Private or public revenge?


The scene in which Titus loses his hand is the one in which he turns a revenger. It ends with Titus assembling the family into a conspirational circle to take an oath of revenge.

You heavy people, circle me about,

That I may turn me to each one of you,

And swear unto my soul to right your wrongs.

Marcus, Lucius, and Lavinia circle Titus. He pledges them. (3.1.276-279)

The oath taking is followed by a kind of inverted triumph, a black procession in which Marcus and Titus each take a head, while Lavinia carries her father's hand between her teeth. Many critics have found fault with the shocking and almost grotesque stage image that Shakespeare thus creates and various directors including even figures such as Peter Brook have decided to change and mute it down. (The least they could do was to place the hand in a more "decorous" position on Lavinia's stumps). (Waith, 67-68)

The basic elements of this procession, however, adumbrate the neatly symmetrical retribution that Titus has in store for the perpetrators. Lavinia is also being prepared for her future role as "handmaiden" of revenge. Eugene Waith associates the combination of the ludicrous and the horrible with the insane fantasies that will recur in two more scenes in the play, one of them being the final one when Titus enters costumed as a cook to serve the pastry made of the empress's sons.( Waith, 68) The scene anticipates the strand of madness, of the grotesque in Titus's final act of revenge.

The play holds up the possibility of two courses of revenge, that can be described in keeping with the distinction that Francis Bacon made in his essay Of Revenge. Bacon began his essay with a dismissal of revenge as a kind of wild (uncultivated) justice seems to vindicate public revenge as long as it can be distinguished from the private one: "Public revenges are for the most part fortunate: as that for the death of Caesar, for the death of Pertinax, for the death of Henry the Third of France, and many more. But in private revenge it is not so. Nay rather, vindictive persons live the life of witches, who, as they are mischievous, so end they infortunate". (Bacon, 73) The public revengers quoted - Augustus, Severus and Henry IV of France - proved to be, according to the official Renaissance view, good and successful rulers.

One could also mention Calvin, who approved of the revenge undertaken by public magistrates. As long as they served a public cause, inferior magistrates had the right and, according to more radical Protestant political theories, they even had the duty to resist tyrannical rulers. (Calvin, 81-83) Titus is a public magistrate and is in a position to initiate a public revenge. The latter, unlike the private one, entails the support of the population and leads to institutional change.

The play does suggest the possibility of a public revenge. Upon finding out the truth about the rape of Lavinia, Marcus bids his family take another oath to take revenge. The action would be patterned on the public action Brutus undertook to punish the Tarquins for the rape of Lucrece. Brutus's action led to the banishment of the king and the foundation of the Roman republic.

My lord, kneel down with me; Lavinia, kneel;

And kneel, sweet boy, the roman Hector's hope,

[They kneel]

And swear with me _ as, with the woeful fere

And father of that chaste dishonoured dame,

Lord Junius Brutus swore for Lucrece's rape -

That we will prosecute by good advice

Mortal revenge upon these traitorous Goths,

And see their blood, or die with this reproach (4.1.86-94) Titus, however, does not think that any public action may be successful, as the balance of power is too heavily loaded in favour of Tamora. Marcus's plan is consequently dismissed: "You are a young huntsman, Marcus. Let alone." (101). Titus will pursue a private revenge, with all the negative consequences this has. His action will also be patterned after a classical text, namely the Ovidian story of Philomela and Procne. The Ovidian discourse will redirect the issues of revenge from the public sphere to the private one, and thereby will taint and question the normative authority Titus initially enjoyed.

Ovid is used as an underlying master text, as a " pattern, precedent, and lively warrant" (5.3. 43) throughout the play. Demetrius and Chiron seem to have the story in mind and try to outdo Tereus when they mutilate Lavinia. Philomela's plight comes to Marcus's mind when he first sees the ravished Lavinia. Lavinia reveals the nature of her injury by using a book with Ovid's Metamorphosis and eventually Titus's revenge sets out to compete with Ovid and doubles the number of victims.[18]

For worse than Philomel you used my daughter,

And worse than Progne I will be revenged. (5.2.194-195)

Rather than acting like Brutus and initiating a major change of the Roman society, Titus identifies with Procne, and adopts a feminine position to revenge. This is not valorized positively and it can account for what critics like Robert Miola qualified as a lapse into barbarism:

Titus' appropriation of the Roman legend as a precedent for impious murder (i.e. his revenge on Tamora and his sons, my note) reveals again the barbarity of Roman and Roman values…Titus does indeed outdo Ovid here, serving up two corpses to Procne's one. Like her and unlike his son Lucius, Titus considers this gruesome desecration of familial bonds an assertion of his pietas, of the values that bind the Andronici together. The absurdity of this notion is apparent to the audience, who watches the gory eating in horror. (Miola, 70) Miola sets up an opposition between Titus' private, female revenge (which, we could add, resembles the vindictive behaviour of witches in Bacon's description of private revenges) and Lucius's action. Whereas Titus becomes maniacal and destructive, Lucius takes "constructive action", joining the Goths and later on invading Rome.

Titus adopted a female position earlier on in the play when he fully identified with Lavinia in her suffering. In a challenging speech he associates himself with the sea, and the typically female elements of water and tears.

When heaven doth weep, doth not the earth o'erflow?

If the winds rage, doth not the sea wax mad,

Threatening the welkin with his big-swollen face?

And wilt thou have a reason for this coil?

I am the sea. Hark how her sighs doth blow.

She is the weeping welkin, I the earth.

Then must my sea be moved with her sighs,

Then must my earth with her continual tears

Become a deluge overflowed and drowned. (3.1.22-230)

Marion Wynne-Davies has pointed out the deconstruction of the opposition Titus- Lavinia, male-female, in the employment of the sea, earth and deluge metaphors. Titus is Lavinia, he is both male and female. Another instance when Titus identifies with Lavinia is when he would like to mirror her situation and have his hands "chopped off":

"Give me a sword, I'll chop off my hands too,

For they have fought for Rome, and all in vain

And they have nursed this woe in feeding life…

Now all the service I require of them

Is that the one will help to cut the other. (3.1.73-74, 78-79)

The difference between his situation and that of Lavinia is that Titus would act as an agent (he will chop the hands off) and not like the helpless victim that Lavinia was. Unlike Shakespeare's character, the Titus Andronicus in the chapbook history is tricked into losing his hand. Shakespeare's Titus retains a high degree of agency in his surrender of his hand and thus proves his heroic virtus.

The last instance in which his action deconstructs the female-male opposition is when he kills Lavinia. Once again he is fashioning his action after a classical pattern. This story of Virginius, who killed his daughter so as to prevent her from being raped, is cited as a "pattern, precedent, and lively warrant/ For me, most wretched, to perform the like" (5.3.43-44). His act seems to reassert his role as absolute father who claims the right of life and death over his children. But the Titus in the last act is strikingly different from the Titus in the first act. His feelings for Lavinia are full of tenderness, as he has developed a remarkable capacity to feel sympathy for and with her. Heather James points out the fact that, when killing her, Titus adopts an overdetermined, multi-layered position. (James- 79) He identifies with Lavinia, who in her turn is associated with Lucrece. Being Lavinia/Lucrece Titus stabs her, as Lucrece would have done it herself.

Lucius is generally considered as Titus's counterpart, initiating the "male" public action that restores order and harmony to the dismembered city. We note, Miola considers, that "unlike his father, Lucius embarks on a direct and purposeful course of action to combat the evil in the city." (Miola, 69) Bate notices that Lucius's intervention in a way brings the action to full circle—in the beginning Titus was offered the crown, now it is his son who takes it. (Bate, 21) We can add that once again the coronation of the emperor is subjected to public consent. Marcus urges the Roman people to judge their actions and decide whether they are worth ruling the city or whether they should commit suicide as punishment for their actions:

Now have you heard the truth: what say you, Romans?

Have we done aught amiss, show us wherein,

And from the place where you behold us pleading,

The poor remainder of Andronici Will hand in hand headlong hurl ourselves

And on the ragged stones beat forth our souls

And make a mutual closure of our house.

Speak, Romans, speak, and if you say, we shall

Lo, hand in hand, Lucius and I will fall (5.3.126-135)

The insistence upon hearing the voice of the Roman people indicates that this time the popular consent is no longer ignored but requested. A more constitutionally based political system has been re-established, older customs are observed and the absolute, tyrannical power seems to have been put an end to. In a way Lucius rehearses the action that Brutus undertook in the Lucrece story and which Titus refused to repeat.

As Marcus and Lucius clasp their hands ready to follow whatever course of action the Roman people will decide, the gesture of their hands suggests future harmony and solidarity. We can expect that the promise Marcus makes "to knit again/ This scattered corn into one mutual sheaf/ These broken limbs into one body" (5.3.70-71) will come true. Lucius's "male" public action will restore order and harmony to the dismembered city.

There are, however, a number of questions regarding the moral and political value of his action that are left unresolved.[19] The fact that Rome has been invaded, that Lucius reestablishes order and re-members the city at the head of a Goth army (therefore a hostile and barbarous army) cannot be cancelled out. Miola thinks that the issues related to the betrayal of Rome, which anticipate the kind of problematic that Coriolanus will generate in Shakespeare's later play, are suppressed in the play. This largely depends upon the significance allotted to the Goths. Are they invaders, barbarians or rather redeemers? Is Lucius to be associated with what was taken to be England's first Christian prince? Is he cast in the role of an Aeneas founding a new Rome? What about Titus's quotation from Ovid that Terras Astraea reliquit, (Justice has deserted the earth)? Astraea, the virgin goddess of Justice, was an important element in the iconography Queen Elizabeth adopted. What about his further mockery of Astraea when young Lucius shoots "in Virgo's lap", Virgo being the constellation associated with Astraea? Is Shakespeare inverting or perverting Elizabeth's iconography in order to suggest that England, too, is a "wilderness of tigers"?

Neither Titus's new role as revenger whereby he distances himself from the absolutist position, nor Lucius's restorative public action can provide unambiguous answers to these questions.

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