Study Guide

Titus Andronicus Gender

By William Shakespeare


Marcus Andronicus, so I do ally
In thy uprightness and integrity,
And so I love and honour thee and thine,
Thy noble brother Titus and his sons,
And her to whom my thoughts are humbled all,
Gracious Lavinia, Rome's rich ornament (1.1.2)

When Bassianus refers to Lavinia as Rome's "rich ornament," it's pretty clear that Lavinia is valued for her grace and beauty rather than her brains or character. Her father and brothers, on the other hand, are valued for their "noble" military contributions to Rome.

Now, madam, are you prisoner to
an emperor;
To him that, for your honour and your state,
Will use you nobly and your followers. (1.1.13)

When Titus hands over his war prisoner Tamora to the new emperor, we can't help but notice that he has also just handed over his own daughter (Lavinia) to Saturninus in much the same way. Even though Lavinia is to be Saturninus's wife and Tamora is to be Saturninus's war prisoner (for now anyway), both women are treated like property to be traded and exchanged between powerful men. This becomes even more clear when Bassianus stakes his claim on Lavinia. Keep reading...

Lord Titus, by your leave, this maid is mine.


How, sir! are you in earnest then, my lord?
Ay, noble Titus; and resolved withal
To do myself this reason and this right.
'Suum cuique' is our Roman justice:
This prince in justice seizeth but his own. (1.1.5)

Here we learn that Lavinia is already engaged to Bassianus, who declares that she's his as he grabs her and runs off. Notice that Lavinia is completely silent during all of this. What's worse, everyone seems more concerned about Bassianus's rights than whether Lavinia even wants to marry him.

Believe me, queen, your swarth Cimmerian
Doth make your honour of his body's hue,
Spotted, detested, and abominable. (2.3.2)

We talk about this quote under "Race," but it's worth discussing here as well. When Bassianus and Lavinia catch Tamora alone in the woods with her lover, Aaron, Bassianus implies that Tamora's "honour" has been soiled by her black lover. The idea that a white woman would be contaminated if she had sex with a black man was a common one in 16th century England. We see something similar in Shakespeare's Othello, where several characters believe that Desdemona's relationship with Othello will stain her.

O, do not learn her wrath; she taught it thee;
The milk thou suck'dst from her did turn to marble;
Even at thy teat thou hadst thy tyranny.
Yet every mother breeds not sons alike:


Do thou entreat her show a woman pity. (2.3.7)

There are a couple of things to note in this passage, in which Lavinia begs Demetrius and Chiron not to rape her. First, when Lavinia says "even at [Tamora's] teat thou hadst thy tyranny," she's voicing a 16th century idea that mothers could pass on their traits and characteristics to their children through their breast milk. Second, when Lavinia begs Chiron to ask Tamora to "show a woman's pity," she associates compassion with femininity and violence with masculinity. When Tamora refuses to be merciful, the play suggests that she's somehow unnatural because she's behaving like a man.

Something similar happens in Shakespeare's Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth associates cruelty with masculinity in her famous "unsex me" speech.

She is a woman, therefore may be woo'd,
She is a woman, therefore may be won,
She is Lavinia, therefore must be lov'd. (2.1.6)

Demetrius's obnoxious remarks suggest that, since Lavinia is a woman, her sole purpose in life is as a sexual object for men to conquer. Soon after this little speech, Demetrius and Chiron determine that the most expedient way to possess Lavinia is to rape her.

Compare this passage to Shakespeare's Richard III, where Richard approaches the wooing of Lady Anne in a similarly predatory way and asks "Was ever woman in this humour wooed? / Was ever woman in this humour won?" (Richard III, 1.2).

I may be pluck'd into the swallowing womb
Of this deep pit (2.3.6)

The pit where Bassianus's dead body is dumped is described as a "swallowing womb" with "ragged entrails" covered in "maiden blood." This sounds like a horrific and very physical metaphor for Lavinia's raped and mutilated body. What on earth was Shakespeare thinking? Check out what we have to say in "Symbolism, Imagery, and Allegory" if you want to consider the implications of all this.

O Lord, sir, 'tis a deed of policy:
Shall she live to betray this guilt of ours,
A long-tongued babbling gossip? no, lords, no:
But send the midwife presently to me.
The midwife and the nurse well made away,
Then let the ladies tattle what they please. (4.2.22)

Aaron kills Tamora's nurse because he assumes that she's a "long-tongued babbling gossip" who will tell everyone that Tamora has given birth to Aaron's love child. As he sends for the midwife (who is also assumed to have a big mouth), Aaron cracks a misogynistic joke that once the nurse and midwife are both dead, they can "tattle what they please." Aaron's nasty remark suggests that all women are gossips and that he has found a clever way to punish them.

By now, it's clear that Titus Andronicus is interested in the issue of women's voices (or lack thereof). This passage reminds us of the way Demetrius and Chiron taunt Lavinia, daring her to "tell" on them after they cut out her tongue (2.4.1).

An if your highness knew my heart, you were.
My lord the emperor, resolve me this:
Was it well done of rash Virginius
To slay his daughter with his own right hand,
Because she was enforced, stain'd, and deflower'd?
It was, Andronicus.
Because the girl should not survive her shame,
And by her presence still renew his sorrows.
Because the girl should not survive her shame,
And by her presence still renew his sorrows (5.3.3)

When Titus asks his dinner guests if they think Virginius (a Roman centurion) was right to kill his daughter (a rape victim), Saturninus's response makes our stomach turn. For Saturninus rape is a "shame[ful]" experience and an embarrassment for the victims' family members.

Titus agrees with Saturninus and immediately kills Lavinia. Critic Alexander Leggatt writes that "in Titus's act we feel the weight of the patriarchal society he has always served, in which Lavinia earlier seemed to be a pawn." Leggatt goes on to note that Titus "is preoccupied not with her grief but with her shame; the grief that matters is his own" (Titus Andronicus: A Modern Perspective).