The Tragedy of Titus

Yesterday, we discussed the Aristotelian definition of tragedy, and how it centered around three main concepts:

  • reversal of fortune
  • hamartia
  • anagnorisis

Let’s start discussing Titus Andronicus with the last one and move backward…

Does Titus achieve anagnorisis, does he have a true recognition/revelation?  While he does learn that Chiron and Demetrius are his daughter’s rapists, he is clueless as to the depths of Tamora’s betrayal of him, her condoning of the rape and mutilation of Lavinia (the Goth Queen actually wants her killed, but the boys fail to follow through on this), and certainly dies with no knowledge of Aaron’s manipulation of events and people throughout the play.  He never comes to any basic universal truth (as Lear or Romeo do).  He just goes, inextricably, unalterably, toward his own demise.

And it’s interesting that the play’s final words are “let birds on her take pity” (V.3.200)… in this play, there simply is no (human) pity. … and if there is no pity, can there be piety?  My opinion is that Shakespeare would answer that with a resounding “Nosirreebub”…

Religion or any sort of guiding philosophical dogma seems absent in Titus’ life and worldview, except for his initial decision to “religiously” (I.i.127) sacrifice Tamora’s eldest son in the first scene to quiet the ghosts of his fallen sons.  And even that decision is seen by Tamora as “cruel irreligious piety” (I.i.133)… and this brings up a very interesting syntactical discussion:  Marcus tells us early on, before Titus even arrives, that Titus is surnamed–has been given the honorary title of–“Pius” (I.i.23), meaning “pious”, “dutiful”, or “patriotic”… As his actions attest (in the first scene alone), he is obviously a man who has a strong “devotion to religious observances” and a “faithfulness to the duties naturally owed to parents and relatives” (both definition of “piety” are from the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM [version 4.0]).  But what’s interesting is that “piety” has another meaning as well, one that is older than the others but still in use during Shakespeare’s day: “pity” (OED).  Even if the argument can be made for Titus’ piety, none can be made for his pity.

Let’s take a look at the moment of Titus’ hamartia, his error in judgment.  When Titus arrives on the scene (which we had learned some fifty lines earlier is because the Senate has called him home to be the third candidate for Emperor–against the late Emperor’s two sons, Saturninus and Bassianus), his first action is to call for “Rome (to) reward (his surviving sons) with love” (I.i.85), and for the “rites” (I.i.81) and burial of his sons killed in battle against the Goths, so that they can “sleep in peace, (being) slain in (our) country’s wars” (I.i.93).

Lucius calls for a Gothic sacrifice to satisfy the ghosts of the dead, and Titus gives him Alarbus, Tamora’s eldest son.  Tamora pleads:

Stay, Roman brethren! Gracious conqueror,
Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed,
A mother's tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
O! think my son to be as dear to me.
Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome,
To beautify thy triumphs and return,
Captive to thee and to thy Roman yoke;
But must my sons be slaughter'd in the streets
For valiant doings in their country's cause?
O! if to fight for king and commonweal
Were piety in thine, it is in these.
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful;
Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge:
Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son.

— I.i.107-123

Her speech is masterful. It never feels false or manipulative.  Sure, it’s emotional, but it should be; more importantly, however, is that the speech is well-developed and beautifully constructed.

She addresses Titus as a kindred spirit, a warrior–though an enemy–a “Roman brethren” (I.i.107).  And if that seems too presumptuous, she immediately backs off, to show that she knows her place, one below the “Gracious conqueror, // Victorious Titus” (I.i.107-08).

She then begins her appeal to him in earnest: first, as a parent.  Titus had just called for his sons’ burial, for his surviving sons to be shown “love” from Rome.  Now she speaks as a mother, and Shakespeare works the meter and rhyme to make her argument all the more effective:

 ~  \   \    \   ~   \ ~   \    ~   \
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,
\    ~   \   \   ~  \ ~   \    ~  \
O! think my son to be as dear to me.

The two lines’ second-foot spondees stress the “thy” and “my,” linking Titus and Tamora; and if that weren’t enough, the lines rhyme “thee” to “me” again cementing their parental bond.

Second, she appeals to him as a martial leader, a soldier that respects the “valiant doings in their country’s cause” (I.i.116) on the battlefield. She asks if it is not enough for her and her sons to be paraded through the streets of Rome as slaves and captives, but now to be sacrificed, too?  If Titus can find “piety” (I.i.118) in his own sons’ fighting for their country, it should be the same for her sons.

Finally, she appeals to Titus as a man, but as a man greater than most, one that can “draw near the nature of the gods… in being merciful” (I.i.120-1).

Father.  Soldier.  God-like man.  Three appeals lead to one conclusion:

   \    \     \ ~     \    ~   \    \    \
Thrice-noble Titus, spare my first-born son.

Again, Shakespeare allows Tamora to hammer her point home with two spondee feet that book-end the line–the first, like a concluding paragraph to an essay, recounting the THREE points she has made; the second, accenting “born” (I.i.123)… the giving of life, an act that only Titus can do at this moment.

Anyone would be moved (if not the call off the sacrifice altogether then at least to choose another martyr [Aaron, please, can it be Aaron? … no, he is but a slave and not a great enough sacrifice]).  Anyone, that is, except Titus.

Titus sends Alarbus to his doom.

This decision sets forth an entire string of revenges and counter-revenges… which reverses Titus’ fortune.

He enters a powerful general, an “accited” (I.i.27) candidate for Emperor… only to become, by the end, a powerless, outcast (and possibly even deranged) civilian; once a father of twenty-five sons and a daughter, he is, in his last breath, a man with only one living (though banished) child…

  • Reversal of fortune? Check.
  • Hamartia? Check.
  • Anagnorisis?  Not so much.

Maybe THAT‘s Titus’ tragedy…