The tragedy of Titus Andronicus Essay
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To what extent does the tragedy of Titus Andronicus unfold from the protagonist and his actions?
The tragic events that take place throughout the play of Titus Andronicus all come from the catalyst of Titus slaying Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus. Tamora begged for Alarbus’ life as the crime he’s accused of is protecting his own people. At this point his murder is unnecessary and unjust. A murder being defined as an unlawful killing and whilst at the time the play was written this may have been considered unjust, to an audience today it would not constitute death.
From this point onwards all else becomes an act of revenge from this original deed.
In the very first instance of the play we have many impressions given of Titus in a very small amount of time. Titus comes into the play with all the honour and nobility you’d expect of a Roman hero, as ‘Shakespeare draws on the standard motifs of austere republican virtue that typify Rome’s “great ethical heroes”‘.
He follows this seemingly heroic entrance with his interaction with Tamora, in contrast he appears as a harsh, unfeeling character here. Despite this harshness we see when given the opportunity to become emperor he refuses the power in light of his traditionalism, an aspect of his character that truly is his downfall as if he had accepted this offer he would have become emperor, preventing Tamora gaining any power and demolishing any chances of the subsequent tragedy.
It is possible that he turns down the position of emperor because of a slight insecurity as he claims ‘a better head her glorious body fits’. As one of the many first impressions we gain of Titus we see that of an altruistic old man, however prior and subsequent actions cause the audience to deviate from this as a final opinion. In the Hopkins adaptation of the play the first scenes very much contradict each other and set the tale of an almost childlike unsureness of Titus’ self, he tries to be a strong leader whilst doubting his strength, causing the audience to doubt Titus and his character. If this doubt is not the reason for his objections then we are left with his traditionalism as his reasoning, in which case the audience still see a great flaw in Titus as he’s willing to put his family and the empire in jeopardy simply to uphold tradition.
In the play we often see Titus’ traditionalism in his acts, the first of which would be his support of Saturninus. He asks the people to ‘create your emperor’s eldest son, Lord Saturnine.’ His reasoning appears here to be that he is choosing the eldest son, who would have been the rightful heir to the throne. Titus’ support then leads Saturninus to choose Lavinia as his future empress.
In the Hopkins interpretation of the play we see Bassianus and Lavinia together, and so immediately we know of Titus’ awareness of their relationship, Titus’ hesitance leads to the impression that he would object to the arrangement however he proceeds in agreeing to give Lavinia over to Saturninus, to an audience this may seem as if he puts himself before his children, as this scene is one of the earlier impressions we get from Titus, and one of the strongest; this theme stays with the audience throughout the rest of the play. He feels he must now obey the emperor, but his subservient actions lead to his killing of his own son and the betrayal of his daughter, and so the little paternal sentiment we previously saw is destroyed.
Later in the play as Tamora, Chiron and Demetrius appear as Revenge, Rape and Murder we begin to question Titus’ sanity as do the mother and her sons. There is a big question as to whether or not he has lost his sanity, in the Hopkins adaptation we see a clear depiction of a man who has completely gone insane. However the BBC version leaves it as some what of a question, though you see glimpses of his sanity, questioning whether he is playing his own trick on Tamora. It is here we first see how truly single minded Titus can be as even in moments of anguish and despair all he can think of is enacting his revenge. Here the readers opinion of Titus can easily split in many directions; if it is seen as a man gone mad then the reader will feel sympathy for Titus. However some see it as an attempt to fool Tamora in which case you begin to see him as somewhat of a villain because of his single mindedness.
The ravished, deformed presence of Lavinia is an almost physical appearance of the mental anguish and turmoil Titus suffers himself; she’s the torment he suffers from as a result of his intent of revenge. As his only daughter, and the favoured treatment we see her receive from Titus, it can be assumed that they have a far more caring and gentle relationship than that of any others in the play, it is with Lavinia we see Titus as a good man, and so when she is tarnished so is this gentle, fatherly side of Titus. Lavinia is also a representation of his own shame, a shame he can only find peace from with death as we see in the last scene.
Saturninus claims to Titus that ‘the girl should not survive her shame’, and that ‘her presence still renew his sorrows’ implying that Lavinia’s death is not for Lavinia herself but for Titus. This view of Lavinia is because of the view of women in general at time as they were meant to be pure of heart and body and seen to be the weaker sex. All of this meant that Here the audience sees a very selfish Titus, even in the Hopkins adaptation where Lavinia appears to be a willing sacrifice Titus’ actions can still be seen as a selfish act.
Titus has a crippling incapability of doing anything but making Tamora suffer, the only time we see him in any other manner is as the family sit to eat and Titus must feed Lavinia, their relationship draws out his paternal nature, but his character is still not redeemed of earlier actions as his paternal capabilities have only come out in times of desperation. Even in this time of desperation his focus is still on how he will ‘revenge these bitter woes of ours’ as opposed to the family. This constant focus makes the audience feel his revenge is in an obsessive state and his lack of regard for his family makes him appear yet again as selfish and uncaring.
The saying goes that we are our own worst enemies, something we see in Titus as many characteristics of Titus are reflected in his enemy, Tamora; he is a strong leader, a protective parent and incredibly proud, as is Tamora. Both are vicious and single minded in their revenge, creating the destructive cycle they are both in.
In some ways, Tamora is superior to Titus as whilst her sons seem to be sacred to her, Titus betrays and kills his own children, whilst Tamora begs for her son’s life she claims that, ‘if thy sons were ever dear to thee, O, think my son to be as dear to me!’ by continuing with this murder it’s as if he is admitting that he holds no feelings of protection over his children. This quote also automatically makes you compare the two characters and so the audience immediately get this very same impression. This impression is that Tamora seems to appear more successful and just with her intents, her revenge is based on the act of Titus killing her son, and she them proceeds in alienating Titus and tormenting both him and his children.
The theme of severed limbs that runs throughout the play is often thought to be a representative of the corruption within Roman society; during the Renaissance the human body was associated with ‘the political order of a state’ and so ‘ravaged bodies correspond to the political turmoil in the declining Roman empire’. The play is a cycle beginning and ending with the Roman empire and on both occasions is referred to as a human body. A cycle also appears with the theme of revenge as each character seeks revenge and retaliates the others actions, this particular cycle begins and ends with the act of murder, broken only when Titus and Tamora are both murdered. The tragedy of this play is not just the actions themselves but the cycle of it, the characters inability to get themselves out of this destructive cycle.
Roman Shakespeare: warriors, wounds, and women, Routledge, 1997
Sparknotes 101: Shakespeare, Spark Educational Publishing, 25 Jan 2004