Chapter Two | Chapter Four
Richard III, of all Shakespeare's history plays, is most conspicuously interested in the Senecan model. Richard III asks questions about what England's history looks like through the lens of Seneca's world-view, and the answer is: pretty damn grim. The play is not, in the strictest sense of the word, a revenge tragedy, but its ties with the genre are at least as strong as its ties with its nominal genre of history plays, and the concerns of the play are deeply, inextricably bound up in the questions of the impact of the past with which we have already seen revenge tragedy to be obsessed.
The key to horror in Richard III is its central figure, protagonist and villain combined, like Achilles in Troades a personification of category violation, and therefore, like Achilles, a personification of the abject, the repressed that refuses to stay buried. In Richard's case, the abject which he embodies is the past. Whereas Titus Andronicus's Lavinia, as I will argue, is a living person limited and blocked by the restrictions imposed on ghosts, Richard is a ghost with the powers of a living man.
And Shakespeare's Richard is, in some vital ways, a ghost. As with Octavia, the characters of Richard III are figures familiar to their audience and known to be dead. The last Plantagenet king was a figure known and reviled in Shakespeare's England, and Shakespeare's Richard is the embodiment of that cultural, programmatic representation. Marjorie Garber points out: "In a viciously circular manifestation of neo-Platonic determinism, Richard is made villainous in appearance to match the desired villainy of his reputation, and then is given a personality warped and bent to compensate for his physical shape"(Garber 36). Richard--whom Stephen Greenblatt describes as "a kind of waking nightmare" (Greenblatt 167)--is not, and is not meant to be, a human being. He is a chimerical figure as well as a ghostly one, the culture's embodied memory of a king, a kind of Banquo's ghost (to steal a metaphor from another Shakespearean play about ghosts and kingship) at the Tudor feast. It is no wonder that the Tudors were so vehement in insisting that this particular ghost was a demon. Peggy Endel eloquently explores the emblematic and symbolic resonances of this "devil-king who is not in the giving vein ... the costive melancholic who is the wretched child of Saturn" (Endel 120):
This play dramatizes the butt-end of civil war, the dregs of history in its demonic phase, the desperate way the old world ends within the frame of the Tudor myth; and melancholy--the dregs or faex of black bile--is one semiotic term in the language of last things--the most calamitous of the four humors; associated with cold, dry winter, the most severe of the four seasons; with old age, the most discontented of the four ages; with earth, the grossest of the four elements; and with cold, dry Saturn, the planetary god of death and dung, whom iconographers depict as a savage king, enthroned, devouring a living child.
As this catalogue demonstrates, Richard carries too much symbolism to be read as a human being. He is also ghostly in a theatrical sense, for he speaks and behaves, as he himself notes, like "the formal Vice, Iniquity" (R3 3.1.82). He is, in other words, a figure out of an outmoded theatrical tradition. And while the Vice tradition informs informs the manufacture of Richard's character, the allegorical weight of the play rests elsewhere. In both the theatrical and historical sense, Richard is a ghost.
Janet Adelman argues in Suffocating Mothers that Richard assumes this ghosthood deliberately (Adelman 8-9). Richard enters gleefully into his own demonization, willingly sacrificing selfhood and interiority for the sake of power and a bewildering multiplicity of roles. In Shakespeare's play, Richard makes himself what the historical Richard was made by historiography. By choosing to be a ghost, rather than--as most ghosts are--being a victim, Richard manufactures power, dramatic as much as political.
Richard III is a shameless allegory of history. Unlike many of Shakespeare's other history plays, it makes no particular pretense of being realistic; its characters, though given the names of historical people, behave in stylized, ritualistic patterns and speak the stiff rhetoric of encomium and invective. Richard is a formal Vice indeed.
Horror in Richard III springs, Senecanly, out of the weight of the past. This play is about history as horror story. Partly, this agenda works in the service of the Tudor Myth, that all England should be grateful to Henry VII for freeing them from the demonic Plantagenets, but Shakespeare takes propaganda and turns it into a theatrical principle. Not only is England's past made horrific by the play, but the play's own past, the past with which its characters must negotiate, is horrific. The past is the place where tragedy begins.
This principle is represented most explicitly in Queen Margaret, the widow of Henry VI. Historically, Margaret was dead years before Richard came to the throne, so she is a spectral presence, conjured out of history by the needs of the play. Her function is to remind the other characters that their own history is not dead and cannot be either forgotten or escaped; where Richard is the personification of the abject, Margaret is its voice:
RICHARD. Wert thou not banished on pain of death?
QUEEN MARGARET. I was; but I do find more pain in banishment
Than death can yield me here by my abode.
The conflation of exile and death suggests that Margaret has returned from the dead, and her speeches evoke the insatiable vengeful hunger of the malevolent past. She also represents the inescapability of history repeating itself, another locus of the play's morbid fascination with the past; Margaret and the Duchess of York collaborate in a threnody that reads like a fugue:
QUEEN MARGARET. Tell o'er your woes by viewing mine.
I had an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
I had a husband, till a Richard killed him.
Thou hadst an Edward, till a Richard killed him;
Thou hadst a husband, till a Richard killed him.
DUCHESS OF YORK. I had a Richard, too, and thou didst kill him;
I had a Rutland, too, thou holp'st to kill him.
QUEEN MARGARET. Thou hadst a Clarence, too, and Richard killed him.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
DUCHESS OF YORK. O Harry's wife, triumph not in my woes!
God witness with me I have wept for thine.
QUEEN MARGARET. Bear with me; I am hungry for revenge,
And now I cloy me with beholding it.
Thy Edward he is dead, that killed my Edward;
Thy other Edward is dead, to quit my Edward;
Young York, he is but boot, because both they
Matched not the high perfection of my loss.
Thy Clarence he is dead that stabbed my Edward,
And the beholders of this frantic play,
Th' adulterate Hastings, Rivers, Vaughan, Grey,
Untimely smothered in their dusky graves.
Margaret represents the circularity of history, the way in which sins committed or conspired in rebound upon the heads of their perpetrators, the way in which for the characters the past becomes more important and more real than the present. The mounting repetition of names, Edwards and Clarences and Richards, reinforces this feeling that history is nothing but a cycle of murders and losses.
Margaret and the forces she represents are Richard's principal antagonist in the play, not the virtuous cipher Richmond.1 One source of Richard's astonishing power is his ability, not shared by any of the other characters, to transcend the past, to deny its power, as demonstrated in the way he deflects Margaret's curse:
QUEEN MARGARET. ... Thou rag of honor! Thou detested--
QUEEN MARGARET. Richard!
QUEEN MARGARET. I call thee not.
RICHARD. I cry thee mercy then, for I did think
That thou hadst called me all those bitter names.
QUEEN MARGARET. Why, so I did, but looked for no reply.
O, let me make the period to my curse!
RICHARD. 'Tis done by me, and ends in Margaret.
Richard's power lies in rhetoric, his ability to turn words back on themselves. His Protean maneuverability--commented on by, among others, Garber and Adelman--his ability to take on roles, to twist and distort words as his own body is twisted and distorted, confers on him the ability not only to control himself but also to manipulate those around him. Therein lies the root of his power.
For much of the play, it seems as if this power will be sufficient to defeat the past, as it does, most triumphantly, in Act I, scene ii, as Richard successfully woos Anne over her father-in-law's dead body. But we discover at the end that all Richard's brilliance has been expended merely in deferral, not in conquest. In one sense, we knew this all along; as I said earlier, the characters on stage are all ghosts, all remnants of their audience's past. We know, as the Elizabethan audiences knew, that Richard will die on Bosworth Field, that all his histrionic energy will come to naught. Richard is doomed before he starts because he himself (as a historical figure) is a part of the past--the Wars of the Roses--he (as a theatrical character) strives so hard to overcome.
Within the play, of course, this knowledge is not available, and Shakespeare does not structure his action around the unknowable hand of history. The play's own logic, the cyclical logic of haunting in which the present can never be freed from the past, dictates Richard's fall. The first clue is the way in which Margaret's seemingly deflected curse begins to come true. John Kerrigan remarks on the close connection between cursing and revenge, although he does not discuss Richard III, describing curses as "revenge tragedies by anticipation" (Kerrigan 128). And in Margaret's case this is no more than the literal truth. Richard indeed suspects his friends for traitors and takes deep traitors for his dearest friends (R3 1.3.220-21), while Margaret's wish, "No sleep close up that deadly eye of thine, / Unless it be while some tormenting dream / Affrights thee with a hell of ugly devils!" (R3 1.3.222-24), is clearly reflected in Act V, scene iii, where Richard's nightmare of his death coincides with the play's other great manifestation of the power of the past, the parade of ghosts.
These ghosts, like Andrea's ghost in The Spanish Tragedy, are not perceptible to the characters on stage. They do not haunt in the normal sense of the word. Both Richmond and Richard are asleep; although Richmond's dream reflects what we see on stage--"Methought their souls whose bodies Richard murdered / Came to my tent and cried on victory" (R3 5.5.184-85)--Richard's does not, since his words on waking, "Give me another horse! Bind up my wounds!" (R3 5.5.131), clearly refer to his own upcoming death, not to the past deaths he has caused. Neither of them, in any event, is directly aware of the ghosts in the way the audience is.
The ghosts' purpose, therefore, is not to communicate their woes to the characters on stage. There is no need; it is no secret to the forces of good that Richard is a murderer. The ghosts appear to perform a ritual of curse and blessing, to embody and demonstrate the inescapable power of the past.
Richard III operates from its beginning on the principle of ritual, marking it more liminal than liminoid. The characters' dialogue is mannered and patterned, their behavior orchestrated seemingly always with an eye to balance and repetition. Richard has proved himself master of ritualizing his desires throughout; only at the end is that tool turned against him. The play's organizing principle of spectacular ritual is harnessed instead to serve the needs of his victims, the ghosts. The avatars of Richard's crimes and Richard's own rhetorical power combine against him; in the logic of the play, this synergy is far more the cause of his downfall than the cardboard heroics of the cardboard Richmond.
Richard's powers as "ghost" prove to be inequal to the powers of the real ghosts, the ghosts which he himself has created. He cannot deflect their curses, nor can he turn their own language against them. They defeat him in part because, as ghosts, they are immune to his rhetorical powers. Richard cannot argue with them or beguile them; they represent the inexorability of the forces of history, the place where Richard's villainy turns back upon itself. Richard is a victim of his own evil; he succumbs in the end to the horror that he has used all along.
Unlike The Spanish Tragedy, Richard III fully reasserts social stability at its close, adhering again to Turner's definition of the liminal:
The liminal phases of tribal society invert but do not usually subvert the status quo, the structural form, of society; reversal underlines to the members of a community that chaos is the alternative to cosmos, so they'd better stick to cosmos, i.e., the traditional order of culture, though they can for a brief while have a whale of a good time being chaotic, in some saturnalian or lupercalian revelry, some charivari, or institutionalized orgy.
Richard is fun to watch; like the medieval Vices, he compels attention and even a certain degree of sympathy through his theatrical energy and transparent honesty about his motives, his villainy. But just as the morality plays reinforced their audiences' determination not to succumb to the seductive Vices they presented, Richard III reinforces the central tenet of the Tudor Myth: we do not want Richard as our king. Like a ritual, the play returns us again to the society from which we came to it.
This closing gesture is strongly in contrast to the end of The Spanish Tragedy. Kyd refuses to pull out of the downward, hellbent spiral of the play's trajectory; there is no promise of salvation, no efforts at recuperation. There are many reasons for this difference. The most obvious is that The Spanish Tragedy is purely fiction, while Richard III, although no one would call it historically accurate, does have to conform to the broad outlines of history. Richard must die; Richmond must take the throne and begin a dynasty still in power in Shakespeare's day. Also, in Richard III, the forces of chaos and destruction are very tightly localized in Richard; the one categorical distinction he does not violate is that between "good" and "evil." There is no "revenger" such as Hieronimo to follow him into the vortex. Richmond, although structurally fulfilling the conditions of revenge (i.e., killing Richard), does so out of pure and impersonal motives and, perhaps more importantly, openly on the field of battle rather than via a covert stratagem or deception. And because Richard is himself like a ghost, the walking horror of the individual's relationship with death and the past, the literal ghosts, with appropriate archaism, can use the model of community represented in the pamphlets. The ghosts in Richard III are a community of ghosts; they drive Richard out so that Richmond can re-form English national community. The ghosts' siding with Richmond also creates a sense of continuity and tradition across what was in reality a schism; the change of dynasty is represented as a return to traditional values and harmony after the aberration of Richard's rule.
Richard becomes, in the course of the play, a metonym for a number of larger issues. He represents the old, decayed line of the Plantagenets, who by the Tudor myth need to be uprooted and replaced with the younger and more vital strain of the Tudors. He represents the Wars of the Roses, the tangled, useless atrocity that had devastated England for three generations--and which Henry Tudor would finally end. He represents a way of thinking about the past that is proved to be wrong and dangerous; the force of the past cannot be denied, and trying to hide from it merely makes you another victim. And because of his close connection with the ghosts who curse him, he also represents the past which the play is anxious to declare a closed book: the history of the Plantagenets, of the Wars of the Roses, of murder. Because he is both villain and victim, he represents both his own evil and the dire consequences which that evil has.
Therefore, getting rid of Richard enables the play to enact closure with a cleanness unparalleled in any of the other English Renaissance plays discussed in this study (a closure to which Richard himself is antithetical, as Garber remarks [Garber 44]). The problem with revenge, as revengers from Hieronimo to Hamlet to Vindice discover, is that it is an oozing miasma; murder is a contaminant, and those who touch it cannot themselves remain pure. In Richard III, where the desire for revenge is entirely divorced from the power to enact it (Margaret has the desire, but not the power; Richmond has and uses the power, but has no personal desire), definitional categories remain stable. The lines of identity remain clearly drawn. The villain is the villain; the hero is the hero. Because these roles are not questioned, it is possible for this play to reassert social stability and goodness; its social demons, embodied in Richard, are successfully exorcized.
This clarity means that Richard III has a narrative trajectory markedly different from The Spanish Tragedy, a difference that can be shown by a comparison of their ghosts. The Spanish Tragedy ends with the ghost in control. Andrea will determine the fates of his murderers, the endless torments awaiting them. Kyd's play follows a descent from normalcy to nihilism. But in Richard III the needs of the living are asserted over and against the needs of the dead (or asserted to be identical with the needs of the dead). Richmond triumphs, defeating Richard, who is a metonym of the past that both produces and destroys him. Shakespeare conceived of the War of the Roses as a vicious cycle much like the one he portrayed in Titus Andronicus, a cycle charted in the Henry VI plays; finally at the end of Richard III he finds a way to break free of that endless loop, to start the play's world on an upward climb toward the light. The dead are left behind with the destruction of their murderer, and order can be restored.
There are, of course, no ghosts in Titus Andronicus. This lack is peculiar because the play is a highly Senecan revenge tragedy. It is thus, despite its lack of literal ghosts, rife with horror and category violations, and in fact the absence of literal ghosts becomes a haunting presence, troped in the metaphorically ghostly Lavinia.
In Titus Andronicus, category violation is visible across a wide spectrum of dichotomized systems, and the intersection of these different failures is the human body. Categorical collapses of all kinds--political, social, epistemological--are inscribed and demonstrated on the body. The most important of these collapses is the conflation of dead and living, of ghost and body. The dichotomy of "ghost" and "body" becomes collapsed over the course of the play, in rhetoric, in staging, and in the character of Lavinia. Lavinia's fate as both ghost and body will enable us to understand what categorical integrity means in the world of the play and why its violation leads to the nihilistic desolation of the play's end.
In the world of Titus Andronicus, order is based on dichotomies, such as Roman vs. Goth (and with that, ally vs. enemy), dead vs. alive, good vs. evil. The action of the play, the multivalenced descent into chaos, is composed of the dissolution of the boundaries between these categories, despite the desperate and unavailing attempts of the characters, particularly Titus, to keep their categories distinct. Moreover, as David Wilbern points out with regard to the play's opening scene, Bassianus's desire to defend Rome is a very thinly veiled desire to defend the city from rape (Wilbern 161). The trope of rape governs the play, and rape, the ultimate violation, also participates in the violation of categories.
The policing of categories is doomed to failure; separate categories have already started to dissolve before the play even begins. Maquerlot demonstrates in his reading of the first scene of the play the extent to which Rome, the allegedly civilized culture, is subject to its own "inborn, if ritualized barbarity" before it allows the Goths within its walls (Maquerlot 45). The distinction between civilization and savagery is already fatally compromised. Perhaps the well-spring of tragedy in the play is that none of the characters recognize this fact about their society until it is too late. The difficulties with categories which the characters can recognize--as opposed to those intrinsic to their existence--begin with political instability, the squabbling between Saturninus and Bassianus, who have equally valid but mutually exclusive claims to the imperial throne. The political instability they represent is joined by other instabilities--social, familial, epistemological, moral--and all these category violations are inscribed on the body, as it is violated, mutilated, slaughtered, and eaten. All boundaries in Titus Andronicus are precarious; all boundaries are threatened. The body becomes the site where these various categorical collapses manifest themselves.
The characters in Titus Andronicus are not worried about bodies; their preoccupations are politics and revenge. But these concerns are enacted on the body, and therefore implicated in its fragility. The most striking example of this pattern is the fate of Lavinia; Cunningham examines the ways in which the violence of war is reinscribed on Lavinia (Cunningham 142). Lavinia's body is the play's battlefield. The horrors visited upon her body are reflections of the categorical collapses taking place in other arenas.
Thus, Lavinia highlights what Cynthia Marshall calls "a pervasive attitude of distrust of the body" in Titus Andronicus (Marshall 206). For the play, bodies are problematical. Some bodies are Other: black (Aaron) or female (Tamora, Lavinia). More pervasively, bodies in this play are fragile: the dead Andronici, Mutius, Quintus, Martius, Bassianus, Lavinia (again), Titus, and ultimately Chiron, Demetrius, Aaron, Saturninus, and Tamora as well. Titus Andronicus realigns the Bakhtinian polarity of the classical body and the grotesque body along a different axis, for although the play records the degradation of the classical body into the grotesque, these are not Bakhtinian carnivalesque bodies, which sweat and excrete. These bodies only bleed. The classical body itself is part of a categorical dichotomy familiar from other revenge tragedies; bodies are either alive and whole or they are dead. Here in Titus, we see instead a death by inches, as bodies are mutilated, but do not die. The central, primal scene of this fearful truth is Marcus's discovery of Lavinia.
The body in Titus Andronicus participates in both types of category violations I defined in the Introduction. It is a single thing whose integrity is breached. Its wholeness is denied and violated and mocked; bodies in Titus are shown to be fragile, incomplete, vulnerable to mutilation. The abstract ideal of the body is replaced by bleeding limbs and ravaged mouths. And at the same time, and in the same person, Lavinia, that the body demonstrates category violation as failure of wholeness, it is also implicated in the second kind of category violation, as it is contaminated by its opposite: the ghost. The characters in Titus Andronicus attempt to define ghost and body as associated but separate. Ghosts are the spirits of the dead; bodies either belong to the living or are themselves dead matter. A fundamental underpinning of human understanding--the categorical separateness of "alive" and "dead"--is represented by the living characters as being opposed to their fear of ghosts. As the spirits of the dead, ghosts are fearful, unnatural, and to be denied the stage at all costs. But the play subverts its characters' desperate attempts to make the world work, and the course of the play is also the gradual undermining of the distinction between the living and the dead.
Ghosts are a problem from the very beginning of Titus Andronicus. The central categorical collapse in the play is that between the dead and the living, between the ghost and the body. We see its centrality because it is an even more powerful corrosive force on the victory of Act I than is the political turmoil. The Goths, the enemy, are defeated (although perhaps we should be worried that they are being brought into the middle of Rome); the fear that remains is the fear that the dead will rise. Above all else, in this first scene, the Andronici want to keep the dead from rising.
There are several reasons for this imperative. One, embedded in the language, is that anything which must be appeased is by definition angry. Secondly, there are now twenty-one of Titus's sons in the tomb beneath the stage; if they were to rise, they would outnumber the living characters almost two to one. The third and most important reason is the policing of categories.
When the tomb is opened, there in the middle of the stage, Titus prays his dead sons "There greet in silence as the dead are wont, / And sleep in peace, slain in your country's wars" (TA 1.1.90-91). This speech looks conventionally pious (pius, even, since as Heather James points out, Titus is deliberately modeling himself on Aeneas [James 125]), until we hear Lucius's response:
Give us the proudest prisoner of the Goths,
That we may hew his limbs and on a pile
Ad manes fratrum sacrifice his flesh
Before this earthy prison of their bones,
That so the shadows be not unappeased,
Nor we disturbed with prodigies on earth.
Suddenly, Titus asking his dead sons to remain quiet and peaceful looks like anything but an empty platitude. Just as Chiron and Demetrius will later show an unwholesome familiarity with Ovid's Metamorphoses, Lucius here has clearly read Seneca's Troades, which I discussed in Chapter One. Troades and Titus Andronicus do not lack ghosts so much as they abject them; tremendous energy and pain must be expended in order to keep the ghost off the stage, to keep the categories of "dead" and "alive" separated. As Kristeva and other psychoanalytic critics show us, this is a project doomed before it even begins. But the moment at which this category violation becomes inevitable in Titus Andronicus is the moment of the very action which seeks to maintain categorical integrity.
When Tamora pleads for her son's life, Titus replies:
These are their brethren whom your Goths beheld
Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain
Religiously they ask a sacrifice.
To this your son is marked, and die he must
T'appease their groaning shadows that are gone.
The first part of the speech makes it extraordinarily difficult to figure out when Titus is talking about his dead sons and when he is talking about those still living; "their brethren" in line 122 refers to the living sons--the brothers of those whom your Goths beheld. In line 123, "their brethren" refers to the dead sons--the brothers of those who ask for a sacrifice. Moreover, "those whom your Goths beheld / Alive and dead" is itself a curiously intricate way of saying, "those whom your Goths killed." This speech exhibits the kind of category violation the characters are trying to prevent by sacrificing Alarbus, and therefore demonstrates the way in which their obsession contains the seeds of its own destruction. It is this sacrifice which sets Tamora's destructive energies in motion, and it is Tamora--female, Goth, devouring villain--who precipitates most of the transgressions and collapses of the action of the play.
The first scene of Titus Andronicus shows us what is at stake in the dichotomy of ghost and body, dead and living, and shows us also why the two categories are unstable, why all the energy and effort the characters put into holding them apart is doomed to futility. Categories constructed as separate slide into each other despite--sometimes because of--the characters' best efforts to prevent them.
This thematic and structural dissolution is also represented in the play's use of theatrical space, specifically the theater's Hell, the space beneath the stage. In Act I, the Hell performs as the tomb of the Andronici, which we have seen to be a locus of anxiety about the category of the "dead" and whether that category's stability can be maintained. We do not escape that anxiety in Act II; if anything, it becomes worse. The tomb becomes the pit; it changes from being a place to hide and restrain the dead to a place where death is discovered. Moreover, this space also shows a degradation in categorical purity. In Rome, the tomb is the receptacle for dead bodies only; in the woods, the pit drags in the dead and the living alike. Titus's speech in Act I articulates a category violation by failing to distinguish between the dead and the living, and this category violation is mapped out again and again during the course of the play, represented both in Lavinia's fate and in the pit.
The pit is overdetermined. As well as noting its metaphorical resonances within the play, James points out its allusive identities: "Philomela, and Dido, Dido's cave, the Classical Underworld" (James 129). It functions as a symbol of Lavinia's violated body; Jonathan Bate rightly says in his introduction to the Arden edition: "We do not have to be card-carrying Freudians to see the connection between what we know Chiron and Demetrius are doing to Lavinia, and Quintus' description [of the pit]" (Bate, TA, 7-8). Shakespeare paints the analogy with broad and obvious strokes. The pit evokes the off-stage violence being perpetrated on Lavinia's body. And later, as Rowe points out in reference to 3.1.122-30, Titus's comparison of Lavinia to a fountain evokes the pit again (Rowe 295). The pit represents Lavinia, and then Lavinia is forced to represent the pit. The chains of signification insist on running both ways.
The pit symbolizes Lavinia's violated body, but at the same time, as Andronici and emperors fall into it as into a Venus fly-trap, it is suggestive of Tamora's body. Tamora is the all-devouring mother (Adelman 9); when Tamora eats her own sons, it is no more than a literalization of her destructive proclivities all along. The pit reflects her just as much as it does Lavinia. Cynthia Marshall argues that the hatred represented by the pit is as much hatred of the mother as hatred of the body (Marshall 206). And, circling back to the tomb, Wilbern points out that it is also the womb: "In burying his sons, Titus returns them to their origin" (Wilbern 162). Even in its most public and decorous incarnation, the tomb/pit has its dark female associations. The dark void beneath the stage represents both the violated female body and the all-consuming female body.
The pit also functions as a collector of people either dead (Bassianus) or about to die (Quintus and Martius) and so again aligns itself with the ominous, brooding presence of the tomb in Act I. In Titus Andronicus, the area beneath the stage is repeatedly and explicitly associated with dead bodies, and this association travels backwards through the chain (tomb to pit to violated and devouring female body) to reflect on Lavinia and Tamora as well. The pit is the site of the ultimate collapse of categorical boundaries, since its representation contains at the same time Lavinia's violated body, Tamora's devouring maw, and the dark void of the tomb.
The theatrical space becomes implicated in the play's descent into chaos. The pit is the ultimate leveler, compromising every epistemological boundary which comes in contact with it. It also focuses our attention on bodies, both the bodies of those who fall into it and the bodies of those whom it represents. Above all else, the pit denies the validity of any closed system, any effort to sort experience and perception into tidy categories.
And from this overdetermined darkness emerges the play's most disturbing category violation, a character who is not dead but who is nevertheless in a myriad ways like a ghost: Lavinia. Her brothers' fear of ghosts leads to the sacrificial murder of Alarbus, which causes Tamora to swear revenge. And Tamora's revenge, carried out through her thuggish sons, creates of Lavinia the play's quintessential victim, its ghost.
How does Lavinia become a ghost? To begin with, Chiron and Demetrius's elaborate mutilation of her is undertaken deliberately to keep her from being able to expose their crimes. They might just as well have killed her, and indeed, from the way they talk about her, it is clear that to them she is dead, in the metaphorical sense of ceasing entirely to have any agency or any ability to impose her will on the world around her. She cannot even kill herself:
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 the scribe.
DEMETRIUS. See how with signs and tokens she can scrawl.
CHIRON. Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.
DEMETRIUS. She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash,
And so let's leave her to her silent walks.
CHIRON. And 'twere my cause, I should go hang myself.
DEMETRIUS. If thou hadst hands to help thee knit the cord.
For Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia is unproblematically "dead"--not even a ghost but reduced to an object. Having indulged in their stichomythy at her expense, off they go, leaving Lavinia, like the ghost of Hamlet's father and others, to her "silent walks." Lavinia's silencing, although it leaves her "alive," also leaves her "dead," in a tortured limbo where she has neither peace nor power. She becomes a ghost, and if Chiron and Demetrius were smart enough to know what kind of play they inhabit, they would know better than to be sanguine about their secret.
Lavinia's literal rape and mutilation translates into a metaphorical death. As I remarked in the Introduction, silencing equates to death on the Renaissance stage; thus Chiron and Demetrius's silencing of Lavinia is also her murder. But because this is a revenge tragedy--because the category of ghost is available--Lavinia's "death" does not effect closure. From the victimized body, she moves into the category of ghost.
As outlined in the Introduction, one function of the ghost is to reveal things that have been hidden, and here Lavinia functions clearly as a ghost. Despite her lack of tongue and hands, she succeeds in exposing that which Chiron and Demetrius wished to conceal. When she achieves this, and her male relatives raise the banner of Revenge, she replaces Alarbus as the object-to-be-revenged in the economy of the play, and thus assumes another characteristic of the ghost in revenge tragedy.
Finally, at the end of the play, Lavinia, like any proper ghost, is laid to rest; her father enacts the vengeance her haunting presence asks of him, and then kills her. His subsequent exchange with Tamora emphasizes Lavinia's spectrality:
TAMORA. Why hast thou slain thine only daughter thus?
TITUS. Not I, 'twas Chiron and Demetrius:
They ravished her and cut away her tongue,
And they, 'twas they, that did her all this wrong.
One way to read this speech, clearly, is as transference of guilt on Titus's part, but at the same time it supports the idea that Chiron and Demetrius did metaphorically kill Lavinia, that what we have been watching on the stage since the middle of Act II is not Lavinia but her ghost: what remains of her after undergoing the silencing that is death.
Lavinia performs all the structural and narrative functions of the ghost in a revenge tragedy: she presents the protagonist with a puzzle; she reveals the murderers' secret; she is the object to be revenged; she sets a task the fulfillment of which enacts closure for the play. Beyond these generic functions, there are two other ways in which Lavinia is like a ghost. The first is the flip side of her generic status as a puzzle; she is unable to communicate by normal means, but must be solved by those around her. Lavinia literally cannot speak; she can only communicate through her actions. This is true of many ghosts. This communicative impasse leaves their actions open to misinterpretation, and that misinterpretation leads to misdirected fear. Lavinia's nephew fears her both because she is horrifying to look upon and because she cannot explain herself:
Enter Lucius' son . . . and LAVINIA running after him, and the Boy flies from her with his books under his arm. . . .
BOY. Help, grandsire, help! My aunt Lavinia
Follows me everywhere, I know not why.
Good uncle Marcus, see how swift she comes.
Alas, sweet aunt, I know not what you mean.
(TA 4.1.sd, 1-4)
The Boy is literally being haunted by Lavinia; she "follows [him] everywhere." Like many ghosts in contemporaneous popular culture (as the haunting pamphlets demonstrate), she cannot explain her actions; we must take her benevolence on faith, as Titus advises the Boy: "Fear her not, Lucius--somewhat doth she mean" (TA 4.1.9). The other characters have to figure out what she wants--her nephew's Ovid--before she can tell them. They have to take that imaginative leap of sympathy before any communication is possible. Ghosts, in this broader view, are questions posed by the past which the present must answer; thus, when Titus answers the question which Lavinia represents, he emerges from the terrible, disempowered stasis which immobilizes him throughout Act III and begins to plot his revenge.
Lavinia is a spectacle, as theatrical ghosts are, and the spectacle the play makes of her is its core scene of horror. Lavinia violates categorical definitions for everyone who sees her, not merely those who are on stage with her. In other words, she is not a ghost safely immured in a fiction, but a spectral presence which the narrative fails to contain. She is as anomalous and disturbing to the audience as she is to the characters.
The characteristic of causing fear is part of ghosthood as we can see by looking at Hamlet, which begins with a discussion between the guards of how frightened they are by the spectacle of the elder Hamlet stalking the battlements. Lavinia has this effect, as we have seen, on the Boy, but the moment at which it is most forcefully produced is in her first meeting with a character who must interpret her, her uncle Marcus.
Shakespeare understands that horror grows the longer an audience is forced to contemplate the object of horror; Nahum Tate's alterations to King Lear show the efficacy of this strategy: by condensing the scene of Gloucester's blinding, he makes it a scene of pathos rather than horror. The principle also operates in Othello, as Desdemona takes a prodigiously long time to die, and her body, shifting across the threshold between life and death, remains foregrounded on the stage, the focus of the characters' attention as well as our own. Although spectacle of horror piled upon spectacle can result in indifference or even laughter (as modern slasher films amply demonstrate), the longer an audience is forced to stare at a single spectacle, the more horrifying the spectacle becomes. Shakespeare uses this method of generating horror to bravura effect in Titus.
Marcus's speech on Lavinia is appallingly long--44 lines dwelling on the spectacle of her raped, mutilated, and bleeding body. Jonathan Bate, in his discussion of Deborah Warner's 1987 production, examines some of the reasons that, although critics point to this speech as one of the play's more ridiculous features, it is in fact deeply effective in performance: "a lyrical speech is needed because it is only when an appropriately inappropriate language has been found that the sheer force of contrast between its beauty and Lavinia's degradation begins to express what she has undergone and lost" (Bate, "Unspeakable," 106). The physical violation, echoing into category violation, can only be comprehended in similarly paradoxical and ambiguous language. Marcus's experience and our experience, Bate suggests, become the same. Kent Cartwright argues, perhaps more subtly, that in plays which "create spectacle through language," as Shakespeare's do, "Audience response will be both direct and mediated, both sensual and vicarious, and the two avenues may conflict in the qualities they reveal" (Cartwright 97). Cartwright's model of audience response allows for a highly Senecan juxtaposition of incommensurate feelings. The spectacle Lavinia presents is always horrifying, but it may evoke other responses ranging from squeamish revulsion to incredulous hysteria; Marcus's speech guides us through the bewilderment of processing what has happened to Lavinia, what the blood and dishevelment and other markers of her ordeal signify, not invalidating our own responses, but showing us how to integrate our reaction into the engine of the play.
Moreover, there is an important theatrical agenda to this speech; Maquerlot argues that this speech demonstrates "that in the theatre the unspeakable and the unspeaking must be given a voice" (Maquerlot 50). Marcus's speech is metatheatrically programmatic. At the same time that this long, lavish speech tries to teach us how to understand horror, it is also trying to teach us how to deal with horror. It is insisting that horror must be spoken, that if Lavinia cannot speak for herself, someone else must speak for her, as Marcus does here and Titus will do elsewhere.
Via one interpretation, we can call this the typical silencing and appropriation of female voices by patriarchal structures,2 but I would in fact argue the opposite: that Marcus and Titus, in speaking for Lavinia, are trying to undo the silencing which Chiron and Demetrius have effected. Their efforts are doomed to failure, which they know as well as we do, but the attempt testifies to the play's grim determination not to give up on speech as a fundamental human quality.
Marcus's long speech on the spectacle of the violated Lavinia is the play's primal scene of horror. Nothing either before or after can compete with it, because it is qualified neither by taking place off-stage nor by the pitch-black humor that characterizes the second half of the play. Here there is nothing but the spectacle of Lavinia and the horror which she evokes in Marcus and in the audience.
Lavinia is horrifying because of the traumas written in her flesh and because she is unable to speak those traumas. Her objectification by Chiron and Demetrius is more than merely metaphorical. And dealing with the spectacle she presents, as Bate suggests, itself requires a rhetorical melding of opposites which echoes the category violations represented in Lavinia's flesh.
Lavinia horrifies us because she functions as a ghost--as a remnant of the unquiet past--without being one. She is a living person forced into the category of ghost. Her existence in this terrible in-between state violates both the category of "ghost" and the category of "living person." She is not dead, so she cannot be a ghost, but she fits so many categorical markers of the ghost that she cannot be anything else.
Lavinia is a body mutilated and yet living, but denied all the markers of "life" which the stage offers. She cannot speak; she cannot write (or weave, like Philomela). "Lavinia," the character who speaks in the first two acts, is dead, but Lavinia's body stubbornly goes on breathing and thus becomes a nexus for the categorical confusions which underlie the horror the play generates. Rowe recognizes the same quality in a different register when she asks: "is [Lavinia] a character that functions as a prop or as a fetish, a kind of prop that presses to be read as a character?" (Rowe 300). Trapped between subject and object, Lavinia is a physical embodiment of categorical collapse.
Karen Cunningham, discussing Lavinia as a material body, comes to conclusions startlingly similar to the conclusions I reached examining her role as a ghost, describing her as "violently deprived of her own position as a speaker, and dependent on observers to solve the problem of her meaning" (Cunningham 149-50). Becoming a ghost, in this play, is the same thing as being reduced to a body. "Ghost" and "body" become equally unstable categories, collapsing into each other as they collide in the representation of Lavinia. The two categories which the Andronici in the beginning were so desperately anxious to keep separate, the "dead" and the "living," are in Lavinia fused into one. She can be talked about either as a material body or as a disembodied spirit with equal accuracy; the categorical collapse she embodies is complete.
The category violations of Titus Andronicus find their clearest and most material expression in the body of Lavinia. She reminds us powerfully of the fragility of the human body; her bleeding mouth mocks the idea of the classical body, and the stumps of her wrists show that the body is not defined by wholeness, as much as we might like it to be. She is both ghost and body, both dead and alive; the dichotomy which her brothers began the play by defending is in her destroyed.
By the end of Titus Andronicus, all the categorical dichotomies of the play have entered a state of chaotic collapse. Good-evil, Roman-Goth, sane-mad, white-black, living-dead--all have been questioned, problematized, exploded. Even the purgation of death which ends the play is compromised by the audience's knowledge that the bodies on stage--the actors playing "dead"--are still breathing. The play itself is a liminal creation, in the literal Latin-derived sense of a limen rather than Turner's usage, a doorway, a fiction enacted with real voices and real bodies.
Titus Andronicus is a bleak play; the stumbling regroupings of the forces of order seem doomed to failure. The comprehensive inability of human categories to make sense of experience is a defeat from which the play suggests it is not possible to recover. Yet, because it is fiction--because in Turner's terms it is liminoid rather than liminal–the audience can recover; the model of human thinking that has been tested to destruction is only that: a model. Unlike the characters, trapped in their endless, obsessive downward spiral, we can leave the theater and try again.
1. Although some critics argue that Richmond is not entirely "good," the play's function as a ritual of exorcism--which is how I read it--suggests that Richmond's character is not meant to be complicated or ambiguous. Ian McKellen's Richard III (1995) highlights the contrast between the aging, crippled, Machiavellian Richard (McKellen) and the young, strong, eager Richmond (Dominic West).
2. See, as one example, Rowe 295-96.
Chapter Two | Chapter Four
© Sarah Monette 2004 Feel free to link to this academic trial-by-ordeal, but please do not reproduce it without permission.