E316 Fall 2010 Students' Blog

Gayle de la Cruz on Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Act 1

Published by admin_main on Mon 11 Oct, 2010

2. In Act 1, Scene 1, how does the captured Tamora, Queen of Goths, react to the prospect — and then the fact — of her eldest son's slaughter? How does her response affect the way an audience might perceive the conduct and attitude of Titus with regard to the sacrifice?

In Act 1, Scene 1, we see Tamora react to her son's slaughter the way any caring mother would; she is deeply distressed by her son's impending fate. Although in waiting for Tamora's reaction, perhaps expecting rage and barbaric vengefulness, the audience instead sees a woman who is willing to beg for her son's life. Tamora gets on her knees and pleads desperately with Titus — no doubt a sign of humility and fear. She attempts to appeal to his humanity, and says, "Victorious Titus, rue the tears I shed — /A mother's tears in passion for her son — /And if thy sons were ever dear to thee,/O, think my son to be as dear to me!" (1.1.105-108) These words are her attempts to convince Titus to show the same compassion for her son as he had for his own fallen sons. However, Tamora's pleas fall on deaf ears when Titus decides to sacrifice her son anyway.

Although as the play progresses, Tamora proves to be sly, ruthless, and cruel, in Act 1, Scene 1, the audience sees her as someone who actually respects the "civilized" ideas of mercy. When the audience sees Tamora on her knees, literally begging for her son's life, we are inclined to believe her. There is not yet any trace of the cruel and vengeful woman who would ultimately enact revenge on Titus. One of the reasons why Tamora's demonstration of begging is so striking is because when we watch this scene, we are forced to immediately compare her demeanor to Titus'. Titus Andronicus, the great Roman general, is considered "civilized" even though he carried on with the sacrifice without any remorse. Meanwhile, Tamora, the Queen of the "savage" Goths — the one who was on her knees begging for her son's life — is the one who is seen as "uncivilized."

Before judging who the true barbarian is, it is important to understand Titus' motivations for killing Alarbus. Titus believes that he is justified in killing Tamora's son because ritualistic sacrifice is viewed as an accepted Roman custom. He asserts that because his civilized views say that his ritual is justified, he is not wrong in making a sacrifice out of Tamora's son. He even says to her, "These are their brethren whom your Goths beheld/Alive and dead, and for their brethren slain/Religiously they ask a sacrifice" (1.1.122-124). Titus deliberately slaughtered Tamora's son, claiming that it was done out of necessity. His justification is an appeal to religion; he firmly believes that the only way his sons will rest in peace is for the proudest Goth to be sacrificed. However, Titus seems to have another motivation for killing Alarbus that he does not make explicit. Although he does not say so, another reason why Titus is so intent on sacrificing Tamora's son is to get revenge for his twenty-one sons who were killed during the war. This could be the reason why he chose to kill Tamora's first born son. He must have been the most loved and important to her. If this is true, then that means that Titus's "civilized" religious justification of the slaughter is merely a veil to cover up the more brutal, barbaric need for "an eye for an eye."

When examining this scene, the audience begins to see how thin the line is between the Romans' violent civilization and the Goths' uncivilized savagery. The Goth queen Tamora is capable of feeling remorse for her murdered son. Alternately, the Roman general Titus Andronicus — the most prominent symbol of civilized Roman society — is definitely capable of cold hearted murder. Scene One's message seems to be that despite all its claims of civility and high esteem, a society such as that of the Romans can be just as barbaric as that of an uncivilized Gothic society.

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