Shakespeare’s Sources – Titus Andronicus

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Lavinia - How to stage the horrific

Continuing my series on Shakespeare’s sources I turn my attention to one of Shakespeare’s most brutal plays – Titus Andronicus. Among the many killings that pepper this play there are some particularly nasty events, any one of a sensitive nature might wish to stop reading now…

… Lavinia (Titus’ daughter) is brutally raped by Tamora’s sons Demetrius and Chiron then so that she is unable to explain who did the deed, her hands are cut off and her tongue cut out. To get his revenge Titus has the two young men killed and cooked in a pie which he then feeds to their mother (who eats it). Pretty gruesome stuff. Nasty it may be but like almost all of Shakespeare’s plays it has it’s literary sources, one of them being the roman poet Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In ovid’s tale we find the details that Shakespeare skips over – what happened after Lavinia is dragged off and before she re-enters mute. I have shared quite a long extract here because Shakespeare was heavily influenced by Ovid and people who admired Shakespeare compared him to Ovid

The voyage now is done, and now they leave
The weary ship and land on their own shore;
And then the king drags off Pandion’s daughter
Up to a cabin in the woods, remote
And hidden away among dark ancient trees,
And there pale, trembling, fearing everything,
Weeping and asking where her sister was,
He locked her, and revealed his own black heart
And ravished her, a virgin, all alone,
Calling and calling to her father, calling to
Her sister, calling, even more, to heaven above.
She shivered like a little frightened lamb,
Mauled by a grizzled wolf and cast aside,
And still unable to believe it’s safe;
Or as a dove, with feathers dripping blood,
Still shudders in its fear, still dreads the claws,
The eager claws that clutched it. In a while,
When sense returned, she tore her tumbled hair,
And like a mourner bruised her arms, and cried
With outstretched hands, ‘You brute! You cruel brute!
Do you care nothing for the charge, the tears
Of my dear father, for my sister’s love,
For my virginity, your marriage vows?
All is confused! I’m made a concubine,
My sister’s rival; you’re a husband twice,
And Procne ought to be my enemy!
You traitor, why not take, to crown your crimes,
My life as well? Would God you’d taken it
Before you wreaked your wickedness: my ghost
Had then been free from guilt. Yet, if the gods
Are watching, if heaven’s power means anything,
Unless my ruin’s shared by all the world,
You’ll pay my score one day. I’ll shed my shame
And shout what you have done. If I’ve the chance,
I’ll walk among the crowds: or, if I’m held
Locked in the woods, my voice shall fill the woods
And move the rocks to pity. This bright sky
Shall hear, and any god that dwells on high!’
In anger at her words and fear no less,
Goaded by both, that brutal despot drew
His dangling sword and seized her by the hair,
And forced her arms behind her back and bound
Them fast; and Philomela, seeing the sword,
Offered her throat and hoped she would have died.
But as she fought, outraged, for words and called
Her father’s name continually, he seized
Her tongue with tongs and, with his brutal sword,
Cut it away.

This text would have been fairly well known amongst Shakespeare’s audience – it may even have been taught at school as part of a Latin education. Thus Shakespeare’s audience may well have filled in the gap in his play with these vivid images. What happens next? Well this is the next scene in which we see Lavinia.

Enter DEMETRIUS and CHIRON with LAVINIA, ravished; her hands cut off, and her tongue cut out


So, now go tell, an if thy tongue can speak,
Who ’twas that cut thy tongue and ravish’d thee.


Write down thy mind, bewray thy meaning so,
An if thy stumps will let thee play the scribe.


See, how with signs and tokens she can scrowl.


Go home, call for sweet water, wash thy hands.


She hath no tongue to call, nor hands to wash;
And so let’s leave her to her silent walks.


Thus Shakespeare’s most brutal play is in part a combination of Ovid’s imagery being woven into Shakespeare’s text. As always rather than slavishly reworking the source material Shakespeare allows its imagery to enrich his own play. He even makes a reference himself to this background text when Lavinia finds the book and indicates this passage as a way of telling her own story.

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Author:Liz Dollimore

Someone who loves listening to people talk about Shakespeare Liz tweets at @shakespeareBT

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