Death, Family and the Virtues of Titus Andronicus

 IntroductionTitus Andronicus was one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays.

It is also part of his collection of so-called Roman plays, which include Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. As such, it contains elements of an Elizabethan understanding of Roman virtues and Roman vices. This paper will attempt to prove that the play Titus Andronicus can be used as a tool to examine the differences in humane behavior as conceived by the Romans and the Greeks.What is “humane behavior”? Humane behavior is often associated with compassion.

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However, compassion can have different meanings in different contexts. Compassion is tied directly to human virtue, and thus concepts of human virtue will give us an idea as how each culture defines compassion.In this case, one must compare the nature of virtue in both Roman and Greek contexts. Since Titus Andronicus is a “Roman” play, it would be interesting to determine if there are any parallels between the play and the works of Roman thinkers and philosophers.

MethodologyThis paper will examine the play Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare, concentrating on two themes that occur throughout the play that relate well to the question of humane behavior. These themes are the perception of death and the importance of family ties. These themes also recur many times in the works of the classical philosophers when it came to the subject of virtue.What the play contains in relation to those themes will then be analyzed alongside writings of Roman philosophers and historians on the same themes.

The purpose of this is to discover if what is written in the play would be a reliable guide to Roman ideas of morality, justice and humane behavior.The next step is to consider the writings of Greek philosophers. Their works will be compared with the play along the same themes in order to compare their similarities and differences. This is to determine if the play can be a reliable guide to the distinctions between Greek and Roman conceptions of morality, justice and humane behavior.

AnalysisDeathDeath abounds in Titus Andronicus. It is rightly considered Shakespeare’s most gore-laden play. In matters pertaining to Roman virtue, there are two scenes of particular interest. The first scene of interest occurs when the Goth queen pleads with Titus for the life of her son after he is singled out for sacrifice to the fallen Roman brethren.

TITUS. Patient yourself, madam, and pardon me.These are their brethren, whom your Goths beheldAlive and dead; and for their brethren slainReligiously they ask a sacrifice.To this your son is mark’d, and die he mustT’ appease their groaning shadows that are gone.

LUCIUS. Away with him, and make a fire straight;And with our swords, upon a pile of wood,Let’s hew his limbs till they be clean consum’d. (I, i, 125-133) In this excerpt, the reader already has a glimpse of old Roman pagan traditions, as known to the Elizabethans of Shakespeare’s time. Why is Titus so eager to deal out death, even in the face of a defeated queen’s pleas? Is it reflective of Roman attitudes towards death? What place does a practice have in the Roman conscience? From the Stoics, we have Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius:It were indeed more happy and comfortable, for a man to depart out of this world, having lived all his life long clear from all falsehood, dissimulation, voluptuousness, and pride.

But if this cannot be, yet it is some comfort for a man joyfully to depart as weary, and out of love with those; rather than to desire to live, and to continue long in those wicked courses. Hath not yet experience taught thee to fly from the plague? For a far greater plague is the corruption of the mind, than any certain change and distemper of the common air can be. This is a plague of creatures, as they are living creatures; but that of men as they are men or reasonable. (Meditations, IX, ii)Death, while something to be feared, was not seen as a dreadful fate.

Inflicting death, therefore, presented a lesser moral conundrum than the appeasement of the immortal soul. The play, then, can be said to portray a semblance of Roman logic in the matter of death. The second scene of interest in the play would bear out this notion that death is not the greatest of evils. The scene is between Lavinia, whose husband has just been murdered by Tamora’s sons and who herself faces the prospect of rape, and Tamora herself.

LAVINIA. O Tamora, be call’d a gentle queen,And with thine own hands kill me in this place!For ’tis not life that I have begg’d so long;Poor I was slain when Bassianus died.TAMORA. What beg’st thou, then? Fond woman, let me go.

LAVINIA. ‘Tis present death I beg; and one thing more,That womanhood denies my tongue to tell:O, keep me from their worse than killing lust,And tumble me into some loathsome pit,Where never man’s eye may behold my body;Do this, and be a charitable murderer. (II, iii, 176-187) The great Roman orator and senator, Marcus Tullius Cicero, in his Tusculan Disputations, elaborates on this while asking if an early death would have been beneficial for his old friend Pompey Magnus.But the question is, had he died, would he have been taken from good, or from evil? Certainly from evil.

He would not have been engaged in a war with his father-in-law; he would not have taken up arms before he was prepared; he would not have left his own house, nor fled from Italy; he would not, after the loss of his army, have fallen unarmed into the hands of slaves, and been put to death by them; his children would not have been destroyed; nor would his whole fortune have come into the possession of the conquerors. Did not he, then, who, if he had died at that time, would have died in all his glory, owe all the great and terrible misfortunes into which he subsequently fell to the prolongation of his life at that time? (Tusculan Disputations, XXXV)The Romans, therefore, can be said to believe that death is not an entirely unjust fate. Death is an escape from evil, and can be a good thing whether it befall friend or foe. The virtuous would rather face death than dishonor, and the compassionate man would rather let another person die than be disgraced.

. In this, the play is faithfully Roman.On the same subject of death, the Greek philosopher Aristotle had this to say:If then we may say the same of Courage, of course death and wounds must be painful to the Brave man and against his will: still he endures these because it is honourable so to do or because it is dishonourable not to do so. And the more complete his virtue and his happiness so much the more will he be pained at the notion of death: since to such a man as he is it is best worthwhile to live, and he with full consciousness is deprived of the greatest goods by death, and this is a painful idea.

But he is not the less Brave for feeling it to be so, nay rather it may be he is shown to be more so because he chooses the honour that may be reaped in war in preference to retaining safe possession of these other goods. (Ethics, III, viii) Here, one can detect a difference with Roman attitudes on death on the part of the Greeks. For the Greeks, death is the most terrible thing to befall a man. Unlike with Cicero (and in the play, Lavinia), death is not an escape hatch from all the misery that could possibly befall one in the world, but an end to all good things, for the dead cannot be virtuous.

  FamilyA second theme that recurs throughout Titus Andronicus is the relationship between family members. Titus Andronicus spends most of the play slowly losing family members, and enduring great anguish while he does. One incident involves Titus Andronicus being offered information on his missing sons for the price of a mutilated hand. He immediately offers his, but one of his sons and his brother raise their hands in offering instead.

AARON. Nay, come, agree whose hand shall go along,For fear they die before their pardon come.MARCUS. My hand shall go.

LUCIUS. By heaven, it shall not go!TITUS. Sirs, strive no more; such with’red herbs as theseAre meet for plucking up, and therefore mine.LUCIUS.

Sweet father, if I shall be thought thy son,Let me redeem my brothers both from death.MARCUS. And for our father’s sake and mother’s care,Now let me show a brother’s love to thee.TITUS.

Agree between you; I will spare my hand.LUCIUS. Then I’ll go fetch an axe.MARCUS.

But I will use the axe.Exeunt LUCIUS and MARCUSTITUS. Come hither, Aaron, I’ll deceive them both;Lend me thy hand, and I will give thee mine. (III, i, 178-193)Love of family is a common Roman sentiment.

Tacitus, a Roman historian, described such virtues approvingly in Germans, reflecting Roman favor for such virtues.Children are holden in the same estimation with their mother’s brother, as with their father. Some hold this tie of blood to be most inviolable and binding, and in receiving of hostages, such pledges are most considered and claimed, as they who at once possess affections the most unalienable, and the most diffuse interest in their family. To every man, however, his own children are heirs and successors: wills they make none: for want of children his next akin inherits; his own brothers, those of his father, or those of his mother.

To ancient men, the more they abound in descendants, in relations and affinities, so much the more favour and reverence accrues. From being childless, no advantage nor estimation is derived. (Tacitus on Germany)During the troubled aftermath of his consulship, Cicero expressed in a letter to his brother that his greatest regret was that he was deprived of time with his own family.I to be angry with you! Is it possible for me to be angry with you? Why, one would think that it was you that brought me low! Your enemies, your unpopularity, that miserably ruined me, and not I that unhappily ruined you! The fact is, the much-praised consulate of mine has deprived me of you, of children, country, fortune; from you I should hope it will have taken nothing but myself.

Certainly on your side I have experienced nothing but what was honourable and gratifying: on mine you have grief for my fall and fear for your own, regret, mourning, desertion. I not wish to see you? The truth is rather that I was unwilling to be seen by you. For you would not have seen your brother—not the brother you had left, not the brother you knew, not him to whom you had with mutual tears bidden farewell as he followed you on your departure for your province: not a trace even or faint image of him, but rather what I may call the likeness of a living corpse. (To Quintus, 15 June 58 BC)It can be seen that love for family is an important aspect of Roman virtue, and that humane behavior towards family was expected.

The character of Titus reflects this love, even if his actions in its name are flawed and lead to further tragedy.Among the Greeks, Plato had this to say about family ties in his masterwork, The Republic:Capital, I said; but let me ask you once more: Shall they be a family in name only; or shall they in all their actions be true to the name? For example, in the use of the word ‘father,’ would the care of a father be implied and the filial reverence and duty and obedience to him which the law commands; and is the violator of these duties to be regarded as an impious and unrighteous person who is not likely to receive much good either at the hands of God or of man? Are these to be or not to be the strains which the children will hear repeated in their ears by all the citizens about those who are intimated to them to be their parents and the rest of their kinsfolk?These, he said, and none other; for what can be more ridiculous than for them to utter the names of family ties with the lips only and not to act in the spirit of them?  (Book V)The Greeks held the same assumptions about reverence owed between members of the family. To desecrate these ties would have been considered impious and unrighteous. In this there is no immediately discernable difference between the Greek and Roman concepts of family sacredness and reverence.

When it comes to this theme, Titus Andronicus is a poor indicator of Greek and Roman difference, if only because there seems little to begin with.ConclusionBased on the works presented, only on the theme of death can Titus Andronicus be of any good use in discerning Greek and Roman differences in matters of virtuous and humane action. When it comes to family, the play’s other great theme, the play is of little use as a tool for discerning difference.The dealing of death within the play can be contextualized through Roman conceptions of death, in which death itself was not so much a grave end as it is a means to escape evil and corruption.

In this, the play can be used as a tool to discern the difference between this Roman concept with that of the Greeks, who viewed death as a great evil that ends the capacity for virtue.When it comes to family ties, the play is not a very good tool to discern Greek and Roman differences, if only because the differences held between the two cultures are either non-existent or too subtle to be immediately discernible. Thus, what is humane amongst the Romans when it came to family seems similar to the Greeks.;;BibliographyAristotle.

Ethics (trans. by T. Taylor). 1933.

Aurelius, M. Meditations (translated by J. Jackson). 1906.

Cicero, M. T. The Letters of Cicero Vol. 1 (trans.

by E. S. Shuckburgh). London: George Bell and Sons, 1899.

—. Tusculan Disputations (trans. by C. D.

Yonge). New York: Harper and Brothers, 1877.Plato. The Republic (trans.

by B. Jowett). 2008.Shakespeare, W.

Titus Andronicus (ed. by Louis Wright). New York: Simon ; Schuster, 1967.Tacitus, C.

Tacitus on Germany (trans. by Thomas Gordon). New York: P. F.

Collier ; Son, 1910.;;;

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