Titus Andronicus is one of, if not the most, bloody and violent of Shakespeare’s plays. Beginning with the end of a brutal war between Rome and the Goths, there are betrayals, murders and executions galore; it ends (spoiler alert) with a vicious revenge plot that sees a mother being fed her sons baked into a pie.
Updated 8th February, 2022.
One of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, the young Bard was still finding his feet creatively. And so it’s no surprise that Titus Andronicus reads like an angry, sensationalist crowd-pleaser by an author keen to shock. As a result, this play tends to go in and out of fashion every decade or so: it’s both an early, lesser work and a raw, Tarantino-esque revenge fantasy. In this speech, Queen Tamora of the recently-conquered Goths, incites her sons to do terrible violence to Lavinia—daughter of the titular army general—who has discovered the Queen with her lover and servant, Aaron.
Trigger warning: This monologue is part of a scene containing sexual violence.
Ahh… revenge. It’s a dish best served- wait, why do we keep saying it’s worth serving at all? Revenger NEVER works out well, especially for characters in Shakespeare’s plays. Titus Andronicus is Shakespeare’s first revenge-tragedy, and in many ways it is a lot more straightforward than his other revenge tragedy, Hamlet. Hamlet, by comparison, is all about an ‘enlightened’, ‘renaissance’ man who doubts his calling to revenge. He delays his actions with careful scrutiny and thought. There’s not a whole lot of that in Titus Andronicus.
What’s important to understand for context is the following: Rome is at war with a civilisation called The Goths, who the Romans deem to be lesser beings than themselves. Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is captured by the famed general Titus Andronicus and brought back to Rome. One of Tamora’s sons, a prisoner of war, is publicly executed—which becomes Tamora’s impetus for revenge. She escapes execution by marrying Saturninus, the new emperor of Rome. And when she is discovered with her lover by Titus’ daughter Lavinia, she calls on her two remaining sons to quiet the girl’s discovery (and get revenge on Titus in the most horrific manner).
Within the immediate circumstances of the scene, it’s important to know that this speech represents a significant reversal of status. Lavinia (accompanied by her husband Bassianus) seems to have discovered the villain’s evil plot! But all is not well: Aaron retreats to find Tamora’s sons, and the result is this impassioned incitement to cruelty…
(to her sons CHIRON and DEMETRIUS)
Have I not reason, think you, to look pale?
These two have ‘ticed me hither to this place:
A barren detested vale, you see it is;
The trees, though summer, yet forlorn and lean,
O’ercome with moss and baleful mistletoe;
Here never shines the sun, here nothing breeds
Unless the nightly owl or fatal raven.
And when they show’d me this abhorred pit,
They told me here at dead time of the night
A thousand fiends, a thousand hissing snakes,
Ten thousand swelling toads, as many urchins,
Would make such fearful and confused cries
As any mortal body hearing it
Should straight fall mad, or else die suddenly.
No sooner had they told this hellish tale,
But straight they told me they would bind me here
Unto the body of a dismal yew
And leave me to this miserable death.
And then they call’d me foul adulteress,
Lascivious Goth, and all the bitterest terms
That ever ear did hear to such effect.
And, had you not by wondrous fortune come,
This vengeance on me had they executed.
Revenge it, as you love your mother’s life,
Or be ye not henceforth called my children.
As always, our first step is to weed out any unfamiliar language in the scene. We’ve picked out some of the more obscure words and phrases, but be sure to check through the speech for yourself and add to this list for personal reference.
‘ticed: Enticed, led, tricked.
Forlorn: “Pitifully sad and abandoned or lonely.”
baleful: Threatening harm; menacing. Mistletoe, in this context, is pointed out for its sharp leaves, not its modern connotations of Christmas.
abhorred: Hated, disgusted.
Fiends: Evil spirits or demons.
Urchin: A goblin.
Dismal: Gloomy or depressing.
Yew: A coniferous tree which has red berrylike fruits, most parts of which are highly poisonous.
Lascivious: Feeling or revealing an overt sexual interest or desire.
Goth: A member of a Germanic people that invaded the Roman Empire from the east between the 3rd and 5th centuries. The eastern division, the Ostrogoths, founded a kingdom in Italy, while the Visigoths went on to found one in Spain.
(to her sons CHIRON and DEMETRIUS)
Don’t I have a good reason to look pale?
These two have led me here to this place:
It’s a barren disgusting valley – you can see it –
The trees look like they are dying even though it’s summer
They are drowning in moss and sharp mistletoe
The sun doesn’t shine here. Nothing breeds here
except for the owl or evil raven.
And when they showed my this awful pit
they told me that when it is midnight
A thousand evil things: ghosts, demons, snakes, toads and goblins
would make such horrible sounds and cries
That any mortal who heard it
Should immediately go mad or die suddenly.
As soon as they told me this horrible tale
They told me they would tie me up and leave me here,
tied to the trunk of a Yew tree
And leave me to die miserably as they had described.
Then they called me a ‘foul adulteress’
‘promiscuous Goth’ and all the most horrible names
That anyone has ever heard.
And, if you hadn’t come – which is so fortunate – they would have enacted this horrible vengeance.
I bid you now to avenge this act because you love your Mother.
If you don’t, I will no longer call you my children.
Notes On Performance
Shakespeare had to work within far stricter constraints to tell a story that we do today. With theatrical technology and filmmaking, we have countless resources other than words to make our audience feel, think or do something. Shakespeare only had words. Words needed to create suspense, depict relationships, paint images into the imaginations of the audience and move them emotionally. Shakespeare actually bemoans this restriction through his Chorus in Henry the Fifth, who tell us:
O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
With this in mind, any actor playing Tamora must use the language to build suspense and paint the picture of the scene surrounding the characters. On top of this, they must lie, feel the wrath of vengeance and convince others to commit a heinous crime.
Unlike the moments before the arrival of Chiron and Demetrius, Tamora is in control of time. Don’t rush this speech: squeeze all the marrow out of this moment. By taking your time, you can truly paint the picture of this scene in the minds of the audience. Tamora uses evocative and description-heightened language because she is relishing in the fear she is creating for Lavinia and Bassianus. They have very little chance of escape; she is in her moment of triumph.
This speech requires a deep consideration of Tamora’s status within this scene. While she is a very high-status character, she needs to defend herself against Lavinia and Bassianus’ accusations, and convince her two sons to commit an act that will surely bring about significant retributions. Make every effort to claw that status back for her; we can get a sense of this as she continues to speak—there is something to the fervour of her speaking that could almost be translated as nerves or desperation.
And like any Shakespeare monologue, diversity and multi-dimensionality is key. This is not just a victim speech pleading for help, this is not just a maniacal speech of vengeance: it is Tamora finally seeing the chance to avenge her son’s death, and strike a blow at the Roman who ordered the execution. Tamora is a Queen, and she embraces all of her power and gravitas in this moment. But she is also a mother in mourning; the enjoyment of revenge must be tinged with sadness and anger at her many, significant losses.
Tamora is a brilliant villain: completely cruel, and yet not without her own pain and complexity. This speech represents the pinnacle of her machinations, and is the prelude to one of Shakespeare’s most brutal depictions of violence in the whole of his canon: the rape and mutilation of Lavinia.
As actors, it’s important to understand and justify the cruelty and need for vengeance Tamora (and many other characters in this play) possess to encourage such a horrible crime. However, we do urge you to take steps so that you are not too affected by this speech and its wider context. Consider planning some exercises to help you de-role, and consider whether or not this scene may be triggering or disturbing for audiences—or yourself. With proper precautions, Queen Tamora can be a thrilling, terrible character to bring to life.