There are three races depicted in Titus Andronicus: the Romans, the Goths, and a Moor.
The Romans are, well, Romans. They conform to our, and the Elizabethan, conventional wisdom about the Romans. Mediterranean. Militaristic. Traditional. Conservative. Imperial (and to a certain extent, imperious… as would be befitting, as “Mediterranean” is formed from Latin “middle” and “land”… the center for the world, so to speak).
The Goths are foreigners. Germanic, they were originally Nordic, but over the years had migrated south, first into Poland, then into Ukraine. By the time the Goths had interaction with the Romans, they had splintered into two groups: Visigoths and Ostrogoths. The Visigoths (western Goths) defeated the Vandals and took over much of the Iberian peninsula (Spain and Portugal), while the Ostrogoths (eastern Goths) ruled through much of southern Europe. The Goths we’re dealing with in Titus Andronicus are, I think, though it’s never said directly, the Visigoths. Why? Because their location, the Iberian peninsula, is ground zero for a discussion of…
The Greeks referred to north Africans as “dark ones” and the Greek word for “dark” is mauros… so they began to call the northwestern region of Africa Mauretania. The Latins then had the word maurus, which had a double connotation: dark and coming from Mauretania. From maurus, we get the French Maures and the Spanish Moros. The English reduced this to “Moor”… and though this migration, the term “Moor” camr to mean many things to many peoples over the course of European history: north Africans, blacks, Muslim peoples of Berber, Black Africans, Arabs, Moroccans, even African slaves (though these were usually referred to as “blackamoors”). Like many Euro-centric definitions of “other”-ness, its scope is incredibly wide and, thus, pretty insulting (as in “they all look alike to me”). But it is into this tradition that Shakespeare introduces us to Aaron the Moor. He is the “Other.”
While it’s interesting that the Goths are described as “barbarous” and “warlike” (I.i.28 and II.i.61, respectively), their “other”-ness quickly becomes a non-issue when Saturninus liberates them — “Ransomless here we set our prisoners free” (I.i.277). From that point on, they become integrated within Roman society, and they lose their outsider status. Plus, they’re white.
Ah, yes. White. Black. Color. Race.
Race is almost universally a visual differentiation. (For example, to the western eye, most Asians look similar. But my Japanese mother could easily–and sad to say, not exactly nicely–tell the difference between Japanese, Chinese and Korean.) So the concept in this play of white versus black should be important. It is interesting, then, that of the twelve instances in which a character utters the term “black,” only three of them are negative or obviously racist:
- During the bizarre fly-killing sequence at the Andronici household, Marcus describes the fly he has killed as “a black, ill-favored fly, // Like to the empress’ Moor” (III.ii.66-67). And even after Titus crazily attempts to kill a fly himself, he repents, saying,
We are not brought so low
But that between us we can kill a fly
That comes in the likeness of a coal-black Moor.
Both references are negative, but not necessarily racist.
- When the Nurse brings in the black baby of Tamora and Aaron, she refers to it as a “joyless, dismal, black and sorrowful issue” (IV.ii.66). This, too, is profoundly negative, and probably should be seen as racist, and if it is, it could be a reason why the Nurse becomes the only person to die at Aaron’s own hand (though here “black” could also simply mean dark–negative in connotation, but not necessarily a skin color in denotation).
Of the remaining references to “black,” one is a simple description of the color of saddles (V.ii.50). That leaves eight other uses, a full three-quarters of all uses, all spoken by Aaron himself (or we learn second-hand [from the Second Goth] that Aaron has used the term). Aaron also refers to himself having a “fleece of woolly hair” (II.iii.34), which would seem to indicate a more African descent. But none of these, coming from the mouth of the man himself, can be seen as negative or racist (no self-loathing here).
On the other hand, “Moor” is uttered 17 times by characters, and only once by Aaron:
I am a lamb, but if you brave the Moor,
The chafed boar, the mountain lioness,
the ocean swells not so Aaron storms.
Here, he speaks to the confused, angered and not a little scared Gothic brothers and the Nurse after he learns that he has fathered a black son by Tamora, simultaneously attempting to both allay and stoke their fears. Elsewhere, for more than half the references, the connotation is either neutral (for example, “a Moor” [V.ii.88]), or positive (Tamora uses the term twice; not surprisingly, preceded by “sweet” and “lovely” [II.iii.51 and II.iii.190, respectively]).
The remainder of the references are negative in connotation, but not necessarily racist. As mentioned before, the term “Moor” also referred to the Muslim people of Berber, and the rest of the “Moor”-ish references seem to deal with this connotation exclusively:
- Both Bassianus and Lucius refer to Aaron as a “barbarous Moor” (II.iii.78 and V.iii.4, respectively). Both Barbary and Berber (as regions) take as their source the Latin barbarie — the land of the barbarians — and “barbarous” had, in Shakespeare’s time, kept that connection to the Barbary Coast as well.
- Marcus refers to Aaron as both the “irreligious Moor” and the “misbelieving Moor” (V.iii.121 and V.iii.143, respectively), both cementing this concept of Moor being a differentiation less of skin color or ethnicity, and more of belief–an “outsider” to Christian belief.
- In a Second Quarto publication of the play, the (additional) last four lines of the play also have Lucius referring to Aaron as “that damned Moor”… again adding to the more religious (rather than ethnic) definition of “Moor.”
Either a black or a Moor would be a convenient villain for the Elizabethan audience for whom Shakespeare wrote the play; a dark complexioned man would be an “other” in the white world of London circa 1590, as would a Muslim man. But as we noted earlier in the month, his actions stem from no stated revenge; he gives neither reason nor rationale for his “villanies” (V.i.65). And for as verbal a villain as Aaron, the fact that he does not state that he is doing what he is doing because of his “outsider” or “other” status speaks volumes. He simply does what he does for the sheer enjoyment of it. He is a true villain.
Or is he?
Shakespeare is too crafty a playwright to make his Moor simply one dimensional. Shakespeare plays with our expectations. Aaron may be an African, he may be Muslim, yet his name is Biblical, coming from the brother of Moses. Before he does his first villainous act, even before he states his first soliloquy, other characters in the play have already done and said horrible things: Titus denies Tamora’s pleas and sacrifices her son, then kills his own son Mutius with his own hands, and Tamora proclaims her desire “to massacre them all” (I.i.453).
Then after Aaron has spurred Chiron and Demetrius on to rape and mutilation, after he has devised and set into motion the plot to kill Bassianus and have Martius and Quintus be executed for it, after he has convinced Titus to allow the Moor to cut off the general’s hand, he plays a role no one in the audience was suspecting: a loving father. After Tamora births the black child, she sends the infant with the Nurse to Aaron to have him kill it, to “christen it with (his) dagger’s point” (IV.ii.70).
And isn’t it wonderfully ironic that the woman who pleads so strongly for her white son in the play’s first scene later is so cavalier in the calling for her black baby‘s execution?
But Aaron refuses, he defends the life of his son against the statements of the Nurse and the threats of Demetrius, and he devises a plan for the boy’s survival (dreaming even to “bring (the baby) up // To be a warrior and command a camp” [IV.ii.180-181]). He later makes a deal with Lucius, to tell the young general all he’s done if Lucius shall “swear to (Aaron that his) child shall live” (V.i.68). Again, Shakespeare has Aaron do and say things that confound our expectations for a conventional villain.
According to John Barton, the former head of the Royal Shakespeare Company, that is the mark of Shakespearean characterization: looking at the inconsistencies, delving into the dichotomies, and what a dichotomy we have here in Aaron.
Aaron the Moor: the villain convenient yet not conventional…