Word and Action in ‘Titus Andronicus’

In my last post (part one of this discussion), I talked about the delicate balance between word and action that must be persevered in Shakespeare’s narrative poem, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. This post will be concerned with Shakespeare’s bloody play, Titus Andronicus, and the role that rhetoric and action play in that text.

Shakespeare does something very similar with language in Titus Andronicus as he does in ‘The Rape of Lucrece’. Like Tarquin and Lucrece, characters in Titus Andronicus take metaphor literally and doing this impels their undoing, their horribly violent end. Perhaps the best example of this is illuminated in Gillian Kendall’s article, ‘“Lend me thy Hand”: Metaphor and Mayhem in Titus Andronicus’. Kendall suggests that Shakespeare uses a very subtle, almost imperceptible metaphor in that ‘in Titus Andronicus (and in colloquial English then and today), tongues speak and hands write’, quickly noting that ‘[w]e do not make noise with our tongues, and we can write our names with our toes if we so chose’. These are metaphors so deeply embedded in the English language that we almost do not notice them. In Act Two, Scene Three, when Shakespeare reveals Lavinia, her hands cut off and her tongue cut out, to the audience, Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia’s rapists and mutilators, taunt her:

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 thy scribe.

The implication in these lines is that Lavinia cannot tell anybody who attacked her for she has no tongue to speak and she cannot write it down, because she has no hands to write with. It seems, though, with Kendall’s revelation in mind, that Chiron and Demetrius have acted as Tarquin and Lucrece acted in Shakespeare’s poem. They have taken a metaphor literally. They allow Lavinia to return to her family, believing their exposure impossible. Of course, later, in Act Four, Scene One, Lavinia writes the names of her attackers in a ‘sandy plot’ (IV. 1. 69), ‘without the help of any hand at all’. Lavinia ‘takes [Marcus’] staff in her mouth, and guides it with her stumps, and writes’. Because Chiron and Demetrius take metaphor literally, they blur the boundary between what is merely rhetoric and what is palpable, they allow Lavinia to take action and that leads to their bloody death:

Titus: Hark, villains, I will grind your bones to dust,

And with your blood and it I’ll make a paste […]

And make two pasties of your shameful heads.

Shakespeare’s characters must look to the nuances of language; they must understand that rhetoric is tenuous and when they do not understand this, when they take metaphorical language literally, tipping the balance between what is firmly rhetoric and what is firmly within the realm of the physical world, the result is a horrific deluge of violence.

Here, the act of taking figurative language literally impels horrible violence as it does in ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, but Shakespeare takes it further in this play. In this play, Shakespeare depicts a world in which the balance between word and action has completely capsized; a world in which, to suggest that Rome is ‘headless’ (I. 1. 189) is to impel the beheading of several characters over the course of the play. Word and action are almost inseparable in this play; when characters use figurative language, it soon translates literally. As Albert Tricomi notes, ‘Titus makes nearly sixty references, figurative as well as literal, to the word “hands” and eighteen more to the word “head”, or to one of it’s derivative forms’. In these references, the bloody mutilations and violent deeds are engendered. Almost every act of violence in the play is generated in language prior to the horrible act. Perhaps the best example of this takes place early in the play when Saturninus, the newly appointed emperor of Rome, decides to take Titus’ daughter, Lavinia, who is already betrothed to Bassianus, as his empress. Bassianus spirits her away, refusing to allow Saturninus to marry her and to Bassianus, Saturninus promises: ‘Traitor, if Rome have law or we have power, | Thou and thy faction shall repent this rape’. Within these words lies an implication of the horrible assault of Lavinia later in the play, when Chiron and Demetrius violently ravish her. Tina Mohler, in her article, “What Is Thy Body but a Swallowing Grave …? “: Desire Underground in Titus Andronicus, suggests that the stabbing of Bassinus in the following act is a metaphorical rape, noting the ‘erotic possibilities inherent’ in the penetration of Bassinus’ body and, more generally, in dismemberment. These acts of violence are engendered in Saturninus’ words. Rhetoric is intertwined with action and so when Saturninus uses the word ‘rape’, he agents the literal rape of Lavinia and the metaphorical rape of Bassinus, Titus and Lavinia’s brother’s, Quintus and Martius, Bassinus’ ‘faction’, all of whom are either stabbed or dismembered in the play. This world in which rhetoric and action are intertwined, in which the boundary between the two is destroyed entirely, seems to act as a warning; when rhetoric has absolute authority, action becomes engendered in language, every metaphor will be applied literally and violence will prevail as a consequence.

Shakespeare suggests that rhetoric and action, two entirely separate entities, must remain separate and of equal authority. In ‘The Rape of Lucrece’ and Titus Andronicus, the delicate balance between the two is often upset; characters deem rhetoric, specifically, figurative rhetoric, authoritative, and when they do, the consequence is always horrible violence. If language is allowed to become absolute, it will begin to impel, and then go on to engender action; the world will become as overwhelmed with violence as it is in Titus Andronicus.

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