Titus a tyrant?


When Titus calls Rome "but a wilderness of tigers" (3.1.54), this Rome is not altogether one ruled by the Goths, but an absolute monarchy which he himself has helped to establish, thereby flouting entrenched laws and customs.[12]

The play begins with the crisis preceding the election of the new emperor. There are three possibilities: Saturninus, apparently the least deserving candidate, claims the crown on the grounds of primogeniture; his younger brother Bassianus adopts a republican stance and insists on merit —"let desert in pure election shine" (1.1.15). Bassianus's gesture is even more radically democratic as he urges the population to fight for freedom in their choice (1.1.16). The third alternative is Titus himself, who is chosen "for many good and great deserts to Rome". (26)

The situation in the late Roman Empire, where the emperor was elected, was not radically different from the mixed government of the Tudor England. There, too, the patrilinial descent had to be complemented by an election, a process that involved the people's consent, if not their choice. Fortescue celebrated this mixed government as essentially English and traced it to Augustus Caesar. The supporters of the absolute monarchy tried to play down the importance of consent and when Edward VI was crowned, the traditional coronation ritual was changed from a ritual of election to one of recognition. Popular consent, let alone election, implicitly account for his acts to the population or to the magistrates representing it. Radical Protestants (starting with Ponet, Buchanan and continuing with Puritans like Beacon) developed this constitutionalist position in the Tudor period and pitted it up against absolutist claims. (Sid Ray, 31)

Shakespeare betrays his republican leanings by showing Titus's tragic fortune to be the disastrous effect of his decision to breach the custom in the succession and to ignore the choice of the population.[13] The fact that he dismisses the idea of popular of consent and that he single-handedly decides in favour of Saturninus, relying thus on primogeniture as a sole criterion of election, makes of Titus a promoter of tyranny.

Primogeniture was the rallying cry of the supporters of the absolute monarchy. This principle enabled the monarch to circumvent the idea of consent and to derive his authority from his position as heir to the past king. This position was reinforced by the myth of the king's two bodies—one mortal and subject to weakness and the other immortal. The absolutist monarch claimed his authority from the mystical body of the king, a body in which his father and himself as an heir participated. This medieval doctrine, resurrected in the Tudor and the Stuart period, was designed to counteract the constitutionalist arguments that sought to limit the king's power and to make it legally possible to depose the king once he failed short of his obligations or transgressed against prerogatives.[14]

The reliance on primogeniture and implicitly on the mystique of the king's two bodies placed the king above the laws, making him accountable to God alone. King James, for example, denied any contract he might have made with the people at his coronation and also added that even if there had been a contract which entailed some promises on his behalf, no one except God could judge him for breaking these promises: "God is doubtless the only judge, both because to him only the king must make count of his administration, as likewise, by the oath in the coronation, God is made judge and revenger of the breakers" (James I, 104).

In the Elizabethan period the absolutist view according to which the king can place himself above the law was strongly contested not only by radical Protestants but also by mainstream thinkers such as Richard Hooker. Hooker insisted upon the importance of laws, which are indispensable, given humankind's inherently rebellious and corrupt nature and which are also the result and the embodiment of general consent. All positive laws and customs remain binding on the sovereign, who is therefore under the law and dependent upon the body politic for his power. (Shuger, 136) In 1591 Hooker articulated the idea that the queen ruled by the consent of the people[15].

On the ground of the analogy commonly established at that time between the father and the king, what corresponded to an absolute monarch was a traditional patriarchal father figure who could have absolute right over his children. Titus Andronicus promotes absolute monarchy and at the same time plays the ancient role of the father as absolute ruler with the right to inflict capital punishment upon his family. Titus displays the same paternalistic absolutist position in his decision to ignore Lavinia's former engagement to Bassianus. He simply "gives her hand" to Saturninus.

Sid Ray traces the analogies between the different visions on marriage and the various political theories on sovereignty that were circulated at the close of the 16th century to prove his thesis that Titus's treatment of his family (and of Lavinia in particular) parallels his political actions. (23)

Treatises on marriage regarded it either as a simple transfer of property from the father to the bridegroom, taking the hand of the bride and giving it to the bridegroom without inquiring after her consent (this was actually common practice in Tudor England in particular among the aristocracy) or they promoted the importance of the consent of the parties. This consent was made manifest in the ritual of hand fasting as opposed to hand taking. Marriage tracts insisting on hand fasting, Sid Ray thinks, also functioned as a vehicle of promoting constitutionalist political theories that championed the importance of popular consent. Titus's treatment of Lavinia's previous betrothal and his determination to marry her to Saturninus (to give her hand) dovetail with his political decision in favour of absolute monarchy. Titus proves early in the play to be as tyrannical as Saturninus will turn out to be later. (Ray,25-26) Titus is therefore highly responsible for the abuse and mutilation of his own daughter and indirectly for the crisis of the body politic.

Unlike Shakespeare's play, the ballad and the chapbook history on Titus Andronicus do not mention either filicide. Furthermore Lavinia is not betrothed to the emperor's brother but to the emperor's son and heir.[16] Tamora is given totally different motives of action and at the same time no negative meanings are created around Titus. The latter is not in the least implicated in the tragedy that follows the crowning of Saturninus.

© Universitatea din Bucuresti, 2002. All rights reserved.
No part of this text may be reproduced without written permission of the University of Bucharest, except for short quotations with the indication of the website address and the web page.
Comments to: Mãdãlina NICOLAESCU
Last update: August 2002
Text editor: Raluca OVAC
Web design: Monica CIUCIU