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July 19, 2014

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare- A Discussion of Power and Female Agency In A Male Dominated Society

Titus Andronicus by William Shakespeare- A Discussion of Power and Female Agency In A Male Dominated Society


In William Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus, Lavinia is seen as the personification of Rome in beauty and spirit. Lavinia is the daughter of the most powerful man in Rome; Titus is revered by everyone of Rome, including his daughter. In the beginning of the play, Lavinia has no agency; she does what the men in her life want and expect from her. It is only after she is violated and has her tongue and hands removed that she is finally able to speak up in her defense. Her agency is fully realized when she allows Titus to kill her; thus, restoring her honor. Lavinia plays an important role in the play, she can be seen as the foil for Titus; in the beginning whenever Titus is in control, Lavinia has no agency, but there is a shift in the middle of the play when Titus has lost his power and Lavinia uses her agency to restore his authority.

One of the first examples of Lavinia's lack of agency is when she is treated like an object by Titus, Saturninus, and Bassianus. Once Saturninus is named as emperor he declares:

Lavinia will I make my empress,
Rome's royal mistress, mistress of my heart,

and in the sacred Pantheon her espouse (1.1.243-5). 





Saturninus only desires Lavinia, because she is the daughter of Titus, the hero of Rome; this is a great political move on the part of Saturninus, and helps to ensure that there will be no upheavals against his rule. Titus is at his most powerful when he declines to become the emperor, and instead betrothed his daughter to Saturninus, even though he had already given her to Bassianus. Lavinia is not given the choice of whether or not she wants to marry Saturninus; the decision is made for her and she just goes along with it. Bassianus hears that Titus intends to rob him of his betrothed and he becomes angry; he tells Titus:

"Lord Titus, by your leave, this maid is mine" and then seizes Lavinia (1.1.279).

Bassianus views Lavinia as his property, so he believes that he is well within in right to take her away from both her father and his brother, Saturninus. Decisions are once again being made for Lavinia, and she has essentially become relegated to an inanimate object. Titus' loss of his daughter Rome's royal mistress, has stripped him of some of his power; he used her as his bargaining chip to ensure his place in the hierarchy of Rome, now that she is gone, his place in the hierarchy is uncertain and that infuriates him.

Lavinia is further objectified by Tamora's, the Queen of the Goths and then later the Empress of Rome, sons Demetrius and Chiron. During a royal hunt, Demetrius and Chiron kidnap Lavinia and take her deep into the forest and violently rape her. Then, to make sure that they cover their tracks, they cut out Lavinia's tongue and sever her hands, rendering her unable to tell anyone who did those horrible things to her, or so they thought.

Marcus happens upon Lavinia in the forest and discovering that she cannot speak, offers:

Shall I speak for thee? Shall I say 'tis so?
O that I knew thy heart, and knew the beast,
that I might rail at him to ease my mind! (2.4.33-5).


In this play, Marcus is the embodiment of the honorable Rome, so it is fitting that he is the one that finds her and takes her to her father, Titus. Lavinia, stripped of almost all of her power, has to rely on the men in her life to speak for her. It is absurd to think that Marcus or Titus could possibly understand her thoughts and feelings.

Lavinia's rape is the turning point in Titus Andronicus: Titus was once considered the most powerful and fiercest man in Rome, no one would dare cross him, but now someone has disrespected his family by hurting his only daughter, Lavinia. Titus and Marcus have to rely on Lavinia to tell them what happened to her, so that they know who to punish. True, it is at the behest of Marcus and Titus that Lavinia takes a stick into her mouth and guides it with her nubs and spells out Demitrius and Chiron's names (4.1.70-7), but she is the one that came up with the idea when she drew their attention to the story of Philomel (4.1.45-9). Lavinia's agency leads to her father's resurrection of power, and in this case, the knowledge that Titus has acquired is the source of this power.

Revenge and the restoration of power are the themes of the final act of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus. Titus helps Lavinia enact her revenge on her rapists, Chiron and Demetrius; Titus binds the men upside down and drains their blood into a basin, while telling them:

I mean to martyr you.
This one hand yet is left to cut your throats
Whiles that Lavinia 'tween her stumps doth hold
The basin that receives your guilty blood (5.2.180-4).


Lavinia may not be the one to cut Chiron and Demetrius' throats, but she is metaphorically holding their lives in her hands, taking back what they stole from her. Titus enacts his revenge by doing to Chiron and Demetrius what they did to Lavinia, only on a much larger scale; Titus drains all of their blood and then cuts them up into chunks to make a meat pie that he severs to Tamora and Saturninus:

Daintily hath fed,
eating the flesh that she herself hath bred (5.3.61-2).


 Titus restores his power when he makes it known to Tamora and Saturninus that he has fed them Tamora's sons; he enacted justice on behalf of Lavinia. This feast is meant to be the last meal that any of them has; it serves as a way to settle old scores and to cleanse Rome of those who are cancerous to the state.

Lavinia's final act of agency is her death. Lavinia's honor was stolen from her when Chiron and Demetrius raped her and cut off her tongue and hands; Titus' plan to restore her honor is twofold: first, killing Chiron and Demetrius for what they did to her; second, killing Lavinia. Titus speaks to those in attendance and the feast while he kills Lavinia:

A reason mighty, strong, and effectual;
A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant
For me most wretched, to perform the like.
Die, die Lavinia, and thy shame with thee (5.3.43-6).


Lavinia knew that Titus planned to kill her at the feast and she chose to go along with it; self-preservation is one of the cornerstones of humanity, so the mere fact that Lavinia is allowing herself to be sacrificed shows just how much agency she has. Lavinia could have ruined her father's plan at any time, all she had to do what tell Tamora and Saturninus what he was planning, but she chose her father and their honor over her life. The shame and dishonor that had been thrust upon Lavinia is now placed upon Tamora and Satuninus. Death is the final act of revenge and power, because their is no recourse to it.

Honor and Agency are two of the major themes of Titus Andronicus. Titus, the hero of Rome, doles out justice when his family has been disrespected. Lavinia begins the play with no real power over her own life, but when her honor is taken from her, she becomes motivated to attain the agency she should have had all along. Titus begins the play as one of the most powerful men of Rome, but loses his power when he trusts the wrong person. He is able to restore his power by the end of the play by avenging his daughter's honor. In the end, Titus and Lavinia sacrificed themselves to save there honor and the honor of Rome.

Sources


Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. New York: Penguin, 2000.