Malice and Silence: The Women in “Titus Andronicus”


by Efraín Suárez Arce

for Professor James P. Conlan

English 4001

24 October 2008




Malice and Silence: The Women in “Titus Andronicus”

  1. Lavinia

According to Bernice Harris, in her article[1]  literary bodies, much like “real” bodies, are often seen, interpreted and used to signify something else. Lavinia’s sexual status, first as virgin daughter, then chaste wife, and finally mutilated widow is used as a representation of family honor and, conversely, shame. These representations are also used to appropriate, articulate or validate more general claims to political authority. This is why Titus Andronicus illustrates a profound relationship between sexuality and the state. It is in Lavinia’s name that Bassianus is the first to defer a use of force in the beginning of the play.

…And her whom my thoughts are humbled all,

gracious Lavinia, Rome’s rich ornament,

That I will here dismiss my loving friends.


We see that Lavinia’s introduction into the play is as a device to affect a transfer of power. Later, to show his thanks as well as his newly established authority, Saturninus claims Lavinia to serve as

Rome’s royal mistress, mistress of my heart, And in the sacred Pantheon her espouse … (1.1.241- 42).

He intends to claim her virginity. Yet his interest in her is not strictly sexual, for it is Tamora, the stolen Gothic queen, who has incited Saturninus’ lust.

Saturninus says that he intends to use Lavinia to advance the Andronici name and family (1.1.238-41) which, of course, will strengthen his own political position: to claim sexual access to Lavinia places him in a potential kinship relationship with Titus.  At this moment, Bassianus seizes Lavinia and proclaims,

…this maid is mine. (1.1.276)

He claims that he and Lavinia are already betrothed to each other. This is a significant event. By claiming her, Bassianus disrupts the alliance that Saturninus and Titus are about to establish through her, an alliance that is worth – to Titus – even the life of Mutius, one of his own sons. Titus says to Mutius, before killing him:

Barr’st me my way in Rome? (1.1.291)

Lavinia’s power is also related to her sexuality and her function as a “changing piece” (1.1.309), a function which is depends first on her virginity and later on her stained marital chastity. First, Bassianus calls her “Rome’s rich ornament,” as if she belonged to all; then, her father claims her as the “cordial” for his later years. Next, Saturninus names her not only Rome’s royal mistress, but also his own. Titus complies.

Lavinia’s silence, when she can still choose it freely, is useful to her. Silence was highly esteemed as a womanly virtue and at the same it is convenient for her. When Bassianus claims Lavinia as his wife, she neither resists nor assents, so she might or might not be complicit. Perhaps her silences are her own tool and weapon. While Titus, Bassianus, and Saturninus all have a stake in Lavinia’s virtue, Tamora would have her virtue undone; as a chaste wife, Lavinia is Tamora’s antithesis. Yet Lavinia would have Tamora see the two of them as similar: when Demetrius and Chiron threaten rape, Lavinia pleads with Tamora on the basis of shared gender:

O Tamora, thou bearest a woman’s face (2.3.136)

She pleads with Chiron:

Do thou entreat (Tamora) to show a woman’s pity (2.3.147)

“I will not hear her speak,” is Tamora’s response to Lavinia’s claims for an essential womanhood. Tamora also uses Lavinia as an exchange item, just as Bassianus and Saturninus do. Since she cannot strike directly at Titus, Tamora chooses to revenge herself on Lavinia. Lavinia’s refusal to say the word “rape”, referring to an impending sexual assault as that which “womanhood denies my tongue to tell” and as a “worse-than-killing lust” (2.3.174, 175) reminds the audience that even to speak of rape brings a woman shame.

According to Emily Detmer-Goebel[2], Lavinia’s silence after the rape calls our attention to the act of revealing the rape; the suspense builds as each character responds to the sight of the raped and mutilated Lavinia. The responses to her– from the laughter of the rapists and the poetry of her uncle, to the fear of her brother Lucius and the blind madness and bloody revenge of Titus – suggests how this scene can be seen as a dramatization of the culture’s varied stance regarding a woman’s claim of rape.

Lavinia’s rape and mutilation turns her into an unfamiliar, unknown presence to the men around her: Marcus leads her to Titus and says,

This was thy daughter (3.1.63, emphasis added)

Lucius, Lavinia’s brother, exclaims,

This object kills me (3.1.65; emphasis added)

For the uncle she is no longer a daughter and for the brother she is no longer a sister. Even Lavinia’s nephew runs from her. He says,

Alas, sweet aunt, I know not what you mean (4.1.49)

For her father, she becomes a “map of woe” (3.2.12). No longer able to reflect his masculinity or his power, she now represents his shame and sorrow. This is why when he kills her he says,

Die, die Lavinia, and thy shame with thee,

And with thy shame thy father’s sorrow die. (5.3.45)

In a way, her rape and mutilation had already killed her in the eyes of her father.

But before we dismiss Lavinia as the silent woe-is-me victim, we should consider that before her death, Titus has Lavinia catch her assailant’s blood in a bowl.  What does she do with the blood? Maybe she drank it…Crazy?  Sure, but this is pre-Christian Rome. If Alarbus’ blood can grant peace and finality to Titus’ dead sons in the beginning of the play, it’s possible that Demetrius and Chiron’s may also allow the same for Lavinia. As a Roman woman, she would have known that only death would release her from her shame.


In the play’s opening scene, Saturninus remarks in an aside:

A goodly lady, trust me, of the hue

That I would choose were I to choose anew (1.1.261-62).

He’s referring to Tamora. As queen of the Goths, a people who have been spent many years at war with Rome, she is an enemy of the state. As a captive led through the streets of the capital, she is publicly humiliated. Titus’ display of her and her children increases her dishonor and so becomes a display of his own political, military and masculine power, Tamora recognizes this herself when she says:

…we are brought to Rome to beautify thy triumphs”(1.1.109-10).

Tamora hates Titus and his sons even before her first born son Alarbus is brutally killed as a sacrifice to the dead Andronici. As a sexual object, Tamora can claim a degree of authority for herself; it is the only way she can invest herself with a value beyond being a symbol of who won and who lost a battle. Tamora is a figure of a woman who owns and enjoys her own sexuality without any inhibitions (which is a big no-no), perhaps owing to the fact that she is from a different culture. This could account for Saturninus’ attraction to her, in that she functions as a figure of uninhibited sexuality itself. This also accounts for how influential and dangerous she is. She uses her sexuality to exert control over the emperor, as we see later in Act II,

My lord, be rul’d by me, be won at last… (1.1.439)

Yield at entreats; and then let me alone. (1.1.446)

I will not be denied… (2.1.478)

So instead of being a passive victim of the men’s control, she uses the body to control the controllers for her own ends, namely the destruction of the Andronici.


Detmer-Goebel, Emily “The need for Lavinia’s voice: Titus Andronicus and the telling of rape”< n28871111/pg_1?tag=artBody;col1>

Gibaldi, Joseph, MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers,

Sixth Edition The Modern Language Association of America 2003

Harris, Bernice “Sexuality as a signifier for power relations: Using Lavinia, of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus” June 22, 1996  <;col1&gt;

“Titus”  (DVD-1999) Dir. Julie Taymor USA. 162min. 1999

Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jessica Lange, Alan Cumming

The Norton Shakespeare”, Second Edition – Stephen Greenblatt (General Editor), Harvard University Press, 2008









About the Photos:

The “Lady in white” photo is from <>

The Titus Andronicus poster is from <>


[1] Sexuality as a signifier for power relations: Using Lavinia, of Shakespeare’s “Titus Andronicus.”

[2]  In her article, The need for Lavinia’s voice: Titus Andronicus and the telling of rape


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