A close reading paper for English 339, Shakespeare: Early Plays and Sonnets, an upper-level literature course taught by Dr. Michelle Dowd, written on 22 October 2008 at The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
Violating Virtue: Aaron’s Rape Plot Speech in Titus Andronicus
by Matt Wallace
In Act 1, Scene 1 of Titus Andronicus, the Goths make a stunning social leap from being powerless captives, mere spoils of war, to members of Rome’s power elite in the new emperor’s family. They immediately conform to the old adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans.” Almost as soon as she is made empress, Tamora plots revenge against the Andronicus family for the ritual sacrifice of her son, Alarbus (1.1.439-452). In Act 2, Scene 1, Aaron, Tamora’s Moorish lover, takes up her cause in Roman fashion. His speech plotting the rape of Lavinia, daughter of Titus, mirrors Roman mores in tone, military language, and religious language (2.1.104-132).
Aaron’s overall tone is confident, straightforward, and unequivocating as one would expect of a Roman. Like a Roman, he has bought into the principle of “might makes right”; his will alone justifies his chosen course of action. Aaron has no doubts as to the rightness of his plan with one possible exception when he refers to the scene of the rape as being “shadowed from heaven’s eye” (2.1.131). He is worried not so much about divine retribution against himself as he is with divine intervention on behalf of Lavinia. Like a Roman, he is so certain of his success that only the gods have the power to thwart him. Also, he probably feels justified in using rape in service of his ends because Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, is a notorious rapist. Shakespeare has Aaron sound like a Roman to equate the alien Goths with the native Romans.
Aaron acts and uses military language as if he were a Roman general. In the beginning of the speech, he breaks up the fight between Chiron and Demetrius over Lavinia and provides them a “stratagem” by which they can both have her (2.1.104-112). By controlling and directing the natural aggression of the brothers, Aaron trains and disciplines his “soldiers” as would a military leader. In the middle of the speech, Aaron tells the brothers, “Come, come; our Empress, with her sacred wit / To villainy and vengeance consecrate, / Will we acquaint with all what we intend / And she shall file our engines with advice” (2.1.121-124). Tamora is clearly unaware of Aaron’s plan, but Aaron knows she will approve and offer her own ideas to increase the brutality of the attack. Like a good Roman general, Aaron knows the mind of his Empress (as is made abundantly clear in Act 2, Scene 3) and serves her faithfully much like Titus always served his emperor. At the end of the speech, he orders his “soldiers” into battle: “There speak and strike, brave boys, and take your turns. / There serve your lust, shadowed from heaven’s eye / And revel in Lavina’s treasury” (2.1.130-132). Aaron sends the brothers out to rape and mutilate Lavinia as a Roman army would conquer and pillage a city. Shakespeare has Aaron act and speak like a Roman general to equate Aaron with Titus.
Aaron’s use of religious language indicates that he considers his plot to be a holy act. He refers to the planned rape as “solemn hunting” (2.1.113). He apparently views the attack as “ceremonial hunting” or “hunting as a religious rite.” Aaron also refers to Tamora as “our Empress, with her sacred wit / To villainy and vengeance consecrate” (2.1.121-122). His use of the words “sacred” and “consecrate” suggests he views Empress Tamora as a goddess which would parallel Roman emperor worship, veneration of the ruler as a living god. Accordingly, just as the sacrifice of Alarbus was a religious rite, so too is the rape of Lavinia. Shakespeare has Aaron use religious language to create a moral equivalency between the Goths’ vicious act and accepted Roman religious practice.
With Aaron’s speech, Shakespeare allows an outsider to adopt Roman “virtues” and use them to his own corrupted ends. By doing so, Shakespeare exposes the inherent flaws in Roman mores, not only when they are misused by an outsider, but even when they are used appropriately by the Romans themselves. By placing the Goths and the Romans on the same level, both societally and morally, Shakespeare sets the stage to explore the issues surrounding the legitimate and illegitimate use of flawed social principles and the consequences of both.
Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, et al. 2nd ed.
New York: Norton, 2008. 399-463.