Roman violence, ambition and corruption in Titus Andronicus
Shakespeare’s goriest tragedy takes inspiration from the culture and politics of Ancient Rome
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.
At the very end of Titus Andronicus – after the play’s final spasm of grotesque campy violence, that is – the remaining Andronici attempt to restore political order in the play’s Rome. This is attempted via a return of sorts to the stately civic rhetoric of the opening act, and also by means of a shared Roman agreement to scapegoat Aaron and Tamora for everything awful that has taken place over the course of the play.
In the play’s waning moments, an unnamed (and so somewhat generic or representative) Roman Lord draws a parallel between the violence of the play’s denouement and the perfidiousness of the ‘subtle’ Sinon – the treacherous foreigner who persuaded Priam to allow the trojan horse into his city as recounted in Book II of the Aeneid. In doing so, the unnamed Roman speaker lays bare the tacit agreement behind the scapegoat logic of the play’s finale: by invoking a tale drawn from the Aeneid, he reasserts the primacy of Roman culture, and at the same time he uses his recollected Virgil to reimagine the ‘civil wound’ experienced by ‘our Rome’ as having been the result of an invasion or contamination by non-Roman outsiders.
But Titus Andronicus – a play that is completely obsessed with the violence inherent in the Roman cultural legacy – teaches its audience to see past the scapegoat logic with which it ends. After all, how can an audience, after experiencing so many episodes of literal mutilation and dismemberment, just accept at face value the conventional metaphor built into Lucius’s promise to knit ‘the broken limbs’ of the polity back ‘again into one body’ in Act V scene 3? After witnessing so many upsetting episodes of stage violence, in which bodies are violated and sometimes even cut apart, an audience may instead be alert to a grotesque potential inherent in Lucius’s metaphor. If so, then his rhetorical gesture winds up being uncomfortably reminiscent of the end of Seneca’s tragedy Phaedra, where (in John Studley’s Elizabethan translation) Theseus attempts to regather the ‘scattered scraps’ and ‘straying gobbets’ of his dismembered son’s body only to discover that it impossible to do so.
‘In the world of the play, Rome is a global empire whose shared cultural inheritance underwrites everything’
The patterning sequence of shockingly violent acts that punctuate the unfolding of the play’s plot – rape and dismemberment avenged by a cannibal banquet – is understood by characters within the play as a reworking of the Ovidian tale of Procne, Philomela and Tereus. Even Aaron, the character who is most clearly marked as an outsider by his ‘coal-black’ skin, is playfully virtuosic about grounding his actions in Roman literary precedent. In the world of the play, Rome is a global empire whose shared cultural inheritance underwrites everything. And so it is impossible to understand the play without also understanding its relationship to well-known Roman pre-texts like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the Livian story of the rape of Lucrece (another important model for the Titus’s plot of rape and revenge), or the cannibal banquet staged at the end of Seneca’s exceedingly disturbing tragedy Thyestes (which also provides a model for the campy one-upmanship built into the play’s relation to Ovidian violence).
It is interesting, in light of efforts to scapegoat outsiders for the play’s violence, to juxtapose the Roman Lord’s use of Virgil in Act V scene 3 with the ironic way that the Aeneid also haunts the sacrifice of Alarbus near the play’s start. Titus’s brand of Romanitas in Act I is insistently linked to and based upon the model of Virgil’s pious Aeneus. For this very reason the sacrifice of Alarbus must also remind us of the moment in Book XI of the Aeneid where Aeneas sacrifices bound prisoners of war to avenge the death of Pallas. This shocking nefas – an act of indisputable impiety – is of a piece with the equally shocking and abrupt moment at the end of Virgil’s poem where Aeneas, having subdued Turnus, suddenly recognizes spoils of war won from Pallas and so murders his defeated adversary in a fit of fiery, vengeful rage. In Titus Andronicus, the sacrifice of Alarbus is treated as a normalized Roman ritual, as if the late imperial Rome of the play had formally incorporated both the lofty rhetoric of Virgilian civic piety and Aeneas’s moments of wild, nefarious violence as acknowledged parts of the national character. And so, from the very beginning of the play, to invoke Virgil is simultaneously to lay claim to Rome’s aura of civic magnificence and also to admit to ownership of a shocking undercurrent of violence.
‘In Titus Andronicus, the sacrifice of Alarbus is treated as a normalized Roman ritual and sets the play’s chain of revenge plotting in motion’
The killing of Alarbus – an act of ritualized vengeance that sets the play’s chain of revenge plotting in motion – is designed to evoke an irony built into the complex legacy of Rome. In an essay that explores apparent paradoxes built into Roman customs, the Roman-era Greek essayist Plutarch dwells on the hypocrisy of Roman objections to human sacrifice conducted by ‘barbarous’ people, noting that it ‘seemeth to be verie absurd, that they themselves should do those things, which they reprooved in others as damnable’ (to quote from Philemon Holland’s late Elizabethan translation of Plutarch’s Moralia). The very learned George Peele, who is generally now agreed to have written the play’s first act, might well have had Plutarch in mind as he wrote in the sacrifice of Alarbus, but even without this reference, the episode’s Virgilian resonance underscores an important perspective on Rome that is developed as the play’s horrors unfold: the legacy of Rome is manifold and contradictory, including both laudable civic exemplarity and horrifying extremes of nefarious and society-destroying violence.
In late Elizabethan England, when Titus Andronicus was written, Roman magnificence had long been a yardstick against which all subsequent civic or national achievement was measured, and Roman texts were the very stuff of political exemplarity for early modern readers. But, increasingly, Rome was also associated with implacable violence, unchecked ambition, the eventual loss of republican liberty, and corrupt imperial overreach. Titus Andronicus is set in the late Roman Empire and peopled with invented characters (Romans, Goths, and Moors alike) who are actively engaged in an ongoing process of renegotiating what it means to have inherited this complicated, layered, contradictory cultural legacy. It may help to explain the urgency of play’s interest in the violence of inherited Roman stories – and also of course in what this violence could be made to say about race, gender, sexual violence, and empire – to recall that late Elizabethan England also saw itself as a belated inheritor of the cultural legacy of Rome.