I do not mention all of this to provide any critique of Nuttall, or to muse on a great scholar, but to provide some initial impressions to Shakespeare’s first tragedy Titus Andronicus. Nuttall spends roughly a page discussing this play, and most of that is taken up by Marlowe’s influence. Nuttall mentions the disgustingness of the play, likening it to modern film or TV, and at the end of this he writes “I wish at once to avert my mind” before shifting quickly to Love’s Labour’s Lost
So either Titus Andronicus affronts Nuttall’s sensibilities to such an extreme he cannot write about it, or, like Harold Bloom, he doesn’t consider the play worth his time. I’m inclined to believe it is the latter, except for his use of the word “avert.” Not only does he have to avert his mind, like someone stumbling upon a horrible scene, but he must at once avert his mind – Titus Andronicus presents an immediate threat that cannot be considered. Titus Andronicus presents a gut reaction that cannot be tolerated – it violates the sanctity of tragedy by eliminating catharsis! But of course I can’t claim to know the veracity of this thought because the scholar so abruptly averted his mind.
What exactly are we dealing with when it comes to Titus Andronicus? It has more plot than most of Shakespeare's plays, particuarlly the tragedies. It was hard enough to fit a summary of the first scene into under 30 seconds:
Tamora’s revenge begins with Aaron and Tamora killing Bassianus and Lavinia because they know about Tamora and Aaron (who doesn’t though?) Tamora has her two living sons – Demetrius and Chiron – stab Bassainus and kill Lavinia. They do stab Bassianus but don’t kill Lavinia. Instead they rape her and cut of her arms and tongue – you can see why Nuttall loved this play.
While this is happening, Titus – who has learned the truth about Lavinia’s rape, orchestrates a plea to the gods in the form of arrows with messages reigning down on Rome. Saturninus is none too pleased, but Tamora urges him to smooth things over because news of Lucius’ march on Rome has come. She arranged for a great feast to be held in Titus’ house. Next Act.
Some loving friends convey the emperor hence,
Here’s the interesting part: the final four lines do not appear in the first quarto (considered the authentic version of c. 1594). They were added in the second quarto of 1600, and their validity is questionable. Still, the compositors of the third quarto, the first folio, and most subsequent editions print these final lines. Why? Probably because “Her life was beast-like, and devoid of pity;/And, being so, shall have like want of pity” is the worst end couplet you can find in Shakespeare. The added lines are not much better, but they are better.
To bring everything together: at first glance, we have a play that has the most gruesome act (rape), the most immature line, and the worst final couplet. You might be able to see why Nuttall averts his mind, and Bloom dismisses the play’s value. It’s an early work – it shows where Shakespeare came from, not what he is capable. Enough said.
The play opens with a contrast to this idea: two brothers (Saturninus and Bassianus) argue over their father’s legacy (the crown) with no regard to the man. The first mention of the late emperor comes early enough, spoken by Saturninus in line 5, but in the lines
I am his first-born son, that was the last
The late emperor is reduced to the object of his son. He is further reduced to a pronoun. We never learn the emperor’s name. Bassianus is even worse:
If ever Bassianus, Caesar's son,
Here the father is dissolved into Rome itself. He is, as they all are, Caesar, and Bassianus is not concerned with his favour or honour, bot Rome’s.
While the sons have no respect for the father, fathers (and mother) place their children (for the most part) above all. When Titus returns to Rome, he does not speak of his victories, but says:
Romans, of five and twnety valiant sons,
Half of the number that King Priam had,
Behold the poor remains, alive and dead!
These that survive let Rome reward with love;
These that I bring unto their latest home,
With burial amongst their ancestors: (I.i)
Only a few moments later, we shift back to the beginning, with a son (Mutius) disrespecting his father (Titus). Yes, Mutius is probably in the right here, but he, like Bassianus, places his father below his state – and is stabbed for it.
In between Titus praising his sons and killing his son, we have Tamora’s first speech – a plea for her son:
We have no impression of Tamora prior to these lines, except that she is a Goth, the enemy of Rome, and is conquered. Still, it is hard not to find some sincerity in her pleas. She can swear revenge, and order the deaths of Bassianus and Lavinia quite easily, but she is not heartless. Titus stabbed his son, but he was willing to chop of his hand to save his other two.
There is a strange dichotomy between the villainy of these characters and the humanity they display when their children are in danger. Or maybe it is a synecdoche. If you are in a war, and kill an “other” this is a casualty of war, and an unavoidable reality of the situation. If you kill your own, this is murder – a heinous crime. What is the difference in the act? Why is one so quickly brushed off and the other received with a visceral reaction? And consider the fact that we have Romans, Goths, and a Moor crammed on the same stage: and the majority of killings are by an “other.” Is Lavinia’s rape a casualty of war?
The most drastic dichotomy of character is Aaron (the Moor). He, who when asked if he is not sorry for his heinous deeds, says:
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' doors,
Even when their sorrows almost were forgot;
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
'Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead.'
Tut, I have done a thousand dreadful things
As willingly as one would kill a fly,
And nothing grieves me heartily indeed
But that I cannot do ten thousand more. (V.i)
Just a few lines before, however, he makes Lucius swear to God that his child will be safe. Why?
Stay, murderous villains! will you kill your brother?
Now, by the burning tapers of the sky,
That shone so brightly when this boy was got,
He dies upon my scimitar's sharp point
That touches this my first-born son and heir!
I tell you, younglings, not Enceladus,
With all his threatening band of Typhon's brood,
Nor great Alcides, nor the god of war,
Shall seize this prey out of his father's hands.
What, what, ye sanguine, shallow-hearted boys!
Ye white-limed walls! ye alehouse painted signs!
Coal-black is better than another hue,
In that it scorns to bear another hue;
For all the water in the ocean
Can never turn the swan's black legs to white,
Although she lave them hourly in the flood. (IV.i)
Can we trust these lines? Tamora seems sincere in her pleas, we have seen Aaron do too much to believe this to be anything but empty rhetoric. But there is no arguing the truth in the lines. He would kill all of Rome’s children, but his child must live. This is a perversion of humanity.
In a year or so, Shakespeare will reiterate the sentiment, through Old Capulet in Romeo and Juliet:
An you be mine, I'll give you to my friend;
And you be not, hang, beg, starve, die in
For, by my soul, I'll ne'er acknowledge thee,
Nor what is mine shall never do thee good: (Romeo and Juliet III.v)
So long as the victim is an “other”, the limits of one can do to them is endless. The rape of Lavinia is gruesome, but Tamora does not need to feel any pity, because she is not hers. Tamora is as distant as we are: guiltless. Even Marcus reduces her to an “other” in his ekphrastic speech. He talks about Lavinia in the same way Shakespeare will later write about his mistress’ eyes and lips in Sonnet 130. Toward the end of the speech, Marcus says
Come, let us go and make thy father lind:
For such a sight will blind a father's eye. (II.iv)
He did not say that he was made blind, or overcome by sorrow – she is not his. The horror of Lavinia’s rape can only be felt by a parent. As long as there is some othering, there is safety and freedom from blame.
What are the possible consequences of these thoughts? There are two that I have touched on: the political, and the theatrical.
The political consequence is simpler. The Spanish Armada, and its defeat, was fresh in Shakespeare’s (and England’s) mind when this play was written. By great luck (let’s call it what it is), the Spanish Armada sunk and there was much rejoicing. This was a glorious victory. Who made up this Armada? Who cares? They were the enemy, and they are dead. Shakespeare was not silent about the casualties of the ordinary man in the face of the rhetoric of war. It appears as early as I Henry VI, and is reinforced in Henry V, and Hamlet. As long as we allow ourselves to be swept in the rhetoric of our state, we will continue to overlook the death, murder, and rape of the ordinary subservient people of this state. It wouldn’t be until Napoleon’s campaigns that such a notion was considered on a larger political scale – and not until WWI that was treated with any concern.
But the theatrical notion is more interesting. As audience members, we are blameless for anything that occurs on stage. We watch the tragedy in order to expel our own guilt and concerns. We seek catharsis at the cost of (albeit fictional) suffering. What does this say about us? We are able to watch Lavinia hobbling around after being raped and, some may avert their minds, but many will be fascinated as Marcus was. We see Titus plot to chop Tamora’s sons into a pie and then feed it to her and we are filled with such sadistic pleasure. They are the others, we cannot help them, so we might as well enjoy the show, right? Who are we? Marcus or Aaron?