Female Sexuality in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus: Lavinia and Tamora

 

There is an irony to the fact that Lavinia and Tamora are the only women in the Shakespearian tragedy Titus Andronicus.  These two women are the complete opposites of one another in almost every aspect, representing two spectrums of femininity.  Lavinia represents the socially acceptable practices and lifestyles of women in sixteenth and seventeenth century Europe.  This is because she is both graceful and passive. Tamora, on the other hand, displays the negative examples of femininity seen through her vulgar sexuality and behavior. Tamora vows revenge on the Andronicus family, practices promiscuity by maintaining an affair, and aids in committing murder and corruption while Lavinia is the opposite. Lavinia kneels to her father, maintains her chastity, and remains powerless in her relationships with the men.  In terms of love and sexuality, they maintain their differences. Lavinia is pure, innocent, and virginal whereas Tamora is married more than once and familiar with her sexuality. With this in mind, the play displays vivid images of women and their roles in society; the sadistic and sexual Tamora and the innocent and defenseless Lavinia.

Within the first act of the play Tamora is a loving mother. Like all mothers she is willing to do everything for her family. This includes pleading with Titus to spare the life of her first son.  After her new husband Saturninus chooses to marry her, Tamora speaks sweet promises and words of affection to her husband. However, the sentiment is not innocent. She states she will be “a handmaid be to his desires, A loving nurse, a mother to his youth”(I.i,337).  Tamora presents herself as a 17th century MILF. Middle aged with adult children, she lets the audience know that she is not naive about sex. The statement introduces that audience to her character as assertive because she is outspoken when it comes to men and does not hesitate to express her feelings.  Although Tamora has just met Saturninus before their wedding, it does not take long demonstrate her sexual freedom. Tamora comes to represent power that women possess including men and sexuality.

As Tamora’s contrast, Lavinia is viewed as true and virtuous. This is observed when Lavinia kneels in her father’s honor in the first scene.  The virtue of her femininity is seen again when Saturninus asks Lavinia’s father, Titus, for her hand in marriage.  Saturninus describes Lavinia as “Rome’s royal mistress” and “thy name and honorable family”(I.i,243).  Here, the reader is aware of Lavinia’s youthful age as a young woman suitable for marriage and also desirable by two men Saturninus and Bassianus.  With the new emperor of Rome asking for Lavinia’s hand in marriage it is implied that her virginity is intact. She is what the average man wants. Lavinia is loyal to her father and society. She lives up to the standards of what a woman should be.  As a result, she is submissive and defenseless. When Bassianus “seizing[es] Lavinia” and protest to Saturninus marriage proposal with an exclamation that “this maid is mine.”  Bassainus does not hesitate to show ownership and control over Lavinia in which, Lavinia remains passive. She does not take this opportunity to be assertive and state to her father who she wants to marry.  She just stands in the scene, allowing her father to use his best judgment of her future.

Tamora remains opposite to Lavinia in her action. This is seen later in the play when Tamora’s affair with Aaron is revealed. Aaron admits his true feelings for her saying, “I will arm thy heart and fit thy thoughts, to mount aloft with thy imperial mistress”(I.i,511). Participating in pre-marital sex with Aaron, Tamora is seen as evil and full of sexual desires.  This is further displayed in Act II when she attempts to persuade Aaron to have sex with her in the woods, asking “let us sit down and mark their yellowing noise;”(II,ii,20).  Tamora’s words expose her sexual liberation. She does not feel tied down by rules and expectations relating to the role of women. Through her sexual promiscuity, Tamora rebels against the social norms in her society.  Even though Aaron is aware that his mistress is now married and queened empress of Rome, he still has intentions to have sex with her.  Thus, by the end of the first act, the readers are aware of Tamora’s promiscuity.  Although most of the first scene displays the typical qualities and behavior of a woman, the end of the scene rebuffs the previous statements. This sets the reader up for her evil corruptions that seen throughout the entirety of the play.

Lavinia’s submissive behavior displays her personality and character. It demonstrates her devotion to her father as she stays within the role of female.  The part that she plays within the structures of the tragedy is passiveness.  Her powerless state is equivalent to her female sexuality.  Her sexuality is stripped from her when she is brutally raped. Her purity is now mutilated, her virginity and virtue taken. The passiveness that she maintains, even after her rape, is a representation of herself and family.  By keeping her virtue, she keeps the high merit of her family and the ability to marry a man of high stature and wealth.  Her father choosing her suitor displays his need to watch over and protect her into her new life as a wife.  Titus reveals his own devotion towards his daughter as he attempts to keep her pure and away from harm even after her sexual assault.

In the end, both Lavinia, and then Tamora are dead.  Each died at the hand of another and for different reasons.  Titus kills his only daughter because of her lost virginity and virtue.  Before killing her he states: “thy shame with thee, and with thy shame thy father sorrow die.”  He kills her to rid her of her shame and ridicule that is marked upon her mutilated body. He also kills her to rid Titus of his own shame of the brutal rape and the helplessness of his daughter.  With her purity lost, she felt shame. This is the same shame that comes with the essence of rape is never gained back.  She herself wanted to die if she did not have her dignity and chastity.  Tamora, on the other hand, found herself in a continuous spin of evil, corruption, and deception.  She is punished and killed because of her power, while Lavinia was killed because of her powerlessness.  Tamora’s power was channeled through her growing sexual freedom and her part in the deaths and mutilation that occurred throughout the play.  Ironically enough both women brought apprehension towards their male counterparts.  They challenged the male illusion of what a woman is to be as well as what she represents.  They stood on different ends of the spectrum and still the men around them felt threaten. The men were intimidated by the self-reliance of these women. For Titus, the traditional role of the female was problematic.  The end of the play placed him into the role of nurturer and protector towards his daughter. This occurred with Tamora’s lover Aaron as well.   He took the attributes of a mother when it came to his baby, a son.  In the last scenes he asked for the child’s life to be spared.  Good and evil of the men were eliminated to fatherhood as Titus and Aaron attempt to protect their children.

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About Russia Robinson

I am an independent freelance writer and free thinker. I strive to use my writing talents to benefit the greater good of society, one word, one sentence, one page at a time. Originally from Richmond, California I attended San Francisco State University receiving a BA in English Creative Writing and American Literature in 2004. After this I attended post graduate studies in 2008 at Georgia’s Kennesaw State University in Technical Writing. With an academic background in English, I have spent more than 10 years’ helping young people succeed. This can be seen in my career background in education and mental health. I am a certifiable Language Arts teacher for the state of Georgia. I also worked in social services including juvenile mental health treatment services and counseling. As a result, I understand the diversity of problems people face in their everyday lives. With words put together like so, I promote equality and a healthy society for all people regardless of individual differences. Conducting research, writing articles, essays, and blogging, I push to educate others about various issues that affect people. I also do this creatively through short stories, poems, pictures, and a novel in progress. My hobbies and interest are reading and learning. I enjoy all things art and all things nature. From camping and astronomy to photography and cooking, I enjoy sighting seeing and socializing just as much as I enjoy curling in bed with a good book or binge watching TV.
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