Sunday, April 9, 2006

Titus Andronicus - A Ship That Founders


I am currently teaching Macbeth to 9th-graders, and one of the comforting observations nearly all of them made in their journals was that the wounded, bleeding captain, who reports Macbeth's success in battle to Duncan in Act I, scene 2, opens all three of his speeches with powerful similes.

1) The battle:

"Doubtful it stood,
As two spent swimmers that do cling together
And choke their art." (1.2. 9-11)

2) The resurgence of the Norwegian forces:

"As whence the sun 'gins his reflection
Shipwracking storms and direful thunders break,
So from that spring whence comfort seemed to come
Discomfort swells." (1.2.27-31)

3) Macbeth's frustration of the Norwegian offensive:

"Dismayed not this our captains, Macbeth and Banquo?"
"Yes, as sparrows eagles, or the hare the lion." (1.2.37-39)

Our unlikely poet would probably continue, except that his "gashes cry for help," and he is led off to receive some succor if it's not too late. The first two of these similes reflect a healthy understanding of the power of water, and beneath that, a persistent comparison of war to the sea. (The final one hints at the Great Chain of Being which comes into the play more prominently later.) The imagery reminded me of Titus's first lines, in which he compares himself to a ship sailing into home port:

"Hail Rome, victorious in thy mourning weeds!
Lo, as the bark that hath discharged his fraught
Returns with precious lading to the bay
From whence at first she weighed her anchorage,
Cometh Andronicus, bound with laurel boughs,
To resalute his country with his tears,
Tears of true joy for his return to Rome." (1.1.70-76)

Titus has been victorious in his war, and so sails unmolested both literally and figuratively across the sea. What I also find interesting about this image is its middle-class quality. Titus compares himself not to some war galley bristling with oars and cannons (are those anachronistic?), but to a merchant vessel returning home after a successful trade mission. This is odd, partly because Titus seems so aristocratic and partly because the image fails to capture the nature of his mission and success. Maybe Titus is just being figuratively humble, or maybe he actually sees the mission as one of trade since he has returned "with honor and with fortune," the spoils of war.

This reminds me a bit of the opening of Comedy of Errors, which begins with Aegeon's "Proceed, Solinus, to procure my fall," using a verb that suggests that Aegeon's death sentence is a mere financial transaction, which in a way it is because he cannot buy his freedom.

But what to make of Titus, the merchant of Rome, a man whose "bark," after it is safely in dock, sinks? Is that the definition of tragedy? Or just misfortune?


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