Titus Andronicus is a story of lust, murder, revenge, rape, insanity, and depraved denizens entirely deprived of conscience—the very ingredients from which nightmares are made. But whose nightmare is it? Perhaps it might belong to everyone—dead, alive, and those that will live in the future. Themes of family, betrayal, and tragedy are as old as human history. Psychoanalytic theorists might say that this work was drawn from the collective unconsciousness, a direct confrontation of the archetypal evil forces that most people struggle to push away from their thoughts while stubbornly clinging to a tenuous ideal of virtue.
Titus Andronicus approached this ideal in his daily life. In the beginning, he was a great general who devoted most of his life to vanquishing the enemies of his nation. As a parent, he succeeds in transmitting his values to the next generation. All of his sons are as patriotic and conscious of their duties as he was, without a single coward or traitor among them.
(Mutius only stood up to his father because he did not want his sister to lose face before her fiancé and abandon her virtue.) His only daughter conducted herself as the ideal woman of the age—chaste, soft-spoken, and modest. In such a society, her only fault lay in asserting the right to choose her own mate.
But after the Great War against the Goths, Titus lives to see his country and life destroyed by an evil that almost seems supernatural—a powerful force of nature or malevolence rather than human agency. For the first time in his life, Titus does not know how to respond to the situation. Even with years of military training and contact with many kinds of people, he is powerless to act on behalf of his nation and family in the face of pure evil. In this terrain, Titus fights a valiant war against the darkness that is closing in on him from all directions.
There are dark forests with deep pits and ravenous beasts therein, a place to commit all kinds of evil. However, it is not only the forest the beasts inhabit, but the Roman court as well. The fallout of the war’s end would lead to the deaths of fourteen people and most are affiliated in some way with the Royal House of Rome. Death claims thousands of lives every day, but is quite an extraordinary event to witness the death of a dynasty, a feat that spiraled beyond the control of his antagonists, Aaron and Tamora.
Shakespeare shows that there is no such thing as perfection. Many people sacrifice much in order to reach this ideal, but they ultimately self-destruct. Titus Andronicus, (emperor apparent and war hero) might have been considered close to perfect according to the ideals of his society. He was brought up to be a soldier and pledged his life to serve his country; an oath he had taken more seriously than most. As a result, he is very proud of his culture and derived the greatest part of his identity from it. Like Genghis Khan, he believed in the greatness of his people, and was the archetypal patriot—subduing everyone that challenged the authority of the empire.
Unfortunately, like most tragic heroes, he had one fatal flaw—an irrational belief in tradition and the authority that sanctions it. His personality development was quite repressed. He was trained to follow orders and expected others to do so as well, possibly even before he was able to form a conscious thought. He imposes capital punishment on those that fail to obey the proper chain of command—even his own children. Family relationships were quite dysfunctional. Because of the capacity he served in, it would have been foolish to develop a strong attachment to his children.
Twenty-one of his sons died in the war against the Goths and he was proud of them and mourned them not. Most fathers would have been distraught at losing so many children, and he shows this in the end with respect to Martius and Quintus because so few of his offspring have survived. Strangely enough, in Act I, he blithely killed his youngest surviving son for the small infraction of getting in his way when Lavinia fled with her true love.
He tried to rationalize his actions by disavowing his relationship with Mutius when Lucius rebukes him, “(Lucius) My lord, you are unjust, and more than so:/ In wrongful quarrel you have slain your son. / (Titus)Nor thou, nor he, are any sons of mine: / My sons would never so dishonour me”(1.1.297-300). His oldest son and his brother had to plead with him to grant Mutius a proper burial. Later, his pride was wounded even further when he realized Mutius’ death was for nothing because the emperor had fallen in love with the Andronici archenemy Tamora.
“No, Titus, no, the emperor needs her not, / Nor her, nor thee, nor any of thy stock. / I’ll trust by leisure him that mocks me once, / Thee never, nor thy traitorous haughty sons, /Confederates all thus to dishonor me”(1.1.304-8). This leads to Titus and his family becoming personae non grata at the palace. At the moment Lavinia leaves Saturninus for Bassianus, his psyche begins to unravel for up to now he had always been beloved of Rome and a boon to the emperor. His lowered position truly began to cloud his judgment.
Another example of his traditionalism surfaced when the choice of succession fell to him. He had chosen Saturninus because he was the eldest of the two brothers—which was how the right to rule had been determined for thousands of years. However, he had a greater vested interest in placing Bassianus on the throne. First, Bassianus and Lavinia were already betrothed to one another; their union would have given the Andronici an elevated position in the Roman court. Also, Bassianus was friends with his sons and admired him while Saturninus was originally indifferent. Perhaps, Tamora and her captured associates might have also been executed as prisoners of war and none of these events would have taken place.
The tendency to go back and wonder “what if” is a part of human psychology that ultimately surfaces at times like this. In the end, his obedience to authority began to waver when faced with the unjust deaths of his sons and ravishment of his daughter. By the time he managed to capture Chiron and Demetrius through feigned madness, his love for Rome and the Emperor was destroyed.
Encouraging his exiled son to attack Rome, he devised a horrible fate for Chiron and Demetrius, the boys that raped his daughter and set up his sons to take the fall for a crime they did not commit, “Hark villains, I will grind your bones to dust, /And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste, /And of the paste a coffin I will rear, /And make two pasties of your shameful heads, /And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam, /Like to the earth swallow her own increase. /This is the feast that I have bid her to, /And this the banquet she shall surfeit on”(5.3.2, 186-193). This empress was then forced to take back into her body what she brought into the world. Harking back to Roman funerary rites, one must perform a sacrifice for the dead. In the case of Tamora, he sacrificed her sons to her before killing her, wanting the boys to forever remain within their mother as a mockery of gestation.
Tamora, Queen of the Goths was already filled with hate because the Romans, most notably the Andronici, defeated her people. Her first spoken words, however, placed pride aside for the life of her son, “Stay, Roman brethren, gracious conqueror, / Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed, / A mother’s tears in passion for her son! / And if thy sons were ever dear to thee, / O, think my son to be as dear to me”(1.1 107-111). The lines in bold foreshadow the events to come.
The sacrifice of her eldest son Alarbus pushed her into the realm of inhumanity that she would use any means necessary to exact revenge on Titus and his family, ultimately costing him the lives of his entire family, with the exception of Lucius. However, it can be argued she was always merciless and cruel, especially in the case of Lavinia. Even though the girl was completely innocent of anything that went on between her father and Tamora, the Queen had her sons brutally rape and mutilate her.
Even as Lavinia was begging Tamora to put her out of her misery, she just wanted to see the girl tortured. It is possible that she might have been raped upon capture, thus would not have any qualms of watching the children of her enemies suffer the same fate? “Tis true, the raven doth not hatch a lark. /Yet have I heard—O, could I find it now—/The lion, moved with pity, did endure/To have his princely paws pared all away. /Some say that ravens foster forlorn children/The whilst their own birds famish in their nests. /O be to me, though thy hard heart say no, /Nothing so kind, but something pitiful”(2.2 149-156).
Aaron the Moor is a keen observer of human nature, a trait he uses to carry out his ill intentions. Knowing that Chiron and Demetrius are naturally inclined to use whatever means necessary to get what they want, it was not too difficult for him to convince them to murder Bassianus in cold blood and rape Lavinia. Knowing that Titus, Marcus, and Lucius would have done anything to free the innocent brothers, he entreated one of them to sacrifice a hand for their freedom when he was really intending to send him their heads, “I go, Andronicus, and for thy hand/Look by and by to have thy sons with thee. /[Aside] Their heads I mean. O, how this villainy/Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it. /Let fools do good and fair men call for grace, /Aaron will have his soul black like his face.”(3.1.201-6).
Perhaps in the past, he might have been ill treated because of the color of his skin. In Elizabethan Europe, black was equated with every kind of evil and depravity, which would explain why Tamora was so drawn to him, being evil and depraved herself. Perhaps at one point, people treated him cruelly, assuming him to be wicked and he spent the rest of his life trying to fall into accordance with social expectations, doing as much evil to others as he possibly could. It is doubtful that he truly loved Tamora, instead, she might have provided a way for him to achieve power in his own right. Perhaps then, he can accomplish every evil unimpeded.
On more than one occasion, he disparaged good and the people that do them and remained unrepentant until the very end excepting any good deeds, “I am no baby, I, that with base prayers/ I should repent the evils I have done./ Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did/ Would I perform if I might have my will./ If one good deed in all my life I did/ I do repent it from my very soul”(5.3.184-189). Psychologically, he is the ideal sociopath, one that could perform any action, no matter how heinous to get what he wants.
Where other people would have internal constraints to refrain from rape, murder, or manipulating other people, they were absent in Aaron. He enjoyed the mayhem he created with his lover. The sacrifice of Tamora’s son simply allowed him the excuse to further his ambitions. Interestingly enough, though he seems to despise all mankind, he is very loving and protective toward his son. First, he killed the nurse that brought him in there and threatened to kill Tamora’s other sons for threatening to harm his child. In a parlay with authorities, he asked for his child’s life to be spared if he were to tell them anything. This was intriguing character development for such a heartless individual.
In the language of dreams, decapitation signifies lack of control or thought. Chiron and Demetrius had absolutely no control over their desires and did not exercise good judgment at all. Instead, they were pawns for other people, namely Tamora and Aaron. They used their inherent animalism as a tool for revenge against their enemies. The loss of hand symbolizes powerlessness and a blow to one’s vision of oneself. After Lavinia lost her hands, she lost her identity as a chaste Roman daughter of the royal house.
According to the patriarchal culture of the time, she was considered a whore though she was a victim of rape. When Titus sacrificed his hand for his son, it was an outward gesture of his fall from grace. Once an esteemed general, he had become the father of alleged traitors and lived to see the honor of his house become tarnished—the honor he would fight to the death to protect. He lost his pride, his respect for tradition, and whatever shred of sanity and conscience he possessed. Most people would have executed the boys on the spot and left their remains to the wild animals, but he baked them into a pie and served them to their mother.
Surely, this was not the action of a man in his right mind. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine anyone in identical conditions emerging completely sane at the other end. This is the dream of one either haunted or depraved. Ultimately, each character serves as an element of the human spirit to make this dream comoplete. Titus and his family (including Bassianus) show courage, loyalty, and honor. Saturninus is the corrupt powerful figure, forgetting those that honor him and while rewarding his enemies. Tamora is the spirit of vengeance and her children embody rape and murder. Aaron is mostly evil, dedicating his life to causing as much pain and suffering as possible. Analyzing each character as an archetype rather than a person allows for a new dimension of understanding in this work.
Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. Surrey, UK: Thomas Nelson & Sons, Ltd., 1998