“Space-ness” and Spatiality in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Bryan Montanari

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Confining Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream to a singular reading does great injustice to what is otherwise a rich, immensely playful, and rather engaging play, to say nothing of its often-surprising handling of “serious” topics. Upon a first reading, the play yields a variety of potential subjects for discussion: the function of legality as a contractual vow parallel to that of marriage; the parallel of an systemic imposition of male authority in a world inhabited by females who, in spite of their subjugation, seem to be far less easily coerced and stymied. To name one more: the marvelously comical language, pun-laden and often self-aware, that permeates several characters (most notably, but not limited to, Bottom and ‘Puck’). Adding to these variegated fields of interest, the conceptual scheme of “space” may also provide a unique, albeit less direct, reading of this text.

Drama demands an appreciation of space, by its very nature as a thing to be performed. This literal notion of space, linked to ideas of physical place and movement between “areas”, is a useful precursor to a more notional grasp of the concept, and how it may illuminate this particular drama. An amplification of what is understood by the term “space” may take into consideration the literal presence of characters in relation to one another, but also their metaphoric relation. Therefore we can appreciate the interactions between men and women as definable by means of tacit conventions that bound off and curtail the “limits” of modesty, appropriateness, et cetera. But we also understand the idea of space as having significant ramifications for something like the legal code of the play’s world. When Lysander introduces the idea of removing to the woods in order to marry Hermia, the creation of physical distance mirrors the implications for legal space: in order to unite in marriage, the lovers must go outside the law, away from its jurisdictions, and indeed perform a covenantal ritual that is, ultimately, not recognized within the institutions of Athenian law. Lysander is firmly aware of this, as he says to Hermia, “And to that place the sharp Athenian law / Cannot pursue us” (1.1.164-5) when conveying his reason for choosing the wooded area. (By way of an aside, it is interesting to note the several coy parallels Shakespeare provides between the rehearsing of the play, “Pyramus and Thisbe”, and Lysander’s plot to marry Hermia. An ambitious reader can, to my mind, draw evidence from these passages to fuel a discussion on the theatrical “space” embodied not only by the actors, but by the performance of a play-within-a-play.)

Spatiality is interrogated in another, more prismatic, way by the mythical fairy world. Immediately we are presented, via the first Fairy encountered (in conversation with Robin Goodfellow), with a more transgressive idea of space. “I do wander everywhere” (2.1.6), says this spirit, alluding to an unfixed relation to a place, an idea of space that sees spaceness as a malleable, unattached to physical presence, and whimsical too. This is surely a far cry from the world of jurisdictions and legal boundaries. But if we accept my claim that this world of fairies (this other world, yet still enmeshed with the goings-on of the human world, thereby indicating that the distinction of worlds can only be an analogical one) posits a more fluid function of space, we must also come to realize that this fluidity can be disastrous. Titania communicates this clearly. Departing from her indictment of Oberon’s erratic interrupting of her dances (it is noteworthy to remember that dance is, also, a way of behaving towards space; movements and “pieces” are choreographed according to an aesthetically evocative handling of space), Titania divulges the consequences thereof. The “mazèd world” (2.1.116) is in utter disarray, bearing rivers “made so proud / That they have overborne their continents” (2.1.96-7) and the sheepfold that “stands empty in the drownèd field” (2.1.99) having been diseased. Titania thus conveys a world dislocated from its natural function because of a violation of the spaces within it. Spaces literally and metaphorically overcome their boundaries, negating their appropriate confinements and thereby throwing the world into discord.

There is more to be said on the question of spatial consequences with the muddling of Oberon’s plan to intoxicate Demetrius with love (for Helena). Prior to this event, however, the exchange of Demetrius with the unrequited Helena (alternatively pathetic, comedic, and near-tragic) offers a significant manipulation of the concept of space, particularly in its relation to love. We are speaking of something like “the space of love”. Indeed, it is with language of spatiality that Helena supplicates Demetrius to return his favor: after the latter once again confirms his inability to love her, Helena wonders, “What worser place can I beg in your love / (And yet a place of high respect with me) / Than to be used as you use your dog” (2.1.215-17)?  Helena’s despair is read in her appeal to Demetrius, going so far as to deem servitude and neglect but with the certainty of company preferable to a total lack (of love, and of his company).  But this dejection is understood in terms of a relegated place of inferiority, a being radically beneath Demetrius, and in other words, existing confined in a space of passive observation for the sake of adoration. This role inhabits an exalted space within Helena only because of the fortitude of her unfulfilled love. For Helena too, space does not necessitate fixity or a linear relationship amongst ‘objects’, conceptually speaking. Her love, personified, can be a dwelling space. Indeed, when she asks, after naming Demetrius as being her entire world, “Then, how can it be said I am alone / When all the world is here to look on me?” (2.1.232-3), she is conjointly fusing the image of one’s love-object representing a wholeness and a totality of meaning with the notion of love carrying the potential to fill emptiness, envelope the void, and in a word, close spaces. It is interesting that she does not use imagery of blood or death, metaphors of weight or weightlessness, or other such determinations associated with poetic language of love. In their stead, she exhibits her despondency with a deceptively simple formulation of love as love existing in spaces.

Only few and briefly developed instances have been focused here as exemplifying the possibilities that reimagining the concept of space through its manifold uses can have on a reading of this text, or another text. In truth, these examples have barely grazed the surface. Much can be done to this end with Goodfellow’s (‘Puck’) befuddling of Oberon’s plot to poison Demetrius with love, noting how the literal and representational idea of space synchronically allow the possibility, and eventual unfolding, of this plot. Alas, that, and more, will be for another time.

Why Pyramus and Thisbe Matters (and it does)

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On June 18, 1763, producer George Coleman sent a series of production notes on A Midsummer Night’s Dream to actor-manager David Garrick, offering advice on how to redact the play for production as a mock opera.  Famously, he suggested the omission of the “palpable gross play” of Pyramus and Thisbe, on the grounds that it did not accord “to the taste of the present times.”  Coleman’s reluctance to allow Shakespeare’s rude mechanicals a place in the play is indicative of the artisan’s treatment for much of the eighteenth-century. After a bumpy start in the seventeenth century, A Midsummer Night’s Dream has slowly emerged as one of the more commonly produced Shakespearean plays, thanks perhaps, to its delicate poetic style, lavish pictoralism of the fairy setting, and accessibility that the dislocation from any clear sense of historicity affords to a contemporary audience.  The play has enjoyed great success on the stage, and has been at the forefront of theatrical innovation, whether it be Henry Purcell’s opera, Herbert Beerbohm Tree’s rabbit-strewn pictoralism, or Peter Brook’s pared down deconstruction of Shakespearean staging.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, the fifth act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream might appear as to have been tacked on from another play.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in fact, boasts three endings.  The lovers are restored to their rightful partners, and the play ends in the central characters leaving for their wedding, accompanied by a dance is then performed, which was the traditional closing of an Elizabethan comedy.  Finally, the fairies arrive, bless the house, and dance, after.  which Puck emerges once more, to offer one more closing remark in his epilogue.  Although Pyramus and Thisbe is sandwiched amid all of these false endings might seem tonally inharmonious, the playlet occupies a significant place as part of a larger play that constantly deconstructs its own theatricality.   A Midsummer Night’s Dream is awash with audiences – from Hyppolita’s outsider status as she regards Theseus passing judgment on Hermia, responding in such a manner as to elicit Theseus’ startled “how now my Hyppolitia?  What cheer?”  to Oberon and Puck, who attempt to direct the actionof the lovers, to the Athenian audience who watch Pyramus and Thisbe at court.  The terror the mechanicals feel at being taken too seriously is echoed by Puck in his admonition to an over-believing audience, that this play be considered “no more yielding than a dream.”  Pyramus and Thisbe humorously warns against over-investment in drama, guaranteeing, through its’ own failure, the artistic success of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Moreover, the significance of the play-within-a-play is through its relationship to performance.  The relative ahistoricity of A Midsummer Night’s Dream is what has allowed it to be so manipulated in terms of theatrical innovation.  A Midsummer Night’s Dream is almost unique in the Shakespearean canon because of its inability to sustain a firm textual connections to its Elizabethan context, and subsequently, the play becomes a blank canvas for stagings, which must necessarily overlay their own visual interpretation onto the text.  Over the course of its stage history,  A Midsummer Night’s Dream absorbs the cultural milieu of the time, and often stood at the forefront of emergent theatrical aesthetics. Pyramus and Thisbe, as the comical parody of “bad” drama, then, is even more well-poised to negotiate the cultural markers of a given time.

Bros Before Wenches: Homoerotic Relationships in The Merchant of Venice and Tamburlaine the Great part I by Vincent Russo

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The Merchant of Venice deals with a lot of relationships, but the most powerful relationship in the text, the one that drives all of the action of the play, is the one between two best friends: Antonio and Bassanio.

Antonio is supposed to be the merchant that the title refers to, but from the beginning of the play we can see that he abandons his responsibilities as a merchant based on the whims of Bassanio. Upon the man’s request Antonio lends him money per gratis, money that Antonio himself doesn’t even have yet. More importantly then making a risky monetary investment for Bassanio, Antonio puts his own body on the line as per Shylock’s demands. As if a pound of his own flesh wasn’t enough, Antonio then offers up his soul to Portia to vouch for Bassanio:

Antonio: “I once did lend my body for his wealth,

Which but for him that had your husband’s ring

Had quite miscarried. I dare be bound again,

My soul upon the forfeit, that your lord

Will never more break faith advisedly” (V.i.249-253). 

These vows of body and soul are the strongest when made by one man on behalf of another man. Bassanio swears to Portia that he will never give away the ring she gave to him, but upon Antonio’s request Bassanio gives his ring to the Doctor (a.k.a. Portia in disguise). Antonio only asks Bassanio once to give up the ring and he immediately complies: “…Let his deservings and my love withal / Be valued ‘gainst your wive’s commandment” (Antonio to Bassanio IV.ii.450-451). Bassanio risked losing everything that Antonio risked his life for (Bassanio’s marriage to Portia) without a second thought. 

These two men  love each other so deeply that they abandon their responsibilities without a second thought if the other requires it; Antonio’s responsibility as a merchant, and Bassanio’s responsibility as a husband. Is this really love though? Does loving someone mean that you abandon all of your responsibilities for them? Upon reflection, why didn’t Antonio just lend money to Bassanio so that he could pay back his other debts?  Wouldn’t a true friend want to help you get back on your feet instead of going into more debt?

All of the interactions between Antonio and Bassanio remind me of another famous bro-couple from Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine the Great part I: Tamburlaine and Theridamas. The language that Tamburlaine uses towards his friend is more romantic and passionate then the language that he uses towards his own lover, Zenocrate.  When speaking to Zenorcate, he compares her to material possessions because to Tamburlaine, she is a material possession that he is meant to conquer (I.ii.82-105). However, when it comes to Theridamas, Tamburlaine offers up his own soul in marriage, just as Antonio offered up his soul for Bassanio:

Tamburlaine: “Theridamas, my friend, take here my hand,

Which is as much as if I swore by heaven

And called the gods to witness of my vow.

Thus shall my heart be still combined with thine

Until our bodies turn to elements

And both our souls aspire celestial thrones…” (I.ii.232-237).

For some reason, in both the works of Shakespeare and of Marlowe, the relationship between two men, two best friends, seems to be stronger then any bond or tie made elsewhere in the work. Be it either abandoning all of their responsibilities or promising to be kings together on earth and in heaven, it is quite evident that the bonds between men are stronger then the bonds between the same men and their women.

The Merchant of Venice in Context

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This week, I wanted to give a little background to The Merchant of Venice, and in particular, talk a little more about Jewishness in early modern culture.   Jews had been formally expelled in England during 1290, but in spite of the expulsion, Jews were still present in English life – in 1589, a Portugese Marrano (a hidden Jew) named Roderigo López became the official Physician to Queen Elizabeth (it all ended badly, with López being accused of conspiring to kill Elizabeth and being hanged, drawn and quartered in 1594 in what is now known as the Lopez plot). The religious and literary representations of Jews were as untrustworthy, money-hungry and dangerous, exploiting Christianity’s ban on charging interest on lending by making high-risk loans at a usurious rate of interest.  The reality is that many trading cities, such as London, Venice, and Malta, had a healthy population of Jewish citizens, who were respected participants in the trading culture.

Jewish characters retained a presence in early modern culture, often in a villainous role.  Chaucer’s Prioress’ tale recounts the story of a child’s murder at the hands of a Jew, as he was walking through a ghetto, singing O Alma Redemptoris. The deceased child continues to sing, thanks to a vision in which the Virgin Mary lay a “greyn” on his tongue.  In The Croxton Play of the Sacrament, a Jew named Johnathas systematically tortures the Host until it transubstantiates and Jesus cries out in pain.  In 1589 (or thereabouts), Christopher Marlowe wrote a tremendously popular play called The Jew of Malta in which Barabas, a Maltese trader and Jew, revenges himself on the hypocritical Christians to strip him of his wealth under the guise of piety (in reality, to pay a debt they owe to the Turks, which they then decide not to hand over on Christian principle).  Barabas, slighted and enraged, accepts the stereotype of the dehumanized villain placed upon him and proceeds to exploit the greed of the Christians and exact hilarious, and horrific revenge, including poisoning a well of nuns, and tricking his daughter’s two suitors into killing one another.  Barabas eventually dies, stewing, quite literally, in his own juices – he falls into a cauldron of boiling oil he has prepared for an unsuspecting victim.  What makes Marlowe’s play so radical is that in spite of this, Barabas is by far the most appealing character on the stage.

In terms of religion, Jewishness was also a complex, and commonly used point of reference.  During the Reformation, there was a strong drive to redirect faith away from the veneration of images and all of the idolatry this encompasses.  Reading theological tracts of the time, one frequently comes across phrases that essentially assert the doctrinal appropriateness of Jewish belief, as something that puts the word first and foremost, and utterly rejects the false worship of images that Catholic reformers were resisting.

In many ways, all of this is evident in The Merchant of Venice.  What makes the play so fascinating is the depth and detail of Shakespeare’s characterization, and the (one might say typical) resistance of giving us the easy answer.  Shylock transcends such Jewish stereotypes that we have seen on the stage until this moment in time (although for Marlowe, the stereotype was the point).  Although he pushes right up against the stereotype of the villainous Jew, he is imbued with a depth that renders him neither good nor bad, but a flawed product of a flawed time.

Divine kingship in Richard II, by Marka Law

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Was Richard II a tragic, misguided soul, or did he “get what was coming to him?”

It’s clear to all of us that King Richard was not a good king. He is easily swayed by the opinions of his servants, he had a lot to do with the bad economy of the time, he stole the lands of the late John of Gaunt that should have been legally inherited by Bolingbroke, and other minor criticisms. Other than his servants who kissed ass whenever they could, Richard’s reign as King was widely acknowledged as a poor one.

But was any of this his fault?

Richard II was quite literally born to be a king. It was his divine birthright, a role for which he had been prepared his entire life. Anything less was never an option. Granted, we as the audience don’t see any of Richard’s childhood within the context of this play and can only speculate how he was groomed to be a king from his early childhood. However, Shakespeare’s play is based on true events; according to the official website of the British monarchy, Richard II ascended to the throne at 10 years of age after his father’s death. He was likely established as the heir long before that. From as early as his birth, everyone in his court has treated him as nothing less than the divine vessel of God ruling over England.

For at least 20 years, Richard II was assured of his Kingship, assured that he was divine and superior to ordinary men. He answered to no one but God himself, and given that we have no records of him being struck by lightning or otherwise punished by Him, we can infer that he assumed that his actions were approved or at least tolerated by God. God placed him on the throne because He believed Richard was fit to rule, and only God is able to remove him (through death). The conditioning that Richard underwent was surely deep and extensive.

It’s only fitting that he reacts the way he does when Bolingbroke returns to England to seize his crown. He believes himself omnipotent, which the Bishop of Carlisle seconds, saying “that Power that made you king hath power to keep you king in spite of it all.” It’s not certain whether the Bishop is just saying that to feed Richard’s ego or truly believes it as well, but the message is simple: Richard is a divine being like unto God himself, he can’t be removed by a mere rebellion. When he first catches wind of his subjects joining Bolingbroke’s side, we see the first glimpse of his identity crisis in Act 3 Scene 2:

“I had forgot myself: am I not king?
Awake, thou coward majesty! thou sleepest.
Is not the king’s name twenty thousand names?
Arm, arm, my name! a puny subject strikes
At thy great glory. Look not to the ground,
Ye favorites of a king: are we not high?”

He is a king, he is high and divine. Surely, his subjects wouldn’t dare turn against him, for that would mean “they break their faith to God as well as us.” That Bolingbroke is rebelling against Richard signifies, to him, that they are rebelling against God in turn. The notion is simply inconceivable to him. It has never been done, it is not possible.

Richard II, by being born and raised to rule as King, was coddled and assured that his every need and want would be realized. He was never prepared for any kind of rejection, for any kind of mutiny from the citizens of England, and much less so his own cousin. If God hasn’t personally removed him from his post as King, who did they think they were to do this?

Or rather, who did Richard think he was?

It is difficult for Richard to accept the possibility that he is not an omnipotent celestial being, and only an ordinary man in a position of power. Being ordinary has never been an option for him. Confronted with this thought so late in his life, after his kingly conditioning has already been so deeply ingrained within him, caused the identity crisis the audience sees, and his lamentation that he might not get to die as a king the way kings before him have died.

The story of Richard II is a tragedy not because of Richard’s own actions leading to his downfall, but rather the fault of the system of which he was a part. It is easy for a regular person to reflect and say “he shouldn’t have done x, he should have done y,” but those were never an option because Richard was not an ordinary person. He was a king, and was bred to be one. He was taught to think and act as kings do, and was conditioned to think that he did not have to answer to anyone, least of all the common people of England. The idea that he must satisfy or answer to the people is an alien notion, those were never part of his divine duties as a monarch. Richard II was a king to the very end; a bad king, but still a king as he was raised to be.

The Politics of the Elizabethan Stage

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In response to Peter’s question last class, I wanted to talk a tiny bit more about political drama on the Shakespearean stage.  During the early modern period, all plays were subject to the approval of the Master of the Revels, who was, in essence, the royal censor.  Under the reign of Elizabeth, this task fell to Edmund Tilney, who had the authority to grant license to plays and theatre companies, and shut down potentially seditious drama.  William Shakespeare had already fallen foul of this authority when he originally named Falstaff, the drunken buffoon from Henry IV, Sir John Oldcastle.  The descendants objected, and John Falstaff was born.  Richard IIas we discussed in class, was performed on the eve of the Essex rebellion for the conspirators.  The play is, as we know, consumed with nationalism, and the body of the king is repeatedly linked to the health of this scepter’d isle.  Moreover, the prospect of Bolingbroke dislodging a weak king, simply for being inept, is a deeply unsettling and threatening idea – even more so when linked to Essex.

In many ways, the close proximity to the past is what made Shakespearean political drama so dangerous.  Shakespeare wrote the history of the monarchy, a history that led directly (or indirectly, as lineage would have it) to Elizabeth.  In spite of the relative economic and social stability of her realm, Elizabeth’s situation continued to be precarious.  She was the child of the reviled Anne Boleyn, possibly illegitimate, depending on one’s religious orientation, an unmarried woman who lived outside of the Catholic church.  Shakespeare’s history plays tell the story of her ancestors, and deal directly with how she came to be on the throne.  Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV, who in turn fathered and then grandfathered Henry V and Henry VI respectively.  Henry VI then lost the throne in the Wars of the Roses to his cousin, Edward IV, who then died, leaving two sons to be (probably) murdered by Richard of Gloucester, AKA Richard III.  Richard III was then defeated by Henry Tudor who put a stop to this nonsense by marrying Edward IV’s daughter and founding the Tudor line (notice the somewhat convoluted chart below that attempts to clarify this whole soap opera).  

My point is (and I do have one), that when Shakespeare plays around with Henry and Richard, he’s also dealing with the legitimacy of Elizabeth’s own history, as well as whatever allegorical references might be inferred.  The nobility was, in many ways, still reeling from the damage Henry VIII and his interchangeable wives had wreaked on England – including economic, spiritual, and social changes.  In placing English history on the stage, playwrights were dealing with contentious issues, and offering alternate perspectives on a recent history that was already contentious enough as it was.  And doing it in the most public manner possible.

 

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Family versus Society in Titus Andronicus

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By Rebecca Endres

Shakespeare’s notoriously graphic Titus Andronicus is an exploration of physicality, of revenge, and of social exchange. We watch the rapid and extreme undoing of Titus present itself and yet, he is lacking in the usual hubris we expect to see in tragic figures, like the famous Oedipus. In fact, the one flaw that Titus seems to have is a sense of honor and duty to the state of Rome that blinds him from everything, including familial duty. While this might be considered shameful in a modern society, to the people of Rome, it would be seen as a good character trait to have. However his loyalties are interpreted, we see his ideology sharply contrasted with that of Tamora and even Aaron as the play hastens toward its gruesome end.

The first scene gives a huge exposition of family relations. Titus enters with many of his sons dead, and follows the Roman duty of quickly setting them in tombs to put them to rest. Strangely, his speech contains an apostrophe not to his deceased children, but to the family tomb into which he places them: “O sacred receptacle of my joys/Sweet cell of virtue and nobility,” (I.i. ll. 95-96). His speech is stereotypically Roman, focusing on the social standing of his family. This is instantly contrasted with a less rational and yet more human outcry from Tamora as he goes to sacrifice her oldest son in honor of his lost ones: “[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,” (I.i. ll. 109-111). Her pleas are ignored, and Titus’ refusal to show mercy can be seen as either merciless and cruel or dutiful and dedicated to his own religious beliefs. Regardless, some pity is stirred for Tamora, who faces public humiliation and loss.

Soon, our image of Titus is clarified as the scene moves to a close. Saturninus, new emperor of Rome, decides to make Titus’ daughter Lavinia his wife, to which Titus responds willingly, not once asking Lavinia whether or not she is happy with the match. The use of a daughter as a commodity, as a means of advancing a family’s reputation through marriage, hardly comes as a surprise, but what follows is more shocking. When Bassianus, already engaged to Lavinia, grabs her and runs off with her, her brothers defend the couple in the name of true love. Titus rushes after them, determined not to humiliate Saturninus and the family name, and he fails to give his son a chance before killing him for defending Bassianus. His oldest son, Lucius, accuses his father of injustice, and his reaction is cold and irrational: “[n]or thou, nor he, are any sons of mine:/My sons would never so dishonor me,” (I.i. ll. 299-300). Again, when compared to Tamora, who is less concerned with appearances than she is with the safety of her sons, we can see already in the first act that Titus is a true Roman soldier, dedicated to honor and valor to a fault.

Strangely, even as Tamora becomes increasingly evil and merciless, she still seems to retain a stronger sense of family than Titus, even as his family is torn away from him. We first see a glimpse of this in Act Two, when Tamora and her surviving sons kill Bassianus and capture Lavinia alone. Tamora’s bloodlust comes out almost as a need to protect her surviving children: “[g]ive me the poniard. You shall know, my boys,/Your mother’s hand shall right your mother’s wrong,” she threatens, wishing to kill Lavinia (II.ii. ll. 120-121). We see not only that she feels a need to prove herself in front of her children, but that Titus’ murder of her other son is still fresh in her mind. Meanwhile, Titus’ later pleas for his sons’ survival are much less about passion and mercy and more about honor and social standing. In the opening of Scene Three, two of his sons are lead away to be executed, and his concerns are that for “two-and-twenty sons I never wept,/Beause they died in honour’s lofty bed,” but this public death will also be a public shame to the Andronicus family (III.i. ll. 10-11).  The biggest source of his concern is that their dishonorable death, condemned as murderers, sends the old warrior into panic, and we also see that he has never mourned the loss of his children deeply before. With all the losses he endures, Titus should becoming increasingly pitiable in our eyes. Instead, although we feel for him, we wonder how he can be so backwards in his thinking.

The main instigator of most of the plays’ evils is Aaron, a devilish character who, surprisingly, exhibits a soft spot for babies. When Tamora’s infant is brought forth, its black skin indicates that only Aaron could be the father, and he responds to it with tenderness, calling it a “beauteous/blossom,” (IV.ii. ll. 73-74). He proceeds to draw his sword to protect the baby although Tamora has asked him to kill it, and he ends up running off with it, determined to raise it. We know that Aaron still sees children, as he sees all people, as commodities to be used and traded when he suggests a solution to quell suspicions regarding the disappearing babe:

Not far one Muly lives, my countryman:

His wife but yesternight was brought to bed;

His child is like to her, fair as you are.

Go pack with him and give the mother gold,

And tell them both the circumstance of all

And how by this their child shall be advanced,

And be received for the emperor’s heir, (IV.ii. ll. 154-160).

In spite of his disinterest in the lives of others, and his treatment of families as a group of people waiting to be traded off for better things, he promises his own child that he will raise it, and continues to protect it until the end of the play, even when his own life is threatened: “[a]nd this shall all be buried in my death/Unless thou swear to me my child shall live,” (V.i. ll. 67-68).

The most shocking acts of violence and revenge are saved for the final act. First, Titus murders Lavinia, after showing surprising tenderness towards her in the previous acts. We can only assume that this filicide is an act of compassion, since Lavinia is doomed to live a difficult and shamed life. Then, in an act of psychotic cruelty harkening back to the tales of Atreus and Thyestes, he reveals that Tamora has been feasting on her own murdered children. Unfortunately, Shakespeare cuts her reaction short by killing her off the instant this horrific truth is revealed, hardly doing the scene justice. Nonetheless, Titus has certainly had his revenge, even though Saturninus immediately kills him in turn. Shakespeare’s play ends with bodies littering the stage, but we are also left with very few ideological questions answered. Are we to feel pity for Titus, who lost nearly everything before getting his revenge? Or should our pity fall with Tamora, who started off as a pathetic character, only to turn mad herself in the pursuit of revenge? It is unclear in the end who we should feel any connection to, as everyone’s hands are so stained with blood. Nonetheless, as Lucius takes over the throne, in the eyes of the Romans, we can only assume that Titus’ death has been noble, exactly as he would have hoped.