The Nastiness of Lucius
How the Hero Causes All the Bad Stuff
in Titus Andronicus
A lot of nasty people do a lot of nasty things to other people in Shakespeare's plays but the tragedy is that nothing happens in Shakespeare that doesn't happen in real life. Women are raped and mutilated every day. Racists poison the world and fertilize reciprocal hatred. Power-hungry maniacs take control. Wars of revenge break out. Today.
That's why Titus Andronicus is relevant now. Not, as Harold Bloom would have it, as a parody or a send-up, or hilarious, or a howler or a bloody farce or sublimely lunatic (what kind of sick humor does this guy have, anyway?) but as an almost unbearable, incomprehensible and powerful anti-violence, anti-revenge play. Whatever reason Shakespeare had for writing this play, the serious viewer cannot be left with any other feeling than the one that Julie Taymor's film does, that violence breeds violence, revenge breeds revenge. There are no heroes in violence and revenge. Shakespeare shows this, we should see it. But what we should also see is that the good guys do it as much as the bad guys. Which makes them worse because they're supposed to be the good guys and ought to know better.
So are there any good guys in Titus Andronicus? Not exactly. Even Bassianus, who according to Andrew Hadfield in Shakespeare and Republicanism, represents the forces of a republican Rome versus a tyrannical imperial Rome, and Lavinia, an educated and accomplished young woman, are really nasty to Tamora and Aaron without the excuse of knowing that both Tamora and Aaron are plotting evil deeds. Bassianus is of course immediately murdered and Lavinia is raped and mutilated and eventually murdered but they still can't be counted as heroes.
Lucius, however, is a hero from the first scene to the last and actually wins in the end and is therefore of interest in an analysis of how the heroes, a.k.a. the good guys, in this play like so many others by Shakespeare, are really the bad guys too.
The first words Lucius utters are in the first scene and they are violent:
Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh...(Act 1.1)
His brothers had been killed fair and square in war, so why, as Tamora asks, should her son be murdered to pay for that? Reasonable enough. But both Titus and Lucius refuse to listen. Titus claims religious reasons, Lucius merely commands that it be done:
Away with him, and make a fire straight,
And with our swords upon a pile of wood
Let's hew his limbs till they be clean consumed. (Act 1.1)
He leaves and returns shortly to report:
See, lord and father, how we have performed
Our Roman rites. Alarbus' limbs are lopped
And entrails feed the sacrificing fire
Whose smoke like incense doth perfume the sky.
And so the ball of violent revenge is set rolling, giving Tamora and Aaron reason to kick it back. Not only does Lucius carry out this violence matter-of-factly and remorselessly, he even gets enjoyment from it, describing the smoke as “perfume.” And of course, the whole thing makes him feel righteous, a matter we will return to.
Throughout much of the play Lucius acts nobly within the framework of his soldierly masculine role. He is angered when Titus kills brother Mutius for defending Lavinia and would prefer to kill his sister than yield her to Saturninus (but not Saturnius, of course). In this confusing scene of abrupt switches between Lavinia and Tamora as Saturninus' betrothed, Lucius is somewhat consistent in defending his sister's “honour”, which somewhat coincides with her interests, although when men speak of a woman's honor, as they do throughout this play as well as in real life, they mean their own honor, whatever that is, not caring a whit about the woman's anger or pain. Indeed, the first thing he says, upon seeing his mutilated sister is, “Ay me, this object kills me” (Act 3.1). Object. Me. Enough said.
He does however offer the noble sacrifice of having his hand chopped off instead of Titus's to redeem the brothers and promises, upon heading off in exile, to “requite your wrongs”, i.e. Lavinia's, with the help of the recent enemy, the Goths.
Lucius is off stage for awhile but we hear about his military powers and his popularity with the people. We see him again in the last act in which he reports that everybody hates Saturninus and wants him, Lucius, to come back. The Goths declare their loyalty to him for which he thanks them. So far so good. But then Aaron is brought in with his child and Lucius immediately reverts to his initial blood lust. Not only is Aaron to hang for the crime of tricking Titus to chop off his own hand (in other words, he goes farther than the eye for an eye principle) and, maybe even worse, having sex with Tamora in mutual lust, but the product of that lust, the baby, is to hang too. Not only that but the baby is to hang first so that Aaron can watch it suffer.
This leads to the most interesting exchange in the play. Aaron, the ultimate Other, in demanding that the baby be spared, neatly maneuvers Lucius into the corner of hypocrisy. As Katherine Eisman Maus points out in the introduction to the Norton edition of the complete works, Aaron has no reason to “accept the validity” of the Roman racism that attempts to “consign [him]...permanently to a subordinate position...why should he collaborate in his own oppression?” Why indeed? In spite of his wiles and conniving, Aaron is the most honest character in the play and he exposes the arbitrariness of Lucius' piety when he refers to “conscience” and “popish tricks”, undoubtedly referring to Lucius' murder of Tamora's son in the name of religion. Eric S. Malin, in his Godless Shakespeare, goes further when saying that Aaron's purpose is “the exposure of false belief” and “religious fraud.” Mallin points out that Aaron is Shakespeare's only explicit atheist and that he in fact “signifies atheistical integrity.” This is clearly seen when Aaron “attempts to allow his child to survive him” in contrast to devout Lucius' religious father Titus who “having sacrificed 22 sons to the Goth wars, thinks nothing of slaughtering another one of them if the poor dolt gets in his way” (pages 83-84).
Lucius is powerless against Aaron's reasoning and because he wants to know what Aaron offers to tell him, he swears to spare the baby and have him fostered, “Even by my god I swear to thee I will” (Act 5.1). Coming after Aaron's astute observation that,
“An idiot holds his bauble for a god
And keeps the oath by that god he swears...
Shakespeare none too subtly shows that the anachronistic somewhat Christian piety of his somewhat hero isn't to be trusted. Shakespeare leaves the consequences of Lucius's oath ambiguous. Does he let the baby live, or doesn't he? The child is mentioned a few times in the last scene. The stage instructions at the beginning of Act 5.3 tell us that Lucius, Marcus and the Goths enter and maybe Aaron and an attendant with child. It is in brackets indicating that it's not certain that these are Shakespeare's directions. The same applies a few lines down with directions in brackets that the Goths leave with Aaron and his child. The only clear mention is made by Marcus: “Behold the child” (line 118) but he doesn't actually say whether the child is dead or alive.
The reason I'm laboring this point is to show that the oath that Lucius took to his god, (clearly his god and not God the One and Only) was very possibly just a convenience, granted to get information. Since Shakespeare doesn't make it absolutely clear that Lucius honors his oath (and Shakespeare is jam packed with oath-breaking) this exchange only serves to emphasize the unreliability of Lucius's piety.
And so to the victory of the hero. He wins in the end - he gets to be emperor. Does that prove that he's the good guy? Hardly. Hadfield shows that it is far from clear that Lucius has popular support, that it is just as likely that “Lucius is staging an Andronicus coup” and that “a corrupted Rome...has failed to learn from its history and the same political errors will be repeated by the Andronici, who will inevitably degenerate into tyrants, propped up by the Goth army” (page 165). Far from being a good emperor, Lucius will show that he leads a “Rome driven by dark forces” and we clearly see that there are “similarities between supposedly civilized Roman society and the barbarian Goths” (page 159).
Nothing could be more clear than Lucius's own words. Not only does he order Aaron's torturous death:
Set him breast-deep in earth and famish him
There let him stand, and rave, and cry for food (Act 5.3)
but sentences to death any pitying soul who might be prompted to ease his pain.
And finally, he mocks Aaron further, not to mention the Goths as well as Tamora herself, when he orders that the dead queen be denied the honor granted the vicious Saturninus and the equally vicious Titus in proper burial with the final words of the play:
No mournful bell shall ring her burial,
But throw her forth to beasts and birds to prey.
Her life was beastly and devoid of pity,
And being dead, let birds on her take pity (Act 5.3)
A slew of clichés leap to mind. Look who's calling the kettle black. Takes one to know one. Those who live in glass houses....With friends like that who needs enemies?
Whichever one we choose, one thing is clear. Shakespeare has once again demonstrated that when heroes win, everybody loses.
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition, 2008.
Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. 1998.
Hadfield, Andrew. Shakespeare and Republicanism. 2005.
Mallin, Erik S. Godless Shakespeare. 2007.
Maus, Katherine Eisman, Introduction to Titus Andronicus, Norton edition (see above.)
1985. BBC. Directed by Jane Howell. Cast: Titus – Trevor Peacock; Tamora – Eileen Atkins; Lavinia – Anna Calder-Marshall; Aaron – Hugh Quarshie; Saturninus – Brian Protheroe; Lucius – Gavin Richards. This is one of the best of the BBC productions.
1999. Directed by Julie Taymor. Cast: Titus – Anthony Hopkins; Tamora – Jessica Lange; Lavinia – Laura Fraser; Aaron – Harry Lennix; Saturninus – Alan Cumming; Lucius – Angus McFadyen. Brilliant. A must-see!
seen on stage: no