But I Have Done a Thousand Dreadful Things

Titus Andronicus, Act V

The revenge plot reaches its apotheosis in Act V in a manner that I can only assume was meant to achieve catharsis.  I have my own troubles rooting for anybody at this stage, which is neither here no there, but only makes me wonder what Shakespeare’s original intentions were.

I mentioned at the start of the play that I was hoping a conjecture by Isaac Asimov would prove to be correct: that Shakespeare may have sought to lampoon the blood and gore dramas popular in his age by creating a tale so over-the-top that the audience ought to have recognized and recoiled at its own appetite for violence.

Could this be why Shakespeare has Tamora eat her two sons stuffed into a pie?  What better metaphor could there be for the effects of revenge?  We consume ourselves in the form of our own violent offspring.  Treachery begets treachery, like the primal Uroboros – the snake eating its own tail – imagery featured in much of Jungian psychology.


Speaking of which (boy, I’m glad this isn’t an academic paper), there are a LOT of alchemical elements in Titus Andronicus!  This, I believe, has much more to do with Shakespeare than the pagan setting of Rome.  For why does Titus send those swords scrawled with cryptic messages to his enemies?  And why does he delight in shooting arrows with messages to the gods?

No, there’s an alchemical symbolism running through Titus Andronicus that demands exploration.  From the forest setting for the crimes – the place of mythological transformation (“Metamorphosis,” the book that speaks for Lavinia) in fairy tales and representation for the unconsciousness of man – to the pit in which the brothers fall, the hands, the tongues, the Revenge disguises meant to fool Titus in his state of psychological disturbance – far more is going on here than what we are presented with at the surface level.

In this case, a cigar is not just a cigar.

The most intriguing character in the play, as per usual, is the arch villain, Aaron, who reveals a depth of disdain for common decency and humanity that speaks to the very limits of pure evil.  We are reminded, naturally, of Othello in his being a Moor.  But the demonology expressed in his personality comes straight from the mold of Iago.

Just as Iago shows no remorse at the end of Othello, Aaron feels the same at the conclusion of Titus.  In fact, he does Iago one better by saying:

I am no baby, I, that with base prayers

I should repent the evils I have done;

Ten thousand worse than ever yet I did

Would I perform if I had my will.

If one good deed in all my life I did,

I do repent it from my very soul. 


Do we have a more unrepentant villain in all of literature before Aaron?  If there is, I can’t think of one!  Unless it is none other than Satan in the Bible.  But doesn’t even he show some sign of remorse?  Or is that Lucifer?  Does the distinction matter?  Aren’t they one and the same?

Aaron does not proclaim Satanism or any other ism within the scope of the play.  Rather, he mocks Lucius outright for his faith in any spiritual being. He, apparently, is an atheist, which I know, for many, amounts to the same thing.

Do we have any other true atheists appearing in Western literature before Aaron?  In the Greek, maybe, or somewhere in the Bible?

In Aaron, the young Shakespeare, even at this early stage in his career (Othello does not exist yet, so any comparisons between Aaron and Iago are entirely moot and after the fact), has managed to create an arch villain of such self-conscious cold-bloodedness and outright evil that he can’t help but become utterly unforgettable.

We end the play with the elevation of Lucius to emperor and presumably the restoration of law and order in Rome.  But not without removing from our minds the image of Aaron being tortured for his sins, buried chest-deep and starved unto death – unabashed, unforgiven, and unrepentant, right to the last.


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