Lavinia is the virtuous daughter of Titus Andronicus. Like Hamlet's Ophelia, Lavinia is the quintessential "good girl," which – in the 16th century when Shakespeare was writing – meant chaste, obedient, and silent. Early in the play, Bassianus refers to Lavinia as "Rome's ornament," which tells us that Lavinia is valued for her beauty and graciousness and that she's viewed by those around her as an object.
In the play, Lavinia is raped and mutilated by Demetrius and Chiron, who cut off her tongue and hands so she can't name them as her attackers (verbally or in writing). But long before Lavinia's literal rape in the woods, she's at the center of a metaphorical "rape" that clues us in to her powerlessness as a young woman in Rome.
After Titus agrees to marry Lavinia off to Saturninus, Bassianus (who is already engaged to Lavinia) rushes in and declares "this maid is mine!" before making off with our girl as though she were a piece of property (1.1.5). During and after the scuffle, Lavinia is completely silent, even when Saturninus accuses Bassianus of treason and says that he'll make him "repent this rape" (1.1.16). (Brain Snack: the word "rape" is derived from the Latin "rapine," which means "to seize or rob.")
As we've said, this moment anticipates Lavinia's brutal rape and mutilation at the hands of Demetrius and Chiron. In both cases, Lavinia has no voice. As critic Alexander Leggatt explains, "Raped and silent in the woods [Lavinia] has already been raped and silent in Rome" ("Titus Andronicus: A Modern Perspective").
What's the significance of all this? Lavinia's silence seems emblematic of the way she's been subjected to male power and authority. This becomes even more clear when her own father kills her so her "shame" will die with her (5.3).
Throughout the play Lavinia is associated with Philomel, as when Aaron says, "This is the day of doom for Bassianus: / His Philomel must lose her tongue to-day" (2.3.2). What's the deal?
In Book 6 of Ovid's Metamorphoses, Philomel is raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, who cuts out Philomel's tongue so she can't tell on him. Philomel eventually identifies her attacker by stitching his name on a sampler. Given that Lavinia is raped and loses her tongue (and her hands), the parallels between her and Ovid's character are pretty clear. While Lavinia can't use her hands to stitch the names of Chiron and Demetrius, she does find a kind of voice when she uses her stumps to flip through the pages of Ovid's story, signaling to her family that, like Philomel, she was raped. In the moments that follow, Lavinia puts a stick in her mouth and draws out the names of the attackers. So a classic literary text is the means by which she asserts some power over Demetrius and Chiron and regains a kind of speech.
Yet, as we know, Lavinia's recovery of language and power is short-lived. During the infamous dinner banquet scene, Titus compares Lavinia to Virginius's daughter (another classical rape victim) and kills her because the so-called "shame" of her rape is too much for him to bear (5.3).
Before we move on, we also want to discuss the debate about whether Lavinia has an ugly side. When Lavinia and Bassianus stumble upon secret lovers Tamora and Aaron in the middle of the forest, Lavinia makes some snide cracks about Tamora's relationship with a "raven-colored" lover and the fact that Tamora has made a cuckold of Saturninus (2.3.1). Some critics see this as evidence that Lavinia isn't as perfect as everyone thinks she is. Other scholars see Lavinia's holier-than-thou routine as evidence of her 16th century-style virtue, which is contrasted with Tamora's guilty sexuality. What do you think?