Study Guide

Titus Andronicus Language and Communication

By William Shakespeare

Language and Communication

Enter DEMETRIUS and CHIRON with LAVINIA, ravished; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out (Stage Direction, Act 2, Scene 4)

This is one of the most startling stage directions in Western literature. Demetrius and Chiron have not only raped Lavinia, they have also mutilated her body so that she is unable to name her attackers verbally or in writing.

So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who 'twas that cut thy tongue and ravish'd thee.
Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
See, how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.
Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.
She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;
And so let's leave her to her silent walks. (2.4.1)

After assaulting Lavinia, Chiron and Demetrius proceed to taunt their victim, daring her to "tell" on them when they've made it impossible for her to speak or write down their names. Something very similar occurs later in the play when Aaron kills Tamora's nurse. Keep reading ...

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)

By now it's clear that Titus Andronicus is interested in the issue of women's voices (or lack thereof). 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's cracks a misogynistic joke about how once the nurse and midwife are dead, they can "tattle what they please." Aaron's nasty remark suggests that all women are gossips but that he has found a clever way to punish them.

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bare (2.4.1)

Here Lavinia stands before her uncle in the woods, unable to explain that she has been raped, her tongue cut out. Yet this isn't the first time Lavinia has been silent. If we think back to the play's opening act, when Bassianus claimed Lavinia as his fiancée and ran off with her, Lavinia was completely silent then as well. It seems like Lavinia's lack of voice is symbolic of her general lack of power as a young Roman woman.

Why dost not speak to me?
Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,
Like to a bubbling fountain stirr'd with wind,
Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,
Coming and going with thy honey breath. (2.4.1)

Instead of trying to help Lavinia recover from her obvious wounds in the woods, Marcus delivers a very long, drawn out speech describing her mutilated body. Here, as Marcus describes the blood flowing from Lavinia's mouth, the description seems to eroticize her wounds in the manner of love poetry that seeks to compare the human body to things in nature (lips like roses, breath like honey, and so on). Compare this strange speech to Shakespeare's Sonnet 18.

Shall I speak for thee? shall I say 'tis so?
O, that I knew thy heart; and knew the beast,
That I might rail at him, to ease my mind!
Sorrow concealed, like an oven stopp'd,
Doth burn the heart to cinders where it is. (2.4.1)

In the previous passage, we suggested that Marcus's long, melodramatic speech was creepy and inappropriate given the circumstances (he has just found Lavinia raped and bleeding in the woods). For critic Stanley Wells, when Marcus's speech is delivered onstage by a great actor, it can become "a deeply moving attempt to master the facts and thus to survive the shock, of a previously unimagined horror" (Shakespeare: A Life in Drama). So, what do you think?

Grandsire, 'tis Ovid's Metamorphoses,
my mother gave it me. (4.1.4)

As we know, although Lavinia's family suspected that she was a victim of rape, they couldn't really know for sure because her tongue and hands were cut off by her attackers. In this scene, Lavinia gestures at the story of Philomel's rape in Book 6 of Ovid's Metamorphoses to confirm that she, like Philomel, was sexually assaulted. Critics like Marjorie Garber see Young Lucius's books (and classical literature in general) as the key element that enables a kind of "rebirth" for Lavinia, who was "reduced to a state of an 'infant' by her attackers" (Shakespeare after All, 81).

she takes the staff in her mouth, and guides it with her stumps, and writes. (Stage Direction, Act 4, Scene 1).

Although this is a pivotal moment for Lavinia, who reveals the names of her rapists by writing their names in the sand, there's also something disturbing about the sight of her on the ground with a large stick in her mouth. Critic Alexander Leggatt argues that "the sight of Marcus's staff in her mouth, reenacts the original atrocity" (Titus Andronicus: A Modern Perspective). Yet, for other literary critics, this moment of revelation is meaningful in other ways. Keep reading ...

O, do ye read, my lord, what she hath writ?
'Stuprum. Chiron. Demetrius.' (4.1.8)

Using her nephew's copy of Ovid's Metamorphoses to indicate that she was raped like Philomel, Lavinia is finally able to reveal the names of her attackers by placing a staff in her mouth and writing their names in the sand. Why's this so important? Marjorie Garber argues that "reading and then writing are the keys to a recovered humanity as well as the steps toward further revenge" (Shakespeare after All, 81).

Weke, weke! so cries a pig prepared to the spit. (4.2.21)

After killing the nurse so she can't "tattle" on him and Tamora, Aaron mocks the nurse's cries by squealing like a "pig prepared to the spit." Before the nurse is permanently silenced by death, Aaron has reduced her to an animalistic state, replacing her human voice with the sounds of a beast.

Oft have you heard me wish for such an hour,
And now I find it; therefore bind them sure,
And stop their mouths, if they begin to cry. (5.2.18)

As Lavinia watches, Titus orders his men to gag Demetrius and Chiron if they "begin to cry." When Demetrius and Chiron are silenced, we can't help but think this is a fitting end for the men who deprived Lavinia of her voice in such a brutal way.