PTS 06/036: Losing My Religion

BH old man yells at cloud

Titus Andronicus, Act IV

Secular authorities had (and still have) every investment in discouraging revenge.  If citizens perceive that the law no longer serves them, then we get the kind of situation that Francis Bacon famously warned of:

‘Revenge is a kind of wild justice’

And this is a point that Jonathan Bate develops, quoting Fredson Bowers:

Private action undermines the authority of the state:  Elizabethan law felt itself capable of meting out justice to murderers, and therefore punished an avenger who took justice into his own hands just as heavily as the original murderer.  The authorities, conscious of the Elizabethan inheritance of private justice from earlier ages, recognised that their own times still held the possibilities of serious turmoil; and the were determined that private revenge should not unleash a general disrespect for law.

Act IV however adds the dimension of the breakdown of DIVINE justice to the individual’s decision to subvert the legal process.

Nominally, let’s not forget that one of the differences between Judaism and Christianity is that the former advocates ‘an eye for an eye’ whereas the latter, and Shakespeare’s contemporary audience, would be encouraged to ‘turn the other cheek‘.

Ye have heard that it hath been said, An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth:

But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. (MATTHEW, 5:38-39)

What this meant, whilst the church held absolute authority, is that the wronged were encouraged to adopt the Christian doctrine of ‘Patience’ in expectation of receiving their reward in heaven.  ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers‘, and all that!  Here’s Bacon again:

‘the spirit of Job was in a better tune:  ‘Shall we’ (saith he) ‘take good at God’s hands, and not be content to take evil also?’ […] vindictive persons live the life of witches; who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate.’

But one of the things we are seeing, contextually, is the erosion of the Church’s authority.  Take a look at my recent Quote of the Week post, and what Nigel Heard can add to the subject.  And let’s not forget that the Tudors were absolute monarchs who defied the authority of popes – Elizabeth herself was excommunicated in 1570.

How does all this preamble fit into Shakespeare, and indeed into Titus Andronicus?  So far, so reference heavy.  My purpose in this, I suppose, is to demonstrate how the erosion in the authority of the Church might have contributed towards the popularity of Revenge dramas, and how we see this in the plays, even at this early stage in Shakespeare’s career.

Another slight detour, to a quotation which has stuck with me since I first read Richard II as an A Level student, 30-odd years ago:

‘That which in mean men we entitle patience

Is pale cold cowardice in noble breasts.’  (Duchess of Gloucester:  I.ii.34-35)

I think this is unbelievably significant, and along with reading Orwell‘s Nineteen Eighty-Four, formed part of my teenage education that the world was a bit, well, broken.  What we have is the incredible proposal / urging of a two-tier legal system, and the division of law and justice.  I defy you to say it ain’t so, both in the UK and the USA …

And, finally, onto Titus.  There is a realisation that earthly justice has failed in the execution of his two sons, and Titus begins repeatedly railing (like Lear) at the heavens, bereft of any faith that Lavinia‘s attackers will be brought to book.  Marcus joins the fray:

‘O, why should nature build so foul a den,

Unless the gods delight in tragedies?’ (IV.i.64-65)


‘O heavens, can you hear a good man groan

And not relent or not compassion him?

[…] Revenge the heavens for old Andronicus! (IV.i.123-124, 129)

The questions demonstrate well the confusion and the challenge to one’s faith when bad stuff happens.  Do I speak from experience here?  Maybe.

Titus kicks off the act relying on the gods:

‘beguile thy sorrow till the heavens

reveal the damned contriver of this deed.’ (IV.i.35-36)

Even the party of the Goths gets in on the act, once Chiron and Demetrius realise that their guilt is known:

DEMETRIUS:  Come let us go and pray to all the gods […]

AARON:  Pray to the devils; the gods have given us over. (IV.ii.46,48)

We might need to take a slight detour here – I’m running out of words (as usual), in a post which deals with just one aspect of the Act, I just want to mention that like the table tennis match I spoke about in my last post, we now have a third character trying to keep their child alive.  The ‘rally of revenge’ continues apace, although in this case Aaron doesn’t just speak – he acts, and the child is saved …

Back to those cruel and capricious Gods.  And back to Titus.  He epitomises the idea that if earthly justice fails, many people put their trust in some type of divine retribution:

‘And sith there’s no justice in earth nor hell,

We will solicit heaven and move the gods

To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs. (IV.iii.50-52)

His addressed arrows ask the gods for help, and I think there’s some mileage in suggesting that he doesn’t decide to act until the deus ex machina fails to appear.  We get very close to the final straw when the Clown turns out not to be a heavenly messenger responding to his shafts after all …

TITUS:  Why, villain, art not thou the carrier?

CLOWN: Ay, of my pigeons, sir – nothing else.

TITUS:  Why, didst thou not come from heaven? (IV.iii.86-88)

Saturninus continues to rely on his version of the law being just, but for the Andronici, that ship has long since sailed …

‘What’s this but libelling against the senate

And blazoning our injustice everywhere?

[…] As who would say, in Rome no justice were. (IV.iv.17-18,20)

… and no amount of indignant rhetorical questioning will bring it back to harbour.

Of course, you could argue that it’s no more than these characters deserve, being heathens.  After all, it would be foolish, almost negligent, to write a piece like this and NOT quote Lear:

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.
They kill us for their sport. (Gloucester: IV.i.38-39)

The Christian flavour of God seems just as capricious and unwilling to intervene across the canon, though, however much kings are willing to praise him – look at what eventually happened to Richard II.  As I’m being all ‘intertexual’ today, let me give you another quotation – this time from Henry V – which really struck me when I first heard it, and which has also stayed with me:

‘Miracles are ceased’ (Canterbury:  I.i.67)

I mean, it’s the Archbishop of Canterburythe senior Catholic in England.  And of course we have the antics of the holders of religious office, like Winchester in 1HVI. None of this helps the flock retain their faith …

So, what I think we see is that the ultimate despair, the last straw which leads to the taking of revenge, is the fact that faith in any posthumous reward has been completely undermined, contextually and in the plays.  It overrides our personal moral and ethical code.

What’s different now?  Very few of us have the patience to get our reward in the afterlife.  Scarcely anyone believes there is one.  Which means that the law has to work much harder, and be more obviously seen to provide justice for all. As and when they don’t, we head closer to a situation where:

‘ancient grudge break[s] to new mutiny’ (Romeo and Juliet:  The Prologue, line 3)

and we all know how that ended for the Capulets and Montagues


BACON, Francis: Essays or Councils, Civil and Moral (The Folio Society: London, 2002)

BATE, Jonathan: ‘Introduction’, in Titus Andronicus (The Arden Shakespeare: London, 2003)

CRAIK, TW (ed.):  King Henry V (The Arden Shakespeare:  London, 1995)

FOAKES, RA (ed.):  King Lear (The Arden Shakespeare:  London, 1997)

FORKER, Charles R (ed):  King Richard II (The Arden Shakespeare:  London, 2005)

HEARD, Nigel, Tudor Economy and History (Access to History series), (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 1992)

WEIS, René (ed.)  Romeo and Juliet (The Arden Shakespeare:  London, 2012)


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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