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 streetsSo 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.
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)
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 beheldThe 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.)
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)
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,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.
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)
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 perceiveHere 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?
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)
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.