What Makes a Man Start Fires?

Yesterday, we talked a little (or a little more than a little) about how Titus (and Titus Andronicus as a whole) fit into the whole Aristotelian definition of tragedy.  We came to the conclusion that Titus’ hamartia (or error in judgment) was his refusal to spare the life of Tamora’s eldest son, Alarbus, when his own son Lucius calls for a sacrifice to calm the spirits of his dead brothers (Titus’ dead sons).

So that’s the “what”… what about the “why”?  Why does he make this decision?  And why does he make the decisions that further his reversal of fortune?

Let’s go back to that whole “piety” idea…

Titus is seen as the pious leader, he’s been given that title of “Pius”, which for the Romans meant “pious”, but also “dutiful” and “patriotic.”  And he certainly has those qualities.


As we noted yesterday, the OED defines “piety” as both a “devotion to religious observances” and a “faithfulness to the duties naturally owed to parents and relatives.”  He does have a “devotion to religious observance,” as he allows for Alarbus to be executed because his living sons have “religiously asked” for a sacrifice for their “brethren slain” (both I.i.127).  Here, the religion is not so much his own (as he doesn’t seem to be too religious himself), but those of his country–as Lucius says, “Our Roman rites” (I.i.146). The “faithfulness to the duties naturally owed to parents and relatives” also applies here as he allows all this to happen FOR his sons.


Titus is a soldier, a general, one who has sworn to defend Rome and its Emperor.  After he has secured the imperial seat for Saturninus, he owes the new emperor his fealty.  When Bassianus, the brother of the emperor and the beloved of Lavinia, attempts to take his (secretly, but his brother’s publicly) betrothed away, Titus immediately calls for “the emperor’s guard” (I.i.286), and tell Saturninus that he himself will “soon bring her back” (I.i.292).  He is driven by a duty so ingrained that when his son Mutius stands in Titus’ way, Titus kills Mutius, slays his own son.  Duty to his emperor outweighs his familial piety.


of course, it’s ironic that Titus himself was involved in such a “brawl” and did the slaying… that seems to slip the old general’s mind

Above family, even above the emperor is Rome itself.  When his sons and brother attempt to have the slain Mutius enshrined in the Andronicus tomb, Titus refuses, saying, “Here none but soldiers and Rome’s servitors // Repose in fame; none basely slain in brawls” (I.i.355-56).

When it is Titus’ time to die, he is sure that “Rome and the righteous heavens will be (his) judge” (I.i.429).  Note that Rome comes before heaven.

These three qualities (piety, duty, and patriotism) are all positive, but pushed to their extreme lead Titus to make some poor decisions, and they beg the question: what kind of Emperor would Titus have made?

Let’s look at the Rome to which Titus returns.  The old (unnamed) Emperor is dead.  The two sons are presenting their respective cases to the tribunes.  Saturninus proclaims his rights as the elder brother with “arms” and “swords” (I.i.2 and I.i.4); Bassianus states that his loyalties are “to virtue consecrate, // To justice, continence, and nobility” (I.i.14-15), and he calls for an open and free election.  The Tribunes, it seems, have other plans: they have called home Titus from the Goth war to be a part of this electoral process. In other words, they have no confidence in either son. But like all plans, this one hits a snag: Titus doesn’t want to be a candidate for Emperor.  He states his claim simply:

A better head (Rome's) glorious body fits
Than (mine) that shakes for age and feebleness.
What should I don this robe, and trouble you?
Be chosen with proclamations today,
Tomorrow yield up rule, resign my life,
And set abroad new business for you all?
Rome, I have been thy soldier forty years,
And led my country’s strength successfully,
And buried one-and-twenty valiant sons,
Knighted in field, slain manfully in arms,
In right and service of their noble country.
Give me a staff of honour for mine age,
But not a sceptre to control the world:
Upright he held it, lords, that held it last.
Titus, thou shalt obtain and ask the empery.
Proud and ambitious tribune, canst thou tell?
Patience, Prince Saturninus.
Romans, do me right:
Patricians, draw your swords, and sheathe them not
Till Saturninus be Rome’s emperor.
Andronicus, would thou wert shipp’d to hell,
Rather than rob me of the people’s hearts!
Proud Saturnine, interrupter of the good
That noble-minded Titus means to thee!
Content thee, prince; I will restore to thee
The people’s hearts, and wean them from themselves.

— I.i.190-214

Titus says he’s an old man (he’s at least 50 years old, assuming he first went to war at no younger an age than 10… but more likely he’s closer to 60), a “shake”-n and “feeble” old man (I.i.191).  He feels that he is too old for the role of emperor; if he takes on the role today, tomorrow they will have to go through all this again when he is dead.  He has served Rome, and while he wants to be honored for his service, he does not want to be emperor.  He ends his speech with an implicit approval of either of the two sons: he notes that the last emperor was an “upright” (I.i.203) leader.

Marcus tries to convince Titus one last time, telling him that the imperial seat is his for the asking.  Saturninus takes offense at this.  Titus attempts to calm Saturninus, and then a very interesting thing happens, one that is implicit in the meter of the line: Saturninus interrupts Titus just as Titus is about to say his name.

\   ~      ~     \ ~  \ ~
Patience, Prince Saturninus.
\ ~     \  ~   \
Romans, do me right:

What’s interesting here, in my view, is the opening of the two lines, the “Content thee, prince” part.  My take is that Titus is saying this to Lucius, to calm down his own son, before addressing Saturninus–the “prince” here being a show of respect for his own son, or a nice piece of foreshadowing by Shakespeare, or both.  Lucius, as we shall see through the course of the rest of the play, is often in need of calming.

For the poetic line to work, Saturninus has to interrupt Titus early in the line (this is corroborated by the text itself, as Lucius calls Saturninus an “interrupter” just two lines later [I.i.211]).  Saturninus continues in his violent reaction, calling for his followers to “draw (their) swords” (I.i.207), spurring them on to war, telling them not to “sheathe” the swords until he is emperor.  Lucius comes to his father’s defense, but Titus takes over.  In his two-line response, Titus speaks to Saturninus, offering to give over his support (his people’s “hearts” [I.i.214]) to Saturninus.

And Titus is as good as his word to Saturninus.  Titus asks the tribunes if they will support and vote for his choice, and they agree.  Titus then gives his support to Saturninus:

Tribunes, I thank you; and this suit I make,
That you create your emperor’s eldest son,
Lord Saturnine; whose virtues will, I hope,
Reflect on Rome as Titan’s rays on earth,
And ripen justice in this commonweal:
Then, if you will elect by my advice,
Crown him, and say, "Long live our emperor!"

— I.i.226-232

[Interestingly, both Julie Taymor and Jane Howell, directors of Titus and the BBC 1985 adaptation, respectively, choose to begin their productions with Titus’ return from war, with Saturninus’ and Bassianus’ imperial pleas coming only after Titus has returned.  From a pure stagecraft perspective, the change makes sense… better to open with a bang, a big attention-grabber of a sequence with Titus’ processional return to Rome, than to start with the two brothers’ speeches.]

It’s a subtle speech.  Titus throws his support behind Saturninus, but only because he is the “eldest son” (I.i.227).  Again, Titus’ “piety” leans toward tradition, familial hierarchy.  So while he gives his support, he also intimates that he has some doubts.  Titus can only “hope” that the new emperor’s “virtues” (both I.i.228) will shine upon Rome.

Does Titus make the best decision for Rome?  In hindsight, of course not.  But Titus is an old man (maybe not too old to rule, but old, and probably more importantly, TIRED).  He doesn’t want to fight anymore.  He has “sheathe(d) (his) sword” (I.i.88).  To go against Saturninus would mean to go to war himself, or to join forces with Bassianus to war against the elder son.  Either descends Rome into a bloody civil war.  Titus’ decision avoids that.  Titus decides (he is the great decider) and once he makes his decision, he doesn’t go back (just ask Tamora).

He’s stubborn, traditional, unbending.  And it is these personality traits (rather than his piety, duty and patriotism) that lead him to his fateful decision(s).  And because he cannot–WILL not–change his mind, his fate is set, Rome’s fate is set, and the rest of the play is just the relentless horrfic march to the inevitable.

Would Titus have made a good Emperor? Maybe, but probably not.  Certainly, Saturninus, a choice made by heredity and tradition, was a disaster as Emperor.  Lucius, at the end of the play, also achieves the imperial seat by heredity (as he is Titus’ son) and tradition (he’s the last man standing), and he begins his rule with some incredibly cruel decisions (Aaron’s tortured death, and Tamora’s post-mortem non-burial).  So what does that leave us with?  Ah, yes… Bassianus’ adherence “to virtue consecrate, // To justice, continence, and nobility” (I.i.14-15).  He felt confident that these concepts would “shine” (I.i.16) in a free election, but he, Rome–we as an audience–never got the chance.

Is Shakespeare saying something here? Did Shakespeare share Bassianus’ democratic view?

I don’t know… but now, after spewing forth all this, I feel like Titus… I’m tired.  I’m deciding to stop for the day.

And I’m not changing my mind.


And btw, the title of today’s entry is the title of an album by one of the great and influential punk rock bands of the early 80s, San Pedro’s own Minutemen.  I figured if I was going to name-drop New Jersey’s Titus Andronicus earlier in the week, I really should give a shout-out to one of the my favorite bands of all time… DBoon, rest in peace… Mike Watt, you rock… George Hurley, you, sir, are a geeeenius!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *