Roman or Revenger?: The Definition and Distortion of Masculine Identity in Titus Andronicus

Brecken Rose Hancock
University of New Brunswick

Hancock, Brecken Rose. "Roman or Revenger?: The Definition and Distortion of Masculine Identity in Titus Andronicus." Early Modern Literary Studies 10.1 (May, 2004) 7.1-25<URL:>.


  1. In Titus Andronicus we see Titus fall victim to his own obsessive adherence to romanitas.  By the end of the play, the very qualities he considers to be virtuous – sacrificial piety, constancy, and militarism – are those that lead to tragedy.  He is eventually forced to abandon his moral code when his family is preyed upon by Tamora, her sons, and Aaron.  Coppélia Kahn describes the trajectory of the play as “the story of Titus’s transformation from Roman hero to revenge hero, which he accomplishes by hacking and hewing his way through the tangled matrix of outrages and injures that Tamora spawns” (55).  This insightful analysis of Titus’s development touches on issues that I would like to explore further; Kahn’s implication that there is a definitive difference between “Roman hero” and “revenge hero” is especially relevant to my investigation of masculine identity in Titus.  In this play, the possibilities for masculine identity become archetypes that are set in opposition to one another; the characters do not see a middle ground.  Through his characterization of Titus, and also of Lucius, the son who is to redeem Rome, Shakespeare interrogates the dichotomous construction of “Roman” versus “revenger” in order to destabilize the apparent resolution that emerges out of brutal, pitiless, all-consuming violence.  Significantly, as the chaotic principles of patriarchal violence are repudiated – in Titus’s murder of Lavinia and in his cannibalistic banquet – they are also embraced – in Lucius’s treatment of Tamora’s corpse and Aaron’s living body.  This violent assertion of masculinity leaves no room for a positive resolution to gender tensions, particularly because all the women are destroyed and there is no regenerative hope offered by Lucius’s re-established empire.


  2. From Kahn’s description of Titus as revenge hero, we might develop a definition of a revenger as one who hacks and hews until personal enemies have been destroyed.  On the other hand, Marcus’s definition of a Roman hero, embodied in Titus, emphasizes nobility, bravery, military victory, and service to Rome (1.1.20-41).[1]  At first glance, the Roman hero is more appealing.  Marcus’s description of Titus carries connotations of civility that words such as “hacking” and “hewing” simply do not invoke.  Titus, moreover, is characterized as a Roman hero above all others.  In contrast to the bickering princes, he stands as a proud monument to Rome’s unified achievements, victorious after ten years of war with the Goths.  He represents Rome’s strength as an empire under an “Upright” (1.1.203) ruler.  The celebration that Titus ushers into Rome along with “honour’s spoils” (1.1.39) casts him in a triumphant light; he seems the perfect candidate for emperor.  He is a loyal soldier, statesman, and patriarch who has lost many sons in Rome’s war.  From the beginning, then, we learn that heroism in Rome is deeply rooted in militarism and sacrifice for the good of the empire.

  3. Soon after Titus enters the action, however, Shakespeare complicates the “civility” of Roman heroism by questioning the virtues that seemed so appealing in Marcus’s speech.  Titus does not take long to prove that, for Romans, militarism and sacrifice are not only appropriate on the battlefield.  His “slavish devotion to principle and honor” (Toole 28) quickly leads him to sponsor human sacrifice and to turn his back on his own family in defence of the state.  It becomes clear that filicide is incorporated into Titus’s conception of virtue.  As Kahn points out, the deaths of Alarbus and Mutius “are paralleled: both sons are sacrificed in the name of the fathers, according to a piety that seems not only cruel and irreligious but also a perversion of virtus” (49).  Kahn goes on to label Titus
    a delinquent father whose negligence derives from his over-zealous (and in the killing of his son Mutius, self-contradictory) commitment to those forms of pietas specifically involving men: dedicating all his many sons to the service of the state, insisting on the strict observance of blood sacrifice to their spirits despite a mother’s plea for mercy, opting for primogeniture without considering a rival claim, and defending imperial power even to the point of slaying his own son. (51)
    Titus's actions as Roman hero actually serve to break down the distinctions between Roman and outsider. William W. E. Slights explains that, with Titus's killing of Mutius, "The crucial distinctions between friends and enemies of the state, between the prerogatives of the ruler and the responsibilities of his subjects, between familial bonds and personal honour have been dissolved" (22). Not only does Titus take his own son for an enemy and slay him but, after Saturninus chooses Tamora as his wife, Titus must accept that his prisoners of war have suddenly become fellow citizens and, furthermore, members of the royal family. Tamora is aware of her power and publicly reinforces her status, disguising her threat as a reconciliation speech: "Titus, I am incorporate in Rome, / A Roman now adopted happily, / And must advise the emperor for his good" (1.1.467-69). Although she does not respect Roman virtues, she seems to have mastered them better than Saturninus has. When he wants revenge on Titus for Lavinia's elopement, Tamora cautions her new husband that such action, so soon after Titus supported his campaign for emperorship, may seem to be "ingratitude, / Which Rome reputes to be a heinous sin" (1.1.452-53). Titus, ignorant of Tamora's desire to destroy him, accepts the reconciliation offered by Tamora on the emperor's behalf. He does not want revenge on Saturninus for humiliating him; instead, Titus is content to be back in the emperor's good graces and, consequently, back in the good graces of Rome.

  4. If Roman heroes place state before family, revenge heroes place personal and familial concerns above all others. Because "revenge heroes are inherently decent men [2] reluctant to act outside the law," (Kahn 67), "revenge exists in the margin between justice and crime" (Belsey 165). While we might sympathize with revengers and believe that they pursue justice, they are vigilantes, however reluctant, often committing acts of hyperbolic violence, rather than seeking lawful, measured punishment for their enemies. Procne, for instance, the revenger from whom Titus takes his lead, kills and feeds her own son to her husband for his vicious rape and mutilation of her sister. This murder seems unjust, for the innocent boy was not responsible for his father's crimes.[3] Significantly, the lawful, measured punishment meted out by Titus as Roman hero to his son Mutius for rebelling against imperial power also seems unjust. In this way, Shakespeare blurs the distinction between state-sanctioned execution and murder, between Roman and revenger. Although Mutius's death is horrific in its own right, Rome does not reprimand Titus for his action. Only Titus's son, Mutius's brother, accuses Titus of being "unjust, and more than so" (1.1.297), and aside from Bassianus's plea to Saturninus, where he cites Mutius's execution as proof of Titus's loyalty to the empire, the death goes unacknowledged. One wonders if this might be Shakespeare's commentary on the violence sanctioned by the crown in Elizabethan England. Jonathan Bate, commenting on the revenge plot rather than on the execution of Mutius, asks, "Would playgoers have drawn comparisons between the revenger's ritualized violence and the ritualized violence that they were familiar with in real life? . . . The ritualized violence which an Elizabethan audience would have known best was public execution, itself a highly theatrical activity" (Introduction 23). He goes on to say that "By casting revenge in the form of an elaborate public performance, the drama reveals that the public performance known as the law is also a form of revenge action" (24) [4]. Shakespeare, by overlapping the injustices of murder and execution, is able to criticize thoroughly the traditions of violence in both Roman heroism and revenge heroism.

  5. Although it is framed as execution, Titus's killing of Mutius is also a "revenge action" against the son who betrayed him; in Titus's exaggerated punishment of the boy who was his "joy" (1.1.387) we might recognize Lear's abandonment of Cordelia, the daughter he loved most and hoped to live with in his old age (Lear 1.1.123-24) [5]. Both Titus and Lear are on the threshold of change – Titus is home from war and his emperor is dead; Lear is ready to relinquish his crown and must divide his kingdom among his daughters – and both men are counting on their children to see them obediently through. In Titus Bassianus and Saturninus represent the future; the strength of the empire depends on which one will be chosen to succeed their father. Titus represents the past, a past he feels he can maintain by continuing to adhere strictly to his Roman moral code; in particular, he feels that the only way for Rome to proceed is to continue to support primogeniture and absolute imperial power.

  6. It is not a coincidence that the son Titus executes is named "Mutius." Not only does Shakespeare recall Mutius Scaevola, who demonstrated the bravery of young men in Rome by unflinchingly burning off his own hand in the face of his enemy, but he alludes to a string of associated words that are intricately linked with the matter of the play; Mutius's death prefigures the "muteness" and "mutilation" that will plague the Andronici. Ironically, considering that Mutius's namesake is known for dramatically proving his loyalty to Rome, the name also implies "mutiny," the crime of which Titus accuses his son. It might also seem to Titus that his son is "mutable," or "Inconstant in mind, will, or disposition" (OED) to wound so traitorously the "honour" (1.1.370) of his father. Lastly, but I believe not least importantly, "Mutius" holds the Latin root of all these words, that is, "mutare," "to change" (OED). Mutius embodies the unpredictability of the upcoming empire where princes fight each other for the emperorship of Rome; plebeians turn their backs on tradition and elect a soldier as their leader; citizens contest the right of the emperor to choose his own bride; and sons turn against their fathers in order to protect beliefs that conflict with the law. When Titus at first refuses to allow Mutius proper burial, he cites the historical significance of the tomb:
    This monument five hundred years hath stood,
    Which I have sumptuously re-edified.
    Here none but soldiers and Rome's servitors
    Repose in fame; none basely slain in brawls. (1.1.355-58)
    Titus is cleaving to tradition; he may have re-edified the tomb, but he does not want to re-define it. Finally, when he realizes that his sons and brother will not be satisfied until Mutius is properly buried, or perhaps when Marcus accuses him of being "barbarous" (1.1.383), he resigns himself to their will; however, although Titus eventually submits to change, and therefore yields to Marcus's definition of Mutius as a "virtuous son" (1.1.347), he does not accept it contentedly. In fact, Titus sees the entry of Mutius into the sacred monument as a portent of his own doom: "The dismall'st day is this that e'er I saw: / To be dishonoured by my sons in Rome! / Well, bury him, and bury me the next" (1.1.389-91).

  7. Kahn characterizes Titus’s reluctance to allow Mutius burial as “The father’s exaggerated investment in the patriarchal order”; furthermore, she sees that investment as “commandingly represented onstage by the tomb of the Andronici” (52).  As Marcus pleads alongside Titus’s sons outside the monument, it once again becomes clear that Titus values duty to the state above personal loyalty to the family.  Kahn thus argues that the tomb represents “the subordination of the family to the military needs of the state” (52).  In Titus’s transformation from Roman hero to revenge hero, however, he completely reverses his feelings about state and family.  Rather than defining himself as a Roman first and a father second, he places the wrongs his family has endured above his duty to protect the state.  Titus’s transformation, then, reveals some distinctions between Roman and revenger; although both traditions are violent, the motivation for violence arises differently and out of different spheres.  In other words, there is a conflict between professional and personal duty, between the public and the domestic sphere.

  8. Titus’s transformation from one kind of hero into another is inextricably linked to what Ann Christensen terms Titus’s “descent into private life” (330).  While Titus is no stranger to “hacking and hewing” at the beginning of the play – he has just come back from a decade-long war, after all – his bloody massacring has been done in Rome’s name.  When he appears on stage and begins lopping and slaying, he does so according to “Roman rites” (1.1.146) and the laws of Rome.  In contrast, by the end of the play, Titus “commit[s] treason” in acting against the empire when he seeks revenge (Kahn 67).  He specifically locates his motivation for violence in his wounded family when he facetiously implores Tamora/Revenge: “I pray thee, do on [the empress and her sons] some violent death: / They have been violent to me and mine” (5.2.108-09).  Titus will eventually kill Tamora as a father; his sacrifice of Alarbus was as a statesman.

  9. The sacrifice of Alarbus marks our ambiguous introduction to Titus.  He is clearly the hero of the play; yet Tamora’s accusation of “cruel, irreligious piety” seems justified.  Waith describes this ambiguity as “the first of many double visions of [Titus]. . . this is no clear-cut case of the good man going wrong.  We see a collision of two sets of values, neither of which should necessarily prevail in all circumstances” (161).  Titus’s set of values encompasses even his questionable actions of the first scene, including the execution of his “Traitor[ous]” (1.1.301) son.  Although Shakespeare “clearly indicates that we are meant to see [Titus] as an unpleasantly noble, misguided man [whose] pride and piety blind him to, or make him incapable of displaying, more human qualities,” he retains his status as Roman hero because the violence he perpetrates is sanctioned by the empire (Toole 27).  In addition to our perception of Titus as “unpleasantly noble” and “misguided,” we are also meant to keep in mind that he is a soldier returning from war, a soldier who has been away from civilization for a long time.  Five speeches within the first 190 lines of the play feature his triumphs and victories on the battlefield.  His execution of Mutius is thus framed within the context of Titus’s lifestyle of conflict: the person who threatens one with a sword is the enemy; the enemy must be destroyed.

  10. Out of Titus’s violent actions arises another distinction between revenger and Roman hero: Titus’s behaviour draws our attention to the climate of violence, the spirit in which violence is committed.  Romans are ceremonial and lawful; their motivation for violence is not vengeance.  In fact, Titus does not even seem to understand revenge at first.  Rather than fear the possibility that Tamora may wish him harm for the death of her son, he assumes she will be “beholden to the man / That brought her for this high good turn so far” (1.1.401-02).  Toole labels this naïveté “incredibly stupid,” but goes on to say that Titus’s obtuseness, exasperating as it is, helps to redeem his character. 
    It becomes obvious that the sacrifice of Alarbus was a matter of principle, not an act of malice or of personal revenge. . . . Titus is anything but a hypocrite.  If he has been responsible for the death of Tamora’s son, he has also, as a matter of principle, slain one of his own sons.  (28)
    Violence in Rome is institutionalized, so Romans do not expect revenge as a response to sacrifice and execution; in fact, the sacrifice of Alarbus and the execution of Mutius are meant to purify the community and prevent future violence by appeasing the “groaning shadows that are gone” (1.1.129) and purging Rome of “Traitor[s].”  Slights, applying the work of anthropologist René Girard, defines this as both the “sacrificial rite of purification” and as “sacred violence” (19).

  11. This “sacred violence” is sharply differentiated from “vengeful, competitive violence that. . . is self-perpetuating” (Slights 19).  Revengers are thirsty for blood, are willing to wait for an opportunity for retaliation, and hold bitter, relentless grudges against their enemies.  Unlike Titus’s Roman sons, who are angry at Titus for killing their brother but do not even consider retribution, Demetrius immediately calms his mother after the death of Alarbus with the possibility that she might one day be armed “With opportunity of sharp revenge” (1.1.140).  While as Roman hero Titus’s “probity makes it difficult for him to suspect duplicity in others” (Price 75), namely the revenge plot that Tamora instigates with her aside to Saturninus, “let me alone: / I’ll find a day to massacre them all” (1.1.454-55), he becomes well-educated in duplicity as he more firmly defines himself as revenger.  By the time Tamora comes to him posing as Revenge in Act Five, he immediately sees through her disguise. 

  12. Because he has Tamora disguised as Revenge, Shakespeare connects revenge with women, and thus sets up another difference between revenge and the overtly masculine principles of Roman heroism.  In contrast to the state-sanctioned violence of the first scene, the violence that dominates the rest of the play is feminized.  It is appropriate that Tamora takes the part of Revenge, for she is the first revenger to be introduced, and the mother who sets the entire revenge tragedy moving when she swears she will destroy Titus and his family for the murder of her son.  This association of revenge with women recalls Christensen’s argument about Titus’s “descent into private life” (330).  Not only is revenge’s violence personally, rather than politically, motivated, but it is also domesticated through its association with women, in particular motherhood and female sexuality.  The language that Tamora uses to convince Titus that she is Revenge is particularly revealing; as Bate notes (Introduction 254), she re-introduces the pit imagery from Act Two, Scene Two:
    There’s not a hollow cave or lurking place,
    No vast obscurity or misty vale
    Where bloody murder or detested rape
    Can couch for fear, but I will find them out. . . (5.2.35-38)
    It is perhaps fitting that Revenge will seek out murderers and rapists in caves, for Titus has already said that Revenge itself resides in a cave (3.1.271).  These caves, lurking places, obscurities, and misty vales recall the “swallowing womb” where Bassianus was found dead and Titus’s sons were trapped.

  13. The womb’s “cave” is both the hiding place for evil-doers and the residence of revenge.  Two other references to “cave” in Titus reinforce this relationship.  Tamora describes a “counsel-keeping cave” (2.3.24) for her “amorous retreat” with Aaron (Christensen 334), and Aaron says he will “cabin in a cave” (4.2.181) with his newborn child.  Again the “counsel-keeping cave” is associated with Tamora and it “retains its evocation of the pit and, hence, female sexuality”; Aaron’s desire to nurture his child in a cave reminds us that it is not only revenge that is associated with women, but the racialized Other as well (Christensen 334-35).[6]  Furthermore, Aaron and his child are perceived as “incarnate devil[s]” (4.2.66,5.1.40); it is appropriate, then, that these two “foes” and “foul offender[s]” (5.2.32,40) would seek “cabin” in a cave.  In the end, however, Tamora is the evil-doer whom Titus’s revenge “find[s] out” (5.2.38).  Her cave, her womb – “the word also means stomach” (Kahn 70) – will literally become the residence of revenge when Titus feeds the mother her own sons baked in a pie.

  14. As Titus stands, apparently transformed into the revenge hero, costumed as a cook, over the bloody pies he has made himself, his attire "is an ironic inversion of the robes of state he had refused in the opening scene" (Christensen 330). Because, as Christensen informs us, "the chores related to food provision were almost universally allotted to housewives [in Renaissance England]" (328), Shakespeare portrays Titus as domesticated and feminized. He not only "play[s] the cook" (5.2.204), but plays the mother as well. His fall from the position of Roman hero begins when he refuses to become emperor, opting for retirement instead. Because his power has been weakened, his family becomes the prey of the newly-crowned empress and her sons. He is then forced to take on a nurturing role, reading to Lavinia (3.2.82-84) and "interpret[ing] all her martyred signs" (3.2.36). As Christensen emphasizes, however, "nurturance is not only taken up by men, but it is altogether inverted, making 'that strumpet, your unhallowed dam, / Like to the earth swallow her own increase' (5.2.190-1)" (333). Titus, although he plays the cook in the last scene, "deploys theatricality and deception in a banquet of revenge; he offers meals not intended to nourish; and he takes on this nurturing role in response to his weakened political power" (Christensen 332). Not only does his "wholly domestic identity [come] at the expense of women" (332), but he also usurps Procne and Philomel from the original myth (342) by appropriating Lavinia's sorrow and her revenge. Kahn argues that this usurpation of the female role by Titus "reveals Shakespeare's effacement of female agency in his selective retention and deletion of elements in the stories of women" (62). [7]

  15. Titus's conversion from Roman to revenger not only distorts his masculine identity as it is defined when he returns to Rome a victorious hero, but it also distorts the identities of mothers and potential mothers in the play; on the other hand, in spite of his costume, we must recognize that some of the changes that Titus undergoes during his transformation from Roman hero to revenge hero are welcome. Titus comes to recognize his role in Rome's downfall – "Ah, Rome! Well, well, I made thee miserable / What time I threw the people's suffrages / On him that thus doth tyrannize o'er me" (4.3.18-20), and he becomes a self-sacrificing father who gives up his own hand to save the lives of his sons – marking a drastic evolution from the time he executed Mutius to save his own reputation. In this way, Shakespeare challenges the absolutes of masculine identity, forcing his audience to consider a middle ground where the male hero wins our sympathy by adopting aspects of the female.

  16. While both Titus's recognition of his mistake in appointing Saturninus and his sacrifice to save his sons seem to indicate that he has achieved self-recognition, his behaviour at the end of the play causes us to re-evaluate his dynamism as a character. Titus's killing of Lavinia is especially troubling. Still, although Titus is not admirable, there are ways in which we might read his killing of Lavinia that cast him in a sympathetic light. Albert H. Tricomi, for instance, argues that
    Titus’ slaying of his own dishonored daughter out of pity before he is himself slain is tacit recognition that this world which has made a mangled ruin of their bodies has also transformed them utterly in spirit.  With their thirst for revenge sated, there is nothing left for either Lavinia or the maddened Titus but the surcease of sorrow in death. (102)
    Tricomi’s argument is supported by Lavinia herself before she is silenced, for “Lavinia knows that being murdered is better than being subjected to a ‘worse than killing lust’ [2.2.175] that will deprive her of her reason for living” (Stimpson 59).  Indeed, after the slaughter of Bassianus and before she is dragged offstage to be raped and mutilated, Lavinia entreats Tamora, “with thine own hands kill me in this place. / For ’tis not life that I have begged so long; / Poor I was slain when Bassianus died” (2.2.169-71).  Perhaps in interpreting all Lavinia’s martyred signs (3.2.36), Titus understands best that in her misery she wishes for death:
    Thou map of woe, that thus dost talk in signs,
    When thy poor heart beats with outrageous beating,
    Thou canst not strike it thus to make it still.
    Wound it with sighing, girl, kill it with groans,
    Or get some little knife between thy teeth
    And just against thy heart make thou a hole,
    That all the tears that thy poor eyes let fall
    May run into that sink and, soaking in,
    Drown the lamenting fool in sea-salt tears. (3.2.12-20)
    Although Marcus is appalled that his brother would teach Lavinia to “lay / Such violent hands upon her tender life” (3.2.21-22), Titus knows that without hands, his daughter is without the agency to take her own life (3.2.25).[8]  Lavinia’s “lopped, wandering hands. . . function within a Renaissance tradition of manual semiotics. . . articulated through sixteenth-century emblem books, heraldry, genealogical charts, and ritual gestures. . . [that makes] the capacity for effective action contingent on disability” (Rowe 280).  Even Demetrius and Chiron recognize this contingency, for they taunt that “Not only is Lavinia denied the means of self-expression, but her ability to claim death and the absence it creates, with all its purport of deconstructive power, is eliminated” (Wynne-Davies 215):
    Chiron:        And ’twere my cause, I should go hang myself.
    Demetrius:  If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.  (2.2.9-10)
    It seems to me, then, that the speech in which Titus teaches Lavinia how she might kill herself is a veiled offer to lend her the agency his remaining hand can provide.  When she refuses drink at line 35 (perhaps her own idea on how to commit suicide) we might interpret this as her assent to Titus’s offer.

  17. Even if Titus and Lavinia do have an unspoken agreement about her death, his lines at the banquet before he kills her make it impossible to identify with him.  Finally we must realize that the metamorphosis of Titus is abortive; he never manages to escape his earth-bound prejudices.  Although on one level we can agree with Christensen’s argument that Titus’s “cook’s costume is an ironic inversion of the robes of state he had refused in the opening scene” (330), we must recognize that his cook’s costume is also a re-invention of those official robes of power.  While the cook’s uniform he dons seems to be the antithesis of the palliament when he first enters the scene, soon Titus rhetorically transforms his costume into official Roman garb when he addresses Saturninus: “Was it well done of rash Viginius / To slay his daughter with his own right hand, / Because she was enforced, stained and deflowered?” (5.3.36-38).[9]  Thus, we learn Titus is still constructing himself as Roman hero, and, as attractive as Kahn’s argument is, it is unpersuasive.  In the end, Titus does not know who he is.  He carries out a revenge plot, but also kills his daughter while following the “pattern, precedent, and lively warrant” (5.3.43) of Romans who have gone before him.  Titus may have learned to value his family, but his time as nurturer has not profoundly re-educated him.  Filicide in the name of Roman tradition is still written in his rule book of “bloody lines” that “shall be executed” (5.2.14, 15) – and he continues to defer to the state when he asks the emperor’s permission first.

  18. In the end, neither the Roman hero nor the revenge hero is satisfying; both sets of values embrace unjustifiable violence.  Moreover, in the final scene, Shakespeare shatters the barriers between Roman and revenger altogether when Titus recites Roman tradition only twelve lines before he takes revenge on Tamora, informing her that she has eaten “the flesh that she herself hath bred” (5.3.61) and killing her.  This dissolution of boundaries is unsettling, for we can take comfort in neither Titus’s entry into the play, nor his exit out of it, and, in fact, there does not seem to be much difference.  If he reaches self-recognition, learning to abandon blind obedience to the state and to value his family, it is only to sacrifice it again in the name of Roman virtue.


  19. Shakespeare further disturbs the apparent restorative order at the end of Titus in his characterization of Lucius, the man who is to redeem Rome.  In the collapse of the distinction between Roman and revenger, Shakespeare creates a hovering tempest of clashing values that threatens to agitate violently the surface of apparent order: Lucius stands aloft, Rome’s new “royal emperor” and “gracious governor” (5.3.140, 145) announcing vicious punishments for his enemies.  He too embodies the dual identity of Roman hero and revenge hero that we see in Titus.  He is Roman in his martial prowess – he manages to convince an army of enemies to follow him into battle – but revenger in his thirst for blood, which he displays from the beginning when he calls for, and then revels in, the mutilation of Tamora’s eldest: “Alarbus’ limbs are lopped / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire, / Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky” (1.1.146-48).  Anthony Brian Taylor, in his article “Lucius, The Severely Flawed Redeemer of Titus Andronicus” asks of this speech, “What kind of brutal and coarse mentality is it, one wonders, that allows a man to compare the smell of burning human entrails with ‘incense’[?]” (142).[10]  Beyond Lucius’s actions in the first scene, we realize by the time he repatriates Rome and manages to become emperor, that he is “just another vindictive character. . . bent more on devising inhuman punishments to settle old scores than on healing Rome’s wounds” (White 360).  Indeed, in sentencing Aaron and Tamora he does not even bother to mention sacrificial piety or “Roman rites” (1.1.146); vengeance remains the governing motivation for violence.

  20. Because of Lucius’s behaviour throughout the play, he not only embodies both Roman hero and revenge hero but he complicates the notion of “heroism” all together.  His revenge on the living body of Aaron and the dead body of Tamora in his last speeches recalls Saturninus’s first moments as emperor when he desired revenge on Titus.  Molly Easo Smith also sees a connection between Lucius and Saturninus:
    Lucius’s crowning simply presents a superficial solution similar to Saturninus’s at the beginning of the play. . . . And even as we perceived Satruninus as an inappropriate choice because of his feud with his brother and his first act of revenge. . . we are reminded of Lucius’s role as revenger in the opening scene. (321).
    This parallel between Lucius and Saturninus does not bode well for Rome, considering that Saturninus “rules over a city which devours its children – figuratively by consigning them to the gaping maw of the Andronici tomb, and literally by serving them in the bloody banquet at play’s end” (Miola 94).[11]

  21. In addition to Lucius’s parallel with Saturninus, we might draw comparisons between Lucius and the Goths: Chiron, Demetrius, and Tamora.  For instance, Taylor argues that
    There is a correspondence between the sacrifice of Alarbus and the rape of Lavinia: in the one, Lucius, with the approval of his father, gives vent to his bloodthirsty nature by butchering the brother of Chiron and Demetrius in the city; in the other, the two Goths, with the approval of their mother, express their “barbarous” nature by their ferocious treatment of his sister in the forest.  (142-43)
    I would argue that Shakespeare further parallels Lucius’s actions with the rape of Lavinia when Lucius threatens to kill Aaron’s innocent child in order to punish the father.  Lucius orders:
    First hang the child, that he may see it sprawl:
    A sight to vex the father’s soul withal.
    Get me a ladder. (5.1.51-53)
    The language in this speech distinctly recalls the brutal taunting of Lavinia by Chiron and Demetrius:
    Demetrius:        See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl.
    . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
    Chiron:             And ’twere my cause, I should go hang myself.
    Demetrius:        If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord. (2.2.5-10)
  22. Lucius’s words recall the taunting of Chiron and Demetrius in his wish to hang the child, but, more significantly, in his use of the word “sprawl,” which echoes the earlier “scrawl,” or “scrowle” as it was written in the First Quarto.  Although Shakespeare’s wordplay usually does not require the audience to recall a word from three acts earlier, I believe Demetrius’s use of scrawl/scrowle is particularly memorable – it “stands apart from the rest” (Stamm 326) – because it so accurately describes Lavinia’s plight and the difficulties she will have in identifying her murderers.  Although “scrowle” is an alternate spelling of both “scrawl” and “scroll,” Mary Laughlin Fawcett argues that, in this case, the word takes on a new definition:
    Lavinia’s “signs” are more than scowls or scolds, while her “tokens” are less than, or different from, scrawls or scrolls. [Demetrius’s] quibble locates an area of language that is not spoken and not written, not closed and not open, not syntactical and yet not meaningless.  (Fawcett 261)
    The word, then, is embedded in our memories waiting to be recalled when Lucius encounters Aaron and his child.  Shakespeare has mirrored Demetrius’s language in order to indicate subtly Lucius’s callous hypocrisy.  In his hypocrisy, Lucius aligns himself with Tamora, particularly in his last speech when he “throw[s] [Tamora] forth to beasts and birds to prey” (5.3.197), for, as Taylor points out, “Having characteristically prohibited ‘pity’ in the onlookers’ response to Aaron’s cries as he starves to death, Lucius in almost the next breath damns Tamora for being ‘devoid of pity’” (155).

  23. Lucius’s parallels with Saturninus, Chiron, Demetrius, and Tamora are fascinating in their implications for the resolution of the play.  Instead of a one-dimensional saviour, he is multi-faceted, a complex character who hosts a complicated conclusion to the play.  Although Lucius’s flaws are obvious, his virtues are just as evident.  Lucius’s name is significant in that it means light and his namesake was the first king to introduce Christianity to Britain (White 356).  Bate argues that “In the paralysis at the climax of the bloody banquet, Lucius is the obvious figure to turn to, not only because he holds the cards but also because the play has set up the Andronici as ‘popular’ figures (Marcus is a Tribune) and has set up Lucius in particular as a restorer of Rome” (“A Reply” 331).  Aside from his name and the reputation of his family, Lucius’s actions themselves are evidence that he possesses virtue.  Stephen J. Teller documents Lucius’s many good deeds throughout the play:
    he calms Saturnine, who is about to call his followers to arms; he supports Bassianus’ claim to Lavinia; . . . he pleads for Mutius’ burial in the monument; . . . he justifies to Saturnine his part in Lavinia’s abduction. . . . He offers his own hand to save his brothers. (350-51)
    Teller’s argument culminates in Lucius’s decision to spare Aaron’s child; it is the third plea within the play for the life of a child, and it is the first one that is granted.  Miola, as well, sees this as the ultimate indication that Lucius is the man who will restore order to Rome: “appropriately, he is depicted as one who is gentle with his own offspring and who pointedly refuses to devour the offspring of another – the bastard son of Aaron” (94).

  24. This, however, is where things become ambiguous; it is clear from Lucius’s first impulse to hang Aaron’s child brutally that he does no such thing as “pointedly refuse to devour the offspring of another.”  If we grant that Lucius exhibits many good qualities, and it is clear that he does,[12] we cannot automatically include his sparing of Aaron’s child among them.  The end of the play, for instance, does not clearly indicate whether or not Lucius has kept his promise.  Lucius brings the child out as a spectacle in order to emphasize the immorality of Tamora and Aaron and to demonstrate that Titus was right to revenge “These wrongs unspeakable, past patience, / Or more than any living man could bear” (5.3.124-25).  The innocent child is pointed to as an incarnation of the evil deeds of Aaron, but it is not explicitly stated that the child is alive.  In fact, it seems quite possible that the child is dead; at least one director thought so.  Jane Howell, for the BBC production, had a coffin brought onstage with the remains of the child inside; Ann Christensen explains that Howell’s dramatic accommodation for the lack of stage directions regarding the infant “jibes with [her] reading of the play, for the Emperor Lucius seems. . . an unreliable nurse” (352).  Christensen’s thesis rests on the fact that men – Titus, Aaron, and Lucius – take over nurturing roles, thereby displacing women from the domestic sphere and resulting in the “perversion or deprivation of women’s nurturing ability [that] structures the play” (333).  The resolution of the play, then, is not only unconvincing because Lucius is flawed, or even because some of his characteristics mimic those of villains, but because his usurpation of female roles has absented, or debilitated, every woman in the play (Christensen 348).

  25. If Lucius gains our sympathy because he is a good father to his son, even “Stereotypically feminine in [his] overtones of nurturance [at 5.3.159-65]” (Hunt 88), and Titus gains our sympathy by adopting a mothering role, they each do so at the expense of women in the play: Lavinia is killed and Tamora is forced to experience a reverse labour before her own murder.  In identifying with the Roman- and revenge-plots of the Andronici, we are forced to accept their stories instead of the stories of women: “Titus represents acts of nurturance always by supplanting women with men as providers of nurture, and shows this replacement to be disastrous” (Christensen 332).  Lucius, in spite of his role as nurturer to both young Lucius and Rome, is a violent, unreliable patriarch without a female counterpart.  Vengeance is still the governing principal and Rome, in the end, is doomed, for it is without women and therefore without a way to be reborn.

                                                                    Works Cited

I am grateful to William W. E. Slights for his editorial guidance, advice, and encouragement.

[1] All citations are from Titus Andronicus from Bate’s Arden edition.

[2] Here I would add that women can also be “inherently decent” revenge heroes, especially considering that, for Titus, Procne is the prototypical revenger.

[3] With Procne’s revenge, filicide is introduced into the revenger’s set of values as well.  While Titus’s murder of Chiron and Demetrius targets the actual perpetrators of Lavinia’s rape and mutilation, his killing of Lavinia mimics Procne’s filicide of her innocent son.

[4] Francis Barker’s thesis contradicts the speculation that Shakespeare could have been criticising state-sanctioned violence in England.  He comments extensively on the death of the Clown in 4.4; a careless execution order is given by Saturninus that parallels the violence committed by the Elizabethan and Jacobean crown.  Barker suggests that “the lack of affect associated with the demise of the Clown in Titus Andronicus makes it casual. . . part of the routine, ‘natural’ landscape and lifescape of the poet” (255).  He further argues that “the graphic violence of the drama serves to direct attention away from, rather than toward, the elimination of huge numbers of the population” (253).

[5] All citations of Shakespeare’s plays, other than Titus Andronicus, are from The Riverside Shakespeare.

[6] Christensen’s argument does not ignore that, although Aaron’s reference to the cave where he will nurture his son “associat[es] the black man with women in the play” (334-35), Aaron is a decidedly masculine nurturer who will “bring [his son] up / To be a warrior and command a camp” (4.2.181-82).  She sees this as a displacement of feminine nurture where “a cave replaces the household, the father replaces the mother” (334).

[7] Kahn has a wonderful section in “The Daughter’s Seduction” that compares Lavinia’s agency, or lack thereof, to that of her female counterparts, Cornelia, Hecuba, Philomel, Lucrece, and Verginia (61-72).

[8] Gillian Murray Kendall explicitly disagrees with the argument that Lavinia is without agency, stating that “Lavinia, like Lucrece, once having exposed her rapists, could kill herself.  Indeed, her father has taught her how” (314).  I would counter, however, that Titus’s suggestion that she take a knife between her teeth and stab herself is hardly feasible, and that Shakespeare does not mean for his audience to take this as literal advice.

[9] In addition, Titus carries out his personal revenge publicly.  This mirrors his entombment of his sons in the first scene while all of Rome looks on, but, as Christensen says, it is in contrast to the revenge supper arranged privately by Procne and Philomel in the Metamorphoses (342).

[10] I am much indebted to Taylor for this section of my paper where I argue that Lucius embodies conflicting identities; however, as I will discuss later, I do not believe that this is the only way to read Lucius and am in agreement with Bate who says, “Shakespeare was never a didactic or a monovocal dramatist. Even this early in his career, he sees both sides of a question. . . . I remain convinced that both the positive and negative readings of Lucius. . . are there in the play, and that the concomitant indetermination of value‑judgement is one of the play’s excellencies” (“‘Lucius, The Severely Flawed Redeemer of Titus Andronicus’: A Reply” 331-32).

[11] Miola does not make this comparison between Saturninus and Lucius.  He goes on from this description of Rome’s former emperor to say, “Significantly it is Titus’s son, Lucius, who stops the hideous feeding, the ghastly acts of impiety which lead ultimately to the death of the city” (94).  Christensen’s take on Lucius complicates Miola’s argument; she concedes that in a literal sense Miola’s point about Lucius is true, but reveals the symbolic malevolence of Lucius’s actions:

Lucius’s new Roman order swings dialectically to end feeding altogether. . . . State-sponsored starvation presents a fitting cap to this banquet which has served vengeance rather than nutriment in defiance of the terms of its invitation: ‘ordained to an honorable end / For peace, for love, for league, and good to Rome’ [5.3.22-23]. (347)

[12] Dorothea Kehler does not see any morality within Lucius:

Rather than reading moral fibre into one of Titus’s most violent characters, a more promising approach is to accept the play as problematic and open-ended.  The ethical cost of restored order may well be too high.  Moreover, Lucius’s penchant for observing ‘Our Roman rites’ may leave spectators wondering whether order will survive the entry of the next Tamora and Alarbus into Rome. (130)

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© 2004-, Matthew Steggle (Editor, EMLS).