Revenge, it was a common theme among the plays, and works of literature published during Shakespeare’s time. It is only natural that it would be a topic that the writer himself would touch on. While not his most well-known play dealing with revenge the Tragedy of Titus Andronicus was likely Shakespeare’s earliest delve into the realm of the “revenge tragedy”.
While the central plot of Titus revolves around revenge, and much of the time it leaves the ready rooting for the Titus to get his retribution of the wrongs dealt to him by Aaron, Tamora and her brood; the themes that one is left with at the conclusion of the play’s last act is that perhaps this bloody carnal road to retribution taken by Titus was not the right way.
In fact it could even be argued that Titus Andronicus is a cautionary tale, or parody, against vengeance and the violent nature of English culture at the time of its creation, because throughout the play the evils of revenge consume the characters and their dreams of retributions leads them all to their ultimate demise at the play’s conclusion. It is important to understand the common view of revenge that was held by the public during the time that Shakespeare constructed his works. The social climate at the time of Shakespeare was one that fully endorsed the idea of revenge.
The political as well as religious structures of the time did not discard the vengeful mindset that was prevalent during the age. Many saw it as the right of the King or God to exact revenge for the wrongs of others; for they were believed to be the ones who had been caused the most offense. (1) With the eye for eye mentality held by society it is not hard to see why plays that depicted revenge were so popular. Shakespeare had a multitude of influences to draw upon for his revenge tragedies; both from social influences and the influences of other works revenge.
One work that I see as a crucial influence to Shakespeare development of Titus is Christopher Marlowe’s tragedy The Jew of Malta. Similar to Titus Andronicus the Jew of Malta has revenge and retribution as a main driving influence of the plot. Barabus the “hero” of the play is dealt many wrongs by society both tangible and perceived and throughout the play his lust for vengeance for all that has been committed against him grows out of control. Barabus starts to take any action toward him as a slight and dismisses all notions of loyalty and friendship in his pursuit of vengeance.
Barabus betrays the town of Malta to the Turks and then turns around and tries to betray the Turks by killing Calymath but is in turn betrayed by Ferenze and killed. (2) Barabus becomes so twisted and consumed by his desire for revenge that he causes his own death. This idea of revenge consuming a man is a clear influence on Shakespeare and Titus Andronicus but is instead amplified to an even greater extent. Shakespeare sees his contemporary’s idea of revenge as a driving influence of a Character and raises him creating a situation where the almost the entire cast of characters are consumed by revenge and righting the wrongs done to them.
From Saturninus’ attempt revenge against his brother for challenging his rule by attempting to steal his bride to Tamora avenging her son’s death by tormenting Titus throughout the work, revenge was integral to much of the actions of many of the characters. Revenge was something that was not looked down upon in Elizabethan England. In fact it was something that was prayed for. To see the wrath of god come down upon the man that wronged you was the ultimate satisfaction. Exaction of revenge upon those who commit crimes against another man was God’s will and came in the most brutal and bloodiest of ways.
The idea of mercy as it pertained to Christianity in the late sixteenth century, and early seventeenth century was for the most part set aside in favor of a more vengeful god(1). “The who sheddeth the blood of man shall his blood be shed”. Titus like Barabus, was consumed and ultimately destroyed by the desire for revenge; both his own and that of his enemies. Being a true “revenge tragedy” desire for retribution is the mare motivation that drives the plot of the play forward. It is also the source of all of the tragedy and suffering that takes place in the play.
From Titus is interesting because it can be taken as a parody of the brutality that had become common place among the English society in the time of Shakespeare. The blood for blood mentality that was ingrained in the popular idea of justice is show in full effect in the work. From the rape and mutilation of Lavinia to the murder and desecration of Chiron and Demetrius; Shakespeare does not hold back on his gratuitous use of violence in Titus. While to a contemporary reader of Titus Andronicus, the extent of the cruelty show by the characters seems extreme; to the people
Shakespeare’s time this would all seem justified, possibly even normal. Executions for example where held in a public forum where anyone was welcome to watch the brutal, cruel and unusual way that the convicted were killed. While corporeal punishment still exists into this day in age most countries that employ it do so in a manner that is considered humane. This was not the case for the executions of Shakespeare’s time as the preferred method of execution was to have the perpetrators hung drawn and quartered; a method of death of which the details are horrific and grisly. 4) “And being hanged a little while and then cut down, the butcher opened him , and as he took out his bowels he cried and said, “O Lord, have mercy upon me! ” and so yielded up the ghost.
Then, being likewise quartered as the other was, and their bowels burned, as the manner is, their quarters were put into a basket provided for the purpose… and afterwards their heads set upon London Bridge, and their quarters set upon the sundry gates of the city of London. To be an example to all other traitors and rebels. This is a depiction of an execution as recoded as a spectator, if an act this heinous and savage had been witnessed by a man of our current day it would cause them extreme discomfort some would even break down under the psychological trauma it would cause, but to the men and women of Elizabethan England this was nothing out of the ordinary. This act of revenge taken by divine right by the crown and god who as stated earlier were “the ones who had been caused the most offense. ” This is why to me it seems that Shakespeare was holding up a mirror to the society that he lived.
A parody of these eye for and eye tooth for a tooth values which the justice of his time was based on. Shakespeare uses revenge and the extreme violence taken by the characters to show that wicked acts of violence and cruelty used to achieve retribution against ones enemies. It can be argued that Shakespeare was instead showing the value of mercy over revenge. Had mercy been show in place of a desire for revenge Titus Andronicus would not have been a Tragedy. It was the lust for vengeance which extended the plot of the play, as much of the plot in Titus Andronicus is fuelled by the desire for revenge.
The first half is driven by Tamora’s revenge, and the second it both Tamora’s and Titus’ revenge working against each other. The will of these two characters leads the play to its end and their ultimate demise; but had mercy been show from the beginning all of the death that is witnessed in Titus Andronicus would have been avoided entirely. Ironically it is the same two characters who so vehemently stick to their quests for revenge, even at the forfeiture of their own lives, which Shakespeare has, at two separate points in the play, beg for mercy.
The later of the two comes at the point where comes when Titus’ two sons are to be executed for killing Bassinius. Aaron comes to tell Titus that the emperor has offered to spare Titus’ sons if he sends a hand from either Titus himself, his brother, Marcus, or his eldest son Lucius. While Titus does not know that no such deal s in place and that Aaron only wishes to torment him further for his lady and lover Tamora. Titus gives his hand to Aaron in hopes of mercy for his two sons.
This is as fitting a time as ever for Titus to be for mercy for it is at this point where Titus learns of the Moors treachery that his desire for revenge against Tamora, Aaron and the Emperor Saturainus begins to consume him. It is also a direct correlation to the point where mercy is requested and ultimately denied early in the play. Tamora’s plea for mercy for her son’s life at the outset of Titus Andronicus is arguably the more significant of the two instances where Shakespeare played with the idea of Titus and Tamora requesting mercy.
For while Titus’ tribute to the Emperor was simply a ploy played by the devious Aaron, Tamora’s request to Titus was heard and denied out right. Like Titus does later on in the play Tamora also begs for mercy for the life of one her children. Her son was to be killed in sacrifice to the sons of Titus who fell in battle against the Goths. It is here that Tamora begs with Titus for the life of her child. “Stay, Roman breteren! Gracious conqueror, Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed, A mother’s tears in passion for her son:
And if thy sons were ever dear to thee, O, think my son to be as dear to me! Sufficeth not that we are brought to Rome To beautify thy triumphs and return, Captive to the and to thy Roman yoke, But must my sons be slaughtered in the streets For valiant doing in their country’s cause? O, if to fight for king and commonweal Were piety in thine, it is in these. Andronicus, stain not they tomb with blood. Wilt thou draw near nature of the gods? Draw near them in being merciful. Sweet mercy is nobility’s true badge: Thrice noble- Titus, spare my fist born son. ”
This quote is the strongest evidence that points toward Shakespeare’s theme of the value of mercy over revenge in the play. This dialogue between Titus and Tamora give mercy the qualities that were applied to revenge and brutality in the Elizabethan England that Shakespeare lived. Mercy is described by Tamora being the nature of the gods and “nobility’s true badge”. This is in direct opposition to the way that revenge was viewed in England at the time. It was thought to be the place of the king, the noblest of all men, and gods vessel on earth to exact vengeance upon traitor and breaks of his law.
Yet instead Shakespeare is instead disputing this saying that is only one of noble standing who shall be the one who shows mercy to those who have wronged him. This moment is when Titus chooses to choose the path of revenge and violence, rather than mercy. It is the moment that sets the entire plot of the play into motion. It is the moment that seals the fate of Titus as well as the fates of Tamora, her sons, Lavina, Bassinus, Saturainus, Aaron, and all the rest that perish throughout the remainder of the play.
All of the violence, mutilation, suffering, and death could have been avoided if Titus had in fact chosen the path of mercy over that of revenge. This is the pivotal decision made by Titus throughout the play and how looking back Shakespeare states his case for a greater focus to be placed on mercy rather than revenge.
- Ronald Broude. Revenge and Revenge Tragedy in Renaissance England Renaissance Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 1 (Spring, 1975), pp. 50-55. Published by: The University of Chicago Press,
- Marlowe, Christopher. The Jew of Malta. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 1964.
- King James Bible Online. Digital image. KING JAMES BIBLE ONLINE. N. p. , n. d. Web. 01 May 2013.
- Pike, Luke Owen. “Pages 81-90. ” A History of Crime in England: Illustrating the Changes of the Laws in the Progress of Civilisation, Written from the Public Records and Other Contemporary Evidence. London: Smith, Elder, and, 1868.
- Shakespeare, William. “Act I. I, Lines 107-127. ” Titus Andronicus. New York: Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. New York: Penguin, 2000. Print.