Staging Violence and Terror

Violated Bodies, Truth and Language in Titus Andronicus

by Ulrich Kaiser

“I need a life full of things. […] Full of facts”, exclaims Phineas, the protagonist and narrator of Antonia S. Byatt’s The Biographer’s Tale.[1] His need can be seen as an example for a more general contemporary desire to escape the postmodern conditio humana. In questioning traditional notions of language as transparent instrument for the mimetic representation of a preexistent reality, and in substituting it with a (de)constructivist understanding of language as performative producer of reality, postmodernist and poststructuralist thinkers, writers, artists etc. have established a purely epistemological view of the world. Their keywords are uncertainty, play, textuality, citationality, simulacra and so on.[2] The un-postmodern yearning for certainty and truth[3], which cannot be wholly suppressed, is frequently pinned down to the body[4] as the seemingly given and stable sine qua non of human existence and perception. More specifically, it is the spectacular body marked by violence that lends itself to be focused on as the guarantee for reality, because the conspicuously mutilated and bleeding body is obviously alive and irrefutably present. Moreover, the marks left by violence on the body are visible traces of the crime and therefore highlight the body’s status of evidence and truth. The (wounded) body can take on this function even if it is not the one of one’s own experience but a representation (in photographs, movies, texts, plays on stage). The desire to escape the (postmodern) uncertainty of meaning and hollowness of reality enhances the consumer’s general tendency to suspend disbelief and to take the representations for ‘real‘. The reality-effect of theatrical illusion is aided by the spectator’s empathy, which draws on her/his own experiences of living in/with a (hurting) body and on her/his corporeal memory thereof.[5] Early Modern plays comply with the fascination for bodies (marked by violence), not only because they contain a superabundance of violence but also because one can find in them traces of other, older concepts of corporeality, which ascribe presence to the body, denied to it by the representationalism of postmodernism.[6]


Titus Andronicus especially lends itself to be seen from such a perspective. Perhaps even more so because the way language is presented in this play bears strong affinities to postmodern theoretical accounts of it. Right from the beginning the collapse of order in Rome is linked with language that has become highly problematic. Language in this play is far from the traditional ideal of language as a means for communication via the transparent mimesis of reality and/or thought, which ensures certain and stable meanings. The connection between signifier and signified is loosened and becomes shifting. Central concepts of Roman culture like “honour”, “virtue”, “nobility”, “religion” and “piety”, “law” and “justice” are used throughout the play but vary widely in their meaning according to the respective user. The ideological unity guaranteeing semantic closure has obviously broken down.

Symbolized by the image of “headless Rome” (1.1.186)[7], this state of affairs also nullifies the contractual power of language. Saturninus professes his deep gratitude after Titus has made him emperor (1.1.253–57) and withdraws it again only some fifty lines afterwards (1.1.299–303). His words may be adequate and truthful representations of his thoughts but his thoughts and attitudes change so quickly that his words loose their value as binding promises. For different reasons, the same holds true for Titus. He promises his daughter Lavinia to Saturninus (1.1.240–45) although she had been promised to Bassianus already (1.1.280–86; 297–98; 342; 356–57; 390).[8] The major events of the first act demonstrate already that contentions in the political realm are interconnected with fights for semiotic dominion. Saturninus and Bassianus couch their competing claims for the crown in strikingly similar terms. The decision whether the sacrifice of Alarbus is legitimate is a decision of the exact meaning of the word “religion”. The Andronici‘s strife concerning the future husband of Lavinia is verbally represented by their implicit fight for the definition of words like “traitor”, “honour” and “justice”. In the world of “headless Rome” words loose their fixed meanings and their social power as binding promises. The semiotic uncertainty is effect of and at the same time cause for the political disorders.

The erosion of language gains a further dimension when Tamora becomes the wife of Saturninus and hence the new Roman Queen. It is she who introduces the politically highly important craft of dissembling in the first ‘aside’ of the play (1.1.442–50). Her advice to Saturninus brings about an unsettling of the mimetic link between thought and word. Closely connected to this kind of semiotic instability and to Tamora is Aaron and his successful manipulation of the referential function of language. He writes the letter (2.3.46–47) and deposits the gold (2.3.1–9) that serves as false circumstantial evidence (2.3.264–87) for the conviction of the supposed murderers of Bassianus, Quintus and Martius[9] (2.3.301–03).

Not surprisingly in this world of verbal uncertainty, Titus’s attempts to find justice via language fail. The basic function of language—communication—breaks down completely, when Titus addresses his messages to absent or unwilling addressees. The same holds true for the arrows he shoots to the gods (4.3), or the stones he talks to as if they were tribunes. In the latter instance it is made clear that Titus’s behaviour is not reducible to his person, i.e. his ‘madness’, but highlights the general deficiency in society and in language as a means to communicate:

Lucius: My gracious Lord, no tribune hears you speak.

Titus: Why, ’tis no matter, man: if they did hear,
They would not mark me, or if they did mark,
They would not pity me, yet plead I must,
And bootless unto them.
Therefore I tell my sorrows to the stones,
Who, though they cannot answer my distress,
Yet in some sort they are better than the tribunes,
For that they will not intercept my tale. (3.1.32–40)

The uncertainty, or duplicity produced by language in this play is brought to a climax in Act 5, Scene 2. Tamora fully believes in the manipulative power of her weapon-like language –

Tamora: I will enchant the old Andronicus
With words more sweet, and yet more dangerous,
Than baits to fish, or honey-stalks to sheep,
When as the one is wounded with the bait,
The other rotted with delicious feed. (4.4.89–93)

– and pretends that she is Revenge (5.2.3) and her sons are Rape and Murder (5.2.62), although Titus makes it clear that they look like Tamora and her sons Chiron and Demetrius (5.2.21–27; 65). Tamora’s attempt to manipulate reality through verbal simulation leads to a dense entanglement of signification that can be seen as symptomatic for the verbal instability of the play. On one level, Tamora and her sons really are what they pretend to be, since Tamora revenges her sacrificed son Alarbus, and since Chiron and Demetrius raped Lavinia and murdered Bassianus. On another level, of course they are not the personifications of Rape, Revenge and Murder. Titus, by now an apt player in their game with words, believes them (on the actual level because he has seen through their pretensions) and not (on the allegorical level), and counters their manipulations with his own in that he pretends to believe in their dissimulation (5.2.142–43). Finally, he makes his pretension real in the form of the cannibalistic banquet (5.2.153–91). Tamora relies overmuch on the power of language. Titus sees through her (mis)representations, because he recognizes their bodies (or rather faces), i.e. the truth. The most daring attempt in the play to change, or even produce reality through linguistic dissimulation, turns back on itself and attests to the evidence of the body that guarantees truth and reality.


The scene discussed above marks the turning point in the development of the play, not only concerning the dénouement but also with respect to the restitution of a ‘corporeal logic’ that grounds socio-political and semiotic transparency and certainty in the body (marked by violence). Right at the beginning Titus is carefully introduced as a person whose martial body visibly attests to his social and political value (1.1.18–35; 1.1.187–88) [10], so much so that he is given the decisive voice in electing the next emperor, after he has declined to try to become emperor himself (1.1.185–99). The long time Titus has served his country in several wars has left its traces visibly on his body (1.1.187–88). In this conception of the body the sign/the bodily surface and its meaning/the inner personality of its bearer are seen not to be separated and shifting but fixed and simultaneously present[11]. This ensures its legibility, its semiotic transparency. The very physical presence and visibility of this body are taken to be the guarantee for the evidence, reality and truth of its meaning, the social and political value of the person.[12] The equation of the person and its body can also be seen when Titus demands that his hand, which he has cut off to save his sons, shall be buried (3.1.195).

Apart from its scars and its permanent appearance, which is marked by time, experience and exertion, Titus’s body evinces a further means for seemingly unambiguous communication: Titus’s tears that run throughout the whole play. Titus himself always expressly verbalizes his tears as sure and true signs of his inner state. At the beginning he professes that he comes “[t]o re-salute his country with his tears, / Tears of true joy for his return to Rome” (1.1.75–76). Of course, tears are not restricted to Titus. Lavinia sheds “tears of joy” (1.1.161) for Titus’s return. Later on, after Lavinia’s rape and mutilation, Titus, Lavinia and Marcus share their sorrow in a “sympathy of woe” (3.1.148), expressed by their abundant tears. Even Tamora sheds tears but significantly only at the beginning, where she weeps “a mother’s tears in passion for her son” (1.1.106). In this passage Tamora gives the reason why tears are seen to be such a sure corporeal sign of the inner state of the weeper. Tears were understood to be the effects of the passions, which were held to be closely interconnected with the workings of the humours of the human body. Since the passions should and could be controlled by reason, according to Early Modern humoural physiology and pedagogy[13], the passions are forces between body and mind. Thus, tears could be taken as real and true signs for the inner state of a person. On the one hand they are close enough to the physiological and emotional workings of the body and therefore far enough removed from the possibility of dissimulation. On the other hand they are close enough to the mind and the will of the person to function as their expression.

On a further level, the logic of corporeal semiotics also governs the major events of the first act. Titus’s reason to choose Saturninus as the next emperor rests on Titus’s adherence to the genealogical principle of primogeniture. This is in keeping with Titus’s overall reliance on the ‘presence’ of the evident and significationally transparent body, since the feudal principle of genealogy is based on the assumption that the aristocratic virtues are corporeally transmitted to the son, and even more so to the first-born son. The ritual sacrifice of Alarbus follows most clearly the corporeal logic of semiotic certainty. It is Lucius[14] who most actively demands and fulfils the rite (1.1.96–101). Following the Old Testamentarian physical logic of ‘an eye for an eye’, the act of revenge or retribution can be successful, if it is of the same nature as the act of wrong-doing. Thus, death can be revenged by another death, and one that is of similar ‘value’: for princes a prince must die. This logic is meant to ensure the certainty of signification with its 1:1-principle. The evidence and reality of the restored order are guaranteed by its reliance on the semiotics of the (violated) body. By now not surprisingly, Titus doesn’t heed the plea of Tamora for her son’s life (1.1.121–26) and thereby starts off the further enchainment of revenges.[15] Titus confirms Lucius’ demand and legitimates it by calling it ‘religion’.

The linguistic machinations of Tamora and Aaron endanger the certainties of this cultural and semiotic order. It is still present even in this middle section of the play, though. First of all it governs Tamora’s motivation for revenge. Furthermore, Aaron uses it in a symptomatically distorted way to plague Titus even more. He reckons with Titus’s belief in the feudal bodily logic of “Measure for Measure” and makes him cut off his hand by deceitfully promising him his sons in exchange. He gains particular pleasure by perversely adhering of Titus’s beliefs in that he does send him his sons: their heads (3.1.150–205).

The racist depiction of Aaron himself represents a striking example for the naturally evident body. Aaron represents himself as the vice figure (5.1.61–144), whose villainy is clearly indicated if not even produced by his physique. He grounds his determination for doing evil in his racially inflected looks and naturalizes it further by linking it to the discourse of astrological influences on the physio-psychology according to Renaissance humoural economy:

Aaron: Madam, though Venus govern your desires,
Saturn is dominator over mine:
What signifies my deadly-standing eye,
My silence and my cloudy melancholy,
My fleece of woolly hair that now uncurls
Even as an adder when she doth unroll
To do some fatal execution?
No, madam, these are not veneral signs:
Vengeance is in my heart, death in my hand,
Blood and revenge are hammering in my head. (2.3.30–39)

Later on, when he robs Titus of his hand he makes a similar point:

Aaron: […] O, how this villainy
Doth fat me with the very thoughts of it!
Let fools do good, and fair men call for grace,
Aaron will have his soul black like his face. (3.1.202–05)

Aaron, who is one of the main perpetrators of the subversion of the cultural based on the evident body, is also one of its outstanding exponents. This shows quite clearly how important the semiotics of the body are in this play.

At the end of the text this order is restored. Crucial to its restitution is the presence of the raped and mutilated body of Lavinia on stage.[16] The bleeding marks of violence inscribed on her body are irreducible signs of the crime committed on her. Their evidence counteracts the destabilization of reality surrounding the murder of Bassianus. They ensure that the truth about the crime and its perpetrators is searched for, found out and the crime revenged. The truth-function of her body grounds in the reality-effect her body produces. Titus makes the effect of her physical presence explicit:

Titus: Had I but seen thy picture in this plight
It would have madded me: what shall I do
Now I behold thy lively body so? (3.1.103–105)

Her experience of pain, grief and shame are shared not only by Titus, Marcus and Lucius. Guided by their emphatic verbal responses[17] to her body and its bleeding marks of violence, the reader is empathically drawn into the great community of the “sympathy of woe”.

The cannibalistic banquet and the physical punishment of Aaron adhere to the same corporeal logic of revenge which reigned in the first act. The banquet functions also as a kind of burial, or rather as the rejection of a proper one. How to dispose of the various corpses is a matter of great importance in the play: in the first act with regard to the sons of Titus and again at the end which stresses the circularity of the play’s structure. Chiron and Demetrius are fed to Tamora who in turn is thrown “forth to beasts and birds to prey” (5.3.198). In contrast, Titus and Lavinia, and even Saturninus get proper burials in their family monuments (5.3.191–94). Burial rites can only have such a huge meaning if the corpse is held to be meaningful in an almost magical way. As with the genealogical principle discussed above, in the case of the corpse the body is not only the expression of the inner person but the very receptacle of all the person stands for. Thus, the refusal of a burial for the persons who represent social disorder—Tamora and her sons—is held to be a means to abject this disorder effectively.[18]

The re-established order itself is based on the restituted martial body and its truth function. Like Titus at the beginning, Lucius legitimizes himself through the marks of martial violence visible on his body that attest to his socio-political value:

Lucius: […] you know I am no vaunter, I;
My scars can witness, dumb although they are,
That my report is just and full of truth. (5.3.113–115)

With the ascendancy of Lucius to the Roman throne political order as well as semiotic stability seem to be restituted. Both restorations rely on the re-emergence of the ontological and epistemological reign of the real and evident body that ensures stable meanings. The semiotics of the body appears to have gained the victory over the destabilizing effects of duplicitous language. Thus, the text may indeed be seen to fulfil the yearning of (post)modern spectators for corporeally guaranteed reality and certainty.

Textual evidence, however, objects to such a simplified interpretation. The feudal logic of corporeal semiotics in itself is highly problematized in Titus Andronicus. Its reliance on physical violence and revenge leads to a principally never ending series of revenges. Titus’s rejection of the alternative principle of mercy and his insistence on the ritual sacrifice of Alarbus triggered off the ensuing violent events of the whole play. As we have seen, the end of the play is in many ways a return to the beginning. Thus, the stability gained there is very doubtful, especially so since the continuation of violence is hinted at quite forcefully. Aaron, the personification of disorder und instability, is buried “breast-deep in earth” (5.3.179). This circumstance not only enables him to go on using his dangerous language (5.3.184–88). It also means, according to the very semiotics of the body, that his power for disorder remains within the newly restituted order via his corpse and the earth.[19] Moreover, Aaron has another means to live on: his child, his own self reproduced in ‘new’ flesh. Thus, the political and semiotic stability founded on the evident (violated) body carries the germ of its destruction within its very own foundation.


On a more general level, the nature itself of the evident body is called into question. The function of the body as the guarantee for truth and evidence is severely undermined by the immense role (inter)textuality and interpretation play in the establishment of truth. Lavinia’s mutilated body gives real evidence sure enough of the fact that violence has been done to her. The exact nature of the crime however, and the identity of the crime’s perpetrators is not clearly indicated by her body. It is quite late in the play that the Andronici find out that Lavinia was raped by Demetrius and Chiron (4.1.45–82). Deprived of speech, Lavinia’s body itself speaks, but to “wrest an alphabet” (3.2.44) from this “map of woe” (3.2.12) is a difficult matter. For instance, when Titus mentions her dead husband and her condemned brothers she weeps. Titus immediately recognizes its communicational importance (3.1.108–13), but the exact meaning of her tears cannot be settled (3.1.114–15). That the truth can finally be established by reading her body rests on the (inter)textual[20] nature of her violated body. The Ovidian intertext (amongst others) is not only necessary for the dénouement but also fundamental in planning and perpetrating the rape and mutilation of Lavinia[21], which Aaron, who is the man behind the scenes plotting the crime (2.1), makes explicit (2.3.42–45). Thus, Lavinia’s violated body is an (inter)textual construct, a text made flesh. Marcus, seeing her for the first time after the crime, immediately draws on the stories of Lucrece and Philomel in his attempt to verbalize the horrible sight (2.4.26–43). Lavinia’s body itself may speak but the text preceding it, constructing it and investing it with meaning must be known. The very textuality of her body ensures that the meaning of her mutilations is finally found out. Lavinia manages to point out the respective passage in Ovid’s Metamophoses and confirms the Andronici’s suppositions by writing down the crime and the criminals with a staff in her mouth (4.1.41–82). Since the cannibalistic feast is a continuation of the intertext made flesh, all the major events leading to the restitution of political and semiotic stability depend on (inter)textuality and acts of hermeneutic reading. Thus, language and not the violated body seems to be invested with evidence and truth. The result of the first two parts of my essay are apparently reversed.


This can be solved, if one follows the play in distinguishing between male/masculine and female/feminine bodies. Seen purely as a pattern, the structure of revenge rests on an ungendered concept of corporeality. Apart from that, however, the body invested with evidence and truth, which I discussed in the second part, turns out to be not the body per se but one that is highly specified along the lines of sex and gender. The politico-cultural order that is first destabilized and then restabilized in the course of the play is founded on the masculine body. The proponents of this kind of body are Titus, Lucius and even Marcus. The latter uses his evident body in the same strategy of legitimation as Titus and Lucius. He points to his “frosty signs and chaps of age,/ Grave witnesses of true experience” (5.3.77–78) to prove the value of his political insight. The martial bodies of Titus and Lucius have been discussed already. Their bodies have a lot in common with that of Marcus. To begin with, they are bodies. What they signify is therefore real, true and certain. Moreover, they are visibly marked by the violence of war and the ‘violence’ of time and experience. These kinds of ‘violent’ marks are bodily inscriptions, or incorporations effected by the inner person, its virtues etc., according to the logic of equatability of inside and outside discussed above. Attitudes to life and virtues are parts of the cultural order. The visibility of the marks ensures that they are readable signs for the adherence of their bearers to the ‘cultural script’, i.e. for their successful discipline over their natural body. Thus, the masculine body of Titus, Lucius and Marcus, which is seen to be capable of founding the cultural order of ontological and epistemological stability and certainty is characterized mainly by its univocal cultural (intel)legibility.

What about Aaron’s body? In one respect it differs fundamentally from that of the Andronici. Aaron’s description is situated within the racist discourse of naturalization. As such his body is a sure sign for his personality, too. But this kind of identity is seen to be unchangeable and beyond the control of the bettering moral influences of the cultural order. Whereas the Andronici’s bodies presented their self-fashioned social positioning, Aaron’s body delineates his nature.[22] Thereby his body shows that he is the ‘other’ to the Andronici within the same cultural order.[23] Not surprisingly, then, Aaron’s body shares the major feature of the masculine body of the Andronici: it is univocally readable within the cultural script. The evidence ascribed to the masculine body, then, is not opposed to the evidence ascribed to language but is necessarily interconnected with it via its legibility.

What holds true for the body[24] holds true for language as well: it has to be differentiated according to gender. In the first part of my essay language was seen to be highly problematic because of its duplicitous manipulations of truth and reality. And yet it is language that ensures the univocal semiotics of the body. I would contend that the text insinuates an association of the destabilizing kind of language with femininity[25], and of the one the cultural order rests upon with masculinity. As I have pointed out above, verbal dissimulation is introduced into the play by Tamora. At the end of the play she makes the most daring attempt to manipulate reality via language. During the middle of the play, however, she seems to be relatively absent (because she is pregnant with Aaron’s child; 4.2.29–31, 47–50), apart from the small part she plays in the murder of Bassianus, the rape of Lavinia and the condemnation of Titus’s sons for the murder. Here, it is Aaron who is the antagonist. Through his close personal links to Tamora and through his plotting in behalf of her revenge, it is possible to interpret Aaron as Tamora’s substitute, thereby keeping her present even in absence. This reading can be further strengthened by the fact that Aaron refers to Tamora, her wit and knack for deception (4.2.29–30; 5.1.91–120) several times, even implying her participation in planning the crimes (2.1.120–23). As soon as Aaron pursues his own aims, when he tries to rescue his child, his language may remain evil and ‘poisonous’ but it is not duplicitous any more. At the end he openly declares his thoughts, thereby resuming the ‘masculine’ mode of language.

Contrasted with the duplicity of ‘feminine’ language, the ‘masculine’ language used by Titus, Marcus and Lucius at the beginning and at the end of the play could be defined as semiotic certainty and stability.[26] The decisive point is that it is always closely linked to the masculine body discussed above. Unambiguous, masculine language either legitimates itself by reference to the masculine body as the guarantee for its reality and truthfulness, or by its being turned into action. The latter can be exemplified by Titus’s linguistic development in the course of the play. His attempts to find justice via purely verbal means remain unsuccessful. His excessive laments, in which he tries to cope with his grief symbolically, are seen to be problematic. Although Marcus finally supports his excesses, after he had upbraided him for getting out of the bounds of reason (3.1.214, 218), the climactic movement of his rhetoric leads to a peak where eloquence reaches its final limit:

Marcus: Now is a time to storm: why art thou still?

Titus: Ha, ha, ha! (3.1.263–64)

Titus himself sees his exorbitant verbalization of grief as “an enemy” (3.1.267) because it hinders him from pursuing his revenge (3.1.267–75). To be effective, then, language has to legitimate itself through its being turned into physical reality by the deeds it draws in its wake.

Connected to this way of linking the masculine language with the masculine body is the importance accorded to writing in the play. Writing could be seen as a kind of embodied because materialized language. Titus recurrently uses writing[27] during the middle passages of the play. He embodies and masculinizes writing ever more. With that he tries to fix and univocalize the volatile and plurivocal meanings of the duplicitous language. First he writes with his tears in the dust (3.1.1–12). Then he writes “with a gad of steel” (4.1.103), after Lavinia has also written down in the dust that she was raped by Tamora’s sons. He finally writes with his own blood. The latter kind of writing is the final form of language before language turns into physical reality, i.e. the cannibalistic banquet[28]:

Titus: […] what I mean to do
See here in bloody lines I have set down;
And what is written shall be executed. (5.2.13–15)

The duplicity and instability of feminine language, therefore, is abjected in the course of the play by the process of embodiment and masculinization of language, as well as by the physical silencing of Tamora via her death. Thus, the cultural and semiotic order, which is based on the univocal and evident masculine body that is interconnected with masculine language, can reestablish itself.


The female body, so far left out of my discussion, presents the second threat to the masculinist cultural order (re)constituted in Titus Andronicus. The cultural script at work in this play posits other demands on the female body than on the male body. Whereas ideal male bodies are constituted as such by the marks of their encounter with the world and its diverse kinds of violences as long as these encounters are governed by culturally sanctioned motives, female bodies should remain unmarked. To use the expression of the text: women should remain ‘chaste’. Women more than men are meant to develop a ‘classical’ body in Bachtinian terms, a body with no orifices, purely a smooth surface without contact and penetrating exchange with its surroundings.[29] Such bodies are exchangeable between men, containable and possessable; they guarantee patrilinearity.[30] At the same time and paradoxically women’s bodies must be ‘grotesque’ enough to enable procreation. Moreover, another contemporary discourse claims that women are closer to nature than men, or rather that their bodies are more prone to resist cultural discipline. This makes it even more unlikely for women to reach the desirable goal of a ‘chaste’ body. The impossibility (or unwillingness) to fully realize both demands (only the Virgin Mary can do so) creates the problem of control and legibility of women’s bodies for the masculinist cultural order. Firstly, their bodies are further removed from visual control than men’s bodies. Thus, Marcus immediately recognizes that somebody has cut off Lavinias hands and tongue but whether she was raped or not cannot be decided by him. Secondly, there are next to no secure means to control the ‘chastity’ of a woman after her postnuptial loss of virginity. Demetrius puts that rather drastically: “easy it is / Of a cut loaf to steal a shive, we know” (2.1.86–87). Both main female characters of the play prove that point. Amorous Tamora willingly horns her husband Saturninus, Lavinia looses her chastity against her will. In both cases the real damage is held to be done to the male figures of authority. The play makes that sufficiently clear when Marcus symbolically equates Lavinia’s mutilation with her father’s castration: “Come, let us go, and make thy father blind, / For such a sight will blind a father’s eye” (2.4.52–53).[31] Thus, even Titus’s murder of Lavinia can be justified: “Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee; / And with thy shame thy father’s sorrow die!” (5.3.46–47). The paternalistic nightmare of female sexual incontinence hints at the major problem the female body poses to the masculine cultural order of corporeally founded semiotic univocality, which is held to guarantee socio–political stability in Titus Andronicus. The female body is not controllable because it is not (intel)legible with the cultural script. As such it is a figuration of the ‘Other’ to that cultural order. It is outside that order. At the same time it is positioned in its very midst through actual women. Thereby, it threatens to destabilize or even destroy it from within.

To contain this threat the play represents a series of mechanisms to contain the power of the female body as ‘Other’.[32] They try to bring it within the culturally (intel)legible realm by attempting to symbolize it, to make sense of it. They thereby try to reduce it to the structural position of the ‘other’. The representation of the two main female characters as sexually uncontainable was already one of the mechanisms of reduction used by the text. Most apparent and most important in this respect is the presence of Lavinia’s mutilated and sexed/raped body that entails the gap in visual control, which enforces the process of masculine interpretation. The fact that many acts of reading are necessary to achieve this, attests to the difficulty if not utter impossibility to fully symbolize her female violated body.[33] The play itself, however, insinuates that she can indeed be grasped by the powers of masculine language, since the series of interpretations reaches its goal and the crime is detected. The truth and evidence of her violently marked body are established. Her body has been rendered univocally readable within the cultural script. As such, her body has been turned into a ‘masculine’ body. But this masculine significational penetration of her body can only be successful because of the textual framework, which in itself is a highly masculinist one.[34] The very masculinist (inter)textuality of her body is the decisive reduction of her body before the interpretative containment even begins. It ensures its success by the violently induced circularity of masculine (rhetorical and poetic) signification, which can celebrate its powers[35] only by finding what it put there in the first place. The functionalization of her by now readable, evident body for the restitution of the cultural order is a further step in the masculine appropriation of her body.[36] All this is not meant to imply that there is a ‘true’ Lavinia before the rape. At the beginning of the play she is represented as the dutiful daughter and wife with no ‘voice’ of her own (f.e. 1.1.157–64) – just another way to contain the potentially unsettling power of her feminine language and female body by functionalizing her as an agent of the paternalistic system.[37]

The subversive potential of her language and body are never represented in the case of Lavinia. They are transferred to Tamora and to the depiction of the pit.[38] In the latter, male anxieties come most clearly into the open. The very quantity of references to the pit, which borders on the obsessive, and the quality of its descriptions as a “subtle hole […] / Upon whose leaves are drops of new–shed blood” (2.3.198–200), “fell devouring receptacle” (2.3.235) and “swallowing womb” (2.3.239) make it strikingly obvious that it is the phantasmatic symbolization (and hence attempted abjection) of male anxieties of the female in the well–known tradition of the vagina dentata.[39] The representation of the pit is another attempt to signify and therefore reduce what is held to be the subversive potential of the female body. At the same time, it gives the reason for the rest of the reductive representational mechanisms, the ones discussed already as well as the following ones.

To turn Lavinia’s female body into a univocally readable ‘masculine’ one is ultimately not sufficient in order to cope with it. Once more backed up by the authority of masculine intertextuality, it has to be effectively excluded, Lavinia has to die. The same holds true for Tamora, as we have seen already. Another textual strategy is brought about by the substitution of the male/masculine for the female/feminine. Aaron replaces Tamora as evil force in the middle of the play. Moreover, it is Aaron’s and his son’s racially different body that is allowed to represent the potential future threat to the re–established order, and not the female body of Tamora or Lavinia. Similarly, one could say that Titus substitutes Lavinia—with respect to his hand that Aaron cuts off, and with respect to his grief that turns attention away from Lavinia’s. In addition to that, Titus’s corpse is dealt with at great length, making it very present to the imagination of the reader/spectator[40], whereas Lavinia’s corpse is disposed of matter of factly in merely two lines (5.3.193–94).

All these representations and representational reductions of the female body and femininity are products of the paternalistic and masculinist cultural order (re)establishing itself in Titus Andronicus. They are the means whereby it (re)constitutes itself via ‘othering’. They try to reduce the subversive potential of the female body that can never be fully signified, the ‘Other’, to culturally readable representations of it, the ‘other’. These are then used as the defining opposites to the representatives of the masculine cultural order. The very quantity of strategies used to circumscribe and contain the female body as ‘Other’ is a sure sign that they can never reach their goal completely. A disturbing rest of the female ‘Other’ always remains. My point here is not to say whether or not there is a true essence of femininity that resides outside the masculinist cultural order in Titus Andronicus, but rather to contend that the female body as ‘Other’ is meant to remain. The female body as ‘Other’ in its figuration as the ‘culturally not univocally (intel)legible’ is also an epistemological construct of the masculinist semiotic order that builds semiotic stability and certainty on the readable masculine body. As its “constitutive or relative outside” (Butler) the feminine ‘Other’ allows the cultural order to demarcate its boundaries and hence to come into being.[41] To produce the female body as the structural position of the ‘Other’ and to mask it with gory spectacles could be seen as the decisive structural violence of the play.

And yet, to function as such, the defining outside has to remain exactly there: outside. With the sensual presence of Lavinia’s body on stage something of that ‘Other’ intrudes, something that ‘makes sense’ without being (intel)legible: her pain, her humiliation, her grief for being forced to incorporate this kind of female violated body. It makes sense because the other characters and the (female) spectators can empathically understand and feel at least an approximation of her ‘reality’ and ‘truth’.[42] She is too ‘evident’ and present to be overlooked, she forcefully demands signification. The Andronici and especially Titus try to do so almost obsessively, particularly Titus with his grief-speeches. Caught in the masculinist cultural script, whose proponent he is, Titus’s only way out is to silence this demand by killing Lavinia.[43] To have fulfilled this demand would have entailed a resignification of the cultural order of the univocal semiotics of the masculine body in Titus Andronicus. Perhaps it is up to the (female) spectator to take up this demand and to make sense of it.


[1] Antonia S. Byatt, The Biographer’s Tale (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 4.

[2] Among others I draw on: Jacques Derrida, Grammatologie (F.a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1974); Michel Foucault, Die Ordnung der Dinge (F.a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1974); Michel Foucault, Die Ordnung des Diskurses (F.a.M.: Ullstein, 1977); Jean Baudrillard, Das Andere selbst (Wien: Passagen, 1994); Jean Baudrillard, „Die Präzession der Simulakra“, in Baudrillard, Agonie des Realen (Berlin: Merve, 1978), p. 7–69; Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Routledge, 1990); Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (New York: Routledge, 1993), esp. p. 1–55; Julia Kristeva, Die Revolution der poetischen Sprache (F.a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1978); Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection (New York: Columbia UP, 1982); Jean-François Lyotard, Das postmoderne Wissen. Ein Bericht (Wien: Passagen, 1986); Jean-François Lyotard, „Beantwortung der Frage: Was ist postmodern?“, in Peter Engelmann, ed., Postmoderne und Dekonstruktion: Texte französischer Philosophen der Gegenwart (Stuttgart: Reclam, 2004), p. 33–48; Johanna Bossinade, Poststrukturalistische Literaturtheorie (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2000); Catherine Belsey, Poststructuralis:. A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2002); Stuart Sim, Irony and Crisis: A Critical History of Postmodern Culture (Duxford: Icon Books, 2002); Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, “The Class of 1968 – Post-Structuralism par lui-même“, in Rivkin and Ryan, eds., Literary Theory: An Anthology (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), p. 333–357; Andreas Mahler, „Das ideologische Profil“, in Ina Schabert, ed., Shakespeare-Handbuch (Stuttgart: Kröner, 2000), p. 299–323.

[3] Cf, f.e. Lyotard (2004); Sim (2002).

[4] Cf. Manfred Pfister, „Zur Theoretisierung des Körpers“, SJ West (1989), 174–177; K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, „Körper, Handeln, System: Henry IV und andere Beispiele“, SJ West (1989), 178–195, esp. 178–180; Wolfgang Weiß, “’There is language in her eye, her cheek, her lip.‘ Körper und Körpersprache in Troilus and Cressida, All’s Well That Ends Well und Measure for Measure“, SJ West (1989), 196–208, 196.

[5] Ina Schabert contends that the theatre is particularly able to produce such empathy: „Theater nimmt die Zuschauenden in seinen Bann, überwältigt sie, erzwingt körperlich-konkrete empathische Identifikation, lädt ein zum Ausagieren von Emotionen, zum Wechselbad von schmerzhafter Betroffenheit und „comic relief“, zum sinnlichen Genießen, zum Staunen und Wundern.“ Cf. Schabert (2000), p. 262.

[6] Cf. f.e. Foucault (1974), esp. p. 46–77; Peter Czerwinski, Exempel einer Geschichte der Wahrnehmung II: Gegenwärtigkeit. Simultane Räume und zyklische Zeiten, Formen von Regeneration und Genealogie im Mittelalter (München: Wilhelm Fink, 1993), esp. p. 259–508; Caroline Walker Bynum, Fragmentation and Redemption: Essays on Gender and the Human Body in Medieval Religion (New York: Zone Books, 1991); Dieter Fuchs, „Meta-Morphosen der Autorschaft: Zur semiotischen Dynamik von Körper, Schrift und väterlicher auctoritas in Titus Andronicus“, SJ 139 (2003), 84–100; Schabert (2000), p. 295–296.

[7] All quotations will be based on the following edition: William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, ed. by J.C. Maxwell, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Methuen, 1961).

[8] Textual evidence doesn’t settle the question whether Titus knew of the former contract. As pater familias it would be his responsibility and right to dispose of such matters. It may be, though, that his brother Marcus acted in his stead during his absence because of the war against the Goths. With respect to the promise in itself Titus may therefore be exculpated. The play makes it quite clear, however, that it is condemnable that Titus sticks to his promise after he has been informed. Titus hollows out the authority of the pater familias and Roman right, since his demand that this will be done rests on his personal authority only. Titus’s iniquity is made manifest when he kills his own son in the subsequent fight of Andronicus against Andronici. Lucius and Marcus, whose judgement carries particular retrospective weight because they will be the representatives of the restored order at the end of the play, reproach him severely for his “impiety” and “injustice” (1.1.291–92; 355–57).

[9] Cf. Karen Cunningham, “‘Scars can witness’: Trials by Ordeal and Lavinia’s Body in Titus Andronicus”, in Katherine Anne Ackley, ed., Women and Violence in Literature: An Essay Collection (New York: Garland, 1990), p. 139–62, 147.

[10] The same occurs in Coriolanus somewhat more explicitly. Cf. William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, in: Complete Works of William Shakespeare, 2nd Vol. (Essen: Magnus, 2003), p. 874–915; 1.2.34–43; 2.2.129–48; 2.3.1–11 and esp. 2.1.111–147. For a discussion of the concept of social identity in the Renaissance and of the function of scars for male (and only male) self-fashioning see Ina Schabert, Englische Literaturgeschichte: Eine neue Darstellung aus der Sicht der Geschlechterforschung (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1997), p. 165–169.

[11] For this I draw on Fuchs (2003), where he points out that Titus Andronicus draws on several competing socio-political and semiotic models because of the change of England to an absolutist state during the Early Modern period. Most significantly for my present essay is Fuchs’ contention that the older, medieval „Sozialgefüge durch die Genealogien der Adelshäuser, Sippen und Clans (d.h. vom Allianzprinzip) bestimmt und mit Phallus und Schwert durch die organische Aufschreibfläche des menschlichen Leibes als Zeichenordnung der Eindeutigkeit (als ikonische Simultanpräsenz von Signifikant und Signifikat) beglaubigt [wurde].“ Cf. Fuchs (2003), 85. This function of the body lost a good deal of its importance during the socio-political changes, although remnants of this ‘semiotics of the body’ are still present in Titus Andronicus so that Fuchs contends with respect to the play’s negotiation of competing conceptions: „Dort stehen sich einerseits das Primärsystem der feudalen Körpersemiotik und die postfeudale Ordnung sekundärer Zeichen als Relation des allianzfixierten Ikonenbeschauens und des semiotisch gewitzten Symboldurchschauens gegenüber.“ Cf. Fuchs (2003), 86.

[12] In addition to Fuchs (2003), cf. Czerwinski (1993), p. 259–508 and Joachim Bumke, „Höfischer Körper—Höfische Kultur“, in Joachim Heinzle, ed., Modernes Mittelalter: Neue Bilder einer populären Epoche (F.a.M.: Insel, 1999), p. 67–102.

[13] Cf, f.e., Verena Olejniczak Lobsien, „’Signs and tokens’ der Leidenschaft in Coriolanus, Titus Andronicus und Cymbeline“, SJ 140 (2004), 45–65; esp. 45–49; Wolfgang Weiß, „Das elisabethanische Zeitalter“, in Ina Schabert, ed., Shakespeare-Handbuch (Stuttgart: Kröner, 1992), p. 2–40, 18–29; Thomas Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard UP, 1994); Bernhard Klein, „England in der Frühen Neuzeit“, in Schabert (2000), p. 12–47, 16–25; Schabert (1997), p. 24–31.

[14] A fact that is significantly and commonly overlooked by those critics who read the end of the play as a successful restitution if not improvement of a positive cultural order and Lucius as the representative and perpetrator of that old/new order. Cf. f.e. Alan Sommers, “‘Wilderness of Tigers’: Structure and Symbolism in Titus Andronicus“, in Philip C. Kolin, ed., Titus Andronicus. Critical Essays (New York: Garland, 1995), p. 115–128, 122. For readings similar to my own see: Molly Easo Smith, “Spectacles of Torment in Titus Andronicus”, Studies in English Literature 36 (1996), 315–331, 317 and 321.

[15] It’s almost as if the play wanted to prove Girard’s arguments. Cf. René Girard, “Sacrifice”, in Girard, Violence and the Sacred (Baltimore: John Hopkins UP, 1977), p. 1–38.

[16] See also Cunningham (1990), p. 145.

[17] Early Modern philosophical, rhetorical and physiological accounts of the power of rhetoric to produce feelings in the audience, backed up and strengthened by the workings of the humours, may not sound acceptable to modern readers but in essence they still hold true. For further information see Jane Donawerth, Shakespeare and the Sixteenth-Century Study of Language (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984), p. 1–140.

[18] This feudal logic can be traced back very far. Famous examples include the importance accorded to the fulfilment of the proper burial rites in the Illiad and Odyssee, and the denial of them for the attacker of his native city, Polyneikes, by his brother Eteokles in Aischylos’ Sieben gegen Theben. See also: Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (New York: Routledge, 2001).

[19] Interestingly, Louise Noble arrives at the opposite conclusion and yet she draws on a similar logic of corporeal semiotics. She reads Aaron’s corpse as a kind of mummy and therefore as pharmakon, i.e. poisonous or polluting stuff used in order to heal. Cf. Louise Noble, “‘And Make Two Pasties of Your Shameful Heads’: Medicinal Cannibalism and Healing the Body Politic in Titus Andronicus”, ELH 70 (2003), 677–708, 701.

[20] For discussions of intertextuality in Titus Andronicus see J.C. Maxwell, “Introduction”, in Shakespeare (1961), p. xi–xl, xxvii and xxxi; Nancy L. Paxton, “Daughters of Lucrece: Shakespeare’s Response to Ovid in Titus Andronicus”, in Zoran Konstantinovic, Warren Anderson and Walter Dietze, eds., Proceedings of the 9th Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association (Innsbruck, 1981), p. 217–224; Grace Starry West, “Going by the Book: Classical Allusions in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus”, Studies in Philology 79 (1982), 62–77; Maurice Hunt, “Compelling Art in Titus Andronicus”, Studies in English Literature, 15001900, 28 (1988), 197–218.

[21] In addition to that, Lavinia’s death at the hands of her father is equally a literalization of a text (5.3.35–47), as is the cannibalistic banquet (5.2.180–95).

[22] I am quite aware that Aaron can be read differently. His self-declarations of villainy could also be understood as a willing and active acceptance of cultural ascriptions to his skin colour and supposed character. His being a vice figure would then turn out to be a kind of self-fashioning. This reading could be further strengthened by his speeches in defence of his skin colour (4.2.71–105) that demonstrate his principle ability to distance himself from the cultural script, and by his loving attitude to his child not in keeping with his being evil personified (4.2.85–111). Cf., f.e. Eldred Jones, “Aaron”, in Kolin (1995), p. 147–156; G. Harold Metz, Shakespeare’s Earliest Tragedy: Studies in Titus Andronicus (London: Associated University Press, 1996), p. 86, 91–92.

[23] The dialectics of self and other are well known enough by know so that I won’t enlarge upon it. See, f.e., Stephen Greenblatt, Renaissance Self-Fashioning: From More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press,1980), p.9: “Self-fashioning is achieved in relation to something perceived as alien, strange, or hostile. This threatening Other—heretic, savage, witch, adulteress, traitor, Antichrist—must be discovered or invented in order to be attacked and destroyed.” A differentiation between “Other” and ‘other’ seems to me to be necessary to avoid gender blindness. In that I draw on Cixous’ distinction of the terms in: Hélène Cixous and Catherine Clément, The Newly Born Woman (Minneapolis, 2001), p. 70–71, and on Butler’s concept of the “constitutive or relative outside” (p. 39) in: Butler (1993), p. 27–39. According to their combined accounts I understand the ‘other’ as the historically and culturally specific opposit to an equally specific ‘self’. The ‘other’ is one part of a binary pair. The ‘Other’, however, is the defining outside to this binary structure. Thus, I interpret Aaron as the ‘other’ because he is presented (at least by one strand of the text) as the opposit to the Andronici, and because he is situated within the same cultural order of intellegibility.See also the “Introduction” in Edward W. Said, Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (London: Penguin, 1995), p. 1–28; Mahler (2000), p. 321–22.

[24] The female body will be discussed later on.

[25] Of course, in the Early Modern period the combination of language and women is usually seen to be dangerous. See Schabert (1997), p. 24–25, 102, 174–175; Paxton (1981).

[26] Compare Mary Laughlin Fawcett, “Arms/Words/Tears: Language and the Body in Titus Andronicus”, ELH 50(1983), 261–277, 269–72. In opposition to my interpretation, Fawcett connects masculinity only with univocal language and contends that it separates itself from the body.

[27] Further critical assessments concerning writing and its connection to deeds see West (1982), p. 68; Fawcett (1983); Heather Kerr, “Aaron’s letter and Acts of Reading: The Text as Evidence in Titus Andronicus”, Journal of the Australasian Universities Language and Literature Association 77 (1992), 1–19, esp. 11.

[28] Noble (2003), 699 discusses the politically healing function of the cannibalistic feast by linking it to Early Modern practices and discourses of medicinal cannibalism.

[29] Michail Bachtin, Rabelais und seine Welt: Volkskultur als Gegenkultur (F.a.M.: Suhrkamp, 1987), f.e. p. 361–66.

[30] Cf. Gisela Ecker, „Der weibliche Körper bei Shakespeare im Spiel von An- und Abwesenheit“, SJ West (1989), p. 223–41, 226.

[31] For the equation of blinding with castration see Sigmund Freud, „Das Unheimliche“, in Sigmund Freud, Studienausgabe. Band IV: Psychologische Schriften (F.a.M.: Fischer, 2000), p. 241–74, esp. 251–55.

[32] Compare Metz (1996), p. 104–105.

[33] Compare Cunningham (1990), p. 149–151.

[34] See also West (1982), p. 69.

[35] Compare Lobsien (2004), 55–56. In contrast to my reading, Lobsien sees no further violence done to Lavinia in the celebration of the poetic and imaginative powers of language.

[36] See also Paxton (1981).

[37] In this vein I would also interpret the scene where she carries Titus’s cut off hand in her mouth (3.1.282).

[38] Compare David Willbern, “Rape and Revenge in Titus Andronicus”, in Kolin (1995), p. 171–194, 182.

[39] See: Simone de Beauvoir, Das andere Geschlecht. Sitte und Sexus der Frau (Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rohwolt, 1968), p. 164–65; Hans Peter Duerr, Obszönität und Gewalt. Der Mythos vom Zivilisationsprozeß 3 (F.a.M.:Suhrkamp, 1993), p. 33–147; Metz (1996), p. 104; Willbern (1995).

[40] The way Titus’s corpse is handled is very theatrical (“Stand all aloof”; 5.3.151), emotional via full-blown rhetorics and ‘physical’ (“Tear for tear and loving kiss for kiss / Thy brother Marcus tenders on thy lips”; 5.3.156–57), thereby drawing full attention and empathy/pathos to it (5.3.151–175).

[41] See also Ina Schabert’s notion of „Männertheater“ in Schabert (1997), p.152–180, esp. 157.

[42] This entails, of course, my opposition to those critics who read her suffering as purely rhetorical, allegorical etc. F.e.: J.R. Mulryne, “Philomel: Speech and Silence, Natur and Art: Three Instances”, in Marie-Thérèse Jones-Davies, ed., Vérité el illusion dans le théatre aux temps de la Renaissance (Paris: Jean Tourot, 1983), p. 171–186; Eugene M. Waith, “Titus Andronicus and the Wounds of Civil War”, in Joseph P. Shelka, ed., Literary Theory and Criticism (Bern: Peter Lang, 1984), p. 1351–62, 1359–60; Metz (1996), p. 52, 54, 58–59, 62–64, 78–79, 95; Brian Gibbons, “The Human Body in Titus Andronicus and Other Early Shakespeare Plays”, SJ West (1989), 209–22, 219.

[43] A similar point is made by Fawcett (1983), 269–70.


Der Artikel vertritt die These, dass in Titus Andronicus die Erschütterung und Rekonsolidierung einer kulturellen Ordnung der semiotischen und sozio-politischen Eindeutigkeit und Stabilität dargestellt wird. Diese erweist sich als eine sexistische und rassistische Ordnung, die sich durch den Zusammenschluss von männlicher Sprache und männlichem Körper unter gleichzeitigem Ausschluss von weiblicher Sprache und weiblichem Körper setzt. Diese strukturelle Gewalt verschleiert sich durch das Spektakel der körperlichen Gewalt, in dessen Zuge ein Körper präsentiert wird, der in einer Welt der sprachlichen Verunsicherung als Garant für Realität und Wahrheit fungiert. Durch die körperlich-sinnliche Präsenz der verstümmelten Lavinia jedoch bleibt ein Rest des ausgeschlossenen Anderen zurück, der ‚Sinn’ macht jenseits der (Intel)legibilität gemäß des kulturellen Skripts; ein Rest, der nach (Re)Signifikation drängt.