Study Guide

Titus Andronicus Sex

By William Shakespeare


If Saturnine advance the queen of Goths
She will a handmaid be to his desires (1.1.3)

Look out, because Tamora is trouble with a capital T. When she promises to be a "handmaid" to the emperor's desires if he makes her his empress, we know that she will do anything to gain power.

Then, Aaron, arm thy heart, and fit thy thoughts,
To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress,
And mount her pitch, whom thou in triumph long
Hast prisoner held, fetter'd in amorous chains
And faster bound to Aaron's charming eyes
Than is Prometheus tied to Caucasus.
Away with slavish weeds and servile thoughts!
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made empress.
To wait, said I? to wanton with this queen,
This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Rome's Saturnine,
And see his shipwreck and his commonweal's.
Holloa! what storm is this? (2.2.1)

Aaron is portrayed as having quite the libido, as evidenced here, where he brags that Tamora is his love slave. Black characters in 16th century literature were often associated with a kind of hypersexuality. Consider, for example, the way Iago suggests that Othello's sex drive is animal-like when he calls the black general an "old black ram" that goes around "tupping" a "white ewe" (his wife, Desdemona) (Othello, 1.1.9).

Madam, though Venus govern your desires,
Saturn is dominator over mine:
What signifies my deadly-standing eye,
My silence and my cloudy melancholy,
My fleece of woolly hair that now uncurls
Even as an adder when she doth unroll
To do some fatal execution?
No, madam, these are no venereal signs:
Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head. (2.3.2)

Earlier, we pointed out that Aaron is portrayed as being hypersexual. Here, however, it's Tamora who can't get enough of her secret lover. Aaron passes up an opportunity to sleep with her because he's too busy plotting the destruction of the Andronicus family.

Under your patience, gentle empress,
'Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning;
And to be doubted that your Moor and you
Are singled forth to try experiments:
Jove shield your husband from his hounds to-day!
'Tis pity they should take him for a stag. (2.3.1)

When Lavinia says Tamora has a reputation for being good at "horning," she means it as an insult. Horning refers to the way a promiscuous woman can make her husband a "cuckold" (a man who's been cheated on). In Shakespeare especially, "cuckolds" are often said to have horns like monsters or animals. The idea is that a cheating woman has the power to transform her husband into something disdainful.

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)

We talk about this quote under "Race," but it's worth mentioning here as well. 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's work, 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.)

Farewell, my sons: see that you make her sure.
Ne'er let my heart know merry cheer indeed,
Till all the Andronici be made away.
Now will I hence to seek my lovely Moor,
And let my spleenful sons this trull deflow'r. (2.3.13)

Here Tamora announces that she's off to have a dalliance with Aaron while her sons rape Lavinia in the woods. By now it's clear that the play associates Tamora and Aaron's adulterous affair with the ugliness of desire.

Stay, madam; here is more belongs to her;
First thrash the corn, then after burn the straw:
This minion stood upon her chastity,
Upon her nuptial vow, her loyalty,
And with that painted hope braves your mightiness:
And shall she carry this unto her grave?
An if she do, I would I were an eunuch.
Drag hence her husband to some secret hole,
And make his dead trunk pillow to our lust. (2.3.2)

Demetrius and Chiron insist that after they rape Lavinia, she will no longer be able to stand "upon her chastity," which is what her reputation in Rome is built upon. (Note: for Shakespeare, "chastity" isn't limited to virginity. A married woman is considered chaste so long as she's faithful to her husband.) Yet, the play doesn't condone the idea that rape victims are stripped of their virtue. Keep reading...

Ah, now thou turn'st away thy face for shame!
And, notwithstanding all this loss of blood,
As from a conduit with three issuing spouts,
Yet do thy cheeks look red as Titan's face
Blushing to be encountered with a cloud. (2.3.1)

Despite the fact that Lavinia is bleeding profusely, Marcus claims that her face blushes when he brings up the subject of rape. Blushing is commonly associated with sexual innocence and chastity, especially in Shakespeare. (See, for example, Act 1, Scene 4 of Measure for Measure, where Lucio says he knows Isabella is a virgin because she blushes around men.)

The point of Lavinia's miraculous ability to blush here is that she is the innocent victim of rape. She is still virtuous, regardless of how vile her attackers are. So even though it seems pretty impossible and ridiculous for Lavinia to blush after losing so much blood during the assault (her hands and tongue have been cut off, after all), Shakespeare's notion that rape victims are faultless seems pretty progressive.

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

The description of the pit where Bassianus's dead body is dumped is described as a "swallowing womb" with "ragged entrails" covered in "maiden blood." Given that Lavinia has just been raped and mutilated, this sounds like a horrific and very physical metaphor for the violence that has been done to her body. Although the sexual assault occurs off-stage, the vividness of these verbal descriptions of the blood-stained pit act as a kind of stand-in for the physical act. Check out what we have to say in "Symbolism" if you want to consider the implications of all this.

Villain, what hast thou done?
That which thou canst not undo.
Thou hast undone our mother.
Villain, I have done thy mother. (5.2.6)

When Tamora gives birth to Aaron's child, Chiron insists that Aaron has "undone" her. Aaron, however, is unfazed and even manages to crack a joke about the affair when he says no, actually, "I have done thy mother" (our emphasis).