Tuesday, March 3, 2009

In Which the Curtain Is Sewn Back Together

I read Titus Andronicus for the first time as a pretentious high schooler looking for universal verities, and I was horrified by what I found. The play is essentially a slasher film, a terrible bloodbath in which no one is redeemed and even the “good guys” are bad. (Or at least that’s what I thought.) Not that I was alone in this conviction. Titus is the red-headed stepchild of Shakespeare’s corpus, read far less than Hamlet or King Lear or even Measure for Measure and disdained by scholars from all traditions.

Now that I am a pretentious graduate student forced to read the play for a class, I’ve found a lot more to admire. There’s a certain kind of beauty in the action of the play, a certain fidelity in the midst of the horror. And—since it’s still what I mostly look for—there are universal verities, in this case a view of human nature that would make Calvin blush and a vision of the government that would make Ron Paul cheer.

At the outset of the play, we find a Rome in which Church and State have completely collapsed into one another. Everyone seems to believe himself a god. The Roman emperor was divinized, of course, and Saturninus promises Lavinia that he will “in the sacred Pantheon her espouse” (I.i.242). Meanwhile, Titus seems to expect the type of autonomy and respect generally accorded to the gods: “Nor thou nor he are any sons of mine. / My sons would never so dishonour me” (I.i.290-291). He gets to decide not only who lives and who dies but how people are related to one another, and this right seems to proceed from his position as a great general.

Furthermore, every State believes itself to be divine, as we can see right off that bat with Tamora’s speech just over 100 lines into the play:
But must my sons be slaughtered 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. (I.i.112-115)
So all countries are the same—or else we can’t really tell which ones are better, so we have to have mercy on all patriots, on all martyrs. All states become divine, and so the conflict between the Romans and the Goths—or, presumably, between the Romans and the Gauls and whoever else they conquer—are a divine contest, similar to the ones waged on Mt. Olympus.

As such, everyone in the play believes himself to be godlike, and a central question in Titus is, What is piety? In the beginning, we seem to have a conflict between mercy and justice. Tamora urges Titus to practice mercy: “Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods? / Draw near them in being merciful” (I.i.117-118). But the Greco-Roman gods are traditionally not particularly merciful. Titus may be closer to what they’re actually like:
These are their brethren whom your Goths beheld
Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain
Religiously they ask a sacrifice.
To this your son is marked, and die he must
T’appease their groaning shadows that are gone. (I.i.122-126)
The gods require Agamemnon to sacrifice Iphigenia, then allow Clytemnestra to slaughter him when he gets home from the Trojan War. They want what they want and show no mercy on anyone, best I can tell. So Rome acts like the gods, indeed, sets itself up as a god. (Tamora and the Goths, of course, are exactly the same way—she begs for mercy for her sons but extends no mercy to anyone at any time. She’s among the most wicked of Shakespeare’s women, right up there with Lady Macbeth.)

In the next act, Tamora moves from being divinized by her forced marriage to Saturninus to divinizing herself, at least according to Aaron the Moor:
Now climbeth Tamora Olympus’ top,
Safe out of fortune’s shot, and sits aloft,
Secure of thunder’s crack or lightning flash,
Advanced above pale envy’s threat’ning reach. (II.i.1-4)
Even more interesting is that the genders have flipped, and now the man (Aaron) relies upon the woman (Tamora) to divinize him: “Then, Aaron, arm thy heart and fit thy thoughts / To mount aloft with thy imperial mistress” (II.i.12-13). She thus welcomes her lover into the State, makes him into a god even crueler than herself, even crueler than Titus, even crueler than Odysseus’ Poseidon. His name is significant here, as it brings to mind Moses’ brother Aaron, the first priest of the Israelites.

The end effect of all this divinization of and in the State is the brutal slaughter and humiliation of nearly everyone in the Andronicus family. Whatever one may say about Titus, however, he is not stupid, and he recognizes the true cause of all his misery. In the third act, he loses faith in the State, and Shakespeare uses language that resembles the loss of faith in the gods we find in, say, Euripides’ Heracles. He says that the Tribunes can’t hear him but wouldn’t listen if they could, and he memorably renounces Rome altogether:
Why, foolish Lucius, dost thou not perceive
That Rome is but a wilderness of tigers?
Tigers must prey, and Rome affords no prey
But me and mine. How happy art thou then
From these devourers to be banished! (III.i.52-56)
Here is a complete loss of faith in the State—Titus is not so much an atheist as a maltheist. And the comparison is apt because in this play, as in ancient Rome itself, we have a nearly complete conflation of the State and the Divine. But the State is made of human beings—Shakespeare even belabors the point that the people elect the Emperor—and so how can it be perfect?

Later, the genuine (at least in the world of the play) gods answer Marcus’ prayer at IV.i.65-66: “Apollo, Pallas, Jove, or Mercury / Inspire me, that I may this treason find.” He’s separated the Divine from the State, although he hedges his bets with the gods instead of praying to one. That’s just the nature of polytheism, however—the Andronici have learned genuine piety, which is always directed at the genuinely divine rather than the cardboard god of the State.

And so in the end, every figure that has previously been divinized the State—Titus, Tamora, Saturninus, and even Aaron—is dead, and Titus’ son Lucius is left to run Rome. But he seems to run the State in a totally different way; at no point does he declare himself divine, and so there seems to be a sea change in the makeup of the State; in short, he has separated Church from State. (This is not historically accurate, but that doesn’t much matter.)

Such issues must have weighed heavily on Shakespeare, who lived in an England that had changed from Catholic to Protestant, back to Catholic, and then back to Protestant again, slaughtering those on the other side. “Enough,” he seems to say here, and recommends that the State not concern itself with religious matters, in order to save both faith and government.


Nathan P. Gilmour said...

That's an interesting reading of Lucius. I tend to read him as one more Caesar that replaces one more Caesar, since at play's end Marcus holds him forth as one able "to knit again/ This scatter'd corn into one mutual sheaf,/ These broken limbs again into one body." Since the bound sheaf invokes the Roman fasces, the bound rods (not that he would have known anything about modern fascism, I realize), I figured Lucius represented, for Marcus at least, not a separation of any sort but a reinstatement of all of Rome, temple and throne.

With regards to Titus's power, I figured that derived simply from his office as paterfamilias, which in Roman law held imperium over his family. (It had, I'll grant, eroded some by the time George Clooney's Ulysses took it on.) Part of the fascination with Rome for the Renaissance was that mixture of divine and political that was very different both from the Catholic Church's binding and loosing of the kings and from England's bizarre situation where the Prince of War (Henry, Elizabeth, James, etc.) was also the head of the Prince of Peace's Church.

I do agree, though, that Titus is a wonderfully apocalyptic play--what Rome would like to imagine as Rome's justice steps forth as naked violence enough times and in nasty enough ways that Marcus's call for a re-knitting at the end can't help but seem monstrous at some level.

Michial said...

I suppose it could be the difference between optimism and pessimism--does Marcus mean that Rome under Lucius will be restored to how it was under Saturninus, or does he mean that it will be spiritually healed. It's hard to say, although I suppose the "lamentable tragedy" before the name of the play suggests the former.

Who would have thought that I'd take the optimistic view of human nature, and you'd take the negative one?

I'll confess I know next to nothing about the history of ancient Rome.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

All you need to get an Anabaptist-influenced thinker like myself into a good pessimistic frame of mind is to bring Empire into the picture. :)

I'll admit that it's hard to read Imperial figures' using "binding" metaphors without thinking of modern Fascism, anachronistic as I know that to be for Shakespeare as much as for Julius Caesar. But I do know that the rise of Christian religious orders (religare means "to bind") in the late Imperial party was, among other things, a cruciform binding as opposed to the Imperial fasces. You know that I'm as much a sucker for a Benedict reference as I am for Thomas, and that counter-binding is certainly part of his appeal.

I know that trying to make Shakespeare a monarchist or a republican is always building a house on sand, but I do know that, after five acts the brutality done in the name of "binding" that's just as nasty as Aaron's anarchic violence makes me suspicious of Lucius at the very best.

I'm always wary of my own grasp of Roman history--it's a hodgepodge of Livy, Augustine, Shakespeare, Gibbon, Sid Meier games, and HBO, and I know full well that I'm making Caesar in my own image.

Nathan P. Gilmour said...

Religious orders arose in the late Imperial period, not the late Imperial party. Though, if Gibbon is to be believed, it was that as well.

stanford said...

Really interesting post. My wife and I were in London a couple years ago and decided to see whatever Shakespeare was playing. I had never heard of Titus, but we were floored. Medics were literally removing a steady stream of fainters from the standing area because it was so bloody.

I like the idea that the work asks the question 'What is piety?' as a multiple choice between mercy and justice. And I had not mapped Shakespeare on the Catholic/Protestant pendulum of Anglo-church history. That makes much more sense of it.

Michial said...

To be fair, Stanford, the class I'm taking is called "Shakespeare and Religion" and is based on the New Historicist model of criticism, so it's not like I'm creating these associations myself, at least not out of whole cloth; before the semester began I knew next to nothing about English ecclesiastical history. Now I know next to next to nothing.