Medea/Tamora Jason/Titus

Correct Gender as Moral Superiority

The bond between parent and child is assumed to be so universal that the act of filicide, or killing one's own children, is considered to be one of the ultimate unthinkable acts. But in at least two revenge tragedies, Medea and Titus Andronicus, there are instances of parents willingly killing their children to protect their own pride. The differences between the two plays, however, are intriguing. For Medea, the murder of her children is nearly the last action she performs in the play, and is treated as the most monstrous act possible. More than her murders of her husband's new wife and father-in-law, her willingness to commit filicide is what defines her as a character. Titus, on the other hand, kills one of his own sons early on in the drama, and, while he kills his daughter during the final scene, his most grotesque action is the murder of his enemy's children, not his own, and the cannibalism that follows their deaths. The different final foci of the two plays tell us much about the classical and Elizabethan concepts of fatherhood, motherhood, and especially masculinity.

Although they were written nearly two thousand years apart, Medea and Titus Andronicus have much in common. Ostensibly, both are presentations of a classical view of the world, Medea showing us Euripides' ancient Greece and Titus Andronicus presenting Shakespeare's view of ancient Rome. It is true that the ancient Greeks and Romans were vastly different culturally, the Greeks priding themselves on their advanced intellectual, mechanical and cultural standards, while the Romans focused on martial ability and the power of their empire. However, to the simple modern view, and especially to an Elizabethan audience, the two cultures represent many of the same classical attitudes, as the Romans adopted much of the Greeks' religion and other practices after conquering them. Medea, in that it belongs to the classical world and contains the appropriate mindset, represents much of what Shakespeare and other Renaisssance thinkers were trying to exalt.

The Renaissance was, in the main, an effort to reproduce the incredible achievements of the ancient Greco-Roman culture. Titus Andronicus is one of many odd results of the movement. The Elizabethan era, for all of its decorum and high-mindedness, was nevertheless a time period in which death ran rampant, most of the population lived in poverty, and human enjoyment of cruelty was the main staple of the day, from bear-baiting in the streets to public executions. Intellectual interest in Greek drama was a marvelous excuse to introduce a popular form of Elizabethan entertainment, the Senecan tragedy. It should be noted that the original Senecan tragedies, as in tragedies written by Seneca, are largely more bloodthirsty versions of Euripides' plays. Plays taking advantage of the Senecan themes of on-stage graphic violence, ghosts and witches, and sometiems the triumph of evil, where very popular, beginning with Sackville and Norman's 1561 tragedy, Gorboduc. Around 1590, when Titus Andronicus is supposed to have been written, the blood-and-thunder Senecan format was very popular with audiences, and scenes such as the discover of Lavinia would have been attractive to the audience:

The Elizabethan playhouse was adept at catering for the taste of an age in which savage public punishments such as the cutting off of hands or disembowling drew large crowds; and bloodstained animal flesh and bladders of pigs' blood concealed about the boy actor's person on this occasion, would doubtless given the Ovidian image of the girl's blood spurting from her wounds 'As from a conduit with three issuing spouts' (II.iv.30), full and graphic value"(Taylor 153).

This combination of intellectual forces and audience taste is probably responsible for a young Shakespeare's venture into the half-history play, half horror-parody that marks Titus Andronicus.

Medea and Titus Andronicus have similar themes in ways other than the fact that the second is written partially in homage to the era to the other. Many of the concepts about social constructions like family and legitimacy, honor, power, and corruption are similar between the two time periods. In particular, family relationships and gender roles are similar not only in the two plays, but in the two different eras. In ancient Greece, women were strictly limited to the home, their main duty being to their husbands: "male honour is at risk through women and women must therefore be confined to the house, with women who leave the house a lot being morally suspect"(Arkins 8). For women to be allowed access to men other than their immediate family was to encourage adultery and uncertainty as to the legitimacy of their offspring. Elizabethan England was much more liberal in its treatment of women, allowing a them greater degree of economic freedom - especially for upper-class women - but there were still certainly severe limits on what activities women could participate in. Wives were considered to be property of their husbands, women could not vote or own property unless they were married, they did not have access to education or employment, and it was questioned by some whether women even had souls. Both Greek and Elizabethan women were exlusively in charge of running the household and raising the children, and the mother-child bond is romanticized in both cases.

Because of these social arrangements, we can see parallels emerging between Medea and Titus Andronicus. Both are concerned with extraordinary women who have unusual powers - Medea's magical, Tamora's political and sexual - and how they react when men encroach upon their own private spheres of household power. Medea's entire status revolves around the fact that she is Jason's wife, as she has betrayed and left her father and home country. So when Jason leaves her and remarries, his desertion is not only an insult to her pride, but he has interfered in the one area of power allowed to all Greek women: "Medea champtions the system of sexual love and of the house (oikos), which have been trampled on by Jason"(Arkins 12). Medea can no longer decide what happens in her household, because Jason has destroyed the family: "Jason's house ... no longer exists; all that is finished. / Jason is a prisoner in a princess's bed"(Euripides 21). Medea has been hurt as a woman - the feminine power of managing the personal life of her family has been denied her. Her own summation of the Greek view of women says it well: "A woman's weak and timid in most matters; / The noise of war, the look of steel, makes her a coward. / But touch her right in marriage, and there's no bloodier spirit"(Euripides 25).

Although Titus is the main character, and the tragic hero, in Titus Andronicus, Tamora takes on the status of a wronged Medea. In the beginning of the play, she has moved, like Medea, from a high position to a low one, from being the queen of the "barbarous" Goths to a helpless prisoner in Titus' care. We know nothing of Tamora's former husband, presumably slain in battle, but, defeated and taken from her home, the only identity she has left is in her status as a mother. For Titus to claim her eldest son's life to honor his own family, therefore, not only damages her emotionally but denies her power in the only realm she still has access to, the personal and familial role in a family she has become head of. The hatred Tamora has for the Andronici is composed of her grief for her son, inextricably wound up in her anger at her own powerlessness: "I'll find a day to massacre them all / . . . To whom I sued for my dear son's life, / And make them know what 'tis to let a queen /Kneel in the streets and beg for grace in vain"(I.1.453-458).

The responses of both these women to the theft of their power is to resort to mysterious means to have their revenge, and the final image of each as an "unnatural" mother clearly marks the boundaries beyond which women of each time and place may not cross. Both lie to their children and use them as tools in their revenge. Medea sends hers with poisoned gifts to Glauce, telling them that ". . . to buy / My sons from exile I would give life, not just gold" and instructing them to "Kneel down and beg your father's new wife, and my mistress, / That you may not be banished"(Euripides 46). Tamora also lies to her sons, inciting them to kill Lavinia and Bassianus because "they told me they would bind me here / Unto the body of a dismal yew / And leave me to this miserable death"(35). Tamora's sons Chiron and Demetrius, as adults, are not innocent victims like the children of Medea, but Tamora's utilization of them in her excess is no less unnatural for it, and she, like Medea, suffers the consequences. Medea admits that she suffers as much as from her murders as Jason does. Jason tells her that her sons live in death, "to haunt your life with vengeance"(Euripides 59) and calls for "The curse of children's blood be on you! / Avenging Justice blast your being!"(Euripides 60). Medea may have hurt Jason, but she has made herself childless and a damned pariah in the eyes of Greece for her actions, "the child-killer / Whose presence is pollution"(Euripides 43). Similarly, Tamora, who has punished the Andronici repeatedly, pays for her actions with her own death, after "Eating the flesh that she herself hath bred"(V.3.62), condemned to, "Like the earth, swallow her own increase"(V.2.191). The punishments for motherswho betray their children are severe and irreversible. Medea and Tamora are joined across two thousand years by their betrayal of their children, their foreignness and their unusual powers. With all of the similarities between the two, however, the question arises: Why are we asked to pity Medea and hate Tamora?

That question is inextricably linked to another one concerning the two plays: Where, in all of this corrupted maternal action, are the fathers? There are also societal expectations of fatherhood, and, like other values, the expectations of for Greco-Roman fathers and other males are similar to the expectations for their Elizabethan counterparts. Fathers are expected to work for the family in public life, going to wars and engaging in business and politics to ensure the reputation and income of the family, and working to preserve the continuation of the family line. Both classical and Elizabethan inheritance depended on the law of primogeniture, the eldest son inheriting all assets and titles of the father. While the same sort of affectionate bond is not necessarily assumed to exist between father and child as between mother and child, it is not denied in either era that such a bond exists. The children are, in any case, assumed to be almost solely the product of a seed-producing father, the mother being only the earth in which the seed is planted, to use the "scientific" parallel of the day. These sets of social expectations are present in both Medeaand Titus Andronicus.

Both Jason and Titus are fond of their children. Jason dreams of the day when his sons "will be leading men in Corinth . . . strong, full-grown young men, / [who will] Tread down my enemies"(Euripides 45). He tells Medea that he has remarried so that "I could bring up my sons / In a manner worthy of their descent; . . . I thought it worthwhile to ensure advantages / For [the sons] I have"(34). He tries to rescue his children from Creon's family after Medea kills Creon and Glauce, and responds to news of their deaths with, "What? Killed my sons? That word kills me"(Euripides 57). Titus' own concern about his dead children is the impetus for the action of that play, and one of his long speeches concerns his love for two of his sons, as he pleads against their execution:

For two and twenty sons I never wept,
Because they died in honor's lofty bed . . .
For these, tribunes, in the dust I write
My heart's deep langour and my soul's sad tears.
Let my tears staunch the earth's dry appetite;
My son's sweet blood will make it shame and blush . . .
O reverend tribunes! O gentle aged men!
Unbind my sons, reverse the doom of death;
And let me say, that never wept before,
My tears are now prevailing orators! (III.1.10-26)
Upon seeing his daughter maimed, he echoes Jason; "It was my dear, and he that wounded her / Hath hurt me more than had he killed me dead"(III.1.91-92).

The are both devoted fathers, but both, like the mothers in these plays, have sinned against their children in some way. Titus and Jason have other preceived duties which interfere with their relationships with their children and cause them to hurt Tamora and Medea, respectively. The degree to and manner in which each follows these non-nurturing duties defines their characters and justifies either them or the wronged women. Jason's defense of his actions is that he did it for his family, not for lust, as he accuses Medea of assuming. Instead, he says, "It's not for the sake of any woman that I have made / This royal marriage, but, as I've already said, / To ensure your future, and to give my children brothers / Of royal blood, and build security for us all"(35). Jason, if he is to be believed, violates his duty as husband and father publicly in order to privately care for his family. If Medea is an unnatural woman, then Jason is just as unnatural a man. His duty is to preserve his family line and raise his family's status in the public eye. Instead, he has used his wife's secret powers to gain his fame and then murder his uncle, for which deeds the couple has had to flee both Medea's homeland and Iolcus. Jason has failed, in the societal standards of the day, to prove his fitness as a man and as a husband. Now, in desperation, he has erred and gone still further off the track. While the woman's sphere is private and the man's public, he has reversed them, leaving Medea the public head of the ruined family, while he promises to aid them privately. Furthermore, there are indications that Jason may inevitably betray the rule of primogeniture - if, as he plans, he has more children with Glauce, it seems probable that the children with royal blood will inherit first, instead. Jason, in his betrayal of Medea, breaks tradition and ignores his duties as a man, husband and father.

Titus' sins against his children stand out in strong contrast to Jason's, being in the opposite direction gender-wise - where Jason has abandoned children and tradition to further his private life, Titus causes his children to suffer by embracing tradition and manhood. Where Jason rebelled against his tyrannical uncle the king, Titus obeys the equally unreasonable emperor Saturninus, giving up his already engaged daughter when Saturninus requests her hand in marriage, because Titus follows tradition's demand of ultimate obedience to the emperor. Jason abandons his family and destroys his house; Titus disowns his children because they have damaged his house's honor and threaten, themselves, to destroy the family's standing. Titus' rage over his sons' betrayal of the demands of manhood and of maintaining a public life are such that he kills his son Mutius and will not, at first, allow Mutius to be buried in the family tomb:

Traitors, away! He rests not in this tomb:
This monument five hundred years hath stood,
Which I have sumptuously reedified.
Here none but soldiers and Rome's servitors
Repose in fame; none basely slain in brawls.
Bury him where you can, he comes not here.

These excesses are a soldier's, a "real man's," and are of such sheer masculinity that he is not held in judgment for them. After he relents and allows Mutius to be buried, there is no condemnation of him for Mutius' death. While Titus plots his revenges in private, he does it to save his family's public name, and eventually reveals to the world the secret, private sins Tamora and her sons have committed against his name. One commentator has gone so far as to accuse Titus of actual fear of involvement in the private, "feminine" side of family life: "Titus seems terrified not simply of women, but of the traditionally female role of nurturing, protecting, and nourishing a dependent. Aaron's ability to take on this role points up Titus's failure, his decision instead to incorporate Lavinia into his own priority, revenge"(Marshall 212). Titus kills his daughter Lavinia - it is unclear whether he does so with or without her acquiescence - because of his adherence to Roman tradition: "the girl should not survive her shame, / And by her presence still renew his sorrows"(V.3.41-42). He is a staunch supporter of the rule of primogeniture, supporting the dissolute Saturninus in his bid for emperor because Saturninus is the dead Caesar's oldest son. Titus has given up any possibility of a normal private life in order to reestablish the public pride of his family, and he has done so effectively. Tamora and her sons are denounced, Saturninus overthrown, and Lucius Andronicus is now emperor of Rome.

Given the similar societal expectations of gender of all the main cultures involved in these two plays - ancient Greece, ancient Rome, and Elizabethan England - the audience's judgements of the characters are planned out for them depending on whether gender expectations are fulfilled. Both Tamora and Medea are women who break their gender roles in unacceptable and largely similar ways, taking roles in drama which are extraordinary for the time. Audience members in male-centered societies will naturally look towards the more reasonable male characters to gather clues about how the morality of the situation must be judged. When they do so, they find Jason, a man too weak to stay married to his own wife, and Titus, a man so rooted in patriotism and duty that he will kill his own children before accepting dishonor. While Titus is not entirely admirable, and Jason not entirely despicable, the areas in which each fail indicate how admirable they are by how masculine they are. Titus, a soldier and the tragic hero of his play, clearly wins out - Jason's "womanish" faults are such that the unnatural mother Medea becomes, instead, the admirable figure in her play. Despite the apparent breaking of society's roles in the two plays, with unjust power being overthrown in both cases, the tradition of masculinity is still the deciding factor. Similarly, although we place ourselves in a more enlightened era of gender equality, it is a coded definition of gender which is still ubiquitously present in our own time: after thousands of years in one case and hundreds in the other, the plays still hold their meaning for us; we still unerringly identify the hero.

Works Cited

(Note: Any and all links in this section lead to web-published versions of these texts, which have different citations than the ones listed here.)

Arkins, Brian. "Sexuality in Fifth Century Athens,"Classics Ireland 1 (1994). 5-19

Euripides. Medea/Hecabe/Electra/Heracles. New York: Penguin Books, 1979.

Marshall, Cynthia. "'I Can Interpret All Her Martyr'd Signs': Titus Andronicus,Feminism, and the Limits of Interpretation." Sexuality and Politics in Renaissance Drama. Carole Levin and Karen Robertson, eds. Lewiston: Mellen, 1991. 193-213

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. New York: Penguin Books, 2000.

Taylor, Anthony Brian. "Lucius, the Severely Flawed Redeemer of Titus Andronicus." Connotations6.2 (1996-1997): 138-157.

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