The bloody banquet in Titus Andronicus
The cannibalistic feast in Shakespeare’s deadly revenge tragedy provides some food for thought
Content warning: This blog is about extreme violence , including bodily mutilations and sexual assault, and contains material and images that may cause harm or distress.
This article deals with the following puzzle: how can a notoriously crude and even nauseating scene in Titus Andronicus illuminate numerous subsequent works by Shakespeare? What I offer may take some swallowing – but possibly it’s food for thought and worth digesting. Bon appétit, or Bonus AppeTitus.
In Peter Green’s novel Final Exam (PublishNation, 2013), Jack, an arrogantly intelligent undergraduate, makes this comment on the cannibal banquet in Titus Andronicus:
‘You could call the banquet a “reification”; or “explicit thematic prolepsis”, yeah, that’ll do.’
Well, I don’t like Jack’s jargon, but I’m obliged to agree with his meaning.
The critic and editor John Dover Wilson once likened Titus Andronicus to ‘some broken-down cart, laden with bleeding corpses… and driven by an executioner from Bedlam’. Later, Kenneth Tynan remarked drily of the play, ‘I have often heard it called the worst thing Marlowe ever wrote’. This gory drama offers us slaughter, rape, mutilation (Titus is tricked into letting Aaron amputate his hand; Lavinia’s tongue and hands are cut off by her rapists); and, notoriously, the horrors culminate in the anthropophagous dinner at which the wicked empress, Tamora, eats a pie which has been prepared by Titus. His recipe is distinctive, and should gratify advocates of recycling: the main ingredients are the flesh, blood and bones of her own murdered sons…
(Titus had cut their throats while his daughter Lavinia, with her wrist-stumps, had held a bowl to receive their blood.) Waste not, want not.
‘In Shakespeare’s day, the pastry of a pie […] was called ‘the coffin”
In Shakespeare’s day, the pastry of a pie, we are reminded by the text, was called ‘the coffin’; never so aptly as here: the pastry in this case being made from blood and powdered bone, to contain the cooked human flesh. When I saw Peter Brook’s intense version of Titus Andronicus at Stratford in 1955, members of the St John Ambulance Brigade were stationed at the exits, to aid the fainting patrons. We may, therefore, readily understand why some commentators have wished to blame the play on other writers and thus exonerate Shakespeare.
In fact, as clever Jack saw, it is the cannibal banquet, more than any other scene, which confirms that this play is substantially and brilliantly Shakespeare’s.
On the day of that banquet, the lustful, cynical and ambitious Tamora, accompanied by her murderous sons Demetrius and Chiron (who had raped Lavinia) visits Titus. ‘I am Revenge, sent from th’infernal kingdom’, she proudly declaims, introducing her sons as ‘Rape and Murder’. She deems Titus crazy, and leaves the sons with him before going away. Later, when Tamora at that banquet is consuming the flesh of her sons, Revenge is (according to Tamora’s own allegory) engorging Rape and Murder. Unwittingly fulfilling a plot of revenge, a lethally lustful mother engorges her lethally lustful offspring. Here the literal and physical presage what later will be rendered figuratively.
‘In Shakespeare’s mature works, cannibalism will reappear as metaphor in the poetry’
In Shakespeare’s mature works, cannibalism reappears as metaphor in the poetry, and it reappears, metaphorically, in plot after plot, as mutually destructive human action. In Troilus and Cressida, Ulysses says that if human beings ignore traditional moral values and serve only egoistic ‘appetite’, then (as Tamora had presaged):
appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey,
And last eat up himself.
Later in Troilus and Cressida, at the height of the battle (caused by the sexual appetite, the adulterous illicit union of Paris and Helen), Thersites says: ‘What’s become of the wenching rogues? I think they have swallowed one another. I would laugh at that miracle – yet in a sort lechery eats itself.’ Diverse imagery of appetite is sustained throughout the play, to the very end, when ‘sweet honey and sweet notes together fail’, and Pandarus, observing that there are prostitutes in the theatre’s audience, promises to bequeath his venereal diseases to the patrons.
In King Lear, Albany, appalled by the cruelty he is witnessing, says that if the heavens do not intervene,
It will come,
Humanity must perforce prey on itself,
Like monsters of the deep.
So Peter Green’s character, Jack, is making a sound point. The banquet of Titus Andonicus is indeed a ‘reification’ and a ‘prolepsis’: a literal, explicit, solid anticipation of the later metaphors.
We learn from Titus Andronicus that Caroline Spurgeon’s famous seminal study, Shakespeare’s Imagery and What It Tells Us (1935), missed a trick. She noted that Troilus and Cressida had an exceptionally large number of images of ‘food, drink, and cooking’ and of ‘sickness, disease, and medicine’. So did Hamlet. Food? Disease? What’s the connection? Spurgeon had failed to perceive that, not completely but to a considerable extent, both sets of images are sub-categories of the larger category, ‘Appetite’. The alimentary appetite is expressed through images of food and drink. The unruly sexual appetite leads to venereal ailments: hence much of the disease imagery.
Indeed, ‘Appetite’ is one of the most powerful key-terms in Shakespearean drama, as, for Shakespeare, it connoted: (i) the excessive or greedy consumption of food and drink; (ii) unruly sexuality, particularly illicit, adulterous or bawdy sexuality; and (iii) the egoistic lust for power. It is destructive, and often eventually self-destructive. Consider Hamlet’s Claudius, fond of carousing, and driven to murder by sexual lust and the lust for power. Consider, too, Gloucester in King Lear, of whom Edgar remarks to the illegitimate Edmund, ‘the dark and vicious place where thee he got / Cost him his eyes’; and, of course, remember Edmund himself, whose downfall is brought about because of his appetite not only for power but also for illicit sexual gratification (with both Goneril and Regan). Richard III is also doubly appetitive. Look too, at Mark Antony, who carouses drunkenly, who adulterously returns to Cleopatra, and who also seeks vast power; and who will eventually, because of his entrancement by Cleopatra, fail and perish.
‘Perhaps Falstaff is the finest dramatic incarnation of ‘appetite’ in all its connotations’
Perhaps Falstaff is the finest dramatic incarnation of ‘appetite’ in all its connotations: he seeks corrupt power (hoping to become Lord Chief Justice); his excessive alimentary appetite (for food and drink) is the subject of mockery – his very girth proclaims it; and his sexual appetite (for Doll Tearsheet and possibly the Hostess) may have brought him venereal disease: as he says, ‘A pox of this gout! – or a gout of this pox!’ (According to Pistol, Doll – he may mean Nell – eventually dies of ‘malady of France’: v.d.)
If Mark Antony illustrates the tragically self-destructive aspects of indulgence in ‘appetite’, and Falstaff illustrates the comic aspects, an intermediate case is surely Caliban. Caliban is gulled by the alimentary appetite (soon becoming drunk); indulges the appetite for power (seeking the murder of Prospero); and hopes to indulge the sexual appetite (he being the would-be rapist of Miranda). At least he lives to ‘seek for grace’.
All these characters illustrate in different ways the consequences of indulging the various interlinked manifestations of appetite: modes of greed, so often depicted by Shakespeare as self-destructive. At times we behold an enacted metaphor: self-devouring voracity.
When John Dryden re-modelled Troilus and Cressida in the late 17th century, he made numerous alterations to that speech by Ulysses on degree. Notably, he changed Shakespeare’s line
And appetite, an universal wolf
For wild Ambition, like a ravenous Wolf…
Just consider what is lost by the substitution of ‘Ambition’ (a clear but limited term) for ‘appetite’, that nexus of interlinked concepts and a rich range of imagery, and you’ll soon perceive Shakespeare’s associative craftiness.
To conclude, the cannibal banquet in Titus Andronicus may be nauseatingly explicit and melodramatically overt; but its allegoric induction helps to alert us to the wealth of meanings of ‘appetite’: a wealth which enriches so many of the later, greater works of Shakespeare.
This essay originally appeared in an issue of Around the Globe.