Titus Andronicus: A Didactic Symposium on the Non-Sanctity of ‘Blackness’
The sociological ramifications of the Anglo-Saxon attempts to understand their environment in relation to color and race can be readily evaluated through the study of their art and in particular the characters introduced by Shakespeare through his plays. The first character that one may draw to mind is Othello from the play Othello: and Merchant of Venice however, in Titus Andronicus, which is arguably Shakespeare’s earliest play, the character named Aaron is a Moor with which particular characteristics are attributed to him using his dark complexion as a focusing point. Shakespeare and the like, through literary means, define for an era the seemingly “apparent” definitive characteristics associated with that of dark-skinned, non-white peoples. It is through these works of art that Shakespeare instructs the Anglo-Saxon’s ideological understanding of the inherent vileness of ‘blackness.’
Aaron, in Titus Andronicus is the epitome of evil. Shakespeare connotes Aaron’s dark complexion with the most heinous of binary assumptions. These binary assumptions, which are the product of humanity’s “classification” of what is evil and good in the world; it is where “white” is a symbol of purity and “blackness” a symbol of death and malignity. With these assumptions as a basis for the eventual construction of a character like Aaron, it is relatively lineal to find such constructions in literature of the Anglo-Saxon. This distinction is continually made clear throughout Titus Andronicus; Bassianus is disturbed at his discovery of Aaron and Tamora as lovers“[to Tamora] Doth make your honour of his body’s hue, Spotted, Detested, and abominable” (2.3 lines 73-74). The depiction here made by Bassianus teaches Shakespeare’s readers of what to think of a white woman who lies with a man of black skin. It is obvious that black skin is synonymous with the devil, especially “irreligious” black-skinned peoples. The risk of blackening one honour would be reason to despise and disregard the humanity of dark-skinned people, because if it is the dominate discourse of the culture, then it is expected; and those that stray, much like that of Tamora are too depicted as evil. In contrast, Lavinia, the “martyred” daughter of Titus Andronicus is pure in her beauty and convictions, has a fate gruesome, but nonetheless noble, despite the grotesque acts used upon her. This spurs thoughts in Shakespeare’s readers about race relations with the black to be of, if not the most, distasteful of relationships to develop let alone consummate. The evidence of the bane things that will potentially unfold are alluded to in Lavinia’s marred limbs and mouth.
It is no coincidence that Lavinia, who is raped by both of Tamora’s sons Chiron and Demetrius are instructed by none other than dark-skinned Aaron. Shakespeare’s language in the Titus Andronicus in relation to Aaron is associated primarily with the devil, because it is apparent that it was believed black-skinned Africans to be literally devils. So the very acts that Chiron and Demetrius carry out upon Lavinia are not something they would normally do, unless tempted by the devil himself, who by Shakespeare’s associations is easily connoted with black skin. Kim F. Hall writes of Shakespeare’s depictions of race and religion in his plays with her book Othello: Texts and Contexts. Hall writes, “Christian imagery in particular associated blackness with sin, damnation, and, eventually, sexual promiscuity”(p.182). The premise Hall makes is that the reasons why Anglo-Saxon dominate discourse on the sanctity, or lack thereof of black skinned people is because of the religious foundation upon which they are constructed.
Shakespeare constructs Anglo-Saxon understanding of the black person as someone who too knows the vileness and evil of their own nature. In Titus Andronicus Aaron makes reference to his own blackness and therefore evil repeatedly, “[to Lucius] I must talk of murders, rapes, and massacres, Acts of black night, abominable deeds” (5.1 Lines 63-64). Aaron makes reference to “black night” in context of negative acts, which allude to the evil of a dark night similar to that of dark skin. If this were not that case, “bright night” could be used interchangeably, but in the contexts of Titus Andronicus and ultimately English culture of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, that simply is the point. Hall notes that, “The audience [Shakespeare’s readers] created the meanings of Moors and blackness out of the endless narratives circulating in English culture” (p.183).
The depictions of race by Shakespeare in Titus Andronicus give insight to many of the modern phenomena that are direct consequences of this period’s and others representation of darker-skinned people in art. Aaron and other character similar to him are the basis upon which the English people were subject to developing an opinion and understanding of what it is to be black and how in conjunction if at all, whites should interact with them. It is apparent that these binary assumptions monopolized by Shakespeare survive not wholly but in part at least because of his racial representations of black characters in his play. It is still common knowledge that “white” is pure and innately good, while “black” is generally something to be wary of. It is the Moors of Shakespeare which archive the long held ideas governing race and race relations and despite the distasteful subject it is still something integral to understanding English history, especially in contexts of race.
Hall, Kim F. Othello: Texts and Contexts. New York: Bedford/St.Martin's, 2007.
Shakespeare, Williams. "Titus Andronicus." Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton: Based on The Oxford Edition Shakespeare. New York: Norton, 2008. 408-463.
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