Plays, Poems & New Writing Research article

Racialised ill-will and anti-blackness in Titus Andronicus

  Exploring the character of Aaron in Shakespeare’s most violent tragedy

6 minute read

Orchestrating the plot that spirals the Andronici into turmoil and death, Aaron the Moor heralds social disruption and sexual sin. During the early stages of plotting, he stalls a licentious encounter with Tamora in order to prioritise revenge.

Two actors hold each other

‘[Aaron] stalls a licentious encounter with Tamora in order to prioritize revenge.’ Photographer: Camilla Greenwell

What signifies my deadly-standing eye,
My silence, and my cloudy melancholy,
My fleece of wooly hair that now uncurls,
Even as an adder when she does unroll
To do some fatal execution?
No, madam, these are no venereal signs;
Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head.

He directs his lover away from lustful thoughts — ‘these are no venereal signs’ — to provide a meta-conscious itemization of his physical characteristics. In doing so, Aaron instructs Tamora on how to read his body: the deadly gaze, morose silence, lethal hand, and wooly hair are as fatal as a venomous snake. Inside his head and in his heart lies ill-will so violent it hammers his own brain. He is as threatening a villain as any upon the Renaissance stage.

But isn’t it odd that Aaron announces his immorality so blatantly, like a criminal who draws his own crime scene sketch? Furthermore, what do we make of the hyperbolic self-incrimination associated with Aaron’s physical difference: ‘Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace; / Aaron will have his soul black like his face’? It is as if Aaron instructs us to read his black body as the ultimate catalyst to social destruction. I suggest we listen not only to what he is saying, but also question when and why.

An actor holds a lit candle

‘It is as if Aaron instructs us to read his black body as the ultimate catalyst to social destruction. I suggest we listen not only to what he is saying, but also question when and why.’ Photographer: Camilla Greenwell

At the brink of his impending punishment, Aaron undermines the expected rhetorical turn of the execution scene by flaunting his wicked intentions:

Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did

Would I perform, if I might have my will.

If one good deed in all my life I did,

I do repent it from my very soul

By refusing repentant and conciliatory gestures, he performs the diabolical trope associated with blackface. Even evil deeds unperformed are alarming since the source of their malevolence is always already willing to enact offences that are potentially ‘ten thousand worse.’ But timing is everything. Aaron evokes his unmitigated violence and unprompted malice precisely when he cannot do any more damage. He would have performed evil if he had his way. Prisoner of Lucius’s army, Aaron has no way of bringing to fruition ‘ten thousand worse’ of anything; his maliciousness is, in this public announcement, an unrealised dying wish.

Two actors embrace each other on a stage, one looks distracted.

‘Aaron instructs Tamora on how to read his body: the deadly gaze, morose silence, lethal hand, and wooly hair are as fatal as a venomous snake.’ Photographer: Simon Kane

Additionally, what might seem like self-defeating rhetoric turns out to be Aaron’s only leverage to save his son. Demanding assurances, the Moor whets his audience’s appetite for the crimes he vows to divulge. Lucius pledges that ‘Thy child shall live, and I will see it nourished’ if, and only if, ‘it please me which thou [Aaron] speak’st.’ Aaron sweetens the bait:

And if it please thee? Why, assure thee, Lucius,

’Twill vex thy soul to hear what I shall speak:

For I must talk of murders, rapes and massacres,

Acts of black night, abominable deeds,

Complots of mischief, treason, villainies,

Ruthful to hear yet piteously performed;

And this shall all be buried in my death

Unless thou swear to me my child shall live.

In the proviso, ‘for I must talk,’ Aaron evokes the social scripts and audience expectations of his iniquity. The graver the sins—and he names all of them in quick succession— the more valuable the withholding. In exchange for Lucius’s vow of protection, Aaron will ‘show thee wonderous things / That highly may advantage thee to hear.’ The exchange reveals that in a play about relentlessly bloody revenge, Aaron’s brand of violence is uniquely valued: it pleases, it entertains, it will ‘advantage thee to hear.’

An actor holds the bottom of a candle. They look terrified and have an orange in their mouth which they are biting down on. Another actor is about to cut the candle.

‘Aaron’s brand of violence is uniquely valued: it pleases, it entertains, it will ‘advantage thee to hear.’’ Photographer: Camilla Greenwell.

So strong is the compulsive desire to extract the performance from Aaron that an entire army must pause to attend the halted execution. Giddy titillation is shared by the audience on the stage and beyond. It makes for good theatre after all, to extrapolate from the villain a litany of dreadful misdeeds. Yet in Aaron’s theatrical recital lies a function more important than gory entertainment. The confession provides what Lucius craves: a figure of black malevolence that marks the limits of humanity. The scene confirms that Aaron is ‘like a black dog, as the saying is,’ thus trafficking a social stereotype that dehumanises and essentialises Aaron’s difference.

But throughout the extended scene of denunciation, it is worth remembering that Aaron is architect rather than perpetrator of rape and mutilation. As the bodies pile up, he is the only one who seeks to protect his child. He neither cooks, nor serves, nor eats human remains. Ultimately, he is a pedantic confessor of sins he wills but may not have committed. Yet he ‘must talk’ because the hyperbolic performance ties pleasure to villainy in ways that blur the difference between words and deeds: ‘that my tongue may utter forth / The venomous malice of my swelling heart!’ The statement reinforces Lucius’s need to attribute in Aaron all that is inhumane and inhuman. Romans and Goths rape, mutilate, kill, and cannibalise throughout the play, but it is Aaron’s unrepentant ill-will that disqualifies him from the category of humanity.

To clarify, one can understand Aaron as a figure of evil imagined as well as an agent of evil committed; both can be true. But they are not the same. What is the work of conflating them? Do we notice the difference between the crimes committed and crimes attributed? Or are we so primed to align blackness with vice that words spoken under the most compromised of circumstances are taken at face value? Certainly, Aaron’s hauntingly casual brutality encourages the worst moral condemnation. But are we ready to concede that evil deeds willed and those committed deserve the same fatal punishment? The play would have it so. In this way, Titus Andronicus is an instruction manual on how to read and consequently how to punish the black body.

A man holds a bundle in his left arm, whilst pointing his sword at another.

‘Aaron’s hauntingly casual brutality encourages the worst moral condemnation.’ Photographer: Simon Kane

Indeed, the play casts Aaron as an enduring and latent threat to the commonweal, iterating blackness as legible only to be disciplined and feared.  So central is anti-blackness in the machinations of Lucius’s rule that the straightforward termination of Aaron’s life is insufficient, ‘for he must not die / So sweet a death as hanging presently.’ Unfortunately for Lucius, he only has one black man to kill. Settling for a partial burial, Rome’s new leader renders necessary the prolonged public discipline of the black body. The tableau of impotence, Aaron’s head sticking out of the earth, is at once the greatest fear and the greatest fantasy Titus Andronicus offers. Aaron is a physical threat constrained and a mouth starved and silenced. Yet his embodiment of violent volition is deeply embedded in Roman soil because his ill-will, though reviled, is fundamental to marking the limits of membership in the republic. Excluded from the network of humane empathy and disqualified from the category of the human, the ‘coal-black Moor’ must die in order to eradicate social ill and herald a commonweal. Or at least, ‘as the saying is.’


Titus Andronicus plays in our Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 15 April 2023 as part of our Winter 2022/23 season.