Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus is an orgy of murder, rape, and mutilation. On the surface the play is about the cycle of revenge, but it doesn’t take much to turn the symbolism round, to make it a powerful if crude attack on multiculturalism and political correctness. I am not subscribing to this interpretation, which might find sympathy among supporters of Donald Trump – I am simply pointing it out. Or perhaps I’m playing the Devil, like Aaron, the play’s main antagonist.
Titus Andronicus is set in the declining years of the Roman Empire. The title character is Rome’s finest general, and his latest campaign, against the Goths, was a resounding success. However Titus is now a psychological wreck, not least because many of his sons have been killed in battle.
Titus returns to Rome with the usual spoils of war, which include a number of prisoners: Tamora, the queen of the Goths, her Moorish lover Aaron, and her three sons Alarbus, Demetrius, and Chiron. When you’re a victorious general in this kind of situation, you have two choices. You release your prisoners unharmed, as a show of magnanimity, or you kill the lot, as a show of strength. Anything in between is dangerous. Unfortunately Titus did the worst possible thing. On the request of Lucius, one of his surviving sons, he had Alarbus killed and dismembered. In the language of revenge it seemed reasonable, as the Goths had started the wars that had wiped out so much of his family. However the consequences of this action, which left Alarbus’ mother and two brothers alive, were catastrophic.
The Rome that Titus returned to had no emperor, the old one having recently died. Titus was popular, and he could have become emperor if he so wished, but he was happy for the old emperor’s son, Saturninus, to accede to the throne. Titus might have thought that his own position was secure, because Lavinia, his only daughter, was betrothed to Bassianus, Saturninus’ brother. Titus’ position further improved when Saturninus announced that he, not Bassianus, would marry Lavinia. This would be great for Titus and his family, because Titus would be the Emperor’s son-in-law and his daughter would be the Empress.
Then everything goes wrong. Bassianus doesn’t want to let go of Lavinia, and Titus’s sons, and brother Marcus, take Bassianus’ side. Bassianus and Lavinia flee the scene, and Titus tries to go after him. Titus is blocked by his own son, Mutius, who he promptly kills. Matters are made worse by the reaction of Saturninus. He curses out the Andronicus family, Titus included, and announces that he is going to marry Tamora, the Goth queen, instead of Lavinia.
Here we have a foolish and impressionable man, having a crush on an older, sexually experienced woman. The age difference could have been significant – perhaps fifteen or twenty years. This is alluded to by Tamora, who promises Saturninus that “She will a handmaid be to his desires, / A loving nurse, a handmaid to his youth” (1.1.331-332).
Tamora couldn’t care less about Saturninus. She’s already got a lover, Aaron the Moor, whose number one aim is to destroy Titus Andronicus and his family. His number two aim is to destroy Rome from within. As Aaron tells Tamora, during a meeting in the woods,
I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold,
To wait upon this new-made Empress.
To wait, said I? – To wanton with this queen,
This goddess, this Semiramis, this nymph,
This siren, that will charm Rome’s Saturnine,
And see his shipwrack and his commonweal’s. 2.1.19-24
Aaron is the evil genius behind the savagery that is inflicted upon the Andronici. He is charming and intelligent – undoubtedly the most intelligent character in the play – and he has no compelling motive for the crimes he plots. Yet he is focused on revenge, more so than Tamora:
Hark, Tamora, the empress of my soul,
Which never hopes more heaven than rests in thee,
This is the day of doom for Bassianus;
His Philomel must lose her tongue today,
Thy sons make pillage of her chastity,
And wash their hands in Bassianus’ blood. 2.3.40-45
Aaron has got it all worked out. Tamora’s surviving sons, Chiron and Demetrius, are going to kill Bassanius. Then evidence will be planted, which will allow Titus Andronicus’s sons, Quintus and Martius, to be framed for the murder. As for Lavinia, Aaron has discovered that both Chiron and Demetrius are lusting after her, and he channels and twists their lust into the play’s central event.
Like many of Shakespeare’s characters, Aaron knew the Greek myths backwards, and he was familiar with Ovid’s rendering of the legend of Philomela and Procne. Procne was married to King Tereus, with whom she had an infant son, Itys. Tereus was of a lustful and violent disposition, and he raped Philomela, his sister-in-law. The defiled Philomela makes it clear to Tereus that she is going to tell the whole world about what has happened, and he responds by cutting her tongue out. However speech is only one form of communication, and Philomela weaves a tapestry, which explains her rape and mutilation. This allows Procne to avenge the crime, by killing Itys, and feeding Tereus his own son’s boiled flesh.
Bassanius and Lavinia find Aaron and Tamora alone in the woods. They immediately know what’s going on, Bassianus asking
Why are you sequestered from all your train,
Dismounted from your snow-white goodly steed,
And wandered hither to an obscure plot,
Accompanied but with a barbarous Moor,
If foul desire had not conducted you. 2.3.74-78
The tables are turned when Chiron and Demetrius arrive on the scene. They kill Bassanius, and they re-enact the legend, by raping Lavinia and cutting out her tongue. Furthermore, they make sure that Lavinia can’t weave tapestries or write letters, by chopping her hands off.
Titus Andronicus is now pushed into madness, crushing blow following crushing blow. First he discovers that his daughter, “the cordial of mine age to glad my heart” (1.1.166), has been raped and mutilated. Then two of his three surviving sons are arrested for murder. As Titus’ sanity crumbles, Aaron arrives on the scene, and tells Titus that if he, or another member of his family, cut off their hand, the sons will be released. Titus falls for the trick, and allows his hand to be cut off… in vain, because shortly afterwards a messenger brings Titus the severed heads of his two sons Quintus and Martius.
In the end Aaron and Tamora’s luck runs out. Lavinia finds ways of communicating, and with a stick in her mouth, guided by her stumps, she writes in sand the names of her rapists, Demetrius and Chiron. Titus might be crazy, but he knows what needs to be done. He engineers a situation that allows him to capture the two brothers, and with his good hand he cuts their throats, their blood flowing into a bowl held up by Lavinia. The dead brothers are then ground up and baked into a pie, a slice of which is given to their mother.
There then follows the final bloodbath. Titus kills Lavinia and then Tamora. Saturninus kills Titus, and Saturninus is in turn killed by Lucius, who immediately becomes Emperor. Aaron is buried alive.
So what does Titus Andronicus mean? It’s easy to overinterpret works of literature, and to read into them meanings that were never intended. However human beings are machines for creating meaning, and for different people at different times meanings will change. The revenge theme is clear, and as the play has become more popular over the last few decades it has been given a liberal slant. Titus Andronicus and Tamora represent an older generation, and their children have to suffer because of their neanderthal attitudes.
However which generation are we talking about? The whole cycle of revenge was not started by Titus, but by his son Lucius, who in the play’s first act requested that his father
Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs, and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh
Before this earthy prison of their bones,
That so the shadows be not unappeased,
Nor we disturbed with prodigies on earth. (1.1.96-100)
Titus agrees to the request, replying “I give him you, the noblest that survives” (1.1.102). As far as Lucius’ reasons for killing Alarbus are concerned, one needs to take him at face value. He was superstitious, and he believed that the ghosts of his dead brothers needed to be appeased – otherwise there would be “prodigies”, a word that in the Sixteenth Century meant omens rather than geniuses.
Aaron was next to Tamora as she begged Titus to save Alarbus’ life. He was able to gain psychological insights into the personality of Lucius, which would enable him to persuade the Romans not to kill his and Tamora’s infant son. The son was born just as Aaron and Tamora’s plot was unravelling. The Emperor would never believe that this dark-skinned child was his, and Tamora, Chiron, and Demetrius thought that the best solution to the problem was for the child to be killed. Aaron stays loyal to his son, but in the end the two fall into the hands of Lucius, whose first impulse is to string the baby up, in front of his father: “First hang the child, that he may see it sprawl – / A sight to vex the father’s soul withal” (5.1.51-52).
Aaron is placed in a situation where one might think he should be pleading for his son’s life. We already know that pleading is an unsuccessful strategy. Tamora had got down on her knees and pleaded for Alarbus’ life, Lavinia had pleaded with Tamora before being raped and mutilated, Titus had pleaded with Saturninus to spare Quintus and Martius. However Aaron doesn’t plead or grovel. Instead he bargains with his captors, offering them the whole story of his machinations. Furthermore, he already knows that Lucius is a superstitious man, who believes that the spirits of the dead need to be appeased, so if Lucius swears by his gods to nurture rather than kill the baby, he will honour his word. Even then, Aaron makes no attempt to placate his captors, describing how Lavinia was “…washed and cut and trimmed, / And ’twas trim sport for them which had the doing of it” (5.1.95-96). He finishing his testimony unrepentant:
But I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed,
But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (5.1.141-144)
The moral of the story is that you can’t get what you want by humiliating yourself. You identify your enemy’s weakness, so as to boost your bargaining position. Aaron was in a dreadful position, but he had one ace up his sleeve, which he made maximum use of.
The 1999 film Titus, with Anthony Hopkins in the title role, saw a message of hope in the very youngest generation. Titus Andronicus’ grandson, Lucius’ son, has a small part in the original play, but a much larger one in the film. He is a silent witness to the unfolding tragedy, and right at the end he walks away, into the sunset, with Aaron’s baby in his arms. This is the youngest generation rejecting the bloodletting of their parents and grandparents. While there can be no doubt that the baby survives, Lucius being a man of his word, the optimism is in my opinion unjustified. Why should the grandson want an end to it all? He was his father’s son, and we have to assume the worst. What if at the end of Titus the camera had focused on the baby’s mewling face, as Tubular Bells started playing into the credits? The cycle of violence has only paused, and the baby will grow up and continue his father’s work, ten thousandfold. Indeed if Aaron is the devil, the baby is the Antichrist.
One criticism that I have seen levelled at Titus Andronicus is that it’s racist. Aaron is a Moor, which means he is dark-skinned. Shakespeare didn’t have to worry about accusations of racism when he was writing the play, but he nonetheless shows an awareness of it. The characters themselves may be racist, but the play is not. When the nurse brings the newborn baby to Aaron, she delivers the message that Tamora wants the child killed:
A joyless, dismal, black, and sorrowful issue.
Here is the babe, as loathsome as a toad
Amongst the fair-faced breeders of our clime;
The Empress sends it thee, they stamp, they seal,
And bids thee christen it with they dagger’s point. 4.2.66-70
The nurse is not just being racist, she is expressing the worry that the child’s complexion will reveal who the true father is. Aaron defends the child, and by extension himself: “Zounds ye whore! Is black so base a hue?” Shakespeare is giving voice to a fundamental and obvious criticism of racism – what difference does one’s skin colour make? Furthermore, there is nothing token or unidimensional about Aaron. He is the play’s main antagonist, and his wit and intelligence are clear. While there is no doubt that Aaron is evil, he has a humanity, which the arrival of his baby son brings out. However this doesn’t stop him killing the nurse, in case she talks.
Titus Andronicus, as a play, has become more popular since the Second World War. The old view was that the play’s themes were disgusting, showing human beings in an unrealistically negative light. Then the Second World War came along, with all its atrocities and mass murder. There really were no limits to how badly people could behave, and there were further reminders, such as the partition of India and the break-up of Yugoslavia. And civil and tribal wars in Africa, which have been ongoing since decolonization, have shown countless examples of murder, rape and mutilation. Very recently, there has been the war in Syria and the rise of ISIS, a group which has revelled in the sadistic execution of its prisoners. In fact Aaron would be right at home as a senior ISIS commander. You can imagine him choreographing a mass beheading, or the destruction of a 2000 year old monument, while quoting Ovid or Livy as asides to the audience.
Yet there is another dimension to Titus Andronicus. It was set a time when the Roman Empire was collapsing, partly as a result of mass migration. Tribes from the east, such as the Goths and the Huns, were overwhelming the Empire, and part of the challenge was to deal with the pressure of this migration. The question of assimilation and citizenship had been important right at the beginning of the Empire, before it started “declining”. The Emperor Claudius was criticized for being too quick to hand out citizenship to non-Romans, and a perfect example of assimilation gone wrong was the Battle of Teutoburg Forest, in AD 9. Three Roman legions were ambushed in a German forest, where they were completely destroyed. It was an act of betrayal, by a German tribal leader called Arminius. As a boy he had been taken to Rome, and brought up as a Roman. Yet at the first opportunity he stabbed his hosts in the back, wiping out around ten percent of Rome’s ground forces in one blow. And according to the Roman historian Florus, some of the prisoners captured by the Germans were mutilated, with one Roman lawyer having his tongue cut out and his lips sewn up. The German who cut the tongue out apparently remarked “At last, viper, cease to hiss.” Having said that, I’ve no idea where Florus got his eyewitness testimony.
In the modern world there is an issue of migration, and there is a view that migration represents a threat to Western civilization. Around a million refugees from Syria and other Asian countries have been allowed into Germany over the last couple of years, and with climate change, the falling oil price and continued political instability one might expect the situation to continue indefinitely. In Titus Andronicus we see issues surrounding migration and assimilation. The Goth army are at the gates of Rome, and Saturninus has gone so far as to marry the Goth queen and bring her sons Chiron and Demetrius into the royal circle. It’s a situation that Titus is clearly unhappy about, Rome in his eyes having become “a wilderness of tigers” (3.1.54).
Lavinia suffered most from the tigers, and it may be worth seeing her in a symbolic light. Several writers have connected her with “the body politic”, which is every aspect of the nation, from the ruler down to the ordinary citizen. The state is conceptualized as a single body, and the rape and violation of Lavinia is a description of the rape and violation of a nation. Rome was falling apart, and its bodily integrity was being mutilated by the barbarian invasions. Although maybe Rome was already rotten to the core, and that is why the invasions were happening. So the body politic was being violated by corrupt, vainglorious rulers as well as by barbarous invaders.
Yet there are more details to consider. Tamora may be married to the Emperor, and be taking her place at the apex of Roman society, but her loyalty is not with Rome, it is instead with Aaron. Saturninus cannot see the situation, and neither can the tribunes and other officials who are helping him wield power. Yet Lavinia knows the truth. She has seen Tamora and Aaron cavorting, she had seen Bassianus being murdered by Chiron and Demetrius, and of course she knows the identity of her rapists. From a Donald Trump and alt-right perspective, one can then transpose the symbolism to the impact on Europe of unfettered immigration, particularly from the Muslim world.
Saturninus represents the liberal establishment, transfixed by the appeal of welcoming immigrants into the country. It’s a wonderful, progressive thing to do, and if you treat immigrants nicely they’ll have no problems assimilating. Yet Tamora never lost her original loyalties, and neither did the German chieftain Arminius. Lavinia might realize the truth, but she has lost her tongue and her hands, meaning that she can’t talk or write. She then becomes the people of Europe, labouring under the weight of political correctness. They can’t speak simple truths, which are obvious to everyone outside the liberal establishment, through fear of being labelled racists. Writing is even more dangerous. Academics could lose their jobs, writers their publishers, and sometimes journalists and cartoonists their lives – as was demonstrated by the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, in 2015. So the sanctions against criticizing Islam come from two sources – from Islamic radicals and from the liberal establishment itself.
The issue of rape is not just of symbolic concern. Over the last couple of years there have been reports that mass immigration has coincided with an increase in sex crimes. For example in Germany, on New Year’s Eve 2015, there was a wave of assaults, in a number of German cities. Hundreds of crimes were reported, including 24 rapes, and the alleged culprits were apparently North African. There was some evidence that the attacks were orchestrated, like Chiron and Demetrius’ rape of Lavinia. Yet the authorities were reluctant to admit that the culprits were Muslim immigrants, and the media was slow to report the details – political correctness having severed the reporting tongues and typing hands of German journalists.
Sweden is another country which has let in a high number of Muslim immigrants, and according to some sources is experiencing a rising crime rate. In 2015 the Gatestone Institute reported that
Forty years after the Swedish parliament unanimously decided to change the formerly homogenous Sweden into a multicultural country, violent crime has increased by 300% and rapes by 1,472%. Sweden is now number two on the list of rape countries, surpassed only by Lesotho in Southern Africa.
Matters in Sweden are not helped by a tendency not to report the skin colour or ethnicity of criminal suspects, on the grounds that such labelling might be racist. As to the facts about rape in Sweden, everyone talks their political book. The populist right believe that immigration policies have allowed into Sweden a group of people who have no respect for Western values, while the progressive left denies there’s a problem, and points to different crime reporting standards in different countries. However just because an argument is clever doesn’t mean it is right, as Aaron shows us so well. You can use clever arguments, and bullying political correctness, to control the conversation. It’s a conversation that the ordinary person is cut out of, even if their eyes and ears tell them that the liberal establishment has got it wrong.
This raises the question of the silent majority. Lavinia is representative of the people, unable to discuss their opinions. Anything they say that goes against the liberal establishment is labeled as racist, fascist, primitive or uneducated. Even opinion polls, that are supposed to be confidential, don’t give the people full expression of their views – and this was perhaps shown by the polls underestimating support for Brexit and Donald Trump. Yet in the polling booth mutilated Lavinia may be able to express her opinions, voting with a stick in her mouth, held steady by her stumps.
However I am not quite going to leave it there. There is a final ambiguity to Titus Andronicus, which would be disingenuous of me to leave out. Rome may have been at war with the Goths, but it was also saved by them. Titus, after he had taken delivery of the heads of his sons Quintus and Martius, sends Lucius to the Goths, to raise an army. It would seem that Tamora, through her association with Aaron, and perhaps Saturninus as well, had lost the support of her subjects. Lucius succeeds in his mission, and it is the Goths rather than the Romans that capture Aaron.
We can therefore see Aaron, and to a lesser extent Tamora, as the problems, the ones who stand in the way of assimilation… or multicultural harmony, take your pick. The Goths can move across Europe, and can reinvigorate Rome’s declining economy and culture, in the same way that immigrants from the Middle East and other places can fill the skills gap that is being created by aging populations in the developed world. Yet Aaron won’t let the original insult go. As he says to Tamora, when she tries to be amorous: “No, madam, these are no venereal signs; / Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand, / Blood and revenge are hammering in my head” (2.3.37-39).
Symbolically, Aaron is eluding to an original insult, that he will not let go of. From the perspective of Islamic fundamentalism, this insult could have many manifestations. The Reconquest of Spain, The Crusades, Western colonialism, Western support for Israel, Western support for the independence of East Timor, Western interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the general decline of Islamic culture over the last 800 years. One might then see Aaron as representing a destructive ideology, that rubs its hands in glee at every terrorist outrage. Yet those who suffer from Aaron’s machinations are often the very people whose interests he claims to serve. It was his plans, after all, that led to the deaths of Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius, and when he realized the game was up he didn’t lift a finger to help them. Likewise the people who suffer the most from Islamic fundamentalism are the Muslims themselves. This includes the small minority of Muslims who are persuaded by Aaron-like agitators that original insults need to be avenged, and that “liberated” Western women, or women who are not Muslims, are sluts who deserve whatever they get. As Aaron told Chiron and Demetrius:
The woods are ruthless, dreadful, deaf, and dull.
There speak and strike, brave boys, and take your turns;
There serve your lust, shadowed from heaven’s eye,
And revel in Lavinia’s treasury. 2.1.129-132.
Chiron and Demetrius did their worst, and as a result of following Aaron’s advice their throats were cut and their ground flesh was baked into a pie.
Each generation interprets Shakespeare’s plays in new ways, and when Shakespeare was writing at the end of the Sixteenth Century his main interest was commercial, rather than making political and social points. Nonetheless there seems little doubt that he was aware of the challenges of multiculturalism, and the fact that people from different cultural backgrounds are able to integrate. It’s still the case that when things go wrong, it can be difficult to speak out, and in a modern context, the liberal establishment is very good at shutting people up, with Lavinia’s mutilation being a symbol of this. Another feature of Titus Andronicus is ideology. Lucius and Titus’ killing of Alarbus was arguably an ideological act, in the sense that tradition and superstition demanded that a sacrifice be made. Tamora could not reason with Titus, because it was an ideological rather than human decision. Aaron is the ultimate ideologue, who drives Chiron and Demetrius to commit an appalling crime. He loves the damage to the Romans and doesn’t care about the damage to the Goths. And it is ideology that stands in the way of integration. If people are rational, and put their own interests before original insults and outmoded beliefs, then peaceful coexistence is possible.