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Plagues and Portents

Geoff Ward

… but when the planets / In evil mixture to disorder wander, / What plagues and what portents! what mutiny! / What raging of the sea! shaking of earth! / Commotion in the winds! frights, changes, horrors, / Divert and crack, rend and deracinate / The unity and married calm of states / Quite from their fixure!
Ulysses in Troilus and Cressida, Act 1, Sc 3

Social ferment and fear of plague dominated Shakespeare’s world, just as they do in ours right now, and the Bard has much to tell us that’s relevant in these tumultuous times of Coronavirus. As fellow playwright Ben Jonson (1573-1637) wrote in the preface to the First Folio, the collection of thirty-six plays published in 1623, Shakespeare was “not of an age, but for all time”.

One can say that Shakespeare’s works are about the England of his day even if set overseas (the native expressed in the foreign), and the Roman plays – Titus AndronicusAntony and CleopatraCoriolanus and Julius Caesar – are particularly useful examples. The real issues affecting Shakespeare’s England in these dramas are of government, authority and social attitudes, when people were aware of an appalling loss resulting from the English Reformation, which had fractured the Christian church. The same issues prevail today, but with the role of the church greatly reduced of course.

In Shakespeare’s lifetime, momentous changes were going on in politics, social structuring and other areas of life, and hanging over them all was the awful spectre of plague, the second pandemic of the Black Death, which continued well into the seventeenth century, killing perhaps a hundred million people. The word “plague” and variants of it occur 117 times in Shakespeare’s works.

Although Covid-19 can hardly be compared to bubonic plague, reaction to it has caused, and is still causing, widespread fear and alarm, as well as severe social and economic disruption, in 2020, the disastrous effects of which are likely to last for many years. As Hotspur exclaims in Henry IV, Part One: “A plague upon it.”

The Black Death – which closed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London three times, in 1593, 1603 and 1608 (the arts being shut down just like today) – caused religious, social and economic upheavals which had deep and long-lasting impact on the course of European history. Together with the weakening of Christianity, it meant that one’s identity, purpose in life, the meaning of one’s activities and moral outlook, had all been thrown into question in Shakespeare’s time. “’Tis the time’s plague when madmen lead the blind,” says the sightless Gloucester in King Lear (Act 4, Sc 1) when he meets “mad Tom”, not realising it is his disguised son Edgar who is now helping him on his way. As with so much in Shakespeare, such utterances work on more than one level; Gloucester might well be referring not just to himself and Tom in this instance but to a general condition of humanity, and many might see the remark as remaining an apt comment for today.

On madness, in this context, as a brief aside, Longfellow, in his poem “The Masque of Pandora”, has Prometheus say: “Whom the gods would destroy they first make mad”, echoing Sophocles, who wrote, in his play Antigone: “Evil appears as good in the minds of those whom god leads to destruction.” According to the medieval conception, which was maintained until the mid-seventeenth century, human society was the outcome of the divine natural order, yet the natural passions were the source of rapacity and ruin: if society appeared to be no longer a reflection of the divine order, then there would be great consternation.

Thomas McAlindon, in Shakespeare’s Tragic Cosmos (Cambridge University Press, 1991) argues that there were two models of nature in Renaissance culture: one hierarchical, in which everything had an appointed place (the divine order), but which was losing force and substance following the Reformation, and the other contrarious, showing nature as a system under stress of interacting opposites liable to sudden collapse and transformation. These two concepts, order and potential disorder, inform all of Shakespeare’s tragedy, and are reflected particularly in the relentless violence of Titus Andronicus, believed to have been written between 1588 and 1593. This is the Roman play on which I want to focus because of its intense symbolism, together with some commentary on Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape of Lucrece (1594), for aspects of the play and the poem illuminate one another.

The characters of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus and of Lucrece appear at the centre of the maelstrom of the socio-political forces identified by McAlindon. In play and poem, we find the themes, so powerful also in their warnings for today, of how the abuse of wealth and power, and the instability it engenders, lead to unbridled violence. Lavinia and Lucrece stand at a crucial moment in the (fictive) history of their respective societies, their representation symbolic of the decadence in ruling orders about to be overthrown, and symptomatic of an insecurity and fearfulness in Elizabethan society (as in our world today) over massive changes under way.

They are placed respectively at either end of the Roman republic: Lucrece at its founding and Lavinia at its fall. The rape of Lucrece leads to the ruin of the Tarquins, which is followed by the founding of the republic, while the rape and mutilation of Lavinia is emblematic of the destruction of the republic – and proleptic perhaps, with the way things seem to be going, in regard to Western civilisation in the twenty-first century. Marcus’s encounter with Lavinia, mutilated and spouting blood after she has been raped, has been criticised for its apparent inconsistency: Marcus standing there, waxing poetic, instead of sending for help, or a surgeon. But if regarded as an ekphrasis – a moment of pause within a narrative which permits meditation on a larger theme through inspection of a visual object – then the scene can be better understood, and assist further the discussion of the use and meaning of violence in Titus Andronicus.

As in The Rape of Lucrece, in which Lucrece identifies with a painting depicting the bloody siege and destruction of Troy, itself the consequence of a rape (of Helen), so Marcus’s appraisal of the stricken Lavinia suggests the imminent fate of Rome, a city which is about to be similarly ravaged by barbarians, the Goths. Marcus’s references to “stern ungentle hands”, “beast” and “monster” could equally apply to those who are about to overrun Rome as to those who have mutilated Lavinia. In the Troy ekphrasis, Shakespeare gives Lucrece’s grief an epic dimension while at the same time expanding his rhetorical repertoire to embrace classical literature and mythology, just as he does in the speech he gives Marcus in Act 2 Scene 4 of Titus Andronicus. The allegory pursued by means of the painting is explained best in personal terms: Lucrece sees herself in Hecuba and her husband and father in both Priam and Hector, while Tarquin is represented by Sinon. Lucrece’s own rape is mirrored in the rape of Troy:

As Priam him [Sinon] did cherish,
So did I Tarquin; so my Troy did perish.

This gives Lucrece an heroic aspect and endeavours to supply the poem as a whole with cosmic proportion. There is also the political aspect, in which Tarquin’s lust may be interpreted as the misuse of power and the turmoil it engenders. Similarly, Titus’s lack of political acumen in rejecting power by refusing to become emperor also causes instability.

The allegorical image given of the mutilated Lavinia encapsulates the thematic concerns to be demonstrated as the action in Titus Andronicus proceeds. This scene within a scene, which opens with the ravished Lavinia being taunted by Chiron and Demetrius, who exit before Marcus enters, provides a moment of contemplative pathos centred on a female figure, achieved through the speech given by Marcus, his high-flown rhetoric – the verbal equivalent of the painting in The Rape of Lucrece – prompting the ekphrastic pause.

With Marcus referring to the dreamlike state he now finds himself in as he beholds the mangled Lavinia, time seems to stand still. Although Marcus’s speech begins “Who is this – my niece that flies away so fast?”, on stage Lavinia usually remains motionless as he speaks, except for turning away her face “for shame”. Marcus alludes to the mythological story of Tereus and Philomela, which Shakespeare drew from Ovid for his plot. Tereus raped Philomela, his wife’s sister, and cut out her tongue. Philomela depicted what had happened in a tapestry, and her sister Progne avenged her by killing her own son, Itylus, and serving him to his father, Tereus, in a meal.

Referring to Lavinia’s lopped limbs, Marcus tells her: “A craftier Tereus, cousin, hast thou met …” Craftier indeed, in the person of the young and ambitious Shakespeare determined to outdo both Ovid and Seneca, his key classical influences. Audaciously, Shakespeare goes beyond Ovidian violence and Senecan vengeance drama by writing a double revenge plot – Tamora against Titus for executing her son, and Titus against Tamora and her surviving sons for the rape of Lavinia and the execution of two of his sons by Saturninus – with commensurate bloodbath and cannibalism.

In further links between Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece, Aaron compares Lavinia to Lucrece when urging Chiron and Demetrius to rape her:

Lucrece was not more chaste
Than this Lavinia …

Titus also refers to the rape of Lucrece when Lavinia indicates the story of Tereus and Philomela in Ovid’s Metamorphoses:

What Roman lord it was durst do the deed:
Or slunk not Saturnine, as Tarquin erst,
That left the camp to sin in Lucrece bed?

Completely against Renaissance Christian doctrine, Shakespeare, in both play and poem, makes his central characters opt for death before dishonour, in line with this preference shown by Roman heroes. Lucrece commits suicide and Lavinia is killed by her father, ironically by the hand that blessed her in Act 1.

Tis honour to deprive dishonoured life (Lucrece)
Die, die Lavinia, and thy shame with thee (Titus Andronicus)

Such violence might be a barbed comment by Shakespeare on the issue of honour in his own society for, within Renaissance humanism, the concepts of honour and public service were inseparable – not so today, of course, raising relevantly another dilemma for us.

In Shakespeare, the word “honour”, with its derivatives and variants, occurs more than 900 times. Among abstract nouns only “love” and “time” are used more often. Honour imposes heavy responsibilities both on those who feel they are endowed with it, and on those who aspire to it. At a lower level, it can be an important regulator of conduct in matters of day-to-day courtesy; on a higher level, honour becomes the determinant of conduct rather than simply a monitoring device.

It is on this higher level that honour operates in Titus Andronicus and The Rape of Lucrece, as far as the characters of Titus and Lucrece are concerned, giving meaning and justification to acts of violence by Titus against others, and by Lucrece against herself. At its most extreme, honour is held to be fundamental, the basis on which one’s very being rests. Reason does not enter into it. Finally, Titus Andronicus forcefully reminds us, not least through its allusions to Lucrece, that, ultimately, all civilisation is founded on violence, something we might prefer not to reflect upon nowadays.


Geoff Ward is a writer, poet, musician and songwriter who lives on the Beara peninsula in southwest Ireland. A former literary editor, having had a varied career in news and music journalism, he is also a book editor and a creative writing tutor and mentor. He is the author of two books, Spirals: the Pattern of Existence (2nd edition, 2013) and A Raft of Dreams (2015), a collection of short stories and poetry.



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