Roman or Revenger?:
The Definition and Distortion of Masculine Identity
in Titus Andronicus
Brecken Rose Hancock
University of New Brunswick
Hancock, Brecken Rose.
"Roman or Revenger?: The Definition and Distortion of Masculine Identity
in Titus Andronicus." Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1
(May, 2004) 7.1-25<URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/10-1/hancroma.htm>.
In Titus Andronicus we see Titus fall victim to
his own obsessive adherence to romanitas. By the end of the play,
the very qualities he considers to be virtuous – sacrificial piety, constancy,
and militarism – are those that lead to tragedy. He is eventually forced
to abandon his moral code when his family is preyed upon by Tamora, her
sons, and Aaron. Coppélia Kahn describes the trajectory of the play as
“the story of Titus’s transformation from Roman hero to revenge hero, which
he accomplishes by hacking and hewing his way through the tangled matrix
of outrages and injures that Tamora spawns” (55). This insightful analysis
of Titus’s development touches on issues that I would like to explore further;
Kahn’s implication that there is a definitive difference between “Roman
hero” and “revenge hero” is especially relevant to my investigation of masculine
identity in Titus. In this play, the possibilities for masculine
identity become archetypes that are set in opposition to one another; the
characters do not see a middle ground. Through his characterization of
Titus, and also of Lucius, the son who is to redeem Rome, Shakespeare interrogates
the dichotomous construction of “Roman” versus “revenger” in order to destabilize
the apparent resolution that emerges out of brutal, pitiless, all-consuming
violence. Significantly, as the chaotic principles of patriarchal violence
are repudiated – in Titus’s murder of Lavinia and in his cannibalistic banquet
– they are also embraced – in Lucius’s treatment of Tamora’s corpse and
Aaron’s living body. This violent assertion of masculinity leaves no room
for a positive resolution to gender tensions, particularly because all the
women are destroyed and there is no regenerative hope offered by Lucius’s
- From Kahn’s description of Titus as revenge hero, we might develop a definition
of a revenger as one who hacks and hews until personal enemies have been destroyed.
On the other hand, Marcus’s definition of a Roman hero, embodied in Titus,
emphasizes nobility, bravery, military victory, and service to Rome (1.1.20-41). At first glance, the Roman hero
is more appealing. Marcus’s description of Titus carries connotations of
civility that words such as “hacking” and “hewing” simply do not invoke.
Titus, moreover, is characterized as a Roman hero above all others. In contrast
to the bickering princes, he stands as a proud monument to Rome’s unified
achievements, victorious after ten years of war with the Goths. He represents
Rome’s strength as an empire under an “Upright” (1.1.203) ruler. The celebration
that Titus ushers into Rome along with “honour’s spoils” (1.1.39) casts him
in a triumphant light; he seems the perfect candidate for emperor. He is
a loyal soldier, statesman, and patriarch who has lost many sons in Rome’s
war. From the beginning, then, we learn that heroism in Rome is deeply rooted
in militarism and sacrifice for the good of the empire.
- Soon after Titus enters the action, however, Shakespeare complicates the
“civility” of Roman heroism by questioning the virtues that seemed so appealing
in Marcus’s speech. Titus does not take long to prove that, for Romans, militarism
and sacrifice are not only appropriate on the battlefield. His “slavish devotion
to principle and honor” (Toole 28) quickly leads him to sponsor human sacrifice
and to turn his back on his own family in defence of the state. It becomes
clear that filicide is incorporated into Titus’s conception of virtue. As
Kahn points out, the deaths of Alarbus and Mutius “are paralleled: both sons
are sacrificed in the name of the fathers, according to a piety that seems
not only cruel and irreligious but also a perversion of virtus” (49).
Kahn goes on to label Titus
a delinquent father whose negligence derives from his over-zealous
(and in the killing of his son Mutius, self-contradictory) commitment to
those forms of pietas specifically involving men: dedicating all
his many sons to the service of the state, insisting on the strict observance
of blood sacrifice to their spirits despite a mother’s plea for mercy, opting
for primogeniture without considering a rival claim, and defending imperial
power even to the point of slaying his own son. (51)
Titus's actions as Roman hero actually serve to break down the distinctions
between Roman and outsider. William W. E. Slights explains that, with Titus's
killing of Mutius, "The crucial distinctions between friends and enemies of
the state, between the prerogatives of the ruler and the responsibilities
of his subjects, between familial bonds and personal honour have been dissolved"
(22). Not only does Titus take his own son for an enemy and slay him but,
after Saturninus chooses Tamora as his wife, Titus must accept that his prisoners
of war have suddenly become fellow citizens and, furthermore, members of the
royal family. Tamora is aware of her power and publicly reinforces her status,
disguising her threat as a reconciliation speech: "Titus, I am incorporate
in Rome, / A Roman now adopted happily, / And must advise the emperor for
his good" (1.1.467-69). Although she does not respect Roman virtues, she seems
to have mastered them better than Saturninus has. When he wants revenge on
Titus for Lavinia's elopement, Tamora cautions her new husband that such action,
so soon after Titus supported his campaign for emperorship, may seem to be
"ingratitude, / Which Rome reputes to be a heinous sin" (1.1.452-53). Titus,
ignorant of Tamora's desire to destroy him, accepts the reconciliation offered
by Tamora on the emperor's behalf. He does not want revenge on Saturninus
for humiliating him; instead, Titus is content to be back in the emperor's
good graces and, consequently, back in the good graces of Rome.
- If Roman heroes place state before family, revenge heroes place personal
and familial concerns above all others. Because "revenge heroes are inherently
decent men  reluctant to act outside the law," (Kahn
67), "revenge exists in the margin between justice and crime" (Belsey 165).
While we might sympathize with revengers and believe that they pursue justice,
they are vigilantes, however reluctant, often committing acts of hyperbolic
violence, rather than seeking lawful, measured punishment for their enemies.
Procne, for instance, the revenger from whom Titus takes his lead, kills and
feeds her own son to her husband for his vicious rape and mutilation of her
sister. This murder seems unjust, for the innocent boy was not responsible
for his father's crimes. Significantly, the lawful,
measured punishment meted out by Titus as Roman hero to his son Mutius for
rebelling against imperial power also seems unjust. In this way, Shakespeare
blurs the distinction between state-sanctioned execution and murder, between
Roman and revenger. Although Mutius's death is horrific in its own right,
Rome does not reprimand Titus for his action. Only Titus's son, Mutius's brother,
accuses Titus of being "unjust, and more than so" (1.1.297), and aside from
Bassianus's plea to Saturninus, where he cites Mutius's execution as proof
of Titus's loyalty to the empire, the death goes unacknowledged. One wonders
if this might be Shakespeare's commentary on the violence sanctioned by the
crown in Elizabethan England. Jonathan Bate, commenting on the revenge plot
rather than on the execution of Mutius, asks, "Would playgoers have drawn
comparisons between the revenger's ritualized violence and the ritualized
violence that they were familiar with in real life? . . . The ritualized violence
which an Elizabethan audience would have known best was public execution,
itself a highly theatrical activity" (Introduction 23). He goes on to say
that "By casting revenge in the form of an elaborate public performance, the
drama reveals that the public performance known as the law is also a form
of revenge action" (24) . Shakespeare,
by overlapping the injustices of murder and execution, is able to criticize
thoroughly the traditions of violence in both Roman heroism and revenge heroism.
- Although it is framed as execution, Titus's killing of Mutius is also a
"revenge action" against the son who betrayed him; in Titus's exaggerated
punishment of the boy who was his "joy" (1.1.387) we might recognize Lear's
abandonment of Cordelia, the daughter he loved most and hoped to live with
in his old age (Lear 1.1.123-24) .
Both Titus and Lear are on the threshold of change – Titus is home from war
and his emperor is dead; Lear is ready to relinquish his crown and must divide
his kingdom among his daughters – and both men are counting on their children
to see them obediently through. In Titus Bassianus and Saturninus represent
the future; the strength of the empire depends on which one will be chosen
to succeed their father. Titus represents the past, a past he feels he can
maintain by continuing to adhere strictly to his Roman moral code; in particular,
he feels that the only way for Rome to proceed is to continue to support primogeniture
and absolute imperial power.
- It is not a coincidence that the son Titus executes is named "Mutius."
Not only does Shakespeare recall Mutius Scaevola, who demonstrated the bravery
of young men in Rome by unflinchingly burning off his own hand in the face
of his enemy, but he alludes to a string of associated words that are intricately
linked with the matter of the play; Mutius's death prefigures the "muteness"
and "mutilation" that will plague the Andronici. Ironically, considering that
Mutius's namesake is known for dramatically proving his loyalty to Rome, the
name also implies "mutiny," the crime of which Titus accuses his son. It might
also seem to Titus that his son is "mutable," or "Inconstant in mind, will,
or disposition" (OED) to wound so traitorously the "honour" (1.1.370)
of his father. Lastly, but I believe not least importantly, "Mutius" holds
the Latin root of all these words, that is, "mutare," "to change" (OED).
Mutius embodies the unpredictability of the upcoming empire where princes
fight each other for the emperorship of Rome; plebeians turn their backs on
tradition and elect a soldier as their leader; citizens contest the right
of the emperor to choose his own bride; and sons turn against their fathers
in order to protect beliefs that conflict with the law. When Titus at first
refuses to allow Mutius proper burial, he cites the historical significance
of the tomb:
This monument five hundred years hath stood,
Titus is cleaving to tradition; he may have re-edified the tomb, but he does
not want to re-define it. Finally, when he realizes that his sons and brother
will not be satisfied until Mutius is properly buried, or perhaps when Marcus
accuses him of being "barbarous" (1.1.383), he resigns himself to their will;
however, although Titus eventually submits to change, and therefore yields
to Marcus's definition of Mutius as a "virtuous son" (1.1.347), he does not
accept it contentedly. In fact, Titus sees the entry of Mutius into the sacred
monument as a portent of his own doom: "The dismall'st day is this that e'er
I saw: / To be dishonoured by my sons in Rome! / Well, bury him, and bury
me the next" (1.1.389-91).
Which I have sumptuously re-edified.
Here none but soldiers and Rome's servitors
Repose in fame; none basely slain in brawls. (1.1.355-58)
- Kahn characterizes Titus’s reluctance to allow Mutius burial as “The father’s
exaggerated investment in the patriarchal order”; furthermore, she sees that
investment as “commandingly represented onstage by the tomb of the Andronici”
(52). As Marcus pleads alongside Titus’s sons outside the monument, it once
again becomes clear that Titus values duty to the state above personal loyalty
to the family. Kahn thus argues that the tomb represents “the subordination
of the family to the military needs of the state” (52). In Titus’s transformation
from Roman hero to revenge hero, however, he completely reverses his feelings
about state and family. Rather than defining himself as a Roman first and
a father second, he places the wrongs his family has endured above his duty
to protect the state. Titus’s transformation, then, reveals some distinctions
between Roman and revenger; although both traditions are violent, the motivation
for violence arises differently and out of different spheres. In other words,
there is a conflict between professional and personal duty, between the public
and the domestic sphere.
- Titus’s transformation from one kind of hero into another is inextricably
linked to what Ann Christensen terms Titus’s “descent into private life” (330).
While Titus is no stranger to “hacking and hewing” at the beginning of the
play – he has just come back from a decade-long war, after all – his bloody
massacring has been done in Rome’s name. When he appears on stage and begins
lopping and slaying, he does so according to “Roman rites” (1.1.146) and the
laws of Rome. In contrast, by the end of the play, Titus “commit[s] treason”
in acting against the empire when he seeks revenge (Kahn 67). He specifically
locates his motivation for violence in his wounded family when he facetiously
implores Tamora/Revenge: “I pray thee, do on [the empress and her sons] some
violent death: / They have been violent to me and mine” (5.2.108-09). Titus
will eventually kill Tamora as a father; his sacrifice of Alarbus was as a
- The sacrifice of Alarbus marks our ambiguous introduction to Titus. He
is clearly the hero of the play; yet Tamora’s accusation of “cruel, irreligious
piety” seems justified. Waith describes this ambiguity as “the first of many
double visions of [Titus]. . . this is no clear-cut case of the good man going
wrong. We see a collision of two sets of values, neither of which should
necessarily prevail in all circumstances” (161). Titus’s set of values encompasses
even his questionable actions of the first scene, including the execution
of his “Traitor[ous]” (1.1.301) son. Although Shakespeare “clearly indicates
that we are meant to see [Titus] as an unpleasantly noble, misguided man [whose]
pride and piety blind him to, or make him incapable of displaying, more human
qualities,” he retains his status as Roman hero because the violence he perpetrates
is sanctioned by the empire (Toole 27). In addition to our perception of
Titus as “unpleasantly noble” and “misguided,” we are also meant to keep in
mind that he is a soldier returning from war, a soldier who has been away
from civilization for a long time. Five speeches within the first 190 lines
of the play feature his triumphs and victories on the battlefield. His execution
of Mutius is thus framed within the context of Titus’s lifestyle of conflict:
the person who threatens one with a sword is the enemy; the enemy must be
- Out of Titus’s violent actions arises another distinction between revenger
and Roman hero: Titus’s behaviour draws our attention to the climate of violence,
the spirit in which violence is committed. Romans are ceremonial and lawful;
their motivation for violence is not vengeance. In fact, Titus does not even
seem to understand revenge at first. Rather than fear the possibility that
Tamora may wish him harm for the death of her son, he assumes she will be
“beholden to the man / That brought her for this high good turn so far” (1.1.401-02).
Toole labels this naïveté “incredibly stupid,” but goes on to say that Titus’s
obtuseness, exasperating as it is, helps to redeem his character.
It becomes obvious that the sacrifice of Alarbus was a matter
of principle, not an act of malice or of personal revenge. . . . Titus is
anything but a hypocrite. If he has been responsible for the death of Tamora’s
son, he has also, as a matter of principle, slain one of his own sons.
Violence in Rome is institutionalized, so Romans do not expect revenge as
a response to sacrifice and execution; in fact, the sacrifice of Alarbus and
the execution of Mutius are meant to purify the community and prevent future
violence by appeasing the “groaning shadows that are gone” (1.1.129) and purging
Rome of “Traitor[s].” Slights, applying the work of anthropologist René Girard,
defines this as both the “sacrificial rite of purification” and as “sacred
- This “sacred violence” is sharply differentiated from “vengeful, competitive
violence that. . . is self-perpetuating” (Slights 19). Revengers are thirsty
for blood, are willing to wait for an opportunity for retaliation, and hold
bitter, relentless grudges against their enemies. Unlike Titus’s Roman sons,
who are angry at Titus for killing their brother but do not even consider
retribution, Demetrius immediately calms his mother after the death of Alarbus
with the possibility that she might one day be armed “With opportunity of
sharp revenge” (1.1.140). While as Roman hero Titus’s “probity makes it difficult
for him to suspect duplicity in others” (Price 75), namely the revenge plot
that Tamora instigates with her aside to Saturninus, “let me alone: / I’ll
find a day to massacre them all” (1.1.454-55), he becomes well-educated in
duplicity as he more firmly defines himself as revenger. By the time Tamora
comes to him posing as Revenge in Act Five, he immediately sees through her
- Because he has Tamora disguised as Revenge, Shakespeare connects revenge
with women, and thus sets up another difference between revenge and the overtly
masculine principles of Roman heroism. In contrast to the state-sanctioned
violence of the first scene, the violence that dominates the rest of the play
is feminized. It is appropriate that Tamora takes the part of Revenge, for
she is the first revenger to be introduced, and the mother who sets the entire
revenge tragedy moving when she swears she will destroy Titus and his family
for the murder of her son. This association of revenge with women recalls
Christensen’s argument about Titus’s “descent into private life” (330). Not
only is revenge’s violence personally, rather than politically, motivated,
but it is also domesticated through its association with women, in particular
motherhood and female sexuality. The language that Tamora uses to convince
Titus that she is Revenge is particularly revealing; as Bate notes (Introduction
254), she re-introduces the pit imagery from Act Two, Scene Two:
There’s not a hollow cave or lurking place,
It is perhaps fitting that Revenge will seek out murderers and rapists in
caves, for Titus has already said that Revenge itself resides in a cave (3.1.271).
These caves, lurking places, obscurities, and misty vales recall the “swallowing
womb” where Bassianus was found dead and Titus’s sons were trapped.
No vast obscurity or misty vale
Where bloody murder or detested rape
Can couch for fear, but I will find them out. . . (5.2.35-38)
- The womb’s “cave” is both the hiding place for evil-doers and the residence
of revenge. Two other references to “cave” in Titus reinforce this
relationship. Tamora describes a “counsel-keeping cave” (2.3.24) for her
“amorous retreat” with Aaron (Christensen 334), and Aaron says he will “cabin
in a cave” (4.2.181) with his newborn child. Again the “counsel-keeping cave”
is associated with Tamora and it “retains its evocation of the pit and, hence,
female sexuality”; Aaron’s desire to nurture his child in a cave reminds us
that it is not only revenge that is associated with women, but the racialized
Other as well (Christensen 334-35).
Furthermore, Aaron and his child are perceived as “incarnate devil[s]” (4.2.66,5.1.40);
it is appropriate, then, that these two “foes” and “foul offender[s]” (5.2.32,40)
would seek “cabin” in a cave. In the end, however, Tamora is the evil-doer
whom Titus’s revenge “find[s] out” (5.2.38). Her cave, her womb – “the word
also means stomach” (Kahn 70) – will literally become the residence of revenge
when Titus feeds the mother her own sons baked in a pie.
- As Titus stands, apparently transformed into the revenge hero, costumed
as a cook, over the bloody pies he has made himself, his attire "is an
ironic inversion of the robes of state he had refused in the opening scene"
(Christensen 330). Because, as Christensen informs us, "the chores related
to food provision were almost universally allotted to housewives [in Renaissance
England]" (328), Shakespeare portrays Titus as domesticated and feminized.
He not only "play[s] the cook" (5.2.204), but plays the mother as
well. His fall from the position of Roman hero begins when he refuses to become
emperor, opting for retirement instead. Because his power has been weakened,
his family becomes the prey of the newly-crowned empress and her sons. He
is then forced to take on a nurturing role, reading to Lavinia (3.2.82-84)
and "interpret[ing] all her martyred signs" (3.2.36). As Christensen
emphasizes, however, "nurturance is not only taken up by men, but it
is altogether inverted, making 'that strumpet, your unhallowed dam, / Like
to the earth swallow her own increase' (5.2.190-1)" (333). Titus, although
he plays the cook in the last scene, "deploys theatricality and deception
in a banquet of revenge; he offers meals not intended to nourish; and he takes
on this nurturing role in response to his weakened political power" (Christensen
332). Not only does his "wholly domestic identity [come] at the expense
of women" (332), but he also usurps Procne and Philomel from the original
myth (342) by appropriating Lavinia's sorrow and her revenge. Kahn argues
that this usurpation of the female role by Titus "reveals Shakespeare's
effacement of female agency in his selective retention and deletion of elements
in the stories of women" (62). 
- Titus's conversion from Roman to revenger not only distorts his masculine
identity as it is defined when he returns to Rome a victorious hero, but it
also distorts the identities of mothers and potential mothers in the play;
on the other hand, in spite of his costume, we must recognize that some of
the changes that Titus undergoes during his transformation from Roman hero
to revenge hero are welcome. Titus comes to recognize his role in Rome's downfall
– "Ah, Rome! Well, well, I made thee miserable / What time I threw the
people's suffrages / On him that thus doth tyrannize o'er me" (4.3.18-20),
and he becomes a self-sacrificing father who gives up his own hand to save
the lives of his sons – marking a drastic evolution from the time he executed
Mutius to save his own reputation. In this way, Shakespeare challenges the
absolutes of masculine identity, forcing his audience to consider a middle
ground where the male hero wins our sympathy by adopting aspects of the female.
- While both Titus's recognition of his mistake in appointing Saturninus and
his sacrifice to save his sons seem to indicate that he has achieved self-recognition,
his behaviour at the end of the play causes us to re-evaluate his dynamism
as a character. Titus's killing of Lavinia is especially troubling. Still,
although Titus is not admirable, there are ways in which we might read his
killing of Lavinia that cast him in a sympathetic light. Albert H. Tricomi,
for instance, argues that
Titus’ slaying of his own dishonored daughter out of pity before
he is himself slain is tacit recognition that this world which has made
a mangled ruin of their bodies has also transformed them utterly in spirit.
With their thirst for revenge sated, there is nothing left for either Lavinia
or the maddened Titus but the surcease of sorrow in death. (102)
Tricomi’s argument is supported by Lavinia herself before she is silenced,
for “Lavinia knows that being murdered is better than being subjected to a
‘worse than killing lust’ [2.2.175] that will deprive her of her reason for
living” (Stimpson 59). Indeed, after the slaughter of Bassianus and before
she is dragged offstage to be raped and mutilated, Lavinia entreats Tamora,
“with thine own hands kill me in this place. / For ’tis not life that I have
begged so long; / Poor I was slain when Bassianus died” (2.2.169-71). Perhaps
in interpreting all Lavinia’s martyred signs (3.2.36), Titus understands best
that in her misery she wishes for death:
Thou map of woe, that thus dost talk in signs,
Although Marcus is appalled that his brother would teach Lavinia to “lay /
Such violent hands upon her tender life” (3.2.21-22), Titus knows that without
hands, his daughter is without the agency to take her own life (3.2.25).
Lavinia’s “lopped, wandering hands. . . function within a Renaissance tradition
of manual semiotics. . . articulated through sixteenth-century emblem books,
heraldry, genealogical charts, and ritual gestures. . . [that makes] the capacity
for effective action contingent on disability” (Rowe 280). Even Demetrius
and Chiron recognize this contingency, for they taunt that “Not only is Lavinia
denied the means of self-expression, but her ability to claim death and the
absence it creates, with all its purport of deconstructive power, is eliminated”
When thy poor heart beats with outrageous beating,
Thou canst not strike it thus to make it still.
Wound it with sighing, girl, kill it with groans,
Or get some little knife between thy teeth
And just against thy heart make thou a hole,
That all the tears that thy poor eyes let fall
May run into that sink and, soaking in,
Drown the lamenting fool in sea-salt tears. (3.2.12-20)
Chiron: And ’twere my cause, I should go hang myself.
It seems to me, then, that the speech in which Titus teaches Lavinia how she
might kill herself is a veiled offer to lend her the agency his remaining
hand can provide. When she refuses drink at line 35 (perhaps her own idea
on how to commit suicide) we might interpret this as her assent to Titus’s
Demetrius: If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord. (2.2.9-10)
- Even if Titus and Lavinia do have an unspoken agreement about her death,
his lines at the banquet before he kills her make it impossible to identify
with him. Finally we must realize that the metamorphosis of Titus is abortive;
he never manages to escape his earth-bound prejudices. Although on one level
we can agree with Christensen’s argument that Titus’s “cook’s costume is an
ironic inversion of the robes of state he had refused in the opening scene”
(330), we must recognize that his cook’s costume is also a re-invention of
those official robes of power. While the cook’s uniform he dons seems to
be the antithesis of the palliament when he first enters the scene, soon Titus
rhetorically transforms his costume into official Roman garb when he addresses
Saturninus: “Was it well done of rash Viginius / To slay his daughter with
his own right hand, / Because she was enforced, stained and deflowered?” (5.3.36-38).
Thus, we learn Titus is still constructing himself as Roman hero, and, as
attractive as Kahn’s argument is, it is unpersuasive. In the end, Titus does
not know who he is. He carries out a revenge plot, but also kills his daughter
while following the “pattern, precedent, and lively warrant” (5.3.43) of Romans
who have gone before him. Titus may have learned to value his family, but
his time as nurturer has not profoundly re-educated him. Filicide in the
name of Roman tradition is still written in his rule book of “bloody lines”
that “shall be executed” (5.2.14, 15) – and he continues to defer to the state
when he asks the emperor’s permission first.
- In the end, neither the Roman hero nor the revenge hero is satisfying; both
sets of values embrace unjustifiable violence. Moreover, in the final scene,
Shakespeare shatters the barriers between Roman and revenger altogether when
Titus recites Roman tradition only twelve lines before he takes revenge on
Tamora, informing her that she has eaten “the flesh that she herself hath
bred” (5.3.61) and killing her. This dissolution of boundaries is unsettling,
for we can take comfort in neither Titus’s entry into the play, nor his exit
out of it, and, in fact, there does not seem to be much difference. If he
reaches self-recognition, learning to abandon blind obedience to the state
and to value his family, it is only to sacrifice it again in the name of Roman
- Shakespeare further disturbs the apparent restorative order at the end of
Titus in his characterization of Lucius, the man who is to redeem Rome.
In the collapse of the distinction between Roman and revenger, Shakespeare
creates a hovering tempest of clashing values that threatens to agitate violently
the surface of apparent order: Lucius stands aloft, Rome’s new “royal emperor”
and “gracious governor” (5.3.140, 145) announcing vicious punishments for
his enemies. He too embodies the dual identity of Roman hero and revenge
hero that we see in Titus. He is Roman in his martial prowess – he manages
to convince an army of enemies to follow him into battle – but revenger in
his thirst for blood, which he displays from the beginning when he calls for,
and then revels in, the mutilation of Tamora’s eldest: “Alarbus’ limbs are
lopped / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke like incense
doth perfume the sky” (1.1.146-48). Anthony Brian Taylor, in his article
“Lucius, The Severely Flawed Redeemer of Titus Andronicus” asks of
this speech, “What kind of brutal and coarse mentality is it, one wonders,
that allows a man to compare the smell of burning human entrails with ‘incense’[?]”
(142). Beyond Lucius’s actions in the first scene,
we realize by the time he repatriates Rome and manages to become emperor,
that he is “just another vindictive character. . . bent more on devising inhuman
punishments to settle old scores than on healing Rome’s wounds” (White 360).
Indeed, in sentencing Aaron and Tamora he does not even bother to mention
sacrificial piety or “Roman rites” (1.1.146); vengeance remains the governing
motivation for violence.
- Because of Lucius’s behaviour throughout the play, he not only embodies
both Roman hero and revenge hero but he complicates the notion of “heroism”
all together. His revenge on the living body of Aaron and the dead body of
Tamora in his last speeches recalls Saturninus’s first moments as emperor
when he desired revenge on Titus. Molly Easo Smith also sees a connection
between Lucius and Saturninus:
Lucius’s crowning simply presents a superficial solution similar
to Saturninus’s at the beginning of the play. . . . And even as we perceived
Saturninus as an inappropriate choice because of his feud with his brother
and his first act of revenge. . . we are reminded of Lucius’s role as revenger
in the opening scene. (321).
This parallel between Lucius and Saturninus does not bode well for Rome, considering
that Saturninus “rules over a city which devours its children – figuratively
by consigning them to the gaping maw of the Andronici tomb, and literally
by serving them in the bloody banquet at play’s end” (Miola 94).
- In addition to Lucius’s parallel with Saturninus, we might draw comparisons
between Lucius and the Goths: Chiron, Demetrius, and Tamora. For instance,
Taylor argues that
There is a correspondence between the sacrifice of Alarbus and
the rape of Lavinia: in the one, Lucius, with the approval of his father,
gives vent to his bloodthirsty nature by butchering the brother of Chiron
and Demetrius in the city; in the other, the two Goths, with the approval
of their mother, express their “barbarous” nature by their ferocious treatment
of his sister in the forest. (142-43)
I would argue that Shakespeare further parallels Lucius’s actions with the
rape of Lavinia when Lucius threatens to kill Aaron’s innocent child in order
to punish the father. Lucius orders:
First hang the child, that he may see it sprawl:
The language in this speech distinctly recalls the brutal taunting of Lavinia
by Chiron and Demetrius:
A sight to vex the father’s soul withal.
Get me a ladder. (5.1.51-53)
Demetrius: See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . .
Chiron: And ’twere my cause, I should go hang myself.
Demetrius: If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord. (2.2.5-10)
- Lucius’s words recall the taunting of Chiron and Demetrius in his wish to
hang the child, but, more significantly, in his use of the word “sprawl,”
which echoes the earlier “scrawl,” or “scrowle” as it was written in the First
Quarto. Although Shakespeare’s wordplay usually does not require the audience
to recall a word from three acts earlier, I believe Demetrius’s use of scrawl/scrowle
is particularly memorable – it “stands apart from the rest” (Stamm 326) –
because it so accurately describes Lavinia’s plight and the difficulties she
will have in identifying her murderers. Although “scrowle” is an alternate
spelling of both “scrawl” and “scroll,” Mary Laughlin Fawcett argues that,
in this case, the word takes on a new definition:
Lavinia’s “signs” are more than scowls or scolds, while her “tokens”
are less than, or different from, scrawls or scrolls. [Demetrius’s] quibble
locates an area of language that is not spoken and not written, not closed
and not open, not syntactical and yet not meaningless. (Fawcett 261)
The word, then, is embedded in our memories waiting to be recalled when Lucius
encounters Aaron and his child. Shakespeare has mirrored Demetrius’s language
in order to indicate subtly Lucius’s callous hypocrisy. In his hypocrisy,
Lucius aligns himself with Tamora, particularly in his last speech when he
“throw[s] [Tamora] forth to beasts and birds to prey” (5.3.197), for, as Taylor
points out, “Having characteristically prohibited ‘pity’ in the onlookers’
response to Aaron’s cries as he starves to death, Lucius in almost the next
breath damns Tamora for being ‘devoid of pity’” (155).
- Lucius’s parallels with Saturninus, Chiron, Demetrius, and Tamora are fascinating
in their implications for the resolution of the play. Instead of a one-dimensional
saviour, he is multi-faceted, a complex character who hosts a complicated
conclusion to the play. Although Lucius’s flaws are obvious, his virtues
are just as evident. Lucius’s name is significant in that it means light
and his namesake was the first king to introduce Christianity to Britain (White
356). Bate argues that “In the paralysis at the climax of the bloody banquet,
Lucius is the obvious figure to turn to, not only because he holds the cards
but also because the play has set up the Andronici as ‘popular’ figures (Marcus
is a Tribune) and has set up Lucius in particular as a restorer of Rome” (“A
Reply” 331). Aside from his name and the reputation of his family, Lucius’s
actions themselves are evidence that he possesses virtue. Stephen J. Teller
documents Lucius’s many good deeds throughout the play:
he calms Saturnine, who is about to call his followers to arms;
he supports Bassianus’ claim to Lavinia; . . . he pleads for Mutius’ burial
in the monument; . . . he justifies to Saturnine his part in Lavinia’s abduction.
. . . He offers his own hand to save his brothers. (350-51)
Teller’s argument culminates in Lucius’s decision to spare Aaron’s child;
it is the third plea within the play for the life of a child, and it is the
first one that is granted. Miola, as well, sees this as the ultimate indication
that Lucius is the man who will restore order to Rome: “appropriately, he
is depicted as one who is gentle with his own offspring and who pointedly
refuses to devour the offspring of another – the bastard son of Aaron” (94).
- This, however, is where things become ambiguous; it is clear from Lucius’s
first impulse to hang Aaron’s child brutally that he does no such thing as
“pointedly refuse to devour the offspring of another.” If we grant that Lucius
exhibits many good qualities, and it is clear that he does,
we cannot automatically include his sparing of Aaron’s child among them.
The end of the play, for instance, does not clearly indicate whether or not
Lucius has kept his promise. Lucius brings the child out as a spectacle in
order to emphasize the immorality of Tamora and Aaron and to demonstrate that
Titus was right to revenge “These wrongs unspeakable, past patience, / Or
more than any living man could bear” (5.3.124-25). The innocent child is
pointed to as an incarnation of the evil deeds of Aaron, but it is not explicitly
stated that the child is alive. In fact, it seems quite possible that the
child is dead; at least one director thought so. Jane Howell, for the BBC
production, had a coffin brought onstage with the remains of the child inside;
Ann Christensen explains that Howell’s dramatic accommodation for the lack
of stage directions regarding the infant “jibes with [her] reading of the
play, for the Emperor Lucius seems. . . an unreliable nurse” (352). Christensen’s
thesis rests on the fact that men – Titus, Aaron, and Lucius – take over nurturing
roles, thereby displacing women from the domestic sphere and resulting in
the “perversion or deprivation of women’s nurturing ability [that] structures
the play” (333). The resolution of the play, then, is not only unconvincing
because Lucius is flawed, or even because some of his characteristics mimic
those of villains, but because his usurpation of female roles has absented,
or debilitated, every woman in the play (Christensen 348).
- If Lucius gains our sympathy because he is a good father to his son, even
“Stereotypically feminine in [his] overtones of nurturance [at 5.3.159-65]”
(Hunt 88), and Titus gains our sympathy by adopting a mothering role, they
each do so at the expense of women in the play: Lavinia is killed and Tamora
is forced to experience a reverse labour before her own murder. In identifying
with the Roman- and revenge-plots of the Andronici, we are forced to accept
their stories instead of the stories of women: “Titus represents
acts of nurturance always by supplanting women with men as providers of nurture,
and shows this replacement to be disastrous” (Christensen 332). Lucius, in
spite of his role as nurturer to both young Lucius and Rome, is a violent,
unreliable patriarch without a female counterpart. Vengeance is still the
governing principle and Rome, in the end, is doomed, for it is without women
and therefore without a way to be reborn.
- Baker, Francis. “Treasures of Culture: Titus Andronicus and Death
by Hanging.” The Production of English Renaissance Culture. Eds.
David Lee Miller, Sharon O’Dair, and Harold Weber. Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1994. 226-61.
- Bate, Jonathan. Introduction to Titus Andronicus. The Arden Shakespeare:
Third Series. London: Thomson Learning, 2000. 1-121.
- ---. “‘Lucius, The Severely Flawed Redeemer of Titus Andronicus’:
A Reply.” Connotations 6.3 (1996‑97): 330‑33. Online at
- Belsey, Catherine. The Subject of Tragedy: Identity and Difference in
Renaissance Drama. London: Methuen, 1985.
- Christensen, Ann. “‘Playing the Cook’: Nurturing Men in Titus Andronicus.”
Shakespeare and History. Ed. Holger Klein and Rowland Wymer. Shakespeare
Yearbook. Vol. 6. Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1996. 327-54.
- Fawcett, Mary Laughlin. “Arms/Words/Tears: Language and the Body in Titus
Andronicus.” English Language Review 50.2 (1983): 261-77.
- Hunt, Maruice. “Exonerating Lucius in Titus Andronicus: A Response
to Anthony Brian Taylor.” Connotations 7.1 (1997‑98): 87‑93.
Online at <http://www.uni-saarland.de/fak4/fr43/connotations/>.
- Kahn, Coppélia. “The Daughter’s Seduction in Titus Andronicus, Or,
Writing is the Best Revenge.” Roman Shakespeare: Warriors, Wounds, and
Women. Feminist Readings of Shakespeare. New York: Routledge, 1997.
- Kehler, Dorothea. “Titus Andronicus: From Limbo to Bliss.” Shakespeare
Jahrbuch 128 (1992): 125-31.
- Kendall, Gillian Murray. “‘Lend me thy hand’: Metaphor and Mayhem in Titus
Andronicus.” Shakespeare Quarterly 40.3 (1989): 299-316.
- Miola, Robert S. “Titus Andronicus and the Mythos of Shakespeare’s
Rome.” Shakespeare Studies 14 (1981): 85-98.
- Price, H. T. “The Authorship of Titus Andronicus.” The Journal
of English and Germanic Philology 42 (1943): 55-81.
- Rowe, Katherine. Dead Hands: Fictions of Agency, Renaissance to Modern.
Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.
- Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. Ed. G. Blakemore
Evans, et. al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
- ---. Titus Andronicus. Ed. Jonathan Bate. The Arden Shakespeare:
Third Series. Berkshire House: Thomson Learning, 2000.
- Slights, William W. E. “The Sacrificial Crisis in Titus Andronicus.”
University of Toronto Quarterly 49 (1979): 18-32.
- Smith, Molly Easo. “Spectacles of Torment in Titus Andronicus.”
Studies in English Literature 36.2 (1996): 315-31.
- Stamm, R. “The Alphabet of Speechless Complaint: A Study of the Mangled
Daughter in Titus Andronicus.” English Studies 55.4 (1974):
- Stimpson, Catharine R. “Shakespeare and the Soil of Rape.” The Woman’s
Part: Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Ed. Carolyn Ruth Swift Lenz,
Gayle Green, and Carol Thomas Neely. Chicago: University of Illinois Press,
- Taylor, Anthony Brian. “Lucius, The Severely Flawed Redeemer of Titus
Andronicus.” Connotations 6.2 (1996-97): 138-57. Online at <http://www.uni-saarland.de/fak4/fr43/connotations/>.
- Teller, Stephen J. “Lucius and the Babe: Structure in Titus Andronicus.”
Midwest Quarterly 19 (1978): 343-54.
- Toole, William B. III. “The Collision of Action and Character Patterns
in Titus Andronicus: A Failure in Dramatic Strategy.” Renaissance
Papers (1972): 25-39.
- Tricomi, Albert H. “The Mutilated Garden in Titus Andronicus.”
Shakespeare Studies 9 (1976): 89-106.
- Waith, Eugene M . “The Metamorphosis of Violence in Titus Andronicus.”
Shakespeare Survey 10 (1957): 39-49.
- White, Jeannette S. “‘Is Black So Base A Hue?’: Shakespeare’s Aaron and
the Politics and Poetics of Race.” CLA Journal 40.3 (1997): 336-66.
- Wynne-Davies, Marion. “‘The swallowing womb’: Consumed and Consuming Women
in Titus Andronicus.” Shakespeare’s Tragedies: Contemporary Critical
Essays. Ed. Susan Zimmerman. New Casebooks. New York: St. Martin’s
Press, 1998. 212-36.
I am grateful to William W. E. Slights for his editorial guidance, advice,
 Here I would add
women can also be “inherently decent” revenge heroes, especially considering
that, for Titus, Procne is the prototypical revenger.
 With Procne’s revenge,
filicide is introduced into the revenger’s set of values as well. While Titus’s
murder of Chiron and Demetrius targets the actual perpetrators of Lavinia’s
rape and mutilation, his killing of Lavinia mimics Procne’s filicide of her
 Francis Barker’s thesis
contradicts the speculation that Shakespeare could have been criticising state-sanctioned
violence in England. He comments extensively on the death of the Clown in
4.4; a careless execution order is given by Saturninus that parallels the
violence committed by the Elizabethan and Jacobean crown. Barker suggests
that “the lack of affect associated with the demise of the Clown in Titus
Andronicus makes it casual. . . part of the routine, ‘natural’ landscape
and lifescape of the poet” (255). He further argues that “the graphic violence
of the drama serves to direct attention away from, rather than toward, the
elimination of huge numbers of the population” (253).
 Christensen’s argument
does not ignore that, although Aaron’s reference to the cave where he will
nurture his son “associat[es] the black man with women in the play” (334-35),
Aaron is a decidedly masculine nurturer who will “bring [his son] up / To
be a warrior and command a camp” (4.2.181-82). She sees this as a displacement
of feminine nurture where “a cave replaces the household, the father replaces
the mother” (334).
 Kahn has a wonderful
section in “The Daughter’s Seduction” that compares Lavinia’s agency, or lack
thereof, to that of her female counterparts, Cornelia, Hecuba, Philomel, Lucrece,
and Verginia (61-72).
 Gillian Murray Kendall
explicitly disagrees with the argument that Lavinia is without agency, stating
that “Lavinia, like Lucrece, once having exposed her rapists, could kill herself.
Indeed, her father has taught her how” (314). I would counter, however, that
Titus’s suggestion that she take a knife between her teeth and stab herself
is hardly feasible, and that Shakespeare does not mean for his audience to
take this as literal advice.
 In addition, Titus carries
out his personal revenge publicly. This mirrors his entombment of his sons
in the first scene while all of Rome looks on, but, as Christensen says, it
is in contrast to the revenge supper arranged privately by Procne and Philomel
in the Metamorphoses (342).
 I am much indebted
to Taylor for this section of my paper where I argue that Lucius embodies
conflicting identities; however, as I will discuss later, I do not believe
that this is the only way to read Lucius and am in agreement with Bate who
says, “Shakespeare was never a didactic or a monovocal dramatist. Even this
early in his career, he sees both sides of a question. . . . I remain convinced
that both the positive and negative readings of Lucius. . . are there in the
play, and that the concomitant indetermination of value‑judgement is
one of the play’s excellencies” (“‘Lucius, The Severely Flawed Redeemer of
Titus Andronicus’: A Reply” 331-32).
 Miola does not make this comparison between Saturninus
and Lucius. He goes on from this description of Rome’s former emperor to
say, “Significantly it is Titus’s son, Lucius, who stops the hideous feeding,
the ghastly acts of impiety which lead ultimately to the death of the city”
(94). Christensen’s take on Lucius complicates Miola’s argument; she concedes
that in a literal sense Miola’s point about Lucius is true, but reveals the
symbolic malevolence of Lucius’s actions:
Lucius’s new Roman order swings dialectically to end feeding altogether.
. . . State-sponsored starvation presents a fitting cap to this banquet which
has served vengeance rather than nutriment in defiance of the terms of its
invitation: ‘ordained to an honorable end / For peace, for love, for league,
and good to Rome’ [5.3.22-23]. (347)
 Dorothea Kehler does not see any morality within
Rather than reading moral fibre into one of Titus’s most violent
characters, a more promising approach is to accept the play as problematic
and open-ended. The ethical cost of restored order may well be too high.
Moreover, Lucius’s penchant for observing ‘Our Roman rites’ may leave spectators
wondering whether order will survive the entry of the next Tamora and Alarbus
into Rome. (130)
Responses to this piece intended for
the Readers' Forum may be sent to the Editor at M.Steggle@shu.ac.uk.
Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).