Revenge in Titus Andronicus and the Oresteia, Essay Example
The classic works Titus Andronicus and The Oresteia create an interesting dilemma for modern readers. On one level, these are plays written by brilliant men; each is marked by epic poetry, as each has endured as a literary classic for centuries. At the same time, both works also represent states of being and thinking alien to a modern perception. It is not that, today, we live in a non-violent world. Rather, the plays seem to glorify revenge itself as a worthwhile, and even admirable, pursuit, and this is at odds with general ideas held today. They then ask a kind of question: can literature be great if it is centered on themes no longer valid, or that make no sense to a modern mind? In the following, Titus Andronicus and The Oresteia will be compared and contrasted, with an emphasis on a similarity that answers the question. More exactly, it will be seen that Aeschylus and Shakespeare may be affirming a reality mankind currently chooses to ignore, or believe that it ignores: the inescapable human impulse to exact revenge for wrongs done, and particularly when those wrongs are done to family These plays present this drive as primal, and they also strongly suggest ideas about the entire state of humanity itself as depending, at least partially, on the importance of revenge when loved ones are taken In Titus Andronicus and The Oresteia, revenge is not necessarily a weakness or insane act, but a vital element in the inevitable course of humanity.
There are essential differences between Titus Andronicus and The Oresteia, although, as will be seen, these tend to pale in the face of overwhelming similarities. It is true that Aeschylus’s work far more consistently reflects the traditions of the Greek and Roman empires, notably in its liberal infusion of divine presences throughout. In this literature, gods and goddesses are active, living presences, and certainly no “better” than the humans they manipulate. From the beginning of the trilogy, Aeschylus presents a world in which the actions and motives of the gods are powerfully driven by revenge. As the Chorus describes the circumstances relevant to what is to occur, divine revenge is something of a matter of course. That the gods nurse grievances is known to all mortals, as when the Chorus speculates on the fate of Troy: “For holy Artemis hath a grudge at the house…she abhors the eagle’s banquet” (Aeschylus lines 134-138). It is all the more interesting, then, that the Chorus also later remarks on how the gods tend to judge men as taking on, in revenge, divine prerogatives: “The eyes of the gods are ever on the man of blood” (Aeschylus 461-462). The essence of the play reflects the mortal ways in which desires for revenge are just as evident, and just as critical to all concerned. There is also a pronounced and consistent factor of the gods as having stakes in everything that occurs, either as manipulators of men or as judges of their actions. The same is not true of Titus Andronicus, just as Shakespeare’s work here is demonstrably more violent than that of Aeschylus. With Titus, there is almost a sense that no god could be as horrifically motivated for revenge as his men and women are; Shakespeare leaves “divine” force in this sense completely within his human characters, as inhuman as they frequently are. The usage of divine presences, then, along with the Shakespearean empowering of superhuman savagery in his people, are the basic contrasts between the plays.
While these are significant contrasts, the two plays nonetheless share very similar foundations, particularly in terms of theme. These themes, greatly emphasized in the story lines, point to revenge as a vital element in human affairs, and revenge instigated when children are lost. With The Oresteia, Clytemnestra is the core. She demands revenge against Agamemnon for his sacrificing their daughter, Iphigenia, in order to win the war against Troy. In true Greek fashion, a long and tortured cycle is set in place, in which bloody revenge generates more of the same. As noted, this is a cycle in which the gods are as active as the mortal men and women. As with Shakespeare, however, these are mortals more than capable of going to extremes to gain their revenge. Clytemnestra spends many pages in recounting her duty and her anxiety in waiting for her husband’s return, and this seems to be in place to better underscore her rage at the news of her daughter’s sacrifice. Once the truth is known to her, there is nothing beyond revenge in her heart, and it is of a kind that swallows up everything in its scope. The prophetess Cassandra expresses it beautifully to the questioning Chorus: “In the potion of revenge which she prepares, I too am thought of, and thrown in” (Aeschylus 1261-1262). As the concubine/prize brought home with Agamemnon, Cassandra is poised to see how Clytemnestra’s rage will make sure that she is also attended to. Equally importantly, all of this is presented as an inevitability, and in a way beyond Cassandra’s seeing it as a certain future. There is the sense in Aeschylus that, as Agamemnon followed his destiny in winning the war, so too is Clytemnestra honoring her own. He was determined to “punish” the House of Priam; she must avenge his crime against her. In this world, revenge is a valid and rational motivation, even as it arises from sense of deep injury and insult.
It may even be argued that Aeschylus’s characters, just as with the other heroes of ancient drama, accept that doom will follow their seeking of revenge. There is a pervasive sense that something beyond the will of the gods motivates these characters, even as they attribute their inspirations from that will. For example, Orestes, who will kill Clytemnestra, asserts to the Chorus that the oracle he visited has dictated his actions. He will suffer a miserable existence, the oracle declares: “Should I not visit those guilty of my father’s death, declaring that I must slay them in requital” (Aeshylus, Libation-Bearers 272-273). If Cassandra is trapped by the gift of prophecy Apollo forced upon her, all these characters are locked in mazes of action and reaction. What is never questioned is the rightness of revenge. All address the consequences of it and speculate on the pain and misery revenge tends to create, but none actually turn away from the course. In Aeschylus, revenge is a vital function and a moral imperative based on honoring the family; to love and honor the family translates to exacting revenge against whomever brings harm to it. It is all the more ironic, then, that the revenge is that of wife against husband, and son against mother. Each character is avenging a loved one on a loved one, and this clearly indicates how essential revenge is to the beings of these characters. Even when it means further destruction of that which it seeks to avenge, the revenge is the honored way of expressing the deepest levels of commitment. Consequently, the extremity of the revenge response indicates the depth of love and commitment, which reinforces the familial element..
The same foundation is in place in Titus Andronicus, and accentuated all the more by the play’s relentless violence. The thrust of the story relies on the burning passion of Tamora, the Queen of the Goths, to revenge the murders of her son, Alarbus, on Roman General Titus. This revenge takes the form of horrific scenes seen nowhere else in Shakespeare, as Tamora engineers
the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, Titus’s daughter. What is interesting here is that Tamora devises her revenge as events play out. There is no scheme set in motion, but there is an imperative that guides her. She has, in fact, been brought to Rome as a prisoner, and she feels this disgrace nearly as powerfully as she seeks revenge for her son’s death. She is as well “queenly” in her determination. She calmly asserts what is her only ambition left: “I’ll find a day to massacre them all/ And raze their faction and their family” (Shakespeare I, 1, 449-450). Revenge here is, as in Aeschylus, a force beyond human control, and one also presented as a thing not meant to be controlled. It is also maternal, and powerfully so. In Aeschylus, Clyemnestra is acting from as visceral an impulse as can be imagined: she is a mother revenging a child’s death. So, too, is Tamora motivated on a primal and maternal level because of her son’s murder. She tells her surviving sons: “Your mother’s hand shall right your mother’s wrong” (Shakespeare II, 3, 121-122). This echoes the conviction and confidence of another mother, as Clytemnestra rejoices over her revenge: “Here is Agamemnon, my husband! A dead body, the work of this right arm, a righteous worker” (Aeschylus 1405-1406). As the mothers Tamora and Clytemnestra avenge the loss of the children, Aeschylus and Shakespeare both present revenge as so elemental in human nature, it is summoned when the most beloved – the children – are involved.
In examining Titus Andronicus, it is also tempting to wonder if Shakespeare is not making a statement about the fall of the Roman Empire, in that the barbarian Goths poison the civilization so long in place. This is an interesting interpretation, in that it allows for Rome to be seen as being defeated by primal forces – like revenge – it believed it had mastered. If there is any validity to this view, it may be supported by the cycle of revenge and bloodshed set in motion in Rome itself. Tamora instigates the misery, but it could also be argued that Titus himself does so, in his savage conquest of the Goths. After he is made aware of the monstrous crimes committed against his daughter, he responds in a way strangely reminiscent of Tamora’s calm, calculating decision to seek revenge: “What shall we do? Let us, that have our tongues/ Plot some device of further misery” (Shakespeare III, 1, 133-134). Madness overtakes Titus as the play goes on, but it could also be said that madness become the environment itself. Revenge, moreover, “feeds on itself” and is the true, dominant character, as Tamora, disguised as the spirit of revenge, promises revenge satisfying for Titus if he can halt the invasion of the Goths from Rome. It is as though Shakespeare, in his genius, is revealing the ugly joke behind revenge, even as he also comprehends its meaning to his people. Just as The Oresteia completely relies on revenge as a prime and valid human motivation, so too does Titus Andronicus acknowledge its implacable power. It destroys, those who seek it understand that it destroys, yet it is the truest means to honoring what is important that they know.
In modern times, when the idea of revenge is widely viewed as a self-defeating concept, it is difficult to fully grasp how classic dramatists present it. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that The Oresteia, and certainly Titus Andronicus, rely heavily on extremes of violence, which is today associated with melodrama. Since savage acts and murder seem to be the natural consequences of revenge, the revenge itself is rendered all the more savage to the modern mind. At the same time, however, there is no avoiding the dimension and human quality of the characters of Aeschylus and Shakespeare, and this creates a troubling suggestion. These are people caught in the grip of extreme grief, from Clytemnestra and Orestes to Tamora and Titus, who clearly feel that the most extreme retribution is the only way to honor what is lost. That such retribution typically brings on further destruction is known to them, but their courses do not vary because the human impetus is too strong. What this translates to for the modern reader or audience is the question of whether we are deluding ourselves in thinking that we are more enlightened today. In other words, if revenge is usually expressed in ugly and violent forms, it is nonetheless an understandable impulse, and one perhaps more deeply ingrained in human beings than we like to believe. Despite tragedy and pain, revenge in these plays remains an emotional response to unspeakable injury, and must therefore be seen as having a certain validity. In Titus Andronicus and The Oresteia, revenge is not necessarily a weakness or insane act, but an understandable element in the inevitable course of human life.
Aeschylus. (1994). The Oresteia. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Shakespeare, W. (1994). The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. New York: Doubleday & Co.
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