“O Woeful Titus! Out of Thy Age, What Secrets Doth Thee Holdeth?”
A New Historical Approach to Titus Andronicus
During the height of the Renaissance in Elizabethan England, with the increased fascination with Rome and all things Roman throughout the entirety of Europe and the complete reliance of the academic institution and pedagogy on Latin, it is not surprising at all to see the implementation and resurgence of dramas directly influenced and created in the image of their Roman counterparts, both in style and essence. The resurrection of one such style of play, “Revenge Tragedy,” based on the works of Seneca by Thomas Kyd, was not merely the inception of such a trend but a symptom of which Shakespeare also full well presented.
Shakespeare, an up-and-coming dramatist during the beginning of the golden age of drama, was bound to implement such plays made popular both by the previous societal conditions and famous precedents such as Kyd, which he had been influenced by, not only for the goal of fame but also the need of audience approval due to the economic boom which had come to fruition during the Tudor era and the subsequent reliance of dramatists and actors on the audience’s financial support in the format of the ticket sales. This innovation was the direct result of the economic boom and the surplus of money which would be spent on pleasure.
The reasoning behind the popularity of Revenge plays, their relatively higher sales numbers, and Shakespeare’s adoption of the format in writing Titus Andronicus can be attributed to the tumultuous socio-political condition of the period; The constant political turmoil of the unstable successions of the house of Tudor, in the case of Lady Jane Gray, Queen Mary, and also Queen Elizabeth I, the constant threat of foreign invasion, one of which is that of the Spanish armada of Philip the II which was defeated in 1588, the deploring conditions caused by the periodical plagues which devastated the population and caused massive poverty, unemployment, violence, and despair, and, the social inequality that vexed the different strata’s of society which didn’t belong to the nobility class, all had a hand in creating a need for a method of release so that the collective pent-up psychological pressure could be alleviated, and the general improvement of the economic power allowed for Tragic plays to play the role of the psychological release in a harmless manner as stated by Shakespeare et al. (2008) in The Norton Shakespeare:
Renaissance revenge tragedy taps into frustrations and ambivalences that must have accumulated in the hierarchical, deliberately inequitable social arrangements of early modern England. Spectators could experience a vicarious thrill of sympathy with the revenger and relish the atrocities represented onstage, even while, at the end of the play, acknowledging the moral unacceptability of revenge and the necessity for the revenger’s death.
Further reasoning for the need to adhere to such a style of plays besides the financial incentive was the need for popular support in the face of constant clashes with authorities for a myriad of reasons ranging from the viewing of theatres as health hazards, places where the plague and other diseases could run rampant to believing the whole theatre ordeal to be an incentive for idleness and drawing men from their work, such understanding of theatre from an economic standpoint was clearly stated by the 17th merchant, Cary (1695):
yet it must be where you find Employment for them, else they are a Burthen to it, as the Idle Drone is maintained by the Industry of the laborious Bee, so are all those who live by their Dependance on others, as Players, Ale-Houses-keepers, Common-Fidlers, and such like, but more particularly Beggars, who never set themselves to work. (p. 66)
Further on, religious institutions, especially those of Puritan background, which went further than their Protestant and Catholic counterparts in condemning the existence of such forms of entertainment on the grounds of religious beliefs, were one of the oppositions which dramatists of the day and age faced. One such religious discourse on the sinfulness of drama can be found in the polemic used by Prynne (1633) in Histriomastix “sinful, heathenish, lewd, ungodly Spectacles” (p. 1) as he attacks drama in its entirety.
It is exactly for the reasons mentioned above that Shakespeare, especially during his rise to prominence, would have had to intentionally or subconsciously adhere to the customs and tastes of the time of the writing of this play, at least in the case of Titus Andronicus, but interestingly enough, even though he implements such style and theme in the manner that was customary of the time, there are indeed veins of insurrection, or at least, veins of difference of opinion in contrast to what would have been the dominant discourse of the time.
The mere act of writing a drama and performing it was, in a way, an insurrection and rebellion against the established religious and secular authorities; it was a struggle between one mode of thinking which understood the need for and the desire for entertainment on the one hand, and the desire to do the right thing based on religious and ethical teachings of the time on the other. Drama was the embodiment of the duality of man; to actively pursue one need would have resulted in the forsaking of the other, but through this constant struggle, different discourses were born that mediated the gap between the two extremes.
Further on, even though Shakespeare has created a Revenge play, which is by nature bloody and filled with gore, in contrast to other genres of plays, such as comedies or history plays, in comparison to other Revenge plays of its time, Titus Andronicus is relatively tame and less grotesque, such as those written by Kyd or later dramatists, which could attest to the divergence of Shakespeare from the established conventions. It must also be mentioned that Shakespeare, in a streak of genius, incorporated the play into a Roman setting and era, which was less practiced by other dramatists when using the Revenge play genre, an act which could be attributed to Shakespeare’s endeavor in wielding and shaping the conventions of his time, not precisely a rebel to societal norms, but a reformist.
Moreover, another remarkable departure by Shakespeare from the established or developing norms of the drama of his time in this play is the utterly fictional setting of Titus Andronicus. Usually, when creating Roman plays, there was a tendency to base the play on historical or firmly established mythological settings. These conventions were apparent in plays such as Cornelia by Thomas Kyd, Antony and Cleopatra, Coriolanus, and Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. In this work, Shakespeare based his setting on Rome and implemented clear Roman elements such as mentioning famous Roman writers such as Horus and Ovid and his work Metamorphoses, and Roman mythological and religious figures such as Apollo, Pallas, and Mercury. However, he forwent the tradition of basing the story on the lives of historical or mythological figures and created entirely new characters for this play.
Carrying on, one of the underlying issues discussed in the play, which can give us a further glimpse into the lives of the 16th-century Englishman and their understanding of their world, is the question of legitimacy and the spectacle of absolutism which the author, Shakespeare, has discussed thoroughly; according to Shakespeare et al. (2008) in The Norton Shakespeare:
Monarchical power in the period was deeply allied to spectacular manifestations of the ruler’s glory and disciplinary authority. The symbiology of power depended on regal magnificence, reward, punishment, and pardon, all of which were heavily theatricalized. Indeed, the conspicuous public display does not simply serve the interests of power; on many occasions in the period, power seemed to exist in order to make pageantry possible, as if the nation’s identity were only fully realized in theatrical performance. (p. 52)
This reliance on overly theatricalized performance in the face of the populace could only mean that power came through performance, and the perfection of this performance and spectacle and its acceptance by the populace was the tool that gave the monarch the legitimacy to act as the all-powerful entity that it craved to be, such tools and performances were but a shadow playing the part of reality. Alternatively, the existence of institutions such as the House of Commons, which was in actuality the representative of the needs of the common people, clashed with the image of the all-powerful, out-of-approach, monarchical entity, which further made the ever-perfect theatrical performance of the monarch critical in order not to lose its base of legitimacy; An example of the flawless implementation of such ideology would be the Elizabethan cult of love.
In the first scene of the first act, we can see instances of such theatrical performances by Titus, who by all rights should become the Emperor of Rome, as he performs a march of triumph after defeating the Goths, enemies of Rome. Also, it is here that we understand that not only do the people accept Titus’ performance, but also he is undoubtedly chosen by the people, as is exclaimed by Marcus:
Princes, that strive by factions and by friends
Ambitiously for rule and empery,
Know that the people of Rome, for whom we stand
A special party, have by common voice
In election for the Roman empery
Chosen Andronicus, surnamed Pius
For many good and great deserts to Rome.
Further examples of this cooperation of the two discourses, the idea of election by the masses and the idea of the inherent power and authority of the monarch through theatrical displays of power, would be Marcus’ constant reminders of Titus’ feats of combat in past wars with the Goths and the sacrifices he has made and further praise and his insistence on the election of Titus by the people:
And welcome, nephews, from successful wars,
You that survive and you that sleep in fame.
Fair lords, your fortunes are alike in all
That in your country’s service drew your swords;
But safer triumph is this funeral pomp
That hath aspir’d to Solon’s happiness
And triumphs over chance in honour’s bed.
Titus Andronicus, the people of Rome,
Whose friend in justice thou hast ever been,
Send thee by me, their Tribune and their trust,
This parliament of white and spotless hue;
And name thee in election for the empire
With these our late-deceased Emperor’s sons:
Be candidatus then, and put it on,
And help to set a head on headless Rome.
Herby, we can get a glimpse of what could have been the ideal authority figure in the eyes of Shakespeare or the school of thought he represented, a monarch both accepted through their aura of superiority performed through acts of theatrical performance as a symbol of their power and also acceptance of such figure by the populace through their voices in the format of an election, a reasonable compromise of the two clashing ideas of an absolute monarch and “republican” institutions existing in the Elizabethan age.
Another issue that could be glimpsed throughout Titus Andronicus that can act as a signifier of a marginal deviation from the dominant discourse of the period would be the issue of race or ethnicity; Elizabethan England had a vibrant multicultural scene, from the daily interactions of different British cultural groups namely the English, Irish, Scottish and Welsh, to the existence of skilled foreigners with businesses throughout England becoming possible thanks to the patents issued by the monarchy for the improvement the economy, and also a small population of Africans. However, this vibrant multicultural scene was plagued with constant xenophobia by the general population; Foreigners with similar facial features and skin tones but with different cultures and languages faced periodical backlashes and riots due to the perceived economic threat that the English thought they imposed. Those with different facial features and skin tones, especially black Africans, were subject to the same prejudices alongside speculations of the origins of their skin colors ranging from pseudoscientific theories, such as the climate that the Africans lived in, to religious and superstitious theories, such as curses put on them by God.
Blacks, as enslaved people or subjects of exotic curiosity in Elizabethan England, are represented in a somewhat different light, at least compared to what contemporary English society thought of them, in Titus Andronicus; One of the main villains, Aaron, an African Moor is shown as an all-hating villain who dupes and plays the other characters of the play for his own delight. He is constantly barraged with derogatory descriptions, most of which have to do with the hue of his skin; black ill-favour’d fly, likeness of a coal-black Moor being among them. He is the subject of ridicule during the discovery of his copulation with Empress Tamora by Bassianus and Lavinia in the third scene of the second act, not simply for the act of adultery, but the act of adultery with a person of black color. Even his son, innocent of no crime, is condemned to death and likened to a toad as he is born. The play goes as far as to portray the Moor in a comically evil way, a man so evil that the only thing that he regrets is the lack of further opportunity to enact evil:
Ay, that I had not done a thousand more.
Even now I curse the day- and yet, I think,
Few come within the compass of my curse-
Wherein I did not some notorious ill;
As kill a man, or else devise his death;
Ravish a maid, or plot the way to do it;
Accuse some innocent, and forswear myself;
Set deadly enmity between two friends;
Make poor men’s cattle break their necks;
Set fire on barns and hay-stacks in the night,
And bid the owners quench them with their tears.
Oft have I digg’d up dead men from their graves,
And set them upright at their dear friends’ door
Even when their sorrows almost was forgot,
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters
Each of these examples in isolation could hint at the adherence of the play and the playwright to the xenophobic and racist discourse of their time, but if we analyze these elements together, we can discern a different approach offered by Shakespeare in his play. Based on the way the characters of the play act towards the son of Aaron, a simple infant, we can conclude that the character of Aaron has been subject to the constant hammering of others for the color of his skin, and it comes at no surprise that he holds a grudge against everyone and plans to harm everyone without no remorse. If he was indeed the comically evil character he is portrayed to be, even admits to being, he would not have asked Lucius in the first scene of act five to spare his son but would have done all he could to hurt even his own son in adherence to his utterly evil nature. It is through this vein of goodness in the monstrous Aaron that Shakespeare masterfully shows us that it is the same within his society; blackness is treated as a disease, and as such, they become diseased if they ever become so, which is of no fault of their own but that of the society they live in, a discourse which would have been widely rejected by society.
In conclusion, from the meticulous and thorough analysis of the discourses presented in Titus Andronicus, and those which belonged to Shakespeare’s society, we can understand that Shakespeare adhered to many customs of his time; He had no other choice as he was not allowed to do so otherwise for fear of eventual rejection by society and or authorities, and also the crucial fact that he was the product of his time, something that must not be glanced over. However, also, Shakespeare interjected novel or less popular ideas throughout his play; he was a man who could masterfully disguise the discourses he implemented and shape the customs of his time in covert ways, something that was not easy to achieve in times of significant censure.