“Violence in Titus Andronicus” by Michaela Conelly

Titus Andronicus presents a culminating succession of violence serves as its most defining characteristic.  During the first act, Titus Andronicus presents the audience with the violent deaths of Tamora’s son Alarbus and Titus’s son Mutius, and the overwhelming violence which follows has struck generations of audiences as shocking and even gratuitous.  However, the violence presented in Titus Andronicus is central to the play.  Throughout Titus Andronicus, Tamora’s brutality not only threatens Titus, but also it challenges his devotion to Rome.  Titus’s violence at the beginning of the play inaugurates a cycle of violence between him and Tamora, which serves as the catalyst for the subsequent atrocities committed throughout the play.  However, while violence is both the source and a symptom of Rome’s social issues, the cycle of violence committed by Titus and Tamora eventually results in Rome’s cleansing as a nation and renewed stability.   Although Shakespeare portrays violence as a destructive force, the violence in Titus Andronicus also serves as a purgative for Rome and proves to be the only factor capable of saving Rome from decline.  Throughout Titus Andronicus, the violence cycle can be divided into two stages – the destructive cycle and the cleansing cycle –, and Shakespeare illustrates both stages of the violence cycle through the escalating atrocities committed by his characters, beginning with the murder of Tamora’s son, appearing to end with the deaths of Titus, Tamora, and their families, and culminating with the death of Aaron.

The first and, perhaps most important, act of violence in the play is Titus’ sacrifice of Tamora’s son Alarbus as retribution for his sons lost during the war with the Goths.  Tamora pleads before Titus in an attempt to save her oldest from death, crying out “Stay, Roman brethren, 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” (1.1.104-108).  Tamora’s desperation reveals the only vulnerability that the audience witnesses from her throughout the play, and, despite her begging, Titus continues with his decision to sacrifice her son.  However, Titus’ lack of mercy towards Tamora and her son only results in Tamora’s desire for revenge.  

In his essay “Titus Andronicus and the Nightmares of Violence and Consumption,” Steven Gregg writes that 

In the first of several incidents of violence to take place off-stage, the sons return, and Lucius reports that ‘we have performed / Our Roman rites:  Alarbus’ limbs are lopped / And entrails feed the sacrificing fire’ (1.1.145-7).  This gory image is the origin of the double revenge cycle the play depicts . . . . In the execution of Alarbus, Lucius and his brothers justify their actions as ritualistic, while the audience could easily interpret them as the Goths do, as primitive.  The difference in the way in which the murder of Alarbus is interpreted by the Romans and the Goths is crucial; what Lucius considers his ‘Roman rites’ are viewed as an act of barbarity by Tamora and her sons. (5)

When Titus orders the sacrifice of Tamora’s son, the queen of the Goths decries Titus for his “cruel, irreligious piety” (1.1.33).  Violence is heavily ingrained into the ritualistic culture of Rome, and violence is part of the Roman ideology of Titus and his sons. While Alarbus’ death is considered by Titus and his sons as fair retribution within their culture, the Gothic Tamora and her sons consider the sacrifice to be barbaric.  

In his essay “Titus Andronicus and the Violence of Tragedy,” Paul Innes writes that “[T]he imperial Roman state is shown to be anything but civil, since civil war always seems to lurk beneath the surface when an emperor dies, and when a conquering general returns from campaign.  The continuous possibility of internecine strife degrades the supposed high civilization of Rome from within . . . The barbarism demonstrated by Titus when he sacrifices Alarbus in revenge for his family’s losses in the wars will return to haunt him and his when Saturninus falls for Tamora” (2).  Shortly after Titus sacrifices Tamora’s son, the same ritualism that compels him to kill Alarbus forces him to commit filicide against his son Mutius for defying his decision to marry Lavinia off to Saturninus.  However, this second act of violence is punished by Saturninus who ultimately rejects Lavinia as his queen and instead chooses Tamora as empress.    

Immediately, the audience is presented with an act of sacrifice and an act of filicide.  Gregg writes that “The first act of on-stage violence is filicide, and yet this is another example of the same systemic violence that propels Alarbus to his death . . . . The honor code of Roman law suggests, in principal, that Titus can murder his son for dishonoring him.  However, in being committed by Titus upon a Roman, the act moves from the realm of objective violence to that of subjective violence; its culprit can be clearly identified, instead of being part of the faceless systemic violence upon which Rome is built” (6).  Titus reveals his brutality through the murder of Mutius, an action that Lucius admonishes his father for, saying “My lord, you are unjust, and more than so / In wrongful quarrel you have slain your son” (1.1.292-293).  Though Titus has the right under Roman law to commit filicide, this does not put him in the moral right, shown by Lucius’ rebuke of his father’s actions.  Not only does Lucius chastise his father, but Saturninus also rebukes the Andronici patriarch stating that “I’ll trust by leisure him that mocks me once, / Thee never, nor thy traitorous haughty sons” (1.1.301-302).  Saturninus relinquishes Lavinia back to his brother and chooses to take Tamora as his wife, an act that not only insults Titus but also sets Tamora’s plan for vengeance into motion.  

The murders of Alarbus and Mutius perpetuate the cycle of violence and the destabilization of Rome, respectively.  When Titus ignores Tamora’s pleas for mercy, all sense of compassion leaves Tamora, and she vows revenge on the Andronici, saying that “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” (1.1.449-452).  Tamora’s vow for vengeance inaugurates the succession of atrocities committed between her and Titus, consequences that could have been avoided had Titus spared her son.  Additionally, Mutius’ death furthers the destabilization of Rome since Titus’ filicide results in Saturninus’ marrying Tamora, who is a Goth instead of a Roman.  Therefore, violence causes all of the issues that plague the Roman society of Titus Andronicus, and, while violence is intrinsic to Rome’s law code, it proves to be destructive to Rome as well.  

In her essay “The Representation of Death in Titus Andronicus,” Cinzia Russo writes that “Titus Andronicus is, as Derek Cohen describes it, ‘a play which embraces violence as a way of life, an exploration of the sensation of physical pain and the sensation of inflicting physical pain.’ Within this context, among all the bloodletting, mutilation, cannibalism, and butchery unique to Titus, I set out here to consider it most dramatic action, the disturbing spectacle of the mutilated Lavinia whose physical pain is stretched to the utmost” (33).  Lavinia’s rape and mutilation is one of the most brutal moments in the play, but “Lavinia’s body provides the setting for political rivalry among the various families with competing claims to power over Rome.  For one of them to possess her is for that family to display its power over the rest – nothing more no less than that.  By the same token, to wound Lavinia is to wound oneself as if dismembering her body were dismembering a body which one were a part, and thus to cut oneself off from that body” (34).  One of the first conflicts presented in Titus Andronicus is Lavinia’s betrothal.  Though she is betrothed to Bassianus, Titus disregards this prior arrangement and attempts to marry her Saturninus, relegating her to that status of property.  However, while Lavinia may appear to only serve as a pawn within the hands of Rome’s patriarchal society, Lavinia’s rape serves to further illustrate the decay of Roman society.

Russo writes that “Lavinia lives in a patriarchal society where she is recognized for her chastity, virtue, innocence, for being a dutiful daughter, but, actually, she is not considered for her personality, her humanity.  Lavinia represents the ideal of Rome and the very possession men lust for, before being deformed of course” (39).  Lavinia represents the virtue of female Rome and represents the stability of Rome that is quickly overturned.  Saturninus desires for her to be “Rome’s royal mistress, mistress of my heart,” (1.1.241).  According to Russo, “Lavinia personifies the state” (40).   The uncertainty of Lavinia’s betrothal signifies the destabilization of Rome:  “Lavinia should have been ‘Rome’s royal mistress’ and mistress of Saturninus’ heart, but what she ends up being instead, very quickly, is a ‘changing piece’ as the same Emperor declares (1.1.309); just a worthless coin to grant to the one who ‘flourished for her with his sword’ (1.1.310) . . . . Family, honor, nobility, grace, romantic love:  she does not represent them any longer in the eyes of her possessors.  She really undergoes the debasement of her persona and the consequent glorification of Tamora” (40).  Lavinia is merely a pawn in the hands of the men of Titus Andronicus; however, the fate of Rome hangs in the balance of the state of Lavinia’s betrothal.  If Lavinia personifies the state, she represents a divided and uncertain state of Rome.

    Lavinia’s rape and mutilation further represents the further destabilization of Rome.  When Demetrius and Chiron pillage Lavinia’s body, not only has Lavinia’s sacred femininity or, rather, her “treasury” been plundered, but also the sanctity of the Roman hierarchy (2.1.141).  When Titus discovers Lavinia following her mutilation, he immediately becomes a tender father:  “It was my dear, and he that wounded her / Hath hurt me more than had he killed me dead; For now I stand as one upon a rock, / Environed with a wilderness of sea” (3.1.91-94).  Titus’ callousness from the beginning of the play erodes when he sees the mutilated body of his daughter.  Russo writes that “The revelation makes it clear that the wrecking of Lavinia represents that of Titus too . . . . For the first time, Titus acknowledges that all his life, all his battles and victories have been meaningless in front of his beloved daughter’s inhuman condition . . . It is only the rape of Lavinia that turns Titus from a valorous warrior to a barbarous avenger” (44).  When Marcus brings Lavinia to her father, Titus cries out in agony, saying “Give me a sword, I’ll chop my hands off too, / For they have fought for Rome, and all in vain” (3.1.71-72).  All of Titus’ past victories mean nothing when his daughter lays before him traumatized and mutilated.  However, the Roman way of violence still drives Titus’ actions, since his immediate response to his daughter’s pathetic state is to mutilate himself as well.  

Additionally, once Aaron arrives at Titus’ household with the ultimatum of a severed hand or the deaths of Martius and Quintius, Titus is the one who offers his left hand saying “Not stay your strife; what shall be is dispatched. / Good Aaron, give his majesty my hand; / Tell him it was a hand that warded him / From thousand dangers; bid him bury it” (3.1.191-195).  Titus’ sympathy for his daughter leads him to cut his own hand off, though his bodily sacrifice is in vain when the messenger returns with the decapitated heads of Martius and Quintius as well as Titus’ own severed hand.  Not only does Titus’ disfigurement reveal that his answer to conflict is the perpetuation of further violence, but also this scene reveals how ingrained the Roman cycle of violence in ingrained into Titus.  When Titus realizes that the sacrifice of his hand has been in vain, the Roman code of law which he lives his life by has been dishonored, and Titus is now not only betrayed but also personally affected by the decaying state of Rome under Saturninus.  The rape of Lavinia and the unjust deaths of Titus’ sons signal the turning point of not only Titus’ character development but also for the play.  

When Titus realizes that he has been deceived, his primary concern is to enact vengeance against Tamora.  He and the remainder of his family make a vow of vengeance towards Tamora and her family:  

. . . which way shall I find Revenge’s cave? 

For these two heads do seem to speak to me, 

And threat me I shall never come to bliss

Till all these mischiefs be returned again

Even in their throats that hath committed them. 

Come let me see what task I have to do;

[He and Lavinia rise]

You heavy people circle me about 

That I may turn me to each one of you, 

And swear unto my soul to right your wrongs. (3.1.269-277)

Titus is no longer merely a general of the Roman army or a distressed father.  His character has completely shifted into a new individual whose only concern in vengeance, evidenced by Lucius who says “Farewell, Andronicus, my noble father, / The woefull’st man that ever lived in Rome! / Farewell, proud Rome, till Lucius come again!” (3.1.287-289)  Lucius’ farewell evokes a sense of mourning as if Titus were dead; however, while Titus is alive, he is no longer the same person, and Lucius is mourning the death of who his father used to be.  Lucius bids a farewell to Rome immediately after his father, showing Titus’ connection to the Roman state.  Though Titus has always embodied the violent nature of Roman society, he, like Rome, has now become corrupted, and Titus’ mental state becomes less stable as the play progresses, showing that Titus has absorbed the decay of Rome.  .  

Titus’ vow of vengeance not only signifies a change in his character, but also marks an end to the destruction in the violence cycle.  The Andronici and, therefore, Rome have hit their nadir, and, from this point on, violence in Titus Andronicus serves as a vengeful force for Titus and his family.  Not only does violence avenge the tragedy that has befallen the Andronici, but also violence serves to cleanse Rome rather than destroy it.  Until this point, violence has been appropriated by Tamora to enact vengeance upon Titus, and Tamora adopts elements of a culture that is not hers to inflict pain onto a member of Roman society.  By making the vow of vengeance, Titus seizes his way of life back from Tamora and slowly begins to reestablish order to Rome.

The climax of the cleansing cycle begins with the murders of Chiron and Demetrius.  Titus decides to “play the cook” and turn the corpses of the two boys into pies, destroying their bodies for personal pleasure as they did to Lavinia (5.1.204).  At the dinner later that evening, Titus poses the following question to Saturninus:  “My lord the Emperor, resolve me this:  Was it well done of rash Virginius / To slay his daughter with his own right hand, / Because she was enforced, stained, and deflowered?” Titus realizes that the patriarchal society of Rome requires for Lavinia to be punished for her shame, citing Roman mythos to gain confirmation from Saturninus.  Following this confirmation, Titus stabs Lavinia saying “Die, die Lavinia, and thy shame with thee, / And with thy shame thy father’s sorrow die” (5.3.45-46).  Russo writes that “The values that secure the Andronici together need to be maintained and, in order to forget the outrage done to Lavinia and particularly to his own ego, Titus, as Lynda Boose affirms, ‘sacrifices his daughter to the perceived demands of the patriarchy and thus affirms his membership in it’ . . . . Thanks to Lavinia’s murder, Titus purges himself of his previous paranoia and regains his self-esteem” (47).  By means of violence, Titus is slowly reestablishing the stability of Rome, and, through the deaths of Chiron, Demetrius, and Lavinia, Titus has provided balance to Rome’s patriarchal society by both avenging his daughter’s rape and murdering her to end her shame.  Through satisfying Roman demands for the murders of his daughter’s rapists as well as his daughter, Titus provides balance to the lost Roman patriarchy.  

Though Saturninus is the emperor of Rome, Tamora has been the figure of power in their marriage and has been able to gain her demands through her sexual relationship with Saturninus, shown by her pledging to be “a handmaid be to his desires, A loving nurse, a mother to his youth” in exchange for power (1.1.337).  Throughout the play, Tamora has been controlling the Roman emperor through his sexual desire while also maintaining an extramarital relationship with Aaron, and her sexual desire and her power over men have disrupted the Roman patriarchy, causing Titus to kill his daughter and her rapists to re-establish stability to the lost patriarchy.  

Tamora and Saturninus are shocked by Titus’ murder, but Titus merely commands Tamora to eat while he reveals the identity of his daughter’s assailants, saying “Not I [that killed Lavinia]; ‘twas Chiron and Demetrius. / They ravished her and cut away her tongue, / And they, ‘twas they that did her all this wrong” (5.3.55-57).  According to Titus, Chiron and Demetrius were the ones who killed his daughter, and his actions are merely to honor Roman tradition.  When Tamora eats the pie and Saturninus inquires about the location of Chiron and Demetrius, Titus reveals that he has cooked their corpses into the pie that Tamora is eating, causing her to commit incestuous cannibalism before murdering her:

The final scenes draw together all the individual strands of nightmarish violence and transgression in the play . . . suggesting that ‘the desire to heal Rome is underpinned by the heavy duty of caring for Rome, a task burdened with licensed killing and the deconstruction of the civilized self this action demands.’ Ultimately, Titus sees the murder of Chiron, Demetrius, Tamora, and Lavinia as actions that will restore Rome to a normality that was initially disrupted by the appropriation of violent Roman strategies by Tamora and the Goths.  The ‘licensed’ killing, a privilege initially reserved exclusively for Roman rituals, is a strategy taken up by Tamora as being the most effective method of communication in a play saturated with discursive violence.  The way in which violence is considered in the play is encapsulated by the manner in which Rome is returned to patriarchal normality – symbolically incestuous cannibalism.  One of the play’s nightmares is undoubtedly the paradoxical curative capacity of violence, where war leads to murder, murder to rape, and rape to medicinal cannibalism, a macabre political solution that provides Lucius with the opportunity ‘To heal Rome’s harms and wipe away her woe’ (5.3.147).” (Gregg 11)

Although Titus eliminates the corruption of Rome through his murder of Tamora, her sons, and Lavinia, Titus must also be eliminated in order for the Roman state to be renewed, since he has absorbed the corruption of the destabilized empire.  Lucius finalizes the purging cycle when he kills Saturninus and takes the throne as emperor of Rome.  Steven Gregg writes that “Lucius becomes Emperor at the end of the play, returning Rome to its normality of systemic violence, and securing its patriarchal future by the increasing importance of Lucius’ son” (11).  However, even Lucius is not immune to the cycle bloodshed.  He participates in the killing of the banquet massacre, not only avenging his father by killing Saturninus, but also sentencing Aaron the Moor to death by exposure, demonstrating the potential for future destabilization through the violence cycle.  

Though the violence in Titus Andronicus is often considered to be gratuitous spectacle, it serves a symbolic purpose.  As Aristotle writes in his Poetics, “It is possible for the evocation of fear and pity to result from the spectacle, and it the mark of the better poet.  The plot should be constructed in a way that, even without seeing it, anyone who hears the events which occur shudders and feels pity at what happens; this is how someone would react on hearing the plot of the Oedipus  . . . . Those who use spectacle to produce an effect which is not evocative of fear, but simply monstrous, have nothing to do with tragedy; one should not seek every pleasure from tragedy, but the one that is characteristic of it” (22).  While Titus Andronicus is certainly a horrifying play, horror is not the play’s only purpose to its violence; the gore of Titus Andronicus shows both the cathartic and destructive qualities of the violence cycle and the effects of this cycle on a man and his country.   

Works Cited 

Aristotle., and Malcolm Heath. Poetics. London ; New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1996.

Gregg, Steven.  “Titus Andronicus and the Nightmare of Violence and Consumption.”

MoveableType, Vol. 6, ‘Nightmare,’ 2010, MoveableType, http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/ 1573346/1/Gregg.pdf

Innes, Paul.  “Titus Andronicus and the Violence of Tragedy.”  Journal of Literature and Trauma 

Studies, vol.1, no.1, 2012, pp. 27-48.  Muse. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/477617/pdf.

Russo, Cinzia.  “The Representation of Death in Titus Andronicus.” 2010-2011.  Padua 

University.  Degree thesis.  ZSR Library, https://guides.zsr.wfu.edu/ c.php?g=530709&p=3630110.  

Shakespeare, William, and Eugene M. Waith. Titus Andronicus. Oxford: Oxford University 

Press, 1984. Print.


Biographical Note: Michaela Conelly graduated summa cum laude from Concord University in Athens, West Virginia.  She is currently an English teacher at Mountain View Christian School in Hilltop, West Virginia and developed a fondness for William Shakespeare during her college years.  Titus Andronicus is her favorite of his works, and “The Cycle of Violence in Titus Andronicus” was created to find a purpose for the seemingly overly graphic and pointless destruction that characterizes the play.