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A Close Reading of Titus Andronicus



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    Titus – Seeing the Dark Side of the Moon

    Titus Andronicus is a study of the conflict between personal responsibilities and duty to the state. Shakespeare establishes the character of Titus early in the play. He is a loyal subject of Rome, a commander of legions, and a career soldier who devoted his life to defending and expanding the Roman Empire. Titus serves the state in such blind loyalty that it gets to the point of neglecting his duty to his family as a father and patriarch. Throughout the play, from the triumph parade in act 1 scene 1 to the execution of his sons in act 3 scene 1, Titus maintains blind devotion and steadfast loyalty to Rome.

    Act 3 Scene1 is a pivotal scene in the play; it is the moment when Titus goes through changes in heart and mind. In this scene, Titus suffers through the agony of all his losses from the revenge acts of Tamora to the corruption of Rome. In this scene, Titus changes from subject to freeman, proud general to grieving father, giving his first priority to Rome to giving his first priority to family, and from a mind full of hopeless despair to a mind full of hope for revenge. In the first 5 lines, Titus is pleading with the powerful leaders of Rome to stay the execution of his two sons as a reward for his service to Rome, “Hear me, grave fathers! Noble tribunes, stay! / For pity of mine age, whose youth was spent / In dangerous wars, whilst you securely slept; / For all my blood in Rome’s great quarrel shed; / For all the frosty nights that I have watch’d” (3.1.1-5). Obviously, in these five lines Titus is pleading for his sons’ lives. However, looking beyond the words at the whole situation reveals the full impact of this scene.

    Titus had spent his whole adult life in the army. He was the quintessential career military man; he had literally shed his blood for all the values he believed in and the system of order that made those values possible, the Roman Empire. With this in mind, the scene of Titus, the nobleman, the greatest Roman military commander of his time, the most revered man in Rome, pleading in the street, with the Senators for the lives of his sons, has a much deeper and poignant emotional impact. Titus switches from pleading for his sons on the basis of his service to pleading on the basis of his tears, “And for these bitter tears, which now you see / Filling the aged wrinkles in my cheeks; / Be pitiful to my condemned sons, / Whose souls are not corrupted as ’tis thought. / For two and twenty sons I never wept, / Because they died in honor’s lofty bed. / [Andronicus lieth down; the Judges, & c., pass by him, and Exeunt] / For these, these, tribunes, in the dust I write / My heart’s deep languor and my soul’s sad tears” (3.1.6-13). On the surface, we see Titus pleading and crying for his sons’ lives. Beneath the surface, we see Titus making the transformation from Commander to father.

    An investigation of this situation requires the reader to ask, why has this man never cried for his sons’ before and why is he now crying, even mourning intensely? I believe two emotional conditions caused Titus’ deep mourning and tears. First, he has not been able to cry until now. As pointed out in act 1, a commander does not have time to mourn the loss of his sons or soldiers; he must relentlessly pursue the objectives of his campaign; he must repress his emotions. Second, Titus feels betrayed, one of the strongest emotions a man can feel. In a figure of speech, Titus’ emotional dam is bursting. The losses of his sons in battle all bottled up coupled with the current loss of his two sons and the rejection of all the values he holds dear, all build up to a pressure that bursts his ‘dam’ of emotion. He no longer commands legions; duty does not require him put on a face and with this freedom, he is now able to cry. His tears flow freely because he is now the father of his sons rather than the commander of legions. Titus has gone through a change in his priorities. Prior to this emotional experience, Titus’ first priority was always to Rome. From the beginning of the play until the execution of his sons, Titus suppresses his personal feelings and accepts his subjugation to the state. But now, after his sons are unjustly executed and after the emotional experience he has been through, Titus no longer feels loyal to Rome causing his priorities to shift to what is really important, his family.

    It is also important to note that Shakespeare specifically directs that, “Andronicus lieth down”. Most of the time, actions on stage are left to the interpretation of the director and actor, but here Shakespeare directs the action. This is another example of small things making a big difference in the delivery of emotion in the play. This action is necessary because it visually magnifies the emotion and message of the script. Here is Rome’s greatest General, the man whom the Senate elected Emperor (and who refused it), lying face down in the street crying for his sons. It represents more than a man crying for his condemned sons; it conveys, in image, the fall from grace of Titus, from emperor elect, to the lowest possible status, that of being out of favor with the court and viciously pursued. The great Roman general is humiliated to the point of total emotional breakdown. In addition to representing the total downfall of Titus, one may possibly deduce a double meaning from this scene. Titus, as the onetime emperor elect, represents Glorious Rome, the republic, the empire, the values and stability, all embodied in Titus, crying for her sons who are going through a significant downfall.

    In lines 10 and 11 Titus says, “For two and twenty sons I never wept, / Because they died in honour’s lofty bed” (3.1.10-11). Here we get another peek at Shakespeare’s ability to create depth in his characters. In order to expound on Titus’ plight in act 3 scene 1, it is important to address a few lines in act 1 scene 1. In the first scene, Shakespeare develops some of Titus’ values as a soldier and commander. Titus shows sorrow for the loss of his sons in battle, but he does not weep for them. Beginning with line 86, “Titus, unkind and careless of thine own”, and ending with line 95, Titus shows sadness at the loss of his sons. Also in lines 150 thru 156, beginning with, “In peace and honor rest you here, my sons”, Titus, in a pensive moment, remembers his sons who died in battle and reminds himself to inter their bodies.

    The statement, “unkind and careless of thine own”, seems to have two concurrent and complementary meanings. Titus, caught up in the homecoming and victory celebration, is chastising himself. He realizes he has forgotten something much more important, his duty to his sons slain in battle, to honor and bury their remains. In a deeper sense of the lines he shows the first self criticism of how he has spent the blood of his family for the sake of Rome. Up to this point, Titus’ efforts have all gone into the building and safeguarding of Rome, even at the cost of his family. He has been obedient, kind and careful to Rome while being unkind and careless to his own. Titus, now home from years of war, beginning his retirement from military service, no longer needs to repress his feelings and can begin to self evaluate. This is the very first hint Shakespeare gives us that Titus will look inside and masterfully lets us know that it will be the first time he has done so.

    The transition Titus goes through in act 3 scene 1 is the turning point of the play. Enmeshed in an internal conflict between private and public duty, pushed to the extreme, Titus subconsciously evaluates his priorities and emerges a changed man. By experiencing ultimate persecution and despair, Titus changes from a loyal military commander to a patriarch. Becoming a patriarch allows Titus to feel emotions he has suppressed all his adult life. In order for the audience to feel the depth of the extreme emotional experience Titus is going through, Shakespeare develops his complex character in the first two scenes. We know from the start that Titus is a well respected nobleman of Rome and a very successful, very powerful general. However, knowing that alone would not let the audience experience the extent of the misery and transformation Titus goes through in act 3 scene 1. Shakespeare reveals to us the depth of Titus’ character with seemingly minor comments that in fact are very important character clues. Titus’ acts of not mourning the first twenty-two sons lost in battle, and remaining steadfastly loyal to Rome in spite of corruption and persecution, give us the knowledge of character we need to feel the extent of Titus’ misery and the depth of his fall. Having an understanding of the complexity of the character of Titus allows us to do more than see his fall from grace. It allows us to see that his fall is the beginning of a process; a process in which he changes from an unquestioning loyal subject to a freeman and his first priority becomes his family. Because his priorities changed, Titus ceases suppressing his personal feeling and his fatherly emotions surface allowing him to weep for all his pain.

    Although becoming a patriarch is a good thing, the specific way Titus is forced to change leaves a dark stain, a desire for revenge. Knowing the character of Titus, I think it is safe to assume the probability that it would be within his character to have happily lived out his days as a loyal subject, in spite of the corruption, and died in his sleep, the venerated, retired Roman general had they just left his family alone. But his transition from general to father is a dark process and so produces a dark product. Betrayed and pursued, Titus breaks down and feels hopeless. The hopelessness is necessary to get him to drop the mask of loyal roman general but, it stains the process. As a result, when Titus begins to hope, because the process was fouled with bitter emotions, hope spoils and turns into hope for revenge.

    A Close Reading of Titus Andronicus. (2017, Jan 31). Retrieved from

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