7th World Shakespeare Congress, Valencia, short paper session 3.4: Revenge as a Mediterranean Phenomenon Before and After Hamlet.

Markus Marti: Language of Extremities / Extremities of Language: Body Language and Culture in Titus Andronicus

The use of body language is essential in drama and in performance. But the way in which body language is used in
Titus Andronicus is something else. The Roman empire (one of the many Mediterranean birthplaces of European culture) is presented as a society in which knives are used instead of pens, blood and tears instead of ink, human bodies instead of paper, a place where arms do speak and where bodies and their parts, heads and limbs, are exchanged like words or sentences. This makes sense if we see Titus Andronicus as a play about the repressed and sublimated extremities of culture, of communication and language (both verbal and non-verbal), constructed like a game of chess with its plot of double revenge.


Body language in drama

Dramatic texts - and above all Shakespeare's plays - may strike us first by their language: Words are all we see when we read a play, and when it is performed, we are often carried away by the beauty of the verse, the melody and the rhythm of the spoken word - but the use of non-verbal codes is much more essential in drama, certainly more essential than the mere exchange of words provided by the text.

Drama is the rendering of a text by actors, the word is made flesh when a text is acted out and the actors have to "speak" with their bodies - in their capacity as characters to the other characters on the stage, and, as actors representing these characters, they have to "speak" to the audience in the theatre [
1]. What I intend to do in this paper is not the analysis of the actual communication between performers and audience, but a semiotic analysis  [2] of the non-verbal communication between the characters on the stage, as far as this sort of communication is fixed by the printed text, as far as it is seen as intentional by at least some of the characters, and as far as the body or parts of it are used like words as (in a Saussurean sense) arbitrary - and therefore symbolic - signs in a code that is shared by the communicators (the characters in the play) in such a way that the body or a part of it "stands to somebody for something in a certain capacity" (Peirce)

Such acts of non-verbal communication can easily be found in the verbal text, because non-verbal communication in the form of body language is often combined with verbal communication, and, vice versa, verbal communication between speakers in the same room is always and necessarily accompanied by non-verbal communication.

When we communicate we always use as many codes as possible in order to prevent ambiguities and misunderstandings. Redundancy is a semiotic principle, it is necessary to avoid misinterpretations due to distortions by "noises" in one of the channels [
3]. If the sender of a non-verbal message composed of possibly arbitrary signs does not use other codes (verbal or non-verbal) at the same time, the receiver of the message will probably ask back by changing to another, mostly verbal code, to make sure that the message has been decoded properly ("Why do you smile?", "Why do you look away?") [4].

Both these principles - redundancy (= the use of several codes at the same time) as well as the switching to other codes in connection with messages in non-verbal language - are not only features of the dramatic genre - they are features of our everyday communicative situations. That they are also constantly used in Titus Andronicus is therefore not astonishing. What is special in Titus, though, is that the interplay between verbal and non-verbal codes becomes topical, bodily signs are commented in an obviously metalinguistic way not only in Lavinia's case, where verbal language is made impossible and other means of communication and signification have to be used and discussed by the characters. The body and its parts are used as a code system in different but always in very deliberate ways, which then get commented on, explained or interpreted in verbal language. They are quite clearly signs which (according to Eco's definition of the sign [
5]) can be - and are in fact - "used to lie".

Act 1: bodies and their parts used as symbolic signs

arms and the man

In Saturninus' opening lines ("Noble patricians, patrons of my right, defend the justice of my cause with arms", I.1.1f [
6]) the "arms" are weapons, but they are also - if they get used - an extension of the actual arms and hands of Saturnine's followers. They are signs with which Saturninus asks his followers, the patricians, to speak: "Plead my successive title with your swords". It is by showing (and eventually using) their arms that his followers should make him emperor of Rome. This is the first of many occasions in this play where "arms" (in the meaning of / a person's arm with a weapon / [7]) are used or referred to as a means of communication. Rome is a place where "arms" have to speak and plead.

Bassianus, Saturninus's younger brother and contestant for the title introduces himself by placing his own body as a token into the game: "If ever Bassianus, Caesar's son, were gracious in the eyes of royal Rome". His body, the person Bassianus, is a floating signifier in search of - or playing for - the signified / Emperor of Rome /.

The third speaker, the tribune Marcus Andronicus, introduces his body as an already clearly defined sign which "stands" for / the people of Rome / ("Know that the people of Rome, for whom we stand A special party" l.20) by applying almost the very words of Peirce's definition of a sign, namely as "something which stands to somebody for something in a certain capacity" - "My body stands to you for 'the people of Rome' in the context of this election" (Just as Jeb Bush recently stood for his brother George W. as "the people of Florida".) By defining his own body in this way as a representative, as a signifier of national importance, Marcus also defines all the other characters who are present on the stage: they "stand" for the other class, for the nobility of Rome which is obviously split into two factions. The definition is based on two simple equations: I = common people; you = nobility. The actor speaking these words defines those present on the stage as metonymic signs, as partes pro toto (due, of course, to theatrical economy, since neither the whole nobility of Rome nor the whole proletariat of Rome would find room on the stage), and in some performances these words may also include the audience into this imaginary situation; the people in the audience would have to step in for the missing members of Rome's nobility, as they might already have been addressed before to vote for Saturninus with their arms.

Arms - both as weapons and as limbs - are again mentioned as a means of communication, when Marcus introduces Titus, who has "chastised with arms / Our enemy's pride". Titus returns "from where he circumscribèd with his sword... the enemies of Rome" (l.68). Titus is a writer with his weapon, a geographer and historian. A part of his "written" work is brought on the stage: His writings manifest themselves as bodies - as usual, as he has always done till now, he brings along some of his sons in a coffin, but this time he also brings along a second document, his enemies under the yoke for a triumph.

His remaining sons, obviously eager to write as well, ask for the body of a prisoner "that we may hew his limbs and on a pile / Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh" (l. 97f) - the ritually dismembered body of the prisoner is meant as a prayer, as a message that will appease the shadows of the dead. Body language in this special form seems to be the only way to communicate with the numinous.


Titus has come "To re-salute his country with his tears, / Tears of true joy for his return to Rome" (l.75f), and tears will be one of the favourite modes of expression among Titus and his family throughout the play. They are not just natural signs which indicate pain or grief, in most cases they are very complex and arbitrary signs. In such cases, as we soon shall see, they are homonymous signs, they have more than one meaning and can, therefore, like words, be intentionally or tragically misunderstood. Titus' own tears are just meant as a formal greeting, meaning /Pleased to meet you, Rome!/ - why should he then read Tamora's tears as an earnest plea [
8] for her son, "Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed, / A mother's tears in passion for her son"? (I.1.105f) Tears, tears, tears - words, words, words.

His daughter Lavinia enters and speaks with tears which are clearly meant as a symbol and not as a "natural sign". They are not an index for her true emotions, they are intentionally emitted as an arbitrary sign (or rather as two different but "homonymous" arbitrary signs) which she has to explain verbally:

Lo at this tomb my tributary tears
I render for my brethren's obsequies;
And at thy feet I kneel, with tears of joy
Shed on this earth, for thy return to Rome
O bless me here with thy victorious hand (l.159ff).

The answer to this tearful utterance is again non-verbal, a gesture, the blessing with her father's hand. Of course we might overlook such passages by just taking them for mirror passages (in Rudolf Stamm's terminology), passages where the actors speak about things which they are either not able to perform on stage, or about things the audience might otherwise not be able to see (e.g.: "Why dost thou blush?"). But this is not the case here: Even a close-up on a crying face in a film version would need a verbal explanation of the (arbitrary) meaning of these salty signs. The tears in this scene are all purely conventional (in a lingustic sense) - in Tamora's case they may have come naturally, but she uses them also as symbols (= as arbitrary signs), they are meant as a plea [9].

exchange of women

Act I ends with an extended non-verbal conversation where bodies become commodities, a means of economic exchange: When Titus gives his prisoners as a present to the new emperor, Saturnine, the message is of course that he accepts him as his emperor, and - do ut des - that he expects his favour in return. By immediately declaring the prisoners' freedom Saturnine devalues this present and by marrying Tamora instead of Lavinia he not only misreads Titus' intentions deliberately but he also breaks the conventions of "the exchange of women" [
10] by disregarding the symbolic value of both Tamora and Lavinia, by misreading their bodies. He shows himself as an unworthy emperor, a tyrant who breaks the rules of the society he is meant to represent. Lavinia, who is then claimed by Bassianus, is now socially devalued in the eyes of Titus and Saturnine, a "changing piece" (l. 323) - a worthless coin - that is given to the one who "flourished for her with his sword".

The ensuing fight between Bassianus, Titus and his sons is ultimately about the meaning of Lavinia's body. What does she stand for in the eyes of her respective possessors: family honour, nobility, romantic love, grace or disgrace?

Act II: kinesics and proxemics: rape and murder as signs

In the eyes of Chiron and Demetrius, who also fight for her possession, Lavinia's body is just seen as a sexual object. Their actions, their fight for Lavinia, the killing of Bassianus and finally their mutual rape of Lavinia are nothing but "natural signs" in terms of body language, they are signals triggered by their lust, and therefore non-intentional (in a semiotic, not in a moral or legal way, of course). But from Tamora's and Aaron's point of view the murder of Bassianus and the rape of Lavinia (to which they not only give their consent, but which they also help to plan) are meant as intentional kinetic signs, they are a message of Tamora's revenge, addressed to Titus and to Rome. Tamora now makes full use of the bodily code. She uses other people's bodies as a means of communication - she uses Aaron and her own sons as her secretaries to write her revenge, not with words, but with the dead body of Bassianus, with the mutilated body of Lavinia, with the shivering bodies of Titus' sons in the pit.

A sign, according to Eco, is everything that can be used to tell a lie. The murder of Bassianus is a kinetic sign, the final arrangement of the bodies a proxemic sign: The fact that Quintus and Marius are found in the same pit together with Bassianus' body must lead to some inevitable conclusions - but their arranged position in this room is an indexical sign used to tell a lie - it is a sign that seems to say: /see, they have murdered him/ , but its true meaning and intention is different: The murder and the positioning of the bodies have been arranged to form a message to Titus, a means to destroy him and his family by having his sons falsely accused and convicted of murder.

Tamora's body is omnipresent in this scene, her vulva is the stage setting itself [
11]. The "detested, dark, blood-drinking pit" which "speaks" the false accusation, which sucks these three (male) victims in and destroys them, is ironically described by its unsuspecting victims as a part of the female body, as a voracious sexual organ:

What, art thou fallen? What subtle hole is this,
Whose mouth is covered with rude-growing briers,
Upon whose leaves are drops of new-shed blood
As fresh as morning dew distilled on flowers?
A very fatal place it seems to me." (2.3.198ff)

Scene II.4: gory semiotics

"How can one 'unsign' a sign?" is the question that occupies the two sons of Tamora: Not "how can one make something undone", but "How can one impede someone from telling something?". They do not want to kill Lavinia, but they have to prevent her from accusing them of rape and murder. Lavinia is a married woman. If she is unable to write or speak, her body alone will not be able to "tell" that she has been raped, because as a married woman she is no longer a virgin. Once deflowered, her body can no longer function as an indexical sign in this respect, "more water glideth by the mill / Than wots the miller of; and easy it is / Of a cut loaf to steal a shive" (II.1.92ff). The solution, therefore, seems simple: Cut off her tongue, and she will no longer be able to speak, take her hands off, and she will no longer be able to write or to make gestures, she will not be able to point her finger at the culprits:

DEMETRIUS. So, now go tell, and if thy tongue can speak,
Who 'twas that cut thy tongue and ravished thee.
CHIRON. Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
And if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.
DEMETRIUS. See how with signs and tokens she can scrowl. (II.4.1ff)

The boys are as stupid as they are cruel. They have had some classical education, and they know about the story of Philomele and Tereus - Tereus cut Philomele's tongue off but she could still betray her ravisher by sewing his name into her embroidery. To prevent this, Demetrius and Chiron cut off Lavinia's hands. As more experienced semioticians we know that this will not do: A body has many more possibilities to speak, and Lavinia is going to use them, of course. She could use her legs to write into the sand. She could use a proxemic code and just walk towards her tormentors in public. Even cutting off her legs would not help, apart from the fact that this would be very difficult to perform on stage - Lavinia is going to tell her story by writing the names into the sand with a stick that she takes into her mouth. How does one cut off a mouth? It could be gagged, as Aaron's and the boys' mouth will be in Act V.1 and V.2, and it could be sewed or glued or filled with concrete to be shut for ever. But then she would still be able to use her eyes - Lavinia is a good one with tears, as we know from Act 1. And if they cut out her eyes, too? She might breathe in some special way. We know, and the play is going to show that in a way which is not less cruel than these suggestions, that bodies as a whole and any part of them can be used to convey messages. The only way to be safe is to kill her. But this is not what the ravishers want - they want to use her living body to write upon with their bodies and their knives, a multimedia letter written in a secret code which says: "revenge".

When Marcus, Lavinia's uncle, sees her, he reads and understands her body immediately: she runs away - a fountain of blood is rising and falling between her lips - her arms have been chopped off: this can only mean that she has been raped, he concludes.

This scene has been rejected by many critics and directors not only because of the discrepancy between the cruelty of the visual image combined with the rhetorical beauty of Marcus' speech, but also because of the obvious absurdity of the situation[
12]: Why does he not help her? Why does he not get a doctor [13]? And yet, in many productions this has proved to be one of the strongest and most moving scenes in the play.[14]

To understand and accept this scene we have to see Marcus as a choric figure at this moment; his words are a translation (for the sake of the audience) of what Lavinia's body is trying to tell as an emblem [
15] - that the "actual" Marcus does not read the signs in the same correct way as Marcus the semiotician does at this moment can be seen in the following scenes: When he has stepped back into the play, he does no longer "know" what he knows now.

Act III: The exchange of parts of the body; blood and tears

Act III.1 starts with Titus shedding a semiotic rainbow of tears. His first tears are pleas, like Tamora's tears in Act I, and equally ineffective. They should evoke pity for his sons in the addressees, the senators:

And for these bitter tears which now you see
Filling the aged wrinkles in my cheeks;
Be pitiful to my condemned sons" (III.1.6f).

His next tears become ink, and the earth a blotting paper:

For these, Tribunes, in the dust I write
My heart's deep languor and my soul's sad tears. /
Let my tears staunch the earth's dry appetite; /
My sons's sweet blood will make it shame and blush." (III.1.12ff)

And finally the personified tears should "speak" themselves as multiplied clones of their sender, the crying father: "My tears are now prevailing orators" (III.1.26).

Lavinia and Marcus then join him in a choir of tears with a crescendo. "When I did name her brothers, then fresh tears / Stood on her cheeks" (III.l.112) Lavinia's tear language is immediately interpreted, although the meaning of her message is again ambivalent:

Perchance she weeps because they killed her husband,
Perchance because she knows them innocent" (115f)

Aaron introduces a new dimension of bodily communication with his offer to save the lives of Titus' sons if but one of the remaining Andronici chops off his hand as a ransom. One hand for two bodies, an incredibly cheap bargain. Six hands are on offer, four of them are especially valid means of communication, because - as Marcus says, and as we know - they have been "writing destruction on the enemy's castle" (173).

Titus "cheats" his family when he feigns agreement to keep his own hand while the others go off in search of an axe. But when they return he has already had his hand chopped off by Aaron: "Lend me thy hand and I will give you mine". This seems a more realistic price, hand for hand - but one hand is only lent, the first part of this utterance uses a simple bodily metaphor, the other hand, Titus' hand, is definitely given, and it is not a sign, it is the thing itself [
16]. It becomes a sign when it is sent to the emperor, not only as a ransom in exchange for the lives of Titus' sons, but at the same time as a gory greeting ("give his Majesty my hand", 200). Titus has cheated his family with his hand, he has used his hand for an honourable "lie" - he has given it, "spoken" with it, to prevent his son and brother to "speak" with their hands. Aaron now cheats with this same hand - the "conventionally agreed signified", the "assumed meaning", the "exchange value", the other "sign" which was supposed to stand for the sign "hand of Titus" is not / the living bodies of Titus' sons / but only their heads. Titus' nonverbal utterance has been infelicitous. Apart from their honour, and Lavinia's virginity, his family so far has lost a lot of blood and tears, a tongue, three arms and two heads - indispensable, not renewable means of communication in this mostly non-verbal conversation game. Tamora's revenge has reached its peak.

The flood of tears is renewed and finally the family starts to read Lavinia's body in a more scientific manner: "Thou map of woe that dost thus talk in signs" (III.2.12). Her body is a multi-media map whose signs can be interpreted by those who are able to read such maps. Titus thinks he is able, but he can only guess, and his guesses are wrong:

Hark, Marcus, what she says,
I can interpret all her martyred signs:
She says she drinks no other drink but tears,
Brewed with her sorrow, meshed upon her cheeks." (III.2.35ff)

Lavinia's tears are, as usual, multiple homonyms and obviously misunderstood again. But there are other bodily signs that can be read as messages. Titus promises to learn the whole kinetic alphabet:

Speechless complainer, I will learn thy thought;
In thy dumb action will I be as perfect
As begging hermits in their holy prayers.
Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to Heaven,
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet
And by still practise learn to know thy meaning. (III.2.39ff)

And it is indeed by other means than tears that the truth is discovered: Lavinia makes a kinetic appeal by following and chasing her nephew to attract attention. She turns over books with her stumps to indicate that she wants to show something. She points at Ovid's story of Philomel as a complex sign to tell her own complex story with a simple gesture, an indexical sign that becomes thus a symbol - and finally she writes the names of her ravishers into the sand - and , in Latin, what they are guilty of: stuprum, rape. Tamora's boys are thus, as young Lucius says in an aside in the next scene, "both deciphered... / For villains marked with rape" IV.2.10)

Acts IV, V: Bodies speak / messages of fixed bodily features

That Aaron is as black in his soul as his skin is something that he boasts of himself. Yet that his colour will ultimately betray his dark secrets becomes evident when the empress is delivered of a boy. Sexual intercourse with married women, as Aaron has discussed with the two villainous boys in Act II, cannot be noticed by their husbands. This is no longer the case if the woman gets pregnant and the child identifies - and betrays - his father by his looks and the colour of his skin.

Look how the black slave smiles upon the father,
As who should say, 'Old lad, I am thine own' (IV.2.133).

Tamora sends the nurse with the child to Aaron. The child's body is in itself the message, it is a letter saying: /I am your son/. To make this message unspoken the child has to die, and so have the nurse and the midwife:

Go to the Empress, tell her this I said. He kills her. Weke, weke! So cries a pig prepared to the spit. (159ff)

Of course the dead nurse can no longer "go" to "tell" this to the empress, but her dead body (or her disappearance, as a "zero-sign") can still tell Aaron's answer, which is of course not "So cries a pig prepared to the spit", but: /Nobody should know about this/. Demetrius does not immediately grasp the meaning, he has to switch to verbal language: "What meanst thou, Aaron?", and Aaron translates it: "Shall she live to betray this guilt of ours?". The child will not be killed, though - it will be exchanged - another exchange of bodies -, and a white baby will be presented to the Emperor, another body as a "sign" which is used as a lie: /I am your son/.

Tamora and her two sons visit Titus, claiming to be Revenge with her followers, Murder and Rape. They believe that Titus (who has just written down his future plans of revenge with his own blood) is mad and assume that he will believe these allegorical figures to be a "reality". According to the stage direction they use a disguise, but their own bodies betray them - they are not only recognisable to the audience, even Titus recognises them for what they "really" are, the bodies of Tamora and her sons in disguise. A verbal or non-verbal "play-in-the-play", a masque, pantomime or short play is a constant feature in revenge tragedies: It is used either to reveal the culprit (as in Hamlet) or to lead to the final act of revenge, the show-down, as in Kyd's Spanish Tragedy. Tamora's mask may be seen in this light (the names of her followers may indicate that in her eyes Titus is not only guilty of having murdered her son, Alarbus, but that he is also guilty of rape) - but she fails, whereas Titus' final mask (his disguise as a cook) will be successful.

Thanks to his feigned madness (another common feature of revenge tragedies) Titus gains possession of Tamora's sons. Before he kills the two boys, he tells them what they - their bodies - are going to mean and why:

I will grind your bones to dust,
And with your blood and it I'll make a paste;
And of the paste a coffin I will rear,
And make two pasties of your shameful heads;
And bid that strumpet, your unhallowed dam,
Like to the Earth, swallow her own increase.
This is the feast that I have bid her to,
And this the banquet she shall surfeit on;
For worse than Philomel you used my daughter.
And worse than Procne I will be revenged. (V.2.196-205).

Tamora has assumed the role of sweet [17] Revenge, but now the tables are turned upon her, and it is now her turn to taste rape and murder (= the bodies of her sons).

The killing of Lavinia is another message to Saturnine, referring to the classical "pattern" of the rape of Virginia; and the killings of Tamora, Titus and Saturnine that follow are a grim dialogue of revenge, of "tit for tat".

The Law of the Old Testament: "Breach for breach, eye for eye, tooth for tooth: as he hath caused a blemish in a man, so shall it be done to him again." (Lev.24.20), is fulfilled to the letter (and to the limb) in this play of double revenge with due cause on either side - both Tamora and Titus get their revenge in the end.

The killing and mutilating game ends in a draw for the two parties involved. The score is 6:6 if we disregard the dead from earlier killing games: Titus' sons lost in the wars against the Goths. The major characters who get killed during the actual time of the play are, in Titus' camp: Mutius, [an own goal, one might say, as he gets killed by his father], Bassianus, Quintus, Martius, Lavinia and Titus himself; on Tamora's side: Alarbus, Demetrius, Chiron, Saturnine, Tamora herself, and Aaron who is going to die; without counting some minor figures who do not belong to either party, such as the clown, the nurse, but whose bodies have been shamelessly used as letters by both parties nevertheless.

When Marcus and Lucius offer to hurl their own bodies - hand in hand - headlong down on the ragged stones to "make a mutual closure of our house", they offer a different ending of the play, in which the final score would be a different one. The other side would have no possibility to get even, they would lose a gory game of potlatch, in which that party wins that can sacrifice more bodies. But this is not the game that is being played: the name of the game was revenge, and now the scores are even, justice has been done, a balance has been reached; they can be pardoned and Lucius is proclaimed emperor by Aemilius, who now stands with his body for the "common voice", as Marcus did in the first act.

Revenge - the basic principle of communication

Revenge is "the act of doing hurt or harm to another in return for wrong or injury suffered" (OED). As such it is an act of non-verbal communication, based on exchange, on stimulus and response: You did this - I'll do that. To every action there is a reaction, every change of balance demands the re-establishing of a new balance.

Let us forget about the plot of Titus Andronicus for a short moment, and just imagine that the "wrong or injury suffered" is not so serious, that it is just a very slight intrusion into one's thoughts by some event or appearance, e.g. by somebody's utterance, an utterance that for some reasons demands an answer by the person whose thoughts have been interrupted, intruded upon or changed: Might we then not consider this answer as a kind of "revenge"? Does not every dialogue, every conversation function in that way? Is the difference between an answer to a statement and an answer to murder not just a question of code and degree? Revenge is based on a dialectic principle, or rather: The dialectic principle is based on revenge, revenge is the basic principle of communication - only that we have forgotten it, just as we have forgotten that our smiles and our courtesies were once (natural) signs of aggression. Showing our teeth or giving our hand to the opponent have become arbitrary signs in our body language, signifying peace and harmony. Peace and harmony is what we long for, but it is not the situation we are in, and it is not the situation we have come from. It is certainly not the situation we want to be entertained with.

polemos panton pater : Conflict is the father of all things. In every situation which involves two or more people there is some kind of conflict. At some stage conflicts will lead to a breach of some kind in the eyes of one party, and this will lead to some sort of "revenge". Revenge is of an extremely gory kind in "revenge tragedies", but "softer" forms of revenge are the basic pattern of every tragic plot, of every plot, of all drama. There has to be a breach of some kind at the beginning of a play to provide a momentum and to create suspense, and the pleasure or disappointment at the end of a play depends on the amount of justice that has finally been reached in the eyes of the audience. Revenge is sweet; without it we would be "left in bitterness", we would be disappointed.

Revenge in Titus Andronicus is not sweet at all, even if the final banquet is spicy. Words can be exchanged easily, but what if they have been made flesh and meat again? Reduced to its primitive non-verbal basics, human communication proves to be gory. Titus certainly surfeits the appetite of a refined audience. The first "utterance" in the non-verbal dramatic "conversation" between Tamora and Titus is the sacrifice of a prisoner of war in front of his own mother. A dramatic communication that starts at this level can not be for the faint-hearted. Both parties have soon an equally justified or at least understandable cause for their private revenge.

Revenge in the form of private revenge is not acceptable within a civilised system, it is a "kind of wild justice", which law should weed out (as Bacon puts it in his essay
On Revenge), so that life can run on smoothly within the legal garden walls of society. The more civilised a society, the less scope can be allowed for private revenge. The progress of culture, of civilisation, of humanity, demands that such acts be handed over to some higher authority, to the law, to god - or just to be safe, to both. But what does our law do? Our legal system is still based on revenge, although it is a publicly sanctioned form of revenge. And on what, if not on revenge, should our religious concepts of heaven and hell be based?

"And onto him that smiteth thee on the one cheek offer also the other" may be an appropriate maxim for life in an advanced and civilised society, where the maintaining of law and order is in the hands of an accepted and publicly (democratically or otherwise) sanctionned authority, but it will hardly create enough suspense and entertainment for the plot of a whole play.

Rome - a wilderness of tigers

Tragic drama needs a more primitive society as a setting for the tragic plot to remain credible, either a more anarchic society or situation that allows a larger scope for private revenge, or a tyrannical system that is so obviously unjust that it calls for public revenge.

Titus Andronicus offers both. Tamora's revenge is directed against the Roman Empire as well as against Titus and his sons for their cruelty. Her first moves trigger the urge for personal revenge in Titus, but very soon his revenge turns against the Rome of Saturnine as well, against a society which is not able to maintain law and order.

What kind of society is this? The play is set in imperial Rome at an uncertain time, it is not historically or chronologically defined [
18]. The invasion of the Goths points towards the end of the Roman empire, and yet Titus and his family seem ideologically based in the republic. The plot of this play is invented, it is not based on any "historical facts". "Rome" must, therefore, be a deliberate choice of place in an otherwise very vague setting of persons and time.

Rome is (much more than Greece or Mesopotomia) the birthplace, the cradle of European culture for the Elizabethans. Imperial Rome often stands metaphorically for London and Britain in Elizabethan literature [
19] - in the context of the translatio imperii, the (westward) translation of the Empire. Brutus, the son of Aeneas, is seen as the founding father of "Brutannia", of Britain, from Layamon's Brute onwards. London is "Troynovant", a New Troy and New Rome, just as Rome was a New Troy. But in this play imperial Rome is not in decline, it is not an "overcivilised" and decadent society in need of being newly erected in some other country, it is a very primitive society whose values - even those which are disregarded by the current regime - are highly questionable. It is a society in which swords and knives are used instead of pens, blood and tears instead of ink, human bodies (dead [20] or alive) instead of paper, where arms do speak and where bodies and their parts, heads and limbs, are exchanged like words or sentences.

The non-verbal code of blood and murder is used throughout the play, it is the language the Romans and Titus' family use at the very beginning - and the language they still use at the end. It is not the "barbarous" Goths, their enemies, who introduce it, but they offer no alternative, they "speak" the same language. At the same time this play offers more classical quotations than any other Shakespearean play - even the Goths, even Aaron, know and quote Latin authors as often and as well as the Romans, they recite their Horace, Seneca and Ovid as if they were Elizabethan humanists.

The play investigates the extremities of our culture, of culture in general. Culture is unmasked as an act of repression and sublimation, more in Nietzsche's sense than in Freud's:

"... all these motives, whatever great names we give them, have grown out of the same roots [...]. Between good and evil actions there is no difference in type; at most, a difference in degree. Good actions are sublimated evil actions..." [21].

Behind a thin layer of cultural gloss lurks Mr Hyde, or rather, our cultural achievements are a superstructure which consists of signifiers heaped upon signifiers of signifiers, but which is ultimately grounded on a very ugly material base which we try to hide, to forget, to dispel and ignore. Rome is the right setting to show this, because this is the place where our culture started in the eyes of an Elizabethan audience, and it is the place where it reached its first peak, in literature, in law, in the building of an empire, in the pax romana, in Christianity. But Rome was founded on murder and rape [22] - and if the cultural achievements of humanity - society, law, language, literature - are followed back to their roots, if words are made flesh again, all our cultural achievements turn out to be based on origins which we now consider inhuman and beastly: on sacrifices, on rape and murder, on revenge, on cannibalism: "Rome is but a wilderness of tigers" (III.1.54).


[1] A dramatic performance is always at least such a binary act of communication. On the one hand there is a make-believe communicative situation between the characters on the stage, on the other hand there is the actual communication between the performers and the audience. More complex relationships occur, of course, in play-within-the-play-situations and in the case of choric figures. [back]

[2] The use of semiotic terminology is mainly compatible with Eco, Elam and Sebeok; Peircean terminology may be used occasionally. [back]

[3] cf. Sebeok, T. A. "Pandora's Box. How and Why to Communicate 10,000 Years into the Future". [back]

[4] Non-intentional, natural signs will either pass unnoticed or be answered within the same code system in "real life". On the stage they might also be interpreted verbally by the receiver, for the sake of the audience: "Why do you blush?" [back]

[5] Eco, U. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington, Indiana UP: 1975. [back]

[6] Quotations follow Alan Hughes' New Cambridge Shakespeare. [back]

[7] slash-marks (/) are used to indicate signifieds. [back]

[8] For pleas (and kneeling) as a constant feature of body language in this play see Karr and Reese [back]

[9] Tears as a common symbolic (= not natural) code to communicate with the dead and to communicate one's love to the dead to those that watch will be used again at the end of the play, when Lucius says:

Stand all aloof, but uncle, draw you near
To shed obsequious tears upon this trunk. /
Oh, take this warm kiss on thy pale cold lips, /
These sorrowful drops upon thy bloodstained face, /
The last true duties of thy noble son! [...]
Tear for tear and loving kiss for kiss
Thy brother Marcus tenders on thy lips" (V.3.158ff) [back]

[10] Eco, p. 26 [back]

[11] Wynne-Davies, p. 134 [back]

[12] The effect of the speech may be compared to the effect of an aria in an opera - the usual progress of time is suspended during the performance of the aria, a character may have been stabbed to death but will still continue to sing; it may also be compared to other theatrical conventions such as soliloquies, or longer speeches in general. [back]

[13] Gerald Freedman, according to Dessen, p. 25 [back]

[14] e.g. Deborah Warner, 1987. (Charney, p. xvi) [back]

[15] For Nicholas Broke (p.18) the speech "stands in the place of a choric commentary on that crime, establishing its significance to the play by making an emblem of the mutilated woman", see also Waith, p. 61 [back]

[16] compare also Kendall's essay. [back]

[17] Is it a coincidence that her name could be read as an anagram for "aromat" - "aroma"? [back]

[18] The name "Andronicus" appears in the twelfth century in the Eastern Empire, Bassianus Caracalla died in 217, a Tamora/Tomyris fought against Cyrus in the 6th C. BC etc. [back]

[19] Broude and Bate (p.19f) think that when watching Titus an Elizabethan audience would rather have identified with the Goths, because as a German tribe they would be considered as somehow related to the Angles, Saxons and Jutes, and, in a contemporary context, they could stand as representatives of Protestantism against a Catholic Rome. But the Goths are in no way better people than the Romans in this play. [back]

[20] cf. Aaron's speech in V.1

Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves
And set them upright at their dear friends' door [...]
And on their skins, as on the bark of trees,
Have with my knife carved in Roman letters,
'Let not your sorrow die, though I am dead' (V.1.135ff) [back]

[21] "Zwischen guten und bösen Handlungen gibt es keinen Unterschied der Gattung, sondern höchstens des Grades. Gute Handlungen sind sublimierte böse" (Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, II. Zur Geschichte der moralischen Empfindungen, 107, p. 289, English translation by Helen Zimmern at: [http://www.nietzsche.f2s.com/Nietzsche_human_all_too_human/index.htm]).) [back]

[22] cf. James. Rome's founding myths are based on rape: The rape of Lucrece, The rape of the Sabines, Aeneas and Dido, Aeneas and Lavinia. These are also the myths that are used in this play. [back]

Works cited

Bate, Jonathan, Ed. Titus Andronicus. The Arden Shakespeare, Third Series. London, Routledge: 1995.

Brooke, Nicholas. Shakespeare's Early Tragedies: 1968.

Broude, Ronald. Roman and Goth in Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare Studies: 1970. 6: 27-34.

Charney, Maurice. Titus Andronicus. New York [etc.], Harvester Wheatsheaf: 1990.

Dessen, Alan C. Titus Andronicus. Manchester, New York, Manchester University Press: 1989.

Eco, Umberto. A Theory of Semiotics. Bloomington, Indiana UP: 1979.

Elam, Keir. The Semiotics of Theatre and Drama. London and New York, Routledge: 1987.

Hughes, Alan, Ed. Titus Andronicus. The New Cambridge Shakespeare. Cambirdge, Cambridge University Press: 1994.

James, Heather. "Cultural disintegration in 'Titus Andronicus': mutilating Titus, Vergil and Rome". Violence in Drama. ed. James Redmond. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press: 1991: 123 - 140.

Karr, Judith M. The Pleas in 'Titus Andronicus'. Shakespeare Quarterly: 1963. 14: 278-279.

Kendall, Gillian Murray. "'Lend me thy hand': Metaphor and Mayhem in 'Titus Andronicus'." Shakespeare Quarterly 40(1989): 1989. 299-316.

Nietzsche, Friedrich. Menschliches, Allzumenschliches, II. Zur Geschichte der moralischen Empfindungen, Kap. 107 in Werke in zwei Bänden Band I. München, Carl Hanser: 1967.
(Human, All Too Human, Section II: On the History of Moral Feelings, 107. English translation by Helen Zimmern, 1909-1913.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. "Peirce on Signs". Writings on Semiotics. ed. James Hoopes. Chapel Hill London, The University of North Carolina Press: 1991.

Reese, Jack E. "The Formalization of Horror in 'Titus Andronicus'". Shakespeare Quarterly: 1970. 21.

Sebeok, Thomas A. "Pandora's Box. How and Why to Communicate 10,000 Years into the Future". On Signs. A Semiotic Reader. ed. Marshall Blonsky. Oxford, Basil Blackwell: 1985: 448-466.

Sebeok, Thomas A. An Introduction to Semiotics. London, Pinter: 1994.

Stamm, Rudolf. "Der Gebrauch der Spiegeltechnik in 'Titus Andronicus'." Sprachkunst. Beiträge zur Literaturwissenschaft Heft 4: 1970. 332-357.

Waith, Eugene M., Ed. Titus Andronicus. The Oxford Shakespeare. Oxford, New York, Oxford University Press: 1994.

Wynne-Davies, Marion. "'The Swallowing Womb': Consumed and Consuming Women in 'Titus Andronicus'". The Matter of Difference. Materialist Feminist Criticism of Shakespeare. Valerie Wayne. New York, Harvester Wheatsheaf: 1991: 129-152.

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