An Analysis of The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare)
by Joseph Suglia
“Does man kill or torture because he has come to the conclusion that he has the right to do so? He kills because others kill. He tortures because others torture… I kill because you kill. You and he and all of you torture; therefore, I torture. I killed him because you would have killed me if I had not. Such is the grammar of our time.”
—Witold Gombrowicz, Diary, Volume One, 1953
In his 1927 essay “Seneca in Elizabethan Translation,” T.S. Eliot called The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written, a play in which it is incredible that Shakespeare had any hand at all.” Whether Shakespeare had any hand in the play is unknown, though I suspect that the insert Act Three: Scene Two, which concerns muscicide, was not inked by the Bard. However, we do know something about the hands of the play’s characters. One of the characters of the play, Lavinia, ends up with no hands at all, and her father, Titus, ends up with only one hand. Moreover, Lavinia is reduced to tongueless inarticulacy, and the flesh of two teenage boys is baked into a pie that is fed to their mother. All of this is to suggest that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s goriest, grisliest, ghastliest play, a work that telegraphs and anticipates Jacobean Tragedy, Grand Guignol, Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, and splatter cinema.
REVENGE IS EXCHANGE
Fresh from a ten-year battle against the Goths, Titus Andronicus is implored by his son Lucius to sacrifice “the proudest prisoner” of the enemy [I:i]. At the beginning of the play, the Goths, the immigrants of the play, are the enemy; at the end of the play, the immigrants will become the friends of the Andronici and overthrow the corrupt dictatorship of Saturninus. We are reminded that the incursion, the influx, of the Goths will lead to the breakdown of imperial Rome on 24 August 410 C.E.
Titus orders Tamora’s son Alarbus to be killed. Her son is brutally sacrificed—his limbs abscised, his intestines fed to the flames: “Alarbus’ limbs are lopp’d, / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke, like incense, doth perfume the sky” [I:i]. The ritualistic disembowelment and dismemberment at the beginning of the play initiate a revenge-series. The Queen of the Goths, Tamora, will exact her revenge against Titus. Her reckoning is a form of exchange. In exchange for the death and mutilation of Alarbus, the tongue of Titus’s daughter, Lavinia, is excised and her hands are severed off; Titus’s sons Quintus and Martius are decapitated. The maimed bodies of Lavinia, Quintus, and Martius correspond to the maimed body of Alarbus—anatomical parts of three children are torn off in exchange for the lopping off of the limbs of the child of the rival family.
A bloody pattern unfolds—one revenge leads to another revenge. The decapitation of Titus’s sons will, in turn, lead to the decapitation of Demetrius and Chiron. One plate of heads replaces another plate of heads. Such is the logic of revenge: Revenge is exchange. And yet the acts of reckoning do not equalize one another.
The attacks on Titus’s children take place in the forest. “The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf and dull,” says Aaron to the future rapists and mutilators Chiron and Demetrius [I:i]. The forest is a place of uncivilized desires, of desires far from the ritualized boundedness of civilization. The forest is not a locus amoenus. (A locus amoenus is an innocently pleasant site in a work of literature.) As we know from A Midsummer Night’s Dream and As You Like It, the forest in Shakespeare is a place of deception, of dissimulation, of lying, of self-masking, of delusion, of chimera.
Titus dramatizes insanity, which allows Tamora and her sons to underestimate him. Disguised as Revenge, Rape, and Murder, respectively, Tamora and her sons are incompetent dramatists, whereas Titus is an inspired dramatist. In the 1999 cinematic interpretation of the play, directed by Julie Taymor, Titus hatchets off his hand with a meat cleaver in the kitchen—presaging his final self-staging as a cook in the hyper-stylized, meta-theatrical vengeance against Tamora and Saturninus. He dramatizes revenge at the end of the play, in a space that is a theatre, a banquet hall, and a kangaroo court all at once. The play-within-the-play is an ambush-dinner, a prandial revenge. Choreographed revenge leads to imperial succession—at the beginning of the play, Titus Andronicus declines the emperorship. At the end of the play, his son Lucius assumes the emperorship.
Why should Titus be more sympathetic than Tamora? Why does Titus have the right to vengeance—and not Tamora? Does she not have equal cause?
Titus doesn’t seem to care about his son Mutius, who he summarily slays out of duty to the emperor, who, in turn, has no problem betraying his own people by marrying the queen of the enemy, but Titus does care about his only daughter, Lavinia, after he learns that she has been mutilated and (later) learns that she has been violated. Only after Lavinia is raped and mutilated does Titus becomes a full, empathic human being, both father and mother at the same time. Paternal filicide is supposed to be accepted by the audience with relative equanimity; the violation and mutilation of one’s daughter by strangers is supposed to outrage that same audience.
Consider that the slaying of Mutius takes place onstage, whereas the violation and mutilation of Lavinia takes place offstage: The visibility of Mutius has the effect of making Titus appear more sympathetic to us than Tamora, I would argue, since what is seen is more manageable, more tolerable, than what is unseen. What is unseen is always more horrifying than what is seen—our imagination exaggerates the unseen to obscenely grotesque proportions. The one truly horrific mutilation—that of Lavinia—takes place offstage and is nothing to laugh at. The fact that Lavinia’s violation and mutilation take place offstage make these acts unspeakable—as she is rendered an unspeakable presence.
It is not Aaron the Moor who initiates the sequence of retaliations. One of the Romans says that Aaron incited the series of vengeances, the blood-saturated revenge-series, but this is not so: “Give sentence on this execrable wretch / That hath been breeder of these dire events” [V:iii]. It is not Aaron who breeds the dire events of the play—it is Titus Andronicus himself! It is Titus, again, who orders the killing of Alarbus, the dismembering of his arms and legs, the engulfing of his viscera in flame. Why, then, should we spectators and readers care more about Titus than we do about Tamora? Both Titus and Tamora say to their children, to paraphrase: If you love me, you will kill my enemies.
SHE CANNOT SPEAK, BUT SHE CAN WRITE
Lavinia endures a terrible glossectomy and a terrible dismemberment: Again, her tongue is cut out, and her hands are cut off. What remains of her power of speech? Only tormented and inarticulate groanings. She cannot phonate, but she can communicate in other ways. That is to suggest: She is afflicted with aphonia (the inability to vocalize), not with aphasia (the inability to communicate).
With her father’s hand in her mouth, Lavinia still has the power of language—the power of silent language, of writing, which is always silent. The hand in the mouth—is this not the perfect symbol for writing? The vocalization of her written language is under the guidance of her father, her interpreter, who still has the power of speech.
Titus teaches his daughter how to write. He takes his staff and writes his name in the dirt. He then encourages his daughter to imitate his scrawl: “Heaven guide thy pen to print thy sorrows plain” [IV:i]. She then takes the staff in her mouth and guides it with her stumps and writes out the name of the heinous crime that was committed against her and the names of the heinous criminals.
By becoming her interpreter, Titus has become a strong parent for the first time in his life, both father and mother at the same time. He vocalizes what his only daughter cannot. He is the interpreter of her spastic mutism, of her mute language. “I can interpret all her martyred signs,” he says [III:ii]. The father will “wrest” from his daughter an “alphabet” and “learn to know [her] meaning” [Ibid.]—and Lavinia’s body is a sign of martyrdom. For to be a martyr means to give testimony, to write. Self-sacrifice is absolute loss; martyrdom is self-loss that enhances a cause or a program. In the case of Lavinia, her rape, mutilation, and eventual killing lead to a revolution—much in the way that the rape and suicide of Lucretia did (I will return to this point below).
Lavinia’s body becomes a book that is readable by her father. The word is made mutilated flesh. Titus is able to read her tears. Titus the Father knows that his daughter is a “[s]peechless complainer” [Ibid.]. Her body becomes a “map of woe, that thus doth talk in signs” [Ibid.]—her body has a language, even though that language is silent. “I understand her signs,” Titus says of Lavinia’s soundless weeping [III:i]—Marcus’s napkin can never dry her tears. When she kisses the decapitated heads of her brothers Quintus and Martius in Act Three: Scene One, this is a sign—if this is not a sign, then what is a sign?
Wittgenstein writes, “Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muss man schweigen.” Though I am not a Derridean, this line of Derrida against Wittgenstein seems a propos to the context: “What cannot be said above all must not be silenced but written.” Lavinia writes when she does not speak—this might mean that writing is something other than a substitute for speech. When she inscribes words on the dirty ground with a stick that is guided by her tongueless mouth and her legs, Lavinia makes the names of the crime and the criminals readable, even though her mouth is silenced and even though she is deprived of the ability to write with her hands: “Stuprum. Chiron. Demetrius” [IV:i]. Her tongue and her hands are erased, and yet she still produces language—again, with the guidance of the father.
There is one moment in the play, however, in which the father’s temporary inability to speak mirrors the daughter’s inability to speak. What does Titus do when he learns that his daughter has been hideously mutilated, to the point at which she can no longer speak, when he learns that his son Lucius has been exiled from the city of his birth to the otherlands of the Goths, when he learns that his sons Quintus and Martius have been falsely accused of a crime and then executed, when he learns that he has been tricked into chopping off his own hand to save their lives, in vain? He laughs. Indeed, he erupts in maniacal laughter: “Ha, ha, ha!” [III:i]. Titus gives up all pretensions of comfort and enters wordless despair, an abyss of non-verbality. From that abyss comes vengeance; his laughter issues in the spawning of the plot of revenge. Non-verbal expression—wordless laughter—corresponds to Lavinia’s wordlessness. Her silence corresponds to her father’s non-verbal-yet-signifying language: “Ha, ha, ha!”
It is not the case that laughter is an inappropriate response to the irremediable. Laughter might be the only appropriate response to the irremediable.
This raises the question of the status of humor in the play. Some audiences find it funny to watch Titus, Lucius, and Marcus squabble over whose hand should be severed (in Act Three: Scene One). What makes this scene so morbidly hilarious and hilariously morbid to them is the contrast, the incongruity, between the hyper-seriousness of the context and the silliness of the conversation. Some audiences find it funny to watch Lavinia clutch her father’s severed hand in her teeth (Titus: “Bear thou my hand, sweet wench, between thy teeth” [III:i]). The humorousness of such scenes highlights and intensifies the play’s seriousness; the humor does not erode the seriousness. Shakespeare knows well that his jocoserious play would become ludicrous if it were humorless, if it were uninterruptedly serious. Without humor, there can be no seriousness. Why is this? Because humorlessness is laughable.
Is it inappropriate when Marcus rhapsodizes and poeticizes upon discovering his niece hideously disfigured in the wood? I don’t think that his soliloquy, the longest in the play (it is forty-six lines, longer than Titus’s soliloquy as he slices the throats of Chiron and Demetrius, which is thirty-nine lines long), is inappropriate (as some other critics do); I do think of it as a coping mechanism, as a means of coming to terms with trauma, as a means of coping with the violation and mutilation of his niece.
To return to the main argument: Lavinia is hyper-literate, even after her disfigurement. One should contrast Lavinia’s superior reading skills with the illiteracy of the children of Tamora. The dull-witted Chiron and Demetrius cannot interpret the meaning of Titus’s citation of Horace, though Aaron can. When the voices of Chiron and Demetrius are silenced (they are gagged by Publius; this is their metamorphosis, their becoming-bestial), this answers to the silencing of Lavinia. Lavinia, says her father, is “deeper read and better skilled” than even he [IV:i].
Shakespeare is reminding us of the ineluctableness of language. Language is not reducible to the organ that we normally associate with language: the tongue (speech, phonē). Shakespeare suggesting that language is not phonocentric; he might even be suggesting that language is graphocentric, which is to suggest that written language is more fundamental than speech.
Even though she is tongueless and handless, Lavinia still has the power of language—in the form of writing, of graphē, of graphomania.
THE ORIGIN OF THE LAVINIA STORY
There are at least three literary and historical references that frame the rape of Lavinia:
a.) We are reminded of the rape of Lucretia. Shakespeare, after all, would write his poem “The Rape of Lucrece” in 1594, almost exactly the same time as he wrote this play. The rape of Lucretia led to the driving-away from Rome of the last of the kings of Rome, Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, whose slobbering, sinister, psychopathic son Sextus raped the poor girl. She killed herself out of shame. The plebeian Lavinia is here placed in the position of a figure of republicanism and anti-tyrannousness. Just as the tyranny of the Tarquins is expelled from Rome, so will the tyranny of Saturninus be.
b.) To accuse her attackers of the crime of rape, Lavinia opens a copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and turns over the pages with her stumps until she arrives at the Rape of Philomel. Now, there is no mystery of what happened to her. Every tragedy contains anagnorisis, and this is the moment of recognition: “Lavinia,” her father asks her, “[W]ert thou thus surprised, sweet girl, / Ravished and wronged as Philomela was…?” [IV:i]. This recognition comes by way of reading. Tereus was married to Progne yet burned with mortal lust for her sister Philomel, who he raped in the forest; then, he plucked out her tongue and left her for dead in a cabin in the woods. Philomel, however, survived and wove a tapestry that both identified the crime that was committed against her and revealed the identity of her rapist. Both sisters exacted a dreadful revenge against Tereus by killing his son Itys and feeding the offspring to the father in the form of a pie. Swallowing one’s own offspring, of course, will inspire Titus’ prandial revenge against Tamora, in which he forces Tamora to cannibalize, to engorge her sons Chiron and Demetrius. What is interesting about Shakespeare’s reinvention of the Philomel myth is that his Lavinia points to a passage in Ovid—making her a reader and a teacher of reading. She, after all, is the boy’s reading teacher. Marcus says of his aunt: “[S]he hath read to thee sweet poetry and Tully’s Orator” [IV:i]. The point here, I think, is that Lavinia is not merely a writer; she is a reader.
c.) The myth of Diana and Actaeon appears and reappears throughout the play. Bassianus mock-wonders of Tamora, whom he accosts with Lavinia in the forest, if he is looking at the Goddess Diana herself: “Or is it Dian, habited like her, / Who hath abandoned her holy groves / To see the general hunting in this forest?” [II:ii]. Tamora will become Diana, Goddess of the Hunt, quick-transforming the interloper Bassianus into a metaphorical stag that is torn to pieces by her metaphorical bloodhounds. Bassianus is the cuckold. He spies on the naked bathing goddess, exposing her in her divine nudity. Of course, in the myth, the goddess does not assume any particular female shape—she is mutable, transformative—which means that Actaeon is spying upon not the goddess in her divine nudity, but rather upon a hollow image, before being rent to pieces by her bloodhounds. The bloodhounds, in Shakespeare’s play, are Tamora’s sons, who murder Bassianus and make of him a cuckold (they be-horn him, fastening metaphorical antlers upon his head). After she catches Actaeon spying on her divine nudity, Diana screeches: “Tell that you saw me here bathing naked—if you can tell at all!” Lavinia, voyeuse, will be robbed of the power of speech. Female voyeurism is a rare subject—but it is presented in Shakespeare. Actaeon thus figures both Bassianus and Lavinia.
DID HEIDEGGER HAVE SMALL HANDS?
Why the removal of hands? Heidegger gives us a possible answer in What Is Called Thinking? / Was Heißt Denken?:
The hand is a peculiar thing. In the common view, the hand is part of our bodily organism. But the hand’s essence can never be determined, or explained, by its being an organ which can grasp. Apes, too, have organs that can grasp, but they do not have hands. The hand is infinitely different from all grasping organs—paws, claws, or fangs—different by an abyss of essence. Only a being who can speak, that is, think, can have hands and can be handy in achieving works of handicraft.
We now know that some of Heidegger’s comparative anatomy is false. Chimpanzees do have hands—they even have opposable thumbs—and some animal biologists tell us that chimpanzee hands are more complex than human hands. The next passage is more interesting. Heidegger goes on:
But the craft of the hand is richer than we commonly imagine. The hand does not only grasp and catch, or push and pull. The hand reaches and extends, receives and welcomes—and not just things: the hand extends itself, and receives its own welcome in the hands of others. The hand holds. The hand carries. The hand signs, presumably because the human being is a sign.
The English translation is wrong at this point, and I have corrected it. In the German, the text reads: “Die Hand zeichnet, vermutlich weil der Mensch ein Zeichen ist.” Heidegger continues:
Two hands fold into one, a gesture meant to carry the human being into the great oneness. The hand is all this, and this is the true handicraft. Everything is rooted here that is commonly known as handicraft, and commonly we go no further. But the hand’s gestures run everywhere through language, in their most perfect purity precisely when human beings speak by being silent. And only when human beings speak, do they think—not the other way around, as metaphysics believes.
So: Humankind is practiced through the hand. The hand is not an implement of the human; the hand holds within itself the essence of the human. The hand is the distinguishing trait of the essence of the human. The hand is not a form of property, something that belongs to us; the hand has us. Only that being which has language is handed. Language is not language without the hand. Only with the hand does the human come about; the hand is the essential ground of humankind.
Is there a relation to the word without the hand? It seems not. There is, for Heidegger, a co-belongingness between word and hand. There must be a hand in order for human language to be. This means that writing is more fundamental than speech, than phonē.
When hands are removed, the intention is dehumanization.
HOLORHYMING WITH THE BIEBMASTER
So many have declaimed that The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus is a bad play that people believe that it is a bad play. It is, I would argue, one of Shakespeare’s ten greatest plays, but it does contain some weaknesses.
There are some rather weak puns: “Deer” is rhymed with its homophone “dear” in Act Three: Scene One. The parechesis of “throats” and “threat” in the same scene is not very strong. (Parechesis is the repetition of the same sound in quick succession.)
Titus offers to chop off his hands before he is prompted to do so, even before Aaron comes by: “Give me a sword, I’ll chop off my hands too” [III:i] and “[S]hall we cut away our hands like thine [Lavinia’s]?” [Ibid.]. Titus offers to hack off his hand before he is given the fake opportunity to redeem his sons by hacking off his hands. But his sons are unrehabilitatable in the eyes of the emperor. The overplay of “I-will-cut-off-my hand” derogates from the power of the moment in which Titus is actually tricked into hacking off his own hand.
Worst of all are the final two lines of the play:
[Tamora’s] life was beastly and devoid of pity, / And being dead, let birds on her take pity [V:iii].
This is bad writing. One thing that I tell my students is never end two successive sentences with the same word. When writing verse, never rhyme the endings of the lines of a couplet with the same word.
Rhyming a sound with itself (holorhyming) is never a good idea. Consider the closest thing that our time has to Shakespeare, the great poet Justin Bieber. In his otherwise masterly ballad “Sorry,” from the 2015 album Purpose, Bieber intones these lines:
I’ll take every single piece of the blame if you want me to / But you know that there is no innocent one in the game for two.
Though the words to and two are not identical, they are homophones. Shakespeare is a slightly greater poet than Justin Bieber, and there might be justification for his rhyming of the word pity with itself. What if Shakespeare wants to evoke Lucius’s lack of pity for Tamora by repeating the word pity? The repetition of the word might drain the concept of its significance. Lucius’s coldness, his glaciality, might mean that he is no more compassionate than Tamora.
EVERY ACT OF REVENGE PRODUCES A REMAINDER
The desire for revenge is the desire for superiority over another human being. By inflicting pain on the revengee, the revenger demonstrates his or her superiority over the revengee. This explains why the most selfish, the vainest, the most egoic human beings also tend to be the most vengeful. However, as Schopenhauer reminds us in Parerga and Paralipomena, “[J]ust as every fulfilled wish is more or less unveiled as a delusion, so too the desire for revenge.” The word delusion is in English in the original text, which is mostly written in German.
Why is the desire for revenge a delusion? I would submit the following: The avenger is dependent on the avengee. Doesn’t revenge make the avenger dependent on the consciousness of the avengee? If you seek revenge on someone, are you not dependent on the person on whom you wish to avenge yourself?
Try not to place yourself in a position in which vengeance is necessary. What if my “revenge” were one day ineffective? What if my acts of “vengeance” were in vain? What if the objects of my “vengeance” were indifferent to my actions and inactions?
If the object of “revenge” is indifferent to the avenger, the avengee has won and the avenger has lost. This means that the avenger is emotionally enchained to the emotional state of the avengee. Revenge means that one is dependent on the object of vengeance, “drinking poison and expecting the other person to die,” as the Buddha says. Or holding on to hot coal and expecting the other person to be burned, as Confucius says.
The desire for revenge is an obsession with the other human being who, imaginarily or not, has wounded us. But revenge only enlarges that wound. In The Most Lamentable Roman Tragedy of Titus Andronicus, the desire for revenge results in the almost total self-destruction of the revengers and their families.
In revenge, there is always a remainder.
Dr. Joseph Suglia
 Lucius is banished to the otherlands of the Goths, but unlike Coriolanus (who is explicitly referred to in the play, in Act Four: Scene Four), he is not scuppered by one of his parents. Lucius, unlike Coriolanus, wages a war against Rome, the city of his birth, and crashes its gates—with the approval of one of his parents, his father Titus. I am writing this essay in August 2018, at a time of seismic immigration crises throughout Europe. Since the Goths assist Lucius in overthrowing a corrupt dictatorship, we can safely infer that Shakespeare’s great play is friendlier to immigration than his own later Tragedy of Coriolanus will be.
 Tamora: “Revenge it as you love your mother’s life, / Or be ye not henceforth called my children” [II:ii]. Titus: “And if ye love me, as I think you do, / Let’s kiss and part, for we have much to do” [III:i].
 Chiron: “Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so, / And if thy stumps will let thee, play the scribe” [II:iii]. / Demetrius: “See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl.”
But she can write, even though her hands are now stumps.
 In Act Two: Scene One, Aaron says: “Lucrece was not more chaste / Than this Lavinia, Bassianus’ love.” In Act Four: Scene One, Titus asks: “What Roman lord it was durst do the deed: / Or slunk not Saturnine, as Tarquin erst, / That left the camp to sin in Lucrece’s bed?”
 Marcus, upon finding his niece in the wood, already identified her with Philomel: “A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met, / And he hath cut those pretty fingers off, / That could have better sewed than Philomel” [II:iii].
 And later: “Far worse than Philomel you used my daughter, / And worse than Progne I will be revenged” [V:ii].
 Tamora’s response: “Had I the power that some say Dian had, / Thy temples should be planted presently / With horns, as was Actaeon’s, and the hounds / Should drive upon thy new-transformed limbs. / Unmannerly intruder as thou art” [II:ii].
 In the shelter of the wood, Aaron says to his forbidden lover Tamora: “[Bassianus’s] Philomel must lose her tongue today” [II:ii]. Bassianus’s Philomel is Lavinia, of course.