Shakespearean Foodways: Feasting, Fasting, Playing and Digesting

Cannibal Punishment: The Banquet Scene in Titus Andronicus

by Christian Frobenius

I.         Introduction

Titus Andronicus has long been criticized for its depiction of horrors which climax in the cannibalistic banquet of the final scene. While critics throughout the centuries have been appalled by what seems to be an arbitrary, apparently senseless display of violence, recent interpretations point out that it is precisely this random violence which makes for the play’s modernity.[1] Assuming, however, that it has significance beyond sensationalist display, I want to read the banquet scene in the context of early modern legal discourse.[2] In the following I will first briefly outline this discourse. Then I will relate the banquet scene to two literary pretexts, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Seneca’s Thyestes,[3] in order to show how the motif of the cannibalistic banquet is used in Titus Andronicus. In my reading of the banquet scene itself I want to show that Titus turns a literary precedent into a legal precedent as justification for his revenge. This manner of justification seems to reflect the legal practice of Common law, whose practitioners sought to secure its predominance over English jurisdiction against competing legal principles in the 16th century.

II.       Early Modern Legal Discourse: Common versus Natural Law

By the end of the 16th century the predominant but by no means exclusively administered law in England was Common law.[4] Its practitioners “focused narrowly on ‘native’, precedent-based law.”[5] The method of ruling upon precedent is the distinct feature of the legal practice of Common law, the origin of which is set to be in time immemorial.[6] The fiction of a law that had always already been there served to defend it against competing legal positions. Defenders of Common law upheld that

throughout all the foreign invasions of Britain, the English had always retained their fundamental cultural and legal identity. This legal chauvinism led the common lawyers to eschew ‘external’ legal foundations such as natural law or reason and to embrace the notion that English law could only be properly understood ‘internally’, on the basis of unique English custom and precedent.[7]

Common law was constructed as part of English identity. Sir John Davies states in his Irish Reports that it was “so framed and fitted to the nature and disposition of this people, as we may properly say it is connatural to the Nation, so as it cannot possibly be ruled by any other law.”[8] Any other law, especially positions of Natural law, was perceived by the established legal institutions as a continental, Catholic influence. They posed a threat to Common law and, by extension, to English identity. The threat of Natural law was twofold: On the one hand its use weakened the legal monopoly of Common law and on the other hand Natural law could be used as an instrument to challenge the rulings of Common law.[9] It is this basic quality of Natural law and its more universal and philosophical appeal that I concentrate on here: “[Natural law] is concerned with the problem of abstract justice and with the standards which should be applied not only to human law making but to human conduct generally”.[10]

Titus is in conflict with Natural law throughout the play. In the first scene of the play Tamora’s son Alarbus is ritually sacrificed. Pleading for him, Tamora accuses Titus of “cruel, irreligious piety” (1.1.133).[11] She denounces his decision as barbaric and unethical from a perspective of Natural law.[12] Also in this first scene Titus agrees to Saturninus’ taking Lavinia as his wife, irrespective of the fact that she is engaged to Bassianus. Protesting, Marcus refers to Natural law: “Suum cuique is our Roman justice / The prince in justice seizeth but his own.” (1.1.284–5).[13] The Latin tag meaning “to each his own”—a basic principle of Natural law—the twice used ‘justice’ and the legal term ‘seize’ for taking possession of property set the legal tone of this dispute that ends with Titus killing his son Mutius because he does not obey his father’s decision. This instance shows that Titus values observance to Roman rule more than his children’s life. It suggests furthermore that the stability of Roman tradition and precedent is deeply connected with the stability of Titus’ identity.

III.      The Banquet Scene: Literary and Legal Contexts

It is in the Banquet scene that this valuation of precedent and tradition over the life of his family comes to a climax. On presenting the raped and maimed Lavinia to his guests, Titus asks Saturninus:

My lord the emperor, resolve me this:
Was it well done of rash Virginius
To slay his daughter with his own right hand,
Because she was enforced, stained and deflowered? (5.3.35–38)

Titus is referring to a literary precedent here. It is a story told by Livy. The daughter of the centurion Virginius is threatened of being raped or, in other versions of the story, she has already been raped. In order to rescue her honour, Virginius kills her.[14] In Titus’ use, however, the story becomes more than a literary precedent to his own ‘real’ story. It becomes a cue for action:[15] “A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant / For me, most wretched, to perform the like.” (5.3.43–44) Although voicing regret—“me, most wretched”—, Titus acts on the “lively”, i.e. striking, account of this “precedent” and “warrant”—both legal terms—when he kills his daughter. “To perform the like” is his principle, turning a literary precedent into a recipe for action, and at the same time “to perform the like” is the thought at the heart of precedential law. In a legal context of precedential law, Titus has made a technically just decision. Saturninus on the other hand reacts to Titus’ deed by resorting to a stance of Natural law: “What hast thou done, unnatural and unkind?” (5.3.48). Titus, by following precedent, is working from within the Roman legal system. Yet Saturninus’ reaction reveals that the code of civilization that Titus enacts in murdering his daughter is indistinguishable from arbitrary violence, which is ascribed to the ‘barbaric’ Goths. But Titus is disinterested in this overlap of Roman tradition and barbaric violence. When asked for the whereabouts of Chiron and Demetrius, Titus triumphantly reveals to the unsuspecting Tamora that she has just eaten her own children:

Why, there they are, both baked in this pie,
Whereof their mother daintily hath fed,
Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred.
‘Tis true, ‘tis true, witness my knife’s sharp point.

He stabs the Empress. (5.3.59–62)

Again Titus is resorting to literary precedent here, Ovid’s tale of Philomel and Progne. He has announced this in the second scene of the fifth act when he is tormenting the bound and gagged Chiron and Demetrius by detailing his revenge to them: “For worse than Philomel you used my daughter, / And worse than Progne I will be revenged.” (5.2.194–195) After his revelation Titus immediately kills Tamora, forestalling at least any verbal reaction. This surprising rashness leads to the question how the motif of the paedophagic banquet is treated in the Ovidian pretext.

IV.       Shakespeare’s and Titus’ Source: Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Book Six

In Ovid’s tale, Tereus desires his wife Progne’s sister Philomel. He rapes her and cuts out her tongue to prevent her from testifying against him. Yet Philomel is able to communicate the crime to her sister nevertheless. In cold anger Progne kills her and Tereus’ son and cooks him for Tereus to eat. When Tereus, having “swallowed downe the selfe same flesh that of his bowles bred” (l.825) asks for his son, Progne replies: “the thing thou askest for, thou hast within” (l.829). Titus’ more straightforward remark that Tamora is “eating the flesh that she herself hath bred” is an echo of Ovid in Titus Andronicus. Upon realizing that he has eaten his own child, Tereus resolves to kill his wife and her sister. Yet in the ensuing outrage all of the characters turn into birds preventing the deaths of Progne and Philomel that the reader has come to expect. The tragic catastrophe is simultaneously suspended and present—in its absence. The narrative focus shows Tereus and his metamorphosis into a lapwing, a bird recognized by the sword-like crest on its head. Since “all armed seemes his face” (l.850), the bird’s physiognomy serves as a reminder of Tereus’ murderous intention.[16] Thus, Tereus’ pain is crucial for the narrative—and the sister’s revenge. They revel in Tereus’ torment, much unlike Titus. The sisters’ focus on Tereus’ reaction stands in contrast to Titus’ perception of his victim. In fact, his relation to Tamora is barely noticeable. He does not address her before he kills her, but speaks about her in the third person. Titus, it seems fair to conclude, is not only staging a dinner but also another kind of performance: a court room performance, or rather a travesty of one, to make a point to everyone attending but Tamora, thus making her the culprit in a spectacle of punishment.

V.        Another Case in Point: Seneca’s Thyestes

In another treatment of the motif of the Cannibalistic banquet, Seneca’s Thyestes, cannibalism has vast tragic reverberations. King Atreus is taking revenge for the adultery that his brother Thyestes has committed with his wife. He kills Thyestes’ sons, cooks them and invites Thyestes to dinner. During this supposedly reconciliatory dinner Atreus—unlike Titus again—slowly and sadistically reveals the truth, which effects a personal and universal catastrophe:

Thyestes:            Oh this is it that shamed the godds:
and day from hens dyd dryue
Turnde back to easte. Alas J wretch
what waylynges may J gyve?
Or what complayntes? What wofull woordes
may be enough for mee? (ll.2529–2534)

Thyestes is in a crisis of representation that leaves him unable to utter his grief. This crisis can also be seen in another instance, in which the notion of his dead sons coincides with the notion of the parts of their bodies he has digested. He asks for a sword to cut up his stomach for “all my soons to pas.” (l.2548) The play ends with Thyestes’ plea: “the gods shall all / of this reuengers bee: / And unto them for vengeance due, / my vowes thee render shall,” with Atreus replying: “But vext to be I thee the whyle, / geeve to thy children all” (ll.2679–2684).[17] Again, the victim’s pain following the revelation is of enough importance to be lingered on in much detail.

But the exchange between the brothers Atreus and Thyestes also dramatizes an abstract conflict that is of importance in Titus Andronicus. The respective stances of Atreus and Thyestes reflect the potential opposition of Natural and positive law. Natural law is associated in Greek philosophy with a universal order based on reason supported by the gods[18] and it is the gods that Thyestes invokes for justice and punishment when confronted with Atreus’ deed. Yet Atreus relies on human law making, on positive law, that works independently of its moral value; in contrast, Thyestes pleads for a divine intervention. Cannibalism signifies a personal and universal catastrophe for Thyestes, whereas for Atreus it is a gesture of empowerment. Although staging a banquet quite different from Titus’, Atreus thus uses cannibalism for his own ends in a way similar to Titus.

VI.      Titus, Precedential and Natural Law

In Seneca’s Thyestes, cannibalism disrupts universal order and puts positive law and Natural law into opposition: cannibalism in fact is “unnatural and unkind” (5.3.48). In Titus Andronicus Titus, relying like a Common lawyer “on [...] precedent-based law”[19], has no regard for the implications of his punitive practice. Likewise he is disinterested in the tragic, ‘Senecan’, scope of his plot. Instead, he is making a point by usurping a legal system. By resorting to a literary precedent, the story of Philomel and Progne, he justifies his revenge by appropriating the legal practice of using precedents. Thus Titus’ spectacle reveals how “the formalization of revenge in performance acts as a substitution of the law, simultaneously revealing the law to be itself nothing other than a performance.”[20] Ensuring the success of his performance, Titus rushes to kill Tamora to forestall a subversion of his decision by an appeal to Natural law. At the same time he emphasizes and empowers precedential law as foundation of Roman identity—much like Sir John Davies perceives Common law as ‘connatural’ to the English. The fact that turning literary into legal precedents is rather a travesty of precedential law is no reason for objection for Titus or the Romans tribunes attending the spectacular dinner. Thus, Titus’ cannibalistic spectacle becomes a success, although he himself is killed by Saturninus right away and Rome’s political and legal future at first seems uncertain. Here his son Lucius comes to the fore, whom the Roman tribunes have elected new emperor of Rome in a gesture of affirmation of the rightfulness of Titus’ revenge.[21] He preserves Titus’ legal heritage and rules unchecked by Natural law: Aaron is to be set “breast-deep in earth” (5.3.178) and famished and Tamora is denied a funeral. Lucius’ power of jurisdiction has been defined and stabilized by his father through the ‘legal’ spectacle of punishment that is the cannibalistic banquet.


[1]  An account of the harsh criticism the play encountered from Samuel Johnson to T. S. Eliot can be found in the introduction to Jonathan Bate’s edition of Titus Andronicus: Jonathan Bate, “Introduction”, in William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus. ed. by Jonathan Bate. The Arden Shakespeare (London: Thomson, 2003), 1–121, pp. 33–37. Daniel Kane sees an anticipation of Artaud’s theatre of cruelty in Titus Andronicus. Cf. Daniel Kane, “The Vertue of Spectacle in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus”, Connotations, 10, 1 (2000/2001), 1–17.

[2]  The idea of relating legal discourse to Titus Andronicus has been brought forth several times, most recently in this essay: D. Callaghan, C. R. Kyle, “The Wilde Side of Justice in Early Modern England and Titus Andronicus”, in Constance Jordan, Karen Cunningham, eds., The Law in Shakespeare (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 38–57. Whereas that essay treats the implications of revenge as extra-legal ‘wilde’ justice in Titus Andronicus, I concentrate on the discourse on legal practice in early modern England. For the description of revenge as “a kinde of Wilde justice” cf. Francis Bacon’s essay “Of Revenge” in e.g.: Sir Francis Bacon: The Essayes or Counsels Civill and Morall. ed. by Michael Kiernan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985). Quotation after: Constance Jordan, Karen Cunningham, eds., The Law in Shakespeare, (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), p. 39.

[3]  For source studies and discussion concerning the cannibalistic motif in Titus Andronicus cf. Howard Baker, Induction to Tragedy (New York: Russell and Russell, 1939), Jonathan Bate, Shakespeare and Ovid (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993), and Bate (1995).

[4]  This account of early modern legal practice relies on the introductory chapter of: Brian C. Lockey, Law and Empire in English Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

[5]  Ibid., p. 9.

[6]  The idea of the immemoriality of the law was used by Sir Edward Coke, who belonged to the defenders of English Common law. Ibid., p. 80 ff.

[7]  Ibid., p.9.

[8]  Ibid., pp. 81–82.

[9]  Cf. Ibid., pp. 145–146.

[10] George W. Keeton, Shakespeares Legal and Political Background (London: Pitman, 1967), p. 67.

[11] All quotations from Titus Andronicus are from: William Shakespeare, Titus Andronicus, ed. by Jonathan Bate, The Arden Shakespeare (London: Thomson Learning, 2003). Lines are indicated in brackets after the quotations.

[12] It is in fact Lucius who demands Alarbus’ sacrifice, but it is Titus who makes the decision. The implications on an early modern audience’s perception of Lucius are discussed in Bate (2003), p. 15f. and, with an opposing view, in: Anthony Brian Taylor, “Lucius, the Severely Flawed Redeemer of Titus Andronicus”, Connotations 6, 2 (1996/1997), 138–157.

[13] For the legal context of this dispute, especially the use of a maxim of natural law, cf. Andrew Hadfield, “‘Suum cuique’: Natural Law in Titus Andronicus, I,i, 284”, N & Q 250 (2005), 195–196. Cf. also Bate (2003), p. 145, note on v. 284.

[14] Bate (2003), p. 266, note on v. 36.

[15] On Titus’—and Aaron’s—use of literary precedents as pattern for acting in reality and the rhetorical methods they thereby employ cf. Nancy L. Christiansen, “Synecdoche, Tropic Violence, and Shakespeare’s ‘Imitatio’ in Titus Andronicus, Style 34, 3 (2000), 350–379. Cf. also the chapter on ‘The Art of Precedent’ in Bate (1993).

[16] In Arthur Golding’s translation, Tereus’ progress is thus translated: “The tyrant with a hideous noyse away the tables shoves, / And reeres the fiends from Hell. One while with yauning mouth he proves / To perbrake up his meate againe, and cast his bowels out. / Another while with wringing handes he weeping goes about. / And of his sonne he termes himself the wretched grave. Anon / With naked sword and furious heart he followeth fierce upon/ Pandions daughters.” Publius Ovidius Naso, Metamorphoses, transl. by Arthur Golding, ed. by John Frederick Nims (Philadelphia: Dry, 2000), p. 158, ll. 838–843. For the function of the metamorphosis in Ovid’s epic and in this case in particular cf. Karl Galinksy, Ovid’s Metamorphoses: An Introduction to the Basic Aspects (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975), p. 61.

[17] Quoted from: Seneca Annaeus Lucius, Thyestes, transl. by Jasper Heywood, Materialien zur Kunde des Älteren Englischen Dramas 41 (Leipzig, Louvain and London: Uystpruyst, 1913), pp. 186–190, ll. 2548–2684.

[18] The first development of the concept of a Law of Nature is to be found in the Greek philosophers, who regarded it primarily as a principle of order, based on reason, in accordance with which the universe was regulated. In this respect it could be contrasted with human laws, which were frequently changed and might be arbitrary in operation. Keeton (1967), pp. 67–68.

[19] Lockey (2006), p. 9.

[20] Bate (1995), pp. 26–27.

[21] When Lucius exclaims: “There’s meed for meed, death for a deadly deed” (5,3,65) upon killing Saturninus, he acts after the lex talionis codified in the Old Testament’s ‘eye for an eye’ and thus expands the scope of legal principles that are drawn upon and employed in Titus Andronicus.


In der Bankettszene in Titus Andronicus stellt Titus seine Rache an Tamorarechtfertigend auf die Basis eines literarischen Präzedenzfalls: die Erzählung von Philomel und Progne aus Ovids Metamorphosen. Wie ein Vergleich mit frühneuzeitlichen Rechtsauffassungen zeigt, spiegelt diese Begründungslogik die Rechtspraxis des englischen Common law wider; die Grausamkeit von Titus' Rache steht jedoch im Widerspruch zur Position des Naturrechts. Im Vergleich mit Shakespeares literarischer Quelle, der Erzählung aus den Metamorphosen, sowie mit Senecas Tragödie Thyestes, wird weiterhin deutlich, dass das Motiv der persönlichen Rache in Titus Andronicus gegenüber einem politischen Kalkül in den Hintergrund tritt. So wird durch das Aufrufen des literarischen Präzedenzfalles die Rechtmäßigkeit von Titus’ Rache inszeniert, wodurch sie für Lucius politisch nutzbar wird. Die Position des Naturrechts, die die Unmenschlichkeit dieser Rache anklagt, wird dabei durch Tamoras rasche Ermordung zum Schweigen gebracht.