Revenge is a clear theme in Titus Andronicus. In fact, one could argue that it is the main theme given that nearly every major character in the play exacts revenge on an enemy at some point. What is most interesting, perhaps, is how the modes, circumstances, and enactments of revenge for different groups of characters correlate to stereotypes about their ethnicities when the play was written, as well as how they correlate with their relations to the narrative as protagonists and antagonists. When viewed in this way, a spectrum of behavior emerges with Aaron the Moore at one end, cold and outrageously impious, the animalistic and barbaric Goths in the middle, and Titus the cold, efficient, pious Roman at the other end. There is no arguing that all of these characters are monstrous in their actions and plots, but the ways in which they reveal their individual monstrosities are indicative of their individual nationalities and places within the narrative of the play.
Titus Andronicus can be clearly defined as pious in the way he seeks and enacts revenge on his enemies. The first act of revenge in the play, in the first act and scene, Titus replies to Tamora’s pleas for her son Alarbus’ life by callously asking her to calm herself. He then explains matter-of-factly that the sacrifice of her eldest son is religiously required in payment to the 21 sons he lost fighting against the Goths. Tamora’s reply, “O cruel irreligious piety!” is an early casting of Titus’ behavior throughout the play. According to the Oxford English Dictionary Online, “irreligious” has several meanings, but Titus Andronicus is cited there under definition 2, which defines irreligious as, “Believing in, practicing, or pertaining to a false religion.” Though we don’t implicitly know which religion Tamora adheres to which would fully explain her claim that the sacrifice of her son was the practice of a false religion, the fact remains that she can’t deny Titus admitting that he does follow that false religion of his to the letter, to the point of calculated, ceremonial barbarism. This fits with the image of Romans as efficient and calculating in all that they do, from building the intricately detailed and beautiful city of Rome to their extravagant and meticulous religious observances, their somewhat democratic governing system, and especially the way that their armies behave, the mechanical way in which they march, fight, and even construct forts and battlements. Compared to, say, the Goths and the Moors, the Romans surely seem the most civilized, no matter how violent and cruel their society or religion could be.
This establishment of Titus as being pious to a fault is meant to be morbidly endearing to the audience, who has of course knowingly attended a revenge tragedy. Though the character of Titus is not fully revealed until after he has buried his dead sons lovingly and honorably, greeted his daughter Lavinia warmly and then promptly given her to Saturninus despite her being promised to Bassianus, and finally killing one of his four surviving sons in a heated conversation, disputing his honorable burial, and then relenting. Titus does every one of these things out of a sense of duty to Rome and to the gods thereof, forsaking the love of his daughter and his son’s life to honor his duty to Saturninus. This cements Titus as the protagonist, reliable and consistently attempting to do the right thing even if it is horrible and even if doing the right thing means doing nothing despite wanting to and feeling justified in wanting to. When Martius and Quintus are carted off to be executed for the crimes of the Goths, Titus takes no action but to plead mercy from the tribunes, and then from the stones, while hot headed Lucius acts out the vigilante justice of a less pious man and is banished for it. When Lavinia finally reveals that Chiron and Demetrius were her attackers, Titus only sends them a message with a gift and then has his brother and his kinsman fire arrows with messages pleading the to the gods for justice into Saturninus’ courtyard, hardly the justice that the audience wants Titus to have.
It is not until the very end that Titus has his revenge, and that revenge fits with everything thus far established about him. It must be noted that if Titus was exemplary in his piety for appealing to the gods for justice rather than acting rashly, then it could be interpreted that his piety was rewarded and his appeals answered when Tamora and her sons show up at Titus’ house, almost ironically calling herself “revenge,” and her sons “rape” and “murder,” the crimes which they committed against Lavinia and Bassianus (5.2.30-62) . Even in the way that he kills Chiron and Demetrius, Titus remains frighteningly cold and methodical. “Let them hear what fearful words I utter” Titus says, as he proceeds to list their crimes, describe how he will slice their throats, and how Lavinia will collect their blood in order to make a pie with their heads and ground bones (5.3.167-204) . Then he quietly slits their throats and prepares to make the pie which he will feed to Tamora and Saturninus. Somewhat unexpectedly, before revealing the contents of the meal and killing Tamora, Titus cites the story of Virginius who killed his raped daughter to save her from the shame, presumably to establish a moral precedent, and then kills Lavinia in front of the dinner party. This continues the theme of cruel piety from Titus right up until the end, when he kills Tamora and begins the chain of events that leave Titus and Saturninus dead and Lucius as the Emperor, arguably for the better. Even in his last acts, Titus clung to his piety and it set him above the other characters as the protagonist and intended favorite of the audience, even though his revenge was unprecedentedly vicious.
In contrast to Titus Andronicus and even his less than perfectly pious family members, the Goths, Tamora, Chiron, and Demetrius are not concerned with religious or patriotic piety, but rather with survival and barbaric justice at any cost and by any means. They are, from the second act where their behavior is documented at length on, depicted as predatory animals. When Aaron breaks up an increasingly violent brawl between Chiron and Demetrius, they turn to plotting the rape of Lavinia, and speak of her in terms of hunting a doe, as Chiron asks, “What, hast not thou full often struck a doe / And borne her cleanly by the keeper’s nose?” (2.1.93-94) . In act two, scene three, as Lavinia begs Tamora to save her from the rape and mutilation that Chiron and Demetrius have in store for her, she refers to Tamora as a mother tiger, and when Tamora refuses her pleas for the last time, Lavinia calls her a “beastly creature.” When Lucius finds Titus pleading to the stones, Titus refers to Rome as a “wilderness of tigers” and his family as their only prey (3.1.53-54) . In the final lines of the play, Tamora is referred to again as a “ravenous tiger” by Lucius and she is denied a burial, thrown back to nature like an animal (5.3.194) . This repeated reference to predatory animals and the barbaric, rash behavior that the Goths exhibit is consistent with notions of who the Goths were around the time Titus Andronicus was written and performed. The OED shows that 70 years after the play was first performed, Goth could be defined as, “One who behaves like a barbarian; a rude, uncivilized, or ignorant person; one devoid of culture” (OED, Online, s.v. “Goth” 2) . These Goths in the play are meant to be seen as wild people, predatory, animalistic, and reactionary.
By casting the Goths as uncivilized, inferior animals, the audience can distinguish between the Goths and a character like Aaron, no matter how despicable the nature of their revenge is. In fact the barbaric nature of the murder of Bassianus and the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, motivated as much if not more by lust than by desire for justice, goes to support the idea that these less civilized people lack the intelligence and focus of a character like Titus or Aaron in exacting meaningful revenge. They do not act symbolically or within the law so that they could act publicly, rather when they cut off Lavinia’s hands and cut out her tongue, it is for the purpose of preventing her from identifying them. Titus, on the other hand, plans his revenge so that it coincides with public justice, while Aaron receives Titus’ hand in such a way that no legal retribution is possible while Saturninus is Emperor. These actions denote forethought and cunning. While the Goths are to be detested and scorned for their animalistic behavior, there is also a degree of pity for them, of course they were brought to Rome as prisoners after the conquest of their homeland. While they are certainly antagonistic in the narrative of the play, they are more like the puppets of the main antagonist, the cold, efficient, and cunning polar opposite of pious Andronicus: Aaron the Moor.
Aaron is a caricature of a cunning devil that delights in doing evil for evil’s sake while amassing power through manipulation and trickery. In his soliloquy at the beginning of act two, he lets it be known that he intends to ascend to the top of Mt. Olympus, the seat of power of the Roman gods, by seducing Tamora now that she is Empress of Rome and using her to gain power, “I will be bright, and shine in pearl and gold / To wait upon this new-made empress” (2.1.19-20) . He is not concerned with piety, quite the opposite in fact. Aaron is concerned, inexplicably it seems, with being impious to the most extreme degree possible. We see this in his behavior throughout the play, as he is the mastermind of Lavinia’s rape and mutilation, of Quintus and Martius being framed and executed, and of the forfeiture of Titus’ hand. It isn’t as if any of this behavior is motivated by the desire for justice in retribution for some other wrongdoing. Aaron is never really wronged during the play, in fact he suffers no visible loss and only gains immeasurably by the loss of Tamora’s eldest son, her marriage to Saturninus, and her desire for revenge which blinds her to Aaron’s control over her and her impressionable, animalistic sons. Aaron seems to benefit from the situation regardless of what happens to Titus or his family, and yet Aaron comes up with the plan to write the note, hide the gold, and lead the Emperor to the hole containing Quintus, Martius, and the corpse of Bassianus. Aaron’s only apparent motive in the play is that he is a particularly impious Moor, as intelligent and shrewd as Titus but bereft of the Roman’s positive qualities. He describes himself to Tamora in act two, scene three, as having his desires governed by Saturn, making him vicious, moody, and cold.
In Aaron the audience is given the perfect antagonist against whom to root in the revenge of Titus and his family. Moors would likely be an unknown and safely vilified minority in England in the 1590’s, and his behavior is so brazenly unapologetic and even proud that the audience is really given no choice but to hate him. At several points he makes statements of purpose which reveal no actual purpose but to do evil and impious deeds, “Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace: / Aaron will have his soul black like his face” (3.1.203-204) . So while Aaron has not been visibly wronged to the audience, he persists in exacting revenge on Titus Andronicus, and when Tamora has his baby, an extension of himself, he selfishly flees with and leaves the Goths to their own devices, which doesn’t end well for them minus his guidance. When he is finally caught, Aaron shows no remorse; in fact he does the exact opposite. After confessing to Lucius on the condition that his child not be harmed, he proclaims that he laments the fact that though he has done “a thousand dreadful deeds” he “cannot do ten thousand more” (5.1.141-144) .
Titus the pious Roman, the barbaric and animalistic Goths, and Aaron the impious and evil Moor all have the same goal in mind; namely to enact revenge on their enemies. It is the way in which each group goes about achieving that goal that says a great deal about how these different groups were understood and presented at the time that Shakespeare was writing the play, and what roles those groups were inherently destined to play by their assumed natures when juxtaposed in a revenge narrative. Positive Roman attitudes toward piety and religiousness seem to be correlated with civilized thinking, and while barbarous behavior lacking any concern for piety is presented as uncivilized and fatalistic, it is still a step up in the moral hierarchy to the purposefully impious thinking of the Moorish villain. By using common stereotypes of ancient history, the play uses 3 different ethnic groups both to help distinguish 3 different kinds of revenge and to favor one (civilized Roman) while discouraging the others (wicked animalistic barbarians). Of course nobody in the play seems to have learned their lesson, as the final lines involve burying a man to starve him to death and throwing out a woman’s corpse to be eaten by birds. But I suppose in showbiz then as now, one has to give the people what they want, whether it makes sense or not.
OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. 7 February 2013. Web.
Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. The Norton Shakespeare. 2nd edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New York, 2008. 408-463. Print.