Tamora. ... 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!
Andronicus, stain not thy tomb with blood:
Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?
Draw near them then in being merciful:
Sweet mercy is nobility's true badge:
Thrice noble Titus, spare my first-born son.
(Titus Andronicus, 1.1.120-137)
Titus Andronicus seems to be one of those plays that people either hate or have a mild liking or toleration for. Those that love Titus along the lines that people love, say, Hamlet or A Midsummer Night’s Dream appear to be few and far between, but it’s easy to find the haters - Titus’ critical history is full of readers and scholars who wanted to attribute the authorship of the play elsewhere because they could not believe that Shakespeare would dirty his hands with this bloody and downright disgusting tale. And trust me, the gore and grossness is laid on thick - check out a synopsis if you dare. We've got human sacrifice, cannibalism, rape, mutilation, and more murders than you would believe possible. You've been warned.
The poet and critic T.S. Eliot, as quoted in the introduction to the play in the Norton Shakespeare, called it “one of the stupidest and most uninspired plays ever written.” Believe me, I totally understand why someone would dislike this play, but this seems unfair. Surely the themes that Shakespeare is playing on here - revenge and the role of mercy/mercilessness; misplaced sense of duty towards tradition; pride and care for reputation shaping attitudes toward family; the treatment of women - are interesting and thought-provoking.
Today I’m just going to look a little bit at revenge and the lack of mercy in this play. Basically all the violence throughout, except the death of Titus’ son Mutius, results from a need for revenge between Titus and Tamora, captive Queen of the Goths. In this way the moral landscape of the play is not really black and white, because both Tamora and Titus are justified in seeking revenge - both have been hurt by the other. Even though Tamora emerges as a monster of cruelty, plotting and colluding in absolutely atrocious violence, it could be argued that viewed through the lens of a revenge culture, she does nothing wrong. Why should she be faithful to Saturninus? She’s a captive. Why should she show mercy to Titus' daughter Lavinia? Titus showed no mercy to her, ordering her son Alarbus to be killed as a sacrifice.
Mercy is conspicuous in this play by its absence. This is seen in the quotation above, where Tamora begs Titus to mercifully grant the life of her son and he refuses. The terms that uses to describe mercy - Wilt thou draw near the nature of the gods?/ Draw near them then in being merciful - sound really familiar: Valentine from The Two Gentlemen of Verona discusses mercy in just this way. We’ve also seen, from our discussion of Henry VI, another example of mercilessness, in the killing of York’s son Rutland.
A difference between the mercy asked for in Titus and the mercy appealed to in the Christian worlds of both Two Gentlemen and Henry VI is that Titus, though urged to consider heaven and the gods in his decision to grant or deny mercy, believes that his higher religious duty lies in presenting a sacrifice. This culturally condoned mercilessness is what allows for the act of violence that sets off the chain of revenging actions, and ultimately the devastation of “old Titus' sorrowful house" (5.3.2682).