Titus Andronicus: Act 2 – scene 4

Act 2, scene 4Demetrius and Chiron enter, as does Lavinia. Her hands have been cut off and her tongue cut out. She has also been raped. The brothers taunt and mock her. Chiron says that if he were in her position, he would kill himself. They exit.Marcus enters, fresh from the hunt. He is horrified to find Lavinia, his niece. She, of course, is unable to say who is responsible for mutilating her. Marcus laments for her. He says that had the “monster” who committed those acts upon her had seen the beauty of her hands as she played the lute, he would never have been able to cut them off. If he had heard the “heavenly harmony” of her voice, he would not have been able to cut out her tongue. He says he will take her to Titus, her father. 

AnalysisThis is one of the most horrific scenes in English drama, as the mutilated Lavinia is taunted by her assailants and then discovered by her uncle. Commentators have often noted that some passages in the play seem incongruous in their context, and one such passage appears here, in Marcus’s lament over the fate of his niece. The words do not match the situation of the speaker. To a modern reader, it sounds odd and unnatural for Marcus to refer to Lavinia’s arms like this:what stern ungentle handsHath lopp’d and hew’d and made thy body bareOf her two branches, those sweet ornaments,Whose circling shadows kings have sought to sleep in. (lines 16-19)Similarly, the poetic description of her mouth:Alas, a crimson river of warm blood,Like to a babbling fountain stirr’d with wind,Doth rise and fall between thy rosed lips,Coming and going with thy honey breath. (lines 22-25)The pretty images seem at odds with the gruesome reality they describe. As Muriel Bradbrook put it in Themes and Conventions of Elizabethan Tragedy, “the horrors are . . . quite unfelt, so that the violent tragedy is contradicted by the decorous imagery” (p. 98),Readers should also note the classical allusion in this scene. It is one of many that occur in the play but has particular relevance. Marcus alludes to the story of Tereus. Tereus raped his sister-in-law Philomela, cut out her tongue, and shut her up in a tower. She created a tapestry that showed what had happened to her and conveyed it to her sister, Progne. Progne avenged her by killing her own son, who was fathered by Tereus, and then serving him to his father at a meal. (The last part of the story is relevant for what happens in Act 5 of Titus Andronicus.)