Act Four: Life and Death (in which a baby is born, and two–maybe three–people die)

Act Four of Titus Andronicus begins with a domestic scene in the Andronicus household.  And as is befitting this play, it begins with fear: grandson Lucius is running, yelling for help.  Who is he running from?  Aunt Lavinia.  She means him no harm, but let’s face facts: if you were a little boy, and your aunt, handless and grunting, was chasing you… well, you’d run, too.  Why is she chasing him?  It turns out he has dropped his school books, but she isn’t trying to return them (she couldn’t pick them up if she did).  No, it’s because she recognizes one of the books, and realizes it (Ovid’s Metamorphosis) can help her tell her story.

of course, this begs the question: why couldn’t she have done this with her stumps alone? (the stumps are long enough for her to turn pages in the book, so they’re not cut up near the shoulder [and if they were, how would you portray this on stage?  it’s tough enough cutting off a hand, and stumping it without making it completely obvious and thus comic… or is that Shakespeare’s purpose… but I digress… again])  And if she could, then why didn’t she back in Act Three?  Of course, she wasn’t asked who the rapists were then, but still…

With her stumps, she turns to the story of Philomel, a story of rape in the woods.  She has given them the location.  Through gesture, she has told them there were two rapists.  Then Marcus sits on the ground, puts a long stick in his mouth, and guiding it with his feet, writes in the dirt; he tells her to do the same.

She writes the Latin word for “rape,” and then the names of Chiron and Demetrius.  Even young Lucius wants revenge now, to which great-uncle Marcus says, “Ay, that’s my boy!” (IV.i.110), revealing that revenge runs in the family (or is Shakespeare saying revenge runs in the HUMAN family?).

Act Four, Scene Two opens with young Lucius delivering weapons from Andronicus’ armory to the palace, with a note that when translated from Latin means “”He who is of upright life and free from crime does not need the javelins or the bow of the Moor.”  Why does he do this?  He’s sending messages: 1) I am of no danger to you… see, I’ve given up my weapons; and 2) I know what you did last summer.  Of course, the brothers don’t get the message, but Aaron does.  Aaron doesn’t clue them in, but in an aside, he opines that had Tamora been there, she would have understood and would “applaud Andronicus’ conceit” (IV.ii.30), in a sense saying, “Well played, old man.”

Then we learn that Tamora is giving birth as they speak.  Was she pregnant all along (and Saturninus so stupid that he can’t do some simple calendar math)?  Or has time passed? Personally, in a realistic setting, I’d go with option two.  It would account for time enough for Lavinia’s wounds to heal enough for her to do things with her stumps without too much pain, and time for Lucius to return with an army (as we shall see he does later in the play.  But does this play take place in a realistic world?

Trumpets sound, and a nurse arrives with a baby, a “blackamoor child” (IV.ii.52ff s.d.).  The brothers are not amused (as they see this as something that endangers their lives), but brings about a completely humorous, unbelievably modern exchange:

Villain, what hast thou done?
That which thou canst not undo.
Thou hast undone our mother.
Villain, I have done thy mother.

— IV.ii.73-76

and this, ladies and gentlemen, is Shakespeare the coiner of phrases… the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t have any literary examples of this sexually connotative use of “do” before Shakespeare (and they don’t even list Shakespeare under the examples, which I find interesting

But back to the story: Tamora wants the baby killed, and “bids (Aaron) christen it with (his) dagger’s point” (IV.ii.70).

And for the first time in the play, Aaron chooses life over death, going so far as to say he’ll kill anyone who tries to kill the baby.  He talks with pride about the child’s “coal-black…hue” (IV.ii.99).  He’s a villain, but a pretty loving father.  After he learns that only three people know of the baby’s race (Tamora, the midwife, and this nurse), he kills the nurse, rationalizing that “Two may keep counsel when the third’s away” (IV.ii.144).  Tamora and the midwife will be more likely to keep their mouths shut now that they’ve seen what Aaron is willing to do.

OK, so Aaron just happens to have a countryman (one would assume another dark-skinned Moor), whose wife had a baby just the night before, and that baby just happens to be white.  How convenient!  But is it any more contrived than two sets of identical twins born in the same inn within an hour of one another.  I know, I know, “but Bill, THAT was a comedy”… I’m really starting to wonder if this play is so over the top that it’s meant to be played broadly, almost comically

Plus, Aaron has a greater plan: he has a countryman whose wife delivered a white baby the night before, and he will switch the two, with Saturninus been none the wiser.  He sends the brothers off to deliver his message and some gold to the countryman.  But first, a slight change in plans: he orders them to “send the midwife presently to me” (IV.ii.167)… so that both “the midwife and the nurse (are) well made away” in death (IV.ii.168).

In the third scene, Titus leads a hunting party of Roman “Gentlemen” (IV.iii.openng stage direction) to the wall of the palace.  He has everyone shoot arrows with notes (addressed to Roman gods and begging for Justice) attached high into the sky.  This seems crazy.  And that’s the way Titus wants it to appear…. it’s all part of a plan to show that he’s no danger to Saturninus.  But it also serves the purpose of sending the message of knowledge over the wall into the palace grounds.  A clown (low-born person) comes by on his way to the palace with a basket of pigeons (to be used in the settling of a civil affair).  Titus asks him to deliver one of the notes (a “supplication” [IV.iii.109]) to Saturninus.

In the act’s fourth and final scene, we find Saturninus none too happy about the arrows and their notes.  And he’s smart enough to realize that the Titus’ crazy pleas for justice implicate the emperor in the INjustice.  Tamora calms him down, telling him that Titus is just a deranged old man.  But when the Clown delivers Titus’ letter, Saturninus overreacts again: “Go take (the Clown) away, and hang him presently” (IV.iv.46).  Plus he wants to drag Titus to the palace where the Saturninus will be the old man’s “slaughterman” (IV.iv.59). Interrupting the emperor’s tirade comes Aemilius with news that a Goth army has been created, led by Lucius, and is heading to Rome.

Saturninus begins to fall apart, saying that he knows that the people of Rome really like Lucius and think the banishment was wrong.  Tamora again calms him, telling him that she will go to Titus to get him to call off Lucius; Saturninus is doubtful, but Tamora arrogantly proclaims:

If Tamora entreat him, then he will:
For I can smooth and fill his aged ear
With golden promises; that, were his heart
Almost impregnable, his old ears deaf,
Yet should both ear and heart obey my tongue.

— IV.iv.96-100

And before Saturninus relent or even respond, Tamora taks full control, telling Aemilius to act as ambassador and tell Lucius that they want a “parley” (IV.iv.102), a meeting between Lucius and the emperor at old Andronicus’ house.

And the dominoes are now in place for Act Five…