Bodies Stacked Like Cord Wood

first an apology: I’ve been thinking about this concept now for a couple of weeks… but I don’t have time to do the topic justice… the following blog entry begins promisingly, but it turns pretty scattershot pretty quickly… if I get a chance to edit this and make it better, I will.  But for now, it’s all I’ve got…

In Hamlet, we’re told that the flesh is heir to a thousand natural shocks.  But in Titus Andronicus, there are myriad un-natural ones, too.  Rape. Tongue cut out.  Hands cut off.  Men sacrificed.  Children killed then baked into pies and fed to their mother.  Villains buried chest deep and left to die.  It’s an existence filled with pain and distress.  How can man cause such pain to his fellow man? (and here, I’m talking about the characters, not Shakespeare)

It’s so much easier when you (the rhetorical you, here, folks) simply don’t see the human body as something that registers pain.  But how to put forth that proposition?  One could use stone or rock as a metaphor for the human body, but that doesn’t quite work: it’s incredibly tough to break or damage, and it was never alive.  What can be destroyed and was once alive, but doesn’t register pain?


The first references are subtle.  Marcus refers to Titus returning from the war, “laden with honor’s spoils” (I.i.39); Titus himself discusses the “precious lading” (I.i.75) with which he has returned.  Why is this important?  Both “laden” and “lading” come from the verb “lade” — to load cargo; but this French verb comes from the Old English hlao, meaning “a stack or pile” (Oxford English Dictionary Second Edition on CD-ROM [v. 4.0]).  Cargo that can be stacked and piled, like wood… but with what is Titus returning home?  The spoils of war, including prisoners, as well as “honor’s spoils,” the bodies of the fallen.

While these are subtle, the next references are obvious and beyond debate.  When calling for the sacrificial execution of a Goth prisoner, Lucius demands to “hew his limbs and on a pile … sacrifice his flesh” (I.i.100-101).  And here we get the body/wood superfecta:

  • “Hew” not only means “to strike, or deal blows, with a cutting weapon” but also “to fell or cut wood either for destruction or use” (both OED).
  • “Limb” had been used since the tenth century to refer to both “a part or member of an animal body distinct from the head or the trunk, e.g. a leg, arm, wing” and “a main branch of a tree” (both OED).
  • “Pile” is obvious, and an obvious link to the aforementioned “lade” and hlao.
  • “Flesh” pull it all together.

Later in the scene, Lucius continues his body/wood/cutting imagery: “Upon a pile of wood, // Let’s hew his limbs till they be clean consumed” I.i.131-132) and “Alarbus’ limbs are lopped” (I.i.146).  Again, his verbiage is crucial– “hew” and “lop” (“cut off the branches, twigs, etc” [OED]).

When Bassianus spies Tamora and Aaron in the forest, he uses a tree analogy to compare his brother Saturninus to Aaron: Tamora “hath abandoned her holy groves // To see the general hunting in this forest” (II.iii.58-59).  Here, the groves (a group of trees planted for special purpose) represent the Emperor, while the forest (wild, uncontrolled, unmanaged) is Aaron.  The tree/human metaphor continues after Bassianus’s death and just before Lavinia’s rape, as Chiron grotesquely suggests that they “drag hence her husband to some secret hold, // And make his dead trunk pillow to our lust” (II.iii.130); Bassianus’ torso is now nothing more than the “main stem of a tree” (OED), one on which the rapists can use as a stage for their violation.

After Lavinia’s rape and mutilation, Chiron mocks the victim’s “stumps” (II.iv.4); her limbs have be cut down to stumps (used again in both body and tree connotations [and this is an objective use that Titus takes up as well (III.ii.42 and V.ii.182)]).  When Marcus comes upon her, he wonders

What stern ungentle hands
Hath lopped and hewed and made thy body bare
Of her two branches, those sweet ornaments
Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in...
O, had the monster seen those lily hands
Tremble like aspen leaves upon a lute
And make the silken strings delight to kiss them.

— II.iv.17-19, 44-46 (emphases mine)

Again, we have the “wood”-ed verbs of “lop” and “hew.”  Marcus makes explicit the metaphor in his connection (or in this case disconnection) of “body” and “her two branches,”  then builds the analogy of Lavinia’s hands being “like aspen leaves.”  This particular analogy is interesting since the aspen tree carries with it two sets of symbolic values:

  • According to Kathleen Karlsen, “Aspen tree symbolism includes determination and overcoming fears and doubts.”  Lavinia survives her ordeal, and works until she can reveal the identities of her attackers.
  • According to Avia Venefica, for the Celts, the aspen tree symbolized many concepts, including: Purity (Lavinia’s chastity is mentioned throughout the play) and Alteration/Transition/Transformation (her mutilation).

When Titus learns of his daughter’s ordeal, he introduces into the lexicon of the play another wood-cutting verb: “chop” (III.i.72 and III.i.161), and it is used only in reference to hands.  And after this discovery, he begins to compare people to trees: Young Lucius is a “tender sapling” (III.ii.50), and he and Marcus “are but shrubs, no(t) cedars” (IV.i.46).

If Aaron’s goal is to antagonize and aggravate the young general… mission accomplished.

Aaron refers to Lavinia’s mutilation as “trim(/med/ming)” (V.i.93,94,96) in the same kind of cruel, mocking manner as Chiron does to Lavinia’s “stumps” in Act Two; here, Aaron aims the mockery of Lavinia at her brother Lucius.

Aaron goes on to further relate human to wood when he describes his desecration of dead bodies:

Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves
And set them upright at their dear friends' door...
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife, carved in Roman letters

— V.i.135-136,138-139 (emphases mine)

All this wood/body metaphoric imagery ends immediately after the bloodbath in the final scene, however, when Marcus intones:

You sad-faced men, people and sons of Rome...
O, let me teach you how to knit again...
These broken limbs again into one body.

— V.iii.67,70,72

The terror is over, the time of reducing the human body to inanimate wood is done, and it’s time for the “sons of Rome” to reconcile the body of the nation.  They have seen the consequences of viewing the human body as nothing more than wood.  It leads to death and destruction, with no value given to human life.  Likewise, Shakespeare uses wood and cutting imagery throughout the play to objectify the human body and to desensitize the audience to the brutality he serves up (like a meat pie) to his characters and presents to that same audience.  Without the metaphoric distance, the horrorshow would be too bloody, too “real” to allow for any chance at tragic catharsis.

a post-script:
Lavina and the Nurse make no wood or tree references, Tamora has five references to trees.  It is interesting that all of them are completely unremarkable (and all are pre-rape).  There are no uses of the human/tree metaphor.  She does not reduce humans to inanimate wood.

Does this say anything about gender roles?

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