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English Studies
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Blood, barbarism, and belly laughs:


Shakespeare's Titus and Ovid's
Philomela
Jessica Lugo
Version of record first published: 25 Jul 2007.

To cite this article: Jessica Lugo (2007): Blood, barbarism, and belly laughs: Shakespeare's Titus
and Ovid's Philomela, English Studies, 88:4, 401-417
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/00138380701443195

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English Studies
Vol. 88, No. 4, August 2007, 401 417

Blood, Barbarism, and Belly Laughs:


Shakespeares Titus and Ovids
Philomela

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Jessica Lugo

Elizabethan poets and playwrights had a remarkably open view of literary borrowing.
They reasoned that since ideas belonged to no one man, it was perfectly natural to
manipulate others narratives and incorporate them into new dramatic works. Sir
Philip Sidney noted in his Apologie for Poetrie that even historiographers . . . have
been glad to borrow both fashion and . . . weight of the poets; so Herodotus . . . and all
the rest that followed him, either stole or usurped, of poetry, their passionate
describing of passions, the many particularities of battles which no man could
affirm.1 In a similar view over two hundred years later, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
reflected that truth is a divine ventriloquist, and that an author should care not
from whose mouth the sounds are supposed to proceed.2 The usual subjects of these
Elizabethan revivals were classical Latin works. Shakespeare, despite the way Ben
Jonson praised his works as not of an age, but for all time,3 was also a man of his
era, subject to many of the same rules and trends as his contemporaries. When
adaptations of classical Greek and Roman drama such as Senecas Thyestes came into
vogue with works like Marlowes Hero and Leander (c. 1598) and Beaumonts
Salmacis and Hermaphroditus (c. 1602), Shakespeares immersion in the masters led
to an extreme play that reaches classical levels of grotesqueness. His Titus Andronicus
(c. 1594) takes parodic delight in its roots in Ovids version of the Philomela myth,
transforming it into stage drama that both delights and sickens its audiences.
Shakespeares Ovidian precursor delivers a tale of gore that develops the themes
of barbarism and silence. In Titus, Shakespeare roots out the essence of Ovids
characters, exposes their most primal motivations, and establishes a partnership with
the long-dead poet. As Frances Meres wrote in his 1598 piece, Palladis Tamia, Wits
Treasury: As the soul of Euphorbus was thought to live in Pythagoreas, so the sweet,
witty soul of Ovid lives in mellifluous and honey-tongued Shakespeare.4 As sweet
Jessica Lugo is a graduate of New Jersey City University, USA.
1
Sidney, 97.
2
Coleridge, 89.
3
Jonson, 166.
4
Frances Meres quoted in Bevington, A-1.

ISSN 0013-838X (print)/ISSN 1744-4217 (online) 2007 Taylor & Francis


DOI: 10.1080/00138380701443195

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and honey-tongued Shakespeare may have been, his choice of Philomela as a source
invites a dark lining to his craft. He packs an extra dimension to the original
characters, until his story of raping and murdering strangers resembles its inspiration
in sincerest homage. In answering the demand of Elizabethan audiences for plays
filled with buckets of blood and piles of corpses, Shakespeares tribute to Ovid
becomes a blackly humorous interpretation of an already dark work. The tour de force
is accomplished, and a story from Metamorphoses is itself metamorphosed into a
pointed stage narrative detailing the consequences of and hypocrisy in labelling
others as savage, the dangers of turning reason into silence, and the darkly funny
effect of using such grotesqueness in humour.
The Ovidian Barbarian
In a book of transformations, the story of Philomela can be seen as an oddly graphic
embrace of the grotesque. It lacks the incredibility of Icarus and the divine
intervention of Actaeon. Without a mystical, deus ex machina transformation to
contain its raw, seething emotion, it can be difficult to read the macabre story of the
triumphant Thracian barbarian Tereus who marries a maiden, rapes her sister, and
removes his victims tongue to keep her from exposing him. The alteration of shape
in this tale lies not in any magic spell, but in the spiritual. Though a transformation
caps the story, it is an extension of a mutation that overcomes the protagonists souls.
Ovids story is an invitation into voyeurism, welcoming an audience to watch the
transformation of a social order.
Tereus is not quite a traditional villain; rather, his barbaric behaviour seems to
stem primarily from a lack of basic comprehension of civilized boundary lines. He
lusts for Philomela upon first sight in what Leonard Barkan calls the forcible union
of things which ought to be kept separate: the girls filial piety, her sexuality, Tereus
role as a brother-in-law, his innata libido.5 By all accounts, Tereus should know that
his new brides sister is not a viable sexual option, yet this does nothing to arrest his
insatiable lust. When he meets Philomela, she embraces her father. Instead of basking
in this innocent affection between father and daughter, Tereus natural reaction is to
see the gesture as a tease, thinking of it as wood to feede his fire, and foode of
forcing nourishment to further his desire.6 He childishly imagines permission to
validate his perversion; early on, he describes his lust in the context of a marital gift,
as though his wife had willed that likewise.7 When the father Pandion naively
bestows Philomela to Tereus for a safe journey, Tereus misinterprets the gesture and
rushes to the conclusion that he literally owns the object of his carnal passion. For
him, the rape is acceptable because it occurs to a toy that he has been given and is
now one of his possessions. It is easy for the conquering savage to justify the act of
5

Barkan, 60.
Golding, trans., VI.612.
7
Ibid., VI.602.
6

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breaking his toys. A. B. Taylor imagines Tereus as a lesser-evolved being whose


conflict begins once the savagery [he] concealed in the depths of the primaeval
forest literally comes home to him.8 But while Tereus is surely less civil than his wife
and sister-in-law, he is not a complete animal. Even the strongest of Tereus delusions
cannot convince him that the rape of Philomela is normal.
Transformations of both the literal and figurative varieties come on the rapes
completion. Tereus finally realizes that his brutish behaviour defies the laws set by
civilized society. He fears discovery and removes Philomelas tongue in what Barkan
labels an attempt to cancel the consequences of his acts.9 He imprisons her,
physically removing her from society to match the emotional detachment she has
received with her muteness. He is consumed by worries that the discovery of his
transgressions will outrage the masses and sever him from his newfound home, and
so Philomela remains trapped by graunge / . . . of maine hard stone, that out she
could not raunge,10 while at the same time hir tunglesse mouth did want the
utterance of the fact.11 Sparked by this, the formerly flighty and foolish girl develops
a creative air. Tragedy transforms her from innocent victim to silent informant, and
she is not long forced to suffer her mute imprisonment before she weaves her story in
a tapestry and inadvertently destroys the mental health of her sister. Procne, who has
been removed from Pandions household long enough to begin losing touch with
traditional, civilized moral structure, quickly displays how transformed she has
been by her husbands influence. She has adopted his barbarous nature, and decides
by a primal, vengeful code of honour that Tereus punishment should fit his crime,
but her focus is on his rape rather than the simple mutilation. As Barkan says, she
wants to strike her husband in the heart of his sexual identity.12 For this, she
chooses to murder her son and defile the product of their marriage union.
From here, Ovid is particularly graphic in his gory narrative, chronicling the
descent of Procne into her husbands same barbarism, against which she claims to be
rebelling. Though he cries and raises his arms in terror, she stabs him and never
turn[s] away hir face.13 Though the wound would have been enough to murder
him, Philomela slices his throat. The sisters begin dissecting the boy while he is still
partially alive, gouging their sacrificial lamb before he has time to grow cold. After
she has cooked her son into a meal, Procne somehow manages to be smug and
playful when Tereus asks for the boy, and smirks that the thing thou askest for, thou
hast within.14 By forcing him to ingest his son, Procne delivers a harsh lesson,
making him experience a twisted repercussion of his actions: the same sort of
punishment he removed Philomelas tongue to avoid. In the process, she has also
8

Taylor, 68.
Barkan, 61.
10
Golding, VI.731 2.
11
Ibid., VI.733.
12
Barkan, 62.
13
Golding, VI.812.
14
Ibid., VI.829.
9

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succeeded in dislocating herself from her sense of morality. As [Philomela] and


Procne will vividly demonstrate, adds Taylor, whether a race is barbarus like the
Thracians or cultured like the Athenians, civilization is merely a thin veneer which
cracks when basic primal instincts are aroused.15 To escape Tereus revenge for his
punishment, the sisters are transformed into bloodstained birds, forever marked by
their crimes against nature. Their transformation is necessary; as Barkan explains, all
three characters have gone beyond the extremes of human experience; they have
reached the endpoint of transformations, where all the distinctions that protect
society, identity, and life itself have been destroyed.16 When all characters have
crossed the line and lost touch with civilization, they must be transformed and
contained away from spreading their savagery to others.
Barbarism and Brutality
Leaping from his colourful Ovidian background, Shakespeare quickly establishes a
setting that details and relishes the brutality found in the myth, while still providing
enough tongue-in-cheek commentary to pay homage to his source. The plot follows
Philomelas story closely enough: Titus daughter Lavinia is raped by a pair of dimwitted barbarian foreigners who remove her tongue and hands, hoping to avoid
detection. Wordless, she is forced to reach for a copy of Ovids Metamorphoses and
direct her familys attention to the Philomela myth. Horrified by her condition, Titus
swears his revenge and ends the play in a stunning tribute to Procnes banquet scene
as he serves the rapists to their mother for dinner.
Yet, even before Lavinia uses the book of Metamorphoses to project her thoughts
and spur the action, the characters often reference Philomela as if she is an invisible
character watching the performance from behind times curtain. Aaron, mastermind
behind the foreigners plotting, is the first to mention her by name, as if invoking
her in soliloquy when he asserts that [Bassianus] Philomel must lose her tongue
today (II.iii.43), and he places an expectation in the minds of an audience familiar
with the myth. This extends into the metaphorical as well, as Robert Miola explains:
As in the Ovidian tale of Tereus and Philomela, such violation of the family
amounts to a violation of the larger order in human affairs.17 Upon the discovery of
Philomelas punishment, Procne is driven to violence, immediately offering to not
deale in this behalfe with weeping, but with swords.18 Before she decides to feed
Tereus his firstborn son, she entertains the ideas of castration, pulling out his own
tongue, gouging his eyes, and removing his fingers. With the rape of Philomela,
Procne loses touch with the things that made her civilized. The same can be said for
Titus Rome, which speedily transforms into a wilderness of tigers after Lavinias
ravishing (III.i.54). The rapists in both stories open a Pandoras box into the heart of
15

Taylor, 71.
Barkan, 63.
17
Miola, 85.
18
Golding, VI.776.
16

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true evil, which ultimately leads to bring about a tragic purging of Aristotelean
proportions. Yet, Shakespeare was a competitive author, excited by the challenge
presented by his desire to outdo graphic myth.
In the interest of creating a fair playing field, Shakespeare begins with barbarians,
presenting the same fertile ground as Ovid. Beside the obvious othering done to
explain a rash of reprehensible behaviour, use of the barbaric has a rich history that
reflects the Roman setting of both texts. Before the word barbarian was used to
describe a brutish villain, it was a mild pejorative designed specifically to aid the
degradation of other cultures members. At its root, it was initially coined to describe
one whose language was different from Latin, since foreign speech seemed to make
what Herodotus called a bar-bar-bar sound.19 By that definition, the Thracian king
Tereus would have been a barbarian by culture, only to prove himself a barbarian by
the present definition through his heinous actions. Shakespeares presentation is
hardly so delicate. His barbarians are the Goths, whose code of ethics is as infamous
as Titus filicidal tendencies are questionable, given that Titus is apt to murder his
children over minor disagreements. Marcus is the first to mention this stereotype as
he warns Titus that thou art a Roman, be not barbarous (I.i.378). Yet, who are the
true barbarians in this context? Titus has just ignored the pleas of a conquered queen
for the life of her son, and is soon to murder one of his own children in the name of
blind duty. From here, the horrors that befall his family could be avoided with the
tiniest morsel of compassion for a fallen enemy. Instead, his initial two remorseless
murders spark a revenge game that robs him of everything he has. After all, though
Roman Titus proves himself to be as callous and cruel as any barbarian, the Goths are
this plays designated villains, and their tyranny must be even more horrendous for
an audience to be able to take Titus for a hero. The heartless Tamora is almost
immediately inducted into Roman society as its new Empress, a Roman adopted
happily after Titus bloody welcome (I.i.464). It is down this avenue of violence that
Tamora is free to seek out her revenge in the vilest manners she can imagine, to
neer let my heart know merry cheer indeed / Till all the Andronici be made away
(II.iii.188 9). She holds this desire for cold revenge close to her heart, even as her
foreign birth leads her toward decidedly un-Roman habits, as in the case of her affair
with Aaron. Her marriage is a convenient sham, used as a tool for revenge, even as
she sates a darker lust in a darker form.
The addition of Aaron is a bold creative choice for Shakespeare, as he is the only
character without a hint of an Ovidian predecessor. Instead of acting in the upfront
manner of the typical barbarian, he does not directly take part in any other decidedly
Tereus-like actions. He is a catalyst set apart from primary action, who instigates
conflict without directly partaking in it. Despite the way he claims to curse the
day . . . wherein I did not . . . ravish a maid (V.i.125 9), he is never the rapist. Instead
of committing the act himself, he chooses to act as an advisor, telling Chiron and
Demetrius of a forest with many unfrequented plots . . . / Fitted by kind for rape and
19

Calderwood, 29.

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villainy (II.i.115 16). Aside from the nurse who witnessed his childs birth, he
directly spills no blood. He is accepted as the principal villain, the driving force
behind the violent evil that runs unchecked during the play. His main and seemingly
most unforgivable crime rests on the fatal combination of his paganism and Moorish
skin. Thou believest no god, falters Lucius (V.i.71), and his unquestioned
amazement implies a general acceptance that a black hide doubles as an expectation
for impending evil. David Bevington explains, Aaron and his son in their blackness
of complexion are equated with barbarism, pagan atheism . . . and diabolism . . . . [He
is] symbolic of the inner darkness and carnality shared by all sorts of people.20
Aarons instigatory brand of pure, unprovoked evil is never explained by a motive,
but neither is one requested of him. Instead, his rich speeches delighting in the art of
manipulation for its own sake run the risk of being a blatant and unapologetic plot
device. With the question of true barbarian identity established, the play needs a
Mephistopheles to urge it into true malevolence. Aaron acts outside the play, giving
an Ovidian shove toward carnage. He fills a gap, and adds an intelligent aspect to
personified evil that Tereus could never match.
In transforming a myth from textual representation to the stage, some content
needs to be edited to allow the audience to possess the full impact of a scenario. In
Ovid, Philomelas tongue is reduced to a pattering, quivering stump,21
suggesting the word for tongue (lingua) in two meanings, also encompassing the
word for language. Lynn Enterline succinctly explains the nuances of the wordplay,
maintaining that the vacillation between the literal and figural meanings of lingua
allows Philomelas mutilated tongue to tell another, related story about the uneasy
relationship between a body and what is usually taken to be its own language.22
The metaphor makes it impossible not to sympathize with Philomelas loss of
language as her tongue spasms on the ground, still straining to speak. This subtlety is
lost onstage, in that it cant be physically represented, so instead Titus repeatedly
references Lavinias absent tongue in gruesome detail. Marcus speaks of the crimson
river of warm blood, like to a bubbling fountain that continues to bleed out of his
nieces gaping, uncauterized wound (II.iv.22 3). Not to be outdone by the
description of Philomelas slithering, dismembered tongue,23 Titus later revives the
image of Lavinias oral loss, imploring her to let me kiss thy lips upon his first sight
of her (III.i.120). Her lips, which must at this point be covered with the dry, flaky
remains of her blood, are the essence of wronged youth; when Titus mentions kissing
them, he is embracing a perverse, yet fatherly instinct to mend her injury. It implies
a gruesome action, grimaces John Russell Brown, even as he continues to say: their
physical encounter here gives a shocking impact to a fathers familiar impulse.24
Since Lavinia is no longer able to express her plight in words, the audience is left to
20

Bevington, 970.
Golding, VI.711.
22
Enterline, 7.
23
Golding, VI.711 15.
24
Brown, 23.
21

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write its own soliloquy for her. In narrative, Philomelas tears and frustrations are
beautiful poetry, but onstage Shakespeare heightens the ghastly imagery and forces
the audience to wallow in the gore, as in the conclusion to Act III, scene ii, featuring
the cringeworthy visual of the maimed Lavinia carrying her fathers severed hand in
her teeth. Miola adds that instead of beginning the Roman Empire, as later books
of Metamorphoses do, the rape of Lavinia signals the end of whatever civilization
Rome possesses and the triumph of lawless savagery.25
Ovids retributions, too, are enhanced as they carry over to the stage. Far worse
than Philomel you usd my daughter, fumes Titus, and worse than Procne I will
be revengd (V.ii.194 5). In this and other passages, Titus doubles many of
Philomelas more memorable scenes, as Barkan reflects: Craftier than Tereus, worse
than Philomel, better than Philomel, worse than Procne: this is mythology viewed in
the competitive mode . . . . Not one rapist but two, not one murdered child but five,
not one or two mutilated organs but six, not a one-course meal but a two.26 Each
stage of revenge is piled atop each other, until the play culminates in a body count
that staggers even Elizabethan numbers. Within a mere twenty lines, four of the
remaining seven principal cast members are murdered in quick succession. Nobody is
spared from death by a convenient deus ex machina that transforms them into birds
and lets them fly from their fates. In Shakespeares world, wrongdoers must be
punished for their sinfulness. In his refusal to allow escape, he trumps Ovids finale
and adds a concrete ending to the unreality of his predecessor. In reality, people
cannot easily flee from the disaster they have wrought upon themselves. It is only
fitting for Shakespeares characters to be forced to linger in their pit of human
cruelty. The birds do return in Titus, but only in the form of extra suffering, as
Tamora is condemned to be thrown from the city walls, for beasts and birds
to prey (V.iii.198). The effect is a spiral of references, each leading deeper into
darkness.
A Silencing of Reason
To successfully implement such monstrous brutality, Shakespeare first needs to
eliminate the whispers of morality that would otherwise prevent his characters from
completely submitting to their inner darkness. It becomes essential to mute the
good ones, and this silencing becomes a major factor. Ovid faced the same
challengea natural theme in any plot that involves the literal removal of a principal
characters tongueyet the effect is considered in vastly differing ways in the two
versions. Where Ovid produced a tragedy of characters reacting based on primal
instinct alone, Shakespeare forces those in his adaptation to take responsibility. In
Titus, characters fully understand the possible consequences to their crimes and

25
26

Miola, 88.
Barkan, 244.

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simply choose to ignore them through silence, which makes the play more ghastly in
the process.
Titus characters go as far as to learn from their predecessors mistakes. When Ovid
writes of the maiden Philomelas rape, he provides no explanation for Tereus
motivation aside from a mad, barbarian lust that overtakes him upon first sight of
her. The attraction merely exists for the sake of existing, and the lack of given logic
makes Tereus seem simple and animalistic. Arthur Golding translates this
instantaneous hunger as a burning in his desire / As if a man should chaunce to
set a gulfe of corne on fire / Or burne a stacke of hay,27 which Shakespeare parodies
with his own clueless rapists. First thresh the corn, echoes Demetrius as the boys
are about to violate Lavinia, then after burn the straw (II.iii.123). Demetrius
unintentional Ovidian imitation reflects not only the image of a ravished body being
mutilated after abuse, but a base, carnal desire. Catharine R. Stimpson adds that
Shakespeare warns his audience about breakdowns in the boundaries on male
sexuality, showing rapists as vicious and out of control,28 but misses the key element
of control Shakespeare adds to the speech. In his lust, Ovids Tereus experiences a
chaunce occurrence; few farmers would find much merit in burning their own
hay. However, Demetrius mentions a deliberate act: first tend to the crop, then
destroy the remains. Tereus rapes because he knows no better; the Goth princes
rape is both premeditated and enjoyed every step of the way. If anything,
Shakespeares choice to create self-awareness in the rape sequence reveals direct
control over irrationality. Tereus is a slave to his infantile, dim-witted emotion, and
in that way can escape some of the blame for his actions, since perhaps he
understands no better. Demetrius and Chiron are quite vocal about their sadistic joy
in understanding the pain they cause their victim, and this outspokenness makes
Shakespeares treatment still more chilling. Jonathan Bate presents the wellfounded theory that Shakespeare is in fact less subtle than this. He argues that
though the two Goths are often characterized as witless Tereuses with no common
sense, they are able to use Ovid as a guide. Not only are they more aware of their
actions, but they also use their Ovidian studies as a guidebook to perfect their own
art. Bate expands:
What Chiron and Demetrius have learnt from their reading of the classics at school
is not integer vitae [The secret to being upright in (ones) way of life, a
philosophy from Horace (Odes, I.xxii.1)], but some handy information about how
a rape victim was able to reveal the identity of her attacker. . . . What is the point of
a humanist education if, instead of instilling in you integer vitae, it makes you
into a craftier Tereus? The word that is etched upon the memory . . . is not
integer but Stuprum, not integrity but rape. It is one of Shakespeares darkest
thoughts.29

27

Golding, VI.582 4.
Stimpson, 62.
29
Bate, 107 8.
28

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With this reading, Chiron and Demetrius use Ovids poem as a stepping stone.
Though they could not imagine a rape on their own, they are able to use their
schooling to help them perfect the act. They have learned no morals from their
schooling; instead, they have found the Philomela story as a blueprint on how to not
be caught. The knowledge of Tereus downfall is what leads them to cut off Lavinias
hands, further proving that the brothers were fully aware and responsible for their
actions.
After affixing more blame upon his rapists, Shakespeare can no longer expect his
audience to believe that such purposeful plotting could be reserved for a random act
of violence. Philomela does nothing to deserve her mutilation, and Shakespeare takes
care to remedy this quickly in his adaptation by giving her a character that tempts
fate and defies the boundaries of reasonable defiance. Lavinia, Titus Philomela, is
more than a silent object in beautie . . . rich.30 Before her voice is stilled, she is a
fiery, perhaps even nasty girl quick to point out the flaws of others. Tis thought you
have a goodly gift at horning, she smugly quips to Tamora as she and Bassianus
stumble upon the Goth Queens affair with Aaron (II.iii.67). Though her place as a
protagonist makes one wish to paint her as a heroine, the acidic way Lavinia speaks
tells another story. She has no concept of decorum in her speech, and remains unable
to keep from flaunting her sharp tongue until Chiron vows to stop [her] mouth
(II.iii.185). Where the removal of Philomelas tongue serves a purely utilitarian
purpose to keep her from naming her assailant, Lavinias potential cleverness is a
threat which simply must be silenced. The removal of her tongue accomplishes much
more for Shakespeare than merely raping old texts to match a new vogue. Hers is the
voice that points out Tamoras flaws and infidelities, and for that transgression
Tamora requests that her sons murder Lavinia. They stop short of that, however,
choosing to transform her into one who can only wound . . . with sighing (III.ii.15)
because, as Emily Detmer-Goebel stresses, although she does not say no, Lavinia
depends on her voice to plead against the rape: yet Shakespeare makes Lavinia a poor
pleader.31 She implores the dehumanized Goths to not learn [Tamoras] wrath
and to be to me . . . something pitiful (II.iii.143, 155 6), but they are far too lost in
the lust for cruelty to remember pity. Here, she is finally interested in defending
herself from rape, begging that her captors hear me but a word (II.iii.138), but she
goes voiceless in metaphor before she is physically muted, and her verse, while quite
lovely and ladylike, is rendered ineffectual. The consensus of criticism agrees that
Lavinia gives the wrong argument to the wrong audience.32 Even when she finds
her voice, her audience will not hear her speak (II.iii.137), and she is robbed of
agency before her tongue can be literally silenced. In practical terms, says Jane
Hiles, speaking without being heard is tantamount to being unable to speak.33
30

Golding, VI.579.
Detmer-Goebel, 80.
32
Clark Hulse quoted in Detmer-Goebel, 81.
33
Hiles, 73.
31

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Where Philomelas rape continues to be the driving force behind Ovids plot,
Shakespeare continues to carry the thematic silence by squashing further mention of
it until later in his play. Once Lavinia has been defiled, the word rape loses
meaning to those around her. After Marcus discovers her, he volunteers the
suggestion that some Tereus hath deflowered thee (II.iv.26), and Lavinia turnst
away [her] face for shame (II.iv.28). However, as Detmer-Goebel argues, in
demurely hiding her shame, Lavinia misses the chance to confirm her rape.34 It is
the first and last time rape is considered; even though, as Gail Kern Paster reflects,
the blood flowing from Lavinias mutilated mouth stands for the vaginal wound
that cannot be staged or represented.35 Instead, Marcus never again suggests rape as
a precursor to her ravishing, even to her father. Ovids Procne is told that Philomela
had died to keep anyone from uncovering her rape. Lavinia is not as fortunate; she
remains a visible presence to aid Shakespeares gruesome unpleasantness, and her
rape is instead simply forgotten until she herself draws an Ovidian parallel by flailing
at the pages of Ovid to express herself. She needs Ovid to speak for her, and Marcus
to point out that she is still capable of a form of writing. Through the loss of speech,
Lavinia becomes incapable of even basic human communication, and, for the short
while until others prod her back into motion, the Goth brothers plan to improve
Tereus tactic is a success.
Lavinias is not the only tongue removed. In the spirit of expanding on Ovids
primary themes, Shakespeare has added innocent victims in droves. He magnifies the
vision of Tereus and Procnes son begging for his life, holding up his handes, and
crying mother, mother.36 The young son Itys is kept from comprehending the
circumstances upon which he dies, and his sacrifice is a pitiable event. In
Shakespeares version, the senseless deaths begin before the first act, as Titus first
twenty-one sons are made casualties of a war with the Goths that seems senseless the
moment their former queen Tamora is crowned Roman Empress. Since they died in
honors lofty bed (III.i.11), nobody questions that their sacrifices were noble. Yet,
when Tamora begs for Alarbus life, questioning why her sons must be slaughtered
in the streets / For valiant doings in their countrys cause (I.i.112 13), her logic is
ignored. Alarbus is condemned by an archaic ritual that creates examples from
defeated warriors; he is martyred simply for having been born in the wrong
country. But it would be useless to speculate on which early death means more: none
had to die at all. Mutius death is equally senseless. He battles his father to the death
for his sisters happiness, yet his murder does not resolve the resolution of Saturninus
and Bassianus feud. The parties involved solve their problems independently of his
corpse, leaving the innocent Mutius to mutely decompose among a pile of his
brothers nameless bodies. Though his death is slightly more meaningful, Bassianus is
killed cheaply, seemingly for the express purpose of raising the body count. His death
34

Detmer-Goebel, 83.
Quoted in Little, 30.
36
Golding, VI.810.
35

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is a mere precursor to Lavinias mutilation. He becomes a mere dead trunk Chiron


and Demitrius plan to use as pillow to [their] lust (II.iii.130). The shock value of
his death serves as a gateway to prepare the audience for Lavinias brutalization.
Arthur L. Little explains that it absorbs the language and impact of Lavinias
rape.37 It is Bassianus blood that is like to a slaughtered lamb (II.iii.223), but he is
left to remain as a corpse more than a symbol of lost innocence. He dies to prepare
the spectator for Lavinias fate, and to be the foundation for Quintus and Martius
eventual beheading.
Titus sons lives ultimately mean almost nothing, and all but Lucius and his boy
are systematically killed, perpetually carrying the image of Procnes innocent child.
Parents plead for their sons, but all fail to be effective because they all fall wide of the
mark, says Hiles.38 Each death becomes so mired in the senselessness of the one
before that murders become simply gratuitous and unfounded. The multiplied
filicide only succeeds in numbing the impact of each act. Titus cannot pity Tamora
because he has lost so many sons of his own, so later Tamora refuses to pity him as he
lies in the streets begging for leniency toward Martius and Quintus. It is a remarkable
shift from Ovids world, where atrocities are committed in the throes of passion
without the aid of reasonable thought. Shakespeare allows time to elapse between
dead sons, and this gives both parents time to harden and grow cold. Murders in this
setting are much more unsettling because they are so carefully premeditated.
A Wilderness of Tigers
To be completely faithful to his expansion of Ovid, Shakespeare is forced to take on
the challenge of replicating some sort of metamorphosis, a task nearly impossible to
convey onstage. Once she has been avenged, Philomela is free to mutate into a
nightingale. Lavinia, though suitably mutilated, is unable to undergo a true physical
transformation. However, not all transformations must be flashy bits of fantasy. In
fitting with Titus blackness, transformation is not the physical manifestation of a
spirit released from the burden of a humanity gone sour; rather, it is the metaphorical
rotting and alteration of ones soul. This is nowhere more obvious than it is in the
complex characterization of Lavinia and Tamora. Though the two are superficially
separated by the line between savage Goth and gentle victim, both women take
the roles of Philomela and Procne, and both mirror their precursors descent into
animalism.
In the case of Lavinia, Shakespeares alterations to Ovid provide subtle warnings of
the vicious transformation to come. Aside from the obvious Philomela references,
Lavinia is portrayed as a character capable of innocence and purity, but also
remarkable cruelty. Taylor suggests this is a reflection of a trait carried over from her
Roman upbringing. He presents the example of the iron Roman, describing them
37
38

Little, 28.
Hiles, 62.

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first as merciless, performing human sacrifice, without compunction, [and]


malicious, and later as too proud to acknowledge the harshness and flaws in
their nature.39 Though a sense of political propriety prevents Lavinia from baring
this side at first, a series of events quickly erodes her attempts to adhere to traditional
passivity. Elizabethan women were possessions first, and people distantly second.
Some of the earliest European statutory laws equated sexual assault with kidnapping,
since both entailed the damaging of property.40 Though rape and abduction were
beginning to be distinguished as separate entities through a series of court cases,
Lavinias place as a material good is clearly defined when she is forced to suffer not
one, but two humiliating rapes. Her first violation becomes the centre of Saturninus
struggle with Bassianus, but she plays an absent role in the battle over her. As
Detmer-Goebel elaborates, who raped Lavinia from whom is unclear, but it never
becomes a question of he said, she said.41 Lavinia has given herself to Bassianus,
but her father has given her to Saturninus. Her voice is silenced by propriety before
she can speak in her own defence. She requires the help of her brothers argument,
and only when Marcus explains that the prince in justice seizeth but his own is
Bassianus initial claim substantiated (I.i.282). In this, her first rape, Lavinia is given
the option to object, but chooses to abide in polite silence, sith true nobility /
Warrants . . . princely courtesy (271 2). Stimpson reflects that because in
Shakespeare only well-born women are raped, their violation becomes one of
property status, and symbolic worth as well. The greater these values, the greater the
sense of power their conquest confers upon the rapist.42 When Lavinia restrains her
true nature, she is simply a pawn trapped within the brothers power struggle, and
her polite consent degrades her status from person to spoil of war. Though she begins
as Philomelas mirror, embracing social laws dictating that she exist solely as an
armpiece, this preliminary rape distinguishes her, allowing her to reveal herself as a
character capable of biting wit, coloured, as Taylor emphasizes, by the time in which
[she] live[s] . . . with its ceaseless wars, treachery, and bloodletting . . . akin to the Iron
Age when the world was possessed by the children of blood.43 In this light,
Lavinias self-righteousness when engaging Tamora and Aaron becomes not only an
assertion of her individuality as a strong woman, but also for her delight in verbally
abusing those around her. This short-lived release makes her next rape far more
damaging.
When Lavinia loses her tongue and hands, her humanity falls away like a dead
husk. Taylor cites the graphic scene depicting the murder of Chiron and Demetrius as
proof that Lavinias transformation has become irreparable. She may be mute and
limited in what she can do physically, he reasserts, but when she and her father
have her loathsome rapists bound and gagged before them, she does not show a
39

Taylor, 75.
Detmer-Goebel, 76.
41
Ibid., 78.
42
Stimpson, 58.
43
Taylor, 75.
40

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vestige of mercy.44 Taylors reading gives us a troubling image of Lavinia working as


a sous chef in preparation for Titus gory feast. This follows in Philomelas footsteps,
as Lavinias active participation displays a loss in her. In her willingness to take
revenge upon those who have wronged her, she cannot see that she herself crosses the
line. In helping to destroy her enemy, she has become her enemy, and adopted all the
savagery the position entails. When Titus murders her, the reason given is that she
should not survive her shame (V.iii.41), but dramatically it is because she, like the
Goths and her father himself, has become a beast and must be slain.
Though Lavinias transformation from woman to monster is subtly nuanced, it is
not the only example of metamorphosis in Titus. Tamora is the one whom Lavinia
decries as a beastly creature for possessing no grace and no womanhood
(II.iii.182). She is a ravenous tiger (V.iii.195), who began as a peculiarly civilized
queen. Before her rage consumes her, she struggles to hold her nobility despite the
barbarian label placed upon her. When she pleads for Alarbus life, her appeals are
genuine and eloquent. She is subsequently ripped from her eldest boy, and the
emotional gouging festers until she slowly transforms into the essence of feral rage. As
in the case of Procne before her, Tamoras loss sends her spiralling into criminal
madness, beginning from the moment she vows to make them know what tis to let
a queen / Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain (I.i.455 6). This sets off the
chain of events that piles tragedy upon tragedy, as Shakespeare agrees with Ovids
implied sentiment that madness in a woman results in madness for society.
Yet, in Tamora we also find an attempt on Shakespeares part to limit the
beastliness displayed onstage. For all of Tamoras villainy, she is still a mere
woman, and in that sense, another extension of Philomela. Tamora is allowed to keep
her tongue, but her voice is still mute when forced to engage with men. She lacks any
sort of autonomy when she is first presented, and is imprisoned before her
introduction; for a queen, this act alone is a sort of social violation. She is on her
knees when we meet her, begging to halt the impending execution of her son in an
argument Hiles calls founded on [Tamoras] erroneous assumption of shared
interests.45 She manages to forget her newfound place as a prisoner, which
invalidates her oratory in the eyes of her captors, human and reasonable as her words
may be. She is unaccustomed to this lack of agency in the patriarchal society into
which she has been thrust, and assumes that her conquerors will place her sons lives
on the same level as their own. Oh, if to fight for kind and commonweal / Were
piety in thine, she wails, it is in these (I.i.114 15). Yet, she fails to realize that she
is in no position to argue, and Hiles continues to note that her analogy intends a
comparison with the living, but it serves only to remind Titus of the slain and of the
justness with which he may claim Alarbus life.46 She never quite realizes that she
cannot survive as her own person in this bleak world; John P. Cutts notes what
44

Ibid., 76.
Hiles, 63.
46
Ibid., 64.
45

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ironic justice it is . . . [that] she is a shadowy empress to Saturnine but a substantive


slave to Aaron, whose letter and word of promise she carries too intimately.47 Even
as she manipulates the Roman legal system, she is, as Aaron describes, a prisoner
held, fettered in amorous chains and faster bound to Aarons charming eyes / Than is
Prometheus tied to Caucasus (II.i.15 17). Lavinias rape is his initial idea, as is the
framing of Quintus and Martius. She is merely the vessel through which he operates,
a body to carry his messages and a womb to bear his child. After she carries his dark
heir, she tries in vain to have the baby murdered and re-establish some semblance of
control over her relationship with its father. Aaron denies her the opportunity to
dethrone his successor, and robs her of her power over her body, the last remaining
bit of autonomy she possesses. The only time she is left to her own devices to plot and
scheme, wherein she disguises herself as Revenge, results in the assassination of her
two remaining sons. She persists in maintaining the ruse even after Titus has
informed her on four separate occasions that he sees through her poor disguise
(V.ii.26 7, 64 5, 84, 98 109), but she cannot fathom the irony. As Elizabeth Truax
notes, [Shakespeares] purpose is . . . to create a world on the stage, where men and
women undergo transformations that are not the work of some amorous god, but the
result of actions of their own which are sometimes foolish, sometimes heroic.48
Tamora is the designated tiger, but her initial transformation comes so early that she
must be contained and fed to wild birds rather than becoming the bird herself.
Humour in the Grotesque
Beyond the similar plot structure and borrowed characters, Shakespeares most
important alteration of the Ovidian framework arrives in an unlikely form. In
perhaps one of his darkest, most daring literary manoeuvres, Shakespeare also
manages to find the humour hiding beneath the belly of the borrowed plot, and in
turn transforms his audience. Where Ovids narrator made detached commentary
marvelling on the fantastical nature of the subject he could scarcely dare believe,49
Shakespeare continually seems to embrace the disaster. Handle not the theme, to
talk of hands / Lest we remember still that we have none, quips Titus in the dining
room scene which far too many critics decry as superfluous (III.ii.29 30). It is not an
attempt to humanize unlikable characters as some suggest, but rather a showcase of
how acceptable it has become to laugh at them. Natalia Pikli clarifies that our
detachment cannot be helped . . . . We watch suffering from the outside, the
boundaries between us and the suffering hero [are] clearly felt, and we cannot help
an uncomfortable urge to laugh.50 We know the laughter is misplaced discomfort,
but cannot help a nervous chuckle at Quintus and Martius heads, Titus jokes about
his lost hand, and the image of a handless Lavinia obediently carrying her fathers
47

Cutts, 64.
Truax, 11.
49
Golding, VI.717.
50
Pikli, 52.
48

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severed hand in her teeth. This is a phenomenon so common that Harold Bloom
notes two separate Titus performances wherein audiences never quite knew when to
be horrified and when to laugh, rather uneasily.51 We can laugh because, as Dieter
Mehl stresses, Shakespeare distances us from the horrifying events by rhetorical
virtuosity and self-conscious artifice, to remove them from any idea of immediate
personal experience.52 By making his situations more grotesque than Ovids simple,
straightforward style, Shakespeare begins to alienate his audience from his characters
pathos. This is all intentionally designed with a different metamorphosis in mind.
The transformation of the audience begins with the lesser Tereus, combined in the
caricatures of paltry Chiron and Demetrius. They are bumbling at best, and imbecilic
at worst, wholly incapable of effective wrongdoing without outside provocation. They
revel in the act of goading the helpless Lavinia to go home, call for sweet water,
[and] wash thy hands, even though she hath no tongue to call, no hands to wash
(II.iv.6 7). Their mocking is cruel, but bears irony traditionally associated with
comedy. Pikli goes on to address this more fully:
These petty villains use (and release) a petty form of dark laughter. Joking at their
victims expense, they transgress a strongly held taboo. What is disturbing about
their jokes is that at times we are apt to laugh with them, and share in this brutal
taunting; the id, as Freud observed, has no inhibitions and tends to enjoy the
liberation of repressed desires in the villains black wit. . . . The disturbing aspect of
their jokes is that we do not dare to laugh since then we would sink to their level,
and become joking rapists and murderers.53

The concept of an audience growing emotionally bankrupt presents a frightening


possibility to a conservative like Bloom, who decries the plays fans as people
suffering from sadomasochism.54 What he fails to understand is that the horrors
are deliberately committed to invoke a perfectly classical catharsis. When Chiron and
Demetrius are captured and slaughtered like pigs, justice is served before horror is
considered. They are dead, and the spectators may rest easily once the temptation to
blissful, joy-filled evil is removed. Their deaths are a universal relief for an audience
that has been led down far deeper into personal darkness than it would prefer to
admit. The final purging of the remaining cast simply completes this metaphorical
exorcism. All of Titus cast have become inhumanly monstrous, including the last son
Lucius who is almost delighted to attempt to hang [Aarons] child, a mute baby
not yet capable of guilt (V.i.47). These characters tap into a darkness inherent in
everyone, and the lesson becomes art simply because it helps us come to terms with
an inner darkness that exists whether or not a person chooses to notice it. Tereus is
unquestionably cruel, but the emotional cleansing he provides pales beside Titus cast
of intricate malevolence.
51

Bloom, 77.
Mehl, 16.
53
Pikli, 54.
54
Bloom, 79.
52

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Though Shakespeares Titus is unashamed of its root in Ovidian myth, it is


important to note that the play is an homage rather than a plagiarism. As Bate has
articulately noted, an imitation is not a slavish copy.55 Titus Andronicus is
Shakespeares ode to his past. It is a reply to traditional schooling, displaying his
knowledge without sacrificing his creativity. His choice of the Philomela myth was no
happy accident. Titus is Shakespeare working to cash in on his audiences demand for
revenge tragedy while consciously exploring the highest degrees of human hypocrisy.
The pious Lucius threatens to murder the baby Aaron fiercely attempts to preserve,
proving that no hero is completely virtuous here, nor is any villain completely lacking
compassion. Despite some critics assertions decrying Titus as an explosion of
rancid irony carried well past the limits of parody,56 the blurred line between good
and evil makes a stronger statement than the final scenes bloodbath. With an
Ovidian blueprint to guide him, Shakespeare created a multifaceted world where all
characters accuse one another of acting the part of bestial savages, though all share
the role. It is bleak to envision a world without goodness, but the play never holds
itself as a model upon which one would preach morality. That is not Shakespeares
style, as Taylor proves when he notes that Shakespeare was no lover of puritans.57
Instead, Shakespeare embraces Ovids vision of humanity existing a small degree
away from the animal world. Much of the point of the piece is to force an audience to
question its own hypocritical and violent nature, using Ovid to segue into selfexploration. Titus characters both condemn and condone barbarous actions,
underlining the universality of a persons dark side. This is the Philomela that
Shakespeare knows, and his recreation is a labour of love that shares his passion with
the world.
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