Titus Andronicus is one of, if not the most bloody and violent of Shakespeare’s plays. There are many murders and executions, and (spoiler alert) a few people are cooked into a pie and fed to their Mother. As one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays, he was finding his feet and he really wasn’t pulling his punches.
At this moment Tamora, Queen of the Goths, (Rome’s greatest enemy) is a predator who has caught her prey. She is going to lavish and enjoy every moment of the process of destroying her enemies.
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 revenger tragedy: Hamlet. Hamlet by comparison is all about an ‘enlightened’ ‘renaissance’ man who doubts his calling to revenge, and delays his actions with careful scrutiny and thought. There’s not a whole lot of that in Titus Andronicus. The title character is a vengeful violent ruler who sees the world as good or bad/ black or white/ right or wrong. There is no middle ground. No 50 Shades of Grey to be seen here.
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 than themselves. Tamora, Queen of the Goths, is captured by Titus Andronicus and brought back to Rome after a battle. One of Tamora’s sons, a prisoner of war, is publicly executed. This becomes Tamora’s cue for revenge. Tamora herself escapes execution and instead is married to Saturninus, the new emperor of Rome. She is now climbing a ladder to regain her power, (think, Cersei Lannister). Lavinia is Titus Andronicus’ daughter, the person who means most to him in the world. Aaron is Tamora’s secret lover, who plots to get Lavinia and Bassianus (Lavinia’s husband) alone in the forest on a day of hunting, so Tamora and her two sons (Chiron and Demetrius) can have their revenge.
The scene before this monologue does a backflip of status. Bassianus and Lavinia enter and ‘catch’ Aaron and Tamora, and threaten to expose their affair. Aaron retreats to go and get Chiron and Demetrius, and when they arrive Tamora uses the words of this monologue to enrage her sons and deal with their enemies.
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.
‘ticed: Enticed, led, tricked
Forlorn: “pitifully sad and abandoned or lonely”
baleful: threatening harm; menacing (Mistletoe in this context is pointed out for it’s sharp leaves, not it’s modern connotations of Christmas)
abhorred: regard with hatred or disgust
Fiends: An evil spirit or demon
Urchin: a goblin
Dismal: gloom or depression
Yew: a coniferous tree which has red berrylike fruits, and 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.
Shakespeare had to work within far stricter constraints to tell a story that we do today. With theatrical technology and filmmaking, we have a thousand resources other than words to make our audience feel, think or do something. Shakespeare only had words. Words needed create suspense, depict relationships, paint images into the imaginations of the audience and move them emotionally. Shakespeare 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, the actor playing Tamora has a few different things to achieve whilst doing this speech. They must build suspense, they must paint the picture of the scene surrounding the characters, they must lie, they must feel the wrath of vengeance, they must convince someone to commit a heinous crime.
What’s essential to understand at the outset is that in this moment, (unlike the moments before the arrival of Chiron and Demetrius) Tamora is in control of time. The actor should know not to rush, they want to squeeze all the marrow out of this moment. Tamora, more than anything else, wants vengeance against Titus Andronicus, and the best way for her to do that is to hurt his daughter, Lavinia. Tamora’s son has been slaughtered by Titus, and she feels it is only fair to do the same (and worse) to his daughter.
By taking their time, the actor is able to truly paint the picture of this scene in the minds of the audience. She uses evocative and description heightened language, we mustn’t rush over this! Tamora is relishing the fear she is creating in Lavinia and Bassianus, they are outnumbered and alone in the forest. They have very little chance of escape at this moment.
The plot laid to kill these two is held between Tamora and Aaron, and though Chiron and Demetrius have an inclination of what they are trying to do, it is important for Tamora to convince her sons of the necessity of this act without delay.
So if you’re doing this speech, you are truly playing a high status character capable of maximum cruelty. You have been wronged deeply and have sworn to take revenge, and in this moment you are enacting this revenge. You enjoy and take your time to describe the place surrounding them where her victims will die, and you lie through your teeth to get your sons to commit the crime.
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’s both and a lot more. Explore all the things Tamora hopes to achieve in this moment. What does she want everyone around her to think/ feel or do?
Tamora, after all, is a Queen. In this moment she embraces all her power to enact one glorious fell swoop of revenge, and the actor playing her must be sophisticated and powerful in their portrayal of her.
This speech is the prelude to one of Shakespeare’s most brutal depictions of violence in the whole of his canon: the rape and assult of Lavinia. As actors, it’s important to understand the cruelty and need for vengeance Tamora (and many other characters in this play) possess to encourage such a horrible crime. It’s also important for us to be aware of whether or not this scene will be triggering or disturbing for our audience, and whether or not we need to take additional precautions to avoid this.