PTS 06/034: Dreams to give us pause …

BH fuseli nightmare
Fuseli, ‘The Nightmare’ (1781)

‘To sleep, perchance to dream – ay, there’s the rub’  (HAMLET: III.i.64)

Titus Andronicus: Act II

What tragedy would be complete without some element of the supernatural, as I have already intimated? This dreadful (in the sense of being full of dread, NOT poor quality) act begins with that classic Shakespearean trope, the bad night’s sleep:

‘I have been troubled in my sleep this night.’ (TITUS: II.i.9)

And Titus has every reason to be subconsciously troubled: although he begins the act quite enthusiastically:

‘The hunt is up’ (II.i.1)

He cannot imagine who the ‘dainty doe’ (DEMETRIUS: II.i. 26) might actually be ..

Nor can the first-time reader have suspected the role that Aaron the Moor will play. At some stage I’ll enlarge on his evil, but our disquiet should be aroused by his use – like his mistress – of oxymoron:

A very excellent piece of villainy’ (II.ii.7)

Our first surprise is the relationship between Tamora and Aaron. Contextually, this confirms the moral turpitide indicated in her aside to Saturninus in Act I (just in case clarification is REALLY necessary, what follows is NOT a personal view). First we have the differences in station, and then there is the Early Modern connotation of ‘black’ with ‘evil’ which we also see evidenced in Othello and The Tempest.  Again, NOT a personal view, but this illicit inter-racial relationship reinforces Tamora’s status as morally bankrupt, not least because we have to wait until the turn of the 15th century for the extended London visit of the Moroccan ambassador, Sharif Al Mansour, at which stage, enlightened Englishmen who encountered his embassy might have realised that race was not an indicator of morality: surely it’s no coincidence that Othello – an inherently noble man – was created after this visit?  Or indeed that Caliban has poetry, gentleness and nobility of his own?  Proof of the contemporary pre-embassy view comes in Bassanius‘ reaction to finding the two lovers together:

‘Believe me, queen, your swart Cimmerian

Doth make your honour of his body’s hue,

Spotted, detested and abominable.’ (II.ii.73-74)


It’s interesting that the now-married Tamora is utterly lost in lust (not necessarily love) for her Moor, as evidenced by the breathless 14-line sentence in which she paints him a seductive picture of their love-making whilst everyone else plays a different sport. What man could resist a sweet, stolen dalliance with a Queen?

Only a man with evil on his mind:

‘Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,

Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.’ (II.ii.38-39)

I’m left a little taken aback by the force with which he refuses her advances, and wondering about his motivation. Revenge for what wrong, over and above accompanying his lover to Rome and seeing her married off? Does he, like Richard III, seek vengeance on the entire world for wrongs done because of an accident of birth?

The questions continue: Chiron and Demetrius don’t enquire after Aaron’s presence in this secluded spot when they arrive – nor does Tamora feel the need to explain, as she produces a tour de force of extemporaneous lying which provokes the stabbing of Bassanius. Does she need to lie to her sons about this inter-racial relationship?  Or are they in on it?

Elsewhere in the Ponytail Shakespeare project, I’ve commented on Silvia’s ability to empathise with another woman who’s been scorned in love in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. Tamora’s monstrosity is exponentially increased by her rejection of any empathy with another woman: she lost her eldest son, certainly, and that’s terrible, but to allow another woman to be violated by her sons? Again, from the perspective of having read the play by the time I write this, and with my overall knowledge of the plays, Tamora and Aaron are vying hard for the ‘most evil bastards in the canon’ awards. I was full of dread at the prospect of the physical, emotional and psychological wounds about to be inflicted on Lavinia. I winced even as I re-read Tamora’s instructions to her sons:

[…] ‘away with her, and use her as you will:

The worse to her, the better love of me.’ (II.ii.166-167)

This in the face of the poor girl asking for a quick death rather than the ordeal planned for her.  Again I am reminded, as in Lear, of woman’s capacity to outdo man in cruelty. Hell, indeed, hath no fury …

Elsewhere, I’ve spoken about ‘deliberate cruelty’, referencing A Streetcar Named Desire.  We see it again in the shocking mockery of the freshly-raped and tortured Lavinia, who is unable even to end her misery:

CHIRON:  And ’twere my cause, I should go hang myself.

DEMETRIUS:  If thou hadst hand to help thee knit the cord. (II.iii.9-10)

One of the interesting things I think Shakespeare does in this act is to prolong our suffering on Lavinia’s behalf.  It’s not her father who finds her in her distress – we have to wait for that dreadful encounter.  Instead, it’s left to Marcus to passionately bewail the wrongs done to her.  Personally, I like this speech very much, as a way of working to understand a sight so shocking Marcus can scarcely believe what he sees:

‘If I do dream, would all my wealth would wake me;

If I do wake, some planet strike me down

That I may slumber an eternal sleep. (II.iii.13-15)

We’re presented with a nightmare picture surely worse than anything Titus complained of as the act opened.  The speech ends with Shakespeare building our tension about Titus’ reaction:

‘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?’  (II.iii.52-55)

It’s a point well made, and an apt comparison with a storm.  We already know Titus as a tempestuous individual, prone to acting rashly and out of proportion to the provocation.  The audience has to be worried about his reaction when he sees Lavinia.

What remains to be said?  Perhaps a word on Revenge.  Those who seek it often laud it as a way of settling a score, of evening things up, yet in literature, as in life, it so seldom is.  It’s not enough, for Tamora, to take the life of one of Titus’ few remaining offspring in exchange for Alarbus’ sacrifice: by the end of the act, three of his children are paying for the sins of the father … thus, revenge is never the nice, clean tit-for-tat but a raising of the stakes, a paying back with interest, and this is one of the things that makes it so dangerous.  When Saturninus believes his brother slain by Quintus and Martius, he’s able to quickly and completely set aside any prior sibling rivalry in his lust for revenge:

‘Sirs, drag them from the pit unto the prison.

There let them bide until we have devised

Some never-heard-of torturing pain for them.’ (II.ii.283-285)

Again, he wants payback with interest.  Constantly looking for intertextual links between the plays, I’m reminded of Benedick‘s penultimate sentence in Much Ado:

‘I’ll devise thee brave punishments for him.’ (V.iv.125-126)

The bravest punishments await, eventually, Chiron and Demetrius. Even first-time readers can predict an escalation from Titus but no-one sane, and perhaps that’s the point, could dream up his method of revenge …


Line references are taken from the respective Arden Third Editions:

Titus Andronicus (ed. Jonathan Bate)

Much Ado About Nothing (ed. Claire McEachern)

Hamlet (eds. Ann Thompson and Neil Tayor)





Author: Boar's Head, Eastcheap

Hyperactive English Teacher and Tutor; Shakespeare-obsessed 'Villainous abominable misleader of youth'; 'old white-bearded Satan'; Friend of the Orangutan

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