3 (the plays least convincing scene – all the remaining issues of the play are settled just a little too quickly by too many deaths), it passes to Lucius, the surviving son of Titus, who is watched from above by “the poor remainder of the Andronici” as he takes the crown. Ominously, he is watched also by the Goth army who remain silent – perhaps watching how things develop before deciding whether to support or overthrow him.
Ironically, whether the Empire of Rome will stand depends on whether the prominent leaders can regain their humanity and their compassion. Titus’ family departed from this when they sacrificed prisoners from among the Goths foolishly believing that the gods would be pleased with them (again, there are echoes of this in our own day). The new generation must now choose whether or not to hear the plea which Tamora gave at the outset of the tragedy: “Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? Draw near them in being merciful”. (1.1.120-121).