Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, a revenge tragedy written between 1590 and 1593, introduced to the stage themes such as revenge, torture, cannibalism, murder and brutality (Weber, 2015, p.698). The play opens with a scene in which the captured Queen of the Goths, Tamora, is brought to Saturninus, the emperor of Rome, as a prisoner of war by Titus, a general in the Roman army who is extremely well liked and respected and who has earned many honours during the war. The Romans, and by extension Titus, are in their own country, while Tamora and the rest of the Goths are in a strange and hostile land. The play presents a fictional Rome at a time in which the Goths have been defeated but Rome faces political instability.
In the first act, Titus takes Tamora’s first-born son and gives the order to have him dismembered and executed. Even though Tamora attempts to save her son’s life, she is ultimately unable to do so. She kneels before Titus, asks him to think of his own sons and to imagine himself in her place, she even tries flattery to make him reconsider and calls him ‘thrice noble Titus’ (Shakespeare, 1594/2018, p. 196). Her begging ultimately falls on deaf ears and Titus tells her that she must bow to Roman traditions. Before being taken to Rome, Tamora was the Queen of the Goths and as such she was in charge of her people and her family, and her word was law. Once she is taken into Rome, she is forcibly displaced geographically, as well as politically. Furthermore, in the Roman social, political and cultural structure portrayed in the play, since Tamora is a woman, she is at a distinct disadvantage in terms of power. Her current situation is best described by Demetrius, Tamora’s second eldest son, when he states ‘Tamora, queen of Goths (When Goths were Goths and Tamora was queen)’ (Shakespeare, 1594/2018, p. 196). At this point in the play, Demetrius is recalling a time in which Tamora ruled and consequently in which the Goths were not yet under Roman rule, free to live life according to their cultural traditions.
The traumatic injuries that Tamora sustained as a consequence of displacement are articulated in a few major ways: geographically, politically, culturally, socially, and familiarly. Tamora’s displacement, particularly geographically and politically, impacted the way in which she interacted with the world around her. Additionally, that displacement, and the losses that it entailed, led her to seek revenge against Titus, the man responsible for her hardships.
Tamora is initially perceived as displaced geographically, taken to Rome by Titus from the territory controlled by the Goths. However, Shakespeare does not give exact geographical locations of Tamora’s place of provenance. In an article by scholar Naomi Conn Liebler (1994) that focuses on geography and Titus Andronicus, she states that 'the identification of "source" in any cultural production is often a convoluted procedure' and that the Rome presented is 'assumed to have been entirely fictional because it was apparently unidentifiable' (p. 264). What could be used as an indicator of geography is Shakespeare’s equation of 'Goths' to 'signify "barbarian," especially of Eastern origin and of fierce reputation' (Liebler, 1994, p. 272), capable of posing a threat to Rome. Titus inadvertently brought a threat to Rome by forcibly removing Tamora from Goth territory.
This geographical displacement was experienced by Tamora as a traumatic injury. Scholars such as Darko Suvin in “Displaced Persons” (2005) have studied displacement and the consequences of being forcibly removed from a geographical location. Suvin (2005) states that the consequences of displacement are often long-lasting and can cause psychological as well as emotional damage to the person who has experienced it. A hint of Tamora’s traumatic injury is found on one of her pleas to Titus in which she describes her situation by saying ‘[sufficeth] not that we are brought to Rome, [to] beautify thy triumphs and return, [captive] to thee and to thy Roman yoke’ (Shakespeare, 1594/2018, p. 196). Tamora understands her precarious position from the moment she arrives in Rome, and she is aware that it is necessary for her to secure a hold on some amount of political power in order to survive in unfamiliar land.
Tamora’s marriage to Saturninus appears to be the best way to obtain a measure of political power while still being in a place with unfamiliar cultural and social practices. Tamora was once a royal, independent Goth, but once in Rome she became bound by Roman laws and traditions, such as the ritual dismemberment and execution of Alarbus, who she could not save. To ensure her own survival and that of the rest of her family, it is necessary for Tamora to be perceived as a Roman, which leads to her stating to Titus ‘I am incorporate in Rome’ (Shakespeare, 1594/2018, p. 197).
Ultimately, Titus injured Tamora’s familiar role as a mother by taking her son. Tamora was expected to continue to be a mother to her two remaining sons as well as to the child she was carrying. However, Tamora’s loss made her question whether she could still be a mother if her first son was dead. Throughout the play, she feels the need to highlight her role as a mother and one of the most poignant moments is when she says to her sons ‘[your] mother’s hand shall right your mother’s wrong’ (Shakespeare, 1594/2018, p.216). Her role as a mother requires constant reaffirmation and when that is no longer enough to assure her of her role as a mother, Tamora’s desire for revenge begins to take centre stage.
Tamora’s decision to make Titus suffer the same fate as hers becomes clear when she states ‘’and make [the Andronici] know what ‘tis to let a queen/ Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain’ (Shakespeare, 1594/2018, p. 197) and also ‘I’ll find a day to massacre them all/ And raze their faction and their family’ (Shakespeare 1594/2018, p.196). Tamora’s declaration is a precursor to physical violence, but as scholar Lesel Dawson (2018) explains, it is also a ‘perverse form of self-creation’ (p. 9) and that it is through this process that the self finds a new way through which it can both protect itself from traumatic injury and recreate itself as a powerful, ruthless, all-encompassing force (p.10). Tragic revenge heroes are embodiments of self-determination, however destructive it may be (Dawson, 2018, p.9). Tamora is no exception, as she is forced to re-create herself in an unfamiliar environment, after sustaining considerable trauma, and in a society in which she holds virtually no power.
This is further explained by scholar Alison Findlay (2018) in an article entitled “Re-making Revenge in Early Modern Drama” in which she states that ‘[speech], writing and silencing are intertwined in the pattern of repetition and reversal that characterises vengeance’ (p. 59). Therefore, we see that through the repetition of trauma, Tamora manages to obtain power over Titus, passing the role of victim to him and positioning herself as the aggressor. She claims the name ‘Revenge’ and presents herself as a being with the ‘uncanny feminine power of revenge to undo human subjects and societies’ (Findlay, 2018, p. 61).
Additionally, Tamora’s revenge is a public spectacle that is performed in front of Saturninus and his guests. This is no coincidence, as Tamora seeks to reconstruct every instance of her traumatic injury, which was also sustained publicly. Which is why Tamora ‘[incorporated] spectators as witnesses’ (Findlay, 2018, p. 65) in order to bring revenge ‘to life through the moment of performance’ (Findlay, 2018, p. 76). Given that trauma is not a one-layer event that can be absorbed and from which it is possible to move on without issue (Bessel A. van der Kolk, 2019, 35:52), when Tamora decides to seek revenge against Titus, it is important for her that the punishment is powerful enough to obtain some sense of satisfaction.
As critic Deborah Willis (2002) points out, ‘vengeful acts commonly exceed rather than equal the original wrong’ (p.32) all in an effort to regain control over the traumatic situation that was so damaging for the victim in the first place. Tamora’s plot to kill all of Titus’ children and Titus himself follows Willis’ statement to the letter. Tamora’s anger counters the inertia that can be brought on by grief and pushes the action forward, becoming the central emotional experience (Dawson, 2018, p.19). The fact that revenge often brings with it an end to the revenger’s life is not a deterrent. Hamlet, Othello, and Titus himself all approach revenge in the same way Tamora does: with a determination to obtain repayment for an injury by any necessary means. Death for Shakespearean revengers is the end result of their efforts.
Unlike most revengers, Tamora’s desire for vengeance is rooted in the forced displacement and dismantling of her position as Queen, as a free woman, and as a mother. Tamora sought retribution for all the traumatic injuries she sustained which, layered one on top of the other, prevented her from seeing a way forward other than through revenge. Though displacement can be traced back as being the original traumatic injury which leads Tamora ultimately seek revenge, the ensuing traumatic injuries Tamora experienced could not be erased but only repaid in kind. While Tamora could not take Titus away from Rome to force him to experience the same displacement she did, one thing she could do was destroy him and his family. Tamora was unable to move back in time and prevent Titus from taking her to Rome, but she could find ‘a day to massacre them all’ (Shakespeare, 1594/2018, p.196).
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