An essay on gender roles I wrote in college in 1994

Titus Andronicus

Representations of Gender Ideologies in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus

This is from a Shakespeare class (duh!); it was written on August 2, 1994…

When it was enacted upon the stage, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus was most probably received by its 16th-century audiences in much the same way as Dallas and Melrose Place are received by contemporary 20th-century audiences. Therefore it is important to remember that art does not necessarily have to be haute couture in order to be an accurate representation of popular ideologies. In fact, more often than not, it is the entertainment of the bourgeois that is a better mimic of these ideologies. If we realize that Shakespeare’s primary objective was not to make social commentary or criticize his own culture but rather to entertain, we can observe how his works, and indeed almost all works of art, as Frederic Jameson has stated, “as though for the first time, bring into being that very situation to which [they are] also, at one and the same time, a reaction.” (Montrose essay, p.57) With this is mind I would like to reveal how Shakespeare’s treatment of the female character Lavinia in Titus Andronicus is a window through which can be seen not only the objectification of woman in 16th and 17th century culture and some of the problems which arise when the woman is viewed as an assignable property, but also the subtle shift from the outward control of woman to the interiorizing of control of woman through her own self-image.

Perhaps most easily recognizable is the objectification and assignability of 16th- and 17th-century woman. By objectification and assignability I mean the near-universal notion, and in many cases legal fact, that women, especially of the upper class, were accepted by their fathers, their husbands, and the state, to be bought, sold, and treated as property. At the very beginning of the play Lavinia is referred to as “Rome‘s rich ornament” by her suitor Bassianus (I.i.). When she actually enters the scene she has eight lines of praise for her father’s valor and honor and then, after a cursory acknowledgment by him, she is silent. Meanwhile her father chooses the new king, the new king chooses her as his bride, her father agrees (although he seems more proud to be able to give his sword, chariot, and prisoners as gifts), and her new fiance almost immediately, albeit inconspicuously, decides he has made a bad choice. After her initial eight lines, she does not speak again until Saturninus asks her if she is “not displeased” to be the new queen, to which she replies, “Not I, my lord,” even though a mere sixteen lines later we discover she is already betrothed to Bassianus. Lavinia has so given herself to patriarchal control that she abandons her fiance without a word to the contrary and patiently accepts her assignability as a fact of life.

Lavinia starts the play as her father’s daughter, to be given away as a token of his esteem. Saturninus says he will marry her, “to advance [the] name and honourable family” of Titus. She then becomes Bassianus’ wife. For obeying her father and consenting to marry Saturninus even though she was already betrothed to Bassianus, Saturninus calls her a “changing piece” for allowing herself to be seized by Bassianus. he culture expected her to do as her father commanded, but when she did so she appeared inconstant because she had to give up her betrothed. Lavinia was caught in a catch-22.

Though not as overtly stated as in the case of Bianca in The Taming of the Shrew, one of Lavinia’s most alluring qualities is her silence. Apparently an Elizabethan audience would have been much impressed that she could hold her tongue until Act II sc.ii, and then only to say that she had woken up early, which is precisely what her husband wanted her to say. During the interim one of her brothers was killed for defending Bassianus’ claim to her, the emperor chose a new queen, her father was accused of traitorously mocking the emperor, and she was accused of sexual promiscuity. Like a battered and abused daytime soap-opera heroine she would still have been loved by her audience for being a specimen of silence and docility. Lavinia’s situation and its paradoxical results, unlike Bianca’s, show the damage to relationships that are caused by the assignation of women.

There is one comment on this post

  1. Titus Andronicus is my favorite Shakespeare play ever. It is downright hysterical.

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