Through the history of man kind the issue of civility (being civilized) has been incredible in its divisive powers. In ancient civilizations civility was attributed to nobility, those born into wealthy and upper class families were seen as more civilized while those born without distinction were deemed savage or less than civilized. As humanity has progressed the concept of civility changed from a birthright to a difference of ideology.
This distinction deepened into even more divisive sects with the rise of universal religions like Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam. From this point on one was civilized or savage based purely on belief, a claim that any religion could make against another until the advancements in technology. These religions along with their more advanced technology gave their believers the justification to go out and “civilize” the barbarian non-believers. Technological advancement became the yardstick by which civility was measured.
Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus seriously questions these preconceived ideas of civility. Although, the Roman’s have more advanced technology and stable (Senate) government they fall into the same category of barbarism as the Goth’s because of the violence they partake in and their disloyalty. The kingdom of Rome is known as one of the greatest in ancient history. It was renowned for it’s military might, rich culture, and sheer size. It was also well respected for its great democracy and leadership. Even though the Romans had such developed social systems they fell pray their barbaric tendencies.
Act one of Titus Andronicus gives voice to the major shortcomings of the Roman’s in this play. When the play opens we find Saturninus and Bassianus two sons of Rome bickering in the street over who will be crowned emperor. This debate between the two men while full of decorum underlies the lack of unity. In sharp contrast to the in fighting of the Roman royal family Tamora is can be found pleading for the life of her son to Titus, “But must my sons be slaughter’d in the streets, For valiant doings in their country’s cause? O, if to fight for king and commonweal…
Draw near them then in being merciful: Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge: Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son” (1. 1. 129-136) While the Romans are fighting for power the Goth’s are fighting to save one of their own. Tamora’s case is rather compelling as she appeals to Titus’s nobility. Nobility are considered the height of civilization and should be capable of making objective decisions. Unfortunately Titus elects to take revenge and thus affirming the barbarity of Rome. Alarbus’ murder along with Titus’ refusal of the throne are the inciting incidents for the play.
Titus’ refusal to lead is an odd and disastrous one. I would also argue that it is a barbaric one. The labels of nobility and civility are given to those who concern themselves with the greater good and willing to make sacrifices. While Titus’ decision was intended to be humble it resulted in great loss. Another example of Roman barbarity is their relation to women. The barbaric Gothic culture which Rome is said to be superior to treat women in an identical manner. The character Lavinia is a great example of this identical relation.
The barbarity with which the Goth’s rape and dismember Lavinia manifests itself in Titus when he elects to kill her. After all the pain and melancholy his solution is to kill her. It’s difficult to state which is worse murdering your daughter or raping and dismembering a woman (regardless of the reason). Another example of Roman barbarity is exemplified in the manner which Saturninus and Bassianus deal with women. Saturninus desire to marry Lavinia purely to spit his brother is childish and is certainly below the standard of which an emperor should conduct himself.
Likewise his decision to take Tamora as his queen can be seen in a similar light as uncivilized or barbaric. From a sexual stand point it’s as if the Romans cannot contain their urges in the exact manner the Goths cannot. They treat women with the same misogyny. The final and most prominent example of the barbarity of Rome is the violence it partakes in. Without doubt the most violent actions in the play are the rape and dismemberment of Lavinia, however a close second would be the Roman treatment of Tamora’s sons.
Canabalism is seen as the height of barbarity. Yet this is what Titus resorts when avenging the murder of his sons and the loss of his hand. Making a stew out of human bodies is certainly a great departure from any notion of civility. Titus Andronicus is a play that symbolizes the savagery of human nature. The very desire for revenge that is inherent in human history aligns itself with the idea of man being as uncivilized as animals. Regardless of technology or tradition both the Romans and the Goths are barbarians.
This play in particular presents a very dark critique of contemporary culture. There is much made about censorship and what is and is not acceptable to shown in public. Titus Andronicus honestly depicts the nature of humanity in a way in which we certainly don’t view ourselves now. Despite the violence we see daily in entertainment we don’t consider it a part of our nature. What Titus tells us is despite our technological and intellectual advancements the underlying barbarity of our nature cannot be ignored.