Study Guide

Titus Andronicus Violence

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)

Here, at the very beginning of the play, Shakespeare introduces the idea that the Goths (as opposed to "noble" Romans like Titus Andronicus) are a "barbarous" people. But, does this idea hold up throughout the play?

Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh,
Before this earthy prison of their bones;
That so the shadows be not unappeased,
Nor we disturb'd with prodigies on earth.
I give him you, the noblest that survives,
The eldest son of this distressed queen. (1.1.1)

Hmm. In the previous passage we saw how Marcus equates the Goths with barbarism. Here, however, Shakespeare makes us question whether the Romans are as civilized as they claim to be. When Lucius asks for a human sacrifice, Titus offers up a Goth warrior (the eldest son of Tamora) and refuses to be merciful, even when Tamora begs for her son's life.

Romans, do me right:
Patricians, draw your swords: and sheathe them not
Till Saturninus be Rome's emperor.
Andronicus, would thou wert shipp'd to hell,
Rather than rob me of the people's hearts! (1.1.7)

We already know that the Romans are prone to violence – they've been at war with the Goths for ten years and they're also willing to make human sacrifices. As Saturninus draws his sword and demands to be named emperor, we find out that the Romans are also willing to fight other Romans and even their own family members.

What, villain boy!
Barr'st me my way in Rome?

Stabbing MUTIUS

Help, Lucius, help! (1.1.17)

Without batting an eyelash, Titus kills his own son, Mutius, for getting in his way. Yikes!

For shame, be friends, and join for that you jar:
'Tis policy and stratagem must do
That you affect; and so must you resolve,
That what you cannot as you would achieve,
You must perforce accomplish as you may.
Take this of me: Lucrece was not more chaste
Than this Lavinia, Bassianus' love.
A speedier course than lingering languishment
Must we pursue, and I have found the path.
My lords, a solemn hunting is in hand;
There will the lovely Roman ladies troop:
The forest walks are wide and spacious;
And many unfrequented plots there are
Fitted by kind for rape and villany:
Single you thither then this dainty doe,
And strike her home by force, if not by words:
There serve your lusts, shadow'd from heaven's eye,
And revel in Lavinia's treasury. (2.1.10)

When Demetrius and Chiron bicker over who should get to pursue Lavinia, Aaron steps in and introduces the concept of rape as a "speedier" alternative to courting Lavinia. (Aaron says that while everyone else is out hunting, Demetrius and Chiron should attack Lavinia in the forest.) Using the hunt as a metaphor for sexual violence, Aaron casts Lavinia in the role of prey.

This is the day of doom for Bassianus:
His Philomel must lose her tongue to-day,
Thy sons make pillage of her chastity
And wash their hands in Bassianus' blood. (2.3.2)

Here Aaron refers to Lavinia as "Philomel," a figure who was raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus, who then cut out her tongue so she couldn't tell on him. The story of Philomel occurs in Book 6 of Ovid's Metamorphoses and surfaces throughout Titus Andronicus.

Drag hence her husband to some secret hole,
And make his dead trunk pillow to our lust. (2.3.2)

Chiron suggests that he and his brother rape Lavinia on top of her husband's dead body. For some literary critics, this is the kind of grisly, over-the-top detail that makes it hard to take Titus Andronicus seriously. For others, this kind of gratuitous violence suggests that Shakespeare was attempting to make fun of the kinds of "revenge tragedies" that were popular in his day (like Thomas Kyd's The Spanish Tragedy). What do you think?

Speak, gentle niece, what stern ungentle hands
Have lopp'd and hew'd and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments,
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in,
And might not gain so great a happiness
As have thy love? 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.
But, sure, some Tereus hath deflowered thee,
And, lest thou shouldst detect him, cut thy tongue.
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.
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.
Fair Philomela, she but lost her tongue,
And in a tedious sampler sew'd her mind:
But, lovely niece, that mean is cut from thee;
A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met,
And he hath cut those pretty fingers off,
That could have better sew'd than Philomel.
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble, like aspen-leaves, upon a lute,
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them,
He would not then have touch'd them for his life!
Or, had he heard the heavenly harmony
Which that sweet tongue hath made,
He would have dropp'd his knife, and fell asleep
As Cerberus at the Thracian poet's feet.
Come, let us go, and make thy father blind;
For such a sight will blind a father's eye:
One hour's storm will drown the fragrant meads;
What will whole months of tears thy father's eyes?
Do not draw back, for we will mourn with thee
O, could our mourning ease thy misery! (2.4.1)

This is one of the most controversial passages in the play. As Lavinia stands raped, mutilated, and bleeding, Marcus delivers a very strange and very lengthy speech that seems to turn Lavinia's brutalized body into something erotic. What the heck is this speech doing here? Why doesn't Marcus do something more productive like, say, run for help?

O happy man! they have befriended thee.
Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey
But me and mine: how happy art thou, then,
From these devourers to be banished!
But who comes with our brother Marcus here? (3.1.4)

Earlier we saw how Aaron spoke of rape in terms of hunters stalking prey. Here Titus picks up on the same metaphor when he declares that Rome is a "wilderness of tigers." The point is pretty clear: Rome has become an uncivilized place where violence and predatory behavior are the norm.

Why, there they are both, baked in that pie;
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
'Tis true, 'tis true; witness my knife's sharp point. (5.3.9)

When Titus plays the role of chef and serves Tamora a human meat pie, we're not sure if we should cringe or laugh out loud. There's something about the gleeful and sing-songy way in which Titus reveals his secret ingredients that makes this scene both comical and grisly.

You sad-faced men, people and sons of Rome,
By uproar sever'd, like a flight of fowl
Scatter'd by winds and high tempestuous gusts,
O, let me teach you how to knit again
This scatter'd corn into one mutual sheaf,
These broken limbs again into one body;
Lest Rome herself be bane unto herself, (5.3.2)

By the end of the play, the revenge-fuelled bloodshed has nearly destroyed Rome. Now the play seems interested in how Rome can be mended after so much unspeakable violence and destruction.