A CRITIQUE OF RACIAL INEQUALITY IN SHAKESPEARE’S TITUS ANDRONICUS
Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a tragedy likely written in late 1593 and set in ancient Rome, is a meditation on early modern race relations that still resonates today. The play follows a white, Roman family, the clan of Andronici, in their quest for vengeance against a spate of characters of color, predominantly Tamora, the Goth Queen, and Aaron, a “Blackamoor.” The play depicts the racialized nature of early modern society by representing ancient, white Roman perceptions of Goths and “Blackamoors” as socially inferior. These portrayals in turn provoked my peers and I to reflect on the ambiguity of Shakespeare’s rendering of race relations. At first blush, Shakespeare’s demonizing representations of people of color in this play would seem to suggest that he is aligned with Roman racial prejudices. To be sure, his portrayal of the characters of color as villains roused sharp discomfort in my own as well as my peers’ engagement with the play. In this essay, I reflect on how the discomfort created by Shakespeare’s villainization of the people of color in his play forces contemporary audiences to reckon with their own racial biases rather than simply reflecting or endorsing them.
The tragic course of the play begins when Tamora is arrested by Titus Andronicus, a Roman nobleman, who then forces her to watch the execution of her son. Aaron, Tamora’s paramour and the only Black character in the play, then assists her in securing revenge against the clan of Andronici. This vengeance is achieved through the rape of Lavinia, Titus’s sole daughter, and the framing and execution of Titus’s sons for the murder of the Roman Emperor’s brother, Bassianus. Titus in turn slaughters Tamora’s remaining sons and feeds their flesh to her in a pie. The play concludes with the murders of Titus, Aaron, Lavinia, Tamora, and the emperor of Rome, who had wed Tamora. Only Titus’s son, Lucius, emerges victorious as he takes charge of Rome in the emperor’s stead.
Throughout the course of the play, the villainy of Aaron and Tamora’s nefarious actions is complicated by the grave mistreatment they and their races bear at the hands of their white oppressors. Despite being antagonists, these characters of color are humanized when considering their ruthless persecution by the Romans. As Emily C. Bartels explains in her essay “Too Many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination, and Elizabeth I,” the play reflects the race-based discrimination visible in early modern England, where “Blackamoors” were systematically deported by Queen Elizabeth I due to their skin color. However, we must not conflate early modern and ancient Roman racial attitudes, an argument exemplified in “Roman Slavery and the Question of Race” by historian Sandra Joshel who wrote that “[Romans] lacked the notions of race that developed in Europe and the Americas from the fifteenth century to the present.” Shakespeare’s reconfiguration of Roman racial relations in an early modern play thus confronts the rampant discrimination of his time. Shakespeare advances a critique of racial discrimination by forcing his audience to witness the inequalities present in English society at the time of the play’s writing, which in turn forces contemporary audiences to bear witness to inequalities that persist today.
The discomfort created by Shakespeare’s villainization of the people of color in his play forces contemporary audiences to reckon with their own racial biases rather than simply reflecting or endorsing them.
Tamora’s quest for revenge against the clan of Andronici drives her to commit extremely heinous acts that make her appear excessively villainous. She becomes obsessed with obtaining revenge and is portrayed as being willing to go against all moral boundaries in her bloodlust and quest for revenge. This furthers her character’s image as the dark instigator of the violence that follows in the play, an image exemplified in utterances like, “I’ll find a day to massacre them all.” Through Tamora, Shakespeare explores how early modern conceptions of acceptable femininity intersect with ideas of what the Romans perceive to be her inferior racial identity and villainy. Despite being a queen, Tamora engages in an affair with a “Blackamoor” who is considered racially inferior. Tamora’s promiscuity and use of sexuality to defeat her enemies — actions disdained by early modern audiences — add to her villainous characterization. In “Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern England,” Frances Dolan suggests that the transgressions of women, especially those of queens charged with adultery, were treated as notorious and fatal. While plotting the fall of Titus, Tamora is confident that she can seduce Titus to do as she wishes, even if it destroys his family. Tamora says, “If Tamora entreat him [Titus], then he will: / For I can smooth and fill his aged ear / With golden promises, that, were his heart / Almost impregnable, his old ears deaf, / Yet should both ear and heart obey my tongue.” Tamora’s conviction in her ability to sway any man through her sexuality would have intensified an early modern audience’s aversion to her race.
However, Tamora’s persistent mistreatment by the Romans because of her racial identity suggests more is at stake in her representation than a simple reproduction of racial prejudices. The Goths were recognized by early modern audiences as barbarous and, in comparison to Roman “purity,” as possessing an inferior whiteness. In line with this conception of race, Tamora is demeaned by the Romans from the very first scene of the play. She is depicted as the vanquished and imprisoned queen begging for mercy and asking her Roman captors to spare the life of her son. As her pleas are unheeded and her son is sacrificed, Tamora’s plight foregrounds the unequal power dynamic between the Goths and the Romans. The figure of Lavinia exemplifies this unequal power dynamic par excellence.
Lavinia, Titus’s sole “perfect” daughter, is a foil to Tamora and amplifies the latter’s destructive, vengeful, and promiscuous qualities. Despite Tamora’s marriage to Saturninus, which makes her the Roman queen, Lavinia assaults Tamora’s character without provocation due to Tamora’s relationship with Aaron. To Tamora, Lavinia quips, “Under your patience, gentle empress, / ‘Tis thought you have a goodly gift in horning.” Lavinia shames Tamora for being an infidel in the very same breath as she acknowledges her title as empress. Lavinia compounds her negative characterization of Tamora by drawing a parallel between Tamora as a racialized subject and her wicked, sinful nature. Of Tamora and her son, Lavinia says, “‘Tis true; the raven doth not hatch a lark.” Lavinia dehumanizes Tamora by comparing her to a raven and comments on her inability to birth sons of both a lighter complexion and more agreeable disposition than her own. This comment made by the otherwise respectful and subdued Lavinia reflects the preexisting power differences between the two women based on their racial identities.
Shakespeare’s depiction of Roman superiority over the Goths reflects the mistreatment of people of color in early modern England and encourages audiences to question the arbitrariness of these social hierarchies. The Romans’ persecution of Tamora for her Goth identity left me deeply aware of how these racial relations continue to play out today. I could not help but notice how much more vitriolic was the Romans’ response to Tamora, a darker-skinned woman, than it was to the white — yet equally destructive — characters Titus or Lucius Andronicus. Through the demeaning treatment meted out to Tamora by the Romans as well as her depiction as a character with a desire for exaggerated evil, Shakespeare’s dramatization of discriminatory actions in the play inspires the audience to reckon with their own racial biases.
Although Shakespeare’s characterization of Aaron as the ultimate offender in the play might be seen as perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Black people, the harm inflicted on Aaron by the Romans also humanizes his character and exposes his oppressors’ cruelty.
One might argue that Shakespeare incites damaging perceptions of Black people through Aaron’s despicable characterization as the only Black character in Titus Andronicus. Aaron equips Tamora with the tools and plans required to wreak destruction on Rome’s nobility. In reference to Lavinia’s rape, Aaron states, “My lords, a solemn hunting is in hand,” showing his involvement in the act. By equating her to prey, Aaron dehumanizes Lavinia and reveals his intensely sadistic nature. Aaron devises the scheme to frame Titus’s sons for the murder of Bassianus and even fools Titus into sacrificing his hand. Aaron’s lack of remorse for his horrendous actions makes it difficult to sympathetically identify with him as a character. Even Aaron, in reference to his actions, states, “I have done a thousand dreadful things […] And nothing grieves me heartily indeed / But that I cannot do ten thousand more.” Through the use of hyperbole and his repetition of the word “thousand,” Aaron amplifies the sheer magnitude of his wrongdoings to the point of being utterly unforgivable, even though his actions also mark his stark defiance of Roman oppression. Even in his dying moments, Aaron refuses to beg for mercy and restates his disappointment in the fact that he could not commit more evils toward them.
Although Shakespeare’s characterization of Aaron as the ultimate offender in the play might be seen as perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Black people, the harm inflicted on Aaron by the Romans also humanizes his character and exposes his oppressors’ cruelty. In the Romans’ view of his affair with Tamora, his body seems to be his only value, underscoring the commercialization of Black bodies through slavery. The perceived inferiority of his racial identity leads the Romans to make discriminatory judgements toward him, as seen in Bassianus’s allegation that Tamora is being corrupted as a result of her relationship with Aaron. To Tamora, Bassianus says, “Believe me, queen, your swarth Cimmerian / Doth make your honor of his body’s hue / Spotted, detested, and abominable.” Bassianus hurls racist abuse at Aaron by comparing him to the Cimmerians, who, in Greek mythology, are depicted as living in darkness, implying that Aaron is fated to do so as well. Bassianus also invokes ideals of female honor and chastity by suggesting that Aaron’s skin color — and the connotations his skin color carried in early modern England — has ruined Tamora’s honor.
Another instance of the Romans’ prejudice against “Blackamoors” in the play is evident in a scene where Marcus, Titus’s brother, kills a fly, and Titus chides him for hurting an innocent creature. However, as soon as Marcus equates the “black ill-favor’d fly” to “the empress’ [Tamora’s] Moor,” all hints of sympathy in Titus disappear, and he feels the need to strike an already dead fly. Marcus’s claim that Black people are “ill-favor’d” demonstrates the white, Roman belief that Black people are fated to a life of suffering and pain from which they can never escape. Marcus and Titus use Aaron’s race to excuse the infliction of harm on a blameless creature and to justify their racist ideas of how racialized subjects deserve the torment that is done to them. Thus, Shakespeare forces a reckoning with how cruelty is thinly veiled through racist discourse.
Lucius Andronicus further exposes Roman tyranny and double standards. His behavior toward Aaron reveals just how deeply prejudiced the Romans are against people of color, and in turn confronts the audience with their own racist tendencies. Lucius orders the death of Aaron’s innocent newborn baby solely to spite Aaron. Though Lucius is determined to put Aaron to death, he is first determined to put Aaron through the misery of watching Aaron’s child be murdered for his father’s perceived wrongdoings. Lucius announces, “First, hang the child, that he may see it sprawl / A sight to vex the father’s soul withal.” The extremity of state violence against Black bodies is intensified by Lucius’s attempt to turn Aaron’s pain at losing his child into a spectacle, as evoked by the sibilance in the words “sprawl,” “sight,” and “soul,” as well as the rhyming of “sprawl” and “withal.” The sensory gratification Lucius draws from the suffering of Black people is harrowingly depicted and compounded by his mirth that trivializes and dehumanizes Aaron’s existence and emotions as a Black man. In his paper “‘Is Black so Base a Hue?’: Black Life Matters in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus,” David Sterling Brown shows how Aaron’s child is not presumed to be innocent as a white child would be. Instead, the sins of his father are transferred onto the child due to the systemic discrimination evident in the world of the play. Despite his noble status, Lucius shows Aaron no dignity or sympathy even in death. He devises the most torturous execution he can for Aaron when he states, “Set him [Aaron] breast-deep in earth, and famish him; / There let him stand and rave and cry for food.” He wants to see Aaron suffer and make an example out of his death so that Aaron can be a warning to all other Black people in Rome. Although Shakespeare’s depiction of Aaron, and of his treatment by the Romans, might seem to reproduce early modern racial prejudices, my experience watching the play with my peers attests to the way the Romans’ condemnable treatment of Aaron provoked us to confront our own biases and to reflect on contemporary race relations. Aaron’s evolution into wickedness and villainy is ultimately contextualized by the lifelong mistreatment he has received for being Black. Resorting to a life of immorality seems to be his only escape from the life of systemic discrimination that has been predetermined for him. The play’s critique of the Romans’ double standards and unjustifiable brutality toward Aaron provokes the audience to reassess their own prejudices and possibly empathize with the villain.
By characterizing Tamora and Aaron as the conspirators against the Romans in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare appears to reflect and reproduce notions of race in early modern society to justify violence against people of color. However, by exposing and intensifying the Romans’ indefensible brutality against racialized subjects, Shakespeare also sparks a deep sense of unease in his audience and forces them to realize that Aaron and Tamora’s evolution into villainy has been a consequence of systemic racial oppression. In forcing his audiences to confront their own biases through discomfiting scenes of racially motivated violence, Shakespeare offers a critique of racial inequality by exposing the arbitrary and unjustifiable forms of violence it takes.
Bartels, Emily C. “Too Many Blackamoors: Deportation, Discrimination, and Elizabeth I.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, vol. 46, no. 2, 2006, pp. 305–322. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3844644. Accessed 11 July 2021.
Brown, David Sterling. “‘Is Black so Base a Hue?’: Black Life Matters in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus.” Early Modern Black Diaspora Studies, by Cassander L. Smith et al., Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 137–155.
“Dates and Sources: Titus Andronicus.” Royal Shakespeare Company, www.rsc.org.uk/titus-andronicus/dates-and-sources.
Dolan, Frances E. “Gender and Sexuality in Early Modern England.” Gender, Power and Privilege in Early Modern Europe, by Jessica Munns and Penny Richards, Pearson Longman, 2007, pp. 7–20.
Joshel, Sandra. “Roman Slavery and the Question of Race.” BLACKPAST, BlackPast.org, 4 Jan. 2009, www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/perspectives-global-african-history/roman-slavery-and-question-race/.
McDonald, Russ. “Titus Andronicus.” The Complete Pelican Shakespeare, edited by Stephen Orgel and A R Braunmuller, by William Shakespeare, Penguin Books Ltd, 2002, pp. 1211–1250.
Aditi Parikh is a senior at Knox College double majoring in creative writing and political science. Originally from India, she discovered her love for the written word and the power it holds amidst the corn fields of rural Illinois. She serves as editor-in-chief of Catch, the oldest continuously published literary journal in the country. She has also received several awards for her creative nonfiction and critical writing. A passionate editor of socially empowering nonfiction, she hopes to open up her own independent press someday and welcome artists of all identities.