The female chess piece – exploring femininity in Shakespeare’s most gruesome play

Who are the characters really against in Shakespeare’s Revenge Tragedy Titus Andronicus? Though we see the main conflict to be between Titus (a male leader) versus Tamora (a female leader), one may extend the bigger issue to be surrounded by gender conflicts.

There is an issue of gender politics, though not in the form of traditional male opposition to female. Through Julie Taymor’s 1999 film production of Titus in addition to the play, the female versus female opposition is a key frame in the play while female identity is overlooked due to appearance. In the crime against Lavinia, we see a lack of female solidarity in Tamora’s refusal to help Lavinia during the abominable rape. Lavinia uses deep Biblical connotations towards her chastity, as well as pleading to Tamora’s womanly empathy and humanity to no avail. After going through the ordeal, Lavinia begs to be put out of misery; she says if Tamora has a “heart” she should kill her instead of keeping her alive. Tamora keeps her alive, seeing the rape as a stain on Lavinia’s beauty and chastity to be the greatest vengeance on Titus.

Bernice Harris who points to a link between sexuality and state using the play, states: “Both in sexual terms and in terms of state value, Lavinia is a “changing piece” (1.1.309), she is a means by which power is marked as masculine and then is transferred and circulated.” One may make the link between sexuality and state because marriages in the Jacobean period were often used to ease political tensions.

Perhaps Shakespeare is using the reverse to demonstrate great political unrest and instability. And while it is true that Lavinia’s sexuality is seen as a chess-piece against “masculine power” (her father), I would argue this scene points towards a stagnation in female solidarity to a greater degree than it does of patriarchal injustice. Lavinia, who is used as a prop of aggressive revenge, has no access to speech as her tongue is cut out; her father and uncle lament and ensue wrath, seemingly the only characters to see the violation to the female body for what it is.

Meanwhile, Tamora sees it as a means to an end; her humanity and empathy seem to have been drained long ago with the execution of her son. Tamora uses Lavina’s loss of physical beauty as a prop to display the message of how far lost the relations are between the two leaders. The film artfully illustrates this with withered branches which look like the end of a broom. Later, Lavinia replaces this with an artificial hand which she can barely move. Perhaps this alludes to her being a cleanser to the city – the removal of the sin and revenge through her saintly sacrifice of being raped for the better good of the people.

However, at what cost? Her father seeks bloody revenge and the “city cleanse” of the previous feud is replaced by a more heinous crime which triggers the cycle of vengeance to start all over. Like the artificial hand, Tamora’s revenge tactic is a useless placeholder, to fill a place or state of being, which can never be restored. Tamora sacrifices her humanity, maternal empathy, and all levels of sympathy for short-term gratification to hurt Titus which audiences learn at the end of the play to be short-lived as she eats her sons Demetrius and Chiron in a pie made by Titus.

Here, we see a cyclical structure to the play: Lavinia’s crime is avenged, yet Tamora is left childless (like at the start of the play)—perhaps this indicates to a cycle of repeated crimes in the future, where pain and suffering will be induced unnecessarily and to no avail. Here, we see the lack of value given to the physical human body, as well as humanity. In one way, each character understands that one’s family is the most important to them, and so use that to their advantage to get at another. Shakespeare uses Lavinia to project the idea that death is sometimes less cruel than the aftermath of revenge where innocent parties are forced to pay the price for the crimes committed by their families. While Titus begins with executing Tamora’s family to hurt her, she helps with ravaging and mutilating a living Lavinia to send a message to Titus which seems much crueller.

Lavinia’s martyr spot in the play: all the wrongness she is surrounded with happens to her and in her name. She has no mouth to object to any of the events, no arms to physically prevent any of the events; she is the amputated saint. This is only reinforced by the beauty of the character played by Laura Fraser: her long brown hair, big doe eyes and rounded cheeks, pretty and modest clothing which humbly embraces her attractive figure that has been “ravished” by Tamora’s sons morally as well as physically. It is a desecration that is mourned by her uncle in Act 2 Scene 4: 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). We are presented with a heavenly image with the illusion of her “honey breath” and “rosed lips”; this is juxtaposed with the murderous images of “river of warm blood” and “branches for hands.”

The saint-like shrine to Lavinia’s beauty is desecrated, and her personhood only looks to be a destroyed grave to her former perfection. Shakespeare and Taymor zoom into the problems and voyeuristic elements of the societal gaze on Lavinia. I say societal instead of male gaze, because her beauty is appreciated by everyone, including Tamora who later uses it against Titus.  

While her loss of beauty is seen as a devastation to her male family members, Tamora weaponizes Lavinia’s beauty and uses it as a chess-piece. Her beauty is merely a prop used by Shakespeare as the driving-force to the play, the prop to take down a rival group by Tamora, the reason to kill the enemies by her father. Is Lavinia being used as a prop-piece for the revenge-plot? Does she play into the role of a prop, and to what level could she have put an end to this endless cycle of physical carnage? This may lead audiences to question whether she would have stopped Titus from her revenge plot, had her tongue not been cut out. Lavinia digs into the sand who hurts her but does not ever indicate to her father she is uncomfortable with the idea of him killing anyone, be it Tamora’s sons or Aaron. She just appears to be a third silent yet prominent figure through cut-in shots.

For instance, in the fly killing scene, she is very present as Titus associates the fly to a family imagery, and when hearing it is black, stabs it repeatedly in a manic frenzy, causing Lavinia and Lucius to laugh. While Lavinia is not making the joke, she does not stop it and seems to encourage her father’s violent tendencies. We see this as a portent event, as when Lucius takes leadership right at the end of the play, he buries Aaron in the sand with his head above, pays a respectful funeral to Titus, and allows the crows to eat Tamora alive. Had Lucius had the teachings from either Lavinia or Titus, perhaps he would be less blood thirsty.

One may argue that since Lavinia was a prominent figure in the household while Titus was for the city, she should have taught Lucious lessons on virtue and mercy where Titus could not. The fly-killing scene may also act as a symbol of the father-daughter relationship between Lavinia and Titus. Lavinia is very prop heavy and relies on her physical phial of tears and artificial hands, perhaps propelling her father to commit more murderous crimes and never telling him to stop.

Though her appearance makes her appear a saint, as well as Shakespeare’s use of a sonnet-form description of her pure, heavenly beauty, she is lacking one virtue that is perhaps showcased as her main strength: patience. The crime against Lavinia is all what anyone can see; it is hard to look at the damaged person behind the damaged figure. Titus Andronicus is a convoluted tragedy questioning the legitimacy of the stakes of revenge and its consequences. The ultimate crime having been committed against Lavinia, audiences may grasp how she is used as a reason to kill, maim, and psychologically torment.

While she is being used in this way, audiences see her silent tears as those of strong patience. However, one may also see her as psychologically broken from the physical torture, making her stand back, watch, and encourage the bloodshed to continue as part of her own revenge. All the rest of the superior characters believe they are strategically using her as a female chess-piece to remove their opposition and give reason to their crimes; meanwhile Lavinia is really the queen of the board and is allowing others to carry out their retribution in her name without getting her artificial hands covered with blood.

While all this is covered, my main take-away is how Tamora allowed Lavinia to be raped, how this crucial point is the key problem in the play: Tamora failing to empathise with Lavinia on a womanly level. This is why Lavinia is broken, this is why bloodshed continues in the play, and this is why how the female-female relationship is the greatest failure in the play.