Over the weekend, Oklahoma Shakespeare in the Park, put on a stellar performance of Titus Andronicus, one of Shakespeare’s less popular and more bloody tragedies.  Since the majority of Mere-O’s readers are not likely to find themselves in Oklahoma any time soon, I will skip over a review of the performance itself; content to suffice myself with one brief comment.  A play like Titus Andronicus gives the director many opportunities to exploit the gruesome, sensual, and bloody elements of the script beyond what Shakespeare may have intended; it was with some reservation that I decided to attend since I knew that there would be ample room for poetic and licentious license in an attempt to sell tickets and keep the attention of an audience struggling with the Elizabethean English.  I was quite surprised to find that artistic director Kathryn McGill remained within the bounds of a historically plausible production, while certainly not shying away from addressing the dark themes and portraying the sinister elements of the play.  Kudos to a non-profit theater company whose goal is “to provide Oklahoma with quality stage productions in unique and exciting environments at a reasonable price and to develop cultural growth in Oklahoma through classical and theatrical projects.”

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Titus Andronicus, you might want to read a brief synopsis.  Everyone else is welcome to take the plunge with me into the dark world of a falling empire and the turmoil of human depravity.

Titus Andronicus forcefully asks what good men ought to do when there is no longer a distinction between barbarians within and without the pale.  The stage is set with the crumbling of the Roman empire, crumbling not because of military weakness or flabby generals, but crumbling because she no longer produces morally upright citizens.  The very best that Roman society has to offer is a vengeful son, a father blinded by civic duty to his moral obligations, and a proud and haughty purity that is not tempered with compassion or love.  Worse, the emperor has already become a barbarian; lustful and selfish, placing his appetite above the good of the people.  With the stage set thus, there seems to be little that can be done to stop the inevitable collapse.

However, if the tragedy of Titus Andronicus is the tragedy of Rome, with Rome herself the tragic figure who has fallen due to her overweeing pride and her misplaced priorities–virtues in excess are no longer virutes–then what can be learned from her fall?  Could the tragedy have been averted?  If so, how?  I propose that there are three lessons we can learn from the foibles, missteps, and sins of the principles of the play.

First, Titus has much to teach us about civic duty and its bounds.  We are presented with a man who has sacrificied more than a score of sons to the needs of the state, and is willing to sacrifice as many more if so required.  At first glance, Titus may seem to be the very image of piety, of duty nobly done even at great personal loss.  However, it doesn’t take long for one to realize that Titus has overstepped himself in an attempt to serve the state.  He does not question Rome.  He does not seek to understand Rome.  He does not ask what is truly in Rome’s best interests.  He blindly obeys Rome’s every beck and call, regardless of the personal or corporate loss that must be sustained.  It is this blind piety that spells the beginning of the end of Titus, his family, and his country.  The state is not man’s highest good, and while it places certain demands and limits upon individual behavior and action, it is not the measure of all things.  When this important truth is lost sight of, when men forget that the Common Good is not the only Good, then the fabric of society is torn assunder, good men are destroyed, families rent, and power consolidated in the one place it never should be completely entrusted–the State.

Saturninus, the young emperor of Rome, has much to say regarding the dangerous marriage of corruption and power.  As head of the State, Saturninus represents that institution which Titus has given his soul to.  If Saturninus were virtuous, the dangers of Titus’ ill-placed fidelity and piety would be mitigated–as perhaps they were under the rule of the late emperor and father of Saturninus.  However, in the young ruler we are given a forceful reminder of the need for a balance of power.  Saturninus, though legally the rightful king, has in himself the photographic negative of every virtue required of true kings.  He is lascivious, selfish, angry, and insatiable: He is ruled by appetite alone.  The sacrifice of duty-bound Titus means nothing to him if it is unable to fulfill his every whim.  He is willing to use everything and everyone to satisfy his lusts.  As an individual, he is the exact opposite of Titus.  As a symbol of the State, he is decadence and power united in unholy matrimony and unleashed on a powerless world.  It is through Saturninus that Shakespeare reminds his audience that the state cannot be man’s highest good simply because the state is never divorced from man.  The never-ceasing platitudes that Titus might recite about his country are ultimately directed towards an individual ruler or group of rulers–men as human as the plebian.  For this reason, power must be guarded, and must never be allowed to run towards absolutism so long as men are the chief executors of that power.

Finally, the example of the barbarians teaches us that barbarism is not a race of people in once distant lands, but rather is the wicked heart within each man that, unbound, destroys all goodness and devolves the most intricate and mighty civilization into chaos.  Shakespeare would remind us that there is a Way things ought to be, a single truth that allows men to flourish if followed and destroys men when ignored.  Barbarism is nothing more than rebellion against this Way, resulting in mayhem and destruction.  The introduction of Tamora, queen of barbarians, into royal society only serves to highlight the barbarism that has already taken hold of the soul of the empire.  Shakespeare forces this issue upon us by opening the play with the Romans offering a human sacrifice to the gods in revenge for the death their sons in battle.  The marriage of Saturninus to Tamora and the ensuing power Tamora exerts over her husband through appeal to his base appetite is as a mirror held up to the soul of the Roman state, the barbarous queen being nothing but a reflection of the vile nature of the emperor and his empire.  We cannot simply blame our nation’s problems on those without the city gates, when the same forces are at work within the city and within each of her sons.  The lesson of the barbarians is that we, as individuals and as a society, must be ever-examining and ever-reforming, systemic evils have deep roots that must be constantly fought, destroyed, and guarded against.

The tragedy lies in the state of the empire, the tragic figure being Rome herself, and the play only serves to work out the specific ramifications of a decadent and barbaric society unable to repent and reform, but only able to avenge and sleep.  This story and its lessons are an apropos reminder to all of us who are concerned with the decadence and impiety within our own society and the barbarism without.  The answer is not the exaltation of civic duty and patriotism at all costs.  Nor is the answer found in individual rejection against the Common Good for the sake of one’s self.  The answer is found in defeating the barbarians within us, in subduing both appetite, spirit, and reason to the Good–that Good which is both individual and corporate and which transcends both as the fountain and source of all goodness.  As always, the need for Moderation in all things must be our common theme as we seek to live our lives in accordance with the Way–the blueprint of Virtue, the fingerprint of God–that manifests itself in the very nature of the cosmos and in the soul of man.

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Posted by Tex


  1. makelovehappen August 1, 2006 at 9:40 pm


    I like your style. You have an eye for subtlety and excellent word choice. Rating your work as I writer, I would put this piece very high.

    Your understanding of Shakespeare and the Good require more work to be done. You portray Shakespeare as someone showing us (ironically) that even barabarians can have (good) civilization inside them.

    Shakespeare doesn’t care about saving civilization. This is a profound misunderstanding of his work.

    Shakespeare uses extreme characters not because he wants to show us the absolute idea through characters(and certainly not to bring us back to moderation!!!) but to show us an absolute relation to the absolute. He is taking us away from the “a little here … a little there” approach to the “I now lay down everything for X …” approach.


  2. makelovehappen:

    Thanks for the compliment, and you’re right, I’m still processing the play so my thoughts and conclusions do come out a bit rambled and imprecise and require more work (maybe that’s where you come in). That said, here are my two cents:

    $.01: I didn’t mean to say that Shakespeare is (ironically) saying that barbarians can have good inside them. Rather, I was pointing out that Shakespeare is less making some sort of racist or imperial comment on the validity of historical Rome and historical non-Rome (the barbarians), than using the barbarians as the exemplar of non-civilization and showing that the root cause of the fall of Rome (civilization) is not due to an overpowering outside force so much as due to the “barbarous” traits of the Rooman citizens themselves. This is made especially clear in the juxtaposition of the Romans taking part in barbaric actions against the barbaric actions of the official barbarians (Tamora, Demetrius, et al).

    $.01: You say that Shakespeare didn’t care about saving civilization. Say on, because I’m not convinced. He certainly was interested in exploring the rise and fall of civilization and the rise and fall of men. Perhaps he did not have a clear idea of how to do the saving as witnessed in the lack of a clear vision being offered in his tragedies (I’m thinking of Hamlet, King Lear, and Titus in particular). However, the exploration certainly can move the audience to think about what could have been done differently in order to avoid the tragic end. As a good friend of mine pointed out, Shakespearean tragedy is not Greek tragedy; the gods are not to blame so much as the sinful choices of man. The last portion of my post about Moderation was my response as an audience member to the tragic end of Titus; thoughts on how the tragedy could have been averted in Titus’ Rome and how it might also be averted in the West today.


  3. Just thought the following might be a modern example of Titus’s endorsement of Saturninus for the sake of civic unity: Ukranian president agrees to take on his arch-rival as prime minister. Granted, it’s not exactly the same situation Titus was in (he was giving up his power), but it will be interesting to see how things turn out in the Ukraine.


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