Study Guide

Titus Andronicus Race

By William Shakespeare


A nobler man, a braver warrior,
Lives not this day within the city walls:
He by the senate is accit'd home
From weary wars against the barbarous Goths; (1.1.1)

When Marcus announces that "noble" Titus has just returned from war against the Goths, he uses the word "barbarous" to describe the people Rome has been fighting against. Here Marcus perpetuates a common stereotype about the Goths and, in doing so, he suggests that the "noble" Romans are the antithesis of these supposedly barbaric people.

Yet just a few moments later, Shakespeare shows us that the Roman people are just as capable of violence and cruelty as the Goths: Titus sacrifices Tamora's eldest son despite the Queen's pleading, then he kills his own son without batting an eye.

Believe me, queen, your swarth Cimmerian
Doth make your honour of his body's hue,
Spotted, detested, and abominable.
Why are you sequester'd from all your train,
Dismounted from your snow-white goodly steed.
And wander'd hither to an obscure plot,
Accompanied but with a barbarous Moor,
If foul desire had not conducted you? (2.3.2)

When Bassianus and Lavinia find Tamora alone in the woods with a "barbarous Moor," they declare that her "honour" has been blackened by her sexual relationship with Aaron. (In Shakespeare, the term "Moor" or "blackamoor" usually refers to a black man or woman.)

Unfortunately we see this kind of thinking throughout 16th century literature, which tends to portray black men as being capable of contaminating white women. (Consider, for example, Othello, a play in which several characters worry that Desdemona has been soiled by her marriage to Othello.)

I pray you, let us hence,
And let her joy her raven-colour'd love;
This valley fits the purpose passing well. (2.3.2)

Lavinia's racially charged attack on Tamora is pretty nasty and aggressive. Is the play suggesting that Lavinia isn't as gracious as everyone makes her out to be? (It certainly seems that way to us.) Or is Lavinia's condemnation of Tamora and Aaron the kind of attitude a 16th century English audience would expect from a virtuous woman? How does Lavinia's racist discourse impact the way you interpret her character?

Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace.
Aaron will have his soul black like his face. (3.1.4)

When Aaron announces that he loves being a villain with a soul that's "black like his face," he simultaneously embraces and defies the 16th century notion that dark skin color is synonymous with evil. This reminds us of a passage in Othello, in which the title character associates the blackness of his skin with his reputation, which he feels has been stained:

My name, that was as fresh
As Dian's visage, is now begrimed and black
As mine own face.

Pardon me, sir; it was a black ill-favor'd fly,
Like to the empress' Moor; therefore I kill'd him.

Well, God give her good rest! What hath he sent her?
A devil.
Why, then she is the devil's dam; a joyful issue. (4.2.8)

In a previous passage, we saw how Aaron's black skin is associated with evil. Here, Aaron is defiant (and witty) when the nurse declares that his child is "a devil." Unfortunately, the nurse's attitude was all too common when Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus. Check out what Reginald Scott writes in his famous book The Discovery of Witchcraft (1584):

A damned soule may and dooth take the shape of a black moore [ ...] Bodin alloweth the divell the shape of a blacke moore, and he saith he used to appear to Mawd Cruse, Kate Darey, and Jone Harviller.

'Zounds, ye whore! is black so base a hue?
Sweet blowse, you are a beauteous blossom, sure. (4.2.10)

After being insulted by the nurse, who refers to Aaron's baby as a "loathsome toad" among the white babies in Rome, Aaron is quick to defend his skin color while sarcastically pointing out that the nurse's ruddy complexion isn't exactly attractive.

We also want to point out that, when Aaron demands to know why black is such a bad color or "base hue," he sounds a lot like Shylock, who, in The Merchant of Venice, demands to know why the Christian characters seem to think Jews are inhuman: "Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?" ( Merchant of Venice, 3.1).

What, what, ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys!
Ye white-limed walls! ye alehouse painted signs!
Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue. (4.2.15)

Aaron declares those with "coal-black" skin are "better" than those with white skin because black "scorns to bear another hue." In other words, Aaron is saying that a black woman will never give birth to a white baby.

I blush to think upon this ignomy. (4.2.12)

Both the Romans and the Goths are disgusted by the product of Aaron and Tamora's interracial coupling. What's bizarre about this passage is how Chiron (a rapist and murderer) says he's embarrassed by his black half-brother.

Why, there's the privilege your beauty bears:
Fie, treacherous hue, that will betray with blushing
The close enacts and counsels of the heart! (4.2.12)

When Chiron claims to be so embarrassed by his mother's affair with a black man that he can't help but "blush" (see above), Aaron mocks him for his presumption that white skin is superior to the black skin of his new half-brother.

Behold this child:

Pointing to the Child in the arms of an Attendant

Of this was Tamora delivered;
The issue of an irreligious Moor,
Chief architect and plotter of these woes:
The villain is alive in Titus' house,
And as he is, to witness this is true.
Now judge what cause had Titus to revenge
These wrongs, unspeakable, past patience,
Or more than any living man could bear. (5.3.3)

At the play's end, Marcus hold up Aaron's baby to the crowd as if the child were evidence of all Tamora and Aaron's wrongdoings – as if the product of their adulterous affair (the baby) is proof that they plotted against the Andronicus family. For Marcus, Aaron and Tamora's black child becomes the symbol of its parents' sins. What's up with that?