Friday, February 18, 2011

Titus Andronicus - A Play about Family?

Tamora. I'll find a day to massacre them all
And raze their faction and their family,
The cruel father and his traitorous sons,
To whom I sued for my dear son's life,
And make them know what 'tis to let a queen
Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain.

(Titus Andronicus, 1.1.500-505)

Lucius. My lord, you are unjust, and, more than so,
In wrongful quarrel you have slain your son.

Titus Andronicus. Nor thou, nor he, are any sons of mine;
My sons would never so dishonour me:
Traitor, restore Lavinia to the emperor.


I recently watched an old BBC program about Titus that put forward the interpretation that the play, at its heart, is about "the excesses and ambiguities of family relationships." I think I agree with this - it's true that Titus targets Tamora's son for sacrifice due to his family identity, and, as quoted above, that Tamora seeks to revenge herself on Titus by hurting him through the complete distruction of his family. However, on the excesses and ambiguities side, there is a lot more going on here than simple love and loyalty leading to revenge after one of the family members is harmed - rather, I think that the play suggests that both Titus and Tamora look at their families as part and parcel of their individual noble and high reputations and identities.

We can see this in the opening quote from Tamora - clearly she doesn't want her son to be killed. Obviously! But in addition to her natural grief, she also links the loss of her son to an attack on her reputation and status, saying that she'll "make them know what 'tis to let a queen/Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain." She doesn't just want to revenge the death of her son, but to also revenge the slap at her (taking her son away from her). This, to me, seems to suggest that in the world of Titus Andronicus, family shapes the identity of the individual, but kind of in terms of ownership - the leader or parent in the family is built up by their followers within the family, and the leader's reputation is closely involved with the control they exert over their family. When Tamora's son is sacrificed, she not only loses someone she had affection for, but she has lost control over the family because she has no say in his fate.

We see this aspect of control in Titus' relationships with his children as well. Titus grieves for the loss of his sons in the wars, but though he's sad, he had control over the situation - they were fighting in his wars for Rome, and he knew that their deaths were a possible consequence of his actions. Titus' desire for control and his concern for his reputation as linked to his family is even more clearly seen in Titus' reaction to his sons' defence of Bassianus' marriage to their sister Lavinia. TITUS GOES NUTS! He disowns and disinherits them all and even KILLS one of his own sons over the quarrel. Check out how all of Titus' words imply that he defines family as something that brings honor to him and something that he has control over (ie bestowing Lavinia in marriage). When these controls are not in place, Titus' family is no longer his family!

Marcus Andronicus. O Titus, see, O, see what thou hast done!
In a bad quarrel slain a virtuous son.

Titus Andronicus. No, foolish tribune, no; no son of mine,
Nor thou, nor these, confederates in the deed
That hath dishonour'd all our family;
Unworthy brother, and unworthy sons!

Lucius. But let us give him burial, as becomes;
Give Mutius burial with our brethren.

Titus Andronicus. Traitors, away! he rests not in this 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:
Bury him where you can; he comes not here. ....

Titus Andronicus. What, would you bury him in my despite?

Marcus Andronicus. No, noble Titus, but entreat of thee
To pardon Mutius and to bury him.

Titus Andronicus. Marcus, even thou hast struck upon my crest,
And, with these boys, mine honour thou hast wounded:
My foes I do repute you every one;
So, trouble me no more, but get you gone.

It's interesting to note that the effects of Titus' killing of his own son are the same as if someone else had killed him; Titus and his sons and brother are deprived of the company and support of their son, brother and nephew. However, there is no thought of revenge, or even that much soul-searching regret. An act that would be grounds for eternal enmity if perpetrated by someone outside the family group is bad, regrettable, but ultimately forgiveable if commited by the paterfamilias.

All of these examples are from the beginning of the play, but I just want to mention that this control over the lives of the members of the family when it affects the honor of the individual leading the family is demonstrated again by both Titus and Tamora in their respective treatment of Lavinia and Tamora's child by Aaron. Family is valuable; family can support and honor the leader; but ultimately the family is there to support the honor and reputation of that individual. And the followers of the family agree with this, as is shown by Marcus' willingness to sacrifice himself for Titus' honor:

Marcus. The poor remainder of Andronici
Will, hand in hand, all headlong cast us down.
And on the ragged stones beat forth our brains,
And make a mutual closure of our house.


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