Sunday, March 26, 2006

Titus Andronicus - Order in the Court


"Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Chaos is a fearsome thing, especially when it comes to the state, that fragile ideal at which so few governments consistently succeed and on which people depend for the order of their daily lives. Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus is all about the difficulties of achieving order. But what kind of order?

In Titus, honor and loyalty are forms of order. In a fragmenting situation that requires a decision or action, both honor and loyalty dictate responses that fulfill predetermined expectations -- that is order. During the Watergate scandal, FBI administrator Mark Felt went to the press, anonymously as Deep Throat, and gave enough information to Woodward and Bernstein that they were able to expose administration corruption, resulting in the near-impeachment and resignation of the president of the United States. Nixon, perhaps, was relying on a certain amount of loyalty within his administration. If the loyal remained quiet there would have been no impeachment hearings, and no resignation. Sail on, sail on, O mighty ship of state.

But Mark Felt was disloyal to the president (although he was loyal to the constitution). It may not seem like Felt's actions, leaking info to The Washington Post, raise the question of loyalty; after all he was a member of the FBI, in charge of investigating the Watergate break-in and not part of the White House staff. However, "FBI Acting Director L. Patrick Gray -- who had been appointed by Nixon immediately after J. Edgar Hoover's sudden death in May -- was cooperating with the White House to thwart a full FBI investigation, and the White House was pressuring him to shut off the various leaks to the media" (Nation, June 13, 2005). They did this by having Attorney General Richard Kleindienst, "a Nixon loyalist," put pressure on Gray, asking him to fire Felt, whom they suspected of leaking information. Gray demurred, assuring Kleindienst that Felt was "completely loyal."

This is where loyalty and honor diverge. Felt did "the honorable thing," not the loyal thing. If you search "do the honorable thing" on Google, you get all sorts of scenarios in which people act or are encouraged to act in accordance with some principled concept (marry the pregnant girlfriend, concede a close election, resign if you've engaged in criminal acts while in public office) and often in disregard for their own objectives, benefit or needs. They do what's "right." Loyalty, because it frequently obligates one to an individual or group instead of a principle, may distract us from what is right, the honorable.

Is honor important in Titus? Yes, indeed. The words "honor" and "honorable" occur 23 times in Act 1, scene 1. This frequency signals the presence of order in Roman society - Titus has done valiant things in the service of Rome, and he is being rewarded; Saturninus and Bassianus both claim the honor of becoming emperor, in continuation of their father’s honors; Titus’s sons lie in "honor’s bed," the appropriate conclusion after having given their lives for Rome, "slain manfully in arms in right and service of their noble country," and Titus’s eulogy at their burial is "in peace and honor rest you here, my sons" (1.1.196-197, 150, 156). They have earned both.

Offered the emperorship, Titus turns it down and confers the position on Saturninus.

"And here in the sight of Rome to Saturnine ...,
The wide world’s emperor, do I consecrate
My sword, my chariot, and my prisoners,
Presents well worthy Rome’s imperious lord.
Receive them, then, the tribute that I owe,
Mine honor’s ensigns humbled at they feet." (1.1.248, 250-254)

For Titus there is no division between loyalty and honor. What honor he has won in battle --betokened by his sword, chariot and prisoners -- he has done for Rome; these tokens of honor easily become "tribute." But Titus gets his Mark Felt moment. Or, more appropriately, he gets his Oliver North moment.

You remember Lieutenant Colonel North. In the mid-1980s, during the Reagan administration, North coordinated the clandestine and illegal sale of weapons to Iran, funneling the profits to the Contras in Nicaragua in violation of both administration policy and congressional legislation (the Boland Amendment, which stopped aid to the rebels in 1984). North was indicted (16 felony counts) and convicted on three (though later the convictions were overturned). But the popular image of him will always remain ‘the loyal Marine,’ mostly because he wore his uniform to the hearings even though he had dressed as a civilian during his time with the NSC. On the witness stand, North admitted his actions were illegal but defended himself by claiming that what he did made him a "national hero" in the eyes of the president. He saw no problem with circumventing the law because he was working for the president. He was loyal. Reagan was not seriously implicated; North, and John Poindexter, took the fall.

Now Titus is no Ollie North, whose contempt for constitutional process and the law voided one side of the honor/loyalty equation, but one of the most startling moments, for me, in Titus Andronicus, is when Titus kills his son Mutius. Saturninus’s claim to Lavinia is contested by Bassianus, who says she is betrothed to him. All the Andronici, save Titus, back him up, and they abscond with Lavinia; disorder threatens Rome.

When Titus attempts to pursue Lavinia and return her to Saturninus, Mutius stops him. "What, villain boy, / Barr'st me my way in Rome?" he yells, committing filicide (1.1.295-96). Titus’s loyalty is to Rome, even before family, whom he brands "traitors" a few lines earlier. His act is horrific because it so clearly wrong, but for Titus it is a matter of honor:

My lord, you are unjust, and more than so!
In wrongful quarrel you have slain your son.
Nor thou nor he are any sons of mine.
My sons would never so dishonor me. (1.1.298-301)

Thus, the murder of his son is an attempt to restore order, an order in which he is honored by Rome for his loyalty even at the expense of his family. If Titus has a tragic flaw, it is this: he cannot see that loyalty to the corrupt is not honorable and that honor bestowed by such people should not command loyalty. It seems to me that the various tragic flaws we focus on with the literary tragic heroes are all individual forms of blindness (most directly and figuratively evidenced by Oedipus). Titus does not see past the verbiage of "honor" and "noble" to the true quality of the individuals who utter these terms. (And Saturninus, almost bipolar in his characterization, is pretty obviously someone not to be trusted.) Titus is vain that way, and this vanity is fatal to his family.

I don’t know much about Elizabethan political attitudes but I wonder if even then blood wasn’t thicker than Roman water, and Titus reduces his heroic stature by his rashness and disloyalty to his family. We have moved to the "dis-" side of Act 1 scene 1 - disorder, disloyalty, and dishonor. In fact, the word "dishonor" turns up eight times after line 300, and two occurrences of "honor" are negative: "mine honor thou has wounded" (1.1.372) and "Lord Titus here is in opinion and in honor wronged" (1.1.423-424). One could argue that all the "honor" and "honorable" and "noble" thrown around in the first place was false, in the mouths of dissemblers, like Tamora and Saturninus, and the self-deceived, like Titus. True order there never was.

"Ask not what you have done for your country; ask what your country has done for you."

With the peace broken and order disarrayed, loyalty and honor, the proactive agents of order, exit stage left, and we become interested in a different, reactive, form of order: Justice. It’s an understatement to say that, in Titus Andronicus, there’s not a lot of justice. The play makes this point indirectly as the term occurs most frequently in Act 4, the scenes depicting Titus’s madness. Specifically in Act 4, scene 3 Justice is both personified (Astraea) and abstract, but we are really asked to take not justice but its absence seriously:

"...sith there’s no justice in earth nor hell,
We will solicit heaven and move the gods
To send down Justice for to wreak our wrongs." (4.3.51-53)

Talk about appealing to a higher court. An interesting thing to note here is that for all the appeals to heaven (both Roman and anachronistically Christian), the gods are pretty deaf. To return for a minute to Frank Kermode’s indication that the revenge tragedy conventionally suggests "that vengeance properly belongs to God alone," can mortals be blamed for taking God’s place when God, or the any one of the gods, fails to act? I thought for a bit that one could attribute the impotence of the gods to Elizabethan attitudes about Roman paganism, but then the anachronisms start popping up: the country fellow’s evocation of the Virgin Mary, "By’r Lady"; the "ruinous monastery" where the Goth captures Aaron; and most significantly Aaron’s argument as to why Lucius should swear not to harm his child:

"...I know thou art religious
And hast a thing within thee called conscience,
With twenty popish tricks and ceremonies
Which I have seen thee careful to observe" (5.1.75-78)

And Lucius does swear; God’s law matters. And surely Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would have taken these things seriously. Yet throughout the rest of the play the gods provide no order, no justice. And when justice fails to restore order, there is one more form of order: Vengeance.

"Ask not what you have done for your country; ask what your country has done to you."

Revenge masquerades as Justice the way Tamora masquerades as Revenge; it’s a disguise that’s easy to see through. For one, vengeance is not inclined to satisfy all parties, only the one. Hence, vengeance achieved falls short of justice (public order), lacks honor, and fails to reestablish order. Vengeance as a path to justice is also ambiguous, and I thought Shakespeare amplified the ambiguity by making it confusing who might legitimately be called this play’s "revenger." Is it Tamora, who pleads eloquently and convincingly for the life of her son only to have him slaughtered to satisfy some obscure ritual sacrifice? Or is it Titus, against whom "unspeakable" acts are committed? For his part, Titus vows revenge when his sons’ heads are delivered to him, even before he knows they are innocent of the crime for which they have been executed.

"Then which way shall I find Revenge’s cave?
For these two heads [of his sons] do seem to speak to me
And threat me I shall never come to bliss
Till all these mischiefs be returned again
Even in their throats that hath committed them." (3.1.275-279)

His timing is a little galling. Rather than vow vengeance earlier when he discovers his despoiled daughter or later when he learns of his sons’ innocence, he chooses the moment when he’s been tricked into cutting off his own hand, even while he refers to "all these mischiefs."

Still, Titus has cause, and Shakespeare amplifies it by surrounding him with increasingly cartoonish villainy - Aaron outdoes Iago for embracing evil for evil’s sake - and outrageous acts of gruesome mayhem. These, in light of government corruption - indeed, collusion - present a validation of vengeance in the absence of justice. But vengeance fails to restore true order, and in the end a whole lotta dead folks litter the stage or are table scraps (I’ll leave Gil to actually count them).

Perhaps this, then, is the purpose of revenge tragedy - to warn the ruling class of the doom of failed justice and honor. If a situation has resulted in people seeking vengeance, things have gotten way too far out of hand. Does Shakespeare offer a clear statement of such a message? Yes, he does. It’s not in the first Quarto, but in all subsequent editions the play ends with the following four lines by Emperor Lucius:

See justice done on Aaron, that damnèd Moor,
By whom our heavy haps had their beginning:
Then, afterwards, to order well the state,
That like events may ne’er it ruinate. (5.3.204-207)

Is that the closest Shakespeare ever comes to a moral?

Don't let your day get ruinated,

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