Titus Andronicus, Act V
(subtitled, far too obviously for the UK football fans amongst us, ‘who ate all the pies?’)
I warned you! I WARNED YOU! Did I warn you?
Yes, I did. And so did Francis Bacon. And Jonathan Bate. And Fredson Bowers. We all said that revenge was likely to spiral out of control, because once you lose your faith in the law, and in divine justice too, all bets are off. And because every stroke in the ‘rally of revenge‘ is that much harder, has that much more spin on it than the last. Let’s mix our metaphors again: in this particular poker game, someone, eventually, is going to see your stake and raise you with everything they’ve got, not caring any more whether they win or lose. The chips, and what they represent, are suddenly and utterly unimportant …
Titus Andronicus is no barely-literate playground bully, like Donald Trump or Kim Jong-Un. His is a history of giving his working life, and the actual lives of his family, over a period of decades, to serve the civilisation and honour of Rome. He’s looked people in the eyes as he’s stabbed them – not pressed a button from thousands of miles away, and watched the game-quality footage whilst high-fiving his sycophantic generals. [Remind me about Trump’s proud record in the US armed forces, would you, someone?] Reading the play, I’ve become very sensitive to that sacrifice, and to the ‘reward’ he’s received. I’ve mapped it to Simon Armitage‘s poem, ‘Remains‘, which I teach each year at GCSE amongst a cluster of ‘Conflict’ poems, and to all the other all-too true tales of how we let our service personnel down. Simon Armitage’s poem here, or powerful contextual video here. I think it’s interesting that 1 GOTH (what a great name, albeit it sounds a little like a fancy car registration plate) refers to Titus’ treatment as his army follows Lucius towards Rome:
‘Brave slip sprung from the great Andronicus […]
Whose high exploits and honourable deeds
Ingrateful Rome requites with foul contempt.’ (V.i.9,11-12)
There’s a point in Act III where Titus reaches the bottom of the pit of despair and inappropriately laughs.
TITUS: Ha, ha, ha!
MARCUS: Why dost thou laugh? It fits not with this hour.
TITUS: Why? I have not another tear to shed. (III.i.265-267)
Jonathan Bate sums up this important moment:
‘What do you do when twenty-one of your sons have been killed in battle, you’ve killed the twenty-second in a fit of pique, your daughter has been raped and had her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, two further sons have been wrongly accused of murdering your son-in-law and the remaining one sentenced to exile, you’ve been told that the two who are condemned will be reprieved if you chop off your hand, and you do so, only to have the hand and the heads of the two sons sent back to you in scorn? Dramatic decorum dictates that you should rant (‘Now is a time to storm,’ says Marcus) But human nature does not obey dramatic decorum.’
Quite. This is the moment in the play when we should be afraid, even if we don’t know the plot. [Sorry for the spoilers, he he!] Again, I’m darting all over the place in locating Titus’ position in the 20th/21st century. He reminds me, poignantly, of John Rambo. This laughter is his nadir, and after this we see a cunning, a perverted logic, and the nihilism of a man for whom it really cannot get any worse. Sylvester Stallone‘s muttered words to Brian Dennehy in First Blood (1982) are a promise, not a threat. Who can doubt that Titus, too, is absolutely ready to push that big red button?
So, cunning, perverted logic, and nihilism in Act V. Hold on to your hats …
The cunning arrives in his deception of Tamora. It seems to work, even though it feels a little forced to us (EMP audiences were a LOT more willing to suspend their disbelief) – in the space of about 100 lines we go from:
‘I am not mad, I know thee well enough’ (V.ii.21)
‘Good Lord, how like the empress’ sons they are,
And you the empress! But we worldly men
Have miserable, mad, mistaken eyes. (V.ii.64-66)
‘I knew them all, though they supposed me mad,
And will o’erreach them in their own devices’ (V.ii.142-143)
… with my emphasis on ‘mad’, yet another foreshadow of King Lear, I think.
What can be more logically perverted than the method of revenge Titus decides upon? If Chiron and Demetrius have effectively ‘consumed’ his daughter, he’s going to do likewise, as he outlines in one lengthy litany of revenge:
‘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.’ (V.ii.186-191)
Each successive ‘and’, following the small end-stopped pause, produces the sense that singly, none of these atrocities suffice. Revenge won’t be complete until Tamora eats her offspring, and as we know from later in the act, even one symbolic swallow will do.
Finally, we come to the Rambo-like nihilism. Titus throws all his chips into the middle, stabbing Lavinia and then Tamora. It’s pretty clear he’ll die in this frenzy, so he wants to take his nemesis with him – perhaps if I try to look on Titus charitably, he believes he is doing Lavinia a fatherly favour by killing her, knowing he won’t be around to look after a disgraced girl … tenuous, I know.
As we hurtle towards the play’s end, the other thing that struck me, and again I’ve alluded to this elsewhere, is Aaron‘s utter, relentless, unprovoked and unrepentant evil. Regular readers will know I’m an almost irrational apologist for Richard III‘s mischief and the way he addresses his treatment by the world at large. I completely understand, if I cannot condone, Iago in his ambition and jealousy.
‘I hate the Moor
And it is thought abroad that ‘twixt my sheets
He’s done my office.’ (OTHELLO: I.iii.385-7)
Likewise Edmund‘s rage against primogeniture:
‘Now gods, stand up for bastards!’ (KING LEAR: I.ii.22)
Even Titus’ desire for apocalyptic revenge seems to make sense – in context…
But. Aaron is in a league of his own. Bitter and vicious – almost rabid. I mean, look at his final words, as he’s about to be led away to his death:
‘If one good deed in all my life I did
I do repent it from my very soul.’ (V.iii.188-189)
Christ. Or, perhaps, anti-Christ.
Where our tragic heroes have their noble qualities expounded in the early parts of their plays, Aaron is a silent, ominous, on-stage presence. Where heroes have that moment of anagnorisis towards the end, realising just how badly they have messed up and recovering some humility, Aaron seems to follow Dylan Thomas‘ advice and ‘rages against the dying of the light’. And, when order is restored as the curtains lower and I generally achieve some form of catharsis, in this play I have no sense of justice being done. In fact, I worry about any ‘lessons’ learned by Lucius, as I have already alluded to:
‘throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey’ (V.iii.197)
This new Rome feels less civilised than the old Rome …
If this had been a 21st Century text, I’d be waiting for a sequel, out some time next year, in which Aaron had escaped his fate, and the Goths who support Lucius’ coup d’etat turn out to be far from altruistic …
REFERENCES not linked to in the main post:
Jonathan Bate (ed.), Titus Andronicus (Arden Shakespeare: London, 2003)
EAJ Honigmann (ed.) Othello (Arden Shakespeare: London, 1997)
RA Foakes (ed.) King Lear (Arden Shakespeare: London, 1997)