(Ponytail Shakespeare read-through) Titus Andronicus: Act I
My experience of Shakespeare’s Rome is the city where Cinna the Poet is torn apart by the mob for his ‘bad verses’ (Julius Caesar, III.iii), and the antagonistic opening to Coriolanus. So, what first struck me as the play opened was just how thin the veneer of civilisation proved to be.
The contenders to the empery, brothers, both speak in lofty tones, but in their opening speeches the noble idea of ‘justice’ has a nasty aftertaste – the threat of violence. Saturninus gets straight to it, telling his followers:
Defend the justice of my cause with arms […]
Plead my successive title with your swords. (I.i.2-4)
The younger brother, fearing that rights under primogeniture will carry the day, echoes these threats:
To justice, continence and nobility […]
And, Romans, fight for freedom in your choice. (I.i.15-17)
It seems that Shakespeare has the contenders only willing to obey the rule of law and due process so long as it finds in their favour. This scarcely ties in with Jonathan Bate‘s ideas about how the Romans viewed themselves:
“The city prided itself on not being barbaric: the word civilised comes from civilis, which means ‘of citizens, of the city’, and Rome was the city.”
Perhaps in this Titus is no better when he arrives. There is, certainly, something unexpectedly barbaric about the sacrifice of Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus, an act she condemns with the wonderful oxymoron:
‘O cruel, irreligious piety!’ (I.i.133)
My Arden glosses that ‘Rome prided itself on not allowing human sacrifice’. Writing after having read the entire play, I think it lessens my overall sense of catharsis to think that Lucius – the last and presumably the best man standing when the curtain closes – is the one who asks to be allowed to sacrifice Alarbus. I’ll probably be looking closely to see if he learns any lesson by the play’s end, or if Rome is doomed to continue the tit-for-tat revenge cycle under his leadership.
Act I also centres on ideas relating to nobility through service and sacrifice. When Marcus eulogises his brother:
‘A nobler man, a braver warrior,
Lives not this day within the city walls.’ (I.i.25-26)
I’m reminded of the scene in Gladiator when Caesar urges Maximus to succeed him. Like Maximus, the imperative is all the more persuasive simply because Titus doesn’t aspire to power. He, like Lear, feels his age:
‘What, should I don this robe and trouble you?
Be chosen with proclamations today,
Tomorrow yield up rule, resign my life
And set abroad new business for you all?’ (I.i.192-195)
‘Give me a staff of honour for mine age,
But not a sceptre to control the world.’ (I.i.201-202)
This is Titus’ first failing, I think: the inability to recognise that the alternatives are worse. It might be his greatest service to Rome to prevent these two brothers from gaining mastery. But overall, ‘we’ don’t tend to like soldiers as our leaders. Is it, I wonder, because military justice is so peremptory? Of course, on the battlefield there’s no room for dissection or discussion:
Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die
As Tennyson puts it in The Charge of the Light Brigade. I think this sums up Titus’ second fault, exemplified by the killing of one of his few remaining sons, Mutius.
MUTIUS: My lord, you pass not here.
TITUS: What, villain boy, barr’st me my way in Rome?
[He kills him.]
‘There’s no justice, there’s just Titus’ … He doesn’t want to hear whether or not Lavinia has been betrothed to Bassanius: contextually, it seems difficult to believe that it could have happened without his knowledge anyway. But it seems that his attitude is like Lord Capulet‘s:
‘An you be mine, I’ll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in the streets’ (Romeo and Juliet,III.v)
Having agreed to give his daughter to the new emperor, there’s no way his orders can be challenged. He professes his love of Lavinia, but treats her like an object, and his sons like expendable chess pieces. Much, perhaps, like Lear treats Cordelia. Much like Tamora.
Titus has ‘suffered a queen to live’; his third mistake: let’s remember that Cleopatra chose death rather than the prospect of being paraded through Rome. An ex-ruler is nothing but trouble – Queen Margaret was to Richard III, and Richard II / Henry VI could have been figureheads for discontent (albeit useless ones) had they not been disposed of. Contextually (and reluctantly, it seems), Elizabeth was obliged to have her cousin Mary beheaded.
Tamora’s revenge has already begun, perhaps in supplanting Lavinia in the match with the newly crowned emperor Titus so desired. Worse is to come:
I’ll find a day to massacre them all,
And raze their faction and their family,
The cruel father and his traitorous sons
To whom I sued for my dear son’s life,
And make them know what ’tis to let a queen
Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain. (TAMORA: I.i.455-460)
[References to follow]